Young’s latest project is the translation of Look at Him by Anna Starobinets (Slavica, forthcoming 2020), an open, unflinching account of her abortion that was controversial when it came out in Russia. As Young says, “Women don’t talk about these things, even with their partners, so to write a book in which you expose the most intimate details of your body and the choices you made medically is a violation of a lot of subtle taboos about women who are supposed to grin and bear their trials and tribulations.”
Young also talks about being a poet and how much Russian poetry has shaped her own: “I feel very much more informed by Russian poets than most American poets. I’ve read Walt Whitman, but I don’t identify with him the same way I might say Alexander Pushkin or Mikhail Lermontov or Anna Akhmatova.”
You wrote a book in which you both translated Akhmatova’s and Gandelsman’s work and wrote original poems that are, directly or indirectly, in dialogue with them. Describe, briefly, your writing process.
I like the idea of going beyond the one voice–the idea of poetry as a play, and of a book as a porous object, absorbing other energies. There are three characters here: I translated two modernist Russian poets, and then I wrote responses to their work, some of which are imitations. Poets & Traitors Press has this format that fit what I was doing really well. They publish poems based on translations, poems that speak to these translations. So rather than publish a typical poetry collection, which, if you think about it, is this continuous solo for something like 50 or 80 pages, these Poets & Traitors books are a bit like jazz. They’re inclusive. They invent and improvise. Their dynamics are pluralistic and lively.
What were the differences in how you approached writing vs. translating poetry?
It’s pretty seamless. When I translate, it’s a bit like giving a voice, and it’s also implicit dialogue, of course, since translation is interpretation–it’s full of choices. And when I write back, or talk back, the dialogue goes further. All of this, though, is part of the same kind of play: where the characters depend on one another and echo each other.
What about translating/“talking to” Akhmatova?
Yeah, “talking to,” for sure! Akhmatova is an author that a lot of mothers who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s quoted to their daughters–my mom quoted her to me. And I think a lot of people thought–still think–of her as a symbol of stoicism and of grieving wisdom, a model for how to live with dignity and defend fellow others under repressive regimes. In our family, she was like this Lilith, great mother, forever strong and even raging. It was rather difficult: you know, she was someone you could quote, but never be, right? Then I went to grad school to get my PhD in Slavic Studies, and I learned that some prominent literary scholars had showed that she was no angel, she was a full human with flaws, and–they wished to show–that she was rather a monster. I think both of these extremes are kind of silly. In my book I don’t so much aim to dethrone as to discover. There’s a different Akhmatova than the one people know: brazen and humorous behind all that mighty moral raging. She’s a perpetual child, even in her later work, trusting love for love’s sake, no matter what life did to her. “To me, in poetry, everything should be out of line,” she writes, “Not how these things are done. / I wish you knew what garbage sprouts poems….” I want to know about this bold, hidden girl, and I want people to know her.
How about translating/“talking to” Gandelsman?
He is closer to me and thus less hidden. Vladimir Gandelsman was born in 1948 and came of age in Leningrad before it turned into St. Petersburg and before he left for the United States, where he lives now. He’s an immigrant like me, and he has similar instances of alienation. So when it comes to his work, I’m basically a devotee. I aim to push this writer forward and amplify his voice. Gandelsman’s work has such a unique way of balancing human emotions such as irritation and anxiety with this amazing appreciation of small joyful moments, which are just sublime in his work. Gandelsman, to my eye, transcends what so many poets and writers in Russia had: this hatred of byt, the everyday. There was a bunch of visionary philosophers a hundred years ago, they all wished to go beyond our biological and biographical limitations. Beyond the body, beyond the home. On the other hand, Gandelsman is the supreme discoverer of light in the dust of the domestic. And in nature, which he paints in some beautifully minimalist ways. And in one’s own family, even in some difficult moments. He is a very generous poet. Where I write in parallel are poems of small joy: he has a small bird in the sky, I have little mushrooms; he has a hallowed moment of immigrant recognition of oneself in an American-grown boy, I have recognition of a Syrian immigrant’s stories in our own tales of self. I want to help this voice be in the world and take on new forms, in English, and in my little sprouts off it.
Other than Gandelsman, what is your relationship with contemporary Russian literature in general?
I enjoy some voices. Maria Stepanova. Vassia Borodin. Polina Barskova, in the US. And then in Ukraine, so much great and heartbreaking poetry in Russian is coming out from people writing about the war. Boris Khersonsky and Lyudmyla Khersonska. I really like Anastasia Afanasieva’s work. Iya Kiva’s poetry. There is an incredible urgency to these voices, and they’re profoundly intertextual, in dialogue with other language about war and violence, going all the way back to the Bible and all the way forward to how Russian and Ukrainian TV talks about war.
In addition to the two in your book, who are some of the writers that inspire you?
There is a flowering of immigrant and first-generation American poetry now. So many rich voices. From the better known, such as Chen Chen and Ocean Vuong, to those that should be better known. Ahmad Almallah’s recent book Bitter English addresses issues of writing in English as an immigrant. Jenna Le has gorgeous poems that capture the intersection of girlhood and growing up Vietnamese-American in Minnesota. Ananda Lima has made fine, strange, surrealist prose as well as poetry that looks at issues of home and motherhood in the context of being an immigrant. I love how these poets echo certain ruins of their cultural past with not-quite utopias of their American present.
Do you find yourself working against some Russian cultural stereotypes?
Ha! I have carried so much shame about these for so many years. It’s kind of gone, but of course you can’t quite get rid of it. But that’s what writing is for–finding a voice that is more complicated than these stereotypes and insisting on maintaining that voice. Both in your writing and also, once you find it, the beautiful thing is, you can take it wherever you find it relevant.
As a writer one of whose major topics is immigration, do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?
I like Boris Fishman’s prose. Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach is one of my favorite Russian American poets. A fellow Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jew, she just published a fiery poetry collection called The Many Names for Mother. It’s such a bittersweet exploration of motherhood and the infinite in the context of her origins, both feminine and Soviet/ Ukrainian/Jewish. It’s so, so good.
How do you relate to feminist ideas and navigate the gap between the different gender expectations in American vs. Russian cultures? Do you see any shift of Russian gender norms in the diaspora?
So I got pretty lucky: I grew up with a mother who has a strong personality and who worked at this beautiful glorious music school in Moscow, where we lived from when I was 7 to when I was 14 and we moved to the US. To me, she channeled powerful feminist thought, although that’s not language she used. Yes, we dressed up, but it was to strut our stuff and have fun, not in order to please a man. I also grew up in a family where everyone had worked: both grandmas, my mom, all her female ancestors were peasants. So there was a version of Soviet and Russian homespun feminism that may be problematic and all, it wasn’t perfect, the guys didn’t necessarily help out, but at least there’s that gender modeling of strong women. There is this concept of the matriarchy, and also of women working for generations.
I find it more irksome to navigate some situations with expectations for women from white Anglo-American upper middle class and upper class backgrounds. There’s an awful lot of stuff that I have trouble relating to, not only helicopter parenting or beautiful thin appearances in beautiful thin yoga pants, but also stay-at-home motherhood. That stuff is hard! It’s really a terrible thing when you know people who live according to those expectations–fraught with depression and with not being recognized as a human being. And when I was a stay-at-home–uh, poet–in our rather affluent suburb, I didn’t wear that identity, but the expectations were quite definite. But I think that the Russian strong woman, not unlike one that Akhmatova wanted people to think she was, wanted people to believe she could be, it’s an ideal and all, but it’s really a fantastic thing to embody. It’s a bigger expectation than the “little woman” that’s stuck around in our America. The resilient, powerful Russian lady–that’s a tall expectation, and it calls on us to stand tall, and I’m proud of that idea.
Punctured Lines congratulates Lisa Hayden, whose profile we featured on the blog previously, for being among the winners of the English PEN Translates award for her translation ofThree Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan from Armenia (the novel is written in Russian). The translation is forthcoming from Oneworld in May 2020.
“‘English PEN has long argued for the broadest possible internationalism in our publishing world, not as a niche interest or a luxury, but as a cultural necessity,’ Daniel Hahn, Chair of the PEN Translates Selection Panel, said. ‘With each round, this our fifteenth, PEN Translates receives an ever-greater number of more competitive, more promising, more diverse submissions, from terrific publishers of all sizes who, even in a risk-averse business, continue to look out at the world with ambition.'”
“A NOVEL ABOUT a Soviet military factory whose workers must eventually adjust to a post-Soviet way of life does not sound like a thrilling read. Yet there’s a very good reason why Ksenia Buksha’s The Freedom Factory (Zavod “Svoboda”) won Russia’s National Bestseller Prize in 2014 (Buksha is only the second of three women to do so since the prize’s founding in 2001) and was also a finalist for the Big Book Award. In the author’s hands, this unpromising raw material is skillfully transformed into a genuinely and unexpectedly compelling narrative.”
The British Library held an event last month to promote literature from Kazakhstan as part of the project “Contemporary Kazakh Culture in The Global World.” It was the launch of two anthologies, one of prose and another of poetry, that were translated into English. The “anthologies, which are 500 pages each and include works by 60 Kazakh poets and writers, are being translated into the six official languages of the United Nations: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.” Cambridge University Press is the publisher of the English translations.
According to the article, the “Contemporary Kazakh Culture in The Global World project is part of the Ruhani Zhangyru (Modernisation of Kazakhstan’s Identity) programme, which seeks to preserve and popularise the country’s historical and cultural heritage.”
Promoting lesser-known literatures is a laudable goal and something sorely needed in the West. But as with all projects that seek to project an image of a particular country, we need to be asking what type of image is being projected and for what reason(s), which voices are included and which left out. Of course, it is impossible to answer these questions until these anthologies become available. A project to keep an eye out for.
Asymptote journal continues its discussion about translating and reviewing literature. The focus this time is on Korean poetry, but the issues raised are relevant to other translated literatures.
“To me, the most interesting aspect of reviewing a translation—above and beyond the accurate and thoughtful accounting of the book in question that all reviews require—is imagining how it will affect and be affected by its reception within the standards of specific reading communities. Or to put it another way: how the translation speaks to the context of a reading community and how that community speaks to the translation.”
“A FRIEND’S TEN-YEAR-OLD SON son recently came up to me at a party to ask, ‘You’re from Russia, right?’ Sensing caution in my assent, the boy hesitated before asking the next question, clearly trying to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t cause offense but would express his curiosity. He finally came up with, ‘It’s a very violent place, isn’t it?'”
“Teffi, nom de plume of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was born in 1872 into a prominent Russian family. Following in the footsteps of her older sister Maria—poet Mirra Lokhvitskaya—Teffi published poetry and prose from the age of 29. She soon rose to fame by practicing a unique brand of self-deprecating humor and topical social satire.”
Previously, we posted Lisa Hayden’s blog post about the longlist for this prize, noting the gender disparity in terms of who is nominated for and, especially, awarded Russia’s literary prizes. The shortlist just came out and out of the six nominees, one is a woman. Of course, no one is suggesting nominations and/or awards should be based on gender alone nor is this meant to disparage the quality of the other nominated titles in any way. But it is important to note the imbalance, and even more so, to keep asking what can be done about it.
Read Joanna Chen’s beautiful and insightful interview with poet and translator Olga Livshin about her just-released book A Life Replaced: Poems with translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman: