Irina Mashinski’s The Naked World, Three Excerpts

Irina Mashinski’s The Naked World, recently published by MadHat Press after many years in the making, is an impressive achievement in the hybrid genre. The collection combines pieces of original and translated poetry and prose that together illuminate not only the author’s past but also her way of seeing. Thematically, this book centers four generations of a Soviet family from the Stalin era to the 1990s and immigration to the United States. Writer, translator, and editor Irina Mashinski has penned ten books of poetry in Russian, and this is her English-language debut that also includes her Russian-language poems in translation by Maria Bloshteyn, Boris Dralyuk, Angela Livingstone, Tony Brinkley, Alexander Sumerkin, and Daniel Weissbort. Mashinski is co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry and of the Cardinal Points Journal.

We are grateful to the author and the publisher for permission to reproduce an excerpt from this remarkable book. The two prose pieces and poem below are included in the fourth and final section, “Borders,” preceded by two epigraphs. The first is a musical one, “The Second Piano Concerto—Rachmaninov/Richter.” The second is a quote from Susan Sontag: “My library is a library of longings.” As Ilya Kaminsky says in his preface, “Irina Mashinski looks at time between this Wednesday and next Friday—and sees eternity.”

The End of an Era. November

All classes have been canceled: Brezhnev, the immortal Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had died. The university administration orders us to stand in one long endless line along a wide desolate avenue on the Lenin Hills, by the University’s main Building built in the 1950s by inmates and German POWs.

We shift from one foot to the other and jump up and down in the frigid air that has enveloped Moscow. They often make us stand like this, stupidly, for hours, in an endless line, so that we could greet the leaders of brotherly socialist states. And then it comes: the stopped cars begin to honk as a sign of obligatory mourning—endlessly, desperately, hopefully, victoriously. We don’t know yet what is coming—all we know is that it is something different.

The arbitrary Soviet realm that had arrogantly pretended to be the only one imaginable, a space both eternal and dead, a space frozen for as long as I have known myself, is now shaken awake, and the outline of the university spire pointing in the white sky becomes blurry.

During the four decades that follow, after each political shock—dispersed demonstrations in Lithuania and Tbilisi, and the power battles that spilled onto the streets, and this or that little victorious war—the system, even after it officially expired and reemerged under a new name, will behave like the mercury in those old Soviet thermometers cherished by expatriates—after being shattered and, you’d think, dispersed forever, it would converge into the same familiar dimly glowing spheres.

The Fold. Photograph by Irina Mashinski

On the Fall of the Tyrants

This night I got up and came out of the trailer.
A strange sound woke me:
as if statues
were falling again and again.

The forest stood solemn, alert. The light sky was an oak trunk away.
Those were leaves, leaves, leaves, falling loudly,
—dictators, chiefs of the secret police, field marshals
all of them falling at last one by one rumbling colossus,

peeling bronze skin,
toppled by crowds
after 74 years—
little dry mummies . . .

Oh how they used to watch, watch from above!
Only birds painted
them with their bold blue,
white, green strokes of shit

(as at dawn a careless camper drops toothpaste
on the perfect grass by the brook),
tried to enliven with their warm dung
dull flat shine—birds flew at the statues,

colliding with merciless bronze.
Leaves were falling, like in August 1991, when
we stood mesmerized by a moment no one had dared dream of,
falling, toppled, each a dry little earthquake.

“Oh, let them, let them go down,” I thought, “let them
roll down that slippery hill, over clay, over breccia, and never
return,
let them pass all the traps of soil and ores,
straight, straight to the core of the naught.

Farewells

On October 25th, the old calendar anniversary of the October Revolution, we left forever. Plodding on foot downstairs from our 9th floor for the last time, I habitually glanced at our mailbox between the last two landings of the stairwell, as if there could be letters, or news—something that would keep me back here. Our crudely painted blue box still bore traces of a red hairy swastika someone daubed on it recently, and the black tar from a burning match someone else threw inside.

We were crossing my childhood city, the one and only city I knew, that was now turning into a hyperactive stranger, booming with flashy neon signs in a new language—neither Russian, nor English or French—with flickering kiosks, storefronts, and traffic lights that somehow seemed different. I was trying to recognize the familiar places that were flashing by—and to say goodbye to each one. The first autumn frost made the crisp darkness that was punctured by blinding lights even brighter. I knew I would never return, but as I was parting with Moscow, I wasn’t sure that the feelings I had were the ones I had expected.

For decades, I hadn’t been able to imagine myself without this city and its inhabitants, my friends, my kindred spirits, the likes of whom, I was sure, I would never find again—after all, one can’t be this fortunate twice,—and without the country itself, its landscapes, the entirety of Russian Nature, although I knew very well that, contrary to the comforting belief instilled in Soviet citizens by the propagandistic songs, these landscapes, with their iconic birch trees, their anthemized fields and rivers, were not unique—one can find very similar ones in other places on Earth.

A Motherland of Books: An Essay by Maria Bloshteyn

Taking your beloved books with you into immigration is intimately familiar to those of us who left the Soviet Union. My parents’ двухсоттомник—”200-volume set”—of Russian and world literature, was quite literally my lifeline to the language and culture that I may have otherwise forgotten, and they are still the editions I turn to today. The covers of the volumes are different colors, and some key moments of my life are associated with them, such as the dark green of Gogol’s Мертвые души (Dead Souls) when I started college. Reading Maria Bloshteyn’s essay was genuinely heart-wrenching, because the experience she describes is that of an acute loss of books that mean so much to us, not just for their content, but perhaps even more so because they have made the immigrants’ journey with us and sustained us in our new homes. In the current moment, this poignant essay is framed by the war in Ukraine, where people like us are losing not just their books, but their lives. If you are able to help, please support translators who are struggling due to the war and this initiative to give Ukrainian-language books to refugee children in Poland. Ukraine’s cultural sphere has been badly damaged by Russian forces, and we will continue to look for ways in which those of us in the West can help. Maria recently participated in the Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada event hosted by Punctured Lines, and you can listen to her read from an essay about reacting to the war in Ukraine while in the diaspora.

Maria Bloshteyn, A Motherland of Books

Written just before the war in Ukraine began, this essay elegizes the home libraries lovingly gathered and treasured by their owners in the Soviet era, these very libraries, with these very editions, that are being bombed today in Ukraine, along with their owners.

Surely our yellowed labels all spell doom

in letters too few learn, too few remember.

Boris Dralyuk, “Émigré Library”

The books are a heartache. I have been dreading this moment for years. My mother, the adored and formidable matriarch of our small family, had moved into a nursing home after struggling with dementia for the past several years. She doesn’t care now what will happen to the family library, but I do. These are, after all, the books that we brought with us from the Soviet Union, when we left it forever in 1979. I grew up looking at their spines both in our Leningrad flat and in our Toronto apartment: light brown for the complete edition of Pushkin, mauve for Heine’s poems, beige for Tolstoy’s collected works. The classics, the translated classics, the poetry chapbooks, the art albums, the subscription editions, children’s literature—they are all here. Once, they provided the continuity between the two vastly different worlds: one that was forever lost to us and the other that we were slowly learning to inhabit. Reading and rereading them kept me sane as I, rarely at a loss for words, found myself suddenly language-poor and unable to either defend myself against nasty verbal attacks I faced in school as the Russian kid, or to express myself adequately to friendlier others. 

These are the books that I am now packing into large cardboard boxes, as I am deciding their fate. Lowering them in, one by one, I think of the books that we weren’t allowed to bring with us as we left: most prominently, unfairly, and painfully, the single volume of Pushkin’s poems that my grandfather, part of the 13th Air Army during World War II, sent to my mother, evacuated to a village in the Urals. We weren’t allowed to take it, because it was published before some arbitrarily assigned cut-off year, which made it, ridiculously, a possible antiquity of value to the State. The passage of years hadn’t dimmed my sense of outrage. 

Dom knigi. Image credit: Google Images

The books that we were allowed to bring were mostly purchased by my parents during the years of their marriage. My father, whose promising law career was tanked by a prison term received as a result of taking the Soviet Codex of Labor Laws at face value, worked as an auditor for Dom knigi, the largest and most famous bookstore in Leningrad, located in a landmark building on Nevsky prospekt. Once a month, he would bring home a list of books available for purchase.  It was a privilege extended to the associates of Dom knigi. And a real privilege it was. 

The Soviet Union proclaimed itself to be the best-read country in the world. This boast was largely true. If you got onto a bus or a streetcar in the seventies, most passengers would be reading. Entertainment at home—where television meant two or three channels of largely boring programming—was also reading. Yet, if you walked into a book store, the selection of books available to an average customer without special connections was pathetically limited. You could choose from Leonid Brezhnev’s speeches and, if you were lucky, Lenin’s collected works. There was, however, a thriving black market for books. Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s collected works, for example, fetched ninety roubles on the black market—the monthly salary of an engineer. Books were a hot commodity and having access to books at the official prices (helpfully stamped onto the back cover) was a coveted benefit. Not that anyone ever resold books in our family—we bought our books for keeps. 

And so my father and mother would sit at the kitchen table, endlessly going over the list, comparing and contrasting, underlining, and debating with each other, as they chose the books that the family would be acquiring. Whichever books they selected, they’d have to make the same decision: would the family money go toward books or toward some needed items, say, for example, new clothes or pantyhose? Every single time, the decision was made in favor of books.

Later, when we would least expect it, my father would arrive home carrying a cardboard box, around which we’d all gather in eager anticipation. The opened box would release the heady smell of printer’s ink and paper—the intoxicating scent of new books. We’d take out the books one by one, resplendent in their glossy dust jackets, and admire them all. Next, we’d find a proper place for them on the bookshelves, among other books already residing there. And then we’d read them. Once the books were settled in, they were all equally accessible. That’s how I got to read Alberto Moravia and Georges Bernanos, whose vicious critiques of Western bourgeois society made them a logical choice for publication in the Soviet Union, as well as the first Russian translation of Jin Ping Mei, a scandalous 16th-century Chinese novel, all at the ripe old age of seven.

Then, in 1979, we left the USSR. We could have, theoretically, sold off the books, though it would have been emotionally wrenching, but the State helped us decide against that. At the time we left, we were only allowed to bring a small, almost symbolic amount of money with us, given that we were forced to sell whatever property we had, including our flat and our dacha. The money we received from the sales could just as well be spent on crates and packing material as on anything else. That settled it: the family library was accompanying us into the unknown. Our journey took us by airplane from Leningrad to Vienna, where we stayed for a few weeks in a seedy hotel previously used by the city’s sex workers, and then by train from Austria to Italy, where we spent both fall and winter in Ladispoli, a sleepy little seaside town not far from Rome, as we applied for entrance to Canada as refugees. We came to Canada in April of 1980 and then, what seemed like an eternity later, crates full of our books and other belongings finally arrived to our first Toronto apartment on Roselawn Avenue. I greeted the books with the joy and relief usually reserved for long-lost family members: here was the cure for loneliness, frustration, and boredom; here was the portal into other worlds that I could inhabit instead of the coldly unintelligible one in which I found myself.  

The books came, however, with an unexpected financial blow. It turned out that the money we had paid in the Soviet Union for shipping the books was not nearly enough. The crates sat in storage for months upon months and we had to pay the shipping company two thousand dollars in order to redeem them. The amount, substantial in any situation, was staggering to new arrivals with no financial reserves. But walking away from our books was not an option. My parents took out an interest-free loan from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Service. The family paid off that loan by sewing shoes—leather loafers. We’d pick up the large bags full of slips to be sewn together from the factory and then returned them there, completed, for $30 per bag. Although, to my shame, I never did get the hang of it, everyone else sewed, including my 80-year-old grandmother. It took about three years of loafer-sewing drudgery to repay the loan, but the books were worth it.

The books were there for us as no friends could ever be—a 24/7 resource to be reached for as support, entertainment, escape, and a source of wisdom. They were there as I grew up, went to university and to graduate school. They were there as I amassed my own library of books, in Russian as well as in English, got married, and had kids. My husband is Canadian-born and has no connections with Russia except through me. My kids read in English. The books that I am taking from the family library now will therefore be for my own use.  I can’t possibly keep all or even most of them—our many bookshelves at home are already overflowing with books and I have given up many of my other books to make space as it is. So now I’m deciding which books to keep and which books to donate to our multicultural resource library. They won’t be put on the library shelves—they’ll go to the book sale section, where anyone can purchase them for a symbolic sum that goes to fund the library. I know the book-sale section well. I picked up all kinds of treasures there over the years, all in fierce competition with other book hunters.

The author holding Anatole France’s collected works. Image credit: Maria Bloshteyn

The books I’m leaving at the book sale will be someone’s windfall to be treasured. Yet, I still feel like I am betraying the books. Their aged, weathered covers exude reproach. I might as well, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, be drowning them deeper than did ever plummet sound. I go again through the books that I’m giving away, pull several out of the boxes and set them aside, take a deep breath, and drive the boxes to the library. One of the librarians is Russian—she knows what I’m going through. If it wasn’t for Covid, I’d get a hug. “Don’t worry,” she says, “they’ll find good homes.” Maybe, but still… I go through the boxes again, just in case. I take the lid off one box and eight volumes of the collected works of Anatole France stare up at me. I never liked Anatole France. I can’t imagine dipping into one of his books for pleasure. But my mother loved his ironic detachment and reread his books more than once. Maybe that’s what I need now, I think to myself—ironic detachment… I pull out all eight volumes from the box, holding them close as I struggle to balance them in my arms. “I’m taking these home,” I say to the librarian. “I’m not letting go of them just yet.”

January 2022

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Toronto when she was nine.  She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Her main scholarly interests lie in the field of literary and cultural exchange between Russia and the United States, with a special focus on Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020).  Her articles appeared in a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals and her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015). 

Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada

We’re happy to share the recording from the event we hosted on May 15, 2022, gathering writers who were born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Canada as children. Currently located all across Canada, from Montreal (Luba Markovskaia) to Vancouver (Maria Reva) with a definite hub around Toronto (Julia Zarankin, Lea Zeltserman, Maria Lioutaia, Maria Bloshteyn), these generous writers shared excerpts from their work and answered questions about living with hyphenated identities and building writing communities. Russia’s war in Ukraine was at the forefront of this conversation, as most of the writers and the participants have family and friends affected by the bombs. This event was a fundraiser, and we encourage everyone to continue donating to the organizations listed below.

Please enjoy this recording and reach out to us with ideas for future projects!

Organizations to support:

Donate directly to Ukraine’s military: https://bank.gov.ua/en/news/all/natsionalniy-bank-vidkriv-spetsrahunok-dlya-zboru-koshtiv-na-potrebi-armiyi

UNHCR Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund: https://give.unhcr.ca/page/100190/donate/1

JIAS Ukraine Refugee Response: https://jiastoronto.org/ukraine-crisis-update/

ROLDA, helping stranded animals/pets: https://rolda.org/breaking-news-ukraine/

Ukraine Trust Chain, helping evacuate civilians out of war zones: https://www.ukrainetrustchain.org/

Questions?

Email: puncturedlines [at] gmail.com

Bios:

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Toronto when she was nine. She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Her main scholarly interests lie in the field of literary and cultural exchange between Russia and the United States, with a special focus on Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020). Her articles appeared in a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals and her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015).

Maria Lioutaia was born in Moscow and now lives and writes in Toronto. Her fiction has recently appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Gulf Coast, Tin House, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and Conjunctions. She was a Tin House scholar, a finalist for The Iowa Review Awards, and was on the longlist for the CBC Short Story Prize four times. She holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Fellow. Her last name means “fierce” in Russian. She’s currently at work on a novel.

Luba Markovskaia was born in Leningrad and lives in Montreal. She holds a PhD in French literature from McGill University and works as an independent literary and cultural translator. Her writing on language, identity, and immigration has appeared in publications such as Moebius, Spirale, and Nuit blanche, as well as in translation in Maisonneuve Magazine and Quebec Reads, and was shortlisted for the French CBC Nonfiction Prize. In 2021, she received the John Glassco Translation Prize for her translation of Elena Johnson’s Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra. She sits on the editorial board of Spirale magazine. You can visit her LTAC profile and connect with her on Twitter at @luba_mark.

Maria Reva writes fiction and opera libretti. She is the author of the linked story collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear (Doubleday, Virago, and Knopf Canada New Face of Fiction, 2020), which was inspired by her own family’s experiences in Ukraine. Maria’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Granta, The Journey Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. She won a National Magazine Award in 2019 and was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada 2020 Fiction Prize. Maria was born in Ukraine and grew up in New Westminster, British Columbia. She received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.

Julia Zarankin is the author of FIELD NOTES FROM AN UNINTENTIONAL BIRDER. Her writing has appeared in Audubon, Canadian Geographic, ON Nature, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Birding Magazine, Hazlitt, Threepenny Review, and Orion Magazine. She was recently a finalist for the CBC Short Story prize (2020). When not hanging out with a spotting scope at sewage lagoons or working furiously at her desk, Julia lectures to lifelong learners in and around Toronto. Zarankin is currently at work on a novel that features, among other things, a Babushka Beauty Pageant.

Born in St. Petersburg back when it was Leningrad, Lea Zeltserman was raised in Edmonton and now calls Toronto home. She writes about Soviet-Jewish food, history, immigration, and culture. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Tablet, the Forward, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent, Walrus, and others. An essay on Soviet-Jewish food was included in the 100 Jewish Foods anthology from Tablet Magazine. She also publishes the Soviet-Samovar, a monthly round-up of FSU writing. Find her online at https://leazeltserman.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/zeltserman and Instagram: @leazelt.

Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada: A Reading in Support of Ukraine

Punctured Lines is delighted to bring you our next event–a reading and a Q&A with six established authors who were born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Canada as children. In their fiction and nonfiction they explore topics of multicultural identity, life under communism, Jewish culture, food, history, and making a home in a strange land.

Please register on Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/born-in-the-ussr-raised-in-canada-a-reading-in-support-of-ukraine-tickets-315030252967

We began planning this event before Russia’s renewed, full-scale attack on Ukraine, and we want to acknowledge that this war is resonating deeply throughout the diasporic community. We feel that it’s particularly important for us to come together at this time, to listen to each other’s stories and to amplify each other’s voices and resources in support of the people of Ukraine in their fight against the Russian totalitarian regime. We also want to extend our support to those citizens of the Russian Federation resisting and fleeing from this regime.

*** This event will be recorded. ***

*** This event is a fundraiser and we encourage everyone to donate money directly to organizations supporting Ukraine and Russian protesters. Suggested donation starts at $5.

Organizations to support:

Donate directly to Ukraine’s military: https://bank.gov.ua/en/news/all/natsionalniy-bank-vidkriv-spetsrahunok-dlya-zboru-koshtiv-na-potrebi-armiyi

UNHCR Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund: https://give.unhcr.ca/page/100190/donate/1

JIAS Ukraine Refugee Response: https://jiastoronto.org/ukraine-crisis-update/

ROLDA, helping stranded animals/pets: https://rolda.org/breaking-news-ukraine/

Ukraine Trust Chain, helping evacuate civilians out of war zones: https://www.ukrainetrustchain.org/

Questions?

Email: puncturedlines [at] gmail.com

Bios:

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Toronto when she was nine. She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Her main scholarly interests lie in the field of literary and cultural exchange between Russia and the United States, with a special focus on Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020). Her articles appeared in a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals and her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015).

Maria Lioutaia was born in Moscow and now lives and writes in Toronto. Her fiction has recently appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Gulf Coast, Tin House, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and Conjunctions. She was a Tin House scholar, a finalist for The Iowa Review Awards, and was on the longlist for the CBC Short Story Prize four times. She holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Fellow. Her last name means “fierce” in Russian. She’s currently at work on a novel.

Luba Markovskaia was born in Leningrad and lives in Montreal. She holds a PhD in French literature from McGill University and works as an independent literary and cultural translator. Her writing on language, identity, and immigration has appeared in publications such as Moebius, Spirale, and Nuit blanche, as well as in translation in Maisonneuve Magazine and Quebec Reads, and was shortlisted for the French CBC Nonfiction Prize. In 2021, she received the John Glassco Translation Prize for her translation of Elena Johnson’s Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra. She sits on the editorial board of Spirale magazine. You can visit her LTAC profile and connect with her on Twitter at @luba_mark.

Maria Reva writes fiction and opera libretti. She is the author of the linked story collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear (Doubleday, Virago, and Knopf Canada New Face of Fiction, 2020), which was inspired by her own family’s experiences in Ukraine. Maria’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Granta, The Journey Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. She won a National Magazine Award in 2019 and was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada 2020 Fiction Prize. Maria was born in Ukraine and grew up in New Westminster, British Columbia. She received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.

Julia Zarankin is the author of FIELD NOTES FROM AN UNINTENTIONAL BIRDER. Her writing has appeared in Audubon, Canadian Geographic, ON Nature, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Birding Magazine, Hazlitt, Threepenny Review, and Orion Magazine. She was recently a finalist for the CBC Short Story prize (2020). When not hanging out with a spotting scope at sewage lagoons or working furiously at her desk, Julia lectures to lifelong learners in and around Toronto. Zarankin is currently at work on a novel that features, among other things, a Babushka Beauty Pageant.

Born in St. Petersburg back when it was Leningrad, Lea Zeltserman was raised in Edmonton and now calls Toronto home. She writes about Soviet-Jewish food, history, immigration, and culture. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Tablet, the Forward, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent, Walrus, and others. An essay on Soviet-Jewish food was included in the 100 Jewish Foods anthology from Tablet Magazine. She also publishes the Soviet-Samovar, a monthly round-up of FSU writing. Find her online at https://leazeltserman.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/zeltserman and Instagram: @leazelt.

Q&A with Boris Dralyuk: “I learned to listen closely in a hundred different ways”

Today, we’re thrilled to present a Q&A with Boris Dralyuk — renowned translator, writer, LARB‘s Executive Editor (thank you for fine-tuning my reviews), former colleague, and old and dear friend. Based in Los Angeles, Boris has been instrumental in promoting Russian and Russophone literature in translation both in the United States and abroad. His recent poetry cycle can be found here. Boris answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: Your family emigrated from Odessa to Los Angeles when you were eight. In an interview with Melissa Beck on The Book Binder’s Daughter, you’ve told the story about turning to translation at the age of 14 in the hope of sharing a Pasternak poem with an English-speaking friend. You felt that translation was something of a calling for you. And yet there’s often a long path between that first desire to translate and professional translation. What were some of the challenges you’ve encountered at the beginning? What resources (mental, emotional, literary, etc.) did you draw on to keep going?

Boris Dralyuk: First, let me thank you both for inviting to review the path I’ve traveled. It seems, from here, to be longer and more winding than I usually imagine it to be. I tend to focus not on the path itself but on the small number of items I’ve picked up along the way. It’s these items – discrete memories, some pleasant and inspiring, others disappointing and embarrassing – that offer comfort and refine my perspective when I run into new challenges. A large part of professionalization is learning about yourself, about what you need – mentally, emotionally, physically – in order to do your best work. Is your mind clearest in the morning, the afternoon, or the evening? How quickly can you translate? How many words of prose can you render each day before losing steam? How much coffee do you need, and how much is too much?

One discovers these things over time, often the hard way. And they change – so it’s important to keep watching yourself, adjusting. When I was starting out, I translated omnivorously, at breakneck speed. The practice was useful, but the results were, as you can imagine, mixed… I learned soon enough that I can seldom translate, at a high level, more than 500 words of prose a day. It’s still the case that I move quickly when I translate poems, but two things have changed: I now translate only those poems that speak to me, that won’t let me go; and after I complete a draft, I share it with my most trusted readers, read it after the first blush of inspiration fades, let it sit as I wait for the second and third blushes to arrive, revisit it again – I put the poem through its paces. To sum up, I now have more faith in my personal taste in literature and less faith in my initial satisfaction with my own work.

I can’t imagine coming to any of these realizations earlier than I did – it all takes as long as it takes. What has helped me through every stumble, setback, and paralyzing fit of regret was the sympathy and encouragement of my mentors, who had cleared these hurdles before. The smartest thing I did in my early years as a translator was to seek out such mentors, and they all became dear friends – Mike Heim, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, Maria Bloshteyn, and others.

PL: Some of us were lucky enough to study with Michael Heim at UCLA, but you also worked with him in terms of translation. You touched on this experience in your very poignant tribute when he passed away. Can you talk a bit more about what it was like to work with him?

BD: As I wrote in my little piece, it was the time Mike devoted to my infantile efforts – the interest he showed, when he could well have shown me the door – that proved decisive. I wish I could say that I didn’t need encouragement, or that I don’t need it now, but I very much did and do. Yet I want to stress that Mike didn’t give me encouragement because he felt I needed it, he did it because he believed in translation itself, believed that it was an important art, that it was possible to improve one’s skills, and that I was dedicated to the work. His purity of intention was unmistakable. It was precisely what I was looking for in a teacher and reader, what I look for still, and what I try to manifest whenever I’m asked for feedback or advice. When Mike sat down with a student to go over a text, it isn’t that the world outside the text would disappear, it’s that the text would become the world’s center. And you’d leave his office with the sense that your work had, in its own small way, restored order to the world – had shaken it out as if it were a bedspread, revealing its true design. I feel that way every time I discuss a translation with Robert, Irina, Maria, and my wife, Jenny. Their tastes and sensibilities are even closer to my own than Mike’s were, but they all share the same world-shaking, order-restoring purity of intention.

PL: You’ve translated a range of writers from Russian, from Tolstoy to Babel and Zoshchenko to contemporary prose and poetry by Maxim Osipov and Julia Nemirovskaya (here, your translations of poetry are to be commended for often keeping the original meter and rhyme scheme, which is extraordinarily difficult in English but is precisely what lets these poems come through, as opposed to being rendered unrecognizable, in translation). What draws you to a particular author or project? What are the differences, and/or similarities, in the way you approach translating the various genres and sensibilities of the writers?

BD: The greatest training ground and door-opener of my career was the invitation, extended by Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, to coedit The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. The correspondence we conducted over the nearly four years of work on that project led me to discover the range of voices inside me, voices capable of resonating with those of Vasily Zhukovsky, Afanasy Fet, Nikolai Gumilyov, Marina Petrovykh, Georgy Ivanov, Anna Prismanova, and other poets. I learned what I could and couldn’t do, my strengths and my weaknesses. Most importantly, I learned to listen closely in a hundred different ways, from every angle. Of course, when translating Isaac Babel, I don’t need to strain my ears – his Odessan language is the language of my family, of my childhood; and Zoshchenko’s tragic gags are also like mother’s milk. What I need to do, in both cases, is to find Anglophone equivalents for their voices, and, luckily, American literature is full of them. In the case of Babel, I was aided by Daniel Fuchs, Samuel Ornitz, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, and, for good measure, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. When Zoshchenko came knocking, Ring Lardner and Robert Benchley opened the door, with Damon Runyon peeking over their shoulders. In the case of Maxim Osipov and Julia Nemirovskaya, something rather different happened. The voices I use in my translations of their work are often versions of my everyday voice. Better versions, because they always have more important things to say than I myself do. I loved what Anna Aslanyan said in her TLS review of Maxim’s Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories, which I co-translated with the brilliant Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson: “Dralyuk’s idiom packs a punch, Anne Marie Jackson lends Osipov’s prose a gentle English timbre, and Alex Fleming meticulously recreates its cadences and wordplay.” We all make use of what we have inside us, of what we acquire from our reading and from our colleagues – the key is to make the very best use of it.

PL: In addition to translating, you also work with books in another way: as a frequent reviewer, including for the Times Literary Supplement, and of course as the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. It is thanks to you that this publication has come to amplify coverage of translations from the former Soviet countries, as well as diaspora literatures and scholarly works about the region. What do you look for in terms of the books/writers you feature in LARB?

BD: My editorial goal is, first and foremost, to empower and encourage the editors of our sections – which represent over a dozen genres – to cast as wide a net as possible, and to ensure that we’re covering a diverse array of books and uplifting the voices of critics and reviewers who may not have access to other major venues. We love giving authors their first break. I’m not interested in boilerplate reviews of the latest bestsellers or political exposés. I want our pieces to dig deeper, to be deeply informed but also deeply felt, and to come at books from unexpected angles. A good number of our reviewers are associated with colleges and universities, and their first drafts often bear the telltale signs of academic discourse: lots of jargon, sentences that are far more convoluted than they need to be, etc. The jargon may have its place, but one must remember that many readers are encountering these specialized terms for the first time. We always remind our contributors that they’re writing for a general audience of curious non-specialists; the goal is to welcome people into the discussion, not to stupefy them with a display of one’s erudition. The good news is that academics usually learn quickly – that’s why they’re academics.

PL: We talk a lot on Punctured Lines, and elsewhere, both about how to promote translations from Russian in general and of women writers in particular. In your essay “The Silver Age of Russian-to-English Translation” for Translation Review you name the stellar translators and publishers that have made translation from Russian an incredibly vibrant field. What are your thoughts on how we as a community – of translators, scholars, publishers, editors, reviewers, book bloggers, etc. – can work toward greater visibility of female authors within Russian-to-English translation overall?

BD: From Constance Garnett and Louise Maude on down, women have long been at the forefront of Russian-to-English literary translation. It seems to me that many, if not the majority, of our most prolific and accomplished contemporary translators are women. Among them are Marian Schwartz, Antonina W. Bouis, Lisa Hayden, Katherine E. Young, the late Jamey Gambrell, and Joanne Turnbull, whose shimmering translations of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky have restored that half-forgotten master of dark fables to his proper place, beside Borges and Calvino. But the work of male Russian authors has, until recently, dominated the market. When Anglophone readers think of a typical “Russian author,” I would bet many of them still imagine a bearded face… This is changing, slowly and steadily, because translators – both women and men – are more enthusiastically advocating Russian women’s writing. The resurgence of interest in Teffi, fueled by the efforts of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and the team they’ve assembled, is just one indication of this shift – and may be one of the driving forces behind it. Pushkin Press, which releases the Chandlers’ Teffi volumes in the UK, has now also put out phenomenal books by two other émigré women authors, Irina Odoyevtseva’s Isolde, translated by Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg, and Banine’s (Umm El-Banu Assadullayeva) Days in the Caucuses, translated from the French by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova. The openness and dedication of small- and medium-sized publishers like Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press, Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics, and Will Evans of Deep Vellum, which has released two novels by Alisa Ganieva in Carol Apollonio’s translations, as well as of Christine Dunbar of Columbia University Press’s Russian Library, should be applauded without cease. And Lisa Hayden, who not only translates Guzel Yakhina and Margarita Khemlin but also highlights the work of countless other women authors on her indispensable Bookshelf, is a hero and an inspiration to us all. As members of the community, we must actively seek out the widest variety of Russian voices and, if any of these voices resonate with us individually, we should try to bring them across into English ourselves or to suggest them to other translators.

PL: Soviet and post-Soviet lives don’t always fit neatly into the contemporary American classification of identities. For instance, in conversation with Katya Michaels at Odessa Review, you described Babel as a Jewish-Ukrainian-Russian-Soviet writer. This sounds about right and yet in American parlance this often gets shortened to “Russian writer” or “Soviet writer.” How do you approach this work of identity constructions that critics and translators are often asked to do?

BD: Yes, this is always a challenge. I suppose the first and most important step is to determine how these authors see – or saw – themselves in their own time and within a given tradition or set of traditions. But once you establish that, what do you do with it? If your press allows you to supply the text with an introduction, or even a brief translator’s note, that’s an opportunity to enrich a reader’s understanding of an author’s identity. And there are, of course, decisions to be made within the text itself. Is it appropriate for Yiddishisms, both syntactic and lexical, to color a Russian text in English translation? If you ask me, Babel wouldn’t be Babel without them. And would Lev Ozerov, a Soviet Jewish poet who, although he wrote in Russian, was raised in Ukraine, counted Ukrainian intellectuals among his closest friends, and translated scores of Ukrainian poems object to our using the spelling “Kyiv” in our rendering of his work? I think he’d heartily approve. Needless to say, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach – and that’s the beauty of it.

PL: What are you working on now? What project(s) is/are on your wish list?

BD: Right now I’m awaiting the publication of my translation of Andrey Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees – a moving, gently surreal picaresque set in Donbas and Crimea two years into the current war. (Talk about Ukrainian place names!) Alex Fleming, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and I are also making great progress on a second volume of Maxim Osipov’s beguilingly nuanced stories and essays, and are relishing every minute of it. Julia Nemirovskaya’s humbly revelatory and incomparably humane verse continues to work its way through me, and I’m always on the lookout for little treasures to share on my blog – like this delightful poem by Sofiya Pregel.

Follow Boris’s work at https://bdralyuk.wordpress.com/