In April, as COVID19 was already changing our lives, a new literary magazine entered the world. “Literature pretends only to reflect the way things really are, and it is always there for you when everything else has failed,” writes Harry Leeds in his editor’s note to the first issue. “I hope that our magazine is a distraction while you are stuck the hell home.” Leeds is a writer, editor, a translator from Russian, “cat papa,” and is on his way to becoming a nurse. He has a sick sense of humor, he says, which I think gives him a leg up in the whole literary mag game.
We are so delighted to welcome MumberMag’s stellar Mumber One issue. (Gosh, some sense of humor really went into the making of this mag–and I LOVE IT!) Joining Harry in the editorial team is a much beloved poet D. A. Powell, who serves as a Founding Poetry Editor (here’s a profile of him in The New Yorker).
The first issue holds many wonderful gifts for the readers, and for us, interested in post-Soviet literature, there are Boris Dralyuk’s translations from Julia Nemirovskaya who lives in the U.S. and writes poetry and fiction in Russian, and teaches Russian literature and culture at the University of Oregon. Three poems appear in Mumber One, Lamp, Little Box, and Toilet Paper — “Kin to napkin and book.” (Poets really know what’s important in life, long before any crisis strikes.)
Last but not least our MumberMag editors are working on creating their list of Top Literary Magazines Ranked By Influence on Social Media. As a huge literary magazine fan, I deeply appreciate the dedication that it takes to create a list like this — and a sense of joy from the fun of it all. Thank you, people!
Punctured Lines is thrilled to present a Q&A with Lara Vapnyar, Russian-American writer and author of six works, including her latest novel, Divide Meby Zero. This is also personally meaningful, as I have been reading and writing on Russian-American fiction, very much including her work, for several years. Many thanks to Masha Rumer, whose Q&A we featured previously, for helping facilitate this exchange. Lara answered our questions by email.
Lara Vapnyar:There is a scene in a Nancy Meyers’ film Something Gotta Give, where the main character played by Diane Keaton is working on a play, typing and sobbing, typing and sobbing… That’s how it went for me, except that I had long periods of just sobbing, and longer periods of paralyzing self-doubt – Is this even a novel? What if this is just a self-indulgent mess?
PL: English, the language of your stories and novels, is your second language, acquired later in life. In her essay for the New Yorker, “To Speak is to Blunder,” Yiyun Li, a writer whose first language is Chinese, talked about how “language is capable of sinking a mind.” “One’s thoughts are slavishly bound to language,” she wrote, and went on to talk about the difficulties she has articulating her feelings. “It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible in my native language,” Li says. In your essay, “The Writer as Tour Guide” in an anthology of contemporary Jewish exile literature, The Writer Uprooted, you said, “By the time I approached writing, I had been reading in English a lot, and whenever I thought about creating something of my own, I caught myself putting my images into words of the English language. I felt most comfortable when writing in English, even though I had to struggle with grammar and vocabulary […] I would even say that I wrote in American, which for me was the language of immigrants.” What opportunities has English provided you with that wouldn’t have existed in Russian? Alternatively, do you ever find English limiting? Do you negotiate the space between Russian and English when you write?
LV: English is my first “writing” language. Even though I only started to learn English as an adult, my first attempts to write fiction were in English (I’ve never written anything in Russian), so it feels completely natural. The only situation, when I feel frustrated, is when I have to translate speech from Russian into English. For example, I remember a specific joke my mother made in Russian, and I want to translate it and give it to my character, but it’s just not that funny in English!
PL: The relationship between mother and daughter that you describe in this novel is very touching yet clearly a very demanding one. The cultural conflict is not obviously stated, but it seems to define Katya’s judgment of her ability to mother her children. In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children—and Katya herself grew up in a household presided over by her grandparents. Do you feel that life in the United States has affected Katya’s and her mother’s expectations of each other?
LV: In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children –Absolutely! Katya would’ve probably felt less conflicted, if she was raising her children while relying so much on her mother’s help in Russia.
PL: Unlike works by many other Russian-American writers, male or female, your work directly engages with ideas of gender and feminism. Your novel Memoirs of a Muse charts the transformation of its female protagonist from subservient muse to her writer boyfriend to an independent woman engaged in artistic production; and while Dostoevsky is a key fictional figure in this work, the focus is on his lover, Apollinaria Suslova, herself a writer. Ružena in “Slicing Sautéed Spinach” in your short story collection Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love is a doctoral student in Women’s Studies. Your essay “Hillary’s Underpants: The Sad Tale of ‘Clintonsha,’ or She-Clinton” in Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary directly calls out traditional Russian gender assumptions. 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?
LV: I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where accepted gender roles differed greatly from what we see in the US and contemporary Russia. Soviet Union was both a feminist and a deeply patriarchal society, where men had all the power, but women did all the work, but still longed for a man in the family like this prized object. My mother, a strong independent woman who made her career and brought me up all on her own, kept telling me that ANY husband is better than no husband.
I think there is a shift of gender norms [in the diaspora] toward the ideal situation, where men and women in the family are equal partners who depend on each other for support and understanding.
PL: As a writer one of whose major topics is immigration, do you find yourself working against Russian cultural stereotypes?
LV: Probably… But in this novel, I feel like I’m working with a Russian cultural stereotype – that you absolutely need true romantic love, that you can’t live without it – against a more pragmatic American view that romantic love is far from being the most important thing in life, and chasing after love is selfish and childish.
PL: Who are some of the writers that inspire you? Do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?
LV: There are so many writers I deeply admire within the diaspora and beyond. But for this novel, the most influential was Elena Ferrante. She taught me how to turn yourself inside out for the sake of larger truth.
I came across Maria Reva’s short story “Unsound” in a copy of McSweeney’s, catching up on my reading over the holidays. It’s a striking piece of fiction that’s set in a fictional orphanage in the Soviet Union, where infants are rated according to a disability scale and judged accordingly. Notwithstanding, the orphan who emerges as a protagonist of the story, Zaya, has a lot going for her–a certain resilience of the spirit that makes her narrative particularly endearing.
Judging by quality of Reva’s previous publications and the reception this particular story has received–it was listed in a major magazine award that McSweetney recently won–this book has a very big future ahead of it. The pub date is March 10, 2020, and it’s already available on pre-order.
Olga Zilberbourg spoke with Jennifer Eremeeva about Like Water and Other Stories (WTAW Press) in a podcast for The New Books Network. It’s a fantastic interview, including about cultural misunderstandings, which starts with Olga reading the inventive and touching “Dandelion” from her collection. Listen to the conversation and follow Jennifer on Twitter @JWEremeeva – we do!
“A new generation of Russian emigres is blessed — or cursed — with the ease of long-haul flights and frequent flyer miles, Skype and FaceTime, Google translate, and regulations that seem anyway to be more forgiving about former citizens traveling to and fro. For them, the border has become far more porous than it ever was, and the choices are now more nuanced. However, there are still plenty of cultural minefields to navigate. To this generation that includes writers as disparate as Gary Shteyngart and Irina Reyn comes Olga Zilberbourg with a new collection of short stories, ‘Like Water and Other Stories.'”
A Q&A with Olga Zilberbourg in Epiphany Magazine about LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES (WTAW Press):
“As a writer, when I’m structuring a collection of stories, I make an assumption that, like me, my readers are interested in the human being who shows up most fully in the white spaces between one’s story ending and another’s beginning. From the information on the cover alone, my reader knows that I’m a woman, that I grew up in the Soviet Union, and that I live in the US and I write in English. So, yes, nearly automatically, my story is framed as an immigrant’s story. Then comes the interesting part.”
A recent review singing the richly deserved praises of our own Olga Zilberbourg’s debut English-language collection, LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES, out now:
“In an era of ‘short shorts’ hailed in by the venerable Lydia Davis—and culminating in ‘the fragmentary’ in the recent Nobel Prize-winning work of Olga Tokarczuk—one wonders if there remains space for a new collection of shorts: stories that up-end expectation and offer distinctive voice and lesser charted areas of exploration. San Francisco-based, Russian émigré writer Olga Zilberbourg, in her first story collection published in English, allays that concern. Zilberbourg is author of three Russian-language story collections; her fiction has been widely published in esteemed US literary journals; and she has won numerous prizes, including the Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize in 2016. A native of Leningrad, raised in St Petersburg, Zilberbourg moved to the US in 2006 to study at the Rochester Institute of Technology, later earning the MA in Comparative Literature at San Francisco State University.”
We congratulate our own Yelena Furman on her first ever fiction publication. Her story “Naming” appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Narrative Magazine. It centers an immigrant protagonist — Sofia, Sonia, Sonechka — who moves back to Moscow in 1992 for a job copyediting “one of the many publications springing up in the newly liberalized atmosphere now that the Soviet Union had collapsed.” This is a delightful tale of search for identity, romance, a connection with the place, and, of course, books.
The story is available online after a free registration to the website. If it resonates with you, please leave a comment on the website, write back to us or to the author directly. Publishing short stories can be a lonely business, and the most effective way to support a writer is to comment on the work you love.
From early on, the most significant episodes of my life were bound up with books. I was reading Eugene Onegin when we left the Soviet Union, The Seagull when I lost my virginity, and the Russian realists when I fell in love, a process that spanned several authors. I was in my last year of college, in 1992, when I met Daniel, a graduate student. I caught him looking at me during our first class meeting for a seminar on nineteenth-century Russian fiction. He didn’t look away when I met his stare, which betrayed too much self-confidence on his part yet was oddly intriguing. We didn’t speak, but for the next few weeks I would continually feel his bright-green eyes on me. Daniel’s eyes were his most striking feature; they had the ability to bore into you with an unearthly intensity and leave you feeling as though you’d just been seen through to the inside.
“In ‘Rubicon,’ which opens Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Waterand Other Stories, the narrator, on her way to pick up her son from preschool, says, ‘spring came on hard and much too early this year, which must be why the dimensions of reality shifted.’ If the story’s realistic beginning gives the impression that this shift is figurative, it soon becomes apparent that reality really does alter: on a street in San Francisco, a young man she knew back in 1990s Russia, who is ‘still seventeen on this day in 2018,’ drives up to hand her a ‘TDK compact cassette, the exact kind he and I used to exchange in high school.'”
Thanks to Lea Zeltserman and her Soviet Samovar newsletter for the mention of this novel. This is labeled as “Young Adult,” which means might fly under the radar when I look at reviews of contemporary fiction. This also means, it might be a gripping and fast-paced read. The description and preview of the first few pages are certainly promising.
Sonya is a daughter of a “dissident poetess moneyless famous jobless” mother, who had nearly aborted her. Jewish, too–being Jewish in the Soviet Union seems to be a major theme of this book. The novel takes place just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and emigration looms large. Sounds both familiar and intriguing.
As a reformed math school student (Leningrad, 239 shkola), I can never get enough of math stories in fiction. The publisher’s description makes this book sound delicious:
As a young girl, Katya Geller learned from her mother that math was the answer to everything. Now, approaching forty, she finds this wisdom tested: she has lost the love of her life, she is in the middle of a divorce, and has just found out that her mother is dying. Half-mad with grief, Katya turns to the unfinished notes for her mother’s last textbook, hoping to find guidance in mathematical concepts.
With humor, intelligence, and unfailing honesty, Katya traces back her life’s journey: her childhood in Soviet Russia, her parents’ great love, the death of her father, her mother’s career as a renowned mathematician, and their immigration to the United States. She is, by turns, an adrift newlywed, an ESL teacher in an office occupied by witches and mediums, a restless wife, an accomplished writer, a flailing mother of two, a grieving daughter, and, all the while, a woman in love haunted by a question: how to parse the wild, unfathomable passion she feels through the cool logic of mathematics?