Nataliya Meshchaninova is Russian filmmaker. In 2017, she published a book of autobiographical short stories that resonated with her audience, in part, because they supported the Russian #metoo movement. In February 2022, Deep Vellum brought out Fiona Bell’s translation of Meshchaninova’s book under the title Stories of a Life. We are honored to share with you an excerpt from this book, a section from the fourth chapter, “Secrets.”
The book centers on Meshchaninova’s complex relationship with her mother and her mother’s lovers and includes troubling depictions of abuse. Punctured Lines asked Fiona Bell to tell us about her experiences translating this book, and she generously responded:
The breezy, tongue-in-cheek style that Meshchaninova uses to narrate the horrifying events of her childhood [was the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of this translation project]. To translate someone else’s trauma is hard enough—adopting the survivor’s “I” when none of this had happened to me—but to do it in a joking tone was even more complicated. But this is the incredible appeal of Stories of a Life. Although we don’t associate trauma narratives and humor, Meshchaninova gives us both. She is somehow swaggering in her vulnerability.
Please enjoy the excerpt and buy this book to read the full, gripping story of one remarkable woman’s childhood.
by Nataliya Meshchaninova, translated by Fiona Bell
My parents got divorced when I was five. That’s why I remember my father as a father only very hazily. I have a few memories. The first: I’m standing in the mudroom dressed in my winter clothes, ready to go outside, and I see my mom screaming hysterically, her arms raised, my two older sisters clinging to her like branches to a tree. My father’s standing in the doorway, saying something like, “Oh, come on, Katya!” That was a weird moment. The second: my father is sitting on the couch, munching on sunflower seeds, and I’m on the floor by his legs, waiting for him to split some open and stick a handful of shelled kernels into my mouth. The third: my father asks me to bring him his slippers, and I say, “No, no, a nightingale never sings for a pig, ask a crow instead!” The fourth: I watch in horror as my father covers the kitchen floor with plucked chicken carcasses. The whole kitchen—the entire floor: carcasses. Nowhere to stand. As soon as he turns his back, I start frantically throwing the carcasses out the window, hoping I could still save them.
There you have it, all my memories. I’m not even sure they’re real, they might just be imaginings based on my mom’s stories.
Anyway, when I turned five, they got divorced, and I wasn’t too upset because my mom, in celebration of her freedom, planned a nice trip to Taman and took me along. Sometimes I’d ask, “Mom, where’s Dad?”
“What do we need Dad for?” she’d say cheerfully, bobbing in the sea, “We’re having fun all by ourselves!”
I agreed—it wasn’t bad without him around—and I stopped asking.
My father started living with another family pretty quickly, and soon there was a new girl calling him “Dad” without a twinge of conscience. None of it made sense anymore, and I stopped thinking of him as my father. I suddenly realized that being a dad was a bullshit temp job, that you could quit or pick a new daughter whenever you wanted.
My father loved my older sisters, but me, not so much. Probably because they were already wise and grown-up. They visited him a lot, but whenever I went, I just got fed and then sent home. They always had the best chicken at his place.
After the divorce, we never had chicken at my house. Clearly, my father considered it his sacred duty to feed me once a week. Soon, his new wife got sick of these feedings, and I could tell, so I stopped coming over for chicken. That’s pretty much the whole story of our relationship, me and my father’s. I didn’t know him, never really had the chance.
My mom loved to sit me on her lap and ask, “Natashenka, what’s your relationship like with Vitka?” That’s what she called my father, short for Viktor. I’d say, “Well, what kind of relationship could I have with Vitka, since he got stingy with the chicken and gave me second-hand underwear for my birthday?”
“There,” my mom finally said, satisfied, “you see! He’s a pig! He’s always been a pig! Now, I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone . . .”
Then she’d tell me some secret from their married life. My father had always been a horrible pig, he’d done some really awful things.
“Once,” my mother said tragically, “Vitka lost some money to Polikarpych in a game of dominoes. To pay the debt, he said, ‘Go to my place, Katerina will give you . . . well, she’ll sleep with you.’ So, Polikarpych came over, and I’m thinking, Whoa whoa whoa, what’s he doing here? And he starts coming on to me! Right in front of you guys. But you weren’t born yet. So, in front of Lena and Oksana. He started grabbing my breasts! I said, ‘Have you lost your mind? Vitka will kill you!’ But he said, ‘Vitka’s the one who sent me!’ Well, I grabbed you kids and locked us all in the bathroom. He tried to force his way in but gave up after a while and, out of spite, locked us in from the outside. So we spent an entire day locked in the bathroom, hungry, with only tap water to drink. Then Vitka got home, unlocked the door, and told me to laugh it off!”
Wide-eyed with horror, I looked at my mom and thought to myself, My father isn’t just a pig, he’s the ringleader of all the pigs in the world.
God, Mom, no one asked for your fucking secrets!
But I understand how important it was for you to tell these stories. You needed an ally in that war. My older sisters were a lost cause—they loved their father. But I hadn’t had the chance. That’s how I became the Louise to my mom’s Thelma. Even to this day. That’s how intense and enduring these secrets have been.
Although now I realize how hard that senseless marriage was on both of them.
Here’s the story: My father had a girlfriend he was head over heels in love with. She cheated on him, or planned to, so he lost his mind and decided to teach her a lesson by marrying another woman. That other woman was my mother. That’s it. When I asked my mom why she married him, she said, “Vitka was tall and handsome and, besides, I wasn’t getting any younger.”
The night before the wedding, my father’s girlfriend called him in tears and begged him not to get married, to forgive her. But, like I said, my father had lost his mind. That’s where stupidity gets you: married.
Fiona Bell is a literary translator and scholar of Russian literature who is committed to sharing the voices of contemporary female and nonbinary Russian writers with anglophone audiences. Bell’s essays have appeared in Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is from St. Petersburg, Florida, but currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut while earning a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature at Yale University.
Alla Gorbunova is a Russian poet, prose writer, translator, and critic. She has published six books of poetry and four books of prose, and her work regularly appears in major literary journals, including Znamia, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, Vozdukh, TextOnly, and others. Gorbunova’s poems and prose have been translated into many languages. She has taken part in Russian and international festivals of poetry and prose, and in 2012 participated in poetry readings in New York and Chicago. English-language translations of her poems and prose have appeared in Poetry, Words Without Borders, ColumbiaJournal, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, and Nashville Review.
The English translation of her book of prose It’s the End of the World, My Love by Elina Alter is forthcoming from Deep Vellum Press in 2022. Gorbunova is a laureate of Russia’s most prestigious literary awards, including the Andrei Bely Prize, the NOS Literary Prize, and the Debut Prize. She is a graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy at St. Petersburg State University.
Alexandra Tkacheva: When did you start writing? How did you come to think of yourself as a poet? Some of your lines, such as “Дом сверчка в золе и саже / За окном его горит / Чёрной башни карандашик / С чёрной тучей говорит” [The cricket’s house in the soot and ash / Outside his window / A pencil of the black tower is lit / It is talking to a black cloud] can be read as ars poetica. Is this a common and/or deliberate effect in your work?
Alla Gorbunova: In her “Young Mother’s Diary,” kept by my mom, she notes that I started composing poems when I was a year and nine months old. But these poems did not have words yet. My mom describes them as combinations of sounds with a strong rhythm. Since then, I’ve been composing verse, which gradually acquired words.
In childhood, I had a favorite game. I took books (preferably but not necessarily with pictures), sat down and ran my finger over the pages until the paper became threadbare. I muttered to myself, made up a story, sometimes relying on the pictures, and imagined that it was printed on those pages. Reading other people’s texts also encouraged me to play this game. When I liked what I’d read, I took the book and began declaiming my own words in the same spirit and style. I kept up this practice for many years, having felt a deep need for such creative expression. It seemed vitally necessary, a true inspiration.
As for ars poetica, yes, in my poetry you can often encounter a reflection on the poetic experience itself. A form of autoreferentiality. In that moment of unfolding, poetry poses a question about itself, about the foundations and possibilities of poetic speech. I feel that we lack the language capable of revealing what poetry is from within. When I’m writing a poem, regardless of its subject, there is always a revelation of poetry itself, poetry turned not only outward but also towards itself.
Alexandra Tkacheva: Tell us about your creative process. How are your poems written? What about prose? Where does the work on yourself end and the work on the text begin for you? Is the material world (the nighttime, a table, a cup of tea) important for creativity? Do you edit yourself? Does your “mental controller” (a character in Gorbunova’s short story “На правах рекламы [Advertisement]”) intervene? What is the most difficult part of writing?
Alla Gorbunova: Usually, a target appears (sometimes I catch it, like a hunter), a point-like and precise note, a condensed whole, a pure creative possibility, a certain intensity, a call for me. It can be said that I “see” this intensity, this target. However, a more accurate metaphor here is perhaps recognizing the smell. Indeed, not only a word or an image can carry meaning, but also a smell – in a more primordial way. There is something from hunting prey by its smell in the creative process for me.
The distinction between poetry and prose is not critical to my process. Both are about seeing for me. Sometimes I see something, and it’s clear that this is poetry. Or that this is prose. I mean, it’s clear that this particular intensity is meant to unfold as poetry, while that one – as prose. And sometimes, I see that it can be unfolded both ways and I can put it down as either poetry or prose.
Working on a text, when it’s taken out of the context of working on one’s own self, is a purely technical handicraft. In my case, it would be more correct to say “work within the text” instead of working on it. Someone working on the text creates an object, cultivates it. I don’t work on the text but within it. I have to work so that the text can work. Creativity, writing, poetry, and prose are all a work of consciousness. Here, the quality of visual and mental attention plays a more important role than craft.
The material world is important. The transcendental can permeate things. Things can accumulate memory and time. They can speak and think. Sometimes I get to hear their thoughts. Strictly speaking, these are not thoughts in our habitual understanding, but a certain murmur, noise, movement, tension – something happening inside the matter, though nothing semantically meaningful. Things are restless on the inside.
Actually, all things are foam—quantum foam, which has been theorized to be the basis for all matter. Things accumulate memory, they are not stable inside, they consist of this foam and can hunt people and steal our consciousness. Things constantly invite a body: eat me, take me, touch me, play with me. Inside our consciousness there is a selective mechanism determining which invitations to accept and which to reject. This selective mechanism can function poorly or even be broken, and then things do whatever they want to a person.
I edit myself very little. The evaluative function that judges the text as though from an external critical perspective works automatically and usually at the moment of writing. I constantly want to be writing something new. I simply don’t have time to write down everything I want, so I’m unable to focus on things already written, because, otherwise, that new thing that I urgently need to put down will slip away. By the way, it wasn’t always like this for me in terms of editing. When I was younger, in high school, I worked on form a lot. Back then, I felt that I needed this, constantly gave myself assignments, polished my craft, forced myself to write poetry in all the complex ancient meters, and so on. I wanted to know many words and forced myself to read the dictionary. This is how it was before, and now I usually write the final version right away and rarely revisit it. I don’t have multiple drafts.
The hardest part of writing is also the easiest. To be alive, not just physically, but in the actual sense, to keep your heart alive. Is it difficult or easy? On the one hand, it is extremely easy, and on the other hand – impossible. I feel I need to balance on that single point at which a person is alive. That point at which there is no yesterday or tomorrow, where you part from yourself and reach that something you were created for – life. The creative act happens at that single point – where there’s no past or future, where you yourself cease to exist. When you create within that point and not here, in this world – it becomes clear in the text written here. There’s life in the work.
Alexandra Tkacheva: What role does the reader play for you? What life do you imagine for your words once they become available to the reader?
Alla Gorbunova: I think the poet writes not for the reader but for the perfect addressee – a certain absolute instance that cannot be embodied in any concrete reader. And the reader can come and live in this text if they can and want to. The work is, like Nietzsche puts it, for everyone and no one.
Alexandra Tkacheva: Which of your predecessors or contemporaries have influenced your work? Is there a point in tracing Platonov, Gogol, or Kafka, who you once said were your favorite writers? After reading your essay on Elena Shvarts, I’ve started noticing the overlaps in imagery and tone between your and Shvarts’s poetry. How do you feel about such attempts to establish a literary genealogy?
Alla Gorbunova: In my view, the search for influences and overlaps is often an attempt to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Or worse than that: to reduce the unfamiliar to the familiar. As a result of this attempt (regardless of the validity of these influences and overlaps), the seeker is left with the familiar piece of art and fails to recognize the unfamiliar.
In any case, I leave the search for contexts, connections, and overlaps to the critics.
Alexandra Tkacheva: What is your take on criticism? How do you combine creative and critical practices? What are your guiding principles for analyzing texts written by others?
Alla Gorbunova: In Russia, we have some absolutely wonderful, subtle, and insightful critics and I’m grateful for their reviews of my books. I cannot complain really, I have seen a lot of interesting texts from critics and bloggers about my work and these have brought me great joy. But generally, it seems that many people who undertake the task of writing about books and even have authority in certain circles, do it superficially. They briefly describe the work and provide their assessment. They don’t want to analyze and work with the text, fail to see its context or perceive what lies outside the scope of their expectations and ideas. Most importantly, their hearts are not open or ready to try to understand and hear the other. Even the way they write carries a surprisingly revolting, brash intonation, as if they have seen all things in the world and know everything about everyone. This intonation is full of fatigue, smugness, depreciation, and contempt. These critics do not presume the author innocent: the fact of publication means for them that the latter wants to sell them something, foist it on them, while they consider it as consumers and say: “alright, this will do” or “ugh, I don’t wanna buy this.” There is no understanding that the author writes their book not because they expect something from the critics or society but for no reason, because they cannot behave otherwise. These people often have a consumerist attitude to books, it’s like a food cycle for them: consuming and then producing an evaluative review. And they think everything exists just for this purpose. I’m reminded of the time when I taught philosophy to first-year physics majors. We were supposed to discuss the philosophical texts and try to understand them, but often the students simply expressed their value judgements and opinions. I found this practice strange. “Opinion” is actually a cunning thing, a lot has been written on it in the philosophical tradition. Opinion and thought are widely distinct.
Criticism, for me, is definitely not about opinions or judgments. It’s rather a possibility of thought. A possibility of understanding or misunderstanding, where the latter can also be valuable. When I engage in criticism, I combine the analytical and the hermeneutic approaches, trying to understand and shed light on how the text is organized on different levels and what stands behind it. In a way, I explore the author’s artistic mind. Tracing the links and contexts, I primarily draw on my own encounter with this text, analyze the interaction that happened between us. Hence, my criticism is not only about the author I’m writing about, but also about me, I also open up in it. I can be biased but I try to see and acknowledge my bias. Fundamentally, I try to withhold my own taste and ideas about literature from my analysis of the work under review, but instead look for its inner law, read it according to the rules that are most applicable. And my own plasticity is important here. Not judging the text based on the primitive procedure of correlating it to my idea of good and bad but seeing it on the atomic level. For example, when you write about different poets, you can see very clearly that they understand poetry and poetic utterance differently on the atomic level. You have to change your optics accordingly. You have to be extremely flexible but cannot lose yourself. And here’s how I combine poetic and critical practices: I try not to write criticism at all. And if I write it, I try to do it in a way that enriches me as a poet. So that I get something out of exploring another poet’s thinking and their poetic world, or clarify my relationship with this author, or understand something I was trying to understand. That is to say, for me, criticism is a work of the conscious mind just like poetry and prose.
Alexandra Tkacheva: Your poems and short stories have been translated into many languages, including English. Is it important for you to participate in the translation process, and maybe affect how a prospective readers’ community that doesn’t speak Russian receives your work?
Alla Gorbunova: I prefer to meet a good translator – a professional and a fellow thinker – and entrust my work to them. In the case of English, I try to check translations for obvious semantic misunderstandings, which can happen with the best translators. In the case of other languages that I don’t speak, I cannot do this for the obvious reason. But I’m always open to participating in the translation process and ready to answer in detail any questions from the translator.
Alexandra Tkacheva:It’s the End of the World, My Love was categorized as autofiction. How did you come to this genre? What kind of relationships exist between the author and the heroines in your texts?
Alla Gorbunova: No one knows what genre this is. You may categorize it as autofiction or not. Honestly, I have discovered this word “autofiction” only recently after the release of It’s the End of the World, My Love. I saw it in the reviews and then googled the definition. Current interest in autofiction was news to me: I didn’t aim for any trends and just wrote the book that felt organic to me at that moment. However, I think that the fact that different writers in various countries choose this genre or, to maybe put it better, create it, is not because of a fad but rather because they independently exhibit the desire for this kind of writing. Most likely, this desire is caused by certain underlying changes in our perception of literature and the demands we make on it, by the cultural shifts and the changing forms of our sensibility. Probably, there is an ongoing search for new ways of building a narrative and assembling a text, and autofiction is a possible direction of this search.
But when you talk about autofiction in contemporary Russian literature – here everything instantly turns into a trend, a movement that seeks to capture, expand, and mark the symbolic field. I can’t stand all this hustle. I like it better when my books are described as “fuck knows what this is.”
Alexandra Tkacheva: What is your literary-artistic world built upon? Your childhood memories, the books you have devoured, dreams, the collective unconscious? Is it a single Wonderland with multiple entry points, the three worlds you mention in “Пред вратами [Before the Gates],” a folding shelf at your mom’s bed-foot? Who are your guides here?
Alla Gorbunova: I cannot answer this question, you see. Because if I do, we will end up with another blueprint or outline. My books speak for themselves; everything is visible there. I generally think the world has no foundation. Not only the world created by a work of art, but also our common world is founded on the lack of foundation. And artistic possibility emerges from this lack of foundation as well. However huge and total the world created by a work of art is, there must be an empty space, a blind spot. That empty space is a pledge of openness that enables the world, including the world of a work of art, and prevents it from turning into an enclosed structure. The world cannot be captured by a net.
Alexandra Tkacheva: You write about your experience of growing up, female friendship, sexuality, and motherhood. Are you embracing a woman’s perspective? Does your work have a feminist agenda?
Alla Gorbunova: I never had a female identity as such, I don’t identify myself through the traditional gender binaries. I just write about human experience and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a female experience or not. Some regions of this experience are considered female, while others are not. There’s nothing deliberately feminist in my writing but there’s something else that might also work to benefit women. My internally free heroine can also liberate, and annoy certain kinds of men, those who believe that a woman should know her place and that thinking, art, self-knowledge, extreme freedom, and radical experiments are not for women. My heroine, in my view, dramatically illustrates that this is not the case.
Alexandra Tkacheva: In your poems we often observe metamorphoses, the borders between opposites are erased, and the human lyrical subject dissolves, while animals, plants, and objects acquire agency. How do you feel about a posthumanist reading of your poetry?
Alla Gorbunova: It’s true, in my poems, everyone and everything is alive, animals speak, and there is no clear distinction between the living and the dead. The borders between opposites are being erased and everything turns into everything else. Some people can interpret this as posthumanism, others, in contrast, as a return to archaic mythical consciousness (maybe these approaches are not mutually exclusive). But the connections in this world are poetic, amorous, and existential and not based on technical rationality. I still understand posthumanism as a technological utopia (using technologies to transform bodies, seeking physical immortality, merging human consciousness and the computer). And I don’t really trust technological utopias.
In my view, the main poles of attraction that determine the direction in which we reflect on technicity today are Heidegger and Gilbert Simondon. Heidegger’s philosophy treats technology with caution and focuses on revealing its threatening side. And Simondon analyzed technical objects from another side, offering a strange inhuman optics. The possibility of intersection of digital and human lives, the possibility of a not quite human perspective on our everyday life, unusual, bold ideas and futuristic forecasts ushering in anthropotechnic hybrids and affecting our existence as humans scare and fascinate me at the same time. They always make me question whether, in our mixing of human and technical, we are starting to schematize the unschematizeable, universalize the unique, count the uncountable – apply our calculating thinking to the things that cannot be calculated.
Alexandra Tkacheva: Do you identify as a Russian poet? Is your writing grounded in time and space of contemporary Russia? Do you feel the need or responsibility to make sense of the ongoing events for your readers?
Alla Gorbunova: I perceive my poems as a part of the Russian poetic tradition as well as a part of world poetry. For me, these two things are not contradictory, and I think that contemporary Russophone poetry can, on one hand, be deeply rooted in the Russian poetic tradition and, on the other hand, be completely open, future-oriented, and welcoming to the experience of other cultures and languages.
Actually, I have my own take on tradition. For me, tradition isn’t an “inheritance.” I cannot say I need any inheritance. It feels like creation always happens from the ashes, in conditions of an original catastrophe. There is no default “cultural heritage” or “tradition” at all, it’s a fiction we’re taught in school. The continuity of a poetic tradition is established by every poet anew. Every poet assembles this tradition themselves: it’s a shadow cast into the past, and a searchlight directed towards the future. A poetic tradition needs to be obtained, assembled from the initial ruin. Every creator started from the ashes: in the 19th and in the 18th centuries, as well as today. For me, as a poet, this beam through the past illuminates names that are very different from each other. My favorite poets from the first part of the 20th century are Velimir Khlebnikov and Osip Mandelstam, and from the second – the poets of the Leningrad Underground: Leonid Aronzon, Elena Shvarts, Aleksandr Mironov, Sergei Stratanovskii.
I think it’s hard to avoid reflecting on the local and global events without being a hypocrite today. There are two kinds of danger: the first comes from following the headlines too closely and turning art into a front page, and the second – from building an ivory tower and treating your art as detached from reality, so it becomes a decorative embroidery. I think we need to seek some living, non-trivial ways of letting social reality into the text.
There are things around us that you can hardly ignore because if you pretend you don’t relate to them or don’t see them or they don’t exist, this is also a certain position, a way of relating. There are things you simply cannot stay away from because it equals betrayal. And there are more and more things like that every day.
But we should not forget that art has an autonomous capacity to produce its own differences: it creates its own space and time so it cannot live simply as a socially mediated phenomenon or be reduced to certain conventions. (Which does not contradict the critical potential of art: the creation of space and time itself is an act of radical social critique as it creates an opportunity to change our point of view and highlight things and ideas that had previously gone unnoticed.)
After all, contemporaneity does not contain things but is created by them. Time doesn’t act as a container for things, but things themselves create, produce time. An object of art does not merely satisfy the requirements of some conventionally established contemporaneity, but creates its moment in time. The so-called contemporary moment is always being created by writers, artists, among others. A work of art defines and forms time.
Alexandra Tkacheva is a PhD student in the Slavic Department at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include modern and contemporary periods in Russian literature and culture. As a graduate student, Alexandra applies feminist and posthumanist critique to the works of canonical and lesser-known Russian-speaking authors. She graduated from Nazarbayev University (Astana, Kazakhstan) with a BA in World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures in 2019. When not deconstructing patriarchy, she rides her bike, learns about the human mind, or wanders through the local coffee shops.
In the fall of 2021, Deep Vellum Press brought out a new translation of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories, her collection The New Adventures of Helen, in translation by Jane Bugaeva. Our own Yelena Furman reviewed this translation for the Los Angeles Review of Books:
This collection gathers Petrushevskaya’s fairy tales for adults, published under one cover in Russian in 1997; some other selections from that Russian volume have previously appeared in There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. To be sure, there are still plenty of human vices in these pages. But instead of a world in which degradation reigns supreme, here goodness prevails, aided by a large dose of magic.
We love and admire Petrushevskaya’s writing and would love to have more responses to her work on our blog. Feel free to pitch us your reviews, and formal or creative essay ideas at puncturedlines [at] gmail.com.
As readers, feminists, and ourselves parents, we at Punctured Lines are happy to learn that Drs. Muireann Maguire and Eglė Kačkutė are organizing a two-day conference to launch the Slavic and East European Maternal Studies Network. The conference is to take place on January 28 and 29, 2022, and the stellar list of presenters and topics includes our contributor Natalya Sukhonos’s paper on Motherhood, Math, and Posthumous Creativity in Lara Vapnyar’s Russian-American novel Divide Me by Zero. We ran a Q&A with Lara Vapnyar shortly upon the publication of that novel.
Our contributor Svetlana Satchkova will participate in an online discussion on Motherhood, Gender, Translation and Censorship in Eastern European Women’s Writing, and scholar and translator Muireann Maguire will present a paper on Breastfeeding and Female Agency in the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel.
The full listing of events is available on the conference’s website. To register, please email SEEMSmaternal @ exeter.ac.uk by January 21st, 2022. The sessions will be conducted in English.
Avdot’ia Panaeva (1819-1893) was a successful novelist and short story writer, who made significant contributions to the development of ideas on education equality, marriage, women’s financial and property rights, and the problem of domestic violence. She was also a common-law wife of poet Nikolai Nekrasov, who was valorized in Soviet literary criticism and the popular canon. We are deeply grateful to Vaysman that, as a part of her research, she illuminates the process through which Panaeva’s legacy as a novelist and short story author has been excised from the canon of nineteenth-century Russian literature and begins the work of restoring it to its rightful place.
This edited excerpt is from Chapter Three, “A Woman’s Answer.”
Avdot’ia Panaeva’s literary fate—a successful and popular female writer demoted to the status of the “muse” of her more successful male partner—is hardly unique. It could even be considered perversely fortunate: many key female players of the mid-nineteenth-century Russian literary scene such as Evgeniia Tur, the Khvoschchinskaia sisters, or Maria Zhukova, are only now being re-introduced to Russian literary history and contemporary readers. However, Panaeva’s fall from literary grace also offers an insight into the history of the reception of Russian nineteenth-century metafiction in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The heightened self-reflexivity of her texts, notably Zhenskaia dolia [A Woman’s Lot], did not conform to the generally held perceptions of how a realist novel should function discursively and had therefore sped up her disappearance from the canon.
Zhenskaia dolia was written, much like Panaeva’s earlier prose pieces, to be published in Sovremennik [The Contemporary, a “thick” journal run by Nekrasov — PL] both as a gap-filler and a crowd-pleaser. Addressing the burning question of female emancipation, the novel would have already attracted the readers’ attention on account of its topic, but Panaeva’s style was a distinct advantage. Although ridiculed by contemporary critics as “heart-rending” [razdiratel’nyi], it was very popular with the readers. Most of Panaeva’s texts were favored enough to be re-issued as stand-alone editions soon after they appeared in Sovremennik in serialized form.
Avdot’ia Panaeva’s career at Sovremennik officially began in 1848 with the publication of a short story “Neostorozhnoe slovo” [Careless Word] already under her chosen pen name “N. Stanitskii.” Unofficially, she had been contributing to the journal ever since its new editorial team had taken over: the January 1847 volume featured a fashion column that Panaeva wrote together with her husband, Ivan Panaev. Mody [Fashions] remained a standing co-authored column in Sovremennik until 1857, except for the summer months when Panaev took sole responsibility for it while his wife was away in the country. As recent research shows, Panaeva also assisted the editors with the daily business of running the journal by reviewing and proofreading submitted manuscripts, as well as dealing with financial matters. From 1847 to 1864, Panaeva became an in-house writer and in practice an editorial assistant at Sovremennik. In the course of her career she published short stories, novellas and novels (two of which, Tri strany sveta [Three Countries of the World] (1848) and Mertvoe ozero [Dead Lake] (1851), were co-authored with Nekrasov), and a few anonymous literary reviews in Sovremennik.
Panaeva’s texts were first examined as facts of Russian literary history in the 1920s. In 1927-28, two of her most popular works, Vospominaniia [Memoirs] (1889) and Semeistvo Tal’nikovykh [The Talnikov Family] (1848), were reissued by Academia, an early Soviet publishing house famous for its historical fiction series. Kornei Chukovskii, the literary critic and a popular children’s writer, produced a scholarly edition of Vospominaniia for Academia, and it was so popular with the readers that Academia re-issued it four times in the period 1927-33. Even though Chukovskii later claimed he had only spent an hour editing Panaeva’s manuscript, he must have undertaken a considerable amount of archival research to make these edits. Not only did he identify the real historical personalities behind the initials Panaeva used (made more confusing by the fact that she attached same initials to different people), he also verified and corrected her multiple chronological errors. Chukovskii first wrote a short essay accompanying the reissued text and then revised it into a larger piece on Panaeva’s relationship with Nekrasov for his book on the poet that came out the same year. In 1922, Chukovskii wrote an essay specifically on Panaeva as Nekrasov’s common-law wife, titled “Zhena poeta” [The Poet’s Wife], and published it as part of his series Nekrasovskaia biblioteka [Nekrasov’s library].
Chukovskii’s treatment of Panaeva is suggestive in many ways. Employing the early Soviet strategy of rehabilitating ideologically unsound texts by ascribing “progressive” tendencies to their authors, Chukovskii did an admirable job of whitewashing Panaeva’s questionable class credentials (coming from a family of successful actors, she was hardly a member of the proletariat). The critic praised “her democratic way of thinking” and argued that her texts, accessible even for the most unprepared reader, could function as an introduction to the mid-nineteenth-century Russian literary scene. Chukovskii’s article, despite its scholarly expertise and lively style, was a typical response to nineteenth-century women’s writing in early twentieth-century literary criticism: he saw Panaeva as a secondary historical and literary figure, only as interesting as the men she knew and too concerned with the trivialities of life to have produced anything of value. Even though Panaeva was a published and popular writer, according to the critic, Panaeva’s major claim to fame rested on her status as Nekrasov’s lover and muse: Chukovskii calls the poems Nekrasov had dedicated to Panaeva “the best monument to her life” and notes that “her place on the pages of Nekrasov’s works earns her the memory of posterity.” Finally, in the critic’s opinion, Panaeva was first a woman and only then—coincidentally—a writer: “Charming, universally admired, she was also a novelist, a writer!” Chukovskii suggested, erroneously, that Nekrasov did most of the writing of their co-authored texts and argued that Panaeva became an established writer almost by chance and would have preferred a more traditional womanly occupation.
Chukovskii’s patronizing assessment of Panaeva’s career had a great influence on how Soviet literary studies approached her work. From the 1920s onwards, scholars have mostly treated Panaeva as a writer whose main contribution to Russian literature consisted of providing invaluable information about her male contemporaries. Chukovskii’s dismissive attitude and his scathing remarks (he called Panaeva “simple-minded” [prostodushnaia] as well as “trivial and shallow” [obyvatel’ski-poverkhnostna], among other things) stuck, and the image of her primarily as a hostess of Sovremennik’s salon and Nekrasov’s “angry muse” rather than a novelist in her own right were perpetuated by generations of scholars.
Panaeva’s text serves as a third case study in my exploration of metafictional narrative strategies in a contained but representative sample of Russian novels of 1862-1863. Offering a reading of Zhenskaia dolia as feminist metafiction that aimed to “undermine established discourse within the novel’s narrative text” (in the words of the scholar Joan Douglas Peter), I explore the similarities in the universal strategies of metanarrative that featured in the works of writers of varying ideological persuasion and literary skill. This chapter offers a brief discussion of Panaeva’s position in the Russian literary canon and some notes on the contemporary reception of her work in Russia and abroad. Following that, it reconstructs the historical and political context of the novel’s publication in 1862 and provides a close reading of Zhenskaia dolia as feminist metafiction with a narrative voice that transgresses the boundaries of gender.
Does metafiction—the literary technique that forces readers to acknowledge they are reading a work of fiction—have a hidden past? Margarita Vaysman’s insightful study establishes metafiction as an inherent part of the entire Russian novelistic tradition, not merely existing but thriving in the nineteenth century. Practiced by writers of often disparate ideological persuasions, metafiction was a creative answer to the period’s twin preoccupations with politics and aesthetics.
In Self-Conscious Realism, Vaysman examines metafiction’s complex correlation with Russian realism in three novels from across the ideological spectrum of the 1860s: What Is To Be Done? (1863) by the famous political radical Nikolai Chernyshevskii, Troubled Seas (1863) by the forgotten reactionary conservative Alexei Pisemskii, and Woman’s Lot (1862) by Avdot’ia Panaeva, a female writer struggling for professional recognition. These case studies are richly contextualized by the writers’ diaries, letters, and memoirs, as well as official legal and financial sources.
NB: As most academic publications, this book is priced for university library purchases, but a much more accessibly priced paperback will be published in late 2022.
Margarita Vaysman is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) and Head of Department at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, where she teaches Russian and comparative literature. She is the author of Self-Conscious Realism: Metafiction and the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel (2021) and co-editor of Nineteenth-Century Russian Realism: Society, Knowledge, Narrative (2020). She specializes in Russian and Ukrainian literature, culture, and history of ideas, and is currently working on a cultural history of cross-dressing in Eastern Europe, exploring historical intersections between literature, culture, sexuality, fame, and fashion and their conflicted legacy in contemporary culture.
To find new Russian poetry, it is no longer enough to read literary journals (including online journals) and keep an eye on the catalogs of established publishing houses. Nowadays, many Russian poets first publish their new texts on their social media feeds (VKontakte, Facebook, Telegram, YouTube et al). The initial audience is curated by the poets themselves, and their connectedness – how many people subscribe to their feed, and who these people are – has a direct influence on the number of readers the text will find in the short term.
Popular writers do not only use social media to publish new texts and for other literary activities, such as promoting events and books – one’s own and those of others – and sharing critical articles and discussing aspects of literary form. Some also offer materials, ranging from commentary on current affairs to pictures of their pets or extended contemplations on matters close to their heart, to a broad public beyond their own network of “friends.” The poet Olga Sedakova has amassed over 15,000 Facebook followers who receive her public posts in their newsfeed. Dmitrii Vodennikov, one of the first generation of writers to use social media as a vehicle for literature, is followed by more than 26,000 people.
In the Russophone literary world, self-publication is no impediment to publishing the same text again in online journals or in print. On the contrary, publication on social media can heighten a writer’s visibility and fast-track both print publication and translation. The recent flurry of new international editions by feminist poets who publish prolifically on social media, like Oksana Vasyakina, Lida Yusupova, and Galina Rymbu, corroborates this thesis. While print publication remains an important goal, the tastes and power of a small number of editors no longer determine the opportunities for interaction between a poet and their audience.
Ksenia Zheludova is a poet from St. Petersburg who publishes her new poetry on her feed on the Russian social network VKontakte. She is the author of two collections of poetry. A selection of her poems in English translation appeared in the February issue of Words Without Borders. Here she is talking to her translator Josephine von Zitzewitz about social media and different strategies for interacting with her audience. The interview was conducted in Russian and translated by Josephine von Zitzewitz.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: What does it mean to you to publish your work on social media, as opposed to in books and journals?
Ksenia Zheludova: It’s important to me that, on social media, I can interact with my audience directly. To some degree I assume the role of editor and producer, and I create a space around myself through which I transmit my texts. In contrast, when I publish in a journal or other literary publication, I will be transmitted via an intermediary. There’s no universal gatekeeper for all authors, and it’s easier, in this case, to remain an individualist than to join a collective that you don’t know.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: Are you consciously aiming for print publications, or are those a coincidence? After all, you have published two collections of poetry.
Ksenia Zheludova: Yes indeed. My first collection, Slovno (2013), was a slim volume I published with the help of some friends at a new publishing house (Moscow: Yang Buk, Nulevaia Seriia). They were doing a series of poetry collections in a very small print run, around 100 copies. The whole thing was the kind of friendly collaboration that brings joy to everyone involved. We didn’t aim to sell the book or to use it for promoting my existence or my work. It was simply a fun thing to do, and it worked!
Josephine von Zitzewitz: It did indeed work – several titles of this series were on display at the well-known independent bookshop and event hub Poriadok slov in St Petersburg, and that’s how I first read your poetry! And your second collection, how did that come about?
Ksenia Zheludova: The second collection, Navernost’(2017), I self-published with the help of special software. I did the typesetting myself, using a template. The book is simply a collection of texts that were topical at that moment in time. It was uploaded to several online shops selling e-books, and one of them also offered print-on-demand copies. After that, I stopped doing collections. But now I dream of a real book, a high-quality, beautiful book with illustrations and a cover. A sort of “Best of the Best,” to bring together all those texts I’m definitely not ashamed of. That’s still at the planning stage. I’m slowly collecting the poems I want to include. And recently I had an idea for yet another book because, a while ago, I started publishing poems that naturally come together as a cycle: a cycle of terrifying tales for bedtime. These are more narrative and quite dark, like horror stories. And they fit together really well – they would make a great collection. And perhaps this collection will come into being if I pull myself together and step out into the field of print publishing, which still feels alien and not very inviting.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: What is the role of literary journals in Russia today?
Ksenia Zheludova: I can’t offer an expert opinion, because I don’t feel very at home in the world of print. Literary journals were very important and popular in the Soviet Union. They offered access to the world of publication and were a stepping stone towards publishing a single-author collection. In those circumstances, literary journals were the only way of promoting your texts, and the only way an author could reach their audience. Public readings are a different matter, as they reach only those who are present in the room where you’re reading. Now, with the Internet available, I have the impression that literary journals remain in the hands of a very narrow group of professionals – literary critics and publishers. So we’re talking about a very self-contained environment that doesn’t really touch upon the outside world, the world where the readers are. But the readers are the audience that I, as an author, want to address.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: Who is your target audience? Do you actively curate your audience?
Ksenia Zheludova: At first – about 15 years ago – my audience consisted of my close friends, who’d repost my poems. The texts would then spread through their respective networks to reach their friends. But over the last seven years, ever since VKontakte started doing “publics” (“public pages” where users can share content with followers – Punctured Lines), I collected around 3,700 followers. I must admit I didn’t always like communicating with my readers. I am a fairly serious introvert. I’d come, put up a new poem, and leave again. That was all I was capable of doing. Only lately have I started to get an energetic charge from communicating with my audience. I have understood that, paradoxically, interaction with the audience supports my creative process – I want to tell these people something. My readership is fairly random but, when I checked the statistics tool that shows the age and gender of the group members, I noticed an interesting thing: my audience and I are growing up together. Five years ago, the majority of my readers were women around 25, the same age as me. Today I can see that the majority are about 30 years old and female. This means I’m writing not just for my peers, but for my female coevals. It turns out I’m working within a circle of people who are close to me in age and worldview! I have pages on VKontakte, and I also have Facebook and Instagram pages. But the public on VKontakte was my first direct platform, and all my main readers follow that page.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: What is the role of sites such as stikhi.ru (a popular self-publishing poetry platform that allows a limited interaction between the author and the audience – Punctured Lines)? I’m asking because I found some of your earlier texts on it.
Ksenia Zheludova: Stikhi.ru was very popular 15 years ago – I mean, it’s still popular today, but back then many serious literary authors used it. And I used it myself as a kind of archive. It was convenient to put poems up on the site and divide them into sections or little collections, and for me it was a very useful digital archive. But I stopped publishing there a long time ago, because I realized that the audience is chaotic. I don’t understand who is reading my texts there and why; I don’t know how to work with this resource. And so I simply settled for my own social media feed, and stopped distinguishing between my personal life and my life as a poet.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: How do you organize your feed on VKontakte? I notice that it doesn’t just feature poems. How do you combine the public and the semi-private?
Ksenia Zheludova: I would put it like this: for a long time, I thought of my own poetry as my parallel, secret life. My life, my job, and my friends – that’s one thing. And then there are the nights when I sit and write poems that I then publish in places where people are likely to appreciate them. Previously that would have been on platforms like stikhi.ru, and various thematic forums that used to exist. And then, at some point, I came to the realization that I didn’t want to perpetuate this division; that I didn’t want to play Jekyll and Hyde. All of it is part of me, including my poetry. And, just as I can post a selfie or a pretty picture of the sky on Instagram, I can post a poem I’ve written. That poem also expresses my worldview. It represents my perspective. I can post a picture, or I can post a text. I don’t see a big difference there.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: I notice that your texts are often accompanied by photographs. Do you choose them specifically? Is it because posts that contain visuals are more likely to draw the eye?
Ksenia Zheludova: I arrived at this format by accident. At some point, I realized that people are divided into visual, aural, and other types. In any case, every text includes something bigger than itself. A poem is a little tale that invites you to imagine whatever you like, but the imagination needs something to anchor it. I choose images that complement whatever it is I’m expressing in the poem, and I also attach a musical track to each piece. I find this approach creates a unified picture … it’s a bit like going to the cinema. There’s a text beyond the screen which you read to yourself, perhaps even out loud, then there’s the photo, and then the soundtrack. It’s a piece that’s complete in itself.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: When a poet submits to journals, a lot of time passes between writing and publication. In contrast, the Internet allows you to publish instantly, even to react to current events in real time. Do you find that publishing on social media has an impact on your style? To put it another way, are your poems fairly spontaneous or do you spend a long time editing them?
Ksenia Zheludova: It’s different every time. Some poems are composed of fragments written years apart. Sometimes I return to my drafts and notebooks and find that, five years ago, I wrote three lines that didn’t grow into anything. But now I’m writing another text, and these old lines just fit there, like the missing piece of a puzzle. There are other poems I write in an evening from start to finish. The next day I look at them with fresh eyes to check whether I’ve hit the right tone, and edit a bit – and the text is ready for publication. With regard to current events – recently I wrote a poem that refers to the events in Belarus (i.e., the protests following the contested election in August 2020 –Josephine von Zitzewitz). Of course, I knew that I had to publish it on the spot, because a few days later it would no longer be necessary. So I put it up, and it did indeed trigger reactions from people who were also thinking about that situation. If the poem had come out a week or a month later, it would have been something else – a statement of fact, a response, a different kind of text. In this sense, social media is an amazing instrument that allows you to react quickly and be something akin to a reporter. I rarely write texts that touch on social and political topics, but sometimes topical texts come to me. Usually I write in a different genre that doesn’t require quick reactions. This means a poem can mature for a long time, and it can be a long time before it gets published. In addition, I now work to a different schedule: I decided to develop my VKontakte group and offer a paid subscription for exclusive content. Some readers pay a monthly donation, and I stay in closer contact with those readers. I suggest topics for debate, I share music and videos, and I show my new poems to this group first and then to all my other followers a week later. Working in this pattern has taught me something. My text is first of all seen by five people who might leave a “Like,” but not comment. That’s OK. All the rest only get to see it the following week, and then there might be more reactions or debate. But for me that’s no longer so important, because there’s already a new text in the wings. That’s more like a standard publication schedule, where texts reach the reader after some time has elapsed.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: Once you’ve published a text online, do you ever return to it and edit? Or is that the final version?
Ksenia Zheludova: That’s always the final version, because I never publish a text if there’s still something in it that makes me stumble. I always take a text to the stage where I know that it’s finished. That means that, as soon as a text appears to the outside world, I can no longer access it. It’s no longer my text; it’s now living its own life and I’ll never go back and edit it.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: Do you think that a writer, a poet, is necessarily involved in current affairs? Do you consider yourself involved? I’m asking because when I read your poem “an age-old female pastime” I feel that it’s a response to the war in Ukraine. But at the same time it’s simply a text about war, any war, and it could have been written at any point in time. This means it will never lose its topicality.
Ksenia Zheludova: That’s a good question. When you live within the current historical context – that is, when you don’t live in a bunker – you naturally react to what’s going on in the world. I don’t like poetry that’s too “concrete,” poetry that mentions individual names, toponyms, or furnishes descriptions of specific events. Texts like that make me uncomfortable. I always try to set my poems in a more universal context and to cleanse them of any ties to a specific time and place. But sometimes it’s the text itself that becomes attached to some event or other, as if drawn by a magnet. The poem you mention actually became part of the events in Ukraine because, at some point, somebody wrote it on the asphalt in Kyiv.
It seemed to fall into step with the events, and many people from Ukraine wrote to express their gratitude or simply make contact. The poem was in the right place at the right time, and it became important to those people. But did I write it specifically in response to the events? No, I didn’t. It’s not a reaction to the war in Ukraine. But perhaps the war had such an impact on my emotional state that the poem was born? In contrast, the poem on Belarus that I mentioned was written in reaction to a concrete situation, even a specific day. I kept reading the news, and it left a strong impression; it really shocked me. And so I sat down to write a poem. I really wanted to write it in one go and publish it in the morning, and that’s exactly what I did. And yet it doesn’t contain any references to a specific country, event, or date.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: Was there ever a moment where readers perceived your work in a way that was completely unexpected?
Ksenia Zheludova: Sometimes. It mostly happens with texts that aren’t my favorites, or not even very successful in my eyes. Those poems start circulating very widely. Conversely, some texts I like very much and that are quite good – if I do say so myself – provoke hardly any reaction at all. To give an example, one poem that circulates very widely on the web is “Memo” (“Pamiatka,” 2011) and it’s mostly this poem that I see under my hashtag. Even when I google myself, I’m likely to find “Memo” (589 hits – Josephine von Zitzewitz). It really isn’t a very relevant text for me; I wouldn’t read it at a poetry reading now. At this point, I don’t find “Memo” all that interesting or important.
Josephine von Zitzewitz: I didn’t know that about “Memo,” but I translated it (Modern Poetry in Translation no. 6, 2017). That’s the first poem of yours that got me hooked! Have your poems ever caused controversy?
Ksenia Zheludova: Here is one recent example of a negative reaction. At some point, I wrote a text in a form I hadn’t used for some time – not quite free verse, but close to it, a very relaxed form. So, quite a free text, and I like it very much. It resonated with my emotional state at the time I wrote it. I published it with a sense of real accomplishment and used it to promote my group. Most comments were positive, but one young woman wrote: “Aren’t you ashamed of putting up such a low-quality text?” I was sitting there and really wanted to write: “No, I’m not ashamed.” But then I decided it would be a bit weird to enter into dialogue with a commenter like that, because it would seem like I was justifying my right to publish certain texts and defending their right to exist. The fact that I published that poem means I’m no longer ashamed of it.
Ksenia Zheludova is a St. Petersburg-based poet and producer who has been publishing poetry on the Internet since 2007. She maintains a dedicated feed on VKontakte to promote her work, and also uses Facebook and Instagram for this purpose. Her poetry collections, Slovno and Navernost’, have appeared in print and online.
Josephine von Zitzewitz is a scholar of Russian literature and translator specializing in Russian poetry. She is currently Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow at UIT The Arctic University of Norway with a research project on the phenomenon of contemporary Russian poetry on the Internet.
Maria Stepanova is a Moscow-based poet, essayist, and journalist. She’s also the editor-in-chief of Colta, a crowdfunded online publication that she created eight years ago and that has become a major outlet for long-form think pieces on contemporary Russian culture. Stepanova published ten books of poetry and three essay collections and has received numerous literary awards. In 2017, she wrote her first book of prose, In Memory of Memory. It’s a documentary novel that tells the story of the narrator who, after the death of her aunt, goes through the archive the aunt left behind, discovering her family’s history. In parts of this book, there’s no narration – just excerpts from diaries and letters written by Stepanova’s relatives; its other parts engage directly with other authors who wrote about memory – Osip Mandelstam, W. G. Sebald, and Susan Sontag. Despite or, maybe, because of the book’s non-traditional form, it gained a wide readership and won two major Russian literary prizes. On February 9, In Memory of Memory comes out in English from New Directions, translated by Sasha Dugdale, a British poet and playwright. This interview was conducted in Russian and subsequently translated to English by the interviewer.
In your novel, you quote someone saying that quite a lot of books have been written in English by people investigating their family histories. In Russian, though, your book is the only one of its kind.
Actually, it’s not the only one, which makes me very happy. To me, this is a discovery of sorts – that things we usually consider private and insignificant are turning out to be the most interesting not only for me, but also for a large number of people. And the stories they tend to tell sometimes are quite unexpected in their scope and variety. In some of them the twentieth century shows up in all its terrible glory, with all of its tragedies and disasters, but in a number of cases these are just regular domestic stories of how somebody’s grandmother arrived, or how someone left to work in the north, or how three sisters lived in a distant Hungarian village, but then decided to leave for the big city. And yet one can’t get enough of these stories. I think that this is a very important shift, this interest in familial memory. There’s an increasingly palpable hunger for contact with the past which grows stronger as the present becomes less acceptable to us. A couple of years ago, I worked in Berlin for a year, teaching memory writing in Humboldt University. I had large groups made up of different kinds of people, all of them hooked on this search for the past despite it sometimes being painful – because traveling to the past isn’t always pleasant. Moreover, this interest in memory is a global, international phenomenon, which is now shaping the outlines of a new community and works as a link between generations because it attracts people regardless of their age.
Do you have any idea why you became the first person to write about these things in Russian?
I wasn’t really the first one – writing one’s family history is something fairly normal in Russia, as elsewhere, and there is a good number books devoted to the legacy of the twentieth century and the traces it left in private lives…. Maybe the genre is something that makes a difference in my case: I was most interested in trying to shape a new territory between fiction and nonfiction: in my book, a novel, an essay, and a research project meet one another. I guess no one else wrote books like that at the time.
Do you think there isn’t a lot of experimentation happening in the Russian literary space?
This is how it works: since the beginning of the nineties, when literary awards appeared in Russia, the way contemporary fiction works has been largely determined by their existence. Winning one of them is the only opportunity for a prose writer in Russia to receive a substantial amount of money that can greatly improve their life. These awards, in one way or another, are geared towards finding the great Russian novel that is very similar to the great American novel. It’s a long, philosophical narrative without any stylistic nonsense – because it should be easy to read and digest – shaped within the mold of a nineteenth century novel. That is, the writer is forced to reinvent the wheel for the umpteenth time.
In other words, you didn’t expect that your book would become successful and would win two of these very same awards – NOS and Big Book?
I didn’t think about those things at all. I’ve been writing poetry all my life, and it always seemed to me that prose was the medium that wasn’t required of me, that if I wanted to write prose, I could easily write it in verse. And I did: I’ve written long narrative poems and all manner of ballads. At the same time, I always knew that someday I would write a book about my family, even though I didn’t know how I would go about it. I’d been meaning to write it from the age of ten, but I was taking a long time, endlessly getting distracted, looking for a chance to procrastinate a little while more. There came a point, however, when I realized that I had to do it. I set out to write a text that would be convincing to me, and there was one more goal that was even more important. You know, Brodsky has this essay called “To Please a Shadow.” This was what I wanted – to please my dead. I constructed my book in such a way that they would feel good in it. Maybe I could’ve written it in a completely different way, without all those historical and cultural references that work as a large structure into which my own stories then fit. I could’ve written a story about my family and nothing else, but I had in mind something that would belong to the realm of contemporary art. I wanted to create a space in which I could arrange the few remaining photographs, letters, and testimonies, and to make it so that they would feel good in this space, so that they would be seen and understood in the right way. This is how you work when curating an exhibition – you start with the space. I really didn’t think about anything else, and the fact that my book wound up being widely read was a shock both for me and for my publisher, who didn’t hope to sell more than three thousand copies, I think.
How did you arrive at this particular form for your book?
The book is about inconspicuous people, people whose lives resembled those of everyone else: they loved, they fell out of love, someone died, someone was born. As a family, they managed to survive many times, perhaps because they deliberately stayed on the sidelines. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they tried to be actors of history, but later they moved to its margins and spent almost a hundred years there. So, what worried me was the question of how to tell the story of people who didn’t really want to be noticed – and how to talk about people whose fates had nothing extraordinary about them.
I found the story of Lyodik who went to the front and died at the age of nineteen absolutely heartbreaking.
Lyodik’s letters have been in our family for as long as I can remember. When I was little, my mother told me about him sometimes and read his letters out loud. But it’s impossible to surmise from his letters what was actually happening to him and around him – he kept silent about that. In order to look beyond and understand what he kept silent about, I had to read a lot of historical literature on the blockade of Leningrad and the Leningrad front. A documentary novel is a genre in which there are a lot of gradations, that is, there’s a toggle switch that can be moved to the left, towards the documentary, or to the right, towards fiction. I’m probably keeping to the left of this spectrum. I have serious problems with the type of novel writing that uses people who are no longer alive as glove puppets to convey the writer’s own thoughts and emotions. I think and write a lot about the ethics and the etiquette of writing about the dead, about what is allowed and what isn’t, and at what point it turns into the exploitation of people who can no longer object to this treatment.
Have you come across books that dealt with the dead in a way that you liked?
There are a number of books that are great examples of how one can write about the dead without trying to make the story “interesting,” without trying to deceive, and at the same time doing this miraculous work of resurrection. First of all, I should mention W. G. Sebald because he balances on the border of fiction and essay writing in such a way that there’s a constant flicker. We want to, but we cannot ask: was this all real or not? Is this narrator Sebald or someone else with his mustache and his last name? It seems to me that a new type of literature is emerging which still doesn’t have a name, but it no longer fully belongs to either fiction or essay writing. The books I love most belong exactly to this type of writing that is gradually becoming more and more important.
You’ve mentioned in various interviews that fiction is becoming less and less interesting than documentary writing. Why, do you think?
Remember Mandelstam’s article “The End of the Novel”? It was written in 1923, almost a hundred years ago. He says in it that everything has changed, that the man of the nineteenth century had an individual fate and was therefore interested in the individual fate and its trajectories – hence the success and the significance of the novel as a genre in the nineteenth century and beyond, due to some kind of inertia. But we all know how the twentieth century dealt with these trajectories: it took these individual fates, collected them in a bundle, and broke them over its knee. Later, when the smoke cleared, it turned out that the individual survived, though not in the place where we kept looking. It’s no longer where the typical hero appears in the proposed circumstances and carries on their shoulders the novel construction. In the century in which people die in millions, one person isn’t quite the measure. An error, a detail, a very small thing – oddly enough, that’s the measure.
What kind of thing?
For example, a button that I saw at the Museum of the International Memorial in Moscow where they keep the belongings of the prisoners of Soviet camps. They have many remarkable things there, including an archive of drawings made by the prisoners. It amazed me – and I want to write about it sometime – because there are no scenes we remember so well from the Russian camp prose: no barbed wire, or German shepherds, or security officers on the watchtowers. But there’s a huge number of still lives with flowers as well as landscapes and portraits. For some reason, it was important to those people to create beauty rather than to give a realistic depiction of their circumstances. In this museum, I saw a button in which one of the prisoners had sent a note to his wife. This is a striking detail: they were horribly tortured, but they could give their overcoats to their wives for cleaning. This officer handed his overcoat to his wife, and from one of its buttons a corner of this note was sticking out slightly. On tissue paper, he wrote in microscopic letters about how he was arrested and beaten, and he added that he probably wouldn’t come back. The twentieth century is the time when life turns out to be so inhuman that people become speechless and can speak only for all of humanity, while objects do the speaking for them.
You’re fluent in English, and I assume that you’ve read Sasha Dugdale’s translation of your book. How did you like it?
I think it’s brilliant. Sasha is a wonderful poet and a close friend; she translated and still translates my poems – but my book is maybe the largest piece of prose she had ever translated. And what she did with this huge volume is, in my opinion, absolutely incredible. The Russian type of writing involves endless subordinate clauses that circle around the principal meaning until they finally find their way to it. The Russian syntax imitates the confusing, complex work of human thought, while English, it seems to me, entails a completely different logic and a completely different language etiquette. If you translate a Russian text aiming to convey mainly its syntactic features, it won’t deliver the intended message. What Sasha did was amazing: she found a balance between these two things. She delivered the message that is still the main objective of my work, and at the same time she created this English Russian that isn’t a literal reflection of the original, but somehow gives the reader an idea of how it works.
Your book has a subtitle – romance. In addition to its other meanings, this word designates a certain kind of song in Russian.
In the book, there are several definitions of the subtitle, and the reader can choose the explanation that they like best. To me, the English meaning of this word is the most important. I feel that this book is a love story, only it’s facing backward rather than forward, as is usually the case with love stories because love is always looking for some kind of completion in the future. Here, love is addressed to people who are no longer alive, so, on the one hand, my love is happy because I love them and I feel that they love me, but on the other hand, I can’t talk to them anymore, and this love is doomed in a sense.
Your book makes clear that your ancestors had to stifle their literary ambitions. Why was that?
When I began to sort through my archive, it struck me: they were all in one way or another people of the written word, even those of them who never intended to study literature. Therefore, there are parts in my book in which I don’t speak at all: I publish excerpts from letters or diaries to give my ancestors the opportunity to speak in their own voices. It seemed wrong and inappropriate to me to invent a voice for my great-grandmother where she had her own. On the contrary, I wanted them to say once again what they already said once, to get a final chance to be heard. My grandfather wrote poetry all his life, mostly comical, but when his daughter – my mother – began to write poetry too, he strictly forbade it, saying, “You’re Jewish, so you must have a profession.” My mother worked as an engineer all her life and never wrote poetry after that.
Was it the same way with you? Were you told not to write poetry?
In a sense, I’m the result of this half-century of their non-writing, because the first thing my mother taught me was to read and write. She was too shy to sing, so at night, instead of singing lullabies, she recited poetry to me. I turned out to be the completion of my family’s hope that someone could write and speak for everyone. It’s a lot of responsibility, because it’s like dragging around a suitcase full of family stories that haven’t been told, and I’m the knot in which they converge. I have to decide whether to talk about them or not, and what exactly to tell. On the other hand, I was infinitely happy, writing this book and doing almost nothing else for several years. I traveled to all the places where my ancestors once lived, and it was very strange and exciting. For example, I went to this microscopic village in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Arzamas and Nizhny Novgorod, and there was no train there, only a bus that went there once a week, there was no hotel, no cafes, no nothing. And I looked at all of that and realized that there was some thread that connected me to that place.
Since nonfiction is more interesting to you than fiction, does this mean that you don’t read mainstream novels?
I have a very special reading routine: I read a book a day. This means that I constantly have to throw new texts into the furnace. I really love genre literature: for example, detective stories that have clear rules upon which the author agreed with me. It’s a game the author and I are playing. I also read complicated, experimental texts, and academic stuff. I do sometimes read mainstream psychological novels, but they don’t make up the bulk of my diet. If someone I love comes running and says, “Grab this new novel immediately and read it,” then, of course, I’ll grab it and read it. But when I’m in a bookstore, the shelf with freshly published novels isn’t the first one I’ll be looking at.
You don’t hide your political views: you oppose Putin’s regime. You must’ve had opportunities to leave Russia. Why have you stayed?
This is one of those questions that I have to ask myself every five years or so. When my parents left for Germany in the early nineties, I didn’t go with them. I stayed because I was fascinated by what was happening in Russia. It seemed odd to me to leave when the most interesting things began to happen. And now, I feel that someone has to love this place – with its monstrous situation into which we have driven ourselves, with Putin, with these comic-opera poisoners, with this “insane printer” [in colloquial Russian, this is what the Duma, or the state legislative body, is called – Punctured Lines] that passes these insane laws. Someone has to live here and to treat this space as their home, to make it meaningful. Which isn’t to say that I’ll grip this earth with my teeth and stay here under any circumstance. But as long as it’s possible to live here somehow, I would try to stay here. Because the worse it gets here, the more this place needs our love.
Svetlana Satchkova is a writer and journalist from Moscow, Russia, who currently lives in New York City and is working on her MFA at Brooklyn College. Her most recent novel People and Birds came out from Moscow-based Eksmo Press to popular and critical acclaim.
This fall, Svetlana Satchkova, a writer, journalist, editor, and a contributor to Punctured Lines, has published her third novel. Released in Russian by Moscow-based Eksmo Press, People and Birds has been welcomed by critics and received popular acclaim. According to critic Alexander Chantsev, “The main thing is that this book is very much about Moscow. Not about the Moscow that God sent us, but about the one we deserve.” Curiously, Satchkova currently resides in New York and is attending an MFA program at Brooklyn College, aiming to publish her future work in English.
Satchkova’s path as a writer is both unique and representative of a generation born in the USSR and coming of age in its wake. It includes complicated geographies (she spent several years in Syria as a child, studied in New York, and lived in Moscow before returning to New York), a secret marriage, and quirky jobs. Her biography itself reads like a novel. To give our English-language readers a glimpse, we asked Svetlana to translate an interview she had given to Egor Mikhaylov of Afisha Daily. Please enjoy!
When you meet someone at a party, do you introduce yourself as a journalist or as a writer?
As a writer and a journalist. I had to work on myself a lot to be able to say that. My dad dreamed of me becoming a successful lawyer or a businesswoman (though we didn’t know this word at the time, I think). The humanities, even though no one said so directly, weren’t appreciated in my family. Despite all that, I started writing quite early: at the age of eleven I already produced my first novel. I would’ve never voluntarily shown it to my parents, but I had to. The thing was, we lived in Syria at the time: my father worked as a representative of the Soviet merchant fleet in the port city of Latakia. Terrible things were happening at the Soviet customs then: the officers believed that people who worked abroad were all trying to smuggle illegal goods into the USSR, and they went so far as to squeeze toothpaste out of tubes, looking for diamonds. Once, when we came to Moscow on our vacation, they confiscated my collection of chewing gum inserts with Japanese cartoon robots, claiming that those pictures promoted a cult of violence.
My point is, my dad couldn’t take a work of fiction across the border, even if it had been produced by a child, not knowing what was actually written in it. What if there was something anti-Soviet in it? We were all very careful then. I remember asking him, “Can I use the word отель?” (“hotel” in Russian; this word sounded foreign because it had an English origin). It seemed to me that it was an ideologically questionable word. Dad thought about it and said, “I have no idea. Write гостиница (a Russian-sounding synonym) just in case.” Anyway, my dad read the novel and was impressed. He still remembers it sometimes and comments, “I wouldn’t have been able to write a novel like that even when I was forty!” But I was more critical of myself and burned the manuscript because I wasn’t satisfied with my level of writing. It’s a pity, of course: it would be so interesting to read it now.
At first, it didn’t even occur to me that writing could be a profession. My parents didn’t socialize with people who could be identified as intellectuals even if you stretched your imagination: everyone they knew did something very practical for a living. If I’d had role models, I would’ve probably looked in that direction, but it seemed to me that writing could only be a hobby, and not very much encouraged at that. Apparently, I got used to thinking along those lines. Only now, when my third book came out, I started calling myself a writer. Who was holding me back before, I have no idea.
Tell me about your first two books.
Both of them came out in such a way that they seemed to not have come out at all. My first novel was published in 2000, when the Russian book market was in its infancy, and only one person reviewed it – Slava Kuritsyn. It was a short review, literally one paragraph long, but a very nice one. And something else happened, quite unexpectedly. Turning on the TV one evening, I saw that Cultural Revolution was on; I didn’t even have time to grasp what was being discussed when Lyudmila Ulitskaya got hold of the microphone and said, “You know, there’s this young writer named Svetlana Satchkova, and in her novel she reinterpreted Dostoevsky’s theme, the murder of an old woman, in a very interesting way.” I almost collapsed with happiness at that moment. But everything was over before it even began: the readers never found out about this young writer.
If we go back to the imaginary party from your first question, in America, when you introduce yourself as a writer, you could be asked, “What do you write? Anything I might have read?” The same goes for film directors and musicians. I’ve read interviews with very accomplished people, some of them award-winning professionals, and they said they wanted to fall through the floor and disappear upon hearing this question because it usually implies: if a regular person hasn’t heard about you, you’re not worthy of their attention. That’s how I used to think of myself, too, but now I believe that we have to be more generous both to others and to ourselves. I know people who don’t even need to publish in order to think of themselves as writers, and I can only applaud them.
And what about your second book?
I wrote a novel called Vadim, showed it to different publishers, but all of them rejected it, saying the same thing, “This is neformat” (in Russian, this means “not fitting any of the existing categories”). Then I found out that the very same Slava Kuritsyn, whom I didn’t know personally, was curating a book series called Neformat at AST publishing house with the purpose of printing misfits – in other words, people like me. I found his email address and wrote to him, “Hello, Vyacheslav. Five years ago, I had a book out, and you seemed to like it. I’ve written another novel.” And he said, “I’ll take a look at it.” He published my novel, but after a month or two, the project was canceled, and books were removed from stores: readers didn’t show any interest in the series. This time, two people wrote about my book: Maya Kucherskaya, who didn’t like it, and Galina Yuzefovich, who half-liked it.
I tracked her down myself, and she told me to come to where she lived and to slip the book into her mailbox. Then we spoke on the phone, and she said, “You know, your novel made a strange impression on me. I even discussed it with my dad.” I thought, oh God, with Leonid Yuzefovich himself! And then she added, “You know, you have to rewrite it.” – “What do you mean, rewrite it? It’s been published already! I’m holding it in my hands.” In short, I didn’t understand what she meant. Many years later, I saw this book of mine on the shelf, leafed through it, and everything suddenly became clear. I realized that, at the time, I simply needed a good editor, someone who would have said, “Sveta, this part isn’t working, you have to revise it.” Some parts of my novel were very well written – I was even surprised that I was the one who had actually written them! – while others were monstrously bad.
And now, when you were working on your third book, did you have the editor you needed so badly then?
I didn’t. As far as I understand, having an actual editor is an extremely rare occurrence in the Russian publishing business. I’m familiar with a few American writers, and I know from them how things work in the American book industry. First, the publishing cycle is very long here. I’ll tell you how my book was published at Eksmo. In the spring, they informed me that they were taking my novel, and we began to work on the contract; in September, the book was already in stores.
In the United States, the cycle usually takes one and a half to two years. Here, your literary agent is your first editor. A writer can’t send their manuscript directly to a publisher – no one will read it – so you have to find yourself an agent first. This is very difficult; various writers’ manuals advise you to make a list of the best four hundred agents who work with the kind of prose you write, and then to send them your manuscript. An acquaintance of mine told me that five agents agreed to work with him, and that he chose the one who was the most critical of his novel. Consequently, he had to rewrite it three times before it was even sent out to publishers. He rewrote it from beginning to end, can you imagine? Then, when a publisher signs a contract with you, you start working on your manuscript with an editor, and they, too, can make you revise everything. It takes a colossal amount of time, but the end result is usually a high-quality product.
Do you think the American approach is better?
I can’t say that I’m all for it – who wants to revise a novel a hundred times? On the other hand, this approach rules out what happened with my second book – I open it and feel terribly ashamed because some parts are so weak. I think that now I don’t need an editor as much, since I’ve worked as an editor for many years, albeit in magazines, and I can look at my own text with a professional eye.
So, at some point after the release of Vadim, you thought that you needed something else and decided to venture into journalism?
I didn’t have to choose between literature and journalism because you couldn’t make a living writing fiction – I had to work somewhere where I’d be paid. I actually became a journalist thanks to my first book, One Giraffe’s Life, or A Woman of Childbearing Age.
How do you feel about this title now?
Now, of course, it seems funny and cringeworthy, as a friend of mine says. But this just goes to show that an author must have an editor. Anyway, when my first book came out, one of my acquaintances read it and said, “I’m friends with the editor of Marie Claire magazine. Do you want me to introduce you to her so that you could write for them?” I have this trait that has served me well in life: I almost never say no – I’m up for anything because I want to find out what will come of it. So, I met the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire and began writing for them. The assignments they gave me were unusual – perhaps those no one else wanted to take.
For example, they sent me to a clinic where women went to have their virginity restored, and I had to pretend to be one of the patients: in all seriousness, I discussed the restoration of my hymen after the doctor had examined me in the gynecological chair. Then I confessed that I was a journalist, and she told me about her patients who came to get the procedure done and gave me the statistics.
At Marie Claire, they called this type of article a “social”: I had to write about modern life and social mores. After a while, I stopped working for this magazine because of another article. At that time, I was a young divorcee with a small child, and, for my next assignment, I had to meet single men on the Internet and write a report that was also meant to be a “social.” I began to meet men through dating sites, through newspaper advertisements, through a marriage agency, and even through a matchmaker who later turned out to be a scam artist. In the end, I wrote a very entertaining article – or so it seemed to me. At the time, I worshipped Sergei Mostovshchikov who was editor-in-chief of the famous Bolshoy Gorod newspaper, and I wanted to write in the style his journalists wrote in. I brought this text to Marie Claire, and they said, “This isn’t what we want. All of the men you describe have to represent common types.” But everyone I’d met was a freak; I tried to artificially fit them into some categories, but the result wasn’t very good.
I really liked the text, though, and besides, I’d spent a huge amount of time working on it. I asked them to pay me a penalty. At Marie Claire, they had this system: if they asked you to write a text, but didn’t publish it, they had to pay you half of your regular fee. But they didn’t pay me anything, so I took the article to Bolshoy Gorod. I came to see Mostovshchikov’s deputy, the legendary journalist Valery Drannikov. He read the article, looked at me carefully, and said, “At first, we let young journalists write one sentence, then two. Then, after a year, maybe half a page. But you’re very lucky: we just had to pull out an article that was six pages long.” So, they printed this text of mine on six pages, and I, as they say, woke up famous. Marie Claire editors wrote to me immediately and said, “Sveta, please give us back the hundred dollars that we’d given you for the matchmaker.”
The one who ran away with the money?
Yes, that one. I replied, “I’ll gladly return the one hundred dollars if you pay me my half of my fee.” They said, “Fine, we’ll call it even.” After that, I began to write for Bolshoy Gorod a lot, then started to spill out into other publications. And in 2004, I got my first full-time job as a magazine editor.
You said that you wrote your first novel in Syria, and now you live and write in America. And this is actually the second time you came to the United States to live. How did that happen?
After finishing high school in 1992, I enrolled at New York University and, in four years, graduated with a bachelor’s in philosophy. I could stay in America by getting a job or a master’s degree, but, to everybody’s astonishment, I returned to Moscow. It seemed to me that all the exciting things were happening in Moscow, that life was in full swing there. In addition, while I was still a student at NYU, I came to Moscow and fell in love with a guy there and secretly married him. Secretly – because he was a punk rocker, worked in a shop that made metal doors, and drank quite a lot, so my parents would never have approved of him. When I returned to America after my secret wedding, it turned out that I was pregnant. So you see, it’s a young girl’s romantic story. I gave birth to a son and came to live with my husband in Moscow, but our marriage fell apart quickly. I didn’t even think of returning to America and began to build my new adult life where I was. But four years ago, I came to New York, and now I live here.
So you wrote this third novel, People and Birds, after having moved to the USA?
I completed it here, but I started it much earlier. Did you notice that it’s not entirely clear when the novel’s action takes place – is it the early 2000s or is it present time? The thing is, I wrote it in chunks, taking long breaks between them, and it sort of stretched out in time. When I was finishing it, I asked myself whether I wanted to bring all of this to any one specific time period. But I realized that I didn’t, because, in my opinion, nothing changes in Russia except for external things like the appearance of various apps for getting a cab. In general, the feeling of being in Russia remains the same – at least for me. Deciding that I would make this into a literary device, I was very happy with myself, but then I discovered that I wasn’t the only one to use it. I know several people now who are working on novels set in Moscow, and they deliberately mix different eras in them.
Between novels, did you write any fiction?
I had this grandiose failure that traumatized me so much that I stopped writing fiction for several years. Now, I tell this story as a very amusing one, but back then it didn’t make me laugh. In 2009, I wrote a collection of short stories about teenagers which turned out to be very lively and dramatic: there were betrayals, intrigues, love, sex, fights with parents, and violence in it, and also a lot of teenage slang that I learned by spending hours on internet forums where high school kids hung out. When I completed it, I found the literary agent Julia Goumen on Facebook – I work with her to this day. She really liked the collection and said, “Sveta, this is very cool, and I’ll sell it very quickly. I just need you to add a couple of more stories – about a gay boy and a migrant boy.” She thought that these two stories were necessary to round out the collection, and she was absolutely right. Believe it or not, on the day that I sent her the finished manuscript, I turned on the TV and saw the first episode of Valeria Guy Germanica’s series School. My collection was also called School. I immediately realized that no one would publish my collection because it was the same thing, essentially, even though the names and the characters were different. I was right: Julia went around all the publishing houses with my manuscript, but everyone said, “Well, Guy Germanica has already covered this topic.” I must add that I didn’t know anything about the series while I was writing the collection, and Guy Germanica didn’t know anything about me either – it just happened that the same idea came to two different people at the same time.
Now, you live in America and write in Russian. Do you have any ambitions for writing in English?
Actually, I do. I must say that Russian-American writers of approximately my generation – Shteyngart, Litman, Vapnyar – have a gigantic head start in the sense that they all came to the United States at a young age and stayed here, that is, all this time they’ve been living in an English-speaking environment. I returned to Moscow after university and didn’t speak or write in English for twenty years – and, of course, I lost this language to some extent. Now I have to catch up, and in order for this to happen faster, I enrolled in a master’s program in fiction.
Is it easy to get accepted into one of these programs?
If it’s prestigious, one of the top 25, it’s very difficult. Among other things, you need professional recommendations, and that’s why I spent the whole of last summer workshopping with established writers. They liked my fiction and wrote letters of recommendation for me. It makes no sense to apply to only one program – you may not get accepted, and I applied to twelve or thirteen universities across the country, all of them from the top 25 list. To be honest, I absolutely didn’t want to move to another state, and it so happened that I was accepted into three master’s programs in New York. I was very happy. When you get admitted to several places, you then have to choose where to go, and the programs begin to court you, as it were: they introduce you to students, invite you to parties and to classes as an observer. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic these parties didn’t happen, but I met a lot of people through Zoom. And I really liked the program at Brooklyn College: I got the feeling that those were not just wonderful people and professionals, but my family.
And when I had made my decision to choose that particular program, I suddenly got an email informing me that I would receive a scholarship from the Truman Capote Foundation, which would cover the cost of my education. At that moment, I had no idea what this scholarship was – I thought it was simply named after one of my favorite writers. Then I googled it and found out that Truman Capote bequeathed his wealth to aspiring writers like me. Realizing that I would study with the help of Truman Capote’s own money, I lay down on my bed and lay there for a long time, trying to absorb this information.
Did they give you this scholarship based on the stories you wrote in English?
In my application, I provided a writing sample that included one of the stories I wrote last summer and a chapter of my new novel.
Wait a second, what novel?
I have an interesting story to tell about it. When I completed People and Birds, I started writing a novel about a dentist who was a narcissist and a highly toxic person – in Russian. It’s just that I had no idea at all about what would interest an English-speaking audience. At one of the writing workshops I attended, in the beautiful city of Provincetown, I was randomly assigned to a group of people who worked on novels. I thought, fine, I’ll just translate a couple of chapters about the dentist, and the workshop might still be useful. Unexpectedly, it turned out that the American readers were interested in both the novel and the main character. They told me that the novel should be published in America and that they couldn’t wait until I finished it.
Are you finishing it in English?
I finished it in Russian and started translating it into English. The people who read the first two chapters said that they felt a trace of Russian in the text, and that that was one of the reasons they liked it so much. They were quite familiar with the Russian classics which they read in translation, and my text reminded them of Dostoevsky and someone else. When I write in English, I have a different mentality: I choose different words and a different intonation, and the result is a different text. So the work is progressing, but I don’t know when I’ll finish it. After all, I’m translating from my native language into a non-native one, and this, of course, isn’t easy.
In the spring of 2007, in St. Petersburg to visit my parents and to promote my first collection of stories, I decided to attend a graduation party of the Gender Studies program at the European University. I’d been a semi-active participant in the Russian-language feminist blogs, where I learned about this program. I contemplated applying; or, at least, since by then I lived in San Francisco, I dreamed about befriending the students and the faculty and making myself useful to them. I had just graduated from a Master’s program in Comparative Literature in San Francisco, where I learned a few things about feminism. I thought my experience could be useful and interesting to my Russian peers. My ideas were somewhat far-fetched.
Established in 1994, European University had the reputation of a progressive institution, focusing on social studies, including history, anthropology, economics, politics. I had never been there before, and I was imagining something akin the American universities that I knew: welcoming signage, flyers everywhere, friendly faces ready to help. I forgot to account for one small thing: my native city’s culture.
The address of European University took me to a grand old palace in the old part of town. The entrance should’ve been obvious, but there were a few young men smoking right outside. Intimidated by the smokers (there was very little smoking on campus in the San Francisco by then) and confused by where one palace ended and another began, I’d walked past the door, before eventually turning around. The smokers–students, presumably there for their exams–stared at me in a way that was evaluative and none too friendly. Once finally inside, I had instructions about where to go, but the instructions simply said “auditorium,” or some such thing; not very descriptive. I remember walking up and down the halls and stairs of this labyrinthine building, feeling very sorry for myself. Did I ask somebody for directions? I can’t remember, but I remember my fear that if I did, the response would be dismissive. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there”–something along these lines. I never made it to the auditorium. I was doomed to being an outsider.
Ok, this was a low moment, but I wasn’t really doomed. The next day, I turned to my aunt Maya for help. She, a librarian, helped me find a bookstore where I could buy the books written by the program’s faculty, and later still I was able to meet some of my LiveJournal friends at cafes and conferences in Russia, Ukraine, in the US. These relationships shaped much of my writing.
Many years later, continuing to lurk on the Russian-language feminist sites, I came across Lida Yusupova’s poem “the center for gender problems” (link to the Russian-language version):
i called an organization by the name of the center for gender problems could i come to your library it was January of 1999 i had come back to Russia from Canada where i had read a whole lot of books about feminism in English i thought i had a lot of useful knowledge i could share
Though it’s not set in European University, the space that the poet describes is socially and geographically very much adjacent to it (the poem includes a physical address!). I felt absolutely seen by this poem; moreover, the poet had managed to capture and deliver lines I’d been too scared to even fully form in my head: Yusupova’s poem is also about the speaker’s realization that she’s a lesbian and the desire to meet other lesbians. Her words gave me courage and opened a few doors in my mind for me. I became a devotee and sought out Yusupova’s Russian-language book Dead Dad and read everything I could find online.
Given the above, you can imagine what an honor it was to be asked to contribute a blurb to Yusupova’s first English-language collection, The Scar We Know, forthcoming from Cicada Press on March 1, 2021. I had to hold myself back from gushing, and nevertheless wrote the three paragraphs below. The editors, advisedly, picked one sentence for the book cover. One benefit of co-editing a feminist blog is that Punctured Lines gives me lots of space to gush…
Arriving to the literary scene as the USSR disintegrated into the new Russia, Yusupova gathered her poetic influences both from within and from far outside the mainstream Russian literary tradition. Writing in free verse and relying on line breaks and the blank space of the page for emotional effect, Yusupova anchors her poems in the physical human body. Edited by Ainsley Morse, The Scar We Know is a celebration of Lida Yusupova’s groundbreaking poetry by a community of translators. Madeline Kinkel, Hilah Kohen, Ainsley Morse, Bela Shayevich, Sibelan Forrester, Martha Kelly, Brendan Kiernan, Joseph Schlegel, Stephanie Sandler all contributed to this collection.
The bodies in this book have vaginas and penises, they suffer from dog bites and rape and mental illness and brutal murder, they deliver dead children and alive children that they don’t know what to do with; and they experience occasional bursts of joy, those, too, provoked by the physical bodily sensations: a touch, a look, a good fuck. The poet brings the dead close to us and allows us to grieve for the ways they died, no matter how far away and long ago. Yusupova frequently draws on the language of news reports and court summaries, transforming our relationship with the bureaucratese. In English, her translators juxtapose vocabulary from different registers and patterns of speech and incorporate Russian to insist that the reader looks closely at the subjects of these poems in both their familiarity and uniqueness.
Yusupova has become a leading voice for the new generation of feminist and queer poets in Russia and in the global Russian diaspora, and this translation is a radical gift for the English-language readers, offering us an opportunity to draw deeper connections with the transnational humans who have been marginalized and othered, and to do so while dismantling the accepted patriarchal narratives and systems of value.
Finally, three more links:
In October, Punctured Lines ran a piece about contemporary feminist and queer Russophone poetry, and it included an in-depth interview with Ainsley Morse, the editor and one of the translators of The Scar We Know. Lots more there about Yusupova and the way this book came together.
On January 25, 2021, Globus Books will be holding an online event to celebrate the publication of this book. This event will be held on Zoom at 9.00 am PDT, 12.00 pm EDT and will be streaming on the Globus Books YouTube channel. To register for the Zoom conference, please send a private message to Globus Books Facebook page.
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.