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.
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.
We atPunctured Lines are delighted to host our first public event via Zoom. We recently ran Svetlana Satchkova’s interview with Anna Starobinets about her memoir, and welcome an opportunity to continue this conversation. On September 26, we’ll be moderating a book release celebration for LOOK AT HIM by Anna Starobinets in Katherine E. Young’s translation. This event will begin at 3 pm EST.
About the Event:
In 2012, Russia-based writer and journalist Anna Starobinets was told in her sixteenth week of pregnancy that the baby she was carrying had developed a kidney defect incompatible with life. Following a dehumanizing experience in Moscow clinics, Starobinets traveled to Berlin, Germany, to undergo an abortion. In Berlin, Starobinets also discovered a level of medical support, including emotional support and counseling, that was practically unheard of in Russia at the time.
Starobinets wrote LOOK AT HIM on the heels of those events. Its 2017 publication in Russia was met with critical praise, including a nomination for the National Bestseller Prize, but the book also ignited a firestorm of condemnation. The author was blamed for breaking social taboos by discussing women’s agency over their own bodies and examining the lingering aftereffects of abortion and miscarriage on women and families—taboos that we, as feminists, believe needed to be broken. Beautiful, darkly humorous, and deeply moving, LOOK AT HIM explores moral, ethical—and quintessentially human—issues that resonate for families in the world beyond Russia.
Now Three String Books / Slavica Publishers has brought out Katherine E. Young’s English translation of LOOK AT HIM. Today we’re celebrating the publication of this book that expands the English-language literary canon with a powerful story, masterfully told. Young has captured not only the factual specificity of Starobinets’s experiences but has also emphatically conveyed their emotional intensity.
Join us for a reading from the book and a Q&A with author Anna Starobinets and translator Katherine E. Young. Dr. Muireann Maguire from the University of Exeter, UK, will comment. Hosting are Yelena Furman and Olga Zilberbourg from Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about post-Soviet literature.
*** A special publisher discount for purchase and free shipping (US) of the book will be available during the event. ***
Anna Starobinets is a Russian journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and children’s book author. Her only book of non-fiction, Look at Him, is coming out in September from Slavica Publishers in Katherine E. Young’s translation. It was originally published in Russia in 2017 and caused an extraordinary public discussion. In Look at Him, Starobinets describes how, in 2012, she found out that the baby she was carrying had a congenital condition incompatible with life, and how, following a dehumanizing experience with the medical system in her own country, she had to travel to Germany to terminate her pregnancy and to receive grief counseling – a thing practically unheard of in Russia at the time.
The incredible outpouring of outrage and vicious criticism that followed the book’s publication is perhaps explained by the fact that it was the first of its kind: in Russia, it’s still the norm to keep silent about one’s grief. I spoke with Anna about her book in order to better understand why it had created such a scandal and what changes in medical practices it had helped bring about.
When did you come up with the idea of writing this book?
The thought first occurred to me when I spoke to a psychologist in Berlin and I saw all the books she had on her shelves about losing a child, in many different languages. I guessed that there were no books of this kind in Russian, which later proved to be true. After I terminated my pregnancy, I felt a need to absorb somebody else’s experience that was similar to mine, so I read a couple of books in English, but, even though my English is pretty good, there’s still an invisible wall between me and a text in this language. That’s when I started seriously thinking about writing about my own experience – I felt that it was my social mission. After the book came out, the most benign criticism I received was that I’d written it in order to sublimate my suffering and to dump it onto other people. I have no idea if there’s any truth to this accusation: you never know where the subconscious is concerned. But I can tell you that that was not my conscious goal. I felt that I had a duty to change the world using the only power I had – the power of the written word. My overarching goal was to break the silence, and I also had some smaller goals. For example, I wanted the doctors who had behaved unprofessionally towards me to stop working with women. That’s why I decided to use their real names.
Have these micro goals been accomplished?
Partially. One doctor I’d written about left his job. I don’t know if my book was the reason, but I know for certain that his reputation suffered. The clinic he’d worked in also organized a training session for their staff with the purpose of teaching them how to deliver bad news to pregnant women. I know that the director of one large private clinic in Moscow made all the obstetricians and gynecologists on his staff read my book. Also, some time later, a hospice was founded in Moscow for women who are pregnant with babies with congenital conditions. There, the women can receive medical help, no matter what decision they ultimately make.
I feel that we have to explain to American readers why everything that has to do with obstetrics and gynecology in Russia carries so much violence towards women. What are your thoughts on that?
There are historical reasons for that. In the USSR, a spartan outlook on life was widespread and almost official: only the strongest were supposed to survive. If you were weak, you couldn’t be a part of the great Soviet system. If you were in pain, you had to keep a low profile. This spartan ideology was curiously fused with even more ancient concepts. For instance, childbirth was considered to be a punishment for pleasure: if you’d been with a man, you had to bear the consequences. A woman in labor wasn’t supposed to cry out in pain and ask for special treatment, more so because this whole sphere was viewed as obscene and dirty, connected to blood and slime. All of that had come from the depths of a conservative peasant mentality. A lot of traditional cultures hold similar views, but in developed countries these have been replaced by modern-day values.
In Look at Him, you write about coming to a state women’s clinic in Moscow together with your husband for a consultation and him not being allowed inside. Why do you think men are barred from entering these clinics in Russia?
This, of course, is true only of state clinics [vs. privately funded – PL] that are still under the influence of old Soviet traditions. It was believed that no woman who had any sense would want her man to see her under those indecent circumstances where she gave birth or underwent a gynecological checkup. And if, for some reason, her man would actually want to be there with her, he’d embarrass all the other women, because he’d see them in this awkward indelicate situation: he’d know that, in a couple of minutes, they’d go in and spread their legs in front of a doctor. Presumably, men were and are barred from the clinics to protect the women.
As a result, Russian men are often separated from women’s experiences. When a woman loses a baby, her own husband often tells her to forget about it as soon as possible. Why do you think most well-wishers in Russia are so bent on making you forget about your loss instead of live through it?
Because we still lack the language to talk about it, and most people, medical professionals included, don’t realize that to talk about your pain is much more therapeutic than to keep silent about it. Paradoxically, when they tell you to forget, they are being helpful. If you don’t talk about it, they believe, the thing will just disappear. For example, my relatives told my 8-year-old daughter not to talk to me about the baby I’d lost, and I was stunned by her silence. I kept wondering if she didn’t care about what happened, and then I found out that she was trying to protect me.
What are your views on psychotherapy? There’s still a lot of prejudice against it in Russia.
Speaking abstractly, I’m all for it, of course. But I’ve encountered a huge number of ignorant and unprofessional psychotherapists in Russia. Finally, I got lucky – I did meet a great psychologist after a long while. The thing is, there isn’t a system in place that certifies therapists and makes sure that if somebody shows you a psychotherapist’s diploma, they are adequately trained to treat you. Anyone in Russia can take a three-month course, call themselves a therapist, and start taking clients.
Let’s talk about the scandal your book caused. How did it develop?
First of all, no publisher wanted to publish my book: they were scared of the subject matter. When it did finally find a home, I was worried that people wouldn’t buy it and that my work would turn out to have been for nothing. When Look at Him was ready to come out, journalists became very interested in it, and fragments of it appeared in various media outlets. I began to read the comments, and my hair stood up! There was so much hate: people were insulting me, saying that I was a disgrace to my country and that I should go and live in Germany if I liked it so much. The commenters also said that our doctors were not overly emotional, but that they had hearts of gold, and that I was demonstrating my dirty bloody underwear. I was shocked. I’d been preparing for a backlash from the medical community, but I’d thought that regular people, especially women, would be on my side because we were all patients, we all had similar experiences with our medical system. It turned out that I’d been mistaken: regular women were my most violent haters, and those who’d lost their children were especially vicious. In the public space, at least: privately, I received hundreds of messages where other women shared their own stories and thanked me for writing about what nobody else wanted to address.
What happened after the book came out?
It sold out in a month, and additional copies had to be printed. Most journalists reacted positively to it, but I would say that fifty percent of regular readers reacted negatively. Then the book was nominated for the National Bestseller award. I knew the people who worked on the committee and was on friendly terms with them: I’d been on the jury several times over the years, and we’d met at various literary events. Those people were outraged by my book too. When it was shortlisted, the judges who were supposed to make the selection among the books on the shortlist violated ethical norms by lashing out against me publicly. Which is ironic, because the book is about ethics, among other things. For example, Aglaya Toporova who is a journalist and who’d lost a three-year-old daughter, wrote a review of my book (you can still see it on the National Bestseller website) where she called my baby a fragment of my body and my book socially dangerous. What most of these people held against me was that I was, in their opinion, trying to capitalize on my grief.
Here, I have to explain to the American audience that the money one makes in Russia as a writer is laughable, and these people knew it perfectly well because they were part of the book industry. At first, I didn’t understand what they meant, but soon it dawned on me: they meant that I was trying to become famous by demonstrating my dirty underwear. The bottom line was that I lost a lot of friends after the book had come out. Fun fact: I live in the same building with a family of writers, and we used to be very friendly. Now, they behave as though I don’t exist.
How did you feel while all of that was going on?
It hurt a great deal, of course – I’m a live human being. But I’d accomplished my goal, and that made me feel better. The public discussion I’d been hoping to start not only happened, but turned out to be huge. My book was everywhere. I remember, someone said during that time that if you turned on the tap at home, Anna Starobinets and her book would start pouring out.
Did the doctors you’d mentioned in the book try to reach out to you?
Their friends and acquaintances did. They tried to shame me: how dare I tarnish the image of those great people? A lady from the clinic called me about Dr. Demidov, who’d brought fifteen students into the examination room without my consent, while I was lying there naked with my legs spread out, and proceeded to talk to them about the “interesting pathology” as though I wasn’t there at all. The lady said that I’d lied in my book. I said, okay, what did I say that wasn’t true? That Demidov hadn’t brought the students into the room? She said that she didn’t doubt that he had, but that I’d written that I had to buy plastic overshoes while those were free of charge at their clinic! I just laughed. I asked her if she wanted an official retraction where I’d say that the clinic confirmed all the facts except for overshoes, and she said no.
Did you get any positive feedback?
There appeared a couple of publications by medical professionals who thanked me for my book and said that everything I’d described in it was true and needed to be changed. And, as I’ve mentioned, I received a lot of personal messages with words of support from women who’d experienced something similar to what I’d gone through. But the overall situation still seemed to me sort of crazy, because the medical community reacted mostly positively, and most of the regular readers were scandalized.
I know that Look at Him has been made into a theater production. Tell me about that.
Roman Kaganovich, a young theater director from Saint Petersburg, wrote to me and said that he’d read the book and that it had changed his outlook on life. He wanted to adapt it for the stage, and the idea seemed plain crazy to me, but I liked him so much that I agreed. In a few months, I came to see the production and was absolutely blown away by it. It was incredible: the actors sang and danced, and the show was not only poignant, but also very funny – I would say it had elements of burlesque. It turned out to be very entertaining and, at the same time, very true to the spirit of my book. It was about personal grief and the Kafkian absurdity of our medical system. Roman said that during the very first performances the audience had been silent the whole time, and he realized that people had been afraid to laugh because the theme was so serious. So, he started saying before every performance that it was okay to laugh – and people started laughing.
Do you think you’ll write any more non-fiction?
I won’t. When I started writing Look at Him, I did it knowing that it would be my only non-fiction book.
First of all, I’m an active Facebook user, and I post on my page whenever I feel like sharing something of my life. Secondly, I love to make up my own stories and to create my own reality – I do it not just for the money, but because it brings me joy. For me, a book of non-fiction isn’t a creative act, but rather community service. I write speculative fiction and horror fiction for adults, and I’ve been writing a lot for children. I have a very popular children’s book series that’s called Beastly Crime Chronicles and that’s been translated into several languages. These are crime mysteries that take place in a forest, and all the characters are animals. There are two detectives: a middle-aged Chief Badger and his assistant Badgercat, who’s undergoing a personal identity crisis. This is my most successful project to date: it’s being made into a cartoon and a show for the stage.
You also write for film and TV. How do you manage to do so many things at once?
I have catastrophically little time: I work a lot. I have two kids; my daughter is a teenager, so she doesn’t care about spending time with me, but my son is five, and he really misses me. But I love writing – it’s the only thing I know how to do. Screenwriting is basically the same thing – you’re creating a story. It differs from fiction writing only in some technical aspects.
I read your Facebook on a regular basis, and I remember reading about a trip you made to China because you needed some material for a novel. What was that about?
I’m writing a novel for adults, and it takes place in 1945 in Manchuria. I’d tried to research online, of course: I didn’t want to go to China at first because I had to spend my own money, and the trip took a lot of time and effort. But I finally realized that I had to go there because I couldn’t feel what I was writing about. I had a feeling that I was writing while wearing thick rubber gloves, and that nothing would change if I didn’t go there.
Why didn’t you just change the place?
I couldn’t because there’s a story behind this novel. In 2008, my husband Alexander Garros [Alexander Garros died in 2017 – PL] and I wrote a script for Russian Channel Two. It was a 20-episode fantastic series that took place in Manchuria in 1945, with demons and werefoxes – a mix of historical truth and mythology. For two years, we lived off the money they’d paid us, but they never actually produced it because the 2008 crisis happened, and the story was really expensive to make. They thought of it as the Russian Game of Thrones. To this day, it hasn’t been produced, and possibly never will be. This gnawed at me for years because I really liked the story and I wanted it to be realized in some way, so I started to talk the producers into giving me the right to write it in the form of a novel. It took a long time, but finally they gave in. This is really ironic because when you’re a writer, the most money you can hope to make is when you sell the screen rights to your novel, and in this case it’s already happened. So, I’m only doing it because I want to tell the story. When you’re writing for the screen, however, you don’t really need a lot of details, but with a novel, you need to dive into the atmosphere. I couldn’t travel back in time to 1945, obviously, but I needed at least something – to see the landscapes, the faces that populated the land, to smell the smells, things like that. Sometimes I teach creative writing to teenagers, and I always tell them the same thing: write what you know, otherwise it won’t sound true. This is especially important in science fiction or fantasy. To make the reader believe you, you need to be true to life in every possible detail, then they’ll believe in werefoxes and demons, too.
This interview was conducted in Russian and translated by the interviewer Svetlana Satchkova.
Anna Starobinets is a writer and scriptwriter. She writes horror and supernatural fiction for adults, and also fairy tales and detective stories for children. Awarded with several Russian and European literature prizes, her books have been translated into many world languages.
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 new novel People and Birds is coming out from Eksmo in September.
This is a translation of a Russian-language interview conducted by Svetlana Satchkova and published by Storytel on June 16, 2020. The translation is by Fiona Bell.
Tatsiana Zamirovskaya is a writer from Belarus who has lived in New York for the past five years. She writes in Russian and English. Her short story collection, TheLand of Random Numbers (Земля случайных чисел, AST, Russia, 2019) was nominated for the National Bestseller prize and compared by critics to works by premier authors of metaphysical science fiction, from Ursula K. Le Guin to the Strugatskii brothers. She recently completed a new novel about memory and digital immortality.
Svetlana Satchkova spoke with Tatsiana about how her interest in fantasy developed, how she came up with the idea to move to the United States, and what the Belarusian language means to her.
What was your childhood like?
I was born in Borisov, a small city where Napoleon’s army was defeated in 1812. Nothing else has happened there, which is why all local culture revolves around Napoleon: there are regular battle reenactments on the floodplain of the Berezina river, where the army drowned, and guys walk around with metal detectors looking for Napoleon’s golden carriage, and drunk high school graduates go to Brilevskoe field to watch the sunrise. Borisov is also famous because Hitler came there during his only visit to the Nazi-occupied parts of the Soviet Union, in 1943. When I was a kid, the neighbors once told me that he probably stayed in our house, since it was one of the only brick houses in the city at that time…
My parents were pretty ordinary: in Soviet times, my mother was a music teacher at a music school and my dad was an engineer at a factory, where he designed tanks. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he tried to survive in any way he could. Belarus is a transit territory, which is why Belarusians survived thanks to these huge overnight bags, which they used to carry all sorts of junk to sell across the border in Poland. So I grew up among mountains of junk: for example, thousands of crystal swans from the Borisov Crystal Factory, or boxes of dichlorvos.
I went to a great school that specialized in English. We periodically went on exchange trips to London. The British kids also visited us, bringing all the new music on cassette tapes, which we then copied from each other. I listened to all the Brit Pop albums of the nineties right when they came out, and back then, that was a huge accomplishment – living in contemporary music culture. Borisov was also a hub for violent youth groups, kids who actually lived by the laws of the street. So, my childhood was a mix of prison aesthetics, elite education, and difficult, post-perestroika life.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to become a writer or a musician. My parents hung out with a great crowd of rock-intellectuals. One of them, the famous musician Oleg Minakov, who sang in the German group Inspector back then, told me I should study journalism because, with my interest in music and desire to write, I could become a music critic. I thought that sounded like a really cool life, so I decided to study journalism at Belarusian State University in Minsk.
Then, at the end of the 90s, Lukashenko changed the constitution so that he could be president without interruption or term limits — in fact, Russia recently took a page from his book. But the journalism department at my university was very liberal: I was accepted, writing in my entrance exam essay about how I dreamed of working for the opposition newspaper Name (Имя). When my mom found out, she cried for two days. Then we heard that I’d gotten the highest score of all the applicants. The journalism department was a cool crowd, everything was suffused with the spirit of freedom and hope for a different future. I went to protest rallies, rock concerts – basically, it was a great time.
When did you become a working journalist?
The same time I started doing everything else – university. When I was 19, my friends and I published a completely out-there newspaper for an opposition party that got a grant for it. One time we were paid in NATO pilot jumpsuits, since humanitarian aid had been sent that consisted of canned food and these jumpsuits. I only published one article in Name (Имя)– I handed it over to the legendary journalist Irina Khalip, she published it, and two weeks later the newspaper closed down. The article was about a Rolling Stones concert in Moscow, and Khalip even remembered me later. In one of her interviews she said: “I remember this first-year student Zamirovskaya coming to me with her article on a sheet of paper.” It made me so happy to read that.
Even at that time, professional music media in Belarus was well-established, in the spirit of publications like Q and NME: Music News Weekly (Музыкальная газета), the magazine Legion (Легион), and the magazine Jazz Quad (Джаз-квадрат). I wrote for all three and was the editor at Jazz Quad. That was my first job after university. We worked directly with labels, who had a lot of respect for us and sent us new albums to review. You have to remember that in 1997 Minsk, getting a review copy of OK Computer, when no one else had heard it, was very cool. I spent hours on the phone and did interviews with all sorts of famous musicians, which allowed me to make up for the English I hadn’t been taught in school.
When did you start writing prose?
While I was studying journalism, I wrote short surrealist stories and, without telling my friends, sent them to the Dnipropetrovsk cult contemporary art magazine, Ours (Hаш). People like Linor Goralik and Mikhail Elizarov started publishing there. I didn’t get a response, but one day the magazine sent all its contacts a letter saying that their work mail had gotten messed up and everything had been lost, but that some girl from Minsk’s journalism department had sent them a story about a guy who fucked a pyramid. They wanted to publish that story but didn’t know how to find the girl.
The next day, everyone in the department kept looking at me. It turns out we had all been secretly sending things to Ours (Hаш). My piece was an homage to Ray Bradbury, who had a story about a man and a woman who give birth to a pyramid and then decide to move to the land of pyramids to live on the same wavelength as their child. Now I have three published short story collections, the most recent of which, The Land of Random Numbers, came out in 2019 with AST, Moscow.
What made you decide to move to the U.S.?
At 35, I felt like I had already lived a full life. I didn’t know where to go next. I’d worked as a journalist for a long time, applying an apocalyptic perspective to everything: first to music, then politics, culture, and contemporary art. I’d hosted a jazz program on Polish radio and edited a glossy men’s magazine with friends. We’d even had Sergey Mostovshchikov, who we all idolized at the time, as a guest editor in a joint issue with Crocodile (Крокодил).
My time in Belarusian journalism had run its course and I thought it would be cool to get an education in the arts – I worried that I wasn’t writing deeply enough about contemporary art – and simultaneously improve as a writer. I set out to do an MFA in New York because it was my favorite city, where I’d been as a tourist but wanted to live.
Was it difficult to adapt to a new place?
My friends couldn’t understand my decision to move, since in Minsk I lived in my own apartment and worked as a content editor at an ad agency – my life was great. And now I’d decided to spend all the money I had saved to go to some art school and live in a tiny, screened-off corner of a puppeteer’s apartment in Bushwick. While I was earning my MFA, I had all kinds of weird side hustles: writing texts and sometimes even being a pet sitter. It was really cool because I got to spend time in the fancy apartments of some artist or another, lying on their couch with their dog and looking at their art books. But I always saw this as forward movement: I immediately realized that in the U.S., education is a huge investment in yourself, even if it’s not the sort of education that gives you the opportunity to find the perfect job right now.
What types of opportunities does it offer?
A Master of Fine Arts degree legitimizes you as a practitioner in an artistic field. This degree is so expensive because it gives you access to circles that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get into. After I graduated from Bard College, I went to several prestigious writers’ residencies, where people would ask me who I was and where I was from. “Belarus,” I’d say. “Oh, they kill journalists there, don’t they? Or is that Bulgaria?” they’d say. “Alexievich, Chernobyl,” I’d say. They would nod, still unsure. Then I started saying that I’d graduated from Bard, and they would immediately reply, “Oh, Bard!” Their attitude towards me changed instantly: they no longer needed to know what I wrote or whether I was any good.
The fact that I’d received an MFA meant that I had already been verified by someone somewhere and that I was, roughly speaking, part of their circle. This program also helped me understand what I do more generally. At Bard MFA, they teach you to be aware of all the stages of creative work: so, it’s not that I sit down, and the universe hands me a text because thus is its divine will. They teach you to understand your own practices, how they relate to your life story and your identity, what is borrowed and what is your own. I learned how to write grant applications, to put myself in context, and basically to understand what I want. If I hadn’t gone there, I’m not sure I would still be writing.
What’s special about Bard College?
Bard is one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in New York and it has a Graduate School of the Arts with a focus on interdisciplinarity. Its founders decided to bring together professors from various disciplines – sculpture, painting, photography, film and video, music, and literature – and educate students so that they interact as much as possible. There aren’t many students, so people from various faculties can visit each other’s caucuses. It really opens up your perspective, especially as a writer. For instance, I’ve never done normal readings of my texts – they’ve always been performances.
Could you describe one of them?
I did a performance on the impossibility of translation. I handed audience members pages of a surrealist short story that I – someone with very synthetic English – had self-translated into English and told them to follow along with the text. Then I took the microphone and read the story in Russian with periodic pauses. My classmate Anastasia Kolas, who was hiding in a closet, translated each phrase live. She emigrated from Belarus as a teenager and knows English like a native speaker, but she has kind of torn herself away from Russian. This was the first time she had heard my story. Naturally, my translation was very different from what Anastasia came up with. In this way, the audience simultaneously heard three different versions of this text through three different channels of perception. I was later told that this was a totally psychedelic experience.
Do MFA graduates manage to make a living as artists?
I don’t have the naïve belief that if I make good art, that means I can make a living off of it. But at the same time, I don’t think that if you can’t make money off of it, that means you should be ashamed of it. For artists, generally speaking, it’s normal to be poor and unsettled – maybe it was actually Bard that taught me to feel this way. Basically, I see it like a sort of gambling: you can win the jackpot or not win anything at all, but that’s where the nice sense of excitement comes from.
There are people who have achieved conventional success: Salley Rooney, for example. She clearly didn’t set out to write a bestseller, her prose just coincided with something and set off a reaction. It’s all about chance and synchronicity, themes that are very close to me. But, as far as I know, some of my former classmates work as assistants to more successful artists or writers, teach at colleges, or work as copywriters, journalists, or PR professionals. But some are lucky: they get a book contract or are exhibited in MoMA, like Martine Syms – a classmate of mine who is a superstar in the contemporary art world.
What are you writing now, in Russian and in English?
I’m finishing a novella in English that was originally my thesis project. It’s about false testimonies: people who talk about persecutions and abuse that they never actually experienced. It’s experimental prose – something at the intersection of prose and poetry. Since I’ve been writing it for a long time, my English has evolved in the process. The reader can trace the improvement of the author’s language. The first chapters are really shaky, and now I can’t even edit those because my English has noticeably improved. Maybe by the end it will be quite natural.
Anna Moschovakis, my professor, came up with the idea. She said that I would never have another chance to write a text in a language that was poor at the beginning, but then improved. To waste that transitional moment would be stupid. In Russian, I wrote a novel about how a person’s consciousness continues to exist after their death, or rather, not the consciousness itself, but its digital copy. This is a very important difference because it’s impossible to maintain consciousness after death – you completely disappear. But if you have a digital copy, it considers itself to be you. It’s a kind of post-apocalyptic utopia about people who copy their consciousness, and the copies go to some sort of afterlife, thinking that they themselves are people.
You are from Belarus and identify as a Belarusian writer, but you write in Russian and English. Why?
I can’t write literary prose in Belarusian because I only learned it at school as a second language, although I consider it my native language and that’s something I always emphasize. Like many Belarusians, I grew up in a Russian-speaking environment and I think in Russian, and I respect Belarusian too much for it to just be a target language for mental translations from Russian. I’m planning to write something in Belarusian that won’t require this sort of code conversion – maybe a memoir about working as a journalist in Minsk.
I think it’s important to note that the identity of a Russian-speaking Belarusian is that of a person who, though they grew up in a Russian-speaking culture, very clearly separates themselves from Russia because Russophone culture doesn’t only include Russia. When I studied journalism in the nineties, if you spoke Belarusian, it meant that you were against Lukashenko, that you went to protests and, more often than not, wrote poetry. This was the language of the artistic intelligentsia. I worked at Belarusian radio stations for many years, I speak Belarusian as well as I would a first language, and I always switch to it when I’m with Belarusians. But I haven’t used it in literature. I’ve always thought it would be an opportunistic act on my part, since authors who write in Belarusian are rightly given more support. Svetlana Alexievich, for example, also writes in Russian and, in so doing, emphasizes the fact that she is not Russian.
Belarusian has been in a difficult position for a long time, since Stalin destroyed practically the entire Belarusian cultural elite in 1937. Perhaps our culture would be different if those hundreds of writers and poets hadn’t been taken to the forest and shot. Nowadays it’s very important to understand the terminology at play. The way I see it, I work in the field of international culture and Russian is a convenient tool I use. Just because Belarusians write in Russian doesn’t mean they’re a part of Russian culture. I want to be treated in Russia – and for other Belarusian authors to be treated – like any other foreign author, one who happens to write in Russian simply due to historical circumstance. In any case, native speakers of Russian are lucky – they can read our work in the original.
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 new novel People and Birds is coming out from Eksmo in September.
Fiona Bell is a literary translator and scholar of Russophone literature. Her translation of Stories by Nataliya Meshchaninova received a 2020 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. She is from St. Petersburg, Florida and currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Punctured Lines is thrilled to present a Q&A with Lara Vapnyar, Russian-American writer and author of six works, including her latest novel, Divide Meby Zero. This is also personally meaningful, as I have been reading and writing on Russian-American fiction, very much including her work, for several years. Many thanks to Masha Rumer, whose Q&A we featured previously, for helping facilitate this exchange. Lara answered our questions by email.
Lara Vapnyar:There is a scene in a Nancy Meyers’ film Something Gotta Give, where the main character played by Diane Keaton is working on a play, typing and sobbing, typing and sobbing… That’s how it went for me, except that I had long periods of just sobbing, and longer periods of paralyzing self-doubt – Is this even a novel? What if this is just a self-indulgent mess?
PL: English, the language of your stories and novels, is your second language, acquired later in life. In her essay for the New Yorker, “To Speak is to Blunder,” Yiyun Li, a writer whose first language is Chinese, talked about how “language is capable of sinking a mind.” “One’s thoughts are slavishly bound to language,” she wrote, and went on to talk about the difficulties she has articulating her feelings. “It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible in my native language,” Li says. In your essay, “The Writer as Tour Guide” in an anthology of contemporary Jewish exile literature, The Writer Uprooted, you said, “By the time I approached writing, I had been reading in English a lot, and whenever I thought about creating something of my own, I caught myself putting my images into words of the English language. I felt most comfortable when writing in English, even though I had to struggle with grammar and vocabulary […] I would even say that I wrote in American, which for me was the language of immigrants.” What opportunities has English provided you with that wouldn’t have existed in Russian? Alternatively, do you ever find English limiting? Do you negotiate the space between Russian and English when you write?
LV: English is my first “writing” language. Even though I only started to learn English as an adult, my first attempts to write fiction were in English (I’ve never written anything in Russian), so it feels completely natural. The only situation, when I feel frustrated, is when I have to translate speech from Russian into English. For example, I remember a specific joke my mother made in Russian, and I want to translate it and give it to my character, but it’s just not that funny in English!
PL: The relationship between mother and daughter that you describe in this novel is very touching yet clearly a very demanding one. The cultural conflict is not obviously stated, but it seems to define Katya’s judgment of her ability to mother her children. In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children—and Katya herself grew up in a household presided over by her grandparents. Do you feel that life in the United States has affected Katya’s and her mother’s expectations of each other?
LV: In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children –Absolutely! Katya would’ve probably felt less conflicted, if she was raising her children while relying so much on her mother’s help in Russia.
PL: Unlike works by many other Russian-American writers, male or female, your work directly engages with ideas of gender and feminism. Your novel Memoirs of a Muse charts the transformation of its female protagonist from subservient muse to her writer boyfriend to an independent woman engaged in artistic production; and while Dostoevsky is a key fictional figure in this work, the focus is on his lover, Apollinaria Suslova, herself a writer. Ružena in “Slicing Sautéed Spinach” in your short story collection Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love is a doctoral student in Women’s Studies. Your essay “Hillary’s Underpants: The Sad Tale of ‘Clintonsha,’ or She-Clinton” in Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary directly calls out traditional Russian gender assumptions. How do you relate to feminist ideas and navigate the gap between the different gender expectations in American vs. Russian cultures? Do you see any shift of Russian gender norms in the diaspora?
LV: I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where accepted gender roles differed greatly from what we see in the US and contemporary Russia. Soviet Union was both a feminist and a deeply patriarchal society, where men had all the power, but women did all the work, but still longed for a man in the family like this prized object. My mother, a strong independent woman who made her career and brought me up all on her own, kept telling me that ANY husband is better than no husband.
I think there is a shift of gender norms [in the diaspora] toward the ideal situation, where men and women in the family are equal partners who depend on each other for support and understanding.
PL: As a writer one of whose major topics is immigration, do you find yourself working against Russian cultural stereotypes?
LV: Probably… But in this novel, I feel like I’m working with a Russian cultural stereotype – that you absolutely need true romantic love, that you can’t live without it – against a more pragmatic American view that romantic love is far from being the most important thing in life, and chasing after love is selfish and childish.
PL: Who are some of the writers that inspire you? Do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?
LV: There are so many writers I deeply admire within the diaspora and beyond. But for this novel, the most influential was Elena Ferrante. She taught me how to turn yourself inside out for the sake of larger truth.