From Black Panthers to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and More: A Conversation with the Author of Revolutions of All Colors Dewaine Farria

Revolutions of All Colors (Syracuse UP, 2020) first came to my attention when we were putting together Punctured Lines’ 2021 Books for Review list. The novel’s description indicated that it featured African-American characters and was set, in part, in Ukraine. Intrigued, I looked it up and found myself completely immersed in the multi-generational saga that intertwines locations and histories that I had not previously seen connected.

This novel opens in New Orleans in the 1970s, with Ettie, a young African-American woman who, unsatisfied with what she perceives as her preacher father’s complacence in the face of racial violence, becomes involved with the Black Panther Party. The story details a dramatic incident of police brutality against the Panthers and the long-term repercussions of this violence.

The novel then jumps forward in time to the 1990s, when Ettie becomes a prison counselor and raises her son, Simon, in Antoine, Oklahoma—a town where a quarter of the population is employed by the state prison. We then move to a different point of view character, Frank, a well-respected prison guard, who takes Simon under his wing and raises him alongside his sons, Michael and Gabriel. From there, the book opens up even further to the perspectives of these young men and moves locations to Mogadishu, Somalia in 2005, and Kyiv, Ukraine in 2004, before returning stateside to New Jersey in 2006 and later that year back to Oklahoma.     

Though this book has been called a novel-in-stories, and each piece stands very well on its own, at the end of each story I found myself yearning to turn the page, to know what happened next in the lives of these characters. In this way, it reads as a multi-generational family saga condensed to a few brief chapters.

Having finished the book, I emailed the author, Dewaine Farria, and he generously agreed to answer a few questions. The following conversation was completed over email during Farria’s residency at the prestigious MacDowell Colony.

Punctured Lines: In a Q&A with Book Culture, you said that the book grew out of the first story set in New Orleans. Could you tell us more about how your writing developed from there—when and how did you conceive the three central characters, Michael, Gabriel, and Simon, whom we first meet as young boys and see grow up in the course of this novel?

Dewaine Farria: While a Boren Fellow at the Kyiv Linguistic Institute from 2004–05 (during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution), I supplemented my income by teaching English as a second language. In this capacity, I substituted at a posh Ukrainian secondary school for a couple of weeks, taught “Business English” for a few private firms, and tutored one very rich kid in a high-rise apartment overlooking a Soviet-era TSUM department store that now blinked with advertisements for Benneton and Bvlgari. I returned to the States in late 2005 to begin a position as a contract analyst in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, mostly doing translations. It was around this time that I first got the idea for a novel about a Black American teacher of English as a second language in Kyiv—the character that eventually morphed into Gabriel.  

I first conceived of Gabriel’s brother Michael and their friend Simon for the short story “Walking Point,” the original version of which was published in Line of Advance back in 2017. In the story, Frank—the prison warden narrator that you mentioned in your introduction—describes his service in Vietnam to all three boys, but at the behest of Simon who is considering joining the military.

Tim O’Brien once remarked that, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” I originally conceived of Michael holding Frank accountable for the war story he tells the boys. Bookish, bisexual, and brooding, Michael suffers to defy Black masculinity’s rigid confines of expression. The experience renders Michael emotionally bulletproof. He learns young that there’s no way not to suffer, but that people will try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it—including lying to each other and themselves.    

From his pedigree (Black Panther parents, war hero grandfather) to his service in the U.S. Special Operations community to a stint as a professional mixed martial artist, violence is central to Simon’s arc. For those capable of giving themselves over to it, violence can be one of life’s most intense pleasures: a visceral moral proposition that rearranges the universe into the present at its most absolute. As emergency medicine and mixed martial arts are among the endeavors that have demanded my closest consideration of violence, Simon became a paramedic and a fighter. 

Punctured Lines: In the scope of this novel, the chapters set in Ukraine take up a fairly small part. Gabriel, the youngest of the three protagonists, is an aspiring writer, and he goes to Ukraine to teach English and also as a quasi-retreat where he hopes to finish his book. While there, he falls in love with a woman named Tamara, who encourages him to move from writing Tolkienesque fantasy and focus on something closer to his own life. In a lovely post-modern gesture of make-believe, you allow the reader to assume that at least part of Revolutions of All Colors belongs to Gabriel’s pen. I know from reading your biography that you spent some time in Ukraine, and I would love to know how that time has helped to shape you as a writer?

Dewaine Farria: My wife, Iryna, anchored me to Kyiv, but my fascination with that part of the world began long before she and I met. During my junior year in high school, I happened upon a copy of Tolstoy’s Master and Man and Other Stories, which contained the grandmaster’s fictionalized account of the real-life 18th century separatist guerrilla, Haji Murat. For a sixteen-year-old obsessed with fantasy heroes, Tolstoy’s tale of valor, violence, and betrayal struck all the right notes. It was also the first story I ever read about counterinsurgency, a mode of conflict that has defined warfare in the 21st century. I subsequently flew through Pushkin, Gogol, and Chekhov’s short stories.

In Gather Together in My Name, Maya Angelou writes of her discovery of the Russian writers: 

I walked the sunny California streets shrouded in Russian mists. I fell in love with the Karamazov brothers and longed to drink from a samovar with the lecherous old father. Then Gorki became my favorite. He was the blackest, most dear, most despairing. The books couldn’t last long enough for me. I wished the writers were alive, turning out manuscripts for my addiction. I took to the Chekhov plays and Turgenev, but always returned in the late night, after I had collected my boodle, to Maxim Gorki and his murky, unjust world.

For my part, I pictured cities that were snow-dusted amalgamations of Moscow, Prague, and Paris. Locales brimming with intellectuals, radicals, and artists living in the sort of romantic poverty that I imagined bred great culture.

Dewaine Farria, Amman, Jordan, 1999

I enlisted in the Marine Corps out of high school and volunteered for embassy guard duty at the first opportunity (back then you had to earn the rank of corporal before applying). After finishing a year and change at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, the Marine Detachments in Saint Petersburg and Moscow topped my “wish list.” I jotted the Detachments in Vladivostok and Kyiv into the third and fourth place slots with (as anyone who knows anything about the Marine Corps can attest) inordinately optimistic disregard.  

In December 2000, I stepped off a Ukrainian Airlines flight at Boryspil International Airport, blowing into my palms and looking up at a sky like a dull, grey smear—a twenty-something Marine Sergeant brimming with lion cub swagger. I last visited Ukraine in the summer of 2019, to christen our third child, return my father-in-law’s remains, and get some dental work done—more family business than vacation.

I ended up returning to Kyiv again and again for the same reasons other folks end up returning to Caracas or Cleveland. You meet someone, fall in love, and then discover that the package deal includes their hometown. For me now, Kyiv is friends and family who knew me when I was young. It’s dacha summers of darting swallows, dragonflies, and sun flowers—as well as drunken fistfights where I feared for my life. I’m not sure how Ukraine shaped me as a writer, but I do know that I cannot pretend to be unbiased when discussing the country or its people.                

Punctured Lines: Gabriel studies ballet, and his Soviet émigré teacher Sergei is a big influence in his life. But thinking further about the connections that you draw between the United States and the Soviet and post-Soviet space, you mention Angela Davis receiving USSR’s Lenin Peace Prize. The Soviet Union famously made overtures to prominent African Americans, affecting support for the cause of Black liberation—a bit of political theatre, with some kernel of earnest engagement. I’m curious to know to what extent this history is a part of the context for this novel?

Dewaine Farria: Along with the rest of his generation, the Black Power movement colored my father’s views of international relations. So—despite his career in the United States Air Force—my dad frequently touted Soviet anti-racist and anti-colonial rhetoric as one of our Cold War enemy’s most redeeming features. As I didn’t make any distinction between “Soviet” and “Russian” back then, my dad’s attitude certainly affected the way I approached the work of the Russian writers I read in my teens.

Under Putinism, the Russian Federation continues to exploit the West’s weakness and division, and race continues to play a huge role in this. The Cold War maxim that “Everyone in America is racist and everyone in Russia is Russian” reflects how the American concept of race remains an easily exploited societal fault line. In the novel, I wanted to give a glimpse as to how the political theatre surrounding exploiting this fault line looked to the public within the Soviet Union.  

Incidentally, I first heard the story of Angela Davis receiving the Lenin Peace Prize from one of the drivers at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv back in 2000. Guy named Andre. Big Stevie Wonder fan.

“She had been one of the Чёрные Пантеры,” Andre said of Angela Davis during our conversation, and I immediately committed the phrase to memory: Чёрные Пантеры. Then, he asked, “Whatever happened to them?”

Punctured Lines: Going beyond Soviet sloganeering, what Gabriel encounters on the streets of Kyiv is a whole bunch of unfettered racism as well as some benign curiosity about a Black American traveler. He also meets a local woman, Tamara, and the two begin a passionate love affair. Tamara is quite a sinister presence—she works for an international arms dealer, and her contracts extend to Africa and Asia.

In addition, you introduce a Jewish character, Max, who helps Gabriel and the reader to navigate the complex cultural landscape with nuance and savvy. These and other characters in the story create a fascinating representation of Ukraine at a transitional moment without falling back on stereotypes. I’m curious how you came up with Tamara and Max and what were some of the issues that arose for you in trying to describe Ukraine during the Orange Revolution of 2004?

Dewaine Farria: I don’t attempt to write characters with an identity different from mine unless I already have someone like that in my life whom I love. I don’t necessarily model the character on that person but keeping them in mind sustains my cognizance of the responsibility writing outside of your identity entails. Especially when you’re writing from the first-person POV, as I do with Tamara.

With a Georgian father and Russian mother, Tamara refers to her ethnicity as “mongrel,” but I like to think of it as “Soviet.” Either way, Tamara is a citizen of Ukraine. Max’s ethnicity is Jewish, and he too is a citizen of Ukraine. Two citizens with very different views of the country, due—in part—to their ethnic identities. Gabriel couldn’t have asked for better cultural liaisons.   

For Tamara, the Orange Revolution holds the prospect that her country—the only country she has known for her entire adult life—might finally shed the residue of the empire capitalism defeated. As she puts it in the novel:

Before the Orange Revolution, Kyivites bitched about the wife-beating Afghan war veteran in the flat next door and the bumzhiki drinking themselves blind in Mariyinsky Park. Now we were having our first inferiority-free discussions of the European Union, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Finance was running vacancy ads in Kyiv’s English-language weeklies. Even expats like Gabriel—that is, expats without Ukrainian hyphenated identities—could not ignore the fire in the air. For a stark beautiful moment, my tribe—by far one of the world’s gloomiest—transformed into true believers.

Many of the aviators in the United Nations Department of Peace Operations hail from the former Soviet Union. While working in Mogadishu, I would occasionally find myself inebriated with these guys and—man—did they have some stories. One of which sparked the idea to make Tamara an arms dealer. Matt Potter’s Outlaws Inc: Flying with the World’s Most Dangerous Smugglers and Misha Glenny’s McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld also influenced the world of white, grey, and black arms deals that I wanted Tamara to inhabit. A world that also bleeds into Simon’s chapter in Somalia, “Mercenaries, Missionaries, and Misfits.” 

Max’s perspective as an Eastern European Jew corrects some of Gabriel’s more rosy notions about the Orange Revolution. As Max puts it in this exchange with Gabriel in the novel:

“The hypocrisy of these anti-Semitic Cossacks suddenly pretending to be liberal with all this Orange Revolution nonsense disgusts me. Truly. I swear, I prefer the Russians now. At least you know where you stand with them.”

Before I can get a word in, Max jams a finger into my sternum.

“Save it. I’m an Eastern European Jew, man. I know the depths these motherfuckers can sink to.”

When I served in Kyiv, the U.S. State Department rented a large home in the city’s Syrets district for use as the Marine barracks (usually called the “Marine House” in U.S. diplomatic circles). As the infamous site of the Babi Yar massacre, living in Syrets got me interested in Kyiv’s Jewish community. An interest that led me to Anatoly Kuznetsov’s memoir, Babi Yar—a phenomenal book that, for some reason, no one really talks about much. Kuznetsov named his book for the ravine across the street from the Marine House, where Kyiv’s German occupiers murdered at least 33,771 Jewish children, women, and men.  

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything’s Illuminated influenced how I wanted Max to sound.   

While working in Jerusalem as UN field security officer, I got the idea to make Simon a “re-patriate”—someone who returned to Kyiv after serving his mandatory stint in the Israeli army. The Israelis are by far the most casually racist security personnel I worked with during my career. But, as a former Marine, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I recognized aspects of their police and military culture. But most of all, Max is based on a friend, and he remains one of my favorite characters.         

Punctured Lines: Thinking about the book’s title, I posit that each character in this book experiences his or her own revolutions, both in the very real political sense, as well as metaphorically—revolutions that transform their understandings of themselves and the world around them. What does this title mean to you and how did you come up with it?  

Dewaine Farria: Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview with Adrian Boneberger at the WBT podcast. In his explanation of the title, he’d found a correlation between the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union and American race relations. I just listened to the episode again and his explanation still sounds pretty good. But then your explanation feels right on point, too… Far be it from me to tell readers how to interpret the title!    

Punctured Lines: One of the central themes of this novel, I believe, is the culture of violence to which Black and Brown kids are so often subjected growing up in the United States. Simon, perhaps, comes the closest to embracing this violence and turning it into a kind of art, first by joining the military, and later as he becomes a mixed martial arts fighter. I see Gabriel attempting to reflect on this experience of violence in his fiction. Michael, Gabriel’s older brother, has the most exceptional response to violence. As a teen, he suffers from the Dostoevskian “sacred disease”—epilepsy, and his epileptic episodes often seem to occur in anticipation of, or as a reaction to fighting around him. He starts to understand himself as a bisexual, becomes a fashion writer, and moves to New York City. In the same Q&A with Book Culture you mention being heavily influenced by the work of James Baldwin. Am I right in reading Dostoevsky and Baldwin as two of the prototypes for this character? I’d love to know what your additional influences in writing this novel have been.

Dewaine Farria: I drew heavily from both Dostoevsky and Baldwin for the character of Michael. Thom Jones’s story, “The Pugilist at Rest,” also played a big role in my conception of the left temporal lobe fits that plague Michael during his teen years. Here’s Jones’s Vietnam veteran narrator describing “the sacred disease”:  

Dostoyevski {sic} was nervous and depressed, a tormented hypochondriac, a compulsive writer obsessed with religious and philosophic themes. He was hyperloquacious, raving, etc. & etc. His gambling addiction is well known. By most accounts he was a sick soul.

The peculiar and most distinctive thing about his epilepsy was that in the split second before his fit—in the aura, which is in fact officially a part of the attack—Dostoyevski experienced a sense of felicity, of ecstatic well-being unlike anything an ordinary mortal could hope to imagine. It was the experience of satori. Not the nickel-and-dime satori of Abraham Maslow, but the Supreme. He said that he wouldn’t trade ten years of life for this feeling, and I, who have had it, too, would have to agree.

Punctured Lines: Your book came out in December 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, and now Ukraine, the country that plays such an important role in this book, is under attack from Russia. Your characters feel so alive to me that I’m tempted to ask, how Simon, Michael, and Gabriel are holding up through it all. I am also impressed with how well the characters and the world you’ve created prepare us for this violence that broke out in the real world: you pointed out so many problems that have been brewing for decades. I would love to know what you think writers can do in the face of war, and if your thoughts on this have changed after the publication of this novel?

Dewaine Farria: Thank you so much for saying that, Olga. I really appreciate the care and attention with which you read my work.  

The war in Ukraine is this generation’s Spanish Civil War—the conflict that future generations will look back on and wonder why good people didn’t do more. This generation’s response to nationalist-fueled authoritarianism will define it. As Timothy Snyder pointed out recently in the New York Times, people continue to disagree, often vehemently, over what constitutes fascism—but today’s Russia meets most of the criteria:

It has a cult around a single leader, Vladimir Putin. It has a cult of the dead, organized around World War II. It has a myth of a past golden age of imperial greatness, to be restored by a war of healing violence — the murderous war on Ukraine.

In many ways, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a war against the humiliation that many Russians felt during the tracksuit banditry that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. Grievance-fueled nationalism has always been a precursor to war and revolution. In such circumstances, writers would do well to remember that all art is political, and we owe allegiance—above all—to the truth.

Punctured Lines: This novel was such a wonderful read, and I can’t wait to see where your writing takes us next. If you care to share what you’re working on now, I would love to hear about it!

Dewaine Farria: I’ve been hard at work on a dystopic short story collection that stitches together myriad points of view and overlapping timeframes to de-familiarize the brutality of America’s criminal justice system, highlighting the connections between the marginalized and disaffected the world over. The project focuses on the central premise of both militarized policing and mass incarceration: the view of certain communities as outside the social contract, subject to the state’s authority, but without the full protections of citizenship. It has been a slog. As Oklahoman Ralph Ellison put it, “the writing of novels is the damnedest thing that I ever got into, and I’ve been into some damnable things.”

Please donate to help people fleeing from violence in Ukraine. Dewaine Farria says: “As a former UN staff member, I know that UNHCR and UNICEF are doing good work in Ukraine now.” 

Dewaine Farria’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, CRAFT, War on the Rocks, the Rumpus, Literary Hub, and the anthology Our Best War Stories: Prize-winning Poetry and Prose from the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Award. Tobias Wolff selected Farria’s debut novel, Revolutions of All Colors, as the winner of Syracuse University’s 2019 Veterans Writing Contest. Farria holds an M.A. from the University of Oklahoma and an M.F.A. from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has received fellowships from the National Security Education Program, the National Endowment of the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. As a U.S. Marine, he served in Jordan and Ukraine. Besides his stint in the military, Farria spent most of his professional life working for the United Nations, with assignments in the North Caucasus, Kenya, Somalia, and Occupied Palestine. You can find more of his writing at dewainefarria.com.