Thursday, August 21, 2014
Three Questions to Three Women Writers, or Russians on Russian... in English (by Margarita Meklina)
My interviewees are three Russian women writers. Each of them – even if they agree to this statement or not – is known for excellent and highly original experimental prose or poetry.
Maria Rybakova, an Assistant Professor of Classics & Humanities at San Diego State University, was born in 1973 in Moscow but now lives in Southern California and writes and publishes her prose in Russian.
Olga Livshin, Head of the Russian Program at Boston University, was born in 1978 in Odessa but now lives in Massachusetts and writes poems in Russian and English.
Natalia Rubanova, who has been working as an editor for several major publishing houses in Moscow, was born in 1974 in Ryazan' and writes in Russian.
I asked these three Russian writers three questions and this is what they answered.
What is an “experiment” for a writer who writes in her own language but who lives surrounded by a foreign language in a foreign land…?
I would never attempt an experiment for the experiment's sake. I always seek a form that would be suitable for the content of the novel (i.e., for what I want to say). For example, when writing about love, I think the form of (unanswered) letters seems very fitting, since an attempt at communication is always central in the feelings of love. The life of a translator of an epic poem begs to be written in verse form. And so on. It is very important for me that the reader understands me, that the style does not overshadow the sense in any way. Unclear writing is bad writing, I think.
As for writing in a language different from the one spoken around me, I am a bit lost for an answer because I first became an author while living abroad, and it has never been otherwise for me. I am sure it plays a role, without a doubt. There is a sense of writing equalling remembering (the language, the people). I write in a language that I left when I was twenty. And in some way, when I write, I am reminded of how I was before I was twenty, sad and isolated and attention-seeking. Yet my everyday (non-writing) persona is pretty well-adjusted. That's just one split; there are probably many more. But each of us is many people at once, you don't have to leave the country you were born in to realize that.
Olga, I'm going to ask you the same question: what is an “experiment” for a writer who writes in a foreign language (English) but who hasn't forgotten her native one (Russian)?
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that to experiment is to “discover something unknown,” but also, paradoxically, to “test a hypothesis or illustrate some known truth.” In my twenties, I was fascinated by the first meaning of the two. I thought mixing Russian and English within the boundaries of a poem was going to lead to a new and explosive language. It was like the Impressionists putting paint brushstrokes of contrasting colors next to each other on a canvas, which led them to a new esthetic. And then there was the notion that I came to this country as a teenager, without really wanting to be here, and although my English was serviceable, I felt a little out of place with my perceptions of things most of the time. It was constant work to try to repress or conceal these perceptions in order to fit in, and sometimes I just wanted out. That was another reason why I wanted to import some semblance of Russian into English into the text. To turn the tables on the mostly American, native-speaker reader: what is it like not to understand, to be the other?
Then I realized I was missing the musicality of poetry: Russian uses a different alphabet, so most readers wouldn’t have the vaguest idea of what certain parts of the poem sounded like. It also started to feel a little mean and condescending – imposing unreadable graphemes on the reader. I do like the second OED definition, the one that refers to illustrating a truth, or a hypothesis about what the truth might be. And the deepest truth of one’s emotions and thoughts is often a composite. I think of the psyche along the lines of Bakhtinian heteroglossia, a patchwork of voices we carry within us. Many of mine were or are Russian in origin, but I think it’s fine to translate them into English. (Or vice versa—I also write poetry in Russian). What matters are the vicarious presences of the people who left their mark.
A task that I think is especially urgent for bicultural writers is to uncover the lived truths of power imbalances, misplaced expectations and stereotypes, in our home countries as well as our new homes. The broad expectations of what people think you are as a new American alone are often so tragi-comical. Isn’t it wonderful how there are twenty kinds of soap in our grocery stores? Aren’t you grateful that we gave you a job? Why are you still speaking your native language? These human experiences might be silent or marginal, but they’re quite real. One author who writes about these kinds of issues with poignancy and naturalness is the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The discrepancy she shows is that people are so very similar despite national boundaries, yet immigrants are often treated as less than equal, even less than human.
Natalia, here’s a question for you: what is an “experiment” for you, for a writer who writes in her own language and lives in a country where you were born?
I never got immersed into “experimental” prose on purpose, even though some literary critics consider it experimental because of their [backwards] mentality and love for a so-called “tradition” based on a bleak, boring realism. Luckily, my texts do not fit there: they are a specificity of my brain, a physiology of soul, if one can say so. To write as one feels. I never think what “label” these “text workers” would attach to my texts.
Olga, could you please list the pluses and minuses of anthologies which put together writers based on their gender or sexual orientation or community (e.g., “Appalachian prose” or “Poems from Russian provinces”)?
Wait, there is an anthology of gay provincial Russian women who immigrated to Appalachia? Seriously, I think it’s the power of the authors to sweep us away into their worlds that makes a difference between a not-so-great anthology and a terrific one. If we are taken into the universes of today’s downtrodden, or those who the world believes to be fine but they are not – that is great. Still, even in the case of writers who have a strong group identity, it’s the imaginative stories they tell, not the label or slogan, that give credence to the group. The label is familiar and uninteresting. It’s the stories that break out. They give the group a kind of rough, gleaming texture, something the reader might hold on to and care about.
Natalia, and what's your opinion about such anthologies?
Frankly speaking, I see no pluses – any “highly specialized” anthology narrows down the audience and inadvertently labels its authors in a certain way.
Maria, do you agree with Natalia's statement? What do you think?
If it gives new writers some sort of exposure, then perhaps it is a good opportunity for beginning authors to be published. Although I am not sure who reads that sort of anthologies. I am afraid they may be just gathering dust on bookshop shelves. A more reasonable tendency is to organize anthologies focusing on a literary movement: say, an anthology of Beatnik poetry or something. Or a collection of ghost stories, or true-crime writing.
And now my third question to the three of you. Let's assume what you write can be characterized as “women's experimental prose.” What do you lack to succeed (e.g., time, inspiration, conversations with someone who shares your desires and writing style, money, bookstores to give readings at, positive examples, etc.)?
I think it’s so interesting that writing can populate all of those places of lack you listed. When I was pregnant, I dragged my feet to work, an anti-nausea lollipop sticking out of my mouth while teaching (Russian 101 / Morning Sickness 1,000). I thought the writing life was done for an indefinite period of time. Then Scott Turner Schofield, a wonderful performer who directed my first play, suggested that I could do a poetry performance about pregnancy, and I did, at the Spenard Jazz Festival in Alaska where I was living. I was carrying a son – which I thought meant, among other things, that for a short time in my life I was simultaneously both sexes. So I danced with a onesie that had a man’s tie painted on it, and I serenaded my yet-unborn son as I danced. This was so light-hearted and jubilant… I was high on love.
Then, when I had him, the labor was complicated and I was sick for a long time afterwards. But somehow poetry started puttering sometime around when Nathan was four months old. I guess I was getting used to the idea my child and I might start enjoying a close, adoring relationship without the medical shadows hanging over, at least some of the time. In tough times you have a certain amount of darkness and quiet. I sat in our puffy, broken, fake-suede-upholstered rocking chair at 2 AM and wrote lines in my head about Nathan while rocking him to sleep. I don’t think I was thinking anyone would read these poems. They came because of this hiding, and grief, and uninterrupted love. Obstacles can be interesting places to visit.
Maria, what's your view on the obstacles?
If there is anything that prevents me from writing more, then it's laziness. Although, of course, if I could quit my day job, I would quit it immediately. But part of me thinks that hating one's day job may be a good thing for writing, actually. I think it's a good thing to hate everything except writing. Not because writing is so good, but because the world and people are so god-awful. Anger is a very inspiring emotion, I find.
As for women's writing, I never felt a part of that, because I never felt as a woman. I have a woman's anatomy and I have sex with men, but I never felt as a woman (or a as man for that matter). I always felt neither female nor male, but just some sort of a vague “person.” It suited me just fine. I never spent much time with other people, and so I never felt any need to define myself.
Natalia, and what about you, “women's experimental prose” and obstacles?
This is a funny question. “Women’s experimental prose.” Why “women’s”? There is just prose, and there is just literature… Uzh skolko raz tverdili miru (the world was told this so many times)… Is it normal to divide prose for F and M? Isn't this similar to signs on bathrooms? My prose is not an experiment for me… and what do I lack? A publisher who is a soul mate and who is ready to invest not only in my prose collections, but also into at least some minimal PR: nowadays, to announce and sell a new book without PR and promotion is quite unrealistic.
And that's why we are working here, on this Tumbler, on our own PR, promoting ourselves and the women writers' anthology Wreckage of Reason II where I'm one of the authors. About myself: I was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the US right in time to celebrate my 22nd birthday, but – as my short story “Jump” from WORII clearly shows – I'm still torn between English and Russian, between the United States where I’ve spent the past twenty years and between my country of birth.