“To Understand Russia’s Complexities, Turn to Its Contemporary Literature”

Epiphany published a blog post I wrote, highlighting three fascinating recent translations from Russian.

A FRIEND’S TEN-YEAR-OLD SON son recently came up to me at a party to ask, “You’re from Russia, right?” Sensing caution in my assent, the boy hesitated before asking the next question, clearly trying to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t cause offense but would express his curiosity. He finally came up with, “It’s a very violent place, isn’t it?”

Whenever I’m asked to summarize the entire country of Russia at a party, I invariably recall a scene from a popular Soviet movie…

Click here to read the piece.

Feminist reading list

During my interview with Seville artist Anna Jonsson, I asked her about her sources of inspiration. I ended up having to cut this thread in our conversation from the essay that recently went up on Electric Literature–it was a tangent in the scope of that essay–but it’s a fascinating list of artists and writers, and I want to leave it here.

Anna Jonsson wrote,

“Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren—of course. All of her books and her illustrators. Tove Jansson and her Moomin stories and her drawings. Gitta Sereny, Oliver Sacks, Salman Rushdie, Bodil Malmsten, Claire Bretecher and her drawings, Linda Nochlin and her photograph ‘Buy My Bananas’ made an impact on me. Lately, I’ve been reading and crying and reading and crying over Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘War’s Unwomanly Face.’”

Jonsson’s list struck me as specific to her background and training. It was also a useful guide to an aspiring feminist art and literary critic. Some authors had achieved international fame; others had been less well translated. Astrid Lingren and Tove Jansson were two names I’d been familiar with since childhood. Oliver Sacks, Salman Rushdie; Svetlana Alexievich had recently won the Nobel prize for literature, and I’d been reading extended excerpts from her books, though still working on my stamina to hold as much pain as is necessary to read them cover to cover.

I looked up Linda Nochlin’s 1972 photograph “Buy My Bananas.” It turned out to be a take on a late 19th Century photograph in which a female nude is depicted with a tray of fruit, in a pose that suggests that both she and the fruit are for sale. Nochlin’s model is a male nude, photographed in the same pose. The effect of this gender reversal is both ridiculous and outrageous.

I was able to track down one other lead from Jonsson’s list. Bodil Malmsten’s memoir about moving from Sweden to France, was published in 2005 by Harvill, in Frank Perry’s translation, as “The Price of Water in Finistère.” A Swedish poet and a novelist with more than dozen books to her name, Malmsten wrote with wisdom and humor about starting life anew, at fifty-five, in an unfamiliar place, with only a cursory knowledge of French. Malmsten plants an elaborate garden that she describes in detail, drawing from these descriptions elegant metaphors about writing. “Like the first fifteen days for a plant, the first fifteen words of a story have to contain everything the story needs to survive.” Finding my way back to creative writing after having a baby, I found in this book just the right kind of inspiration.

Essay on Electric Literature

My essay about a trip to Spain, motherhood, Seville sculptor Anna Jonsson and Spanish suffragist Clara Campoamor is up on Electric Literature. Here’s the opening:

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My husband, baby, and I were on vacation in Andalusia. The thirteen month-old napped in the car while we drove to the next destination, the historical city center of Seville, then put him into a pack and tried to take in a site or two. We needed food. A recent rain had emptied most outdoor tables. We dove inside a restaurant on the Plaza de la Pescadería. The baby refused to stay put. He couldn’t yet walk, and his attempts at crawling his way across dirty floors to cobblestone squares made me nervous. I gulped down my meal, and, while my husband ate, carried the baby to a window. A few neighborhood kids were chasing a ball through the puddles. Baby was mesmerized — for five whole minutes.

Soccer. My eyes rested on the ball, tracing its movements. The kids pushed it between the empty café tables, using two of them as goalposts. One team took charge and ran the ball toward the pedestal of a small statue….

Read the rest of the piece here.