Distancing Essay in The Believer

Some of my best writing has originated from prompts. Writer Daniel Levin Becker, a member of OULIPO, has provided at least two of them. The most recent piece was for the column he’s doing at The Believer Magazine called Distancing: A Homebound Registry of Other Places and Times and the Albums That Take Us There. Here I wrote about being twenty and feeling lonely as an international student on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology.

Sheltering in place is making me sentimental, I fear. This conversion project has been on my to-do list for a decade, and suddenly I’ve made the time for it, so now I’m listening to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and it’s 1999 and I’m on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology, a former farm that still sounds like a farm at night. I can hear all kinds of insects whose names I don’t know in English or in Russian, because—well, this is a different continent from the one I grew up on, and surely these are different insects. I have no idea. I’m studying business. It’s July, two in the morning, and I’m circling the athletic field with headphones in my ears.

https://believermag.com/logger/distancing-7-goodbye-yellow-brick-road/

Read the rest of my essay and don’t miss the other pieces in this column, taken together they make for an amazing musical mix.

Profile of Marie Ross published in World Literature Today

I recently posted a review of Marie Ross’s recording of Brahms’s Clarinet Sonatas and Trio, and now World Literature Today published my profile of Marie Ross where she talks about her journey to this recording and the problems she’s encountered on the way. She’s got such a fascinating story to tell.

Until recently, Ross says, musicians studying historic performance overlooked the late Romantic period. Brahms died in 1897, removed from our time by only a few generations of players, and many believe that contemporary performing practices and instruments have only Brahms Brahms wrote his four clarinet pieces for chamber ensembles late in his career, in 1891 and 1894, having already declared his intention to retire from composing. He was inspired to write these works after hearing Richard Mühlfeld, a clarinetist whose sound he found particularly warm and expressive. To approach Mühlfeld’s sound, Ross found clarinets made by a legendary German maker, Oskar Oehler. She uses two instruments, one that was made in the 1890s, and the other in 1905. The latter instrument has ties to a musician in the same orchestra in which Mühlfeld also had played. Mühlfeld, Ross says in the liner notes to her CD, is on the record for recommending Oehler clarinets.

https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/blog/cultural-cross-sections/marie-rosss-brahms-olga-zilberbourg

Read the review online, and buy the CD. Buying the music is the best way to support our recording artists!

Women in Public Art, my essay in World Literature Today

My essay about the movement to increase representations of women in monumental public art was published by World Literature Today:

San Francisco, where I live, is, on par with Seville, a popular tourist destination. As a writer, I often wonder what images of the city people carry away from their visits here. Perhaps it’s the fog curling over the Golden Gate Bridge. Perhaps it’s the souvenir shops at Fisherman’s Wharf. Likely, it’s the people sleeping in abject poverty on the city sidewalks. If asked what notable person comes to mind when you think of San Francisco, the name that a visitor rattles off might reflect their own walk of life, but be it that of a businessperson, a film director, an entertainer, a politician, a scientist, an environmentalist, or a computer engineer, more likely than not, it will be a male name.

Despite the fact that women in the United States attained the right to vote nearly one hundred years ago, we are far from attaining parity in most forms of public life.

https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/blog/cultural-cross-sections/women-public-art-essay-olga-zilberbourg

Here’s Lava Thomas’s design of the Maya Angelou monument that I dream about seeing on the streets of San Francisco.

Did the Russian Wizard of Oz Subvert Soviet Propaganda?

I wrote for LitHub about one of my favorite books growing up.

Volkov’s Kansas is populated by poor farmers, but despite of it—or, in fact, because of it—it’s a friendly place. Volkov leans on the political ideas of the Communist International (Comintern) movement, particularly popular before in the 1930s Stalin began executing its members. Comintern was officially disbanded during World War II, but some of its ideals were allowed to live on. As children, we were taught to believe that all poor people of the world were united in their strife against the wealthy bourgeois exploiters, whether these poor people lived in Kansas or in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, where Volkov was born. From her house, Ellie can see the houses of her equally poor farmer neighbors; they are her friends who play with her and share with her the little they have. To us young readers, Kansas seemed in fact so wonderful that even in the middle of Cold War, we dreamed of going there as though it itself was the Magic Land.

Read the rest of this piece on LitHub.

“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.