Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboedov
Translated by Betsy Hulick
Back in 2018, I reviewed a fascinating book for Shiny New Books called Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar by Yuri Tynianov. That book was a fictionalised retelling of the life of an intriguing Russian author Alexander Griboedov; a friend and contemporary of Pushkin, he’s probably best known for his play, “Woe from Wit”. So when I heard the that Columbia University Press were bringing out a shiny new translation in their wonderful Russian Library imprint, I was very keen to explore it! Reading plays is not something I do on a regular basis; however, this is the second in a fairly short space of time (as I loved my re-encounter with The Government Inspector back in November). Must be something to do with the Russians… ;D
Griboedov had a fascinating and ultimately dramatic life; as well as being an author…
I’m celebrating Juneteenth today by reading Ijeoma Oluo So You Want to Talk about Race. Though I’ve lived in the US for almost 24 years now, I’m still uncomfortable with the conversations about race. Most of the time I deflect to the territory where I feel myself more confidently — literature or “the international angle” (aka Russia). Though obviously conversations about race are hugely important in literature, there’s no good reason to shirk them in other areas of my life. As a writer and a workshop leader, as an editor and a blogger, I have to own the white privileges that I have and educate myself about the ways of supporting and amplifying the voices of the Black writers in my community and participating in other aspects of anti-racist work. So grateful to Oluo, Ibram X. Kendi, and other Black and Brown writers for their instructive and powerful books.
In the approximately month and a half that California has been on lockdown, I have barely read anything. This seems counter-intuitive, since I basically read for a living. It also feels like a particularly vulnerable admission, given how much of my personal identity is tied to being a serious reader of “high” literature; not reading feels like failing somehow. But all I’ve managed in the last few weeks is Pushkin’s very short “Пир во время чумы” (“A Feast in Time of Plague”) because it was mentioned on Twitter, a few pages of Proust’s Swann’s Way (thanks to a Twitter reading challenge), and skimming the Chekhov stories I’m teaching this quarter (which I’ve read many times before because I would never skim for teaching. Just to be clear.). My concentration, which was bad even before the pandemic, is abysmal. Zoom has taken over my life. I spend too much time on…
Audre Lorde’s name and work is familiar to many of us who have studied feminist movements in high school and college. Some of her seminal essays, including “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” and “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” are commonly included in syllabuses of literature classes and used as entry points into the conversation about the politics of literature and how combinations of race, gender, and sexuality affect one’s construction of self and point of view on the world.
Less well known is Lorde’s essay “Notes from a Trip to Russia” that opens her book Sister Outsider. A footnote to this essay explains that Lorde spent two weeks in the Soviet Union in 1976 as an American observer to the African-Asian Writers Conference sponsored by the Union of Soviet Writers. Having returned from that trip, she finds herself haunted by it in her dreams, including a…
It just so happens that three of my friends from writing workshops are coming out with their debuts this spring. As it turns out, this spring is a very strange time to be bringing out a book into the world — coronavirus has upended most book parties and closed many bookstores. Parties are moving online in some fun, creative solutions, yet I fear that many writers and many bookstores are going to suffer for it.
All that is an aside more than a preamble to my intro of four exciting new books. I know these projects closely, from reading multiple drafts, and I cannot wait to see how they look between the covers.
The Pelton Papers by Mari Coates, is a novel from the life of Agnes Pelton, a modernist painter who died in 1961 and is only now finally finds recognition. An exhibit of her work is currently on tour around the nation, and who knows how the coronavirus will affect people’s ability to view the art. Once you read the book, though, you are going to be looking for this art in every museum out there, my promise.
Home Baked by Alia Volz. I first heard a part of this memoir ages ago, when Alia performed it at a Litquake reading. I have the image of baby Alia in a stroller as her mother pushes her down San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, peddling pot brownies that she keeps in a duffel under the stroller. She’s known as The Brownie Lady and is selling to the local business people and street acts. Later, I’ve seen several iterations of Alia’s memoir in workshop, and I can’t wait to see how the scene I fell in love with fits in with the rest.
Kept Animals by Kate Milliken. In a typical workshop, people bring in about 15-20 pages of writing for participants to discuss. For novels, this can be deadly–the format completely breaks up the flow of a novel, and participants lose track of characters and story lines from one month to the next. Commenting is a challenge, because the participant really should hold most of her questions to herself. With this novel, I remember thinking, how is today’s chapter even a part of the same book? The pieces seemed to be so different from one another, and it took me a few months to start piecing it together in my mind. I’m so ready to just dive into this book.
BONUS: A few more exciting spring books by writers I admire. Please buy them and spread the word!
The impetus for creating this post came from a recent Twitter discussion. We at Punctured Lines decided to accept a dare and came up with a list of notable Russian titles available in English translation from the last decade. This has been an opportunity to take stock of the years 2009-2019, both to remember the books we’ve read and to look back at those that we might have missed.
In this task, we relied heavily on Lisa Hayden’s blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf, where Lisa keeps chronological track of the English translations – our deep gratitude for creating and maintaining this resource. Our methodology for choosing among all those works was based on several factors. Rather obviously, for our purposes we only considered works by women. We also wanted to highlight writers whose names may not be very familiar to English-speaking readers but whose work we feel deserves wider exposure…
On November 9th, 2019, Olga Livshin, Dmitri Manin, and I hosted an off-off-site at ALTA (American Literary Translators Conference) in Rochester, NY. Olga Livshin introduced A LIFE REPLACED, her hybrid collection combining own and translated poems; and I introduced LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES, my English-language collection of fiction. Both books deal with issues around parent and children relationships, immigration, and processing the complex inheritance that we brought to the US from the Soviet Union.
To open the evening, we staged a brief performance of Dmitri Manin’s translations from the work of Genrikh Sapgir. A Soviet Jewish poet, Sapgir combines a whimsical imagination with the sharp eye for telling details. Watching this video a few weeks after the performance, I’m surprised to see how effectively Sapgir’s images and Dmitri Manin’s words helped us to recreate a certain spirit of the late Soviet Union, a kind of festive…
I’m delighted to announce my first collection of stories in English, Like Water and Other Stories, will appear later this year from WTAW Press. This news is all the more gratifying because I’ve been a fan and a supporter of this press from their beginning a few years ago, and have loved every book they have put out so far. Check out their website, and here’s the announcement.
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…
My flash fiction “Companionship,” which won the Litquake contest last year, was short listed for “Wow Us” contest by Brilliant Flash Fiction. The magazine published it on their website here. Scroll down to read my story that begins with this:
At three years old Michael did decide to return to his mother’s stomach. His mother shifted things around and made room under her heart. . . .