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You were a painter before you were a writer but words, you've said, started to take over your canvases. Can you tell me more about that?
When I came to the U.S., most of my past - my experiences, my memories, and the Russian language itself, the only language I spoke at that time - suddenly stopped being a part of my everyday life. I began to feel as if I was living split in two.
One part of me was mutely poking around Phoenix, Arizona, basically surviving. My family had come to the Arizona without an immigration status, without any money and with about 20 English words between the four of us. Because of this, my early years in the U.S. yielded many experiences that rivaled my Soviet childhood in their absurdity.
Meanwhile, I admired Repin and Surikov, Serov and Vrubel - Russian artists barely known in the West. I had a head full of Bulgakov and Pasternak, Mandelstam and Brodsky. I also knew how to bribe an HR manager with cognak, I knew that a pioneer scarf melts on contact with a hot frying pan, I knew how to fit a bicycle into a coffin-sized Soviet elevator, and how Moscow pedestrian underpasses smell in July. All these, and a myriad other formerly real things calcified inside my mind into a kind of dormant lump, a private culture that I had no choice but to lug around with me because it made me who I was. I felt like an alien with a suitcase full of stories. All these stories invaded my paintings and nearly destroyed them.
I have always been sheepish about writing, but I felt a certain license to use it inside a painting. Since text was only a visual element, I was less terrified of potential linguistic slip-ups and embarrassments in English, or, when it came to Russian, of writing something trite. With all these stories to tell, I wanted my paintings to be explicit and epic, like novels. I wanted them to contain and explain my two distinct identities, and I couldn't stand any ambiguity. So I began using more and more text and symbols in my paintings, cramming every corner of the canvas with literal meaning.
A more talented artist could have made this work. But I couldn't get past the conservative habits beat into my brain by years of Soviet art school, especially the realist conventions of space and volume. In my increasingly awful paintings, a mish-mash of text and allegorical imagery floated in a kind of confused surrealist murk. Someone called what I was doing magical realism, which was upsetting to me because I can't stand magical realism. I managed to come up with some angry, bulky titles for these works too, like Lead Game and My Mama the Revolution.
When I went to graduate school, I briefly switched to doing installations. One was about mail-order brides. It involved a rubber mallet, a gilded toilet and plastic spacemen in wedding dresses. Another was a village with houses made of immigration forms.
Still the problem was the same - these were too ambiguous for my liking, they weren't funny, except in a one-liner kind of way, and they were too didactic to be any good.
I had to get my MFA, so I fell back on my Soviet training and made a series of large-scale landscapes of decimated inner suburbs in Phoenix.
These were the best paintings I've ever done. For once, they weren't stories disguised as paintings, and they were neither awkward nor ridiculous. Still, even as I was painting them, they bored me. It was around that time that I finally began to write.
How do you think painting has informed your writing?
I painted many characters and environments that I later wrote about. In Petropolis, I'm thinking specifically about the landscapes of Asbestos 2 and Arizona. I also kept painting this girl in a Soviet school uniform with airplane wings strapped on, just kind of hanging there in the murky allusive nonsense that I mentioned before. She had different faces, but I think of her as the prototype of Sasha Goldberg.
I also owe some good work habits to my Soviet art education. I studied art in a no-frills, mercilessly academic setting. I remember being four years old, sitting in front of an easel for what seemed like hours during a still-life session. This continued until I left for the U.S. When I was studying toward an art college entrance exam (the exam would consist of drawing a nude and painting a still life), my teacher walked around the studio with a butter knife. When he didn't like a part of someone's painting, he would come up from behind and scrape it off, and the person would start all over again. This was unbearable at the time, but now I'm grateful for that sort of discipline, because it gave me the tenacity to keep working through a problem even when it feels as if I'm beating my head against the wall.
You yourself are a Russian emigre who, like Sasha, your protagonist, studied art before coming to America. Are there any other parallels between her story and yours?
Like Sasha, the first place I lived in America was Arizona. I couldn't resist sending Sasha there because no matter where you come from Arizona has to be the ultimate culture shock destination. It's a little bit like moving to Mars - the landscape, the weather, and the outlandish ways people ignore the reality of it all: green lawns and golf courses in the desert, huge air-conditioned houses, Christmas lights wrapped around cacti. I have also lived in Chicago, and I now live in Brooklyn. At one point, I was a surly and ungrateful subject of charity. But I wasn't a mail-order bride. I wasn't a teenage mother. Petropolis is not a memoir. All the characters in it are invented, and most of them, men as well as women, have some part of me in them.
Motherhood is an important thread throughout Petropolis. How has being a mother affected your art and your writing?
Motherhood not only affected my writing, it enabled it. Very early on I fell in love with the English language, but I never dared to write in it. After all, I only spoke it for a few years. I used to write, "English is my second language" on my term papers in college, because I was worried that I may have written something that might expose me as an idiot, unless the professor knew I was a foreigner. It didn't help that as soon as I opened my mouth, I heard "Where are you from?" It all made me feel that the English language was someone else's tool, like a chainsaw that I was clumsily borrowing. I certainly didn't dare to take it and use it for my own creative purposes.
But when I had my first child, I finally felt the sense of authority necessary to start writing. Wow, I managed to make and to keep alive a real-life human being - what was the English language compared to that? I know this is not the best logic, but that was how I felt.
When I finished graduate school and we moved to New York City, my daughter was two years old. My husband got a full-time job to support us in the city, and I, the person with an art degree, naturally ended up staying home. My daughter was one of those kids who viewed any group activity as a form of torture. She was terrified of daycare, music teachers, birthday parties, art classes, children's movies, playgrounds, and other children. All she wanted to do was sit on my lap, talk and read.
Though I love her to death, the two years I spent at home with her were incredibly mentally draining. I had no room to paint in our tiny apartment, I couldn't really afford a studio space, so when my husband came home from work in the evenings, I would shove the kid at him, grab my laptop and tear out the door to the nearest coffee house. Writing became a necessity, like oxygen or water. I can't tell you how much I looked forward to writing, because it kept my brain alive. If I didn't write, I'd slip into Dora-the-Explorer-induced Alzheimer's disease.
Another good thing about kids - they keep you grounded in reality. Writing is a very narcissistic activity. It can swallow and subsume real-life relationships, when whatever happens in the novel, the characters that you made up yourself become more real than life. I have felt this from time to time, and it's a little scary. It's nice to have something that is so firmly outside of that, so unambiguously more important than art. Kids help put publishing in perspective too, keep you from being too caught up in either your successes or your failures.
I remember when my agent called to tell me that Petropolis was going to be published. The whole time she was telling me about the book deal, my seven-year-old daughter was standing behind me, screaming, "Get Back to the Stove!" When I hung up, I was angry with her for this weirdly pre-feminist outburst. After I yelled at her, she explained that her class had gone on a field trip to the Manhattan Fire Museum, where they saw a video about a boy who'd left some French fries on the stove and set his apartment on fire. So she was terrified because I temporarily walked away from some boiling pasta.
So yes, the book deal was huge - for me, but for my child the big thing was the fear that any minute we were going to go up in flames. The kids are like alarms - they keep me, as an artist and a writer, from focusing entirely on my work and myself. It can be really annoying, but I think it's a good thing.
Can you tell me about the poem that inspired the title, Petropolis? And what are some of your other literary influences?
It's a poem by Osip Mandelstam. Osip Mandelstam was a Russian poet, a contemporary of Akhmatova and a member of the Acmeist movement. Mandelstam died in a Siberian camp in 1938, and his poetry was banned from publication in the Soviet Union. When I was a kid, Gorbachev instituted freedom of speech, and many previously banned works were published in Russia for the first time. For me and for my group of friends, these previously banned poets were like rock stars - we memorized their verses and the minute aspects of their biographies. This wasn't unusual - the whole country was obsessed with the history of past repressions, especially with Stalinism.
Mandelstam's poetry happens to be incredibly complex - it's full of classical allusions that my Soviet education didn't prepare me to understand. But teenagers are suckers for all things tragic, and Mandelstam's life was certainly that. I think, for me as a kid, the fact that he was essentially killed for his poetry and that his poetry was banned was more important than the actual meaning of his poems, which I loved with passion, memorized, and wildly misinterpreted.
In my book, Mrs. Goldberg, Sasha's mother, also misinterprets Mandelstam's words. In the Petropolis poem, the line "At a terrifying height a monstrous ship" refers to German air raids over Petrograd. Mrs. Goldberg thinks it refers to the city itself. Mrs. Goldberg, however, belongs to an earlier generation than I do. She has read Mandelstam in samizdat, and she uses his poetry in a different way - as cultural currency, as a password for entry into the "intelligentsia" class. In the Soviet Union, people had very few cultural choices. There was no pop culture, and no material wealth. But people like to differentiate themselves from their neighbors and crowd into classes. So there was this over-emphasis on high culture. "Cultured" people, "intelligentsia" liked to distinguish themselves from the "proletarians." Mrs. Goldberg, the craziest character in the book, is the extreme manifestation of this.
I chose this particular poem for another reason - I found that it was probably the only one that I could decently translate. I really admire the translators of Russian poetry - in so many ways they're attempting the impossible. Rhyme is an integral part of most Russian poems. But in English, rhyming poetry doesn't sound so good. And the translator is always striving to find an almost impossible combination: to preserve the rhyme and meter, and to be faithful to the imagery, at the same time. The poem I used in my book is unique in that it translates pretty easily, with minimal tweaking and bending.
As for my other literary influences: About once a year I re-read War and Peace. Tolstoy is my literary meat and potatoes. I love Nabokov. I avoid reading his books when I'm writing though, because he is a really powerful influence whether I want him to be or not. Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita" was huge to me when I was a kid in Russia. I just re-read it, and it's still great, except for the Jesus parts. But even those are understandable given the book's history. I like Philip Roth. I know I'm all over the map here, but if I were to choose my favorite writer, it would be Alice Munro, for the way she writes about sex and class in her earlier stories. I also really love Grace Paley. And Jonathan Lethem. I loved Fortress of Solitude. Finally, I'm completely awed by Gary Shteyngardt's Absurdistan. I think it's perfect in every way.
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