This is Part One of a two-part blog series by Sophia Shalmiyev. We'll be featuring her Playlist tomorrow.
Describe your latest book.
is a hybrid that is billed as a memoir. I began the book after my second child was born and I was brought low, corporeally, spiritually, and creatively, by the tugs and pulls on my body, time, and brain. I decided that I would get militant about my writing, as militant as I had always wished to be about my feminism, à la Silvia Federici. It had been sitting in me as a lyrical, autofiction novel in the French tradition, and eventually all the disparate parts of the characters and dialogue I was hearing in my head started to find solid ground. I write about a missing mother, one I barely knew, and had left behind in the crumbling Soviet Union of 1989. The collapse of my country and the collapse of my alcoholic mother and my exile all lined up as a chasm for a chorus of new mothers, some feminist and some simply splendid thinkers or painters who worshiped their mothers as well. I see a parallel in patriarchal interventionism in both the way my mother’s unacceptable and shameful illness was treated, and the way Reagan shamed our blooming socialist democracy and Soviet way of life into a violent death.
What was your favorite book as a child?
by Astrid Lindgren. I thought I WAS her.
When did you know you were a writer?
It was in high school. I had several literary selves: I ran the feminist quarterly newspaper in my senior year; my poetry teacher was supportive of my work; I wrote zines and sent them around, but I didn’t feel like a writer. When my stepmother read a poem of mine she found on the table out loud to a friend, and she was so shocked and enthralled by it, a dark piece to be sure, without showing concern, just awe — that’s when a chord was struck. I also, quite by accident, while browsing at the Strand in NYC, flipped through an interview with Grace Paley in TPR
and decided that even though I did not understand what she was talking about, I wanted to be just like her when I grew up: a cool Eastern European Jewish writer who will not be bound by genre and is urban and political.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I have four spaces where I write. I have a super cold and airy art studio I share with two other feminist mothers who make art; it’s right by the Morrison bridge and has stunning views. I can go into a rabbit hole there when I want to paint and write in one, my incantation of Vanessa Bell
merged with Virginia Woolf
, or put up a story board, or my lists. I have my old desk that was made by a friend in Cannon Beach covered with pictures and various knickknacks, but it feels more like a place to do business. I go to the magical Dragonfly coffee shop, owned by a cool woman, up by Chapman where both my kids go to school — that is where most of Mother Winter
was written. But my very favorite place to write is in my bed. I got the idea from Edith Wharton
, and it stuck. I can be cozy and take tiny naps when the material gets hard and collect my dreams/ideas all in one place. I like white or flower-patterned cotton, tons of books, the paper, and a big pot of tea next to me.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Genreless writing. I get that it would make bookstores impossible to run and stock, but why something is literature, has a lane, has a defined category, sometimes completely befuddles me. In 2019 we have mainstreamed the use of reassigned and fluid pronouns, and yet I must call my book a memoir on the cover, autofiction in my mind, a prose poem to some guy who scoffs at creative nonfiction by ladies, etc. I really am sick of the feminization and segregation that exists in literature, and being paired up on panels with people who wrote “the truth” is bizarre and uptight. I’m with Dani Shapiro
and Mary Karr
on this: you do not actually know me if you read a piece I crafted; my therapist and my friends do, because I am just being myself with them, not working.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I have yet to have crazy or strange experiences with anyone who has read the book. Sometimes folks are incredibly surprised to learn that the Soviet Union was not evil and I loved my country.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
Well, I am an American writer, but English is my second language. And I am horribly dyslexic. The latter is more embarrassing, but I hate it when I missed the boat on something of my generation that is a part of specifically Americanized speech. I had to catch up fast to fit in when I got here in time for seventh grade hell.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Veronica Gonzalez Peña is outstanding. She gets to do the interior monologue style of writing I am most interested in, challenged, and enthralled by. Her book twin time: or, how death befell me
is currently on my nightstand. Native Agents is my favorite press, really. Veronica is coming out to AWP for a reading and moderating a talk with Chris Kraus
and myself at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop on March 29. I am so looking forward to that.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I collect. I will spark the joy into a thing if need be. My books have been kept company by '90s relics and mementos on the shelves, old photos, zines, artwork — that Olympia world I left behind.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
I have had so many of those kinds of jobs. I want to say working at peep shows in the '90s, but that almost seems banal now. The strangest job was being an art therapist and counselor to girls who were domestic human trafficking victims and survivors. I had to go to the family courts all over NYC and plead with judges to let these teenage girls out into the custody of this extremely dysfunctional agency I worked for in Harlem. Then we did our best to give them basic services and support them in not going back to the life, to their pimps, to their toxic family structures. It was a daily war. The woman who ran the place was in recovery from drugs and the life herself and had no boundaries, no frustration tolerance, and unrealistic expectations of what her staff was capable of. We were to perform miracles and worship her. She only hired women who had also experienced exploitation, but since what I experienced was only sex work in a sexist culture, apparently, we didn’t get along ideologically. She has a book out that is part of college curriculums and it gives me shivers every time I think of her imparting wisdom on bright-eyed and bushy-tailed undergrads studying “justice.”
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
You could say that going back to Russia, a much-changed country I didn’t recognize, to seek out my mother, was a literary pilgrimage. I write about the anti-Semitic and anti-brown experiences I had or witnessed others having very briefly, because it was Her that I was there to write about, but I fear Russia and especially the macho, nationalist men, emboldened by thugs and fascists who are running things there, and of course, in America, as well.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Misogyny is what has always scared me most as a writer. I think I fear internalized sexism more and more. I don’t fear the writing itself or the literary criticism, but if someone totally doesn’t get the work, doesn’t see me tackling the nuances of feminism and the legacy of feminist work in a modernist-inspired, nonlinear way, I will have to sit out the discourse because we do not come from the most basic of principles and influences. If I have to explain to someone what Duras
are getting at and they are accusing me of being too interior or too self-concerned in my work, well then, you take a seat, read some Rachel Blau DuPlessis
, and I will walk away to go paint or play with my kids. I am not your answering machine full of "aha" moments to press play on while you suck on a sandwich.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
If These Balls Could Bust Themselves, the Lady Would Be Napping
Offer a favorite passage from another writer.
I am going through a long and winding divorce with a man who refuses to speak to me, but I do treasure our life together. I have two kids that I raise in the city, much like Paley, so for today it’s this part from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
“I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.”
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
It’s now become the title of the second book I am working on, which was once buried in a poem:
“I married the butcher to get to the bone.”
Describe a recurring nightmare.
I have had Nazi dreams my whole life. The dream varies, but it is always about persecution and survival. At the end I am usually lying hidden under a pile of blankets on a sofa as the Nazis walk about an abandoned cabin looking for their target and I have to force myself to not breathe, to lie very still, terrified and able to see them through a hole in the cloth. I wake up completely contorted with my arms over my head, drained of blood, in my bed, each time grateful I wasn’t taken to a camp.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I know for my editor it’s the oxford comma. For me it’s the possessive vs. plural. It seems like a no-brainer but all of Portland signage either eschews the apostrophe or pluralizes what needs not be a multiple of something.
Do you have any phobias?
I used to have a phobia of driving and now I don’t. Does having a fear of being raped and killed count as a phobia? Technically, no, but that is always the invisible shadow walking with me at night. I did the Home Alive self-defense training in Seattle after Mia Zapata was raped and killed, choked with the strings of her own hoodie, and I definitely need a refresher course.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I have too many of those. My partner is very negative about modern distractions, so I have minimized them as we spend more and more time together until not much is left, but I still watch TV to escape. I need it. I am so neurotic without dumb entertainment. Better Things, SMILF, The Last OG
and You’re the Worst
are my favorite shows these days.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
That the canon is dumb and boring and white and straight and we need a new canon, so stop letting supremely limited and precious old fools run the show.
Why do we allow horrible men to be in charge of anything worthwhile in the literary world?
My answer is, we would rather let it burn to the ground than offend, demote, or fire these guys who are awful for our culture and our morale and our brains and our kids. I don’t want my son to grow up reading tired crap edited by the dog park mentality of these guys who pat each other on the back and stand around and watch the same writers sniff each other’s butts. Your loss is my loss, because for every one of these windbags there are hundreds more capable, competent, and talented women who would do that job better and without the toxic masculinity and fragile egos we are forced to protect. Just because you like Dostoyevsky
doesn’t mean you’re deep, and even Hemingway
would cringe at himself today. Read Martha Gellhorn
and hire more Gellhorns. Maybe then print won’t be “dead.”
My Top Five Classics
I am going to do a list of classics, in order to balance what I say about differencing the canon. These are texts to be read as historical artifacts, as philosophy, and for pure pleasure. I also very much hate rich people who are “slumming it,” pretending they are working class and punk rock. These books have a way of analyzing the class system or presenting society as is, some proudly, without snaking in from behind their hush-hush trust funds as our current writers and artists, or those who misuse the term “bohemians,” do.
by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
The House of Mirth
by Edith Warton
by E. M. Forster
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emigrated from Leningrad to NYC in 1990. She is an MFA graduate of Portland State University with a second master’s degree in creative arts therapy from The School of Visual Arts. Sophia is a feminist writer and painter and lives in Portland with her two children. Mother Winter
is her first book. Visit her website