MARIA TUMARKIN’s fourth book, Axiomatic (Transit Books, 2019), is an urgent and formally daring work of nonfiction about criminal injustice, war trauma, exile, youth suicide, migration, friendship, and institutional memory. Her previous works — on the “morally ambivalent” nature of courage (Courage, 2007), on the aftermath of violence and war (Traumascapes, 2005), and on returning to the Ukraine of her birth (Otherland, 2010) — are each characterized by a burning attention to suffering and resilience and a potent, elastic narrative voice. As with any writer of note, Tumarkin’s distinctive style is hard to quantify — she writes with academic rigor but eschews theory and jargon; she’s neither a dispassionate observer nor confidante, but her tone has heat and intimacy; she’s unafraid of emotion, and her writing is animated with the same generosity and enthusiasm she brings to friendship, which also happens to be a recurring subject in her work. I interviewed Maria as she prepared to travel for Axiomatic’s American launch.
MIREILLE JUCHAU: Axiomatic deploys reportage, interviews, commentary, and atmospheric exposition in its searching accounts of cultural crises. You’ve said you’re not “a debunker, an apologist, a historian or a social commentator.” How do you describe your method in Axiomatic?
MARIA TUMARKIN: Perhaps I can answer as a reader first. I am less and less interested in nonfiction where the relationship between writer and subject matter is fixed in advance: here is a book by a critic frantically critiquing or a historian furiously historicizing (of course some people are so astoundingly good at either that my argument falls apart instantly in the presence of their work). Still, doing multiple things in one book, “hybridization” (ergh), can be equally … I’m worried “boring” is too arrogant. Okay, boring.
Books of non-straight nonfiction frequently get described in an additive way — for instance, reportage plus analysis plus history plus lyrical essay — as if writing is most like cooking, putting disparate elements through a process that alters their internal compositions so they may be experienced together as a dish. Is it? I definitely prefer cooking to braiding as an organizing metaphor. There are other ways of thinking about the interaction between different forms and sensibilities within one text, like interruption, or shadowing. My readerly desire is for a writer to respond to their material acutely and honestly and in real time, i.e., as they are researching, thinking, being thrown around, writing, and for that response to not be filtered through a preexisting template. Memoir–broader research–memoir–broader research. One-two-one-two.
You use the word memoir here, but while there’s a strident, questioning, and audacious “Maria” in your work, this narrator bears none of the hallmarks of the typical memoir-persona. There is no confessional tone, and though there are judicious moments of revelation these are used to amplify our understanding of others, not to reveal more about “Maria.” “Maria” is, in effect, sublimated, so her subjects remain at the fore. This is a deliberate, ethical design. Is this sublimation what you mean by shadowing? Not to get Jungian, but shadowing also suggests that the work attends to, or signals what can’t be known or brought to consciousness.
I am pleased you’re getting Jungian. I am thinking also about Avery Gordon’s work on haunting — for her haunting always produces “a something-to-be-done,” an insistent demand.
I am going to plug — not a very classy move but preferable to repeating myself — an essay I wrote five years ago about the idea of narrative being the answer to everything because humans are storytelling animals supposedly, and storytelling is so timeless, and all we writers, architects, tailors, political leaders are doing is telling stories. Supposedly. This obsession with storytelling is cult-like. Using narrative as a broth, or is it the pot, and subsuming everything in it distorts things and dilutes things and produces grievous falsehoods. It is especially dangerous when dealing with situations of trauma or loss.
With Axiomatic, I ached to spend a lot of time with people I was writing about. It is a book about time, a book that took eight and a half years to write. Time is what’s flowing and being exchanged behind the scenes. How different modes and sensibilities come and go in the book was not predetermined. For most of the eight and a half years I was just trying to figure out how to write truthfully about what was in front of my eyes.
English isn’t your first language, yet it’s the language in which you became a published writer. You’ve spoken about trying to preserve your wry and exuberant writing style which several editors have attempted to sanitize or correct. Part of what makes your writing distinctive is its willingness to explore what has become dull or habitual in the local syntax and correspondingly in the culture. How important is this voice to your work? Are you conscious of preserving or amplifying it while writing?
If I could have passed for a born-into-English speaker I would have happily passed, but it wasn’t happening and I needed to work out what to do about sticking out so much — and hating the experience of being “smoothed out.”
Apart from my sentences being wrinkly or knotty or unfriendly or foreign, I was reprimanded for my general breathlessness. Take the reader by the hand, I was told. Lead them, but don’t run in front of them, no pulling them this way and yanking them that. I wasted years figuring out that writing as strolling hand in hand with my reader was not for me. I am the yanking type. The offering of a writer’s hand that doesn’t slip away is partly about hospitality and generosity — this is not lost on me — but can we do these good things and move faster, maybe?
I should say I didn’t free myself from the tyranny of wanting to pass but was freed by an editor-now-friend, Sybil Nolan, who worked on my first three books and said, “I would never want to erase or clean up the accent in your written English.” An amazing moment — a veil came off. I remember reading Australian writer Merlinda Bobis say that English in Australia needs to be contaminated by Australia’s living indigenous languages and diasporic tongues. English needs us, I thought! For so long in my head it was exactly the other way.
This breathlessness in your work has also been referred to in other quarters as heightened emotion. I’m wondering now about the relationship between this monolithic and exclusive English, colonialism, and the imperative for migrants to assimilate that has been a huge part of Australia’s recent history. The minimalism and restraint that are sometimes reified in the literary culture here often mask or enact a prohibition against emotion, against certain kinds of passionate expression or excess that gets aligned with foreignness. If assimilation means being forced to abandon your first language, how does that limit our ability to speak freely, with feeling?
It’s impossible not to notice how certain words are on constant rotation when nonfiction books are praised: understated, pared down, muscular, taut, restrained. Unsentimental is maybe the most telling of them all — good books about difficult things are unflinching or unsparing and not for a moment sentimental. These good books aren’t drenched in the excess of emotion you’re talking about, not ruined by overstatements and overflows. And so a whole lot of senior, sophisticated literary traditions are made to look very junior, very “there, there, full marks for trying.” The line to neo-colonialism and paternalism couldn’t be more direct.
Axiomatic has a unique structure — each chapter takes an aphorism as its starting point and challenges “the thick web of assumptions” that we bring to them. Did this structure preexist the work or arise as the writing progressed?
The structure happened first, which is unusual for me because I tend to write from a dark room. Usually I am touching walls as I move, stretching my arms in front of me to avoid smashing into wardrobes. I used to hide this. Halfway or three-quarters through writing something, still largely clueless, not knowing where I was going felt like being out of control and being out of control felt juvenile, but then increasingly I got loud and proud about it — watch me write into my own uncertainty! be with me on the page as I think in real time! — and now I’ve come to see those backdated proclamations were smug. Not knowing is my method, you could say. What’s also true is the method came out of so many randomnesses, out of kinks in the cognitive architecture, out of life unfolding (like the timing of pregnancies) in a certain way.
Anyway it’s always changing, shifting this way, that.
I remember years ago reading someone say Edward St. Aubyn wrote some of the Melrose novels wrapped in towels. He was sweating, he was distressed, writing about terrible things he’d lived through as a child. It stayed with me: a writer in a chair in towels. I do think of writing as an extreme activity. You’re putting your body through something. With this book, I needed some fortification (a better word than structure). Because how do you impose a shape on a nonfiction book that’s about the past as a force in the present if you don’t want to wedge it into a narrative base or oil it in memoir or sling an is-the-past-ever-over-anyway metaquestion around it like a rubber band? A thing I like about axioms, as opposed to theorems, is they don’t need proof, they’re accepted as true or true enough, no rigor, “time heals all wounds,” “you can’t enter the same river twice,” “history repeats itself,” “give me a child before the age of seven…” — these are ridiculous clichés, statements of profound wisdom, fridge magnets, exacting provocations, et cetera, and you can’t have a disagree/agree/yea/nay relationship with them.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad chapters — so unalike — struck me. I mean, it’s surprising how samey chapters often are in wildly different books of nonfiction. Samey length, feel, shape, why? Some weird symmetrical ironing goes on. Axiomatic is more often than not wrongly called a book of essays, because it turns out we’re much less interesting in the way we think about chapters as a unit of nonfiction than, say, paragraphs.
Your work is characterized not just by its audacious blend of reportage, commentary, and atmospheric exposition but also by its ethical tact. What ethical decisions are involved in recording sensitive material from living subjects and when regarding the pain of others?
It starts with consent: if there is a gap in power between you and the other person, because this person has never had a platform from which to speak for themselves, because their existence is precarious in a way yours isn’t, because they are traumatized, because they don’t speak English, because they depend on you somehow, getting them to say “yes” is not enough. It’s just not. You have to confront a whole lot of other ethical questions about what you are taking and what you are giving back. And any meaningful consent has to be ongoing. Which is a bother, especially for us who move like turtles through book projects. But if we assume that books-in-the-making are changing all the time and the people we write about are changing too — including changing their minds — and that the world can sometimes feel unrecognizable in the space of a year, this reconnecting and re-asking for permission is kind of imperative.
I try to show people all the bits in which they’re quoted or paraphrased or referred to, and they can veto without having to explain why. For a nonfiction writer writing about other people’s pain, you are always one dumb word away from misrepresenting another human being at their most acutely vulnerable. It doesn’t only happen at the level of facts, fabulations, omissions, or not finding the language that does right by their experience or pain or worldview. There is such a thing as misrecognizing who is in front of you.
In your essay “The Witness in Contempt Reflections on Overfamiliarity, Pain and Desecration,” you cite academic Jim Hicks on how the nonfiction writer relies on others — often those hardest hit by tragedy — to deliver the speech the writer has scripted. Hicks calls this “Live Puppet Ventriloquism” where other people become “receptacles for our own interpreting sensibilities.” All your work to date, including Axiomatic, involves substantial interviews, research, and thought, and includes multiple points of view (including your own) without coercing the reader to take a side. How do you avoid “Live Puppet Ventriloquism”?
I’ve lived in fear of this very thing ever since reading Jim Hicks’s words while working on my first book. Hicks was writing about Sarajevo, the site of the longest modern siege as well as a campaign of urbicide — do people remember this, I wonder. Sarajevo was this cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, culturally sophisticated city. It hosted the Winter Olympics! After the siege’s end, lots of people from outside Bosnia were writing about Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia in rhetorically heated ways. Hicks was dead-on about the self-serving nature of so much of writing in the aftermath. The question he poses, how not to turn people and especially survivors of catastrophes into receptacles of your agendas and sensibilities, haunts the nonfiction I write.
Ultimately, people are not your or anyone else’s characters. You can’t shape them, make them serve your narrative’s needs, shake or squeeze what you want out of them. People generally are fully made, deeply located, idiosyncratic, idiomatic. There’s nothing clay-like about them. They exist outside your words. Their lives are bigger and longer than anything you’ll write about them, and there are always parts of another human being that will and must remain out of reach.
You were born in the Ukraine and raised in a secular Jewish family. You left with your family in 1989 and settled in Melbourne, home to the world’s second largest community of Holocaust survivors, two of whom feature in Axiomatic. Through these diaspora populations and the legacy of colonialism, Europe is in some senses borderless and Australia is still reckoning with (and wilfully forgetting) these connections. How did these early years under communism and your family’s experience with antisemitism and emigration shape your writing sensibility, your style, your preoccupations?
I grew up with busy, normalized, legs-spread-comfortably antisemitism all around me. I am just not interested in working hard to understand antisemites. Not interested in the why-hate-us-so-much question, can’t stomach cultural and academic boycotts or the act of ostracizing writers, scholars, and playwrights in the name of justice.
One thing I have failed to leave behind is the problem I have with being part of a collective. I can’t go on marches no matter how much I believe in the causes; all my friendships are one on one; I avoid conferences. I’m sure my anti-collective predilection is there in my writing.
Axiomatic’s final chapter, “You can’t enter the same river twice,” is a work for two voices about an intense childhood friendship in the Ukraine. Its layout and use of second person convey how almost interchangeable these young women’s voices are, at an age when identity is so malleable. Can you talk about friendship as a frame for exploring violence, antisemitism, post-Stalinism — “our crazy country with its crazy history”?
I keep coming back to friendship in my work. I left the Soviet Union (still the Soviet Union) the day my best friend Alexandra, the one in this chapter, turned 16. This was the biggest tear for me, abandoning her. Bigger than leaving the country, my language, our relatives; bigger than giving up on an idea of home as something that’s just naturally there. It’ll be 30 years this December since I left her, and I can’t get over it. Alexandra can’t get over it. Our friendship is a living archive of this rupture and of our lives in its wake.
Is putting us together on the page so we face and address each other, is making us hard to tell apart, a way of stitching what got so badly torn? To some extent yes, but then the distance between our lives asserts itself the deeper you go in the chapter, and there are many moments it’s impossible, if you know recent history even a tiny bit, to confuse who is who because she is in the Soviet Union as it is collapsing and then in Ukraine and she has nothing to eat and then it’s war with fricking Russia, and whatever is happening to me in Australia cannot compare with what she is up against. So I am re-stitching and history is re-tearing at the same time.
Threaded through Axiomatic are alternative models of kinship to the nuclear family or the couple. Teachers become intensely involved with their students after youth suicide, a Holocaust survivor breaks the law to save her grandson. In these spaces “in which dignity is not a precarious state,” people are valued not for what they produce, but for who they are. What interests you about these radical forms of intimacy? Did a childhood under communism attune you to moments in the culture where the state fails or overreaches and individuals step in?
I am surprised when people tell me my book is about the failure of institutions because my childhood and adolescence taught me not to get overinvested in institutions. I see such gifted, decent colleagues and friends at the university where I work give so much of themselves and their love to this place, and I am like, “Don’t do it. It won’t love you back.” Everything I do is for students, colleagues, junior staff members — always other people.
I am totally with Fred Moten on this: “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly.” What are the places that are not killing us, softly or whatever, in which what you call “radical forms of intimacy” are possible? To me, friendship is on top of that list but also teachers who refuse to channel institutions that employ them, grandparents, and sometimes strangers thrown together in some way.
At one point in Axiomatic, you quote Russian writer Dina Rubina, who returns to Moscow, years after leaving, enters a bookshop and sees that all the books have already been written: “If you decided to write something you had better be prepared to wage a war for your reader. You had to be prepared not to hold back.” Does this “war for the reader,” your “impolitic style” as one reviewer put it, inform your writing?
I like the sense of escalation that Rubina brings to this usually quaint conversation about writers and readers. She deploys war language, which is used to talk about everything from cancer to technology but never reading or writing. And the language of war plays differently in a Russian-language context. “At heart, we’re built for war” — that’s Svetlana Alexievich in Secondhand Time — “we were always either fighting or preparing to fight. We’ve never known anything else.” People are sick of this language, it’s insidious, compromised, so Rubina revives it in this unexpected context while knowing that in Russian, transposing war onto a writer’s need to be read will feel farcical.
I don’t wage a war for my reader in the sense of wanting to recruit and keep them. But I have been thinking a lot about not taking readers for granted. Compression is something that came out of this way of thinking. Not taking tea breaks in my work. Speed of thought. Also: Asking a lot from the reader, placing demands as a form of respect.
Mireille Juchau is an award-winning novelist and critic. Her third novel, The World Without Us, was published by Bloomsbury in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia and won the Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Fiction.