So You Believe in Intergenerational Trauma? A Conversation with Katya Apekina

By Sasha VasilyukMarch 12, 2024

So You Believe in Intergenerational Trauma? A Conversation with Katya Apekina

Mother Doll by Katya Apekina

FOLLOWING RUSSIA’S INVASION of Ukraine, I sought out fellow American novelists from the former Soviet Union. As a group, we held several readings in support of Ukraine, one of which took place in Los Angeles. It was then that I first encountered Katya Apekina and her sophomore novel, Mother Doll (2024).

Now based in Los Angeles, Katya is a Russian Jewish writer and translator who immigrated to Boston as a toddler. While she has previously translated poetry and prose from Russian, Mother Doll is Katya’s first novel-length work engaged with Russian history. As the title suggests, the book houses a layered, nesting doll–like narrative. It follows Zhenia, a pregnant Russian Jewish immigrant in L.A. whose story begins when, out of the blue, she receives a call from a medium named Paul. Paul connects Zhenia with her late great-grandmother, Irina: a blunt former revolutionary seeking redemption for abandoning her daughter—Zhenia’s beloved grandmother—to flee to the States.

As Zhenia’s belly grows, she finds herself not only transcribing her ancestor’s all-consuming story but also trying to understand how Irina’s decisions have affected her entire lineage. The contrast between contemporary American life, in which a medium is hired to talk to pets, and the 1917 Russian Revolution—rife with blood and arrests—makes for a sharp, strange, and surprisingly funny novel. In February, I spoke to Katya by phone about writing through our common heritage as post-Soviet immigrants.


SASHA VASILYUK: In the acknowledgments to Mother Doll, you say you would have never been able to write this book without your daughter. Why is that?

KATYA APEKINA: After having my daughter, I began thinking a lot more about myself in relation to my mother and grandmother. Like a link in a chain: I thought about what I was passing on to her, consciously and not. And seeing her at around three and a half—the age I was when I came to the US—brought back a lot of memories, things I hadn’t thought about in 30 years.

As I understand it, Mother Doll isn’t autobiographical. You didn’t actually have a great-grandmother in the Russian Revolution, and she didn’t actually leave her daughter at an orphanage—right?

Right. None of the details match up. The timeline doesn’t match up either. My grandmother wrote memoirs about her life during World War II. Her family was killed in the Holocaust.

How did Mother Doll begin for you then?

In Mexico City, I visited Trotsky’s house and started doing research into the Russian Revolution. I wanted to write something about that period, but I had no idea what exactly. And then my grandmother died and left these memoirs for me. Well, she left these memoirs before she died, but I only started reading them after. They’d been sitting on my computer.

It’s not because I wasn’t curious about her life. It was a strong sense that if I started reading about it, I would somehow be beholden to it. I would have to carry her trauma and whatever was in those memoirs would be mine now. But when I read them, it was clear to me: “Oh, I’d already been carrying it.”

So you believe in intergenerational trauma?

Oh, yeah! I believe in it in all the ways. I believe that it changes your DNA and then you pass it down. I believe that it affects how you nurture people.

Did you immediately know you wanted to format this book as a ghost-talks-through-medium story, or did that come later?

That format came later. I was interested in spiritualists and I took mediumship classes. I’ve always been curious about that world. I don’t know exactly at what point in the process I knew that that was how I would tell [Zhenia’s] great-grandmother’s story, but intuitively, it made sense.

What about the matryoshka (nesting doll) metaphor—or, rather, overarching theme? Where in your process did that come to you?

At the very end. And it didn’t even come to me—it came to my agent, who suggested the title. I had a vision for the structure of the book; I kept seeing graffiti or art or the same image of nesting rectangles inside of each other that looked like a portal. Very similar to a nesting doll … but I hadn’t really put things together. I think it was a subconscious organizing principle. I didn’t articulate it myself, but when my agent pointed it out, it had been there all along.

That’s great when that happens.

Writing is a pretty intuitive process. You’re bypassing a lot of the analytical parts of your brain because if you get caught in the analytical, it becomes very hard to access any sort of flow. At least for me, there is stuff that’s happening that isn’t raising up to my consciousness until I’m in the editing process. And then I see all these patterns.

Another pattern in the novel is translation. Irina, Paul, Zhenia, and the narrator are all engaged in relating a story through multiple mouths.

Absolutely. Zhenia is a translator. Irina is speaking through a medium—so he’s translating her words—but she’s speaking in Russian. Zhenia has to translate what he’s channeling.

When you get a story from your ancestors, it’s usually been translated. Not literally, from language to language—it’s been passed down to people, like a game of telephone. And then there’s also just trying to translate one’s experience or point of view to another person. We think we live in these objective realities, but we don’t.

Speaking of different points of view, your first novel, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish (2018), is very America-based. Here you return to your ancestral homeland. Did you feel a calling to touch on that history?

Someone described my first novel as a Russian novel transposed onto an American family. Which I think was kind of true: when you’re writing about your own concerns but you’re using settings and characters that are removed from your life, it allows for a level of honesty that’s very freeing. This book is a little misleading because, yes, it is about Russian immigrants—Zhenia, like me, moved to Boston at a young age and then to Los Angeles—and in that sense, I was drawing on experiences I had. But otherwise, the character Zhenia has very little to do with me.

For people who experienced trauma in the Soviet Union, especially from Irina’s generation, there was no therapy. There was a lot of move forward and don’t look back kind of thinking. Stuff didn’t get processed or understood. It was just kind of stuck in people, and then it was passed down.

Not dealing with the Soviet past is partly why we’re seeing the mess of Russia’s war in Ukraine. What has it been like for you to edit this book during the war?

I’m very opposed to the war. It’s horrible. My immediate family came to the US a long time ago, but I still have relatives in Ukraine. I have relatives in Russia … But I feel like my book doesn’t engage with the war very directly. Irina emigrated to the United States soon after the Russian Revolution. It’s a story about immigrants more than Russia or what’s happening there.

The book contains several quips about Russians and their troubled country—such as when the chorus of seemingly Russian ghosts wonders, “Do we share a defect of national character?” What do you think about Russians’ national character?

I grew up in Boston, where there’s a very large immigrant community. I’ve only been back to Russia once, in 2009 with my grandparents. There were certain ideas I had about how former Soviet people behave: they have a certain glumness, they don’t smile, they cut in line. When I was actually in Saint Petersburg, nobody was acting that way. So, I don’t know if those ideas just came from the sample of people I grew up with.

I also think Russia and the countries from the former Soviet Union have changed a lot since the 1980s, which is when a lot of immigrants came over. And the kind of person who leaves a place is different than the kind of person who stays.


Katya Apekina is a novelist, screenwriter, and translator. Her debut novel, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, was named a best book of 2018 by Kirkus, BuzzFeed, Lit Hub, and others; was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and has been translated into Spanish, Catalan, French, German, and Italian. She is the recipient of an Elizabeth George grant, an Olin Fellowship, the Alena Wilson prize, and a Third Year Fiction Fellowship from Washington University in St. Louis, where she did her MFA. She has done residences at VCCA, Playa, Ucross, Art Omi: Writers, and Fondation Jan Michalski in Switzerland. Born in Moscow, she moved to the United States when she was three years old and currently lives in Los Angeles. Mother Doll (2024) is her second novel.

LARB Contributor

Sasha Vasilyuk is a journalist and the author of a debut novel, Your Presence Is Mandatory (Bloomsbury, 2024), which spans from World War II through the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Her nonfiction has been published in The New York Times, CNN, Harper’s Bazaar, Time, The Telegraph, Narrative, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Sasha grew up between Ukraine and Russia before immigrating to the United States at the age of 13.


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