Two Mediums, Two Countries, Two Mothers: An Interview with Sophia Shalmiyev




WRITER, PAINTER, AND FEMINIST THINKER Sophia Shalmiyev emigrated from Leningrad to the United States as a girl and, in the process, lost contact with her biological mother. Loosely and ambitiously, Shalmiyev’s debut memoir Mother Winter (Simon & Schuster, 2019) is about this void. When I heard Sophia read from Mother Winter at local independent bookstore Mother Foucault’s, I knew I wanted to read it again, to consider the weight and power of every juxtaposition. Mother Winter grows its story in fragments. And while it’s not easy to see their accumulation in the air, those fragments are more than fascinating to encounter on the page. The result is a hybrid, lyric memoir that reads like a peek into every idea swirling in the author’s brain — how Shalmiyev’s childhood trauma informs her experience of motherhood, how feminism informs her literary approach, how cultural critique informs metaphor, how language informs image. For Shalmiyev, the work of memoir spills past the page into oils and acrylics. A gallery show of the same name was hung in the Powell’s Books Basil Hallward Gallery in Portland from March 6 to April 2, 2019. The creatures in Shalmiyev’s paintings — winged bodies, mermaids, naked women and their children — stand in for characters in the book and make it magical, functioning as a new story the author gets to tell. “Some images were made in the time the story was still gestating,” says Shalmiyev, “some in the writing and editing process, while the rest of the paintings are a postscript.” Mother Winter is a memoir of two mediums, two countries, and two mothers filtered through a singularly inventive mind.

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ERICA TRABOLD: Mother Winter has been called an “ambitious contemplation on a child’s unreciprocated love for her mother,”  a “rich tapestry of autobiography and meditations,”  and “the result of [your] searching.” For me, your writing feels so active and alive, but these descriptions seem static, quiet, still. I’m wondering what you think about the movement of your book. What is Mother Winter’s most essential word? What action do you hope it’s performing out there in the world?

SOPHIA SHALMIYEV: These assessments are actually thoughtful, which is rare. They aren’t fully capturing the questions around velocity and the inconsolable nature of the book or the devices used to arrive at the seasick tug of war I am playing with to dig at my exile and what language has shamed me into and out of. My word for the book is: Unscorned. I was recently encouraged by the brilliant Claire Dederer to call my book tour, The Unscorned Tour. I wish I could afford to spell it out in silver balloons. That would perform the double duty of pointing toward hazy and unstable mirroring, not exclusively of my origins, but in currently being seen, visible; or unseen and invisible, depending on who is doing the looking. I’m kind of feeling like a corpse choir of half-deflated yesterday’s party balloons lazily licking the ceiling, curly strings swaying, when I think of static criticism. And when I am forced to be slimed with misogyny in art and literature critique — the all-too-basic language we use to debase women — as though I’m supposed to perform the role of wife, whore, or mother to my reader. I don’t understand why anyone with a rudimentary understanding of gender studies would berate a woman for not being an achiever on the binary grid of a beach read escape versus a profound legend-making problem solver. I’m not sorry. I’m out of the game, chips and cards on the table. I want to get busy being a conduit for other writers, thinkers, and folks without a box to check. Your internalization of the text as a living and breathing thing, of creating movement and space for others, is fortifying and gratifying to hear about.

I see you pose a version of this thought so very poignantly in the book’s first half. “Why can’t it be both ways?” you ask. “Why do mothers have to be forgotten or brave, like soldiers? Why must the telling be the sensational center, and not the sentence, not the craft, not the gestation of words?” What can you tell us about your craft? How do you see your inquiry of motherhood, scorn, and resistance mirrored in the book’s form?

We live in a borderline personality disordered society. It is a mental health diagnosis that is disproportionally given to women even though men have a different way they present and cover up symptoms — supposedly unstable, self-harming, dramatic — an onslaught of other feminized qualities that spell: hysteria. But it’s our world that is insisting on black-and-white thinking. It’s macho culture that creates a purposefully vacuous news cycle where women are poor victims or survivors, if they are deemed the right type: strong, articulate, stoic and resilient, and usually, from a nice family, educated, white, or pretty. We do not owe anyone this kind of best face forward.

Worst of all is the expectation that we will all shut up and pack it up soon enough. Mothers are not even to be heard from. A journalist asked me in an interview how I respond to the insider term for moms who write memoirs: momoirs. I was forced to explain that a ghettoization of a ghettoization is the worst form of rigidity, of erasure, of humiliation, of endless backlash against our public selves. Every person has a mother. Why would we act like these are our servants or jokes or animals in a zoo to point and gawk at? Useful women are the only ones needed? A writing mother is either supposed to be an all … “no big deal, don’t mention it” … type of person, or a spokesperson for the product called “Mommies Who Write.” In the book, I purposefully insert news stories of the rapes, the killings, the missing people, the momentarily sacred trash they take out. We don’t know what to do with our helplessness, how to manage being undone, feeling powerless. I want to engage the reader, especially the folks who are not cycling through trauma in the moment and have had resources to achieve status or the privilege to piss it all away if they feel like it, and make an opening for them to do the much-needed work of undoing borderline thinking, and move into a matriarchy and a shared domestic economy so that my art isn’t in the special craft for losers drawer. I feel the same about genre pigheadedness. When will we move out of this capitalist insistence on corralling and policing art into categories, much of them archaic, arbitrary, and extremely gendered?

You’re so right there — even in the art world, rules, categories, expectation, and gatekeeping so easily become our realities and prisons, especially for women and writers with other marginalized identities. Still, this book has been marketed as “memoir.” What power, if any, have you been able to draw from this label? What do you see Mother Winter rejecting, challenging, or adding to the memoir genre?

I want to stand with others who feel misunderstood and marginalized. And there is simply no way that the male world proudly wears the label “memoirist” or takes such a word seriously. So even if I don’t necessarily identify with it, because I don’t want to live in any lane that excludes me from writing it all — to pen essays without being called an “essayist”; write about feminism without being called an “activist”; write poems without being called a “poet”; and write fiction of all sorts and not be a “novelist” or “short story writer.” I cannot breathe air that has always felt stale and limited to me. But on principle alone, I will call myself or go along with being identified as whatever feminized and dismissive version of all the literary roles one can have. It’s an invitation to sterilize and reveal the deeper cuts. I actually welcome the questions most women-identifying folk are understandably annoyed and bored by. Was it Lauren Groff who said she doesn’t want to be asked what it’s like to find time to write as a mother, to go ask the dad writers instead? I agree. Great boycott. I am currently choosing to answer all of the questions in this vein because it reveals so much about society and why we ask them. I am glad to be of service in this endless well of slights, insults, digs, and frankly, yawns, in order to let the pus out of the infection.

Exposing and acknowledging real wounds is a recurring theme in Mother Winter. Do you see yourself after the same kind of work in the text itself?

Writing about the body means acknowledging that we are concerned with nothing but pain or pain management, if that’s the place we find ourselves. The well and the sick cannot meet in the middle. One needs to be fairly healthy to take care of someone who is ill. That’s why parenting with a hangover doesn’t work. Or your doctor can’t pay attention to you if their back is out. There’s also transference: a therapist with severe traumas might get retriggered and flood when listening to a patient with a similar experience. When we say we feel something in our bones, it’s not just empathy; our bodies somatize, metabolize our emotional reactions, send pain signals to force us to reckon with, rest with, or dig deeper through the terror in our system. I wanted to point to how fragile and inconsequential and laughable the whole notion of thick skin is when it comes to connecting to others. And we connect through art and words. The letting out of the pus, the poison that must ooze or we will blow up with an infectious boil — it’s our vulnerabilities articulated, our relationship to danger named and labeled.

Writing about our bodies, particularly our pain, can make the process difficult, harder work than it already is — I say that because I’ve tried it myself. Sometimes, it feels freeing; other times, retriggering. As a writer, how do you balance your vulnerability and a sense of self-care?

Balance happens through interdependence. I learned this in being abandoned. Ultimately, it is an impossible task that must be pursued anyway or we atrophy; this is true in any deep reflective and creative work, or what some call plain old accountability. I wish a man would know what tired felt like for a woman. I’ve mostly seen women, or some men who aren’t grossed out by vulnerability, do their own digging, extracting, and restructuring in art and at home. Straight men love to write about our female bodies. And they maybe should just stop already. We have heard enough. If they stopped writing about their desire for our bodies or stopped describing our bodies, we would all be better off in literature and beyond. I say this in response to the idea of self-care versus somatic dangers of exposure on the page because when I write despite my own sickness or revulsion, I am undoing so much projection, neglect, recycling, shame, and interrogation of flesh — that of my loved ones, as well as women who are flooding and fuming and not getting anywhere solid. We continue to sensationalize and discard their bodies. Their story is red herring fish food churned out by the news cycle and what passes for journalism and engaged citizenry. Every woman I know, including every member of my family and close friend circle, has been sexually assaulted or physically harmed by a boy or a man. What’s that say about all of us (me) that we still fuck men, teach them to be better, support them, forgive them, but do not ask or hope to receive reparations, or worse still, do not demand that they get mandatory psychoeducation, gender studies, and men’s groups for vulnerability and expressiveness?

This is the new home economics for junior high through college: stop touching us and talking over us and ignoring or idealizing us. Stop hitting us. Stop raping us. Stop telling us we liked it. Very important — stop using us as punch lines in your jokes then telling us we are being too sensitive. Oh, and learn to calmly listen to women and children. Oh, and buy toilet paper without being told. Oh, and choose to keep a calendar for your family without prompts. Why are the hurt and exhausted picking up the broom and cleaning after these guys, emotionally and otherwise? I don’t know how to raise my son in a culture where men willfully check out, or call us liars. Or, sit around with dumb guilty faces waiting for us to stop talking about our legitimate grievances. That’s unless they are feeling “frisky” and want to have some “sexy” banter about craft and books for sport. Please, go away and go talk to your buddies about nothing like you always do. I guess I have seen men discuss what they read in the paper, selectively, always leaving “personal” out for “political.”

With all of that in mind, who would you say this book is written for?

I write for every rape kit that will go unprocessed, dumped in a freezing warehouse with blown-out windows. I write for our swabbed and examined bodies, if we are lucky enough to survive and feel coherent enough to tell of the abuse, or had enough adrenaline to withstand the humiliating puppy mill of hospitals, police stations, counselors, lawyers and courts, or board rooms. There is nothing without that disclosure as the start to basic humanity when there are no empathetic and efficient witnesses to these crimes. Then comes the art; art made by an objectified and erased person is always more interesting to me, and might be so until we call our rapes a true national emergency and respond to it like we did with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

There’s no life that feels worth living or writing about and within, to me, if I stop thinking about our bodies on a battlefield in need of stretchers, gauze, holding, recovery, and a cease fire. Eileen Myles and I said this to each other at dinner last night: “Where are our monuments with names of survivors and missing women etched on the granite?” And I do find it daunting and toxic to process these stories as though I’m a water treatment plant. But I can do it because I have the boundaries and the clarity that not every crisis is my crisis. Now, I do. It’s a well-earned privilege. It cost me dearly. But I have work to do and listening, actively listening, and having solidarity is only a tiny fraction of the marathon’s start gun firing off.

You also paint — at Powell’s Books, a gallery show of the same name has helped usher Mother Winter into the world. What is it like to work on a project that spans mediums? What is represented in your paintings that is not on the page?

There’s a body in painting, in moving, in the liquid, in the tactile, in the mess in a way the body isn’t present or activated in sitting down and writing. Each medium has its own editing process, but covering, scraping, and layering over and over is definitely a similarity. The images in the book can never come out on canvas the way I wrote them. I am not painting movie scenes. It’s not about stage design for me when I see the book, visually, but about a second helping of gauze over the characters who have been exposed and peeled apart. Some paintings are from exact pages and some are a reaction to whole chapters. A few are the cuts that didn’t make it in. The show is about depersonalization, degradation, dissociation, and hybridization. There’s much that is not on the page: the fictive spell. My mother becomes a mermaid, and I’m a penguin baby whispering in my daughter’s bleeding ear next to women on stilts and there’s piss in the snow. I think the work is also very much about the white sheets that symbolize the death of the Soviet Union. That loss is something modern Americans should be actively mourning and studying. The paintings are a series of eulogies to girlhood, socialism, body without terror, and obviously: the woman that gave birth to me and will always haunt me.

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Erica Trabold is an American essayist. Her work has appeared in The RumpusPassages NorthThe CollagistSouth Dakota ReviewSeneca ReviewEssay Daily, and elsewhere. Erica writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon.


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