“Russian sentences begin backwards,” opens Mother Winter (Simon and Schuster), the new memoir by Sophia Shalmiyev, a meditation on mothers, both genetic and literary, pulling the sodden fragments of a journey through the past into an assemblage of a present whole. As a child, Shalmiyev and her Azerbaijani father fled an increasingly anti-Semitic Soviet-era Leningrad for the United States, forsaking her estranged and maligned Russian mother. The book becomes a bricolage of mothers—both tangible women who come into the orbit of Shalmiyev’s family and the voices of mother-artists, authors, activists, and women notorious on the cultural horizon who simply went there against the most sacrosanct mores and taboos. These intellectual, mystic mothers hover around the narrator like spirits at a séance as she plans a journey back to Russia to find her mother in a city now named St. Petersburg. As she, too, becomes a mother, the narrator must refract these influences through the lens of herself to become the sort of mother she has never known. Shalmiyev’s prose is poetic, lyrical, and connected by sinewy and intuitive webs. There are many metaphorical constructions that struck me as unusual and yet vitally specific, which looped me back to the first line of the memoir: we are reading in English a diasporic narrative filtered through languages, across continents, and through what has survived the shattering effects of trauma. It is the story of an ages-old quest told not by the golden, chosen boy, but by the neglected, brilliant, piss-soaked girl who will not forsake the forsaken along her arduous pursuit.
—Cooper Lee Bombardier
Cooper Lee Bombardier Chris Kraus has described Mother Winter as a psychogeography, but while the effects of place certainly drive the narrative in a Debordian sense, the places one can never return to, and the places that no longer exist as they once had, seem to be the terrain that the book actually attempts to map.
Sophia Shalmiyev I was really conscious of the word “assemblage,” and its very feminine, anti-high art, anti-insider connotations, because the book itself is a bit jagged and quilted. I didn’t have a real home to describe, besides America, and so I did it through people, women I aligned myself with, rather than locations. I wasn’t presenting a collection of places or impressions; I was presenting seasickness and hidden corners, like the corners of Italy where I avoided flaccid dicks and cleaned cars, not the tourist wide eyed spots. There is no there there—Gertrude Stein-style, for sure.
CLB The form of your memoir is fragmentary and resists an obvious narrative arc. It does not provide an easy sense of denouement or closure by the end, which could be read as resistance to American expectations of story and Western constructs of narrative structure. What was your process in constructing the book and its form?
SS My incredible editor, Zach Knoll, actually got me to push the revelation of not finding my mother until the middle. My strategy was just to say: I will not pander; I do not have time or room for narrative hunger; I am and always will be motherless, so deal from the start and let us talk surrogate mothers, ok? With hand on hip and chewing gum in mouth, resist to the middle is what I did.
Zach is a caring and thoughtful, young, gay man with infinite nurturing possibilities. It was a love relationship with him in the way of attachment theory. I had to trust him to find the steps and coordinate our vision of an arc. We melted and met in a place suspended in the air for the edits—the middle ground.
CLB It’s no small thing to find an editor who sees and meets a manuscript in experimental form.
SS It’s wild because he never even called it that! He just said, I see this section is about horses, and this section is about religion, and this is about a pile of garbage you should really take out.
CLB (laughter) That’s fantastic. The fragmentary nature of the book also echoes the way in which trauma and displacement are remembered, harbored in the psyche, and carried on in the body. Did you conceive of the form as a mirror to the way our brains process trauma, abandonment, and memory?
SS Reading Marguerite Duras’s The Lover gave me the actual health to make this project the way I wanted to. Automatic writing and Vilolette Laduc were always sort of hovering in my thick and anxious air; I devoured books by women who were breathless with as little oxygen for anything else as possible. Helene Cixous gave me a similar thread to follow. Then, I believe that writing poems and being in bands turned me on to this free space where I no longer cared if the thing was a real paragraph or not. The work started to pile up until, finally, I made a narrative out of it as much as I cared to. It is actually a highly traditional narrative to say: I come from this place of exile and we will examine where that once was and how I came to be this woman with children. It can’t get more domestic and feminine! My trauma is in my daily life to such an extent that I cannot separate it from the way I drink a beer, or cross the street, or feel the dull chill of my father’s hand when my kids accidentally hit me. Same with my prose and verse. I write from shame, and I am proud of my shame. I own it like a house without a mortgage.
CLB I feel like we could have an entire discussion on the cultural dismissal and minimization of women’s writing about motherhood or having a mother.
SS I think it’s the Kraus and Emily Gould quotes, spliced and filtered, that I want to invoke here to talk shame: why do women have to be brave and pretend we are not hateful and hungry and hideous and feel like shit? I do! And then I don’t, because I live to relate.
CLB That is one of the magic powers of Mother Winter, and how it most excitingly defies the conventional memoir. It doesn’t work to make things tidy and to posture at triumph, and in this way it becomes so much more triumphant. The pressure is always on the marginalized body to reassure the reader that despite all of the fucked-up shit they’ve survived, they’re okay, or in fact, better than before—transformed. It’s thrilling that your memoir lets everything exist equally and doesn’t care-take us as readers.
As I read, I thought a lot about the role of negative space in a painting and the physical white space between fragments on the page. Can you speak more to this?
SS My intent was to play with white space, but it was also my choice to always talk about art, paintings, museums, our personal collection. It was the dignity in our anti-Semitic atmosphere. Yet as I wrote about all these objects, I learned about how fake art is sold and traded as the real deal all the time. I thought a lot about queerness and Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure—this total “fuck you” to the society that let the most brilliant minds in our culture die, feeding them fake shit drugs during the AIDS crisis. It was the same flavor of ache, of helpless void, as when I thought of the missing mother—this torture of finding your voice and agency in the process of much grief and despair. I thought about white sheets being pulled over bodies in a morgue, how I never saw my mother’s white sheet, and the friends that saw too many. The life I describe for myself in the book is a hammer and chisel to endless white stone, and not a meadow.
CLB Notions of cultural assimilation and inbetweenness are powerful threads throughout Mother Winter. Will you talk about the unnamability or shifting loci of the narrator and how the narrative works to resist simple and binary identity?
SS Our binary identity crisis! I wanted the reader to feel alienated with me. Is she really Jewish if her mother isn’t, or does she choose to step in and out of her Jewishness for survival, comfort, and allegiance with the only powerful adult in her life? Is she a mother who wants to party and drink? Does she live with regret? I wanted the reader to say to themselves: I am reading about a feral girl child who found ways to stay wild and be able to attach herself to people at the same time. The biggest marker of trauma is our alienation from ourselves and our bodies. The very first page begins with me declaring that I bleed, and so will my little girl some day, and so did my mom before me.
CLB Many symbolic themes and leitmotifs emerge repeatedly throughout Mother Winter. I was especially drawn to repeated incantations of the number four, the images of rabbits, and the presence of wood, whether in the form of a bed-frame the child narrator is thrown against, generations of women in the narrator’s family described as Matryoshka dolls, or the woodpiles and forest clear-cuts the narrator photographs her naked self against as an adult. These powerful images are interspersed with mythical and superstitious elements from both Old World and New. Will you talk about these elements?
SS I say I am the last of four Matryoushka dolls, the one who is wooden inside—like the little boy with the nose that grows when he lies because being a real boy is harder than being wooden. Wood is a metaphor that I come back to again and again. It is a sensation I feel in my chest. I love what Angela Carter does with The Bloody Chamber. Until I read that book I wondered if I was a truly bizarre child. I saw the world like a fairytale; I lived on the outside of every experience and made up a story to go with every door.
In my boarding school there was a boiler room, and I believed there was a round velvet bed there with jeweled piping and that I would live in this magical place some day and never come out. I dissociated for most of my time at boarding school for involuntary relief, and the actual lived experience was like being petrified wood. As a writer, I wanted to impart that wildness—the occult, the invisible trails and rooms—to create connections that aren’t readily apparent. Maybe they soothed me. Even when I speak of horses and say Nee-Danilova for my mother’s maiden name, I am conscious of it sounding like a horse bucking and saying, “get off me.” She is saying that, too. My mother and I are beasts in a fairyland together. We are not afraid of the deep dark woods, because being lost there is all we know. Once I read about bunnies parenting like drunk sailors, and I was like, That sounds familiar. Let’s go down that rabbit hole now—and out came many prizes.
CLBYou write in defense of the party-girl archetype, and even at times identify with her, and by proxy this seems an attempt to both understand and forgive the missing mother. Does the narrator have to become a mother to escape becoming her mother? Sophia is constantly wrestling with her legacy to abandon her own children. Are the abandoned doomed to become the worst abandoners?
SS I wish for the reader to understand something right away: I do not believe in the biological imperative or the nurture cure. I do not think having babies with your own body is a cure for any damn thing, frankly. But from very early on in life I knew I was going to mother and mother and mother and mother. I saw this path in a very clinical and non-fetishistic way. I told my folks that I wished to be a single parent and they discouraged me, bullied me into many conventional schemes, which, because I wanted to be looked after and groomed and supported in some way, I internalized as love. When I looked in the mirror as a child, I saw myself as a caretaker. I saw not only my reflection, but that of my father and all who wanted my cooking and mending. It is how I write as well—as a collectivized voice, as a chorus of thoughts and foremothers.
I am so very conflicted about my healing and mothering in tandem. The years I had being the best escape artist, and having open ended days, are always to be longed for, but the ways I self-regulate and reflect and choose my words when I parent these brave little souls, I also bring as skills to my writing desk. I am very much into women who write in and out of and through their invisibility—which I believe is motherhood, in a nutshell. Similar to Kiese Laymon, I am, in a sense, coming in and out of an epistolary exchange with my beloved ma. It is the classic idealization and the thud of the fall of mom falling off the pedestal and onto your craned neck. I still, to this day, have to remind myself that I do not betray her if I don’t end up in the gutter. That she partied hard because of her chemistry and in order to withstand the demands of a brutal macho culture where men were in charge of her daily world. I am still, and always will be, the champion and cheerleader for every party-girl. Even if it is hyperbole. We need these hyperboles to defend against the strangulation of women in danger or on constant alert. Neither of these the body can sustain!
CLB Mother Winter explores common themes in diasporic literature in a voice and methodology that reads as unknown terrain. With the increasing xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and nationalism being voiced in the US right now it seems more urgent than ever to read multivalent stories of immigration and to remember that unless one is Indigenous, we are all either immigrants and settlers, or descendants of immigrants and settlers, in this country. Has the national tone around refugees and migrants affected your process of creating this book?
SS My book was finished, pretty much before we elected a bigot and xenophobe; the edits were happening during some of the news cycle finally addressing our treatments of immigrants—certain kinds of immigrants. It is hard to imagine just how very closed the curtain/wall between the Soviet Union and US was when I was growing up there. America was a scary place to fathom, and even though we worshiped its products and whatever culture snuck in, it was really Western Europe we felt safest with. Our journey out, the vetting process was so arduous that we had to live in two countries for close to a year before being accepted here, but because the Jewish community had a lot of support from the right wing heavily invested in the fall of Communism, we did receive loans and scholarships and sponsorship, eventually. America has a very manic relationship with Jews, but there is at least a precedent to extract a bit of shame. What is happening right now is willfully shameless.
CLB Piss is a recurrent image throughout Mother Winter. It is a function of fear and vulnerability, of dirtiness and outsider status, but it is also at times a liberator, celebratory, and even sexy. Recently I read the fantastic novel Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg, which also enacts a reclamation of piss. Will you speak to the role of piss in your memoir?
SS The pH of your pee, if left on the body, is actually very painful; it bites and itches. The piss tells a story, indeed. Incontinence is really a sign of having no control of one’s life and then externalizing it for those who may be neglecting you to be called out. My dirtiness was a mark on my family. I pissed myself in fright and because I was completely devoid of self-regulation, of consequence. To worship the body of another who may piss themselves drunk or [while] just being a punk is to say, We are a tribe. We are beyond words. We belong to each other.
CLB Sappho, whose writing is known only in fragments, is one of the literary mothers who appears throughout the narrative. Would Sappho, or any woman writer, ever be as loved and respected or even seen in her wholeness? Is there power to be had in keeping women’s stories coded in shards and fragments?
SS The last two questions are eternal; they answer themselves. I believe we like small doses of power for any and all marginalized people. I think what I was trying to say about the feminist movement is similar to what I am saying about my mother: we cannot take in the whole, the truth, the reality, the pain. We fall helpless, avoid, and examine when and where we can control. I did this my whole life. I can’t really look for her. The wounded cannot clean up the battlefield, and the survivors are just shell shocked and glad they got out; they don’t want reminders of powerlessness. That is male culture thinking as well, and why they can’t really see us or hear us. Every time I mention the phrase “old white men” to make a point in front of men who are close to that description, they are instantly no longer in the room, maybe ever again.
I believe it is easier to study fragments of women we can fetishize and archive than it is to be a less-selfish partner in co-parenting or find out what emotional labor really is all about. Then take those skills and apply them to the literature and art worlds. I kid you not, a reputable Portland-based literary journal run by a white male editor actually posed the question: How can we decide between quality and diversity when making choices for the magazine? No irony, no guilt, no shame! He also mentions modesty for women who gave birth and want to wear a two-piece suit.
CLB Alongside many literary mothers, the book invokes several prominent “fallen women” such as Aileen Wuornos, Amy Fisher, and Valerie Solanas as psychic mothers. They all seem to embody the curse of Cassandra: as rage filled truthtellers they’re dismissed as insane, slutty, and angry. Was your enterprise with this book to redeem the justifiable anger of women, in particular that of these prominently “angry women,” and by proxy, the absent mother?
SS Yes. The word “redeem” also makes me think of the word “reckonings”—The Reckonings, actually, as used by the super talented Lacy M. Johnson to discuss the nuances of justice. She thinks of forgiveness, outright forgiveness, as a waste, a place of learning and making a shift in the direction of the wind being stolen by our need to be good, or good and done. I see this cycle of rage-filled women as completely wonderful and necessary. I do not recall a time in my life as an activist or writer or painter where I didn’t come from the place of the scorned woman getting, at all cost, her proper respect.
The balance of creating joy and peace and hot sex and yummy food and getting lots of hugs and just being a silly idiot with your friends—those are the things we need to offset the work of burning most of the system down. I believe in the revolution. I don’t care to spend time on the question of what is a witch hunt and what is a false accusation. I want those who are wronged to get theirs. For me, this starts with academia, the art world, literary world, music, and so on. We do have to be intentional. I have forgiven my father in order to feel like I am no longer living under him. And I love him deeply because, no matter the violence I endured, he is the only one who taught me love and taught me the love of books and art. I cannot recreate that elsewhere. I am not a good girl, and I am not over it, and I am not even a survivor or victim; I am a screaming contradiction. Being pissed is fucking awesome if you have an army of feminists with you.