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People the Size of Mountains: Q&A with Olga Zilberbourg

by Maddie King

Olga Zilberbourg is a Russian-American writer who lives in San Francisco and was born during the Cold War. She has three published collections in Russia: The Clapping Land, published by Vremya Press in 2016, The Keys from the Lost House, published by Limbus Press in 2010, and Coffee-Inn, published by Neva Press in 2006.

Like Water and Other Stories, published by WTAW Press in 2019, is Zilberbourg’s first collection of short stories to come out in the United States. Previously, her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Narrative Magazine, World Literature Today, Confrontation, Feminist Studies, Tin House’s The Open Bar, Epiphany, Santa Monica Review, and other print and online publications. 

 I read Like Water and Other Stories in the early days of August, and no other time of year could have better suited. This collection, so fittingly-named, pools stories of nationality, motherhood, work, and sexuality; it is a river, limpid, but not without crests, eddies, and perhaps, behind some bend: rapids, which will take you ever further.

 For excellence in writing, Olga Zilberbourg won San Francisco’s Litquake Short Story Contest and The Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize. She is a consulting editor at Narrative Magazine and a co-facilitator at the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop.

Maddie King: Throughout Like Water and Other Stories, themes relating to career and parenthood orbit each other. Despite both being labors of love, they are pressured by life’s arbitrary timelines, which, for some, trigger a kind ofScreen Shot 2019-09-25 at 10.32.13 AM “Sophie’s Choice.”  How have notions of age, aging, and reaching one’s “prime” impacted you, in both life and art?

Olga Zilberbourg: I was twenty-five the first time I tried to quit my day job to become a writer, but before jumping right in, I went back home to St. Petersburg and consulted with my family. My aunt Maya, the only person in the family who was in humanities—she was a librarian and a literature teacher—looked at me like I was insane. “Writer? What do you have to write about? You’re so young! You know nothing about the world yet. Live a little, then, maybe you’ll have something to write about. But I hope you won’t. People who write have miserable lives—trust me, I’ve read enough biographies to know.” She’d read all of them, indeed.

She was quick to point out that my favorite writer at the time, Mikhail Bulgakov, was a doctor before he became a writer, Isaac Babel was a journalist, Boris Pasternak, a philosopher. Marina Tsvetaeva had traveled a great deal and studied at the Sorbonne. Anna Akhmatova came from an aristocratic family, which in my aunt’s eyes was a significant life experience. Most writers whom I was reading at the time had experienced the October Revolution and the wild upswings of the early decades of the Soviet history. Not only had they had the talent and education that were incomparable to mine, but also they had something meaningful to write about.

I argued that I, too, lived through something I could write about: the era of perestroika and glasnost, and the fall of the Soviet Union. Wasn’t that similar to a revolution? I, too, did something different: I went to the US to study.

Yes, my aunt agreed, but what can you say about it? What’s the interesting, unexpected perspective that you can bring to the conversation that would be useful for others? What’s the worldview that you have to offer?

To this day, I don’t agree with my aunt’s judgement. There have been plenty of writers in the history of literature who didn’t lead particularly active lives in the world. They read a lot and had the time and space to write about it. (Virginia Woolf’s arguments from A Room of One’s Own come to mind.) But having this conversation with Maya was helpful in this way: I haven’t felt any pressure to produce writing achievements by a certain arbitrary age. I’ve always been confident that, if anything, aging adds perspective and nuance to my work.

MK: Tell us a bit about your experience publishing with a nonprofit like Why There Are Words (WTAW—founded by another bloomer we’ve featured here, Peg Alford Pursell) and accessing an English-language audience for the first time, though you’ve lived in San Francisco for many years now. How does it compare to your relationship to Vremya Publishing House in Russia, as well as the literary community there?

OZ: I live in San Francisco and write mostly in English, actively participating in the local writing community. I’m a member of the San Francisco Writers Workshop, where I’d met Peg Alford Pursell many years ago, when she and her husband Cass Pursell first moved to San Francisco. The community is very vibrant—before I had kids, I used to go out nearly every night to literary readings—and yet I keep discovering new groups and writing enclaves—and new groups keep popping up. I love it, and I love being part of WTAW Press that started out as a local reading series and then has expanded onto a national scene. I have a lot of depth of engagement with the press and with my audience here.Screen Shot 2019-09-25 at 10.46.02 AM

My relationship with Vremya Press, and with my previous publishers in Russia, is different. Before sending them my manuscript, I knew very little of them, had seen only a few of their books. For instance, they’ve published Vladimir Gandelsman, a wonderful poet who lives in New York and writes in Russian—once, I’d translated a few of his poems to English. In Russia, my work falls into a strange in-between space. Unlike Gandelsman, I write predominantly in English, and work with translators to help get my writing into Russian, but neither am I a “foreign” writer in Russia. In-between books are difficult to promote! It was very generous of Vremya Press to take me on.

 

MK: Speaking of this in-between state of foreignness, what is your take on this statement in your bio for one of your earlier collections, The Clapping Screen Shot 2019-09-25 at 10.45.49 AMLand: “Olga Grenets is a modern American Writer from St. Petersburg…” This line contains the primary ingredients of your nationality and profession, and yet, from reading your book, I would guess that it is somewhat simple summation for your ever-shifting identity. Is “Olga Grenets, a modern Russian Writer from San Francisco,” just as accurate?

 

OZ: I think, for a writer, the question of identity is very closely tied to her reading list. For me, this reading list has been very much influenced by my Soviet upbringing in a Jewish family, learning early to read between the lines to reconstruct bits of suppressed knowledge about the Holocaust and the history of pogroms. Writers like Aleksandra Brushtein and Vassily Grossman, whose masterpiece Life and Fate became accessible to my family in the late 1980s, were extremely important to me. When I started writing in English, it took me some time to discover contemporary literature. I started from Toni Morrison and William Faulkner and later fell upon Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Charlie Jane Anders. Living in San Francisco has definitely had a huge impact on my reading list. I love reading work by writers who in various ways defy borders of nation states. Lillian Howan, Vanessa Hua, Tamim Ansary, my fellow WTAW Press author Anita Felicelli.

MK: You are a Russian native who has lived in the United States for many years; much of your writing pertains to emigration and translating one’s identity from one culture to another. This being your first English-language collection, what prompted you to cross the bridge, so to speak, from Russian to English now? Was literal translation a part of your journey?

OZ: I’ve done some translation over the years, but what I find when working from Russian, is that my loyalty is to the Russian, and the end result doesn’t sound English. All the English I know starts to fall apart when I try to translate. “He sat in the morning on his bed,” that kind of thing.  Literary translators often say that this happens to people who try to work from their first language—and, one day, I’d love to prove them wrong, but this hasn’t happened yet. Similarly, I have a really hard time translating to Russian. When I try to translate my own work to Russian, I often end up rewriting the story completely. Sometimes, when working on drafts of stories about Russian-speaking character, I do go to the Russian language to see what they might sound like in Russian. Then, after I get closer to a particular idiom, I go back to English, and try to capture something of that voice, or mood, in English.

MK: Have you ever considered producing a purely bilingual text which would embrace your loyalties to both languages and their respective sensibilities? 

OZ: I acquired fluency in English later in life, achieving it by fully immersing myself into an English-language environment. For several years, I cut myself off from Russian, using it only occasionally in conversation, and for writing letters. I was in college, on my own, and it was easy to do—there were only a handful of Russian-speakers I knew at my school, and I avoided socializing with them. English and Russian belong to very different parts of my brain. For many years, I had a very hard time switching between languages. I’m getting better at it now that I’m speaking to my kids in Russian—I’ve had some practice sight-translating their English-language books, and having a conversation with them at the same time as talking to my English-speaking husband. But still, moving between languages feels like an unpleasant sort of mental gymnastics—I forget proper nouns, or how to construct and finish sentences. Frankly, being constantly misunderstood is quite tiresome.

 That said, I would love to do some kind of bilingual collaboration. In the early days of Google Doc, I tried to get my brother to do a project together—I think my idea was that I would write stories from my daily life in English, and he would respond in Russian. We exchanged words for a few weeks, and later it became some kind of shared dream journal. I miss that experience.

MK: In Doctor Sveta, the 17th story in the collection, the narrator converses with an old family friend, the woman who delivered her into the world. Together, they revisit the highlights of the doctor’s career, made extraordinary by her decision not to have children. And yet, regret lingers: “because she doesn’t have a family of her own to practice on, her stories are raw, they have not congealed into a series of neat, punchy anecdotes.”  Doctor Sveta’s story serves as a reminder that storytelling is not just a lifelong vocation, but the commemorative stamp on a life well-lived. How has family influenced the stories you tell both off and on the page? Do your stories and your love for them live through your children?

OZ: Family stories serve so many purposes! When I wrote that line about Doctor Sveta, it was with admiration—I love getting to the raw material in conversation, to the stuff that’s powerful enough to elicit emotion from the teller. Family stories often seem to be both canned material and a huge burden—somewhere in my twenties, I started to resist my family’s attempts to repeat the old stories. I felt that they have been pre-packaged to transmit a certain set of values, a moral that I was ready to retire. I still haven’t really told any family stories to my children—beyond the fact that their grandparents live in Russia.

 I grew up in a Jewish family in the Soviet Union, and perhaps that put a distinct mark on the way my family told stories, and why. My parents and grandparents had to transmit certain cultural knowledge that I simply wouldn’t get from mainstream culture and from school, and they had to transmit values that were countercultural. For example, my mother tells this story about herself at the age of twelve or thirteen—that she had nearly reported her parents to the KGB, because they kept whispering to each other in a foreign language (Yiddish). They lived in a communal apartment and didn’t want to be overheard by their neighbors. But, to my mother, this behavior seemed highly suspicious. Soviet people shouldn’t have anything to hide. 

My mother told me this story at a time when many of our relatives were emigrating to Israel and to the United States, when she and my father were themselves considering emigration. They had even hired a Hebrew teacher for all of us. But they were very cautious about it: they wanted to make sure that neither I, nor my brother talked about studying Hebrew at school, in public. We weren’t in any immediate danger from our classmates, but she had many anxieties around being Jewish, and it was important to her that we don’t talk about it outside of the family. 

MK: You write plainly about anxiety, often as a function of projecting oneself too far into the future and contemplating, say, an imminent earthquake, as in “Rubicon,” or the crippling effects of old age, as in “Helen More’s Suicide”… Conversely, you explore how looking backwards, at moments both happy and sad, can be similarly unsettling. The challenge appears to be to develop, as you describe, a “heart of steel, to bear the fact of this continuum” (“Rubicon”). Have you so steeled yourself, and has writing played a part?

OZ: I’ve been trying to make friends with my anxieties. It’s been fascinating to work with anxiety as a writer. The things that make human beings anxious are so heavily influenced by culture, and then how a person processes anxiety can really reveal character. I also get to rewrite anxiety as a secret power, like in “Evasion”—in which I reframe a natural anxiety about aging into a story of exponential growth. Aging is frequently seen as a process of diminishing in form and size. But what if humans never stopped growing? There might come a time when an older person, having reached the size of a mountain, would literally stop hearing a younger one—but that’s fine, because the words of a younger person would no longer matter to them.

Re-reading this collection, I realized that one of my favorite moves is to observe children who are anxious about growing up—this is a recurrent theme in “A Wish” and “Companionship,” and “Ada at Twelve and a Half.” I observe children at different ages being reluctant to make a commitment to the next step of their development. In “A Wish,” a girl simply refuses to blow out the candle on her birthday cake. In “Companionship,” a toddler who doesn’t want to walk decides to return to his mother’s stomach. And with “Ada,” I write about a pre-teen who is expected to walk to school on her own. She doesn’t want to go to school, but she’s expected to be responsible, and she has to contend with the weight of this responsibility.

MK: Fluidity is so central to the themes in this collection, especially as applied to identity. The titular story, “Like Water” springs to mind, particularly in the way it explores sexuality (and those which hamper it). The way you engage with form–compiling fiction that ranges from the short, to the single-sentence-long and that visits and revisits topics from your own life, also strikes me as fluid. How would you characterize your style and process? Does fluidity go hand-in-hand with resistance?

OZ: Literary form and lived experience are connected in such interesting ways. A writer friend who read this collection suggested that its structure resembles staying up all night with a sick child, the way the mind drifts between anxieties, seeking refuge in happy memories, then leaping suddenly to some imagined idea about the future, and on and on. I really liked this observation, in particular, because a lot of my anxieties in motherhood center around illness. Somehow, I managed not too lean too heavily on sick children in this book, so it felt particularly rewarding when my friend picked up that image between the lines.

Much of the sexual fluidity that’s definitely a part of this collection I attribute to living in San Francisco. My husband and I moved here in 2003, and in 2004, Gavin Newsom, then mayor of San Francisco, issued the first marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It was such an elating and uplifting time. It proved that positive social change does sometimes happen at the strike of a pen. Some years later, I remember walking into a café and overhearing Russian. I turned to look and saw two men being physically affectionate with one another. That was a profound moment for me, because I’d never seen men being openly affectionate with one another on the streets of St. Petersburg. I’d seen men brutally beating up each other, but not kissing. St. Petersburg is in many ways socially conservative, and was even more so during the Soviet era. Growing up, I didn’t know the words for “homosexual” or “heterosexual,” and I certainly didn’t know anybody openly gay, male or female. Living in San Francisco, I started to understand just how many of life’s possibilities had been lost to me in that closed culture. As a writer, I get to reexamine my past from this perspective, too, and I get to imagine all kinds of different relationship possibilities for my characters.

Bloom Post End

Maddie King graduated from Skidmore College in 2018 with a degree in English and a focus in Creative Writing and Film.

 

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