Sophia Shalmiyev is here to change the conversation —the conversations we are having about art, how we view the genre of memoir, motherhood, capitalism, gender politics and feminism. She is here to steer clear from the patriarchy and she is doing just that within her debut memoir, Mother Winter.
I took a trip to Books Are Magic yesterday, February 25, to attend Shalmiyev’s reading. During the Q&A curated by Melissa Febos, Sophia explained how she isn’t interested in suspense in her writing, or even in what she reads. She feels as though enough suspense lives in her own body, that she doesn’t need artificial scares from horror movies or plot twists and turns from mystery novels. Instead, she is interested in what sentences can do, lyrically. How they sound in the mouth, what images the evoke, much like a song.
This idea is evident in Mother Winter as we learn about Shalmiyev’s immigration from Russia at age eleven, without her mother, the mother she has always sought love, attention and affection from. Through beautifully poetic vignettes, Shalmiyev recounts her journey from the stark oppressiveness of 1980s Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), to Brooklyn and later Olympia, WA. She explores her coming-of age, what it means to live in a female body, her feminist ideals, being raised by art and her thoughts on displacement, all while longing for the estranged mother she can not grasp.
This has truly been one of the best memoirs I have read to date and I’m so grateful to have met and interviewed Sophia. I reached out to her via email and she replied back with such open and honest answers in her own vibrant and refreshing voice.
Can I say she is a badass? Because that word keeps coming to mind.
What drew you to write this memoir? Can you speak of how “Mother Winter” came to be?
I wanted to write about lack of closure, lack of answers, lack of evidence, unseen but held in a body left broken by a corroded and sexist system, of a lost woman who haunted me, of gratitude for the women who gave me a center to hold, one book or piece of art at a time. I was mostly interested in language; hearing a sentence and wondering how pleasure can be re-interpreted within labor, within ache, within a drilling down kind of pace. The book is about obsessions. And I was obsessed enough to write and re-write it many times. I didn’t want it to be about my mother. I wanted that to be much more oblique. Well. She’s on the cover.
What do you think are some common misconceptions about Russia and the Soviet Union? Are people surprised to hear about your love of your country?
The culture America wanted to eradicate is in fact gone; it cannot be resurrected or fixed. The death of the Soviets is a tragedy. I do not think the country, closed off from the world, anti-Semetic, and in heavy trauma and hypervigilance from WWII and Stalinism had to, or could have, remained static. I believe that we had a leader in Gorbachev who was stable, fair and interested in democracy and socialism. I’m a Perestroika child. Even though my book describes much chaos and abuse, I had a magical childhood in ways that count, compared with the emptiness of capitalism. When I arrived here I knew, instantly, that the pervasive inner hunger and boredom people experienced was a Republican nightmare I wouldn’t be able to withstand, to find meaning in, without counter culture. The Republican regime, the ones who were trying to free us, and shame us and cut Gorbachev’s balls off gave us the political climate we have today. I’m Soviet no matter the flaws. I don’t know Russia. And they don’t want me. Totalitarian states are not interested in art and feminism.
When speaking about such vulnerable times in your life, such as living with abuse, an alcoholic and neglectful mother, sex work, etc, was it difficult to get it on the page? Would you describe writing this memoir as therapeutic or did you have an entirely different experience?
My therapist is for the therapy. And I don’t pay her enough. I want to and will as soon as I can, but I live off my credit cards by the end of the month. This is to say that my work isn’t my healing retreat or temple of enlightenment. In fact, writing about trauma in a public way can activate the very opposite effect. Many writers who do this kind of somatic processing, our bodies being where we carry real and imagined ghosts and characters, do not come out better, but different.
You are changed when you sublimate aggression and externalize an aggressor who may haunt you. Just putting it down though isn’t in any way helpful to me. And it wouldn’t make for a good book either. It was in crafting lines and assembling images that evoke, scratch at, imitate, question and worship the missing person that I was able to arrange my own logic and narrative.
My mother and I are strangers. Writing a book about her is fiction. The entire enterprise is made in that vein. Of course, each event and scene is from memory. But the gaps. That’s where we lived. That’s the invention. I can’t write about her in any overt and direct way. Even if people who may have never read the modernists or think about Keats’ negative capability want reality hunger to be satiated. I’m not a museum tour guide, dude.
Has becoming a mother, after living the majority of your life without your own mother, changed you as a person? As a writer?
I write about that part of my life not being a choice I made. Now, if it’s not totally obvious: I believe that the entire reproductive process is very much a choice of the woman and no one else’s. I have had abortions. I have had children. I have agency even though my country wants me to be ashamed of my basic medical and health care rights.
I knew that I would go on to have a complex relationship with all the facets of what I call Nurture Torture. I knew that our society has a pretty great system where women do all the invisible work, don’t get paid or get paid way less.
That’s just for starters. That’s basics.
And so I wondered if I should just drop out. If I should isolate and not fight this rancid empty tuna can being kicked down the road to me. But my mother lived in every cell of my body, yelling at my tits to secrete “our” milk; my uterus to grow “our babies.” She was willing me to make myself into the real mother, not the adult child I was forced to be, with her essence pushing me to my next hangover, but to erect the monument to our rupture. To make the frozen dinner silence between us into a hot dinner by candlelight. That was the drive behind having chosen but not chosen, to have my two kids.
The reality was much bloodier than that. The reality was a carnage; my body broke, I was so alone, I was way too brave and fastidious, I was dumb. And I got to make the fire that did not burn us all alive. Eventually. And I clawed out time, at any cost, to write this book, to answer this email, to paint in my studio. And still take my son to therapy and ice cream. I’m not advocating motherhood as a cure for trauma or loneliness because it activated those sectors of my brain fully. I was lit with grief. And in love. I bonded and connected as though I just found out there was hot water and I’ve only taken cold showers before.
What does writing do for you? Have you always wanted to be a writer? Is it your main creative outlet?
I do think I may have answered that, partially, already, but it’s a universal question. What is anyone’s actual motivation. Why do we bother with this process that feels so rejecting. I never thought of careers. I got to be broke and sell my body sometimes to survive and go to college and grad school but always willfully unambitious. I hate competing. And when I do engage in that dynamic I end up feeling sick and acting like a nightmare. It’s not for me.
I have always drawn and painted but also in fits and starts. And because Olympia was mostly concerned with the music scene it was an easy place to be a visual artist. No pressure. I eventually became an art therapist but I am not sure if I will go back into social services again. Especially since there is zero funding and support for these jobs. And we need them most of all. We need to pay art therapists and teachers a real living wage and give them our full support and attention.
Lack of information, creative outlets for our verbal world of tech, and mental health in general are very easy ways to fight back the vacuum of capitalism. But the bros and the daddies would rather we self-soothed with drugs and alcohol or took it out on each other. It’s a great set up.
What did your writing process or routine look like for “Mother Winter?”
I drop my kids off at school. I get in bed. I write. I nap. I eat. I masturbate. I read. I write more. I take a shower. I get my kids from school. I think of what I wrote and take notes in the kitchen making dinner. I edit when kids are asleep.
What advice do you have for aspiring memoirists, particularly if they are seeking to write about a very raw, taboo or painful subject?
Read and read. That’s where you will know what hasn’t been done and why it’s ok if it has. Why you are adding to a collective voice. That you are not in a hole. Find your tribe.
I was always afraid of writing under the nonfiction moniker. I saw Lacy M Johnson read once and when I got the thought in my head: She is so brave; they all know, they label and judge her. And then the thought turned to rage. At myself. At genre. At narrow lanes. At women and non-binary folk being told we are too much or not enough. Of our labels obscuring our art.
She’s a damn good writer. That’s it. Do you hate being judged or ignored more? Because that’s our strange borderline pool. That’s how the canon is made. For me, I didn’t want to be seen as a victim. I was worried, and it came true, that I would be critiqued as a person, not my craft, not my work. My actual self, was selfish and sadistic in even asking the reader to feel the emotion and watch the carefully rendered scenes. It’s been like an involuntary pelvic exam, basically.
But fuck them all. That’s what I say. Get busy.
What are you currently reading?
I’m stepping away from my classics piles and reading my contemporaries.
Veronica Gonzalez Peña
Eva Hagberg Fisher (I appear in convo with her at Powells 2/28)
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, and really any queer theory and queer history, novels, and plays I can get my hands on that’s addressing the mall, the commodified, the capitalist, the homogenous way we are fed otherness through a daddy meat grinder.
It’s all so greasy these days. You must be so fashionable and so buttoned up and so on it and so successful. And yet, the soul, the fun, the belief that we are all one in this fight is missing. I do not miss the nineties. I love that I grew up in the eighties and nineties though, yes I do. I saw what a fight looks like. And, it’s in the streets and the clubs, honey.
Sophia Shalmiyev emigrated from Leningrad to NYC in 1990. She is an MFA graduate of Portland State University with a second master's degree in creative arts therapy from the School of Visual Arts.
She lives in Portland with her two children. Mother Winter is her first book.