Bay Area poet, performer, fiction writer, and Russian native Zarina Zabrisky has aptly titled her new collection of short stories Explosion (Epic Rites Press). This collection offers glimpses of contemporary Russian and Ukrainian life from the perspective of a largely female cast of characters, including a young girl vacationing at Chernobyl, an upper-class Jewish teen hooked on her boyfriend and heroin, a motherly real estate agent filled with nostalgia, a little girl bargaining for a treasured American plastic bag, along with drug dealers, addicts, translators, and more. At times heartbreaking, at others acerbic or mirthful, Explosion delves into stories of addiction, loss, exploitation, and emigration, offering readers the narrative shrapnel that is the legacy of Russia’s complex and violent history.
Zabrisky’s stories have appeared in Red Fez, Samizdat, A Capella Zoo, Eleven Eleven, and PoV Magazine, among others. Her work includes four other books, among them the novels A Cute Tombstone from Epic Rites Press and We, Monsters, published by Numina Press. The latter is a story of a disaffected immigrant housewife and mother who begins a secret life as a dominatrix.
The Rumpus: What was your process of writing this book like? Did you write the stories in quick succession with the intention of connecting them thematically?
Zarina Zabrisky: I have tons of stories just stored on the computer and not going anywhere. Then, in February, when I was in Florida for my son’s birthday, I heard from my editor from Epic Rites Press. He said, “Do you have material for a short story collection?” I was quite devastated at the time because of everything that was going on in Russia and the war in Ukraine and I didn’t know what to do. I was trying to interview people; I was just at the beginning of putting together the Arts Resistance, I was trying to find avenues to resist all the bullshit that was going on over there. I thought, what am I doing? I’m a writer. One of the most powerful things I can do, even if it’s not immediate, is books.
So, although I wasn’t planning to write any books because I’m working on a novel, I said, “Yeah, I would like to do a book and it will be my Arts Resistance project.” I picked up the stories that I’d written about Russia or Ukraine or the nature of the totalitarian state from the last four or five years, and while in Florida I wrote “Explosion,” the story about Chernobyl. I was sitting there in an amusement park while my son was riding the rollercoasters and I sat for six hours in the cafeteria exploring the Chernobyl explosion. That story I wrote kind of for the book and the title just arrived because it’s my personal explosion. I think the story connects all of them together in a way because it is about the nuclear radiation, but propaganda is very much like nuclear radiation. It’s invisible and it pierces everything and poisons it. So that’s why I wanted it to be in the beginning and then show how it works throughout the years to form this creature that is now Russia.
Rumpus: That story really moved me. It’s this pastoral scene of a vacationing family and there’s such a vivid sense of their surroundings. And yet there’s a subtle feeling of dread throughout. A theme of the story is that which goes unsaid, the danger of truth, as Kuzya’s father riskily promotes freethinking, while her mother cautions him against saying that which is forbidden and telling his children things they aren’t ready to handle. But Kuzya is very perceptive. Beholding the ominous cloud emanating from Chernobyl, she thinks it looks like “grown-up truth.” What is “grown-up” truth? Is it the things we hide from children, or could it be the darkest of truths which children see with a clarity we as adults lack?
Zabrisky: It’s a bullshit truth. It’s Salinger all over. Not just Holden Caulfield but more like Nine Stories. I very strongly believe there is a certain script, sort of like The Matrix, a system, but not that someone is running or controlling. The system runs itself. Because you’re part of the system, it’s virtually impossible to get out of it. But there are different ways of being enslaved. The grown-ups are enslaved completely. Going back to Salinger, there’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” one of his best stories, and there’s this bananafish who eats so many bananas that it can’t come out of the cave, it’s stuck there. So that’s the grown-ups with their truth and consumption, not in a material way, but in terms of knowledge that your own conception of greed stops you from the seeing the world the way the animals or children see it.
Kuzya, being fourteen, she’s right on the verge. She has the sharp mind of a young adult, and yet she’s not yet poisoned by all this radiation, the poison of lies. So she’s terrified at seeing it as is and seeing the lies. And I think in the Soviet Union and now in modern Russia, they have reached some real pinnacles of the “grown-up” lies, just like in Hitler’s Germany. They really outdid humankind in terms of constructing lies. There are a lot of lies here in America, but there’s very little actual construction going on. It just happens. There, [in Russia] there are lie engineers. They’re called Political Technologists. The jobs are diverse, there could be anyone from the Propaganda Specialist—they forced me to study that so I know all about it—to these Internet trolls who under false names invade the Internet and write false statements. If you look at any article about Russia in the Guardian or the New Yorker, there will be tons of the trolls you can recognize by characteristic mistakes or missing articles, pretending to be John Smith.
Rumpus: In the story “Heroines,” you write, “Back there, we had no voice. You wanted to scream but you were not allowed to. So, instead, you took drugs and forgot all the shit. And then you paid for it, you died or got sick.” It seems that many of the women characters here are denied agency. They are frequently assaulted, used, abandoned, trading their sex as the only currency they possess. They are approached by dangerous and powerful men they have no option of saying no to. Let us discuss the position of women in Russia and the Ukraine and the importance of Pussy Riot in reference to that position. Pussy Riot is mentioned twice in your book. In “Heroines,” you also write, “For the government, men with voice are more dangerous than drug pushers. And women with voice—even more so.”
Zabrisky: Where do I begin? It’s not just a question, as you’re well aware, of woman in Russia, it’s a question of woman in general. And I’m far from being a feminist. I’m not a feminist.
Rumpus: Why not?
Zabrisky: Because I have a lot of problems with it. I think generally, the modern feminist position here is coming from the negative definition of a woman. The identity of a woman is built on what women don’t have. They don’t have power, they don’t have access to such and such benefits, they are not employed, they are not on the list of great writers, they don’t have a penis, they were not allowed to vote, they were not this, not that, not that. It’s all negative. By definition it’s a wrong start because if you start with something lacking, you end with something lacking. We’re all missing something very important. You need to come from the position of what you have and who you are and develop your position in this world—or redevelop it, if needed—coming from that. I don’t want to juxtapose myself to men in power or men in more beneficial positions than I because I also know that men lack a lot, too. I want to redefine the whole world balance for myself, and maybe in my stories, as a contemplation. I don’t offer any solutions or answers to anyone.
When I was growing up, it never occurred to me that all the writers that I’d been reading—and all I did as a kid was read; we had a huge library and I was sick all the time—were all men. I identified myself with the male writers or with the male characters, like when I was sixteen and I was fascinated with Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise. And I wasn’t gay or a feminist or gender questioning. I very strongly identified as a girl. But this gender difference didn’t come to me because literature was just as is, and maybe a little bit like Kuzya I had this false sense that I was just like Holden Caulfield or somebody. Later, it arrived and it came like an ax on your head. Once you develop and you get all the catcalls in the street and all the questions: “Do you have a boyfriend yet? Are you married yet?” And suddenly it’s a completely different divide and a different world. And the only value you have is as an object, as a body, as an attractive woman.
There was a complete change and that is probably where you either abandon being an artist or there is some major crisis, which might lead to drugs, drinking, or suicide, which happened to a lot of my friends and to me. It took many, many years and therapy and analysis and reading of psychology to try to figure out a more balanced way of assessing myself, because I also have a lot of men in my life. It would be easy to hate men based on what they have and what I don’t have, except that I was married, now I’m in a loving relationship, and I have a son and my daughters have boyfriends and I see them as individuals struggling as well and I can’t blame them for what I don’t have. It’s not a struggle—I think it’s an evolution and just by being who I am and by writing my books, I’m doing my part of redefining this position of a woman.
Rumpus: So what then is especially dangerous about women’s voices?
Zabrisky: Russia is a consciously patriarchal society, mindfully so, where women are used as production machines for cannon fodder. Women are there to be married early and produce children so these children serve the state: males in a capacity of workers and females in a capacity of workers and producers of more meat. The Pussy Riot is coming from there. I mean, they are speaking pussies. This is extremely dangerous because they’re not supposed to speak. One or two of them were already mothers at the age of twenty-three or twenty-four, just like me. And one was a feminist and didn’t want to get married or have kids. How dangerous is that? Both situations: two women who are ready to abandon their kids to stand up for their ideas and one women who doesn’t even want to produce kids. And that’s why they were so condemned. With men there would be a different attitude. When they were in court in the glass cage, the words that were thrown at them most were “sluts” and “whores,” although that had nothing to do with their act, but that’s the immediate sexual offense connected to women. That’s why it’s dangerous, because they refused to be silent producers of more soldiers.
Rumpus: In “Laughing Rats,” where a woman is once again a tool for corrupt and foolish men, I noted the line: “For we are all nothing but immigrants in this world.” I interpreted this as an expression of a kind of homelessness, an emotional displacement that occurs even when still occupying one’s homeland. In “Leviathan and Running Shoes,” I noted the passage, “You can tell yourself and others that you have moved, that you are not responsible for your birth circumstances, you can change your name, your language, your everything—but escaping it for real is impossible […]” Can you elaborate on the immigrant mindset in your work and this sense of homelessness?
Zabrisky: Universally, on an existential level, it’s transitory. You’re born and then you die. In that way, we’re all immigrants. Travelers from somewhere to somewhere. What’s the destination? Nobody knows. I’m a complete atheist so I don’t have some heavenly destination.
Rumpus: But isn’t home really just a sense of belonging?
Zabrisky: If you have that sense. I’ve occasionally experienced a feeling that I’m at home or belong, but that’s in a relationship. That’s connected with a person. But how illusory is that too?
On the one hand, I feel terribly responsible for Russia and it’s such an abstract thing. What is Russia? Some entity based on the Russian language? People who all speak the same language that they grew up with? But I don’t even write in this language anymore and I have dreams in English. Or based on the arts and culture that is basically my religion and incredibly important to me? But I connect as much to English or American or French literature as to Russian. So, I don’t know. I have this terrible sense of responsibility and I almost represent Russia and Ukraine in this book for Americans. I feel like I need to explain to you guys how it all happened, yet I don’t know why because I certainly don’t feel like I belong. I haven’t been there for years and I can say I have very warm feelings for America now. I became gradually—not patriotic—but America earned its way just by doing what it’s doing. It’s a good country to live in and I have a lot of respect for it. I like it, I almost love it, as much as you can love a country. But with Russia it’s like a bad, crazy mother whose clutches you can never escape. Like a bear mother who holds you and you try to forget. I don’t identify as a Russian. I don’t identify as an American. My father used to say we’re citizens of the world, but I don’t identify as a citizen either. Writers have no nationality. In Casablanca, Dick says his nationality is “drunkard.”
Rumpus: This book is dedicated to your father, whom the dedication says taught you inner freedom. Do you have hope that this book might educate an American readership about the lack of freedom in Russia?
Zabrisky: Not directly, not literally. I think there are enough articles these days in mass media educating the Americans and the world on the lack of personal freedom in Russia. It’s a known fact.
The purpose of literature is to go into the human psyche and see how certain things develop. I was just re-reading Kundera’s The Art of the Novel and there’s this brilliant speech that he gave in Israel on receiving an award where he says that the spirit of the European novel is like a silver box, which maintains the spirit of European culture itself, which is the value of an independent human person, of an individual, his rights. That’s not just the novel, but literature itself. How can one part of the continent depart so far from this system of values? How can one country completely undervalue and basically annul and destroy the rights of the individual, while the other makes it a cornerstone? What happens? That’s what interests me. Not because the corner question of Russian literature is “Who’s to blame?” or “What to do?” It’s way too literal. There’s all of us to blame. What to do? Read novels. Look into each person, look into each constructed character and explore them as a little model of the world. That is, if not liberating, it gives me a sense that I’m living and that’s ultimately freedom.
Rumpus: I found it interesting that you chose to end the collection with a story that is both mournful and also funny. In “Goats,” the narrator’s boot gets stuck to the floor of a Russian market in San Francisco, glued in place by some spilled honey. There are wonderful lines here, such as “Because yes, we lose a lot—a boot, a mother, a country—but hey, we are still alive, aren’t we?” A fellow shopper also remarks in the story to an impatient neighbor, “‘We all are in a hurry,’ said the bear lady. ‘Life is short. But we have to help each other, young man. We need to stay human.’” These seem like words of wisdom encapsulating so much more than a stuck boot. Is this story intended as a last note of hopefulness? It takes place on New Year’s Eve, which for many symbolizes a moment of change and transition, a time when anything is possible, when we get to start all over at the stroke of midnight.
Zabrisky: Well, I’m a pessimist, but I’m a Jewish pessimist, in the spirit of Shalom Aleichem. It’s all terrible and tragic, but yes it’s funny and it keeps going, like Woody Allen, at his best. Yeah, you’re kind of stuck; it’s all terrible. Yet, you look outside, there’s blue sky and there are children and dogs and butterflies and it all sounds ridiculous but there is a reason to stay alive. There is this pessimistic/optimistic tinge to all of this. If I were a complete pessimist, I wouldn’t be writing or publishing books.
Tarkovsky, probably the best Russian director of the last century, says that a book is a deed. It’s not a hobby. It’s not entertainment, it’s a deed. I very strongly believe that’s what it is. That’s why I’m publishing the book. It’s not a celebration of my ego. I don’t think that what I personally observed or have to say is that important. I think that what I have received through some energies in this life, and something that I transmit, like other writers, if you go past the surface and break through the shell of the world, and go down deep, you receive. I receive the stories from down there. And they now have the place to be because they will make a change in the way people think. Maybe only a few people, but because I have experienced that as a young person and I keep experiencing that over and over on a daily basis, I feel that is the role of books. So, for me it’s a deed, and that’s why I bother.