Unspeakable Mothers: Talking with Sophia Shalmiyev
Sometimes you meet someone new but it feels like you have always been friends. That’s how I felt with Sophia Shalmiyev. She plays Fiona Apple and pours us tea. Her cozy apartment is decorated in a style I’d call feminist bohemian: overflowing bookshelves and a velvety couch. We had spoken briefly once before, at Our Words Are a Bridge, The Rumpus’s Portland Lit Crawl event, which I emceed. Then I got to hear her read from Mother Winter, her debut memoir, out tomorrow from Simon & Schuster.
Mother Winter’s opening line tells us Russian sentences begin backwards, a metaphor for Shalmiyev’s life. In Leningrad, in the former Soviet Union where Shalmiyev lived until the age of eleven, the child Shalmiyev was left to parent herself. Her mother, Elena, suffered from mental health issues and alcoholism, often leaving her daughter in perilous or unsupervised situations. Her father was a self-absorbed womanizer. Caught between the two, the child Shalmiyev takes care of herself to the best of her ability. When Shalmiyev and her father emigrate to Brooklyn, New York, she loses track of her estranged mother. In her absence, Elena becomes Shalmiyev’s ghost, projection, mythology, and God.
Mother Winter moves in lyrical vignettes through her childhood in Leningrad, teenage years in New York, and finally her adult life and motherhood in the Pacific Northwest. It is a feminist meditation on motherhood, art, and the nature of obsession.
The Rumpus: The form of Mother Winter is very associative. Was your writing always that way or was that something you created for this book?
Sophia Shalmiyev: When I was a little kid I had to go to music school and I was terrible at it. I dropped out. It wasn’t something that I was disciplined about. But when you walk by a room in a conservatory you hear all different instruments being played. I remember, as a kid, sitting there in the hallways, not going to my violin lesson, composing music in my head that I could never put down.
This book process felt like finally composing music that I could actually put down. I started writing it after I had my second child and I felt like I had been put through a cheese grater; I was just like myself distilled. Vulnerable, and out to lunch, and insane. All I could really do was write in these tiny little bits and pieces. Every time I could hear that little bit of music. And then eventually, when I had enough, I would sit down and start arranging it. But, I should say this: I first wrote the book as an autofiction novel.
The memoir thing happened with my agent. She was like, don’t be crazy. And I was like, no, I really want to have the right, the authority, to say that even though clearly the story is based on me, that I am a narrator. I’m a character. Men get to do this all the time. Henry Miller gets to do this all the time, Hemingway gets to do this all time. Shteyngart gets to do this all the time. I mean the list is so long. They all write “Literature.” Women write confessional tales. I just wanted to say, fuck this, I want to write in a French tradition of Literature. So, autofiction.
Rumpus: I love your observation about how men get to do this thing we call Art and we allow it in a way that we don’t allow for women. One of the themes you’re dealing with in Mother Winter is what we expect from mothers versus fathers, and women versus men.
Shalmiyev: I’m sure my mother was so taxed and so overwhelmed by her intergenerational poverty, the violence and alcoholism, and nobody was helping her. People were just expecting her to do double shifts. She was not allowed to be ill. My father, who was incredibly violent and reactive, and at times narcissistic, the fact that he was there and sometimes feeding me was like, he would get an award.
Rumpus: The neglect from your father was acceptable, but from your mother it was not acceptable at all.
Shalmiyev: I think it was systemic, too. In the Soviet Union at the time, the rules were that you could not be an affront to your country or to your household. We all lived under the microscope. We were physically watched by our government; we lived in communal spaces. So a woman was doubly watched. She wasn’t just watched by society. The whole apartment building sees that she came home late. One reason that I have this intense, obsessive love for my mother is because I didn’t understand what she was dealing with until I was a teenager. Everything that I was doing was scrutinized. And I realized that she was just falling apart under the microscope. She couldn’t bear it, so she went full throttle and doubled down instead.
Rumpus: You talk about the idea of the collective and how important that was in your early childhood in the Soviet Union. Individuality was stripped out and discouraged in everything from food to school uniforms. And then, as a teenager you’re confronting America, where we say, basically, fuck the collective. In America you’re supposed to grab your bootstraps and make something of yourself as an individual. And yet, I think about motherhood as a collective role. Mothers are asked to erase themselves in service of the collective of their family, essentially. I loved that you pulled these themes together—mother, Russia, winter—and then collided them against father, America, and fire.
Shalmiyev: That’s fascinating that you said “fire” about my father. In Russia, men like my dad, coming from Azerbaijan, they’re called, jigiteh. It means hot-blooded. They’re the men on horses with the tall, lamb fur hats, and the stereotype is about that hot-blooded, caucasus mountain region. The men are allowed to be violent, passionate. So my dad really got away with it because of the stereotype. My mother had to manage all these expectations to be proper, but she was just like, absolutely not.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned your obsession with the number four. Where did that come from?
Shalmiyev: It started in Hebrew school for sure. Do you know about this? That the word for God is four vowels, and an unpronounceable word?
Rumpus: I had a bat mitzvah, but it was a very Reform synagogue. I’m very little help with actual Hebrew.
Shalmiyev: Well, my first experience in American school was an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva. I learned that the name for God is unpronounceable. It’s like a series of vowels, four letters, just vowels. So supposedly when you try to utter it, it’s unutterable. It’s like taking a breath every day, speaking of God. And that’s stayed with me, the unutterable place, the unspeakable place. Our origins are unutterable, and my mother is unutterable, I can’t speak about her. I can’t see her. I can’t say her, I can’t name her. We’re not allowed to talk about her in our house. So she becomes like my God; she’s my unutterable.
Rumpus: Oh, I love that. And in the book, you sort of deconstruct the word Ma, a Japanese word; you talk about it as a pause. Like an opening or gap. It’s the breath. You mentioned music at the beginning of this conversation. There’s the silence of the GP in orchestral arrangement—the grand pause. And of course in English, “Ma” is also a word for mom.
Shalmiyev: I feel like I still would not know what to do with myself if it wasn’t for feminism. I think I would have been in pause for the rest of my life because I really needed intense feminists to show me that inheritance. A matrilineage. I was definitely in pause, seeking feminism. Without it, I would be holding my breath still. I’m sure.
Rumpus: Matrilineage comes through in your book. You’re naming your mother, but also literary mothers, philosophical mothers, your lineage. I think it’s tremendous, that you’re claiming that.
Shalmiyev: I wanted to write something that said I am one hundred and ten percent feminist, and I have a chorus of women, and I am relying on them. Another thing about this book is it’s sort of an assemblage of the things I was obsessing over as I was writing it. So if the radio was on and there was news about a gang rape yet again. Or if there was news about a missing plane, and people have to think about a loved one that they’ll never see again and don’t know how to mourn. I was going to include those as part of my book process and my thinking process. But it was also included to show that female bodies are sensationalized, put on the news and thrown away.
How many news cycles ago was that gang rape story? That was before Trump. It was so long ago, but nothing has changed. It’s a drain. It’s a drain where we sort of, for a minute, care. We say, oh my god, look at that whore, or look at that saint, or look at that rape victim, or that poor girl. And then we put them in the trash and we do it all over again.
Rumpus: I want to talk to you about the role of art in the Soviet Union. Art that was almost more important than people because it could carry forward in this collective way. Protecting the works of art even if you’re starving, memorizing poetry because the books might be taken. Can you talk about how art functions for you as a conduit to the collective?
Shalmiyev: For sure. I grew up in essentially a godless country, a country that was willfully godless, one that really believed that religion, praying and worshiping something, is toxic to the humanity and the intelligence of the people, and to our productivity. That was embedded in me from the get. And so I wanted to create this altar. I’m worshiping this mother figure, this unutterable, four letter, godlike breath of a woman. And that is my religion, but I also know I’m supposed to be sensible, to have something tangible.
So I look for things that are tangible. If I’m going to museum, I’ll look for a picture and wonder, is this what a mother touching a baby looks like? I was displaced from my mother, from my country of origin, without being asked, without being able to say goodbye to anyone. We invested in all of that art, the belief that we’re a great nation, that we’re a great people, that the Soviet Union’s heart is in our ballerinas en pointe, or in our painting or opera. And that all gets washed away. There was a stark contrast between where I was from, and then coming here, where God is the thing. In the yeshiva, you have to study, you have to eat kosher, you have to cover your knees. And yet the country itself felt completely empty and rotten. I couldn’t find myself in it until riot grrrl. And I’m not making a moral judgment about America versus the Soviet Union. But whatever crumbled there, that art, I’m saying that to us, that was our God. And so it was like God that went away. For all of us.
Rumpus: You used superstition as an alchemy of trauma. Does that make sense? Can you talk about that more?
Shalmiyev: Yes. People need to have an arranged, one-two-three narrative. All of these superstitions were an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Growing up with all these women that were so highly superstitious, in a world where you can get taken to a gulag any minute, or your neighbor could say that you’re not patriotic, it was so important to have a way to arrange that chaos.
Rumpus: And to feel some sense of control. I think we all know this superstition about how when you spill salt, you have to then throw some over your shoulder. I didn’t know why we were supposed to do it. You write in Mother Winter how, in doing so, you’re taking a mistake and you’re making it something that you did on purpose. It’s like with trauma, how we can reclaim our own narrative and say: actually, this is the way the story went. There is something so powerful, so small, and it’s literally like witchcraft.
Shalmiyev: It really is like witchcraft. Correcting something that is not your fault. Do you know what I mean?
Rumpus: You’re taking power for yourself and saying: I can choose my narrative and I get to tell it the way that I want.
Shalmiyev: I wanted to do that for my mother. I wanted to create something for her. I don’t have a grave to mourn.
The forgotten women, the outcasts, they’re not some piece of shit trash. That’s what I wanted to say for my mom. For at least one lost woman, I could do something for her.
Rumpus: While we’re on the topic of magic and alchemy, I think sex can be kind of alchemical, particularly for trauma survivors. There’s a paragraph where you go from the news story about the raped girls in the mango tree, through sexual trauma, and you end with “and I come.”
Shalmiyev: That was such an important thing for me to say. As I’m fucking, a lot of times there is a newsreel or film reel, right? And I cannot help it, I have the entire world in my mind; I have my mother in my mind; I have what I heard on the radio. I wish I could disconnect, but I can’t. It is such a privilege to completely be in your body. And I’ve not been in my body so many times.
One important thing I want to say is that sex work, working at a peep show, I mean, maybe it was an act of defiance, maybe a way to buy myself some time or some food, but once I was doing it, what it really was to me was a place to have a fucking coven. Without it, I don’t think I would have known how to have a multiple orgasm or what the fuck to do with my body or even what a vibrator was. I think I would have gone the other way. I was so sexually traumatized and I grew up in such hyper-sexualized, fucked-up environments. When I walked into the Lusty Lady I was like, holy shit. Oh my god, look at all of these juicy, potent women of every shape and size telling these guys, “Fuck you, I won’t do this. I will do that.”
Every woman in there had power, and they all were like, this is your clit. This is what happens. And some of them have fucked-up lives. I was in a sex cauldron with my coven and I came alive. And then there were sad and transactional and fucked-up moments, too, but those women are the ones that made magic for me.
And it all exists together. Me shaving my pussy, me eating Chinese food takeout, and farting, and talking to my girlfriend, and having to stage a fake double dildo play with my best friend, and me getting off my shift and having a nice drink with my punk rock boyfriend. All of that happened in a day, Mrs. Dalloway style.
Rumpus: You have this theme of forgery in the book. What does forgery mean to you?
Shalmiyev: That to me was very, very important as somebody who is writing a book in English. I want to be really fluent and I want to be really brilliant and I don’t want to make any mistakes, but my native tongue is Russian. I come off as more American than any American and I love being an American in a lot of ways. I think we have the fucking funniest comedians. I think we have the coolest fucking feminists. And so as a writer, the code switching is so intense and I have to be so much more eloquent in my code switching. And I’ve been code switching for so long and the shame around it? That’ll never, ever, ever leave me. The feeling of being a fake will never leave me.
Rumpus: You open the book with a quote from Marguerite Duras, about the alcoholic woman as a slur against woman’s divine. And of course, your mother struggled with alcoholism. Why is the alcoholic mother, or the alcoholic woman, so unforgivable?
Shalmiyev: I mean, because what we want most of all from a mother is for her to be completely stable, predictable, invisible. And available, right? So if you are an alcoholic as a mother, it is ostensibly the biggest way to say, I’m selfish. And we do not allow any narcissism in women, we don’t allow them to be executives, we don’t allow them to be power-hungry artists. We don’t allow them any of these things. An alcoholic is out of control, which is another sin for women. But also alcoholism is something that’s a solitary act and we don’t want that from women either. We just want them doing things for all of us. We need them to be soldiers.
Mothers are just unforgivable. That’s the thing. It’s true no matter what happens.
Don’t miss our EIC, Marisa Siegel, in conversation with Sophia Shalmiyev and Eileen Myles at McNally Jackson on February 27!
Photograph of Sophia Shalmiyev © Thomas Teal.