“Russian sentences begin backwards,” Sophia Shalmiyev reminds us right off the bat in her debut memoir Mother Winter. The statement works like an incantation for how the book will work its narrative, very much the way memory itself works—backwards or forward, ripped shards or whole cloth—and by the end of it all, a quilt, sewn together before your eyes, will have wrapped itself entirely around you.
The book starts with Shalmiyev’s childhood in Leningrad, and is partly the story of being a girl in the stark Russia of the 1980s, and partly the story of a girl who is without a mother, even in the early pages when her mother is still around, for better or worse, in her life.
Then, at age eleven, Shalmiyev emigrates. She is moved to the US by her father. That’s one way to put it. Another way to put it, and one she returns to again and again, is that she was taken, stolen, smuggled away from her mother.
Shalmiyev’s prose is raw and tough. It crackles on the page with a fireworks display of sensory details, one after the other at times, impressionistic and complete in its scatter of color. As the memoir goes on, the narrative circles back around to the young Sophia growing up in Russia. Here she is again, the mother now painted in finer, desperate detail—a woman who is nearly always drunk, and may or may not be having sex with strangers for money or fun while her young daughter watches. Each time we circle back with the author, the deepening sense of lack is devastating. It becomes apparent that loss is very different than lack—one is to have and then lose, the other is to only be without.
As a girl, young Sophia is given a plastic sewing machine, something she has craved for months, and she sets out to thread together anything she can, just to sew, at times sending only paper through the machine because that’s what she had around. Mother Winter is exactly that: an author using the scraps of what she has around her to create a stitched-together mother from almost nothing.
The book is a place to hold what she remembers of her mother and to chart her adolescence and young womanhood as she struggles to forget herself and find herself in an America that becomes its own kind of parent—merciless, warm, raw and loving—until it spits Shalmiyev back out, back to Russia as an adult where she goes for one last attempt to look for her mother, to make sense of them both.
There are times when the sound and rhythm of the author’s words and sentences mirror the abuse she describes, her language like being hit, and then the soothing apology that comes after, the reassurance that the child is loved, that it’s being done for their own good.
She was a pantry moth mother. Stuck mottled in sacks of grain. Everyone, encumbered, tattle-telling the truth about her. Trying to clean her out of their dark winter closets. A nuisance.
There is a heavy undercurrent throughout the book of superstitions, the significance of numbers, myths and fables, animals—the meaning of all things intertwined and come to life, the way a child’s mind makes the world, only turned upside down on its head, traumatized, eyes wide open, trying to make meaning.
In Mother Winter, Shalmiyev could have simply put her head down and moved forward through childhood and adolescence into adulthood. But instead she watched. She watched everything, she chose to engage with the world, entangling herself deeper rather than trying to forget. This book is her recounting of the whole gory, beautiful mess, and it is impossible to look away.
As the author gets older, angrier, rougher, the importance of art and the mind take on shared space with the endurance of the body and memory and being a woman. Even as she toughens up, bumps herself up against everything she can think to experience, as a reader, I saw the small daughter-self inside that tough adult woman, like she was both at once, the victim either way, saved either way.
The full, naked agony of Shalmiyev’s childhood is only glimpsed in short bursts of memory—the pain is too much to tell you about head-on. In fact, the full view of the author’s trauma isn’t revealed until the final third of the book, when the squares of the quilt are stitched together in the reader’s mind, and the full, horrible reality of her experience as a child without a mother, as a young woman without a mother, and as a mother without a mother at last reveals itself.
Reading the final pages, I could feel the narrative open its mouth and bite down on me, ferocious, magnetic, the smudged memories of the author’s mother finally wiped clean enough to see the child’s loss, the adolescent’s anger, the woman’s craving for completion that can only ever truly be healed by closing the loop oneself: I am mother. I am child. I am mother. The overlapping, hard-won truth—victim either way, saved either way.
Don’t miss our EIC, Marisa Siegel, in conversation with Sophia Shalmiyev and Eileen Myles at McNally Jackson today, 7 p.m.!