Davidzon Radio’s program “Ракурс” (“The Angle”)
with Alexei Naksen
Alexei: Please tell us about yourself: How did you become a writer?
Sophia: That happened accidentally. About ten years ago, I had personal issues I was trying to work out, so as it is customary in America, I turned for help to a psychologist. She suggested I kept a diary. But shortly I discovered that instead of just telling the events the way they’ve happened in the order they’ve happened I was asking myself a question, “What if. . .?” What if the different words were uttered? What if the events were interpreted differently? “What if. . .?” turned out to be the typical question attributed to writers. And that was how my novel was born. The final version of it barely contains the traces of the original diary.
I would like to stress that About Anna... is not a memoir, it’s a literary novel. The life path of my heroine differs from my personal path, though some parallels are present. And often her perception of the world around her and her ponderings do not coincide with my philosophy of life. Though it seems that the characters born out of author’s imagination must closely reflect the thoughts and emotions of the author, in reality the characters begin to breathe and think independently of the author and acquire their own life, sometimes touching upon the life of their creator and sometimes getting far away.
Alexei: Give us a short introduction to your novel. How did the main idea come about? Why did you choose this particular literary form? Were there prototypes for your characters in real life or are your characters purely the product of your imagination?
Sophia: I never had to choose the format of the literary novel; it came about on its own in the process of writing it. I was never tortured by a multitude of choices, my heroine’s voice appeared naturally, and so the ribbon of her story began to flow and curl.
It was a bit more complicated with my other characters—both the prototypes and the active work of imagination were involved. Well, practically every literary character is based on a real person or a combination of several people to whom something happens, and that something is the plot of the story.
About the novel. The story begins quite banally: a young woman, Galina, gets married. But in a few short months it becomes evident that the marriage was a mistake, that they should not be together, and it’s better for them to separate. And that’s what the newlyweds do. When the news of Galina’s pregnancy come, her family talks her into keeping the child, so she won’t be alone in her advanced years. And so Anna is born. Except Galina never wanted to have a child, the presence of her daughter irritates her, and it becomes worse with time. It doesn’t matter what Anna does; she can’t please her mother. Galina can’t find a single loving word for her daughter. The little girl is growing up without motherly care or caress. And this feeling of being an unwanted burden, of self-doubt, the sense of inadequacy, and the belief that love comes with a price Anna will transfer to all the relationships in her life, including her choice of her partner.
We meet our heroine, Anna, in contemporary New York, shortly prior to her fortieth birthday. Her daughter is about to graduate high school and go to the university. Anna’s relations with her ex-husband are anything but simple. She is trying to survive and is forced to change her profession, like a lot of other immigrants must have done. She would like to find a life partner, but all her attempts fail till, quite accidentally, she stumbles upon a man who will play a major role in her life, or so it seems. But when life is so simple and accommodating?
I’d like to say that About Anna… is a tale that explores with uncompromising candor and clarity the nuances of human nature, the bonds that shape and shadow our lives. Crossing generations and continents, the narrative details the joys and hardships of an immigrant living in a rental in a shabby-chic neighborhood, where the long-buried tensions that fester among families begin to surface in unexpected ways and change the family forever. The road to forgiveness is never an easy one, yet the journey to self-acceptance may prove to be the most difficult one of all.
There are a lot of funny situations in the novel, often taken to the absurdity, but at the same time there is also a lot of sadness.
With your permission, I’d like to say a few words about the sad subject of the novel. The difference between the American mentality and the mentality of former Soviet citizens is so vast that it often brings conflict. When American society builds up individuality of the person, the Soviet one was actively suppressing or eradicating any sign of individuality, with all of this supposedly done to benefit the society in general. This flawed ideology was planted into peoples’ conscience deeply and affected everything, and first of all the methods of child rearing. I’ve seen too many similar scenes in the houses of educated people—the contemporary Soviet so-called intelligentsia. Everything absorbed in our childhood—both good and bad—stays with us for the entirety of our lives, even if consciously we don’t notice it or refuse to admit it. And how difficult it is to get rid of the programming that was put in our heads, or often had been bitten in. And that is one of the main conflicts of my heroine—how to make her old Soviet mentality and her new American one coexist peacefully.
In addition to this, Galina is interested only in herself and what happens to her and has very little interest in anything to do with Anna. This combination of indifference, neglect, and even cruelty toward her daughter is one of the main themes of my novel. Unfortunately, the problem of child abuse is too widespread. When the child grows up, in the attempt to heal the wounds received in childhood, his broken perception of the world will create similar situations to recreate the original one. That might, and often does, turn into domestic abuse. That’s the vicious circle that is extremely difficult to brake up.
The abuser is often a self-absorbed individual who lacks any compassion toward other people, who also wants a total control over his victim while convincing his victim that it’s all her fault, and if she would change her behavior to better comply with his wishes everything will be fine. And that’s an emotional trap. In cases of domestic abuse, the situation becomes more complicated if the couple has children. The woman might have a strong feeling of guilt that she will break up the family and make her children fatherless if she decides to leave the abuser, and such guilt makes it impossible for her to leave the situation. There are no winners in those circumstances, only losers; both loose, the abuser and his victim.
At the same time, the novel is full of optimism. Going through the trials fate throws her way, Anna finds strength to not loose herself. I hope that my novel will resonate with peoples’ hearts, those who would find Anna’s story compelling, and especially the people who have been in similar situations themselves. I also hope that my novel would help all those who know too well what I am talking about and who would like to be free of the pain that was inflicted upon them.
Alexei: There are not so many immigrants in American literature. The names of Konrad and Nabokov come up, of course others too. And it’s understandable because a mother tongue will always stay the mother tongue. Why did you choose to write in English?
Sophia: The choice of the language was not enforced. The subject of child rearing and how the child’s psyche is formed and influenced by his parents was always of interest to me. To find answers, I read a huge amount of literature on psychology, and because all this literature was in English, it was easier for me to think on the subject in English. Approximately at the same time, I discovered Dickens—in original, not in translations. I was mesmerized by the beauty and depth of his language, his elegant sentence construction, his sense of humor. And once I entered that world I was reluctant to leave it.
Alexei: Your heroine goes through the periods of complex transformations, both external—in space and time, but also internal, psychological ones. What was she like in Russia; what was her perception of the Moscow of her youth; what did she learn in her emigration; what turns her life took in America? How did she see America and New York upon her arrival, and how this perception changed over the years?
Sophia: There is a definite parallel between Anna’s life and mine if I were to talk about Anna’s youth and emigration. I can’t say that in my memories of Russia there is a nostalgic note present. Our life there was difficult, but it was true for the majority of people at that time. I never knew my father, my parents divorced when I was a baby. My mother always worked hard, she would come home tired, so I never bothered her with anything. I was brought up by the school and the street: in the school I was hammered with the ideas of the bright Communist future and our happy childhood we must be thankful for; there I was taught to suppress and hide my true thoughts, my desires, and my individuality. And a peculiar form of anarchy within the framework of the Soviet mentality reined on the streets, which basically meant the survival of the fittest in its most primitive form.
I experienced my first few months in New York in a state of shock. New York swallowed me, so terrifying and beautiful at the same time. We left Russia in 1978. Those were times of hunger, when everything was in shortage except potatoes, bread, and kasha “Hercules” (processed breakfast oats), the endless everyday lines for food and everything else. When I had entered the American supermarket for the first time I saw rows and rows of colorful cans with dog and cat food—it was hard for me to comprehend all of this since our cat was fed the leftovers. And then I saw fresh strawberries—that almost killed me—fresh strawberries in December? I think that almost all immigrants went through similar experiences. And I could talk for months about the culture shock; I would not even know where to begin.
My heroine is a person capable of adapting to any situation not only to survive but also to provide more or less normal conditions for her daughter to grow up in while not sacrificing her own moral values. The most difficult transformation, of course, is not the transformation in space, but literally breaking up of the psyche, when we have to reevaluate and rethink our perception of the world around us as well as our relationship with that world. This psyche breaking began back in Russia, when people got kicked out of the universities and Komsomol as traitors to the Motherland, for the same reason people got fired from their jobs and were unable to find new jobs, and when the same childhood friends you thought to remain your friends till death would turn away from you when they learned that you had applied for an exit visa from the USSR. But you get used to anything, and both my heroine and I had adjusted to the life in America, and life in Russia seems only as a half-forgotten dream.
Alexei: On your heroine’s path there were not only several countries, but also several men. Let’s talk about that. In what ways are they similar and how are they different? For example, how is American man different from a Russian man in the eyes of your heroine? At work, on the street, in everyday life, in bed?
Sophia: The difference between American and Russian men in the eyes of Anna: Her ex-husband and also her ex-lover belong to the type of Russian men who prefer to dominate the woman in all the aspects of their relationship, they will make all the decisions concerning their life situations and would leave for the woman the decisions on what to wear and what to cook for dinner. They’re harsh in both defining their aim and also determining the methods utilized to reach the desired end. When those two men with whom Anna got entangled form an opinion about any situation, they are closed to the idea that that opinion was based on the limited set of facts and might not be the correct one. The Americans and other Western men in Anna’s life are more open in their perception of the world and also are open to discussion of an alternative version of the reality as someone else might see it. They are polite, which simplifies things and makes the relationship more pleasant. They are less insecure, and therefore they don’t feel such a need to dominate. Western men are more used to the idea of treating a woman as an equal, and it often presents no difficulty for them to ask a woman her opinion or her desires.
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