Andrew Byrds: Mother Winter cordons itself off from traditional memoirs in that rather than present your life through concrete narrative you instead represent your upbringing thematically, favoring abstract, albeit lyrical prose. Not poetical, or that it comes off as romanticized, but that there is a heightened sense of flesh and blood in your writing that most writers trade in for a succinct, “gritty” style. That is until you write about the more traumatic events of your childhood–at those moments, you write tersely, lying down the events exactly as they seemed to happen, leaving whoever is reading to understand exactly what is happening with absolute comprehension. I noticed this most prominently early in the book, wherein you describe a moment when you witnessed several men in the company of your mother drunk and exposing themselves. (p. 41). In a text that places emphasis on language, how did you employ different methods of expounding memory and fact to create a narrative that is fully your own?
Sophia Shalmiyev: I know that when it comes to abuse, harassment or any volatile situation, every woman, queer person or POC has a heightened awareness of the facts not being taken on as facts when they are re-told, recalled and re-lived in a public way. We work in, through, and out of that place—never being believed. I do not expect to be believed or understood or even listened to and for that reason alone I must be as clinical and unemotional in my listing out of the details of events you mention. It is a performance. But what aspect of trauma isn’t a performance once you were forced to dissociate from your body and humanity?
I have men tell me that they had to call “uncle” while reading the book—too much dark matter for them—too gross and doesn’t let up. I disagree, because I am not a sadist and I want to engage the reader in the possibility of a transformation, not a humiliation. A transformation is painful but necessary. The reason men choose to never change, to participate in the lie that they “earned” status and power, is that they have no consequences. There are no repercussions for daddies and fat cats.
I have also had a woman write about my book as something so indelicate she had to avert her gaze, embarrassed for me and for my possible audience because our feminism doesn’t align and I am too gritty for her taste. That is a great response for someone who is sucking on, then throwing at me, a silver spoon for every day she was alive and I cannot spit back a penny at her without being told I am somehow beneath her and her idea of a memoir canon. Criticism is completely fine, but this was about capitalist language structures. The language of the oppressor can be employed by women, by queers, and by POC if they want to jockey for position and make staircases out of less seen bodies. But those are the bodies in my collectivized voice as the narrator. I am that bundle and the pyre and that worthless mass within a tiny frame that the boys used to taunt and laugh at along with the girls who wanted to be on the winning team. That will always be me.
I write about my mother with direct eye-contact fixed on the men who still think they should seduce me/her by playfully harassing me; supplying me with more material. Or, just taking what they wish. A man I loved said to me—If I stop being such a mess what would you have to complain about, cuz you love complaining. The narcissism of these eternal boys that we are too scared to confront is what perpetuates the system I write against. And I am here to recruit any of the girls who fear being ostracized to be on their own team, a new team, and stop hanging around hoping to oh-so-casually fit in at the sausage factory. The multi-vocal approach, a non-adherence to genre altogether, points to what needs to be disrupted and disregarded because the past is always with us, regardless of how badly some want an erasure followed by a leisurely tea time and a permanent nap for all the angry women in the arts.
AB: Is there an importance in embedding the culture of our families within our creative works, or do you feel a freedom in pursuing a separate identity outside of the people who influenced your upbringing?
SS: I think of what Eileen Myles says (roughly) about all writing that skates across the lines and borders of fiction and nonfiction: I have all the information about Eileen Myles that I need in order to write. And so the idea is that it is all in me and I can choose to subtract my culture or family history in order to create, but it is still there even when I don’t specifically put it on paper. My gathered, consensual influences are so completely interwoven with the involuntary ones of my upbringing that I would have to labor and toil with the utmost precision to extract what I need to keep them formally separated. The question would be, why would I do that? Why would I make erasure so neat?
My father’s voice is in the same pie as Sarah Schulman’s, even though he has become a Zionist and switched over to the new right-wing values of Israel. He chooses to ignore, as an informed and self-aware person from the Soviet Union, that we need socialism and we must address the slaughter of occupied people and be the Jews of a forward moving destiny, not the cycle of frozen paranoia and allegiance to bigotry to save our own skins. I want the freedom to pursue all art-making possibilities, any path, without the chains of my past, but I know from my father’s teachings that to live against something is to live under it, as well.
All of my work is about misogyny. I am unsparing and relentless. My reaction in the writing and in the post-production dialogue is largely dictated by the generational outsider status of my dark-skinned, “exotic,” shape-shifting, Jewish roots, all played out before me as a child—a neglected girl child—up for grabs to the highest bidder if my father ever stopped protecting me in his hapless way as an overwhelmed young man who gets special kudos for raising a kid at all, even if badly.
I was brought up by an abusive, ebullient, beloved, magnetic, brilliant father who got away with punishing women and children for disagreeing with him. He did this with violence, yes, which I suppose we all agree is wrong, but the “logical male” arguments he used to belittle us and wear us down whittled me to a terrorized state. These verbal tactics are fully present in women’s romantic bonds, like, right this instant, and not changing one bit.
AB: How has the dynamics of prose/poetry altered your view point of the world?
SS: Working within both has been an opening and a porousness that allowed for more didactic and critical means. I have a fellow writer/educator friend, Renee Honn, who says, “Teaching students about ethos, pathos and logos, I warned if they use their personal experience as pathos in debate and are met with calls for pure logos, they are in an abusive dynamic and must get the heck out. Experiences matter and cannot always be quantified.” I’m grateful for this perspective and it doesn’t so much alter but support the point of view I have of the world. It usually has a lot to do with power structures in interpersonal relationships. If I make a mistake, in writing or in life, I’m dead meat, an airhead…See, I told you so, women aren’t serious. The toxicity of male culture is such that to be wrong, to not be an expert, to feel dis-invited from arenas they rule but sometimes have to be excluded from, is such a negation and a humiliation that the response is catastrophically staged as discourse. Yet, I assure you, it’s erasure. They just want to win or to master you. Classic-Modern-Mailer in disguise. My worldview as a writer comes down to waking up the non-protecting bystanders or neutral parties to storm the gates of our daddy-loving culture. Entry is still up to men—pun intended.
I have previously been asked—and it feels patronizing—what my experience of stitching fragments rather than “writing” has been like. I want to scream back all the cusses after not brushing my teeth for a week to infuse the answer with the rot it deserves. I always welcome sexist questions for the same reason Katherine Millett analyzes Miller and Mailer. She is able to distill what the projectors of the violent male fantasy are doing in plain view rather than battle and fail to expose closed-door boys club banter. Women are unbelievable. So when men say the horrid things, we can flip the script of being detectives.
I learned, within my own intertextuality, and assemblage, that feminine beings are exhausted—our language, our vaginal discourse, our call for hybridity, our feminist fists around red pens are in the yellow bruised stage. We are doing what we must to heal the blows. Now, men, either give us the platforms, learn and listen, or step aside and open up free day care centers as reparations for all the free domestic labor we have done since the beginning of record keeping. And that’s just ethos, pathos, and logos, my dudes!
AB: Is “mother” just a word, or is it more of a title?
SS: Neither. Titles are crucial to what’s on the inside and how we approach a person or a thing. I got that from reading Halberstam and Butler. No one, not even writers with books on motherhood, want that word in the title. It’s not a great seller. It is not aspirational. It’s private. It’s not a commercial word, contrary to the tabloid and magazine obsession with celebrity pregnancies and babies, which is a form of anti-female agency and a capitalist psychosis I can’t bear. We all consume these photos because we know it’s a lie and we need to inject glamour and deceit into the business of the heteronormative dream that only favors men, obviously with sexy dates, and workouts, and blow outs and “me-time,” that is advertised to us so we look cute and not at all MOTHER-like to the dudes and the ladies who fear losing them within the scarcity model.
I’m poor. I have mostly been poor, classless and Soviet, immigrant and working class, then, lower middle class and in debt, raising two kids with two master’s degrees and barely enough by the end of the month to cover a life. Now, my socialist father has a staged persona of an upper middle class Jewish dentist who still loves the arts and is collapsing on the floor every night in a heap of bills, is on his third heart surgery and playing roulette with his debtors all while being the picture of the American Dream. I want a matriarchy. I don’t want to chase the male success model dragon. The title of my book is frozen, unyielding, stern, punitive, integrative of a collected history and future warning. We have been corpsed into our roles. My mother’s alcoholism should not have been stigmatized. She was iced out for being charged as Damaged While Living Female. We will thaw out. I will thaw out for her sake—to a new version of what people who are blamed for nurture ruptures and are expected to be nurture goddesses might become instead, to no longer live a psychic life well beyond their means. We must let women make mistakes with less dire consequences. We must hold men who are just skating by, or are abusing us—emotionally, financially, sexually and physically, to higher standards.
Why don’t men go into the helping professions as much as women do (I’m excluding queer men here)? Why do they do the bare minimum at academic institutions and make their female colleagues do the grunt work? Why do men get offended for their whole entire gender and take it upon themselves to let us know they are the good guy who grew up with a cool hardworking mom if our valid complaint isn’t actually directed at them? Why do men do almost none of the emotional labor, planning labor, or demand more paternity leave or quit their careers to raise children they say they love but treat like trophies? Why are we even having a debate that men need to be in leadership roles when they do all the killing and raping and we have never had a woman president. Because they do not want to give up their power and they will deflect or walk away from the fight or gaslight or stall or wait us out or simply charge on, but they will not support us in reaching our ambitions if they compete with theirs.
There’s a study that says that when a man gets a letter of rejection from a publication, is passed over for a job, or he’s broken up with, the immediate response is not interior digging through—it’s the assumption that some code error occurred and the person saying NO must have “issues” or has no taste. It’s never their fault. Women do the very exact opposite and torture themselves over losers, quit submitting new pieces, or don’t ask for a raise or the time off. Now, tell me that’s not a collective lesson we learned being in a patriarchal world, the world of my father, whom I love and accept and have forgiven long ago—still holding up the truth and maintaining my values and boundaries—all while my mother is so very Un-forgiven that we cannot even speak of her or actively look for her grave. I can’t know if she’s dead or if she survived alcoholism and a stolen child. So I’m loud and mute. Mother. Winter.
AB: What are your future plans in regard to writing/publishing?
SS: I’m half way through a poetry collection called, “Father Falls Before Grace,” and am really hoping that someone who gets its strangeness as raw power will want to publish it. Poetry may not get to go on regular old submission so I’m most likely on my own here and have to figure that out, find a way to get it published. FFBG is the viscosity, the glue, the preface to my novel and the sequel to the memoir.
I’m in the beginning stages of writing, I Married the Butcher to Get to the Bone, but it’s already all consuming. I worry about saying too much about it, but my protagonist, Grace, is a divorced mother who does a lot of thinking and not much doing, mostly because she has exhausted herself being everyone’s care taker. Her mother was very present and sensuous and caring and she’s not really passing this onto her kids. She’s obsessed with ruptures and earthquakes. She’s over/under-sexed and never given satisfaction. She does domestic work strikes. Kitchen sink anti-sink anti-drama. She opts out, then back in, and out again. She deals with the guilt of being the leaver rather than the trope of the poor little woman left. I’m hoping my current editor at S&S likes it, since he gets first pass, and he is my Dream co-conspirator, but if that’s not in the cards I’m fully ok with a fresh start and beyond grateful for his brain and generosity on Mother Winter. I can’t stop singing Zack Knoll’s praises because I have no problem elevating and celebrating a rad feminist man in an industry that’s still really tough on women even though we are fed some fairytale of our emancipation. I see the sausage factory and I call that bluff, hard. I’m boy crazy, but I won’t eat the lies, grinning.
Sophia Shalmiyev emigrated from Leningrad to America in 1990. She is the author of the lyric memoir, Mother Winter (S&S, 2019), and is a feminist writer and painter living in Portland, OR with her two children.