The Making of an American Feminist: An Interview with Sophia Shalmiyev

Nanci McCloskey

I met Sophia Shalmiyev through my friend (and amazing author) Leni Zumas. It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time: I was in the midst of separating from my husband with whom I share two small children. Things were ugly. I was a mess. Leni said, “Sophia can help. She’s an incredible resource.”

I took her advice and shortly after I met Sophia over whiskey (for Sophia) and wine (for me) in a bar in Northwest Portland. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but Leni’s wise words were exactly right: Sophia Shalmiyev is incredible. With just a small amount of information, she is able to extrapolate, understand, and empathize. She listened and consoled. She developed a plan for me. Even so, I confess that I was skeptical my new guardian angel might be too good to be true.

An angel with an art degree and an MFA who can sew and paint, drink and garden? Sophia grew up poor, sometimes desperately so, and mostly motherless, yet she has devoted her life to women: artists and victims of domestic violence. How does a person like this come to be? When I learned she was writing a memoir, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I read it in two sittings, staying up way past my bedtime. And then I started it again from the beginning. Slower the second time, luxuriating in the language.

Mother Winter is the fiercely and urgently told story of the making of an American feminist. We had the following conversation below over Google chat, and I hope it gives you a peek into the mind and spirit of this truly extraordinary thinker and writer.

Nanci McCloskey: I need to start by saying, Mother Winter shattered me in the best possible way. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and I’ve read a lot of memoirs. Tell me, who were the writers who gave you permission to experiment with form and language? Did the book change in form while you wrote?

Sophia Shalmiyev: Thank you so much for saying that! “Shattered” is a great word because it implies that there was a whole that can be reconstructed but the seams will show, we will have a story that works to tell us who the person used to be and who they have become; we all want to have a cohesive self and a narrative of our lives that adds up to more than just shards. I think of that when I speak to my kids about divorce—that there was a beginning, middle, and an end to mine and their dad’s courtship and we now have a new chapter to build out. Kids are obsessed with stories of origin. This is a roundabout way of saying that I didn’t have a mother to tell me anything about myself, who I was, the silly gurgling sounds I made, or the foods I craved. I had to make it all up from my impressions and the few memories I carried of her, which were not all blissful or comfortable. It was by reading women like Renata Adler having the self-agency to put forth an unsettling, swerving narrative, and women like Anais Nin whisper-yelling her craft as more than a journal entry, that I understood what it takes to pen an untellable tale about an unseen and unknowable woman who birthed me. The number four gave me some structure for my obsessions. The reason I chose it is because in Hebrew you do not speak God’s name, only if you are praying directly to him, and that name is four letters. Most things that are holy in the Jewish tradition have the number four in them. And what better way to say, I worship You, Mama.

NM: I love the idea of a number providing structure. Can you tell me about how the number four relates to the narrative? Did you start out with the idea of structuring around it or did it come as you were writing or rewriting?

SS: It was always something that interested me. This number represented order and stability and was a big part of the mythology of what I studied in Yeshiva. When we landed in Philadelphia in 1990, I went straight into a very religious school and learned English in a specialized ESL mix class and then went back to regular classes and learned Hebrew. It was utter chaos, really. Each letter in Hebrew is a number. That stuck with me. That there is a sequence and order to things and we are on earth to solve mysteries; mine was to figure out how to become a woman without a tangible mother to observe and rebel against or emulate. And then there is the whole notion of gambling, risks, and changing your destiny, which for me, growing up destitute and often hungry, was a potent possibility. Once I began to obsess over the number four and its coincidences in my life the structure stuck, I began to feel at home with it and it provided a container for less stable ideas and passages.

NM: You’re very compassionate to both of your parents in the book. Was that something you needed to work for or learn?

SS: I could not have written this book any sooner than I had (slowly began after I turned 34 and final edits turned in at 39). It was only after I had my second child and was brought low, physically, when I tore a ligament in my back right after I had Franny, but also, on a deep spiritual level, that I could write this book. I felt the impossibility of parenting as I had hoped it would be—glorious and redeeming—finally revealing itself to me as a tragic comedy of a concept. I had forgiven my father and mother and stepmother for being eccentric, narcissistic, and mercurial people by that point with therapy, art, writing, and playing in bands, but this was the road I needed to experience my own loss and misery; to fail and to be frail as a mother of two, and then move into another skin and a writing practice. The compassion came from corporeal disruptions and demands intense enough to imagine how we can walk on our knees for our children and still feel, and be, inadequate.

NM: Did you tell your family you were writing about them?

SS: I had been writing stories in zines and for spoken word events and in bands about my family since high school. They are almost-eye-roll-used-to-it. Things have come up in the past that were really intense. My father found a zine I did in high school that described details of the physical violence in my house. It was a scathing teenage, hand-on-hip, piece. He took a red pen and wrote out a poem across my own about an ungrateful daughter who might realize, too late, how much her flawed father really loved her. In all honesty, this may be strange and unsettling for some people to absorb as a positive father-daughter interaction, but it was authentically “Us.” I was on the cover of The Olympian newspaper at one point for a public feminist reading that addressed domestic and partner violence. I was scared once I saw it appear and how it might affect my dad because there was a pull quote about our family. But I survived it, and he survived it, among other things. I prioritize my feminism and my writing above secrecy that is toxic to all of us—family and society.

NM: Did you need to make any promises about how they would be portrayed?

SS: I had to go through a grueling legal process once my book was on the third pass, when I could still make big edits. And I did. I spoke with my father on the phone and explained the whole of the book to him again . . . it initially seems unreal to him . . . and we very cordially went back and forth over what he would like me to not air, but in the end, the decision was all mine. I believe that if he and Luda [my stepmother] read the book all the way through they will see they are characters in a very nuanced but passionate narrative. Better yet, they should listen to the audiobook I got the chance to narrate myself, because they will feel and hear the love and sorrow in my voice and won’t be able to look away or skip through the hard parts and arrive at the nuanced ones.

NM: Are you conscious of the reader when you’re writing? Who do you imagine, if you do imagine?

SS: Every time I write I might imagine a feminist thinker or writer I wish to speak to directly and I try to do so without any of the pretenses or idealizations that reduce most women in the arts to tropes and clichés. Like Oh, that’s that experimental novelist; or that’s that writer who had been raped. I hate this. I hate that women must be marketed for their pain or their proximity to power, but not for their actual craft. Jean Rhys comes to mind right away. Ok, it is very relevant that she was an unhappy, broke, alcoholic, now what? Her sentences slaughter. Her themes and topics are sliced lemons on newly cut skin. I adore her writing and am fascinated by her personality, but by goddess, it is her work that matters.

NM: If you had a chance to go back to Russia again on the same quest to find your mother, what would you do differently?

SS: The difficult thing here, and I hope I conveyed this adequately in the book, is that I have never had and will maybe never be, truly ready to look for her. I want to close my eyes and then, suddenly, she is sitting on the edge of my bed when I open them. We are not owed magic, but I still want it. I need it. And if it doesn’t happen, I made logic, instead. The book has its own logic that probes and prods at the occult, at magical thinking, at rituals to manage chaos. I don’t know how to manage the real quicksand of Russian scams and barriers. I don’t have the money to make it to the end of the month sometimes without relying on my credit cards, so paying someone in a country that I love but was always pretty abusive and cunning towards my family is beyond my means. I am a writer, and since that is all I can actually contribute to and control, I am fine to remain in this lane. I wish for more than a miracle, of course, because I put in tangible work into looking for her. I wished to be smart and brave enough to have done that trip in a more efficient way, but I was terrified almost every minute. I do want to take my children to Russia, but unless Mother Winter gets a Russian translation and I have that as the reason to travel there, I am not sure it will happen. I am forty years old. If and when I have time to travel that isn’t work related it will be to get some sun and swim on the coast of Greece, for example, so I take care of myself rather than endure my trauma and exile again. I loved the USSR, not Russia.

NM: How is your writing practice influenced by your ethnic and national background?

SS: I want to say that I am a socialist and I write like a socialist, even if I need complete solitude to actually put words on the page—my editor, for example, the feminists I am in The Struggle with, my girlfriends—are all indispensable. It’s all for the collective and inside a collective, a chorus of women who are visible and erased, esteemed and forgotten. That is my chosen tribe. I learned to think this way growing up in a Communist country with a soft “C” and I will always go to bat for and stand up for the Soviet Union as a Perestroika child. It was a unique moment in history. It could have worked out, in my opinion, and Gorbachev was a hopeful, fair, and empathetic leader. I am not proud of how Jews and minorities were treated in the USSR, but they are not faring much better in modern, capitalist Russia. Here in America, we just experienced the largest massacre of Jews on our soil at the Pittsburgh synagogue. My son watched white, entitled, menacing men march down to the steps of a federal building with torches, chanting that Jews will not replace them, on the news. We have many problems which democratic socialism can address: a blend of what Gorbachev wanted, and what the founders wanted—minus the slavery and oppression of women, children, and folks of color.

NM: What does it mean to write like a socialist?

SS: It means that I will not allow for the shoving of the dead, white, male canon in my face all the time. I want actual equality and access in publishing. I write as a socialist feminist asking for the end of mistreatment of female colleagues and interns at all literary institutions, for a cultural revolution to be a priority, not a tolerated eye roll. And, also, that I will not be playing this sinister game of all of us aspiring to be the lone genius. I am sick of women being seen as fame-whores, and men, by contrast, ambitious writers. I will call literature, literature. Men, who, themselves have written much nonfiction: about their lives and perspectives and observations, are constantly rubbing the word memoir, serial memoirist being the worst thing one could be, in our faces to undermine us. We are interdependent, vulnerable, porous, and expanding beings with narratives and art to match. I write as a socialist feminist, stitching into the text itself, the necessary call for new definitions of genre and new kind of reviewers to observe our craft and our society.

NM: What was the most surprising thing you found in Russia?

SS: I am actually trying to write a piece about this right now, tentatively called, Intergril or Nice Jewish Girl—about the Soviet-era phenomenon of hard currency, high-class prostitutes who serviced foreigners at the tourist-only hotels vs. expectations of propriety, of doing everything to avoid shaming one’s family if you already have many obstacles and marks against you. I am exploring how shame and these impossible dichotomies corrode what women are allowed to pursue. How failure and mistakes kill off women as bimbos or victims. Or, how simply, coldly and logically choosing a hard road, with less chaste paths in order to survive can tarnish us for life. And it all ties in with what I say above. What surprised me about Russia? It was how many women were duped and bullied into the capitalist drug of consumerism and all of its anesthetic value. The women I grew up around were intense and had causes and strict values around community. I would encourage everyone to see the movie Loveless if they truly want a view into the new Russian soul. It is chilling. Of course, the nationalism and prejudice against my dark olive skin color put me in a tailspin of fear and worry, as well, when I was there.

NM: Did writing this book close anything for you? I once asked Mary Karr at a reading if she found writing her memoirs therapeutic, and she slapped me down with: “One pays for therapy. What I do is art, and I get paid for it.” Do you feel the same way?

SS: I agree with Mary Karr. I will never be able to understand how this kind of practice or project can be considered therapeutic. Or else we would just give everyone who was in a horrendous car accident a pen and paper and ask them to journal about it until they, “let it go, babe.” That’s the connotation for me, in a way. That I was somehow damaged beforehand and once I vented—not created—I am emptied and relieved; I have come to a climax, a resolution, a take away. I do not have one. It is writing like any other writing. I am not an oracle. First of all, a book, in itself, is just an impossible enterprise, start to finish, with so many moving parts; then the editing and selling of it, and all the rest you are intimately familiar with on your end at Tin House.

It is delicious torture that you must fortify yourself against with self-care, or go kind of mad for a minute, and then come to the page and create, rip apart, stitch back. The page doesn’t care if your kids are sick, or if your boyfriend is being a loser again, or if you ran out of steam having flashbacks about being assaulted. It only wants you to work. There is no mercy for the idle. All art has the capacity to be cathartic and meditative, I suppose, but I am not interested in that part because I am not me when I write. A sea of cuts after all that verbal volume of sentences, the actual glory of the pleasing or strange sentence emerging. That is not the daily self I have to share with people. In the writing of the book I am weightless and can barely take a sip of water or else I will lose the next thing coming, the next thing to catch, excavate, or delete. It will and does and has disappeared for me many times.

Characters are characters. I am a character in this book. Better than some dude stealing me from myself for inspiration.

NM: Can you tell me what you’re working on now?

SS: Yes! And onward to the next thing. I am currently in the middle of two projects. One is a painting show that came directly out of the pages of Mother Winter. I am painting scenes from the book through a stranger’s lens. As though I found this book on a shelf and I am seeing images for the first time. They are very white and blue and amniotic and have much animal imagery. My mother gets to be a mermaid in one piece. It is going to be up at Powell’s in the Pearl Room March 6-April 3.

I started my new book. It is a novel called I Married the Butcher to Get to the Bone. It is all I think about, but I am not in a place to put in the four or five hours a day I need to hammer out what I carry and digest inside my head, yet. It is essentially a divorce novel but focusing more on a character who is so anxious from making the decision to walk away she believes that every day an earthquake is coming to wipe out her family, in earnest, not just symbolically. She kind of enters a porthole of self-generosity and allows herself to think and be a new woman, to move through the gas of romantic love in a new way, to speak directly to her old self through letters to her best friend, mostly. I know many, many women who need to sublimate all of the horrid things about a break up in early middle age or thereafter and figure out a way to re-interpret the rupture and be well, be good to themselves—to be unchained and not floating; not task-masters and haggard babysitters for the fathers of their children. I am very glad to be in a frustrated romance with my next book—it’s a bit mean and dark, yet funny, and as usual, feminist all the way.

Sophia Shalmiyev emigrated from Leningrad to NYC in 1990. An MFA graduate of Portland State University, she was the nonfiction editor for the Portland Review and is a recipient of the Laurels Scholarship and numerous Kellogg’s Fellowship awards. She has a second master’s degree in creative arts therapy from The School of Visual Arts, previously counseling survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. Her work has appeared in Vela Magazine, Entropy, Electric Lit, the Seattle Review of Books, Ravishly, and the Literary Review, among others; all with a feminist lens. She lives in Portland with her two children. Mother Winter is her first book.

Nanci McCloskey is the director of sales and marketing for Tin House Books. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her two boys.

Author Photo by Thomas Teal