Philomela goes back to Siberia
Toward the end of Russian poet Oksana Vasyakina's debut novel Rana (Wound), the protagonist, also called Oksana, returns to Ust-Ilimsk, the Siberian city where both author and protagonist grew up. The city, « a small end-of-the-line city in the taiga », was constructed in the 1960s around a hydroelectric dam and power station— « monuments », she calls them, « to the Soviet colonization of nature and old ways of living ». She looks deep into the reservoir, wondering about the pre-Soviet town flooded below, about its church and long-gone lifeways.
« Space », or prostranstvo, is one of the key words for understanding the literary and philosophical history of Russia. It’s most commonly directed at the country's southern steppes—what the poet Osip Mandelstam called the « watermelon emptiness » of Russia—and at the taiga, the swampy coniferous forests of Siberia. But it can carry the weight of the whole country, if not the whole Russian psyche. « What does this immense expanse portend? » Nikolai Gogol's narrator asks in Dead Souls. « Is it not here, in you, that some boundless thought should be born, since you yourself are without end? »
Before the 1917 revolution, most writers thought this « boundlessness » explained Russia's technological and political backwardness relative to Europe. The challenge of governing such an expansive territory, the logic went, made Russia susceptible to despotic rule. But even writers who celebrated the Empire's prostranstvo viewed it with an imperial gaze, similar to the American fantasy of Manifest Destiny: territorial expansion ordained by God. In Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, the character Levin, who favors a rural, agrarian life over the aristocratic lives of his milieu, argues that « the Russian worker has a distinct outlook compared to all other peoples on earth...that stems from their awareness of their calling to populate the vast, unpopulated spaces of the east. »
After the revolution, as the Soviet government began to gain ground in conquering the country’s wilds, the tune changed. For instance, the Christian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), as the scholar Kåre Johan Mjør notes, had previously decried anything less than domination of Russian space as « feminine passivity »; but he began to argue that Russian space was an expression of Russians' expansive spirit. « The geography of the nation is always merely the symbolic expression of the structure of a people’s soul, » Berdyaev wrote in Dostoyevsky’s Worldview
The Soviet regime likewise celebrated the country's immensity. In the 1926 film Шестая Часть Мира (One-Sixth of the World), director Dziga Vertov drew footage from all corners of the Soviet Union, from the Uzbek cotton harvest to the ports of Siberia's far east. With a script inspired by Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, the film signaled the imminent domestication of the wilds of « bride Russia ». As the century progressed, the Soviet regime would tame the expanses with factories and mills, as well as secret, enclosed, « cities of science ».
Vasyakina writes from the context of this monumental colonization. Yet she writes against its grain. Standing on the dam wall of the Ust-Ilimsk reservoir and searching its depths for the long-lost village, Oksana contemplates the philology of Russian space, too. « It's hard to write about Siberia and not fall into the propaganda of the massive construction efforts of the sixties, the discourse of untamed lands and the heroic deeds of Soviet man, » she observes. « But when you come face to face with these spaces, the reality is that they conjure much more complicated feelings. »
The trick is to find words for those feelings.
Rana follows Oksana, a lesbian in her late twenties, as she travels to bury her mother's ashes, carrying them from the steppe city of Volzhskiy, to Moscow, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, and finally home to Ust-Ilimsk. Like the Oksana of the novel, Vasyakina was born in that Siberian city, during the final days of the Soviet Union, into a working-class family. As an adolescent, not seeing her experiences reflected in Russian poetry, she began to write, and published her first poem at fourteen. She later gained admission to the poetry department of Moscow's Maxim Gorky Literary Institute.
« I left Siberia at nineteen as a frightened girl with vague ideas about who I wanted and what I could become », the novel’s Oksana recalls. Vasyakina has since risen to literary renown, both through her outspokenness about LGBT+ issues and gender violence, and her poetry's direct and accessible style. The combination is a coup. As translator Eugene Ostashevsky writes in his introduction to the translation of « These People Didn't Know My Father », published in n+1 in October 2020, Vasyakina's work « greatly differs from how many Russian readers conceive of poetry. » Where some see poetry as a space outside of politics, he writes, Vasyakina insists that « no such space exists ». Alongside poets such as Galina Rymbu and Lida Yusupova and journals such as Neznanie (Not Knowing), Vasyakina's work forms part of a burgeoning feminist literary movement in Russia in which poetry, theory, and autofiction are staples. If leaving Siberia enabled Vasyakina to become part of this cosmopolitan zeitgeist, however, Rana is a homecoming. As Oksana makes her way to Ust-Ilimsk, Vasyakina hones a new language for understanding Siberia and its vastness—particularly as a woman.
Rana is a poet's novel, structured like « a pebbled dropped into water ». It is concerned less with plot than with images. And the narrative digresses into essays about gender, sexuality, and literature, citing and analyzing a constellation of Russian and international writers, mainly women: poets Anna Barkovа, Anna Alchuk, and Polina Barskova (who contributes a foreword to the book), artist and writer Elena Guro, Korean novelist Han Kang, French theorists Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig, Virginia Woolf. Together, these forays read like a primer on feminist thought for readers with Pushkin in their veins.
Straddling essayistic, Anglophone memoir and dense Russian fiction, the novel is difficult to categorize. « I'd like to think that memoir, along with fragments, are the genres best suited to women's writing », Oksana writes. « The attention glides, but the attention is intent. » But Rana isn't a fragmentary memoir; one won’t find in it the perfect sentences and crystalline fragments familiar to readers of Sarah Manguso's Ongoingness or Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. Instead, its constellation of feminist references is subtended by an implicit Russian-ness of form. Entire poems are printed in the body of the text; the prose is dense and philosophical. As Vasyakina reorganizes the Russian canon to emphasize the contributions of women, she also melds the minimalism of fragmentary forms to the ambitious expansiveness of Russian fiction.
As Rana ripples outward, it applies memoir's « wide gaze and honest questioning » to examine the inextricability of women's lives from prostranstvo's various forms. Prostranstvo, in turn, expands to encompass usages beyond vast landscapes: domestic interior spaces, the spaces between the lines in poetry, the warmth of other bodies.
Together, these forays read like a primer on feminist thought for readers with Pushkin in their veins.
The novel opens after Oksana's mother has taken her final breaths. The light is perfect, « like it is in August—golden ». There's rain, but it's pleasant. « In childhood I was told that when you're mourning someone and it's raining, it's a good sign », Oksana recalls. « Nature is participating, commiserating. » Men soon tilt the scene out of balance. As Oksana rides in the backseat of her mother's boyfriend’s car, imploring him and one of his in-laws to please be silent instead of « blathering about fags and whores », the scene turns heavy. « Everything around was gray »: the men, the steppe landscape, the bureaucracy of picking up her mother's ashes, the paperwork necessary to travel with them. « The light was gray, the wool, and the wind evil, like hunger. »
Another part of the grayness comes from Oksana's fraught relationship to womanhood, and, in turn, to her mother. « My mom was a real woman », she writes. « A woman squared. Woman-woman. WOMAN. » But her mother never fully accepted Oksana’s lesbianism, and the relationship between them was cold and distant. Her mother considered her « not a woman, but something like a half-man, or half-woman, or half-child. »
Her mother's death has nevertheless upended Oksana's world. « I felt my mother as a space [prostranstvo] », she writes. « After her death that space disappeared. » As grief radiates through the spaces of her own life, Oksana recalls the apartments where she and her mother lived during her childhood, the domestic spaces that her mother cultivated and embodied. « A woman is a shell and a guarantee of one's world », she reflects. « By dying, a woman slams that space shut, extinguishes it. » The line inverts a formulation from Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, in which Clarissa has « that extraordinary gift, that woman's gift, of making a world of her own wherever she happened to be. »
Thinking with Woolf and others, Rana begins to overlay and intertwine the different scales of prostranstvo—textual, bodily, domestic, landscape—and thus elaborates a worldview that can reconcile Oksana’s uneasy relationship to womanhood, her nostalgia for Siberia, her grief. That worldview reconciles the comforts of her mother's domestic prostranstvo with her own lesbian desire by conjuring landscapes out of lovers' bodies: « When I look at the body of a woman, it enchants me...It glows in space, it's like bread or stone, I love it. I look upon it as I would a rich, complicated landscape. » And at the center of the novel, the prose dissolves into a long poem titled « Ode to Death », in which Oksana's mother transmogrifies into spaces of different scales: the space of her own body, the domestic space of her apartment, the sterile hospice in which she dies, the space of landscape.
how trees die
or other heavy organism
silently but so
that the space around her rippled.
In « Here » (1958), the frost-bitten natural world is similarly connected to the divine in ways that are inscrutable to humans...
One of the literary essays that Vasyakina smuggles into Rana (and one of the only ones to discuss a male writer) is about the Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi (1934-2006). (The Chuvash are a Turkic group indigenous to a region between the Volga River and Siberia; Aygi’s grandfather was a priest in the culture's pre-Christian religion.) Like Vasyakina, Aygi left home at nineteen to attend Moscow's Gorky Literary Institute. After being expelled from the Institute in 1958 for poetry considered antithetical to socialist realism—and for his friendship with Boris Pasternak, Aygi went on to have a prolific career as a poet. His friend and translator Peter France wrote in a Guardian obituary that « like Pasternak's, [Aygi's] poetry was a poetry of light, seeking to assert the values of human community and oneness with the rest of creation. » Though he spent most of his adult life in Moscow, his imagery, like Vasyakina’s, evokes the natural environment of his upbringing. Vasyakina writes that Aygi « knew something about space and death that somehow makes sense to me, who grew up in the endless, miserable Siberian winter. » But the resonance is deeper than a common winter: « He understood the connection between places, people, and life, all of which were somehow intricately intertwined in his texts. » Between life and death, too.
Rana includes the full text of two of Aygi's poems, « Here » and « Death ». In « Death » (1960), Aygi weeps at his mother dying in her « home-woven dress », and writes that the « snowflakes / keep carrying carrying earthwards / the hieroglyphs of god ». In « Here » (1958), the frost-bitten natural world is similarly connected to the divine in ways that are inscrutable to humans:
the riddle of immortality
is no harder to solve
than the riddle of bushes lit by winter nights
of white branches over the snow
of black shadows on the snow.
The riddle of immortality isn’t easy to solve; it is as easy or as difficult to solve as the riddles of bushes and branches—which maybe aren’t « riddles » at all. Similar riddles permeate Rana, where landscape and life cycle have their own divine agency, and where death is not death but a transfer of energy, something to be celebrated as life-giving rather than mourned as an end. It is « as if, upon dying, a person offers the opportunity for more life », Vasyakina explains of Aygi's vision. « The world swings open when you let it go and let it live. » Oksana in turn can articulate how she feels herself and her mother to be a part of Siberia, and can explain the compulsion to bring her mother's ashes home.
What Aygi cannot help Vasyakina solve, though, is the riddle of womanhood, and of the literary forms connected to womanhood. For this, she calls on the Greek myth of Philomela. Philomela was raped by her sister's husband, Tereus, who also cut out her tongue. Unable to speak, Philomela weaves an incriminating tapestry and sends it to her sister, Procne, who, in revenge, kills Tereus’s and her own son Itys and serves the dead Itys as a meal to the unsuspecting Tereus. Tereus, incensed, sets out to kill both women. To protect them, the gods transform Procne into a swallow and Philomela into a nightingale. Philomela's song appears in art and poetry as a figure for beautiful expressions of sorrow. Percy Bysshe Shelley writes in A Defence of Poetry that « a poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer his own solitude with sweet sounds. » Poet and critic Allen Grossman writes that Philomela's song « is omnipresent in history in the same way that pain is omnipresent in history. »
In Vasyakina's interpretation, though, the fact that Philomela can make herself understood—even when her tongue is « hissing on the ground »—is a sign that women's speech is more powerful than the speech of the men who commit violence against them. Philomela’s song is a figure for a poetic voice that comes from a source deeper than speech or prose: woman's speech, in this account, is « chthonic, prehistoric, which means that it is involved in the creation of the world and is in contact with all its creatures and objects. » It transcends the merely human world; women’s speech can be understood by rocks, forests, and gods.
Both Vasyakina and the novel's Oksana are Philomelas: they dare to speak out about violence against women, especially queer women, through whatever means they can. Instead of taking the form of a nightingale, their speech is channeled through the Siberian nature with which their selves and souls are already intertwined. « It's impossible to be born in the taiga and not remember it with some kind of complex internal organ, » Oksana tells us. « On the inside, I'm like a wild forest. »
Vasyakina writes that Aygi « knew something about space and death that somehow makes sense to me, who grew up in the endless, miserable Siberian winter. »
The prostranstvo of Rana is an ecology in which humans—particularly women—are intimately connected with nature and the cycle of life and death. « How can something as big as the expansive space of the taiga fit into one's consciousness? » Oksana asks. This is Rana's version of Gogol's question: shouldn't boundless thought begin in a boundless place? But Vasyakina refuses to make nationalist philosophy out of prostranstvo; she lets it remain unfathomably grand.
The novel ends without a clean resolution. There’s a bleak image, reminiscent of Aygi: « The light was white and big, as though it were my endless pain and loss. » Endless, maybe, but the alignment between internal and external prostranstva brings relief and rest. « Женщина—это и есть пространство », Vasyakina writes. « Woman is space. » It's a simple declaration, yet rich with the layers of the novel. Woman is the space between the lines of a poem. Woman is the unlikely coziness that can be made in a concrete apartment in the middle of the taiga. Woman is the taiga herself, a deep expanse that surrounds her soul and composes it. Vasyakina remakes the Russian landscape—and the Russian novel—for women's worlds. Rather than a territory to be dominated, prostranstvo is rendered unruly, polysemous, queer.
I came to Rana flush with desire. I downloaded the novel the first week it was available, though I hadn't read in Russian in years. I joked that I had done flashcards and grammar drills every day for eleven years precisely for this novel, as though I had known all along it was coming.
It was only halfway a joke. After a Colorado childhood steeped in a frontier affect of wide vistas and cowboy longings, my search for a language for the feelings conjured by those expanses had made me a student of Russian. A single line in a letter from the Kentucky agrarian Wendell Berry to Western writer Wallace Stegner prompted me to declare a major in Russian Literature. Berry wrote that Stegner's 1971 novel Angle of Repose—about a family following mining, hydrology and construction jobs across the US West and Mexico— was « more Russian than American; it made me think of Tolstoy and
Russian literature indeed opened up my favorite kinds of landscapes to me. In Platonov's short stories, I found decaying boomtowns like the southeastern Colorado community where my grandfather grew up. In Saltykov-Schedrin's The Golovyov Family, with its description of staring vacantly « at the seemingly boundless fields, stretching away into the remote distance », I found the hazy, inert bleakness I knew from California's Central Valley. In Chekhov's personifications of storms breaking over the steppe, his hypersensory evocations of wind catching tumbleweeds and dust spiraling, in his ambivalent equation of planting trees with virtue, I found the combination of the land ethic I was searching for with the intensity of experience I knew from being in rich landscapes.
Nowhere in the books, though, did I find female characters to whom I related—nor a single queer one. So when I learned about Vasyakina's poetry, I began paying close attention. After reading her poems, I started following her on Instagram and became attached: before Rana was published, she used the account almost exclusively to introduce viewers, plant by plant, to her large houseplant collection. The videos were charming and intimate; I wanted to be her friend, or I had a crush—a blurry line in lesbian culture.
And then there was Rana. A lesbian road novel of Siberia: was there ever a novel I had more wanted to read? I wanted Oksana to be, simultaneously, a frontier hero and an irresistible lesbian. To be my Walt Whitman and my Kristen Stewart. I wanted to be her and I wanted to have a crush on her—another blurry lesbian line. I wanted it to be a novel about my obverse, about myself looking east.
Instead, Vasyakina was there to wring the frontier desires out of me. To reveal what I thought I had learned from literature to be masculine and imperial, and to bring me along as she conceived the words for a new way of relating to space—feminine and lesbian, rooted in kinship and entanglement, in grief and in pleasure. Ample enough for fraught realities, and more profound than could be described by any of the old words I'd found.
like thickets in woodlands we have preferred
the essence of sanctuaries
and life led into itself like a road into woodlands
and I began to perceive as its hieroglyph
the one word "here"
and it means both earth and heaven
and what is in shadow
and what we can see face to face
and what I cannot share in my poems
and the riddle of immortality
is no harder to solve
than the riddle of bushes lit by winter nights
of white branches over the snow
of black shadows on the snow
here all things answer each other
in a high original tongue
as the unnumbered free part of life
– always lofty-unconstrained – gives answer
to the next indestructible part
on the tips of wind-broken branches
in the hushed garden
we do not seek ugly clots of sap
like grieving human figures –
kissing the crucified man
on the evening of disaster
and we know no word or sign
which is higher than the next
here we live and we are beautiful here
and here falling silent we shame the real
but if parting with it is harsh
yet life takes a part in this too
like an imperceptible
greeting from itself
and moving aside from us
like a bush reflected in water
it will wait on one side to take
our no longer needed
so that spaces of people should be followed
only by spaces of life
to the end of time
(1958, translated by Peter France)
словно чащи в лесу облюбована нами
и жизнь уходила в себя как дорога в леса
и стало казаться ее иероглифом
мне слово «здесь»
и оно означает и землю и небо
и то что в тени
и то что мы видим воочью
и то чем делиться в стихах не могу
и разгадка бессмертия
не выше разгадки
куста освещенного зимнею ночью-
белых веток над снегом
черных теней на снегу
здесь все отвечает друг другу
как отвечает – всегда высоко-необязанно –
жизни сверх-числовая свободная часть
смежной неуничтожаемой части
на концах ветром сломанных веток
не ищем мы сгустков уродливых сока
на скорбные фигуры похожих –
в вечер несчастья
и не знаем мы слова и знака
которые были бы выше другого
здесь мы живем и прекрасны мы здесь
и здесь умолкая смущаем мы явь
но если прощание с нею сурово
то и в этом участвует жизнь –
как от себя же самой
нам неслышная весть
и от нас отодвинувшись
словно в воде отражение куста
останется рядом она чтоб занять после нас
чтобы пространства людей заменялись
только пространствами жизни
во все времена
From the nearby snow
the flowers on the sill are strange.
Smile to me if only because
I do not speak the words
that I shall never understand.
All that I can say to you is this:
chair, snow, eyelashes, lamp.
And my hands
are simple and distant,
and the window frames
seem cut from white paper,
but there, beyond them,
around the lamp-post,
whirls the snow
from our very childhood.
And will go on whirling while people
remember you on earth and speak with you.
And those white flakes I once
saw in reality,
and I shut my eyes and cannot open them,
and the white sparks whirl,
and I am not able
to stop them.
Кантăксен ку енчи чечексем
юр çывăхра пулнăран.
Ман енне йăл кулса тинкерсем,-
ма тесен эп санпа ытлашши калаçмастăп,
юр, куç харши, хунарсем, çил-тăман.
Ман аллăмсем лăпкă-лăпкă,
шур хутран васкамасăр касса тунă евĕр,
Вĕсен леш енче, хунарсем тĕлĕнче,
юр çаврăнать -
манăн ачалăхăмра чÿхенме пуçласа
çак куна çитнĕскер.
Çаврăнĕ вăл чарăнмасăр
эс çĕр çинче пур чухне.
Санпа çĕр çинче эп калаçнă чухне
çаврăнĕ вăл чарăнмасăр.
Тĕлĕкре мар, чăнласах
куртăм-и эпĕ таçта çакă шур хĕмсене?
Куртăм, - вара хупрăм куçа,
куç тĕкĕпе витрĕм эп куçсене,-
Шур хĕмсем çаврăнаççĕ
An Anthology of Chuvash Poetry, edited by Gennady Aygi and translated by Peter France (London & Boston: Forest Books, 1991).
This translation appears in Kåre Johan Mjør, “Berdiaev and the Boundless Spaces of Russia,” Nordlit 39, 2017.
quoted in Philip Fradkin's biography Wallace Stegner and the American West (University of California Press, 2009).