The Secrets and Stories of Our Lineage: an interview with author Sophia Shalmiyev

Interview: Ellie Piper
Photos: Thomas Teal


Sophia Shalmiyev emigrated from Leningrad to New York in 1990, carried away by her father on the cusp of thirteen. The move added thousands of miles to the space between Sophia and her profoundly alcoholic mother, who’d long since abandoned the rites and impositions of motherhood. In her captivating debut memoir, Mother Winter, Sophia reckons with the circumstances and injuries of this early fissure, employing vignettes that astound and scald and seduce, that roil with ache. Memoir, yes, but the book is also a manifesto of sorts—on femininity and motherhood, on the traumas of girl- and womanhood, on who deserves dignity, who gets to hold the microphone. A writer of considerable intellect and curiosity, Sophia wields a delightfully promiscuous pen. Her voice feels singular and necessary, a corollary to the feminist chorus inhabited by the likes of Dorothy Richardson, Marguerite Duras, Ana Mendieta, Kathy Acker and Kat Bjelland.

I met Sophia several years ago through a mutual friend—Sara Nelson, a musician and a brilliant writer in her own right—and we grew tight as classmates and malcontents in grad school. We caught up recently to discuss Mother Winter, muses, and the writing and editing process.

What are you reading these days?

I am reading the women beatniks right now, Diane di Prima and Bonnie Bremser being the standouts because they handle the craft of memoir and the topics of motherhood and female sexuality in a way that resonates with me—you can taste their cum juice on the page, practically—they are not raw, as some would say; they are architects of the body in ink. There is this notion that a woman writing about the events of her life is confessing something, and while I crave and engage in automatic writing, that is not what these writers are performing in their texts. They do embellish and maybe lie or hone in on the sensational end of a fiery narrative for the sake of the story and the cadence and to elevate themselves into heroines, into horny little go-karts, not just like the boys, no, because they have the consequences and miseries that come with the joys of open legs; they become caretakers and they change their rambling and untethered lives.

I’m curious about your process because I’ve never seen it…despite being in a writing program together, I don’t think you and I ever really talked about that stuff.

I sort of blindly lust and fuck around and put forth whatever lines scratch at my door and then later I do the tedious, awful, scary work of raising those screaming toddler sentences into somewhat whole paragraphs and pages. It’s also helpful for me to re-watch Party Girl because as a character study Parker Posey gives us a totally unique aspirational figure, and I want more women in print who are lost causes and are ostentatious and who find out how to gather information and relate to literature and nerd out in their own way.

In your book there’s a scene with a man in a bookstore coffee shop. He’s hitting on you and you sense he’s the type that likes women who challenge and then eventually submit to him. You want him to go away; you tell him you mostly read derivative and autofiction writing by women. Talk about the ways your writing derives from, leans against, and converses with other artwork and ideas, and how this maybe challenges or repels that guy, that attitude.

Your question forces us to observe that a traumatized woman had to integrate all of her discarded and unpalatable selves into a many-veined artistic life. That she has been estranged from those selves and wants permission to invent and report all at the same time while penning a manifesto, perhaps. I am writing an autofiction novel right now (I Married the Butcher to Get to the Bone) and my process is very different because I can kill someone, or not have a father at all, but I get to have the invisibility cloak of saying it is NOT ME. I get legitimacy. I get my work placed in the regular section of the store—literature, and not soft-ball confessionals. The complexity of thoughts and points of view this question provokes do not serve the guy in the coffee shop who wanted to teach me about originality and genius. He makes me sick, he makes me the vulnerable gazelle preyed on by the lion—as though I don’t have a pack, a chosen family that taught me who I can become, taught me that I can fortify myself against intrusion and sabotage if I learn the secrets and stories of my lineage. I am nothing without the inheritance of my literary, visual arts and musical foremothers and peers. I am disallowing the world to say I am worthless and broken as I experience that collective voice.

I love brutal, mean, selfish, monstrous, drunk, lost, forgotten, brilliant women who write and paint. This is not a dichotomous stance against women artists who are sober, steadfast, nurturing, kind and grounded. On the contrary, I aspire to be a collaborator, to be collegiate, to get out of my corner and take risks, but have my own back. However, I am in a solitary cement tub while I work and it’s a feral and destabilizing process that I cannot manage with others around. I am envious of folk who meet up to share that creative time to lean on and inspire. It’s process vs. product. And my product comes with a locked door only. The years I held hands with other girls and women, when I went to meetings with feminists who asked me if I had also been sexually assaulted, who wanted to share their skills, who taught me that love is not about romance but about meeting your jealousies head on and trading that in for hunger, for knowledge, competence and mirroring, gave me the willful insistence that I am forever a patched-up quilt.

As a child in Leningrad, you communed with “high art.” Your dad took you to the opera, the ballet, the Hermitage. Later, in the States, you immersed yourself in subculture, in punk rock and its correlates. How did moving through these various worlds impact the way you approach creative work today?

SShalmiyev-5_photo credit Thomas Teal.jpg

When I lived in the Soviet Union I got to be in a non-competitive relationship with high art. I was a small child craving passionate scenes that didn’t bruise me, and I didn’t yet realize that men were in charge of what gets seen. Then I arrived in America and became a teen. This must have happened to other girls growing up in the nineties...your boyfriend had a band and a practice space. The other guys were his true-blue friends and they easily traded banter and records and information in a “natural” way while booking shows and passing out from drinking beer without a care in the world (or fear of rape or a bad reputation). They all had girlfriends that came to the practice space and felt weird, alien, and left out, but grateful to be included somehow. They saw the climb to what appears as a given for the boys as impossible yet maybe worth the embarrassment.

Information and access to culture, to rarified air, was in the record stores and small punk shops that sold zines and I knew very few young women who got treated fairly or with a non-sexually leaning enthusiasm and were encouraged to take on authority or leadership roles in that atmosphere. If it wasn’t for another girlfriend of the other guy in the band making me my first mixtape with only female-fronted bands on it, I would have been screwed. Same for the riot grrrl zine press. Every guy in any “scene” I was a part of turned on this competitive stance with me instead of admitting to feeling insecure and intimidated by my supposed bitchiness and candor. I decided that I would dial my feminism up a notch—that way if we met in what they perceived as the middle ground it could possibly shake out as a fraction more fair than the last time I opened my mouth. Still, what a boring game. I am forty now and am so very tired of the male expert. He doesn’t ask any questions out of a genuine need to understand. It is all macho diarrhea couched as intellect or recital of lines. Why are they fans and we are groupies?

Have your father and stepmother, Luda, read Mother Winter? Will they? How did you manage to avoid their gazes—or perhaps look straight back at them as you wrote?

I had so many rewrites that my audience of possible family to offend sort of fell away. I am with Grace Paley on this craft question about drafts. I don’t really count them or understand how one would or should. I am always correcting and restructuring and cutting. I had five passes with my editor, but he left me alone at that point because it was actually a legal matter also. I took out much material to protect all of the people in my life ahead of that ordeal, and I did email the manuscript to Dad and Luda. The lawyers highlighted the litigious parts and it was up to me to resolve them so that I don’t get sued. I called my father on the phone and we worked it all out, but he will most certainly be very hurt, changed and confused. I love Luda so much and hope she sees the nuance in what I am portraying, but since she has never wanted me to talk about or find my mother I am not sure that I could have done right by her. It is my word against theirs and they would have to prove that I am lying. My dad feels that it’s the musings of a ten-year-old girl, playing, and he is the keeper of our family ties in the clearest sense. Again, I wanted to write this as a novel and he is calling it one in his mind. I don’t have the approval bone to itch for some reason, but that could be self-protective babble.

And what about your mother—certainly you’ve wished or imagined that she might somehow find and read the book. Did that thought impact the work?

I do wish for her to read it. I do wish for her to be alive and well. I never thought of it that way when I was writing since I would lose my nerve if I considered the aftermath. I definitely wrote passages just for her, and that basic need for contact getting unmet all of these years only propelled the work, made it more immediate and saturated. I want the reader to understand that her being made into literature, that this unknown, older, ill woman becoming a character in a book is a crucial aspect of feminist letters.

To meet some of that need, I suppose, you’ve found mother figures—in your words mothers by proxy—in artists, musicians, friends, mentors…

I have to say that I found this kind of relationship only a few times with women when I was younger—I mention [my friends] Kelly and Sarah in the book as peers, as my loves, but older and wiser women who were not just words on paper came later. When I met you because of our shared community I was so ready for other writers who would roam and think and be negative and annoyed and ask difficult questions with me. Leni Zumas (Red Clocks) is probably my very favorite feminist in real life that I get to love and spend time with and kvetch and kvell about writing. I believe the pheromones we secrete and mingle while talking are changing me each time. She also taught me about the body’s need to cry and release hormones. I don’t actually cry as much as I should and it’s toxic to hold it in. We get to do it in tandem, which really rules, and she reminds me to not say sorry all the time. Her writing gives permission to be ravenous for pleasure and solitude and be a skeptic with a worn middle finger.

SShalmiyev-3_photo credit Thomas Teal.jpg

“I am forty now and am so very tired of the male expert. He doesn’t ask any questions out of a genuine need to understand. It is all macho diarrhea couched as intellect or recital of lines. Why are they fans and we are groupies?”

Quoting the book: “When I was little I spent nights thinking about choice as though I were a witch. What would I choose if I had to pick from a set of things? I chose by looking at the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkey figurine my father kept on his desk…” Asking yourself which you’d rather be and fearing the loss of hearing or sight, you chose the speak no evil monkey. As the story progresses, there remain these nods toward being mute, not choosing sides. It’s an incongruity—vis a vis Sophia the brave and acrobatic writer and brassy lady friend—that I’d like you to tease out a bit.  

The reality of this notion that I deserve harm and I will be punished, but I hope to be disfigured in a way that is the least intrusive on my everyday life (which is also fully ableist of me and needs to be checked) is commentary on the masochism of girlhood. Beaten and beaten-down women who are never to be believed have been all around us as wallpaper, a yawn, a shrug. I needed to name that phenomena for what it is and to admit that I am my own captor at times. I have gotten in a lot of trouble for being the town crier and it has not deterred me, and yet I want to make art, not be on trial. Not sure that is possible if I make men or predators or lazy observers uncomfortable. I think I am like a power bottom in my writing—juggling my fear of being shunned because I so desperately need to be in charge. It is libidinal, erotic and also very ordinary. I wish that all my talking amounted to enough and then I could rest and shut up and be taken care of and cum my eyes out while doing none of the labor. Same with writing and my feminist stance on making doctor appointments, anticipating needs and schedules, and being in charge of nameless threads of weaving a good-enough household.

How do you negotiate your creative work with the invisible labor of motherhood, partnership, friendship? Women get this question all the time, but I think it’s worth asking here because you address it in the book—referring to Susan Sontag as a sensible leaver and expressing a desire, at least in passing, to abnegate motherhood—and also because the role seems to propel you and your work forward in many respects.

This is the braid. I can’t make a braid if I leave the other chunks out. It reminds me of how you assemble challah bread for Shabbat. How all the duties of making the light and warmth and the bread are upon the matriarch. She is the exhausted sacred being who stands at the head of the table as the creator of what must momentarily disappear and be consumed. I am with Claire Dederer on the angst I feel over feminized chores and duties stealing away my time and creative thunder. My competence in domestic, organizational and emotional labor is not rewarded or revered, and I inevitably grow resentful and have to ask for help. And yet, nothing changes.

I was reading all this coverage of Sylvia Plath’s recently published volume of journals and wishing that men could read it and wake up the next day and make a promise to take over being our secretaries. We became competent and responsive by repeating this action ad nauseam. They can, too. I hate that my mother was a leaver, but I do understand women wanting to opt out. I cannot and will not. My story has to evolve.

Because I am a nerd, I want to know all about the revision process and your relationship with your editor.

My editor, Zack Knoll, was my absolute hero and helped me discover a chronology that may not be readily apparent. The narrative does jump around and is what can be called fragmented, with inner dialogue commentary and some assemblage, imposed numerical constraints, exploration of the occult and animal worlds, prose poetry, reportage, second person address, epistolary, flash fiction, and criticism. Zack saw it all as a whole and encouraged the four-part geographic structure of starting out in Russia, coming to America, going back to Russia, and then America at last. His mold really held the red hot jello nicely.

Zack knew that I am a bit of a wild horse and I need a lot of room to produce material, which he read with a steady gaze and zero empty flattery. It was playful and it was rigorous. English is not my native tongue but I am so American that it can be confusing to edit me at times. I also have severe dyslexia. The more he firmly and steadily guided me through the hard rewrites, insisting on clarity and expansion, the more my protagonist—the little girl lost—became the woman with agency and balls. He understood that I am striving for a work that reflects and encompasses many voices but that I have an authentic essence to relay and there is no hiding that. Yes, I taunt and nag, proudly. I do what I must.

Nothing in that book was left without his fine-toothed comb, but he didn’t insert himself, only extracted and pushed on for more of my promise to deliver. While we struggled with allusions versus my own voice and story coming through, I know we arrived at a sweet spot because he gave me the freedom to create a female protagonist who refuses to be pinned down and marked. She admits to being a slashed tire and can do her own patching.

Did you seek to answer a question, to solve a problem with this book? You express a desire for endings, on the other hand summoning Gertrude Stein (there ain’t no answer) and calling Cezanne’s deliberately unfinished paintings, and the vestiges of Sappho’s poems, invitations to invent, incubators for our ongoing fascinations...

I didn’t expect to work out an issue or answer a question, but to marvel and toil on the subjects of grief and femininity until I heard and saw sentences that couldn’t be ignored. I wanted to leave things untouched and unsaid, but for the reader to feel the coincidences and the connections as deliberate commentary on our human condition—the urge to merge and the need for cocooning—the frustrated baby rooting for a nipple, to end the frustration with satiation means it is ok to be a seeker. I think the book packs a lot of topics as it is, but the glue is for the reader to identify. I included every one of those people you mention above as my chorus because I was observing how they functioned within the unresolvable, within longing and monotony of showing up for what will never calcify.

Chasing that thread, you write that “the incomplete has a lifelong contract with our attention span, reminding us of…our insistence on linearity, our demand for clues of orderliness.” Though your book is organized into four more or less chronological parts, I think it plays around with linearity and orderliness in some really exciting ways. Are you interested in talking structure?

I have such a huge issue with the narrative arc. Paley will say that time is plot. Plot doesn’t need a resolution, and the gun you introduce may not eventually fire, ala Chekhov. Maybe it gets put away in a box, thrown away in a river or recycled because the owner realized that they actually hate guns and aren’t even sure why it’s hanging above their mantel at all.

Finally: The book is peppered with references to pretending, performing, lying, counterfeits and simulations. Is this to be read straight-on? How are these actions tied up in girl- and womanhood, in living with trauma?

It’s mostly done as satire, re-appropriation and hyperbole in the tradition of Kathy Acker. Every single woman and girl has been told that she is too much, that she needs to calm down and chill and stop being so aggressive or insistent. Usually that woman wants justice or is clearing the air. She wants to be safe and know that she is not trapped in a catastrophe of avoidance and delusions. We finally call this gaslighting. But being told that I am crazy or out of control by men who are incapable of growing up is not news. So then if I am embellishing, or what I am saying goes unnoticed, or the actions of my aggressor/offender never change, I am left to say that I don’t exist as a fully realized being. I wanna live without consequences for a minute or two, so I will call myself a fake and enter the cartoon for sport. In that cartoon my sarcasm and comedy save me the chest-beating monotony. Cuz all the women. in me. are tired!*

*Nayyirah Waheed

Sophia will be appearing in conversation with Michelle Tea on February 6 at the Poetry Project in NYC. Mother Winter (Simon & Schuster, 2019) officially launches at Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, on February 12, with a multi-city book tour to follow. Scope for more information.