Our Surreal Catastrophe: A Conversation with Julia Nemirovskaya and Boris Dralyuk
With student participants Leila Bagenstos, Sophia Cunningham, Cassy Fantini, Isolde Gerosa, Jae Tak Kim, and Grace Sewell
Until recently, poet Julia Nemirovskaya and translator Boris Dralyuk had little reason to believe that they wouldn’t be able to return to their birthplaces—to Moscow and Odesa, respectively. Although both have lived in the US for many years, they have retained their ties to their birthplaces, while cultivating russophone literatures through various projects including their writing, translations, and teaching. Now, with the onset of Putin’s war in Ukraine, those ties to eastern Europe have become much more tenuous and their self-identification as émigrés and expats more complex.
Nemirovskaya’s poetry, much of it translated by Dralyuk, has been in its curious ways dealing with these themes of displacement and solastalgia for some time. Her Fire cycle, for example, was written as a response to her experience of witnessing the forest fires that have ravaged the West Coast, seeing her home in Oregon threatened and transformed. Likewise, her Discarded Objects poems adopt unexpected perspectives such as those of an empty box or pain medicine.
As part of my course “Ecological Displacement in Russophone Literature” at Bryn Mawr College, my students and I spoke with Nemirovskaya and Dralyuk via Zoom in early February. We explored together what it means to speak of and to translate exile and environmental disruptions.
Isolde Gerosa: When writing about ecological destruction or waste, what do you think is the best perspective: Is there enough power in taking a strictly ecological or natural point of view, or must there also be human-oriented perspective?
Julia Nemirovskaya: Ideally, I would like to think, feel, and talk like objects when I write about objects. I believe that toilet paper is a living being; it may think it could be a ribbon on a present. Burnt plants and houses—I feel they want to be born again, so they ask mother earth to give them birth again. Yet it’s hard to abandon this human perspective because of the nature of language itself. When I write about a thrown-away, diminished, or destroyed object, I use the words I would use to talk about abandoned, mistreated, or dead people. In “Little Box,” for instance, the line “They came for it at night” is a reference to the night arrests of the Stalin era. It’s a trash truck that comes for the muesli box, but I cannot see it other than through the human experience of arrest and death. We are not here forever, and we share that with objects, plants, and animals. This makes me think that I don’t overstep my authority writing on behalf of objects and plants in my own language.
José Vergara: I wonder how you see this process working in the opposite direction. In your poems, you see the objects and empathize with them as with people, but how do you see people being treated as objects in your texts?
Nemirovskaya: I have a poem about an island where all of those living, discarded objects pile up. I kept thinking about two things from my experiences that fused in my mind as I wrote this poem. First, homeless people. There are lots of them in Eugene, Oregon, where I teach and live. Also, migrants in Europe, where I live part of the time. The image of people in these tents come to mind here.
A recording of Nemirovskaya reading “Little Box”
Grace Sewell: Boris, what does it mean to you to “translate” nonhuman perspectives, voices, and images? Are there particular moments in your translations of Julia’s poetry where you feel that you have accomplished this task? Conversely, which moments in the texts posed the most significant challenges to you?
Boris Dralyuk: I think I have to refer to what Julia has just said about the inescapable combination of radical empathy for these objects—the belief that these discarded objects are living beings—with the recognition that the only way we can relate to the natural world is through our own human nature. When I translate the voices of the nonhuman objects that Julia has given me, I tap into my human nature in order to understand and relate to them. I don’t see the task, really, as being any different from the task of translating a poem written from a strictly human perspective about the human experience. Our only access to this world is through our own experience, and that is what I bring to the translations. When I delve into “Toilet Paper,” I become a ballerina. (It does help that I took a few ballet classes when I was young.) I become a person who wishes to be more elegant than he is, a person who wishes that his life were better spent.
It’s always very hard for me to answer questions about particular challenges. When I began translating years ago, this was the easiest question to answer, because every line in a poem seemed to me a puzzle to crack. The more I work, the less I think of poems as a set of puzzles. They are that, too, of course, but they’re also total experiences. There is a Gesamtkunstwerk that I am trying to enter. Teasing apart what’s most challenging from what’s least challenging is not especially helpful for me. It’s hard to think of individual challenges instead of the challenge of the poem itself.
“The more I [translate], the less I think of poems as a set of puzzles. They are that, too, of course, but they’re also total experiences.”—Boris Dralyuk
The greatest aid in translating Julia’s poems is the rhythm. Once I’ve discovered the rhythm of speech of, say, a discarded object or of a person empathizing with the discarded object, then I can begin to think in English like this person or this object. For me, that’s Ariadne’s thread: holding onto something and following it intuitively, knowing that this is sayable and that is not sayable. If I stray too far from the rhythm, then I know I’ve lost the thread. Rhymes work that way, too.
Sophia Cunningham: When you write from the perspective of something nonhuman, do you have a specific technique to get into that mind-set, or do you have to make up a new one each time that specifically caters to the new object?
Nemirovskaya: I like how you define what I’ve tried to do, “to get into the mind-set of an object,” to find out what it thinks and feels. The Russian language is peculiar in that respect. It’s much more emotional than English; when an English-speaking person says, “I think,” we say, “I feel.” I would say each object requires a different technique. I feel like the paper can be shown as a subject, through its unfulfilled desires, a muesli box as an object, through the grief of a child. Sometimes I fuse humans and objects, like in “Chair” where a person’s legs are forever nailed to their back, or in “Fire” where the landscape feels cramped and fled. Here again, the language is the means and the limit.
“Some of what I feel when I see an object in distress is my own distress, and some of it is the wave that reaches me from within the object.”—Julia Nemirovskaya
Cassy Fantini: Do you ever project your own emotions onto the objects, or is it purely separate from yourself?
Nemirovskaya: It goes both ways, I think. Does my sweater make me warm, or do I make my sweater warm? Some of what I feel when I see an object in distress is my own distress, and some of it is the wave that reaches me from within the object. I try to speak about this wave; I try to figure out how the object would tell its story if it spoke my language.
I wish I could translate the language of objects into Russian as well as Boris translates my poems into English. Sometimes I feel the poems in his translation are better, closer to my own vision of the world than the originals. Most of the time I don’t even have anything to suggest when he sends me a translation; he grasps all the nuances and difficulties of the text intuitively and always finds the best solution. His method is akin to magic.
A recording of Nemirovskaya reading “Toilet Paper”
Leila Beganstos: How does the process of translation change as you become more familiar with a particular writer or with their work? How might you approach this work differently than you would the work of a writer whom you’re reading or translating for the first time?
Dralyuk: That’s a very, very good question, and I feel that I can answer it both practically and more metaphysically. I’ll start with a metaphysical, metaphorical answer, which is that when I’m approaching a new poet, generally I don’t begin to translate the poem until I find an entryway into it, until it grabs hold of me and demands translation. But in order to get there, I really have to circle the poem five or six times, looking for the door. And with Julia, after about a decade of translating her work, as soon as I receive one of her poems, I can see the door right in front of me. And so, when I walk into the poem, that first entry is as good as the second entry and the third and the fourth. Of course, my exploration from within is going to be fairly extensive, but I don’t have to circle the house fifteen times before I find a weak spot to crawl into the poem. That’s a very ominous metaphor, but that’s how I feel I know where the entrance is. You know the old Russian folktale, the hut on chicken legs that keeps turning away from you? Well, Julia’s poems don’t turn away from me. They show me their doors right away, because of that long experience.
And the practical answer is that there are certain words, certain themes, certain emotions and rhythms that, because I’ve translated a number of poems, I already have the vocabulary and rhythm to render. I know how Julia sounds in English, in my English, and so when I begin to translate her poems, I don’t have to search for a new rhythm. I don’t even necessarily have to search for the key word. They are there for me. Words like rodnia, for instance; I know that, in my English, that’s “kin.” So, I feel like I open not only the house of the poem, but I also have this treasure chest of words in English that I can use when translating the poem.
“I feel like I open not only the house of the poem, but I also have this treasure chest of words in English that I can use when translating the poem.”—Boris Dralyuk
The valence of the words that I use to translate Julia is different, even though I may use those same words to translate someone else’s text. A whole world of associations exists for me because I’m familiar with how Julia communicates in her poems in Russian. The words take on a new shade of meaning. As I always say when I explain the process of translation, no word occurs in isolation. It occurs in a phrase, a sentence. When you say certain words are untranslatable, that is a more or less meaningless statement, because words do not occur by themselves. Even if you open a dictionary, you’ll see more than one translation of a given word. To say that something is untranslatable as a single word makes little sense. You can say that it’s difficult to render a sentence. I believe that everything is, in one way or another, translatable.
Nemirovskaya: I feel, sometimes, that your translations are better than my poems. The rhythm is sometimes more me than myself.
Dralyuk: Oh, that’s a wonderful thing to hear, but I feel that way about your poems, that I wouldn’t translate them if they weren’t me. When you write what I wish I could write, and you’ve written it for me, the least I can do is to say it in English.
Vergara: We see in these poems, perhaps, that the pain of a box is translatable as well.
Fantini: Many of the poems mention other objects that are related to the object that is the subject of the poem. Do these connections between objects come up naturally in the course of writing, or do you think of them ahead of time?
Nemirovskaya: There’s no general rule. I can give you an example. Russians believe that there’s a devil in cracks, so it’s a bad omen to keep cracked dinnerware. But when my teapot’s lid cracked, I felt it was too much to throw away a perfect, new teapot because of one crack on a lid. I recalled the story of Orpheus. The intact tea kettle could try to save the chipped lid from the trash, like Orpheus tried to save Eurydice from hell. So, I wrote my Orpheus-teapot poem in that series, Discarded Objects. In another poem, about an effervescent pain killer, I abandoned mythological relationships and focused on sensory contact. I drowned, turned into an explosion of bubbles, and then touched another object, the glass wall. Probably the hardest thing for me was to grasp the relationship of the fox to its tail in the Fire cycle. It’s a sense of something that we as humans are totally deprived of, something we wouldn’t be able to operate had it been granted to us.
Cunningham: In your process of translating, how do you balance translating accurately while also creatively altering it to flow better in a different language where not everything translates perfectly? Do you use your own experiences and views on ecological disaster, for example, to guide you in this process?
Dralyuk: I feel that in translation, accuracy is one of those words that has different meanings in different circumstances. The accuracy that is most important to me is a holistic accuracy. A sense that I’ve created a fully functional, self-sufficient, living poem in the English language that is related, that is kin to the Russian poem. And the accuracy is measured by the wholeness of the experience, not by the dictionary parallelism of one or another line or one or another word. So, I don’t spend much time thinking about how accurate my rendering of individual words is until after I create a whole experience, and then I can go back and correct or adjust elements of it for greater fidelity, if I feel that the word I’ve chosen initially in English travels too far from the Russian. And in the process of translating, I really am writing. It’s the same kind of thrill that one experiences when creating something new, wholly original. Because in my view, the translation is a wholly original being in the English language. It exists for those who don’t have access to Russian, so it’ll be their first encounter with the poem and their only encounter with the poem, unless they learn Russian. It has to be a poem that stands on its own legs.
In terms of my own thoughts on environmental disaster, I have to say I learn more from Julia than I bring to the poems. I think that my sensibility is enriched by my encounter with Julia’s thoughts and her extension of empathy into various objects; her sense of how fire interacts with the landscape, and how the landscape responds to fire. We were both on the West Coast when the fires of that season were raging, and my mind was a muddle, but Julia was responding to the landscape poetically. And thanks to her poetic response I was able to refine my own feelings about the event. That’s what poetry should do, and can do.
Sewell: On that note, does this work require particular techniques or considerations that you have not encountered in your other projects? Which texts or ideas have you found especially helpful to your decision-making?
Dralyuk: I think that my approach is more intuitive than practical in this case. There are poets who have written about the environment in ways that resonate with me, that I bring to my translations and my own writing. They are often poets associated with urban landscapes who aren’t known as “nature writers.” The richest encounters often take place between someone who believes that nature is inconsequential before they are confronted with the reality of impending disaster. One of my favorite poets is Philip Larkin. His poem “Going, going” is a remarkable example of this. We had simply assumed that things would go on, but in fact they are going away. That poem really affects me. Whenever I write my own poetry, I’m instinctively drawn to structures in which a moment of realization happens somewhere along the line, not before the poem gets started. Even if I do know that I’m going there, I don’t want that work to be invisible on the page.
Sewell: Julia, do you see your work as contributing to or building on the Russian literary tradition’s engagement with the environment? If so, how? Which writers—Russian or otherwise—have made the most significant impact on your environmentally focused poetry?
Nemirovskaya: I was happy to see on your syllabus so many relevant, fundamental works on environmental and displacement issues. Russian writers who deal with the environment build on this rich tradition. I’m not sure if I have contributed to it that much. I just hope that people who read the poems from the Discarded Objects and Fire cycles become a bit more aware of the crisis. Writing about the wholeness or destruction of nature, I’m indebted to Fyodor Tyutchev’s poems and Chinghiz Aitmatov’s novel, The White Ship. A student of Friedrich Schelling, Tyutchev believed that everything on earth is of one and the same essence. He wrote, “One thought goes after another thought, one wave goes after another wave, all is moved by the same force.” As for Aitmatov, The White Ship is a powerful and poetic story about a little boy who turns into a fish from grief after the cruel village people kill and cook a beautiful doe. This has been a very impactful text for me since my childhood.
Jae Tak Kim: I was thinking about this recently, because in our class we’ve been reading Russian authors who have been exiled or emigrated to the US. Have you found that being an emigrant has influenced your poetry in either style or topic? Also, do you think writing in Russian impacts the way the West Coast wildfires, non-Russian things, are viewed or written about in your Fire cycle?
Nemirovskaya: I’ll start with the second question, the West Coast Fire poem’s Russian references. It’s a journey narrative. A newborn child of a witch turns out to be a fox. The witch runs away from the child’s father in embarrassment. After a while, she finds out the father is also a fox, or rather an animagus. She sets out on a yearlong journey through mountains and forests, back to the oceanfront where he lives. Fox is lis, and forest is les. The fox loves the forest, the rustling of leaves, listya. Similarly to lis, les, and listya, every connection in the poem is prompted by the sound or meaning of a Russian word. On the trip, the witch teaches her son magic, and although the landscapes are West Coast, the magic and superstitions are Russian. In the spirit of Slavic folklore, all creatures, objects, and matter are equal and have relationships; the wind is wooing the witch but refuses to marry; the raven is winter’s lover; prayers are sisters of spells. Lis (the fox) turns into a fire and burns les (the forest), destroying his own environment. The witch calls on Archangel Uriel and the fire stops; the popular belief has it that Uriel keeps fires away. Yet now it’s people who want a fire of enmity to flare; blacksmiths forge swords for them. Seeing this, the witch casts a Russian curse on a person who would start a war (it’s a prewar poem, but since 2014 many people in Russia had a sense of impending disaster). It turns out that the animagus was living in hope the witch and the child would return. After a happy reunion at the oceanfront, the witch decides to sacrifice her own life so that their happiness can last. She tries to destroy herself physically, but in the end she sails away in a boat; a happy end but perhaps only for a Russian story.
Back to the first question, before this war, our wave of emigration had not experienced exile. We could travel back and forth. We called ourselves expats, not emigrants. Of course, I often feel displaced. The way I act and talk has been awkward and strange even just because English is not my native tongue. Now I know I will never go back. There are hundreds of thousands of Russians who ended up abroad these days because of persecution or a desire not to be affiliated with Putin’s regime. Russian poetry is one as never before, yet people who stayed may soon be cut off from social media, the Western press, and their readership at home. I’m collecting my friends’ poems about war. Ukrainian voices have to be our absolute priority now. Russians need to fade into the background. Yet the Platinum Age of poetry is still here, and the russophone voices are compelling. I’m witnessing the birth of а stunning tragic war poetry tradition. It has to be appreciated just as the unbearable situation of the people whose language is being used by a bloodthirsty maniac at home and hated by passersby abroad. As we know, many German writers in a similar situation committed suicide. I would do all I can to prevent seeing any of my friends follow suit, first and foremost make sure their voices are heard.
“I’m witnessing the birth of а stunning tragic war poetry tradition.”—Julia Nemirovskaya
Beganstos: A related question: do you see yourself as participating in a particular Russian émigré/exile literary tradition? What, if any, relationship do you see between your writing and the writing of those exiled in 1905, or in 1917, or at other points before the dissolution of the Soviet Union?
Nemirovskaya: I would say Russian-language poetry in Russia and abroad was my influence. I was part of the “new wave” of underground Moscow poets, and then there were poetry biennales in Moscow attended by those who have lived in Russia and abroad, poets like Mikhail Gronas, Mikhail Aizenberg, and Maria Stepanova.
As a comparison, in the 1990s, in France, I met the first wave of immigrants. Their story is very dramatic and very different from ours. Most of them hoped to return to Russia after the fall of the Bolsheviks. In France, they were despised and called sales russes, dirty Russians. They upheld prerevolutionary tradition, just as they maintained their everyday Russian life. Intentionally Russian; they rarely mingled with the French. In that generation, there were three poets, Vladislav Khodasevich, Vladimir Nabokov, and Georgy Ivanov, whose work influenced every Russian poet. I think Russian-language poetry is unthinkable without them.
The second wave is postwar emigration, and the third is Joseph Brodsky and Lev Losev’s Cold War emigration. Both groups were influenced by the Russian and the Western poetic traditions. Our poetry was moving in the direction of merging various traditions, émigré, European, and Russian, and now there is such an incredible variety of voices and styles. Russian poetry hears all those voices, it’s open to all those influences. And it’s very vibrant. Many people call it the “Platinum Age” of Russian poetry.
Gerosa: Boris, how much of your work involves working with the original author to make sure the exact meaning she wants is conveyed?
Dralyuk: Authors come in all shapes and sizes and levels of interaction with translators. I’ve worked with some authors who are no longer active enough to participate in the process, who are long dead, like Isaac Babel and Mikhail Zoshchenko, and in the case of those authors I do my best to commune with their spirits, but only through their work. I can only attempt to get their approval in this furtive way, by intuiting it from the quality of the texts that I produce.
But in the case of living authors, I work with some writers of prose who not only have excellent English but also prepare copious notes for their translators in Russian to explain every difficulty we might encounter, and that’s very helpful. It’s certainly scaffolding that allows me to work more quickly and dispels my sense of uncertainty.
In Julia’s case, what I love most, what is most rewarding, is that the feedback she gives me is not direct feedback, saying I’ve bungled something or that I’ve gotten something quite well and don’t need to worry anymore. She sends me letters that are often as rich as poems themselves, and they are really commentary, as if she has undergone some kind of analysis on her understanding of her own poems in relation to the translations. So, it isn’t a matter of me passing a test or not; it’s a matter of us being in conversation about the meaning of both poems, the Russian and the English, and that’s extremely enriching—first, because I get the pleasure of reading more of Julia, which is always delightful, but also because it gives weight to both texts and helps me if I need to adjust something. It helps me approach the translation as a worthy subject of adornment and growth. But I also appreciate when other authors simply tell me I got something wrong, or not quite right, and I need to go back and fix it. Any help from an author is much appreciated.
Kim: Boris, you mentioned that when you get new poems from Julia to translate, you know what they’re supposed to “sound” like in English. When you go back to an earlier translation you did for an author, do you feel that you would make different choices if you were to translate them now because you are more certain of their English voice?
Dralyuk: I think, to some extent, absolutely. But I feel the same way when I go back to anything I wrote ten years ago. I think my sense of language, my mentality have changed. I’m only going to recognize some elements of that old material as belonging to me. It has less to do with my changing understanding of Julia than it does with my changed eyes. So, I continue to grow just as Julia herself continues to grow. My understanding of her work continues to grow just as I myself continue to grow. I don’t feel the urgent need to go back to earlier translations and adjust them because I think that the trajectory also tells a story—a story of growing understanding, of growing sympathy.
“I don’t feel the urgent need to go back to earlier translations and adjust them because I think that the trajectory also tells a story—a story of growing understanding, of growing sympathy.”—Boris Dralyuk
Kim: Have you encountered scenarios where there were no English equivalent translations of Russian words because the concept itself doesn’t exist in the English language? How do you deal with situations where more than the mere word must be imported from the Russian language?
Dralyuk: I don’t search for the meaning of the word in isolation but rather in the context in which it occurs. That usually helps me find the right equivalent—not, again, for the word itself, but perhaps for the concept, which I can embed in a number of words, or in the text as a whole. So even if I lose this one-to-one relationship between one word in Russian and another in English, I can compensate for the loss by spreading the concept across the text, imbuing the context with the right meaning.
The fact that certain words have been translated over and over again in a way that I feel is less productive for the text that I’m working with at any given moment doesn’t really bother me. I don’t think that departing from the standard translation is a crime. I think that in every case, the word is born anew. We get to treat it as a newborn in English.
Sewell: Boris, do you write in Russian in addition to English? Is Russian part of your process, and if so, which questions come to mind as you work in both languages?
Dralyuk: I write exclusively in English. That said, I do think there is something distinctly russophone about my thinking as I write the poems. Often, it comes down to me hiding little references to Russian texts in the poems. Sometimes it’s a matter of lexicon – I’m drawn to certain words because they have an extra layer of meaning to a Russian speaker. In one of my poems, I use the word vitrine, which is a perfectly legitimate word in English, but means something slightly different from vitrina in Russian. I used it because of its Russian meaning. It does not stick out to a reader unfamiliar with the Russian, but it might trigger another association for a Russian reader. Sometimes these Easter eggs happen accidentally, at other times on purpose. I’m drawn to form, perhaps even more so than most contemporary Russian poets. Contemporary Russian poetry has veered away from the metrical tradition, but the metrical tradition was very much alive into the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, which set Russian poetry apart from American poetry. The fact that I’m drawn to meter and rhyme is a consequence of my russophone upbringing.
Nemirovskaya: On the topic of emigration, Boris has written several powerful poems about displacement of the elderly Russian émigrés in Los Angeles. Being raised here, he’s much less of an emigrant than I am. Yet he was able to capture the nostalgia and solastalgia of generations of Russians in the US. I wonder if Boris could read one or two of his poems as part of our wonderful conversation, too, as they’d add another dimension to this theme.
Dralyuk: Thank you. If you don’t mind, I’ll just read one. It’s set in a Russian library for émigrés here in LA, which is a struggling project. It used to be housed in the local park. The building in the park was slated for demolition. About ten years ago, it was moved to a nondescript building across the street, where it’s still housed, but fewer and fewer people are still using it, because the population of émigrés is aging. The question of its continued existence is an open one. The poem is called “Émigré Library,” and while it doesn’t deal with the environment directly, it touches on the themes we’re discussing.
A recording of Dralyuk reading “Émigré Library”
Sewell: Julia, in an author’s note, you mention the influence of your great-grandmother’s dvoeverie (double faith) on your life and writing. How do you integrate mythology, legend, and spirituality in your work? What can mythology and folklore bring to artistic responses to the climate crisis?
Nemirovskaya: Mythology and folklore already engage with the climate crisis: the biblical flood, the Inferno, the death of Osiris, the Scandinavian Ragnarok. Any artistic response to the current crisis invokes these old legends and archetypes. In some spiritual traditions like Orthodox Hesychasm, every object or being is related to another object or being; everything is interconnected, the past and the present are one. The pain of a tree is your pain, a storm is your anger. It’s a powerful climate statement as well. Images from folklore are rooted in nature.
My great-grandmother Anya and grandmother Liza often referred to inanimate objects as if they were animate using various Russian diminutive suffixes like stul’chik (little chair) or chashechka (little cup). Village people use diminutive suffixes all the time, especially referring to food. My grandmother talked to a lyagushechka (little frog) that frequented our dacha; eventually the frog began to talk to my grandmother.
Speaking of dvoeverie, double faith, in my family, Christianity in its humble peasant version is fused with superstitions and other pagan beliefs. I know it’s not viewed favorably by the church, but it may offer a way to see the world as a unity of all things. The flip side of dvoeverie is fear. We feared spirits like Leshij (forest-sprite) and Domovoj (house spirit). If you swept the floor after someone left for a trip, Leshij would get the dust into the traveler’s eyes and lead them to a wrong place. Or if you didn’t comb your hair before going to bed, the mermaids would comb your hair and it would be very painful. I had this idea of an infinite world of love and unity of all living creatures, plants and objects, but also a knowledge that this bliss could be disrupted by a disaster caused by a bad omen or an offended spirit. My great-grandmother Liza baptized me. My grandmother Anya reproached her. In the USSR, being religious would deprive you or your parents of a job and status. Great-grandmother Liza said, “Anya, think about her soul.” That was the first time I heard this word, “the soul.”
Vergara: I’m wondering whether your relationship to nature, ecology, and the environment has changed over time, especially in light of your emigration.
Nemirovskaya: In the 1980s, I gave lectures at Uppsala University at the invitation of a wonderful Slavist, Ulla Birgegard. When I returned to Russia, I invited Ulla to visit me and took her to our dacha. There, she sat outside on a little tree stump and cried. I asked her why. “What did you do to your environment?” exclaimed Ulla. I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Only much later in the West, the destruction of the natural environment in Russia and the global climate issues became vivid to me.
Vergara: That leads to another question. With the Fire cycle being closely linked to your experiences living on the West Coast, and in light of the fires in Siberia, what connections are you making between the two pockets of wildfires?
Nemirovskaya: My grandfather’s family is from Irkutsk. Nature in some parts of Siberia is a lot like nature in Oregon. We have the same kind of fir trees, except the trees are taller in Oregon. The fires are everywhere, there is no escape, no matter where we go. Of course, we can make a little step here, a big step there, but we have to understand and appreciate the greatness of what’s going on. We are honored to witness this almost surreal catastrophe.
Julia Nemirovskaya is a Moscow-born poet. She has published three collections of verse; a collection of short stories (2021); a novel, Lis (2017); and a study of Russian cultural patterns (1997, 2001). Since 1989, she has taught literature at European and US universities (currently at the University of Oregon). Her work has been translated into several languages including English, French, Swedish, and Bulgarian, and appeared in Znamya, Bonniers Litterära Magasin, Lettres Russes, Asymptote, and other journals.
Boris Dralyuk is the editor in chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books and translator of Isaac Babel, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors. His poems have appeared in the New York Review of Books, Hopkins Review, New Criterion, and elsewhere. His collection My Hollywood and Other Poems is forthcoming from Paul Dry Books in April 2022.