Guest post, Svetlana Lavochkina: A Tangerine A Year

Bio photo of Svetlana LavochkinaOn a Sunday in late sleety March, 1984 my clan was celebrating Grandmother’s seventieth anniversary. We lived in Zaporozhye, a failed industrial giant in the south-east of Ukraine. There was a deluge of toasts, vodka, champagne, red caviar and homemade poems.

The toasts and the poems were all pompous nonsense, the caviar too salty. My cousin Shurik and I were exiled to the nursery because we had crawled under the dinner table, moving the white linen cloth dangerously while taking off the guests’ shoes. We were ordered to occupy ourselves with quiet games until they called us in for tea and cake. In the nursery, Shurik and I had exhausted both classic Scrabble and table football; then the less Orthodox, self-invented “Beat the Lazy Fool” and “Husband and Wife Are Looking for a Treasure under the Bed.” Still, there was no news of the dessert, and we were getting bored yet again. So I took a sketch book and some felt tips and drew a jagged oval in the middle of the page.

I told Shurik, “This is the Island of Poovia in the Souporific Ocean.”

“Is it mine?” Shurik asked. “Only half of it, but you are President,” I said, generously giving the younger sibling priority and ascribing myself the post of the Chancellor.

While the President was draining the blue felt tip to color the Souporific Ocean, the Chancellor distributed the remaining political power on Poovia among the members of the family. We knew no one else who we could command to fulfill state duties and practice the pronunciation of their new names, far too convoluted even for Ukrainian tongues.

The two remaining hours before the dessert passed unnoticed, and then we were finally gorging ourselves on the delicious Napoleon cake and seeping Krasnodar tea. Our parents, laughing and cursing, were stumbling on the new names that I had printed on paper slips: Myrrn Kyldynysyvj, Minister of Defense; Ryitta Brbukhovva, State Secretary – just to mention the easiest ones. Only for Grandmother, a retired piano teacher, had we made a magnanimous exception. She got an easy, mellow name of Marrám Lalá and the cushy post of the Minister of Culture.

Thus, in 1984, behind the Iron Curtain, we suddenly had a whole island to ourselves, and believe me, it was a most tropical one. Tangerines that we could only eat on the New Year’s Eve in real life, were served to the President first thing every morning. Many a felt tip was spent depicting the President’s palace, beaches, palm groves, and on designing the gorgeous Chancellor’s dresses.

Truth to say, the rest of the government didn’t do anything at all besides asking us, from time to time, “And are you still playing that game, what’s its name… Peevia?”

The only goal of Poovian politics was fostering a huge, harmless and humorous cult of the President’s personality – oh that girl who had had an operation to engrave his name on her ventricle; oh that funny fat man who had stolen the President’s night pot.

For Shurik, the main sense of Poovia was its two football teams sponsored by the competing electronic corporations, the Chancellor’s Melon and the President’s Cucumber. Each of the footballers had his own personality: the Melon goalkeeper, for instance, was so slow that a crow made a nest on his head during the final match. Needless to say, the Cucumber won more often.

For me, the beauty of Poovia was in creating a new language. I compiled a dictionary of Poovarian, about two hundred splendid words – verbs, nouns, adjectives, idioms that existed, I could swear, in no other language (for example, to compliment a beautiful woman, one would have to say, “What bald teeth you have!”) The grammar of Poovarian resembled Russian, with a tinge, as I discovered only not long ago, of French and Turkish. I wrote the National Poovarian Anthem, some songs for pop-stars, and many articles for the quality newspapers and tabloids – all that at the expense of homework.

With the help of a primitive cassette recorder, we broadcast important balls and receptions. We interviewed the President, the Chancellor and, occasionally, the increasingly senile and hence the least microphone-shy Marrám Lalá.

Poovia thrived for three years, five cassettes and fifteen sketch books. Then Shurik and I were blown away from the island, estranged from each other by puberty.

Children’s life in the Soviet Union was not so awful as to need radical distractions. We had our share of fun: music lessons, table tennis, and we both attended a good school with in-depth English instruction. Eating tangerines once a year in no way meant that we starved. Living in communal flats or tower blocks did not make us claustrophobic. For us, tales about Lenin as a little boy did not sound like brainwashing and a children’s military parade at the primary school was as normal as ABC. In 1984, we did not feel trapped in an anti-utopia.

Now I see Poovia as a nursery presentiment of emigration: a dress rehearsal a decade in advance; an intuition, naïve but not entirely wrong, of western life as we perceived it later. For me, it was also a dress rehearsal of writing, in a language not my own.

Shurik and I still remember each other’s birthdays. “Are your teeth still bald?” he always asks me instead of congratulating.

Little did we know then that Shurik would become one of the first high school graduates in the ex-USSR to go to study abroad, first in Switzerland, then in England, and end up working in a renowned London bank. The floor of his living-room is the size of a football field and wears a snow-white carpet.

I was very happy to escape the 1990s chaos and corruption of the post-Soviet Ukraine – nothing would ever change and I didn’t feel responsible for improving things at the cost of my personal goals. I entered the period of a decade-long denial of my motherland, busy building a new life from scratch. Leipzig, Germany became my new home. To my parents, my carpetless living-room seems the size of a tennis court. When they visit me, I tell them that when we go to Cyprus in March, ripe tangerines fall down from the trees, and no one cares to pick them.

It was in 2014 that Ukraine pulled me back into its courageous, fiery orbit of the Maidan and the War of Independence with its terrible toll. I scarcely believed my ears and eyes when the world news uttered the name of Donetsk, my alma mater city in the east, and its adjacent towns, and showed those tranquil, drowsy places in fire and chaos. I could do little about it, apart from feeling acute empathy and shame. The only thing that made up for my denial was translating wonderful, inimitable contemporary Ukrainian poetry into English for publication in American and British literary magazines and anthologies.

Last year, I broke my self-imposed moratorium and flew to Kiev. I met my old college mates who’d had to flee the war-afflicted territories where they had enjoyed well-established lives. The airplane was landing, and I looked down from the window in impatient, torn anticipation. The blue Dnieper River sparkled in the light of the setting sun and in its middle, it wasn’t the ancient capital of Kiev I saw. It was my Island of Poovia that stretched under the plane wings in all its 1984 splendor.

Guest Post, Svetlana Lavochkina: Rubies the Size of Peas

A very old school house chalk boardA writer always has a mother and a father, who very often have nothing to do with her biological manufacturers; neither does the mother have to be female or father male. A writer also has a husband/wife of whatever gender that sparks off her desire, often not the one who shares her daily bed and bread. The mother is the reason of why she writes at all. The father is the one who actually puts a pen into her hand and presses it onto the paper. The partner is aka, well, her muse.

The first piece ever that a writer produces is usually about one of this trinity. If I am ever invited to contribute to this blog again, I will tell you about the latter two. But today, it is my mother-in-letters, Maria Ivanovna Moskvina. A little vignette in her honour that I would like to share here was written ten years ago to be performed at an international teachers’ conference. It was received very favorably, and I submitted it to a British literary magazine, where it was accepted at once, my very first publication, which gave me the courage to write on, on, and on.

My name is Svetlana. I learn English every day. I am learning English now. I have learnt some English already. I have been learning English for ten years. If I hadn’t been so lucky I would have never had a chance to learn English. Even the gorgeous Present Perfect Progressive have I mastered, and the mysteries of the nebulous Subjunctive Mood, too, as you can well hear, without ever having visited London, which is the capital of Great Britain and stands on the river Thames.

I live in a fuming Eastern-Ukrainian town with dandelions poking through concrete in some places. Grey people swarm into trolley-buses to get to factories in the morning. In the evening they storm groceries to get some sausage for supper.

I don’t mind an hour’s ride to school in a bursting trolley-bus because I am fortunate to go to the only school in the town where English is taught from the first class. Maria Ivanovna, the town’s premium teacher of English, reigns there. We are all in awe of her. She makes us meek and silky just with the glance of her bespectacled eyes. Maria Ivanovna takes a syringe and injects a dose of success right into our assiduous bottoms. She says, ‘Don’t you dare come to see me in ten years unless you are driving a black Mercedes, working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and own an apartment in Moscow.’

We try to detect Maria Ivanovna’s mood and the degree of her irascibility by her clothes. Experience has shown that Maria Ivanovna is in the worst of her moods when she wears blue Margaret Thatcher suits. It is then that she throws objects around and bangs our heads against the blackboard at even the tiniest mistakes. On the contrary, the nicest queen-like half-smile crosses her face when she wears red. It is usually then that her ears are adorned with rubies the size of peas, and, believe it or not, it is their warm shimmer that melts my brown school uniform and my skin under the uniform and pours the mellow melody of the strange language directly into my veins.

I am jealous of Maria Ivanovna’s jewels, the more so because I know that I myself could get rubies like this by right of inheritance, but I never will. They say my great-grandmother Celia was married to a rich merchant in Odessa. She was an illustrious beauty. She spoke five languages, had relatives in London and never condescended to wearing such vulgar jewels as rubies. Even at the market place, accompanied by her kitchen-maid and a drunkard hired for a kopeck to carry the heavy baskets, she chose the best vegetables and chicken for a Sabbath meal wearing no less than diamonds the size of cherries.

But then the Revolution swept the wealth of the family away together with the diamonds torn directly from her earlobes by a waif on the streets of hungry Odessa. It was only in the thirties that Celia’s surviving children were able to afford to give their mother earrings albeit only rubies the size of peas, so she had to condescend to the red.

Photo by Svetlana Lavochkina

Photo by Svetlana Lavochkina

The earrings were inherited through the female line. When Celia died, my grandmother wore them, and after that, my mother. Unfortunately, my mother lost them shortly before I went to school. Not once was she reprimanded for that.

I gaze at Maria Ivanovna in scarlet glow and imagine myself not in a black Mercedes, not in the ministry of foreign affairs and not in a flat facing the Kremlin. In my dreams I go to London, step onto a boat on the river Thames and meet a whiskered young lord whose accent is the finest RP. We fall in love and marry and live in his castle with a ghost. To the ghost I also speak in my own finest RP.

I gaze at Maria Ivanovna in scarlet, she is gleaming. I think how lucky I am to be sitting here. Everybody says that it is impossible without connections or heavy bribes, customary and going without saying nowadays, but my parents are ordinary clerks, they have neither money nor connections. English equals freedom and wealth, though nobody dares to say that in our concrete town. So parents tacitly gamble all they possess on their children’s future, because English is a spaceship, a password, a catapult to a different, perilous, much railed against and forbidden world, a world teeming with bright colours and ingenious people.

It is widely known that a healthy bribe is a passport into Maria Ivanovna’s classroom. They say she receives several eager mothers in her flat simultaneously, and she has them all wait in different rooms and holds her audience with them separately so that they can’t see each other. There is even a wild story passed on in a whisper that Maria Ivanovna once locked a mother in the bathroom because all the other rooms had been occupied.

When asked how I had obtained a place, my mother always said, ‘it was your fortune, there was that one last place left.’ I finished school and tried to catapult myself into the longed-for perilous world. The concrete curtain fell and the cord of fate connecting me with Maria Ivanovna was cut.

I must confess I’m neither exactly in London nor exactly married to an English lord, neither exactly living in a castle nor exactly speaking RP. I haven’t fulfilled Maria Ivanovna’s black Mercedes precepts either, but I am trying to teach the English I learned from her to German children, who are not in the least fascinated by London, which is the capital of Great Britain and stands on the river Thames. They are not in the least in awe of me either, and if anything, it is I who would need to bribe them to listen.

Last Sunday I was marking the exercise-books and cursing loudly when the doorbell rang. A man with a concrete-like greyness about him was standing at my doorstep. I had never seen him before. ‘Is your name Svetlana?’ he asked me in my hometown vernacular. ‘Yes it is,’ I answered, surprised. ‘I was asked to hand you this,’ he said, and gave me a plastic bag. Before I could open my mouth he vanished into the dusk of the hallway.

Inside the bag there was a folded letter and a small tightly cellotaped box.

‘Dearest Svetlana,’ the letter said, ‘you forgot me, who taught you the Subjunctive Mood and told you all about London, the capital of Great Britain, and this is a shame. You were my most diligent pupil and I still remember your charmed face. It was a pity to bang it against the blackboard. So for you to remember me I bequeath to you the contents of this box.’

I undid the cellotape and opened the box. The rubies the size of peas shone up on me, unwinding a caravan of scenes and memories, jewels of the vanished world.

I learn English every day. I am learning English now. I have learnt some English already. I have been learning English for thirty years. Even the gorgeous Present Perfect Continuous have I mastered and the mysteries of the nebulous Subjunctive Mood as well. Had it not been for my mother, who had spent the spookiest hour in her life in my teacher’s bathroom locked from outside to offer her the only family treasure, I wouldn’t be struggling for words to tell you this story now, with rubies the size of peas in my ears.

Guest Post, Svetlana Lavochkina: The Winged Shackles

Svetlana LavochkinaImagine you are an unemployed cook from a different planet, and your job agency gives you the last chance on the Earth. You desperately want to do your best but the problem is that your alien metabolism is so different from the terrestrials that eating human food for you is like eating hot lava. So you replace taste and smell by sight and touch. You take beef, potatoes, eggs, vanilla, and treat them as if you were in a chemical laboratory and not in a kitchen. When you finish, you cannot even savor the boef stroganoff or the crème brulée you prepared. This is approximately what writing fiction in a foreign language is like.

A mother tongue is poured into babies, in the case of English, with the milk of Mother Goose. It is then honed through years of everyday washing in the language – from contrast showers of classical literature at school to TV bubble baths to puddles of teenage slang.

A normal writer using his native language casts off or alters usages deliberately to create something fresh, hitherto unread. A madman of a writer, a foreigner, is blissfully unaware of rules as such, trampling them with the innocence of an elephant in a porcelain store. It seems by pure accident that the resulting debris sometimes assumes interesting configurations.

Writing in a foreign language is scary – because, high up in the sky, there shine the suns of Conrad and Nabokov, and you feel as if below the earth’s surface, you are in the dark void. You fumble for every word, you suspect every sentence of malfunction, you make paranoia your writing method – crawling out of this darkness is a lifelong labor of Sisyphus.

The shackles of a foreign language give the writer a unique opportunity of refuge, of abandonment – soaring yonder and beyond in absolute freedom from one’s own ethos and culture, belonging nowhere, free from responsibilities, from shame and fear, obeying no laws.

My parents don’t speak English, neither do most of my friends, so I can assume a different persona while writing, as whimsical, arrogant or mischievous as I wish, something I would never dare to dream of on my native Russian territory, where every word is soaked in idiosyncrasy or taboo.

Working in English provides me both the necessary distance and intimate closeness so necessary for writing.  In a way that is as strange as some twist or turn in an alchemical formula, English is both a bridge and a home; a place to live in and journey toward.