Monday, August 04, 2014

Bad Bitches with Criminal Records are the New Heroes with a Typewriter: “Orange is the New Black” & Russian Prison Literature

I always look this good when reading. Duh.

The title of both Piper Kerman’s memoir – Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison [2010] – and the Netflix original series refer to the difference between compulsory attire for inmates and a women’s fashion cliché, i.e. every season has its own “new black.” But for me the subtext of this title refers also to racial and gender difference, as the white-skinned and blonde-haired Piper become the unlikely jailhouse narrator in lieu of contemporary media’s representation of the common criminal as a man of color. This is true of American prisons and American prison narratives; yet I am no expert on American prisons or American prison narratives and therefore I cannot make a compare-and-contrast analysis of Orange is the New Black against the properties of the mainstream incarceration narrative in this country. Instead of venturing into unknown – and possibly unsteady – territory, I will make use of a corpus of texts I have already mastered: Russian prison literature. When it comes to prison literature (or any kind of camp literature for that matter) national or historical differences are not of crucial importance as the genre remains fairly recognizable no matter what decade or state the male narrator was incarcerated in. Rather than time and place, the adjective defining the narrator in the previous sentence – male – becomes the aspect of the text capable of framing and making the extraordinary experience meaningful. Prison literature is a male literary genre; this means that the corpus consists of narratives produced by men – male writers (and, sometimes by the female sidekick to a male writer, as in the case of Nadezhda Mandel’shtam and her memoir about her husband). Obviously this does not mean that prisons/camps etc. all over the world are solely populated by male inmates – a quick look at some statistics and a quick search on google will tell you that there are plenty of women behind bars. But the fact that a woman has been to prison and decides to write about it doesn’t mean that her written work will be included in the genre of prison literature. She can try hard – and it looks like Piper Kerman attempted to follow suit although she laments its futility early on in her memoir: “I had already read the books on Amazon about surviving prison, but they were written for men” (30). Piper feels this gendered anxiety, and following her lead we should ask ourselves: why wouldn’t a prison narrative by a female immediately become a part of the genre? The reason for this uncomfortable truth about what gets included and what is left outside is the six strict demands that the genre of prison literature presents to its texts:

1. The narrative must begin with the incarceration and end when the incarceration ends.

2. Narrative space must only include places of incarceration and/or exile.

3. The narrator must be a hero. The hero is per definition male.

4. The narrative must include categories of characters defined as “others” with whom the narrator does not engage, to whom he cannot relate, and whom he does not provide with a complex or dynamic representation: a person of another nationality, ethnicity, and/or gender must be presented to the reader as the Other.

5. The narrator must be either innocent or caught in an unjust socioeconomic or corrupt ideological system.

6. The narrator must avoid the ethical concept of guilt in relation to his own “crime” or acts.

Out of these six demands, number 3 is the most problematic for a woman writing about her experiences in prison. The narrator in prison literature must be a hero and to be a hero you have to be a man. Since the man is a hero, the following three demands on my list, number 4-6, not only define the essential qualities required of the male narrator to make him the quintessential hero but also explain why such a flawed “narrator as hero” has received very little of the scorching criticism he needs. Instead of lingering on abstractions, let’s take a look at my two favorite examples of authors who use this problematic “narrator as hero” in Russian prison literature: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov. And let’s compare them and their camp narratives with Piper Kerman and her “narrator as woman” (because she cannot produce a hero and the female version of it, “heroine,” smacks of unnecessary eroticism).

1. The narrative must begin with the incarceration and end when the incarceration ends.

Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov might eventually tell us what they did to get themselves incarcerated (Solzhenitsyn in the beginning of The Gulag Archipelago and Shalamov in a few of his little-known autobiographical sketches), but all of their “fictional” masterpieces eliminate this kind of superfluous information. Since the male narrator is innocent and/or a victim of the system, we don’t need to know, right? In Orange is the New Black, Kerman finds herself in prison in chapter 3 (!); at first I thought she was making an honest mistake and that she simply didn’t know that the genre demanded her to open along the lines of “Enter the Cell.” Then I understood that not only is the genre not available to her – which means she can do what the hell she wants – she attempts to destabilize what is implicit in this first demand,  which is that the inmate does not include the compassion felt for family and friends as they, as she says later, “do the time with us.” Kerman lingers on the hurt she caused those who love her both by her crimes and by being in prison several times throughout her memoir; perhaps because as a woman she was raised to view herself not as a lone wolf but as person embedded in relationships. Neither Shalamov nor Solzhenitsyn chronicle their perspective on the struggles of those they left behind – mothers, wives, daughters, etc. – because what is the worth of relating personal pain when one can produce a public performance instead?

2. Narrative space must only include places of incarceration and/or exile.

By being remote and only populated by force, basically all of Kolyma is incarcerated space – although sometimes Shalamov includes another space, his hometown of Vologda. We don’t know why, it makes us the naïve readers of prison literature confused, but we accept it because one short story can be the exception that confirms the rule. Solzhenitsyn makes it a little bit easier when he decides that not only do the camps of the Soviet Gulag compromise an archipelago throughout the country, but – spoiler alert! – all of USSR is a big concentration camp. By creating and/or employing the topoi of the Small Zone (the camp) and the Big Zone (the country) in their narratives, Russian writers on the twentieth-century prison experience always obey demand number 2. Although the for-profit prison complex of the United States is in some ways a lot worse and more dehumanizing than the Gulag [don’t quote me on that as I haven’t served time in either], Kerman cannot generalize in similar terms because as a white, middle-class, educated woman she is not only complicit in the system – she knows it too. Neither Solzhenitsyn nor Shalamov understand (or want to make it seem like they don’t understand) that they were complicit in the system that incarcerated them; they float freely as individual actors filled with humility and the potentiality for good deeds. Instead of limiting her narrative to only behind barbed wire, Kerman includes other spaces where she was before and after. Instead of a socioeconomic or ideological feature of their epoch, as in Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, the prison of Kerman is a geographical reality – once on the map, always on the map.

3. The narrator must be a hero. The hero is per definition male.

The standard definition of “hero” is: “a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov present themselves through their narrators as obvious heroes and their texts anticipate admiration and/or idealization as they both write in aspiration of being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature because they’ve been courageous and noble. The male author produces a hero who resembles himself and whom we are not allowed to question because anything that is questionable about him remains unrepresentable. Even if a prison literature text were to construct an “anti-hero,” it would still be a hero because everything else in the genre functions to justify him and his actions. To summarize: even if you’re a bad guy, the system is worse and the fact that you survived it and lived to tell the tale makes you a hero. Congratulations. In this regard it makes sense to compare the hero not with Kerman’s representation of herself in the memoir but with the representation of Piper in the Netflix series. In the beginning we might have believed what popular culture could tell us about such good girls as Piper appears to be – that is, white, middle-class, educated, young women – in prison, namely, that they must somehow be innocent or fooled by evil people and/or forces. But as the show continues, Piper’s character develops; and in the final episode of season 1, when Piper beats up another inmate in such a rage that we fear for the inmate’s life, we are left with an uncomfortable idea: is Piper perhaps a bad person? Although we all want to love Piper as the “heroine” she was supposed to be in the beginning, we cannot shake the problematic notion of her not being a good person throughout season 2. But what if we accepted the fact that Piper is ruder, meaner, nastier and – most importantly – more guilty than many of the other criminals in the prison? What if we were to allow Piper to be someone else instead of a female imitation of the clichéd hero in prison literature? Would it be so terrible if Piper were to be a Bad Bitch with a Criminal Record, and not an Innocent Blondie with Lesbian Inclinations? In the end of Kerman’s memoir, she sees herself as a “seasoned inmate” when she encounters a newbie – and there’s something powerful in claiming that definition for yourself. Thus Kerman becomes the narrator who was never the hero of her own narrative; instead, she constructs something of a prison Bildungsroman as Evgenia Ginzburg did before her in Into the Whirlwind yet her transformation transcends the religious master plot of the latter: Piper goes from newbie to experienced prisoner.

4. The narrative must include categories of characters defined as “others” with whom the narrator does not engage, to whom he cannot relate, and whom he does not provide with a complex or dynamic representation: a person of another nationality, ethnicity and/or gender must be presented to the reader as the Other.

I have written about how Solzhenitsyn portrays women elsewhere on this blog; but when it comes to also other kinds of difference he is not an easy author to swallow. Yet the “Other” in Solzhenitsyn’s narratives does not have to be a person of another nationality, ethnicity, or even gender – it is enough for the person to be of another generation (he dislikes old people) or of a different political orientation (he dislikes basically everyone but communists most of all) for Solzhenitsyn to find it difficult to relate to him (it is never a “her” because being a woman excludes one from even being represented on such a detailed level in the narrative). Shalamov cannot engage with criminal convicts; he cannot relate to their experience or their situation and as a defense he makes them his Other par excellence. Shalamov is a bit better with representing women than Solzhenitsyn – unless they are female criminal convicts which makes them really the lowest of human beings – but I suspect that is because he only includes them in his narratives on the off chance that he encountered any in his all-male prisons/camps. Even though Soviet prisons/camps housed prisoners from different ethnicities and nationalities who spoke different languages and had different experiences than the Russians, Russian prison literature is almost only written by white, middle-class, educated men. Sometimes this kind of man is also Jewish, but that is rare; their main religion, whether practiced or not, is Orthodox Christianity. Although this hero makes up the majority of narrators in prison literature, it does not mean that his experience is anything but marginal in the large scope of things. The fact is that the majority of prisoners in Russian camps were NOT white, middle-class, educated men. We tend to forget this when we read Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov and perceive their stories as general representations of how things were. That is not the case; rather, they are both privileged individuals trying to make their elitist point of view pass as the story of “our common pain and our shared shame.” Since she is not a man, Kerman is already an Other to herself; and instead of making her marginal perspective stand for the collective’s experience, she includes other convicts whose ethnicity and nationality become irrelevant as she opts for telling stories and representing not other Others but persons.

5. The narrator must be either innocent or caught in an unjust socioeconomic or corrupt ideological system.

None of these three authors – Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Kerman – killed anyone. They were not murders. They did not rob banks. They did not kidnap children. Their criminal actions were only criminal to the extent that they were considered as such by the state in which they lived. Obviously many innocent people were incarcerated, even executed, in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn wrote about his personal opinions in letters to a friend; not really a “crime,” right? Shalamov was part of the political opposition and distributed forbidden pamphlets; now isn’t that kind of a “crime”? Of course in retrospect we consider this opposition to be the “good guys” and the pamphlet in question to contain the “truth,” but should we assume that everything was as clear-cut at the time? We can excuse Shalamov’s actions because historically he was justified, but does that mean that we should overlook the fact that he consciously committed a crime? An uncomfortable truth to swallow when dealing with such a hero, I know. And is Kerman’s “crime” – carrying a bag of drug money across the Atlantic – really so bad that it warrants her spending fifteen months in prison? Even though her punishment exceeds her crime, Kerman owns her past and owns her own definition of herself as not innocent. She points to the “war on drugs” as her narrative’s equivalent of an “unjust socioeconomic system” but she still sees herself as an individual who acted freely within that system. The system may be bad, but Kerman is not blameless.

6. The narrator must avoid the ethical concept of guilt in relation to his own “crime” or acts.

Already Dostoevsky noted that the convicts in Omsk of the mid-nineteenth-century did not display any guilt about their crimes. Prison literature is not about repentance – at least not repentance in any legal sense of the word. The only repentance that can take place in prison literature is religious or spiritual. And that kind of guilt is existential, and seldom tied to a misdemeanor.

In conclusion I would like to say that when I first suggested to my husband that we start watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix, he was not excited about the prospect of watching only women and their stories. After a few episodes he was the one who begged for another episode – until we ended up watching three one-hour episodes per evening. It was tough but it was worth it.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

the long way back

From 15 weeks to 25 weeks – something tells me I will not be able to wear this top when I’m 35 weeks… without showing some skin that is!

This pregnancy thing, comrades, is really something. With fifteen weeks left to go – our first is scheduled to be a middle-of-November baby but I’m open to having our meet-and-greet both in late October and early December – I have come to many realizations about my current situation and made several decisions about our future life. Approximately a week ago I found out that “maternity leave” is not only considered bad word in American English, but it is also viewed as an unheard of privilege by my academic institution. Maybe I was naïve, but I had somehow always imagined that when the time came for me to start a family, I would work for a supportive employer. Now that time is here and there’s no support to be found. And then it suddenly hit me: I don’t have to be here. I don’t have to take this. This doesn’t have to be my job or my life or even my reality. Huh. That was a big – huge – revelation for me, even though I understand if other people come to see it as a rather obvious conclusion. When I decided that I would take four months of maternity leave [the maximum that I’m entitled to] from November to March, I was immediately scared of what was going to happen next; I have always know that my department is not a nice or friendly place to work in and that threats, both personal and professional, has been handed left and right to those who’ve made smaller mistakes than the “mistake” I’m about to make. I told my mother that I was scared I’d be bullied and ostracized if I went through with my right as a new mother according to our union contract, to which she said something very smart and very true: “Knowing how this department has maltreated you in the past, is there even any way they can treat you worse?” The answer to that question is no. The only way they could treat me worse is if they’d throw eggs at my person or my house, or threaten my unborn child, but lucky for me I’m not the same as I was before and from now on I’m not going to take any shit from anyone. I used to think my mom was a badass for thinking and acting like that, but now that I’ve seen myself develop into a strikingly similar badass I’m assuming that’s the kind of raw attitude that comes with a mother’s territory. I’ve already been marked as a “bad girl” [to use conventional phraseology, not strict terminology] and treated accordingly for years, well, four years to be exact, and before the fifth year begins I’m ready to draw a firm line. I’m ready to say that enough is enough and this time I mean it. I wish I could use a cliché like it’s been great but I’m out. The truth is that I can’t even say that; what I might say it’s been awful and I’m done.

If anybody asks that is what I will tell them again and again: I’m done.

Of course this decision – no matter how rough and cool I attempt to sound about it – is fraught with all kinds of anxieties and tensions. Am I a failure because I left one of the top ten universities in the world without finishing? Maybe I will finish. Maybe I won’t. Is that anybody’s definition of an “epic fail”? I was working on a proposal for my dissertation a couple of weeks during this summer, right up until the faithful day when I decided to start planning my maternity leave and the shit literally hit the fan. Is it really my fault that I don’t feel motivated to keep working on it at the moment? For other, unrelated reasons [or are they?] I don’t feel like a dissertation on Shalamov is what I should be writing right now. Don’t get me wrong – I still love Shalamov. But I’m facing another challenge right now, and that challenge is to find a place where I can feel joy and purpose and satisfaction again. For several years I thought that I was stuck at Berkeley because other people told me to “follow through,” to remain “ambitious,” to not give up on such a “great opportunity.” I was told that the prestige of a Berkeley PhD diploma would make it all “worth it.” Well, other people may tell you lots of things out of the kindness of their hearts – and the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions – but nobody else can live your life for you or make your decisions for you. At the end of every day you have to make your own decisions and live with the consequences on your own. When I began to realize that I did not have to be here, that nobody was forcing me to stay in a program and a department which had stolen my joy and made me an unhappy, paranoid person, I also began to understand that I would not be considered any less of a person if I became the girl who left UC Berkeley. My worth as a person is not tied to my academic degree; I used to think that my worth as a scholar was tied to the prestige of my university but in reality those are two wholly unrelated things. It was all such a sudden realization but I know now that I won’t have spent ten years of my life “in vain” if I decide not to become a professor of Russian literature. What would I consider a loss, a true and real loss? If I were to let a job, a place, a set of people steal my joy while I sit back and let them. When I first came to this department I thought it strange that so many of my colleagues often looked like they were on the verge of tears; over the years I transformed into one of them. And for a few years I accepted this nervous, close-to-mental-breakdown state of mind as the new normal. But this is not my story – and this is certainly not the way I view the world. Some might convince me to “stick it out” because this is academia or because this is the way of the world, but I’ve been a student and a teacher at other universities in other countries and I can tell you there is definitely nothing “normal” about what’s going on in my current place of work. The day you start to accept other people’s stories as your own is the day you know it is time to get out.

Even though I made this decision, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to get on a plane tomorrow and head for another adventure straight away. If I expect my department to honor my union contract, then it wouldn’t make much sense if I were to not honor my contract with them, right? So I will remain here for my fifth year and teach the classes I promised to teach. I’ll give birth to my son in Berkeley and he will be an American citizen before he becomes a citizen of Sweden. But I am certain that this is my last year in California – maybe it will also be my last year as a Slavicist. After the end of the upcoming academic year we’re moving to Sweden. For me it means a home coming of sorts; for my husband it means living in an unknown country and facing new challenges and opportunities. For my son it will mean having his mother at home for the first year of his life. The last is our main motivation. Probably it is something Americans will never understand. But I’m not American and I don’t have to follow the rules of this country. I have been blessed with the best native country in the world, and that’s where I want to raise my family. I’m thinking about maybe applying to a doctorate program in Sweden, and maybe finishing my dissertation on Shalamov there eventually. I’m also thinking about doing something else with my professional life; what I would like to find now is a place which is normal and where I can find joy again. Perhaps it sounds a little crazy and weird and different to be twenty-nine years old and not know what do to or where to live or who to become?

I think I’d prefer it to not only sound but also be crazy and weird and different. For real, comrades.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Maternity Leave for Graduate Students [?]

There is no paid or unpaid maternity leave in the USA.

Everybody knows that. But knowing this sad fact about American life does not help pregnant ladies with making decisions about how to care for their nascent newborn. Even if the country in which you live does not provide maternity leave [and the US is one of two countries in the world that do not] and even if you’re about to become a first-time mother, you probably intuitively understand that you cannot leave an infant home alone while you go back to work the day after delivery. Whether your nation/employer likes it or not, you’re going to have to figure out a game plan for those first months of your child’s life – more often than not, this game plan includes taking time off work. I recently went through this process myself, that is, I approached my employer about various options for maternity leave. The reaction I received prompted me to write this post. Even though my individual situation with my employer has yet to be solved [there has been two days of silence from my department since I communicated my plans], I suspect it might be helpful for other graduate students who get “knocked up” to read about the different obstacles they might face when they decide to apply for maternity leave.

This post is thus motivated by 1) the intent to help others; and 2) feminist rage.

If you think maternity leave has nothing to do with feminism and/or equality, you can save yourself some time and stop reading here. If you feel like yes I knew the right to maternity leave was a feminist issue ever since the first time my period was late and I totally freaked out [turned out to be a false alarm but you get the general idea] then I encourage you to continue.

If you are a pregnant graduate student and want to take a leave for any amount of time from your employment, there are a few things you should know before you communicate with your employer/department:

If you are employed, even as a graduate instructor, your employer/department is required to give you information about the kind of leave due to pregnancy and/or birth you are eligible for. I did not know this, and I took my department’s reply that they “know nothing about leaves for graduate student instructors” at a face value. Don’t be me – don’t let them fool you. If your state has laws for temporary disability leave or even family leave, as my state [California] does – which here is 12 weeks of unpaid leave – this leave applies to you because even as a graduate instructor you are an employee, your department/university is required to provide you with this information upon your request. I spent approximately a month trying to find the necessary information about pregnancy-related leave on UC Berkeley’s website and the only information I found which clearly stated it concerned graduate students lead to the Academic Student Employee Union’s current contract. The caveat? My union was still in negotiations with the UC system at the time and the complete new contract was not uploaded until later the same day as I had my meeting about maternity leave with my department earlier this week. If you have a union contract, know it and show it [see below]. If you do not have a union contract, you would still be eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave in California and some other states. Your specific university may have an even nicer policy for graduate students who are new parents [some offer an entire semester off – unpaid, of course, because if this country were to pay its new mothers a percentage of their paycheck for a few months, how would it be able to afford such enormous military expenses? priorities, people, priorities…].

According to my union contract, I am entitled to four months of maternity leave. UC Berkeley has a specific maternity fund which reimburses a replacement for me in any course I teach for six weeks, which means that the first six weeks of those four months are paid for me without any financial damage to my department and/or other funding. The rest is unpaid, so I need to make sure I can financially survive without a paycheck for two and a half months. When I return from my maternity leave, I am entitled to my previous work position according to my current appointment letter [lucky for me I already signed my new appointment letter for the upcoming academic year] or, if that for some reason is not possible, entitled to the same financial support as my salary would have given me. Basically, you cannot be punished for taking maternity leave – either financially or academically – and your department/university cannot punish you in any way for your pregnancy- and birth-related absence as long as you inform them at least 30 days in advance about your plans.

I did not know any of this when I discussed my maternity leave plans earlier this week with my department. If I had known this, I would probably have been less likely to be convinced that my plans for maternity leave would inconvenience them. I don’t know if this is an example of American mentality or proof of the peer pressure in academia, but it is a strange idea to me that I should decide to have or not have children – alternatively, to take care of them myself or to place them in day care – due to the needs or demands or requirements of my department. I realize that many women in academia from the generations before me did not have my perspective on this choice but faced risking their careers if they had children. But this is 2014 and there are plenty of laws which protect us from this kind of discrimination these days. Because of my November due date, my intended leave would stretch from early November to early March, thus making it necessary to replace me as the teacher in two courses: for the end of the fall semester and the beginning of the spring semester. I was told that this decision of mine would make it difficult for my department, since it would be their job to find a replacement, and at the time I had no reply to this argument. I wish I had said this paraphrase of what my mother later told me: “I have full confidence that one of the top universities in the world and one of the oldest Slavic Departments in the country can accommodate a maternity leave request from one student.” My department suggested that I take the entirety of the spring semester off so as not to inconvenience them by forcing them to hire a replacement teacher for the first half of the semester – tentatively without pay during the whole semester because I declared that I could survive financially for two and a half months of unpaid maternity leave. This is not okay. Your employer cannot force you take a leave for pregnancy or childbirth which you have not requested – this means, among other things, that you cannot be told to stop working because pregnancy makes you pee once every 30 minutes [I suspect I’ll come to learn that this struggle is real when I start teaching 50-minute classes again at seven months pregnant in August]. This includes forcing you to extend your leave beyond what you have applied for.

In my case I have decided that I will file an official complaint if my department denies me the right to return to work or withdraws my financial support. Since I’ve heard a fair share about how it is no good to be a whistle blower or to report discrimination [I’ve been encouraged to overlook discrimination on several occasions by faculty, staff, and graduate students – I don’t know what they're afraid of, but something is seriously scary and I’m sorry I cannot see it], here’s another fact which I came across during my maternity leave research today: you cannot be punished for filing an official complaint, about discrimination or otherwise, neither by current nor by future employers. Even if you are found to be in the wrong. So what is there to be afraid of? I don’t understand the harsh atmosphere of fear that reigns in my miniscule department – and I will most definitely not let the petty drama in it influence the way I decide to take care of my family or raise my children. Could it be that my maternity leave would cost the department too much? First of all, as a graduate student instructor in the UC system I make double minimum wage – ain’t no educational institution gonna go broke by paying me or anyone else that. That’s a fact. Secondly, the first six weeks of paid leave are paid by the university – not my department. Any other argument they might have is by default void since I can easily access the salary of the dean of UC Berkeley online… I know it will never happen in this country, but if our superiors received normal salaries there would be no problem with providing graduate students with paid maternity leave and hire replacement teachers for them. I’m just saying. I’m not naïve and I’m not stupid – after all, I did get into one of the top ten universities in the world – and if anyone tells me I’ll cost too much I think the only imaginable reply is laughter.

To summarize:

1) Don’t take no shit from no one – including, but not limited to, letting your employer convince you to change your parenting plans because of how it would make it “difficult” for them. If your employer is confused about how to hire temporary workers, tell them to google maternity leave in Canada.

2) Know your union contract. Read it, print it out, and bring it with you to meetings. Include links to the necessary sections in correspondence with your employer.

3) When in doubt, don’t be afraid to contact your union. I wrote to my union because I feel like the treatment by the department was a little bit iffy [not to mention that it made me feel uncomfortable and I wish I had recorded the oral conversation because a lot of things were said that the law prevents me from needing to hear but I don’t want to linger on that in such a public post because I suspect it has to do with individual ignorance and personal harassment of me as opposed to an institutional practice which affects all graduate students at UC Berkeley]. I’m waiting for the response.

4) Know that Title IX applies to you as a pregnant and parenting student. It cannot help you with graduate student employment and your right to not be punished for wanting maternity leave, but this proposed bill will.

5) Don’t be afraid. Even if you got lots to lose, tell yourself I have nothing to lose. Words have power. Words create reality.


6) If you need to fight for your right – through official complaints or formal grievance procedures – know that as a woman you do everything to improve the lives of the generation of ambitious women coming after you. You owe it to yourself, your child, and those young girls you hope to inspire as a kickass professor to be fierce and call bullshit by its proper name. There is indeed a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. Believe me, I’m a very religious person – you don’t want to go there.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Diakonissa Diaries

Now the silence on my blog has lasted for almost four months – the reason is certainly that after my last post [dated March 7 2014], a piece of news changed life as I have come to know it forever…

On March 8 my husband gave me flowers because it was International Women’s Day and, in my strictly personal opinion, the only holiday worth celebrating [no offense, church holidays]. The same day we interpreted positively two red lines, the conventional symbol for being pregnant in our postmodern society – and suddenly we were having a baby!

About a month later, my husband was ordained a deacon in the Orthodox Church [hence the title of this post because his ordination simultaneously made me diakonissa] in San Jose on Palm Sunday. This is what the altar looked like before the service.

During this spring I couldn’t find the time and energy to blog for two totally legit reasons: 1) I was suffering from all-day “morning” sickness and the worst fatigue I’ve experienced in my life during the first trimester [I also concluded that there’s a reason why few literary masterpieces get written while the author is pregnant – between nap time and nausea time it’s difficult to make a stop by the desk]; and 2) I spent every hour of mental clarity my body provided me by preparing for my PhD qualifying exams at the end of the spring semester. I was lucky to have this lovely pig to keep me company as I spent hours and hours reading through concentration camp narratives which can be scary without such a cute little pig to lighten the mood [obviously we bought the pig for our nascent offspring so consider this simply a “test run”].

During this spring I continued to teach Russian – albeit with a strict “no sudden motions” policy due to severe nausea which I suspect my students may have interpreted as poorly disguised contempt [it’s all in a day’s work, comrades] – and was shown such appreciation at the end of the semester of which this is only an example: flowers and chocolate from a beloved student [unfortunately chocolate was and still is one of my big food aversions during this pregnancy so I still haven’t finished this treat…].

On May 29 – by the grace of my committee, the date selected for my qualifying exams was moved till after my first trimester – I finally advanced to candidacy, as the academic jargon calls it, and it is now finally time for “Destination Dissertation” [that’s also the title of this handbook which is ironic, right?].

 On the evening of the same day I and my husband did something else “finally”: embarked on our honeymoon! We spent a week in Puerto Rico; this is me in San Juan when I was seventeen weeks pregnant and thought I was already “huge.” Haha. Oh the naivety. A month later and I’m still far from “huge”…

When people say that “everything changes once you become a parent,” they usually forget to mention the transformative power of pregnancy. Becoming pregnant – as in watching one’s body slowly prepare for motherhood – also changes everything. It might be a cliché, but I must confess that now, about midway through this process, I have found an entirely different kind of inner peace. Once I accepted that pregnancy was going to be physically rough on me [say farewell to the convenient shape you’ve worked hard at for decades and any kind of control over certain bodily functions] and that it was going to install new limitations in my previously so independent life [falling asleep for two hours every afternoon and having to pee every 30-40 minutes restricts how much a “day’s work” turns out to really be], it was as if I had become a new person. Things that used to bother me and would make me upset simply do not even enter into my mind anymore. For example, I was afraid of my qualifying exams for years but when the last semester came and I found myself physically unable to put in the expected amount of work in order to pass I, instead of having a panic or anxiety attack, reacted by saying “alright then” and taking a nap. My academic attitude changed from “being ambitious” to “being enough.” This spring was – supposedly – a critical moment in my time as a graduate student and instead of giving it my “all,” I gave it a part. And I passed. I passed without putting the new life I’m growing inside of me at risk. A fetus can respond negatively to stress, which is why I have completely eliminated stress from my life. Maybe here we have the reason as to why so few women in academia, at least in the United States, decide to not have children? Because creating life puts everything, including the taking-professional-things-personally shit you have to put up with by your colleagues at an American university, in a much-needed perspective? Maybe we’re afraid that if we encountered an experience of life and death [which is what the first trimester of pregnancy is all about: making sure the tiny person inside of you has the ultimate chance at survival], then we wouldn’t give a damn about these nonsensical arguments and negative relationships? This should not be read as me declaring a permanent leave from academia; no, I’m certainly here to stay. But as I face starting a doctoral dissertation with a due date in November, I have realized that neither can I do everything nor do I want to do everything – at once. Of course I still want to write a dissertation and finish my PhD program and get a job teaching at a university, but I don’t want to sacrifice as much as a single “bad day” [be it missing a milestone in my child’s life or being late for a date night with my husband] in my family for it. It’s not worth it. Nothing really is.

Maybe my blog silence was also due to the fact that I struggled with how to write a personal blog while sharing my personal life with another person [soon the two of us will become three and that will indeed make the process even more complex]. Marriage suddenly transforms “my” personal life into our personal life; things that used to come in two separate pieces now come together. My struggle for the public inscription of private experience – which I believe blogging still can be – became increasingly difficult after my husband was ordained a deacon and I found myself a diakonissa in the Orthodox Church. Some people [and these are people I both know and read] manage to include their partners and even children in their blogs, which I respect although I know that a similar solution is not possible in my case. I appreciate that my parents did not publish a single word or picture of me as a child online; I would like to grant my children the same possibility to be in full control of themselves and their image on the internet. Therefore you will never see pictures of our baby on this blog; I just don’t think that’s fair. My husband doesn’t have a blog, and he wouldn’t have an internet presence if it wasn’t for me and how I include him in pictures posted through Instagram, for example. He doesn’t want to be an explicit part of my blog either. I know this paragraph presents an oxymoron right now – why write about not writing about someone?! All I wish to convey is that serving the Orthodox Church, be it as deacon and diakonissa now or as priest and presbytera later, makes us public servants and I have been given the advice during this spring by other members of the clergy to reconsider blogging. Although I believe in taking sound advice from others, especially if they have life experience which you as of yet have not acquired, I feel that I want to be cautious of letting the story of someone else become my story. Those who warn against my blogging do not own blogs of their own. That’s a warning sign. Those who warn against my blogging read my blog in secrecy and do not approach me about it in person. That’s another warning sign. I believe in honesty and in being open – at least about things that aren’t intimate in nature – which is why I have decided that the advice I have received so far about “being a diakonissa online” does not apply to me but rather to these persons and their opinion about themselves and the world they live in. I consider the world I live in much different, and I have never been afraid of having – and writing – my own story. I’ve had this blog since 2006 [don’t let the limitations of the “saved posts” fool you, dear reader] and during these eight years it has allowed me to engage in several important and productive dialogues, both through public posts and private mails, which I would not have undone for anything. Even though I liked the four years when I blogged in Russia more than I’ve enjoyed these four years of blogging in the US, but that is mainly because Russians never made any secret of reading my blog and also never cared about anything that I wrote as opposed to also those sneaky people in my surroundings here who read my blog but won’t tell me in person. I wish I could care more about them and their opinions, but I find myself unable to care. Maybe the reason is once again pregnancy. Maybe I just had to take some time to figure things out – and a possible outcome was always that I’d arrive at the opposite conclusion, which I did. I don’t mind because I have been blessed with the best marriage I could ever ask or even pray for and I’ve been blessed with a healthy baby inside of me who keeps growing perfectly without any effort on my part…

That last thing is not entirely true [but what is truth anyway, my homeboy Pilate?]: I don’t think I’ve ever lived as healthy a lifestyle as I have during this pregnancy. I smoked my last cigarette on March 8, the same day I found out [although life as a non-smoker is terrible and I’m constantly seeing “perfect smoking moments” in everyday life as well as in movies, books, and TV-shows… I guess I just love smoking and I’ll never get over this kind of love], and I’ve been trying to eat as much fruits and vegetables and as little junk as possible while also getting some amount of exercise on a weekly basis. I tell myself every day that I need to exercise – by going for a swim or a walk – on a daily basis but the real has yet to live up to the ideal.

I guess that’s just the way things work around here on planet Earth.

Friday, March 07, 2014

something old, something new…

Something old: a gold bracelet from my maternal grandmother.

Something new: my wedding dress – view from behind…

Something borrowed: a cross from my lovely friend K. who came for my wedding and spent almost two weeks with us in California. The cross is from the first decade of the twentieth century and was given to K. on her ordination into priesthood.

I cannot show something blue – which might give you an idea of what it could have been – but I can show you this: my morning gift.

These beautiful earrings matched my dress and my ivory fur bolero perfectly.

 And after we were married, we danced – naturally…

January 25th 2014 was the biggest day so far in my life: I got married to the best man I’ve ever met and been blessed to know and to love. During the month before our wedding, his father was staying with us and the week before was a hectic reunion of family and friends flying in from Sweden: my best friend K. came on the Monday before, and on Wednesday my mother, brother, and sister also joined us in Berkeley. My maid of honor flew in from Philadelphia on Friday morning. It was a busy time since our tight budget meant we were doing a lot of work ourselves – buying alcohol, buying flowers, decorating the reception hall, etc. – during the days before the wedding. While planning our wedding, I often wondered if not enough people had been invited from the “old countries,” since there were many relatives near and dear to us on both sides of the family whom we didn’t invite, but in retrospect I must confess that a wedding party of about ten people were more than enough to handle. It was difficult enough to find all of them places to stay, to coordinate picking up and dropping off at various airports, to find transportation for everyone – our poor little old car almost died during all of this and will probably never fully recover – and, most importantly, to feed each and every one according to their dietary restrictions in our tiny kitchen. I think we had just the right amount of overseas guest for us and for our budget. And that’s all that matters in the end; that our wedding became as we had wanted it to be and that we didn’t collapse under all the stress in the process [although I confess that I was pretty stressed anyway]. I guess we made some of the difficult choices one must make when one decides to get married “abroad” – even though a San Francisco wedding to me feels so natural at this point since we’ve both lived here for so long. After everyone had gone back to the places that they are from, we relaxed. Did we go on a honeymoon? No. With my qualifying exams only a few months away – starting on April 22nd – and his dissertation, we opted for short weekend getaways. We went on a short weekend trip together with our spiritual father – who wedded us – to a Greek monastery four hours south of Berkeley the first weekend after our wedding. We also spent four days in Mendocino County where we watched wales and drank champagne and enjoyed ourselves. Since then life has been busy: I’m preparing for my quals, he is writing his dissertation, and we’re thinking about what our next steps in our life together as husband and wife might be. All we know thus far for sure is that his ordination into priesthood is coming up during this Holy Lent – in the beginning of April. This means that before I get my doctoral degree – and will begin to force everyone to call me doctor – I’ll have been not only Mrs. but also matushka for some time. Everything is a blessing, one wonderfully great blessing.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

a lonely angel

A roadside memorial site in Napa Valley. January 2014.

During the first week of the new year I went for a walk in Napa Valley. It was my second time there; the first time was on my 23rd birthday. I came across a roadside memorial site with a lonely angel and I sat down on the bench for the while to join the angel in his waiting. When I looked at my pictures of the memorial site I noticed what was located across the road: an empty house. I remember walking past the abandoned property – windows shut and the grass withered and yellow after months without rain – but in the moment I didn’t make the connection between the deserted building and the memorial site. I’ve always been fascinated by roadside memorial sites – sudden crosses with plastic flowers and sometimes the occasional photograph with perhaps birth and death dates on roads I’ve traveled in Greece, Russia, the United States [for some reason these are the countries that come to my mind when I think back at what I’ve seen] – and the tragic stories they will never be able to tell a random passersby. We who only travel the road but once in our life will never come to know how a life once ended on the spot we just passed. When I looked at my own pictures of the memorial site and saw the empty house across the road – as if for the first time – I couldn’t help but to create my own narrative of what might have happened there in Napa Valley once upon a time. In my mind the two became connected: the empty house and the lonely angel. Someone who lived in the house died there, right across the road. After the death those who lived on could no longer do so in the same house with a view onto the space where disaster struck. Maybe it was a child who died there. For some reason the little angel sitting on the ground looking out at the road as if anticipation – someone would surely come back soon – reminded me of the death of a child. I have never experienced the death of a child; no one I know has had that experience and has thus not been able to share it with me. I imagine it might have been a rainy night when it happened. Perhaps it doesn’t rain too often in Napa Valley and perhaps most people who live there are happy and live perfectly normal lives. But on this rainy night everything changed for the family that lived there; a family which was unhappy in its own special way. The family had only one child and so there were only three of them living there: the father, the mother, and their young son. The father was an alcoholic. The mother suffered from depression. The son was about eight years old. On that rainy night the son took the whiskey bottle from his father’s hand and smashed it against the wall and ran out with the broken glass out into the street. The father was upset and so was the mother. They screamed at the boy to come back into the house but he refused. What none of them knew was that a neighbor had just started his truck on his way to see his mistress in Napa City and that he had forgotten to turn on his headlights. The street was dark and the neighbor was driving fast as the highway was not too far away and he was in a hurry to get away from his own unbearable family situation. The boy never heard the truck coming; his parents screamed too loudly and he was too upset to perceive anything else around him. The truck hit him and tried to steer away from the road and ended up right next to the tree where the memorial site is today. They found the lifeless body of the boy on the spot where they would place the lonely angel a week later. He was still holding the lower half of the broken whiskey bottle in his right hand. The parents told themselves that they could remain in the house, that they would piece their life together again, that they would have more children… A month later they divorced and the house was put up for sale. It hasn’t been sold to this day. Maybe because people know. Or maybe because people are uncomfortable with buying a home across the street from a lonely angel who still waits for the little boy to come back. As random passersbys on this road we will never know, will we?

Monday, January 06, 2014

2014 is not 2000

On the way to the evening service in church on Christmas Eve – which for us Orthodox is on January 6 – I thought about the year 2000 and what I imagined my life would be like when the first year of the new millennium arrived. During the first seconds of 2000 I was fourteen years old. I was standing in the center of Gothenburg together with my family: my mother, my father, my brother, and my sister. Fourteen years later I met 2014 in Berkeley together with my fiancé and future father in law. What would I say to the fourteen year old me if we were to meet now? At first I was a little bit afraid at the thought of meeting this teenage version of myself and to face her scrutinizing view on my current life at twice the age. I thought the younger me would be disappointed with the older me and all the things I still haven’t accomplished even though we supposedly had constructed a solid plan for the future already at the age of fourteen. I was afraid that the younger me would take one look at my adult life and roll her eyes and say: “This is it?” This is all you have achieved during fourteen years, and nothing more? I was supposed to get serious about things early in life and I was supposed to have published several books at this point – or at least one. The fourteen year old me would not be pleased with any kind of excuse in defense of my lack of literary progress because already at that point I considered myself having respectable experience in the art of writing. Now that I’m finally putting together my first collection of short stories I’m doing it for her – not for anyone else, not for recognition from people I don’t know or people I don’t like, not for money [when I was fourteen I thought literature could make one rich but I know better now], and certainly not for fame. I’m writing now to finally try and please a teenage girl who is impossibly difficult to please. Did the fourteen year old me imagine any of all the things I succeeded in accomplishing during these fourteen years? I don’t think so because at the time I didn’t know this was even a possibility – to study Russian literature at one of the best universities in the world and to teach a foreign language in a foreign country. Hopefully this would impress her, if just a little bit. The funny thing is that I haven’t changed physically very much since I was fourteen, and thus I suspect that from behind and if wearing the same clothes we would look exactly alike. Maybe that can be considered an achievement? Most likely I imagined it would be when I was fourteen, that I kept my physique and did not degrade in that department [at least not yet but let’s reconnect when I’m forty-two, when another fourteen years have passed and see if that’s still the case]. I remember I had trouble with my eyebrows when I was fourteen since I had not yet mastered tweezers – my current eyebrows are perhaps the best feature of my face and that would be a positive thing to put on display. Also I was confused about my hair at the time. Now at least I know how to take care of my hair and I think I’ve found a way that works with my face – take that teenage girl with awkward bangs and discolored, frail, and weird hair! I hope she will be pleased with that aspect of what the future has in store for her. And, by the way, the future has so many blessings in store for her that she doesn’t even know how to imagine them – the people she’ll meet, the places she’ll go, the cities in which she’ll live, the knowledge she’ll gain, and the challenges she’ll overcome with brilliant composure and excellent mindset! I would not tell the fourteen year old me that she will have to face her father’s death when she’s twenty-seven. Not unless she asks: “How are my parents?” That’s a piece of the future she does not need to know. But I would tell her that she is going to Russia in just five years and that she’ll become a woman in Siberia and in the Ural Mountains. I think she’d like to hear about that. And that one day she’ll be tempted to move to the United States, to take a chance on graduate school in a much different world, and I’d encourage her to go. To move once again. She won’t regret it, even though it will not always be as sunny as she the California she’ll meet for the first time at the age of sixteen. But she should go if not because it will bring her to more places and more people – and I haven’t even met them all yet! – then because she’ll meet her husband there. Here. Probably the fourteen year old me will be disappointed that I did not meet him sooner than at the age of twenty-six. But some things – and certainly some people – are worth waiting for, are worth going far for, and are worth sacrificing your beloved comfort for. All in all I think she’ll be happy if we meet and I get to tell her all of these exciting things. Her world will not always be high school in Gothenburg where the classes are boring and the teachers are boring and classmates can be so mean and she never gets invited to all the cool parties she’d not go to anyway. And I’d show her some pictures of when she was especially beautiful even though she didn’t even realize it at the time and tell her that when she’s in her twenties she should cherish herself and make others respect her as well. You’re about to embark on a journey into a wonderful millennium – you won’t always make the right choices, you’ll make some mistakes, but you’ll always be fine in the end – and in it the greatest adventure is going to be you getting to know yourself. Enjoy life. That’s what its for!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Can a woman be in exile?

The Pacific Ocean outside San Francisco in December 2013.

The title of this blog entry is a question, “Can a woman be in exile?”, and should be accompanied by a subheading: A third of my life lived abroad. In December 2013 I am 28 and a half years old. I moved abroad in August 2004, to Russia, when I was nineteen. Half of nineteen is 9,5 years. In December 2013 I have lived abroad a third of my life – which is currently 9,5 years. I thought about this month of this year and what it signifies many times and many years before it came to be – before now became December 2013. What does it mean to live a third of life outside of the state which represents one’s native country? How does it affect us, how does it change us, and what can we take away from it? The experience of the expatriate is by no means uncommon in today’s globalized society, and yet few, perhaps only the minority, remain abroad for as long – and as interrupted – as I have. Unless you live in exile; unless you have been banished from your native society and your homeland. “Exile” is one of the components in primary texts for my major field in Russian literature – the other is “imprisonment.” Both exile and imprisonment stand in opposition to one and the same common concept: the concept of home, of being at home. Without a notion of home one cannot experience imprisonment as detachment and without a notion of homeland one cannot relate to exile as displacement. Reading my way through the primary texts on my list as well as through critical works [academic articles, chapters in scholarly books, etc.], I have found myself face to face with a problematic question: Can a woman be in exile? It seems at first an inconsequential question. Of course a woman may be banished from her native country in the same way as a man; also she can be ordered to leave and find herself lacking the possibility of return for political, social, religious, or ethnic reasons. In the physical meaning of “exile” the answer to my problematic question seems to be yes, why not? However, there are theoretical circumstances which complicate such a simple answer. While I was reading critical works about Ibsen’s plays – plays which problematize the institution of the bourgeois home and the position of the female within this institution – I came across a very interesting point of view: “Woman is place.” This point of view was supported by evidence of men’s spatial freedom and how men are not only allowed but even required to embrace movement in and out of the home, a movement only made possible and meaningful as long as there is a woman who embodies the place which the man can move either away from or back into. Ibsen’s family home which becomes the fragile stage for social ruptures and internal fragmentation occurring in contemporary society toward the late nineteenth century is the space of modernism from which familial constructions – or lack thereof – departs out into the twentieth century. If woman remains place she cannot be in exile for exile would then require that she was exiled from herself and this almost fantastical out-of-body experience is not one many can claim to have experienced first-hand. What the seemingly innocent statement “woman is place” reveals about the way we think about exile is first and foremost that the discourse on exile as it stands today is extremely gendered.

Woman is place. It would perhaps seem that I was now going to go ahead and disagree with this statement but I don’t think I can. It seems to me that this statement is close to correct, and that there is indeed something gendered about the experience of exile. We can of course talk about equality until our tongues grow numb and defend non-traditional lifestyles and non-traditional familial constructions until we realize that we are trying to paint everything that is seen as non-traditional into a very traditional corner. I would like to say something else. When it comes to exile there are differences between men and women and I think they are partly socially constructed and partially physiologically determined. Woman is literally place as the vessel for future generations through childbirth. Men lack this opportunity to harbor their offspring and in addition a man can never be sure whether or not his children are truly his. In this way the man is cut off from genealogy, and genealogy is another way to sense one’s belonging in a line of heritage which in itself is a kind of place. Or at least a kind of trace which points in the direction of the coveted home. The only way for a man to experience this kind of belonging is through the woman, who thus becomes his place. I read a very interesting article about Sinyavsky’s camp narrative A Voice from the Chorus which discusses the narrator’s exile from three perspectives: 1) exile from the woman (“woman” is here synonymous with “home and family”); 2) exile from the Word (literature in the broad sense but in a more narrow sense it means sacred texts and their implementations in human life through religious rituals); and 3) exile from the Face of God. Through his letters home – sent to his wife who embodies this home – Sinyavsky’s narrator tries to overcome his exile from the Word and from the Face of God through the practice of kenosis, “emptying of oneself for God.” What is most interesting about this argument is that the woman, the wife and the mother of his child, is never seen as anything but a static concept. She lacks dynamism. She does not change. She remains in her place to receive his attempts at coming closer to the Word and to the Face of God, thus signifying a harbor or maybe a safe haven where time does not interfere. Through this view woman has only one dimension – space – but lacks a temporal quality. One could leave this argument as it is and not think about it anymore, but I think it opens up for several crucial questions, for example: What notion of woman is here implied, even necessary, to make the claim for the male narrator’s experience of exile? His biggest exile is from the woman. Could we, in a similar manner, claim a woman’s biggest exile to be from the man? This questions makes everything complicated because there are very few examples of this – this being a narrative by a woman in exile – through which we may be able to illustrate a parallel phenomenon.

Woman is place. I have only three primary texts which I can use to explore a possible answer to my own questions: Evgenia Ginzburg, Nina Gagen-Torn, and Nadezhda Mandel’shtam. Nadezhda Mandel’shtam wrote her work Hope against Hope about exile, alas, this exile was not hers but her husband’s – Osip Mandel’shtam. We can thus not use her narrative further here because neither she nor her husband experienced exile from each other [at least not in the segment of her life which is narrated; they were later separated but this may more rightly be seen as a narrative by the wife of a prisoner and not specifically as a narrative of exile]. When we approach Ginzburg and Gagen-torn we get the chance to observe a striking similarity between the two: they exclude their husbands from the narrative. They are not even reduced to shadows in the background; they are almost completely erased from the life story as it stands. Gagen-Torn includes an awkward scene of a romantic moment between her and her husband in the beginning but leaves this sentimental trope and does not return to it, not even to comment upon whether or not they got divorced or what happened to him. He is absent. She is not exiled from him; hers is an exile of her own. Ginzburg mentions a family home in Kazan and the reader can guess that she had at least two previous husbands – because her two sons have different last names and none of them are Ginzburg – but the husband vanishes only to return in a footnote toward the end when she has found a new man to love [I think the footnote in questions reveals their divorce but I’m not sure]. Neither Ginzburg, we may thus conclude, experienced her exile as an exile from her husband. Rather they were both exiled from the Word and from the Face of God. Or were they? Here once again it is necessary to remind ourselves of the opposite to exile – being at home. Gagen-Torn is visited by her daughters while in the camp and it appears as if they come to her because she as their mother signifies a home. Upon her release from the camp Ginzburg is joined by one of her sons in Magadan and she later adopts a little girl to join her family. In this way Ginzburg seems to indicate that she is place, as is Gagen-Torn, because only where there is place can one raise children. I do not know of any male Gulag narratives in which the narrator adopts children or sends for their biological children to join them in exile after they were released from the camps. Maybe I don’t know everything – but then again nobody can know everything – but it seems to me that the facts described above hints at a fundamental difference between the male and the female experience of exile. Gagen-Torn also writes about how female prisoners would hang up curtains in the barracks and how they would decorate their new “home” with various fabrics. I have not yet read about any male prisoners doing something similar. When Ginzburg sees herself in the mirror for the first time after several years in prison – stopping on the way to the camps of Kolyma – she writes that she could only recognize her mother in her own image. I do not know of any male survivor writing that he saw himself after months of starvation and thought he looked like his father. Ginzburg’s comment gestures toward genealogy, toward the ability to perceive oneself not only as an individual but as a linkage between generations, as a trace through history. If you see yourself as containing a trace of history – as resembling your mother – in the mirror of a camp bathhouse on the way to several years of uncertain existence, can you really access “exile” as it is described by scholars of today? To me it seems that neither Gagen-Torn nor Ginzburg were exiled in the same way as their male counterparts – although exiled in the physical sense of the word – because they carried with them a sense of belonging to oneself and to one’s heritage which was contained within their bodies. Perhaps it all boils down to the normal physiological difference between men and women: men cannot bear children but women can. Can you be without place when you know that you can contain another human life within your body for nine months? Are you not then place in and of yourself? Would it be a bad thing if the discourse on exile is gendered and only covers the male experience? Probably not. But I think we should be aware of what we’re talking about before we get too deep into the discussion.

Woman is place. During my first year in California I had a curious conversation with a man who like me had spent his adult life outside of his native region. He still referred to the town where he had been born as “home.” He asked me what I thought about this for myself and my life. “Home is where I live,” I said, “which means that now home is here.” In every sense of the word this is not exactly true. I still regard Sweden as my home, but I have also made sure to make a home for myself wherever I have lived. Last week, when I was preparing the apartment for the arrival of my fiancé and his father, I made it a home. My fiancé has lived in the same apartment for several years before I came but I was the first to make it a home. A home is a place to where you can return. A home is not simply a space where you keep all of your things. A home is a place on the map on which you can put your fingertip and instantly know how to get there and who – including what – awaits you when you get there. I think that for my fiancé I have become his place. And I do not mind. I don’t think this is something we as women should fight. Maybe because we can be our own place just as much as we can be the place for someone else.


A third of my life I have lived abroad and not one single day did I live in exile. Not even in self-imposed exile. I carried everything with me. I was at home everywhere while I was a foreigner everywhere. Maybe because I’m a woman – maybe because that’s just me. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

“The Diplomat’s Wife”

She named the first part of her story The Diplomat’s Wife because it seemed to encompass the most without telling anything really. 

“The Diplomat’s Wife”

a programmatic novella in three parts by

L. J. Lundblad

December 2013

I.

Nobody remains young forever. She had been young for a long time before the first raw wrinkles appeared around her mouth. She observed herself in the restroom mirror – without lenses on the edges became softer and she could perhaps fool herself into thinking she was nineteen years old again. With lenses on the fluorescent lights were not so forgiving upon her aging skin. Her husband had already been in prison for one year when she was nineteen years old. This part of their past never made it into his résumé available for public view on the embassy website.  During the trial, the sentence, and the final release with an annulment of all initial charges two years passed as if seamlessly for him yet left the thread of her life fragile. During those two years the thread of her life almost came undone.

Her husband of ten years told her he was gay one evening in early December. It happened in the car on the way back from a formal banquet at the Greek embassy. With one sentence he finally unraveled the thread of her life. She wanted to reply: “I always knew.” She had not known. Had she suspected it? She could not even complain about the sex. The sex had been great from the very beginning up until that same morning.

“How long have you known that you’re gay?” she asked.

“You forget that I’m forty years older than you,” he said with a condescending smile from the driver’s seat. “I knew I was gay before you were even born.”

She never forgot that he had turned forty the same year she was born. But they never talked about it. She knew other people talked about it. She could hear their whispers begin as soon as she walked away after a polite handshake at another tedious function. She was the much younger wife of the much older diplomat. Or at least she had been her once upon a time.

“Why did you marry me then?”

He laughed a metallic laughter revealing his one shimmering gold tooth. “I didn’t know what else one is supposed to do with a fourteen year old little girl?”

He was speaking about half of her life as if there was simply nothing else that could have been done. He was speaking of their marriage as if she had painted him into a corner with her childish affection half a lifetime ago.

“One evening you stood at my door and told me you had come to stay,” he continued as the car drove into the garage. “You said the youngest wife of Mohammed was still playing with dolls when they got married. And then you brought your teddy bear into my bed. What could I have done differently, Nora?”

Nora got out of the car. The garage was dark. The head lights of the car went black.

“You could have said no.”

He looked at her from across the hood of the car. “You’re forgetting one slight but nevertheless significant detail.”

“What is that?” she asked before turning around and walking toward the door.

“I loved you.”

He followed her with hasty steps but he was not fast enough to make it to the door before she opened it. He would always hold the door for her – every door, every time. Not tonight. In silence they climbed up the stairs to the first floor of the house. She declined his gesture to help her off with her coat. He hung his black wool coat next to hers in the hallway. The house was dark save the many Christmas lights in all the windows facing a busy downtown street. None of them owned this lavish townhouse with three furnished floors and a private garage big enough to hold four cars. All they owned were the two cars in the garage. She thought for a second that it would make the division of possessions easier during an upcoming divorce – the fact that their home of five years was merely a privilege of his professional position and thus belonged to neither. She didn’t look at him before quickly walking away into the long dark corridor.

“Where are you going?” he shouted after her. “Nora, wait!”

“I need a drink,” she shouted back and disappeared into the kitchen.

He entered the room as she poured a glass of whiskey.

“Do you want one?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Now what?” she asked as she handed him his glass. “Is now the moment when you leave me, Arvid?”

Arvid hesitated and pushed back a strand of unruly grey hair from his forehead.

In the silence she sat down on a chair by the small kitchen table. They only ate their private meals here in this kitchen. They had a big dining room for holding dinner parties and a stylish salon for the entertainment of guests before the meal. They never drank whiskey in here.

“Now all I can think about is how you came to visit me in prison during those two years,” he said and sat down next to her. “You were always the youngest and the smallest of all the visitors who came to that prison in the provinces. And I liked that very much.”

Nora drank without proposing a toast. Now it seemed to her that it had not been she who had stood in that long line outside the gray concrete building waiting for hours to be let inside while the snow came falling down. Now it seemed to her that it must have been some other little girl who had dressed in beautiful and colorful dresses which he could not even see since the protective wall between the visitors and the prisoners reached her almost to her chin. She was not tall enough to show more than her face through the glass while they spoke via ragged cords of black telephones. It must have been another eighteen year old girl who waited for the bus afterwards in the dark on a deserted street on the outskirts of an unknown city. It couldn’t have been Nora because Nora was the wife of a diplomat and she had raw wrinkles around her mouth and corrective lenses in front of her blue eyes. That teenager was the wife of a convict and she didn’t know yet she would not remain young forever. That teenager might have taken every bus, every time, to wherever he might have been sent. And once there she would have stood in a never-ending line trying to keep warm by jumping from one foot to the other as she waited. The little girl with perfect eyesight hadn’t made any other plans for a life of her own.

“Nobody else came to visit me,” Arvid continued, “only you. And I remember thinking I was sad for you, that this was not what I wanted for you. I never wished for you to suffer. I thought that I should tell you to leave me and find some boy your own age. I didn’t think that a man whose hairs were grey before you even knew him was worth your precious time and your youthful suffering. And yet I wanted your youth.”

“And here you have it,” she said. “You took my youth, Arvid.”

He shook his head with a modest smile: “I regret it now.”

“Is there anything else you regret?”

“I regret not having children with you,” he answered and downed the last drops of his whiskey. “But to me you were almost like a child I never had. You were the daughter I never asked for, the daughter I never knew I would have liked to have one day.”

For the first time tonight Nora laughed. “A daughter you had sex with. I think that’s a bit perverse, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I’d like to think so.”

In the silence that followed Arvid reached for her hand and she let him take a hold of her. She began to cry. And he cried too. Together a wife and her husband cried in a rented townhouse on a late evening in early December.

“I always thought that you’d be a great mother one day,” he said and a tear glittered on the coarse skin of his unshaven cheek.

“I always thought that one day I’d live without you,” she whispered as she dried her own tears. “For some reason I imagined that when this day came I’d be your widow. I always wanted to be a beautiful young widow. But instead I’m going to be an old divorced woman.”

“Come on, Nora, you’re not so old,” he said as if trying to comfort her.

Nora laughed. “That’s easy for you to say. You’ve always been old.”

“And that is because when I wasn’t you were not yet of this earth.”

She had to agree that there was a certain truth to his sentimental statement tonight.

II.

The call came in the middle of the night following the day her thirtieth birthday. She could tell by the strange collection of multiple numbers on the screen of her phone that it was a call coming from someone’s skype. The call must have been coming from the other side of the world. She tumbled out of bed, rushed out into the bathroom and closed the door behind her before answering the call so as not to disturb the overnight guest who had been sleeping next to her this night – the beginning of her thirtieth year on earth. She had not suspected that the call would also be coming from a distant past she had never remembered.

“Nora,” was the first word from the unfamiliar male speaker.

“These days I go by my full name,” she corrected him, “it’s Eleanor.”

“Of course it’s Eleanor. By God do I know your full name is Eleanor.” The tone of his voice was harsh and uneven, the tempo of speech rushed. “I have something important to tell you. You have to listen to me.”

“I’m listening.”

“You have to come here.”

She sat down on the edge of the bathtub. “And where exactly would this here be?”

“Stockholm. The funeral will be held in Stockholm next week…”

Although hearing his anxious frustration coming from the other side of the world, she interrupted him without the slightest feeling of guilt: “Who are you?”

“My name is Gabriel. Maybe you remember me; I’m the Swedish minister of foreign affairs. I’ve been searching for you for over two weeks now and nobody has been able to tell me anything about your whereabouts, the last trace ends somewhere in a residency in Buenos Aires approximately two years ago…”

“Excuse me, but what is the meaning of your call? I can’t understand why the minister of foreign affairs shouldn’t have anything better to do with his time than trying to find little me…”

“You were the wife of Arvid, yes? I’ve found the right Nora, yes?”

She shook her head which Gabriel of course could not see. “Yes, yes. Once upon a time I was Nora and I was married to Arvid. I’m sure that’s all in some official records anyway.”

“It’s Arvid. He passed away two weeks ago.”

In that second she dropped the phone. It slipped right out of her left hand. She was sitting naked in a bathroom in the middle of the night and the Swedish minister of foreign affairs had just told her that her former husband was dead. Two years ago, when she turned twenty-eight, she blew out the candles on her cake and her only wish was to one day become his widow. Was it a silly wish? Of course it was. At the time she didn’t have any other wishes. Everything beyond him seemed irrelevant to her, as if there was nothing that she could imagine that would be grander than to one day dress in black for his funeral. She had been a silly twenty-eight year old woman with no more imagination than to come up with that as a possible prospect for her future. She did not think she would be only thirty when the day came. It had also never entered her mind that when it finally happened she would not become his widow.

“We’re divorced. Gabriel, I know you went through all this trouble trying to find me but I don’t think I’d be an appropriate presence at Arvid’s funeral.”

The man on the other side of the line exhaled heavily. “If only it were that simple.”

“I really think it is that simple.”

“Eleanor, I have in my possession a rather strange file with some rather compromising documents pertaining to some sixteen years ago. You grew up in an orphanage, correct?” he posed a rhetorical question and she hummed an affirmative answer. “Arvid adopted you from that orphanage sixteen years ago. It was quite an illegal adoption. Nevertheless all the documents are preserved in the archives and I had someone dig them up for me after Arvid passed away. When going through his boxes of papers and reading his will and scrutinizing everything, exactly everything, I stumbled upon this one particular reference number which took me way back…”

Her laughter interrupted him again. “I’m sorry but you are mistaken. It is quite impossible for Arvid to have both adopted me when I was fourteen and to have married me when I was eighteen. The math just doesn’t add up, Gabriel. Anyway, one of the two would have been illegal and I’m sure someone would have informed us of that in due time. So I guess…”

Now it was his turn to interrupt him. “There’s something else too.”

“Now you’ll tell me that we’re still married?”

Gabriel fell silent for a moment. “Arvid was also your only blood relative.”

Nora did not have anything to say to this.

“He was the brother of your father, Eleanor. Arvid was your uncle.”

“How do I know that I can trust you?” she asked after having suppressed the initial urge to hang up.

“I was the other man,” Gabriel answered and she could hear him clear his throat. “When Arvid left you, he did it because of me.”

III.

The story of her life had turned into a cheap farce. The fragile stitches around the edges of her life’s fabric ripped wide open to reveal a tragicomedy belonging in an utterly bad thriller of intricate murder and sophisticated deceit. There was something of a cruel joke about the tense atmosphere at the callously cold funeral of the government official whom she had once called her husband. The joke was not only cruel but simplistic as well. It lacked refinery and it lacked irony. It was nothing but a hard slap in her naked face. It was as if she could feel the sensation of violence burning against her skin – when the blow hit her. If only she had practiced her memory over the years to not forget but rather to remember. If she could remember then perhaps she could bring back distant images which would lead her way back, back to their first meeting in that underground bar where she hid the fake ID in the sweaty palms of her hands as soon as she was let inside. Once they were married nobody ever asked them Where did you meet? or even How did you meet? Everyone assumed that the question would have been inappropriate to ask because of the age difference. If she could remember then perhaps she could recuperate the moment when she sat down next to him at the bar and he offered to pay for her first drink. Unfortunately, she had only practiced the art of forgetting.

In the church Gabriel sat next to her in the front row on the right side. They both stared at the larger-than-life photograph of Arvid hanging above the white coffin covered in the familiar blue and yellow fabric. Today they were burying an army general and a diplomat. She had only known the diplomat. She had never known the man on the enlarged photograph – the young man with blonde hair standing in a strict uniform. When he served in the army she was not yet born and they seldom spoke about all the things he had done before she came into his life. She knew but one detail about this other life of his: Arvid had been gay.

After the funeral Gabriel lingered in anxious anticipation until they were alone.

“I want you to come and see his place,” he said and a car was already waiting for them.

She understood that he had planned this field trip since their phone call last week.

“I’ve already seen it,” she declined his offer and added: “I used to live there, you know.”

“Get into the car,” he insisted. “We can’t talk here.”

In the car Gabriel was indeed more talkative. “Thank you for coming. I wanted you to be here today because I know how much it would have meant for Arvid. I heard a lot about you, and I think we even met one time. You were at the reception in the Swedish embassy in Moscow following his release from prison ten years ago, yes? I was there too. Arvid and I were old friends. I had a lot to do with his release, but I don’t want to take all the credit because we were a rather large team working during those two years…”

“About those two years,” she interrupted him. “I always wondered why nobody came to visit him in prison? I always wondered why I was alone on that train platform in Novosibirsk, why I was alone on that old bus to the small town where he was held.”

“I couldn’t be everywhere at the time.”

“I also wonder why he was released when he was obviously guilty?” she asked.

Gabriel shook his head with a smile. “His guilt could not have been proved.”

“I could have proved it.”

“What do you mean?”

She returned his smile with an ironic laughter. “Well, speaking just between the two of us I knew where he kept the money from the bribes. I knew he was complicit with the mafia. I knew everything I thought there was to know about Arvid when I was eighteen years old. I thought that’s why nobody came to visit him, except for me – a little girl, his child bride. Yet nobody asked me.”

Gabriel also laughed. “Thank God we passed through that hurdle.”

“How come Arvid was allowed to marry his adoptive daughter? I’ve been meaning to ask you this for a long time now. Well, for about a week anyway.”

“Honestly speaking I do not know. It should have been impossible. All I know is that for Arvid many things were possible that for other people would have been impossible.”

“Like getting out of prison despite being guilty, you mean? Or perhaps you mean marrying the daughter of his brother?” she looked at him. “Perhaps you mean both.”

Gabriel nodded as if the question had not left him confused, as if it was a question which he had anticipated. “Now all we know about his past is that it happened.”

The car arrived at the address of Arvid’s apartment in Stockholm. She recognized the architecture of the building and instantly knew the interior of the apartment the same way someone would remember the most minor details of their childhood home after a long absence. She had once stood in this elevator with a pink backpack on her back and a teddy bear in her right hand, not tall enough to see more than her blue eyes in the mirror. Then it seemed that this moment had been the decisive moment in her life. It had been the turning point, the moment from where the stitches derived their beginning. It began with an ascent into the unknown. But now everything appeared familiar. Now she knew it all too well.

“I know so much about Arvid,” Gabriel said while unlocking the front door, “but I know so little about you.”

She entered the apartment. “Perhaps there is not much one can know about me. Perhaps all one can be sure of is that I was once everything to one man: a child, a wife, a mother, and the daughter of his brother.”

Gabriel followed her movement into the apartment. “He must have loved you very much.”

In the living room cardboard boxes with files, documents, and assorted papers stood around the coffee table. They represented the traces of his life. Nora stopped only once she had made it all the way into the bedroom. She was searching for the trace of her life. It materialized in an unmade bed.

“I don’t think you should love a person that much,” she said.

The white sheets lay twisted as if the bed had been a battle field. Maybe it had been.

“He died here. In my arms,” Gabriel said as he came up behind her.

“I only came here for one reason. I want to know the name of my father.”

Gabriel took a deep breath. “I thought you came here because of Arvid.”

“I’ve gone enough places in my life because of Arvid. This is the last trip I’m going to make. We know enough about what Arvid was. Now I want to know about me, what I am.”

“But you just said it yourself. You are everything: child, wife, mother, daughter. Is that not enough, to have once been everything for one man?” he asked.

“Now I want to be only one thing,” she answered, “for myself.”

Later Gabriel stood in the window and followed her movement outside on the street below as she walked away. He wondered if Arvid had stood there sixteen years ago and watched her walking up to the entrance. He could not know for sure of course. All he did know was what Arvid told him a long time ago – of all the things Arvid said to him over the years he remembered this sentimental statement the most – the first time I saw her I knew that I wanted to take her home. They both agreed that it would be better if she came on her own. They both thought it would be best if she did not know. Arvid was afraid she might leave if she found out. He was right about that. Once she found out, she did indeed leave – also on her own.

Nobody remains young forever. Before she thought Arvid took her childhood, and that he got her youth. In return she received nothing. But in the end she understood that there was another event in this narrative which she had previously overlooked. She should never have searched for that fourteen year old with a teddy bear on her arm. Instead she should have looked for that nineteen year old standing in a long line outside a grey concrete building waiting to be let in while the snow came falling down. In the moment when she thought the fragile thread of her life had almost been torn apart it was only starting to embroider a different story. Her beginning could have come then – when she contemplated leaving him. It would have been so easy. Instead the beginning came now – when there was nothing left to leave. Thirty years is the perfect age for a woman. Not for a widow perhaps but that was exactly what she never became. She named the first part of her story The Diplomat’s Wife because it seemed to encompass the most without telling anything really.