Sophia Shalmiyev‘s debut memoir, Mother Winter, has been described as, “the wrenching story of her exile and grief, but it’s also a chronicle of awakening—to art, sex, feminism, and the rich complexities of being a mother herself.” Beginning with her childhood in the late Soviet Union, the book traces Sophia’s experiences growing up without a mother, emigrating to the United States, and finding surrogate caretakers through art and feminism in her teens and twenties, through to her current life (and experiences as a mother) in Portland, Oregon.
To celebrate the book’s publication, Sophia will be reading and discussing Feminism and the Body with Claire Dederer on February 21. She will also be teaching Memoir Four Ways, a three-hour workshop exploring different approaches to memoir writing on February 22. We recently reached out to her to learn more about her process in writing Mother Winter and to get a sneak-peek at what students can expect from her class.
In a review of Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks, you wrote that, “Mothers are still very hard to write, as even our favorite authors see mothers as these balls of worry, negativity, frump, and circumstance.” What did this perception of motherhood mean for you when you began writing Mother Winter?
To some degree those definitions gave me permission and a clean slate, because I am of the mind that if you name the thing, if you tell the hard truth about a thing, then you can begin working through it and maybe out of it, rather than snaking around, crawling on your belly to pretend this is not the hand you are dealt.
Leni Zumas is one of my favorite writers and a feminist who is like my family, in the sense that even if it is just the two of us talking, it is a mini movement, a small political act of unburying what could just die on the vine within us. That death happens in families all the time. We, as mothers who write on the topic, have the pleasure to disagree on the subject; not sparring but learning. LZ points out that we deify motherhood and it is this supreme cool, on-brand way to pursue what a successful woman ought to look and be like—baby on hip means she is complete.
From my place in the world, I do think that mothers are scrutinized and raked over the coals, and just hated, if they are too absent, too public, too hungry, too loud, or, then, of course, not enough of something we expect of them. I feel like I wrote about that in the book in many different ways and am saying that I will miss my mother and want her near me, at all times, but I will not blame or trash her for not being there for me, for not raising the child she made. That is an addition to the literary discourse I hope creates some traction. We do not project as much hostility towards flawed fathers. This box is another way a woman molds herself that kills off her choices and freedom and self-perception. We can’t be the assholes men are, almost ever.
Mother Winter has been described as “equal parts refugee-coming-of-age story, feminist manifesto, and meditation on motherhood, displacement, gender politics, and art.” How did you approach juggling these different lines within the book?
I was able to dig out the weeds and plant my heroines in the place of doubt; doubt that I could actually create a book where a woman is thinking out loud, with no need for a typical plotline, switching tenses and points of view. Maybe I took all the cuts of meat I wanted, all the writers I loved who spoke of longing and the torture of waiting on a surefire miss rather than a hit, and ground it down into my own feast. I also know that the only kind of work I intend to make is feminist work, which has so much new blood and energy to pump into our limp hearts.
I would love it if we could say we are done and solved and liberated, but there are no such systems in place to allow anyone who is marginalized to rest. We do not have a matriarchal society so writing from that yearning makes it easier to construct a layered narrative, because the vastness and the grief are there to mine. We are assaulted and insulted all the time, and I am glad I have distractions to take refuge in, but I cannot write, with urgency, with integrity, about anything other than being a woman, a girl, a mother, or, as I am doing in my next book, a person who is struggling with those roles.
Your class, Memoir Four Ways, explores some of the many forms memoirs can take. Tell us a little bit about the class and what students can expect to take away from it.
I am a huge James Baldwin fan. I wanted to teach a class on the many ways we can have cathartic and political and personal art that is beyond reproach, or isn’t talking to The Man, so who cares if you are exposing yourself in the piece you made. This Baldwin quote inspired me to think about my own approach to writing a memoir, which is considered a soft genre (cringe): People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.
Also, Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus, and Claudia Rankine, among others who write themselves as characters in nonfiction or create poetry and fiction that reads like nonfiction, if that makes sense, give me the most grist for the mill. They are my history books. I believe there are no limits to how many ways you can recall, collect, observe, and craft a story you lived though. So, let’s look at least four ways to try?
What strategies did you find most helpful when writing and structuring your own memoir?
Always take notes. As much as possible. As random as it seems, if you get selfish and start writing down something in the middle of dinner in a little notebook and then come to your writing desk or space with the notes, you will hear yourself, you will see yourself, and you will begin to have a stricter approach to your craft. Yes, in the messiness is the eventual boundary and containment we strive for when writing. Just like with raising kids.
This may not be relevant to others who have their routines and prompts and such, but I want to share that lying in bed to write is often what creates the dream brain to type A brain I need to craft. I love Edith Wharton very much and once I learned she wrote in bed I copied her and it worked wonders for me. It is not an all-the-time kind of practice; sometimes it’s my magical coffee shop here in Portland, The Dragonfly, sometimes my couch, or when I am Good, my art studio (since I pay rent), but it’s the bed, mimicking what I imagine Wharton doing in her flannel nightgown with fluffy white pillows and a tray of tea that I crave.
How, if at all, has writing Mother Winter changed your understanding of memoir as a genre?
I wonder if I can answer this without it seeming like the snake is eating its own head? Dorothy Allison calls her autobiographical fiction, “writing it slant,” and I will go with that. I hope that I get to meet her some day and let her know just how much her slant, her truth allowed my back to not buckle under my own work all these years, the work I hated to call nonfiction. I pleaded with my agent and editor to allow me to publish this book as a novel. And while I am not going to disparage or put down the feminized connotations that memoir carries, I needed to be free of being the face of the story. I wanted the freedom novelists get, even when gathering real lives around them, slant, to be the author and not the embodiment of the tale. I want what the dudes who write themselves funnier and thinner and more interesting, but it is fully them, get. They get to be artists. I get to be a confessor. I will go to bat for memoir, if only to change this reality. I love how Kiese Laymon’s memoir, Heavy, is being covered as the incredible piece of craftsmanship it is. I hope we keep reviewing the genre this way more and more.
You’ll be reading and discussing feminism and the body with Claire Dederer at Hugo House on Feb. 21. Are there any particular matters of craft that you’re hoping to discuss with Claire?
First of, Claire Dederer is a modern genius, because she is writing about domesticity and feminism and art hunger in a way that I cannot live without. Her wit and necessary anger even come through every social media post like she is writing for her life. She has a way that makes you feel known and seen. And people crave her writing after they read any of it.
We have some similarities of being both precise and elliptical in structuring a piece. Since I love her art, her approach to body politic and her humor, I think we will just waste no time doing anything but taking names in the name of feminism. We joked that I should have called my upcoming tour for Mother Winter, The Unscorned book tour. And she is hoping I get that spelled out in balloons at the Hugo House event!
I am beyond thrilled that I will be speaking with a sharp woman who will not simply be asking me if I am a wall of hurt or if my story is the real me, I believe that she will want to talk shop, talk about pressing matters, talk about the work, the endless work of crafting from nurture fatigue, the nurture torture cell we are placed in. And, hopefully, about demanding our right to write, unscorned and uninterrupted.