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Monday, January 21, 2013

BOOK REVIEW/ INTERVIEW: Zarina Zabrisky IRON. Epic Rites Press, Sherwood Park, Alberta Canada (2012) 79 pages

This is Zarina Zabrisky’s first collection of short stories. She grew up in St Petersburg in the former Soviet Union and now lives in San Francisco. She has been writing prose for many years but only decided to show her work to others & seek publication in 2010. In the interview which follows this book review, Zabrisky provides numerous insights into her personal background, her writing processes and the production and design of IRON. If you wish to follow her work further, you will also find links to some of her best online short stories and public readings on YouTube.

Zabrisky’s collection IRON consists of four short stories which are easily read in an hour. The writing is clear & highly sensuous & which immediately sweep the reader into her quirky, dark world. The stories are raw but with an extraordinary vividness and unusual immediacy. The characters are highly credible and appear drawn from real life. They are typically streetwise, & unknown to them, they are headed towards threshold experiences which will totally unhinge their lives. The beauty of the writing, particularly in the longer stories, The Hungry Duck and IRON, is the vicarious way in which Zabrisky spears the reader into the heart of the characters’ disintegration. It is interesting for us to see how various characters deal with their trauma and grief and whether they can reassemble their pieces to regenerate themselves.

The short stories are diverse and strikingly original in concept. ‘Weeping Poppies’ is a grim story told from the perspective of Legs, a teenage female junky. With her down & out friends, Philosopher & Pilot, she raids poppy plants from suburban backyards in Still Hills, a couple of hours by train north of Leningrad. The language is simple but highly figurative, with an emphasis on colour imagery. The title derives from the saying ‘the one who sees poppies weep will weep forever.’ After the poppies grey stems  are cut to steal them, they weep a milky substance which the addicts collect with surgical gauge and then seal in plastic bags. The weeping poppies become emblematic of the sickness Legs feels within her. While staring at the poppies, Legs comments: ‘The yellow whorls inside the flowers look sick like me.’

‘The Cross of David’ is set in San Francisco and is initially about David, an atheist, who wants to start an online business to cynically sell people hope and protection in these ‘challenging times’. The story is narrated in two parts by an unnamed Russian woman, presumably the author, who has immigrated to America. The first part is essentially a satire on the fakery of American middle class lifestyles as embodied by David & Peggy’s wealthy but unexamined lives. David’s crass entrepreneurial exploitation of the cross is sharply contrasted with tragic associations the narrator draws from the cross as revealed in an extended flashback in the second part of the story through her best friend Alina, to whose memory the book is dedicated. This compelling story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012.

‘The Hungry Duck’ is a third person narrative which is the most daring and experimental in the collection. Carl is an arrogant American businessman, who at the beginning of the story, is pressuring his fling Nadya to kick her ‘loser’ cousin Sergey out of Carl’s apartment or she will also go. While Carl is away making another suspect deal, Nadya arranges to meet her friend Victoria at the Duck. The Hungry Duck is the actual name of a nightclub in Moscow ‘just around the corner from the central KGB building’. It was rumoured in the 1980s ‘that the management slipped date rape drugs into drinks.’ After the women down their wine they seem to float and ‘soon men were everywhere.’ The reader is taken on a sensuous, ‘living, breathing’ hallucination in which anything is possible & which ends in a nightmarish vision.

The title story IRON is a clever, complex tale told from the point of view of Vera, a grieving young Russian woman who travels for a holiday with her 16 year-old sister Marina to the Black Sea after her fiancé Igor is killed during the Chechnya conflict. Like the other stories, there is an emphasis on dialogue to propel the narratives and it is usually sharp, relevant and credible. The opening to the short story is bold & immediately sucks in the reader: ‘We got kidnapped on a steamy hot day in Tbilisi’. What follows is a road story which is unpredictable and shocking as events gradually spin out of control for the girls. The meaning behind the central symbol of iron becomes blurred and takes many forms, both threatening and life affirming.

The cover illustration by SAMMY! provides the reader a sniff of what to expect from within IRON’s pages. The predominant colour is blood red, a significant motif throughout the stories. In fact, as revealed in the interview which follows, Zabrisky says that the red background was created by SAMMY! using magnified blood cells. In the top left-handed corner of the cover there is a parody of the Soviet flag. The iconic hammer & sickle is replaced by a hammer & a woman’s high heeled-shoe. SAMMY! says of this eye-catching design: ‘My design was based on the theme of "Iron:" power.  Zabrisky's post-Soviet women reinvent themselves. The high heel stiletto shoe represents the desire to regain power that traditionally belongs to man and the totalitarian state without losing the femininity.’ 

Each of the four stories is bookmarked by a striking black & white photo by Julie Sparenberg. The photos feature close-ups of paper-mache mannequins, dolls heads stuffed in jars & a female mask & bust defiantly peering into the distance behind a cast- iron balustrade. In the interview which follows, Zabrisky lauds Sparenberg’s work & how it skillfully captures the tone she wishes to express in her own writing: ‘I find something heart-breakingly tragic, yet heroic in Sparenberg's mannequins. They are so fragile, so artificially beautiful; their eyes are like Modigliani's models eyes, empty, yet full, dark, yet naive and hopeful. Haunting, stunning images. I knew they belonged to "Iron" when I saw them.’
Zarina Zabrisky’s first collection IRON is an exciting but limited achievement. The main problem is that the collection is very short, and after four short stories, readers are only just beginning to sink their fangs into Zabrisky’s world. The primary success of Zabrisky’s writing derives from her ability, particularly in her longer stories, to take ordinary situations & then to drag her characters through the debris, the inexplicable, the terrors- where women are called upon to make important decisions to change their lives or to save their skins. What makes these stories unique, are their Russian, feminist, post-communist perspectives, told by a street-wise immigrant to America, in English.

Interview with Zarina Zabrisky 18 January 2013:

BOLD MONKEY: In ‘The Hungry Duck’ you include a nightmarish image of the Lubyanka, the KGB headquarters in Moscow and Nadya’s hateful scream of the Soviet National Anthem. Can you explain to the reader what it was like to grow up under the Soviet regime?

My friends and I created imaginary countries under kitchen tables and built sand castles on the beach.  We sensed that the grown ups around us lived a double life.  What you could safely say at home, in your own kitchen, you would never repeat at school.  We learned to adjust.  I always look under the dust cover of the book to make sure the title is the same... that was not the case on my parents' bookshelf.  My father taught me to think on my own, to never take for granted anything I heard or read.  For example, we owned copies of books published in the West, like Master and Margarita, and he'd show me how pages and pages were missing in the censored version published in the Soviet Union. 

BM: I know you like to keep a certain mysteriousness about your past, but can you briefly describe the circumstances in which you were able to migrant to America and eventually to San Francisco?

I came to America with a cat, an old suitcase filled with books, and a dream.  I keep seeing this dream: sailing to New York onboard a Titanic-like liner. In reality it was an Aeroflot plane landing in San Francisco.

BM: You have previously described yourself as a street artist, translator, and kickboxing instructor. Can you describe the impact your various occupations and travels have had on your writing?

I always had to work, since the age of sixteen, since I needed to provide for my family.  My father had a terminal disease and my mother was taking care of him.  I also had a child very early in life, and I was the bread-winner.  I jumped on any job I could get.  It worked for writing: "Write what you know" is good advice.

I miss my translating and interpreting gigs. They have always been a part of my life-long love affair with languages.  Merging languages is not just an intricate and titillating word play--like the game of glass beads.  It is a chance to slip inside someone's head.  You feel how people think: via their syntax , the words they choose, and the way they drawl.  Extra-body experience. For writing dialogues--invaluable.  

Being a translator also took me around the world.  I got lost in the Siberian taiga in the midst of winter, survived a car crash a few miles from the Arctic Circle, saw flamingoes sleeping in the salt lakes of Kazakhstan, stayed in a castle in Ireland, and flew a helicopter over the Russian-Chinese border. 

My kickboxing teacher was a martial arts guru and a musician.  He taught me to execute every move--and every word--with precision and to the beat.  Rhythm is critical for writing. 

I wrote about my, well, career path--or lack of thereof--in "Undies and Dough."  I was honored to find out that this story got nominated for the Pushcart prize.  It resonates with high school and college students because there is so much pressure on youth: "What are you going to do with your life? Are you going to be successful?"  For me, the question is, "Are we defined by the way we are seen? Or, are we defined by our inner truth?"  

BOLD MONKEY: In your Radio Valencia interview with David Eugene you mention that you had been writing privately for a long time. What prompted you to show your writing to others and what are some of responses thus far? 

I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I get cranky if I don't get to write!  I'm not sure why I had the need to share my writing with people.  It might have been a fear of death.  I started to show my stories to friends after my mother died.  I didn't have much luck with my family and old friends.  Most of them told me to write in Russian or go back to building a corporate career.   I am glad I was stubborn, though.  I did find writer-friends to exchange stories with, and, gradually, step-by-step, overcame my fear of sharing.  The San Francisco Writers Workshop helped a lot. 

It was a pleasant surprise to find a publisher and see many stories published and even nominated for awards. I was honored to receive a warm acceptance from readers over the last year.  Three of my stories (including "The Cross of David" from my IRON collection) got nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

BM: What goes on in your mind before you write? Do you think in English? Where do the stories come from? Is your writing carefully planned and crafted? Do you do much editing?

I feel that my mind is a swirling ocean of images, dreams, and words.  Then, there are triggers.  A strange shadow in the cracked asphalt.  A question mark of a hair in the sink. Kundera said to stay away from metaphors because they give birth to love. I say, and to stories.  Stories are like love and dreams.  Inexplicable.  

I'm not sure I "think" when I write.  The stories arrive in English, yes.  Once in a while there is a vagabond Russian or even French or Latin word, but those are caught and translated on the spot. 

Editing is the last touch.  It is like doing hair or make-up.  Every detail matters.  Every eye-lash should belong.  Every beauty mark should be there for a reason.  It is tedious but can be perversely pleasurable, say, like tweezing.  
BM: Who are some of your literary influences? Can you recommend any young Russian writers who are available in translation?

 This question opens a door to the whole other discussion on literature. Allow me to quote from my novel "We, Monsters": My grandmother Rosa did not go to church, but she surely was religious.  Her religion was Literature. ... The only way Grandma Rosa could survive in the world of rotten potato peels and urine-smelling toilets was by escaping into her fantasy world.  The fantasies and miracles were canned and stored on her bookshelves, the same way watermelons were pickled and stored by our neighbor Aunt Ludmila in glass jars. I grew up believing that material possessions came and went, people died, and daily preoccupations were futile and transient.  The only meaningful things were literature and art.  Despite everything the Communists told us, there was life after death.  It was in books.  This was my grandmother’s religion, and she passed it on to me." 

I was formed by a variety of the books from my family bookshelves: from mythology and folk fairy tales to William Blake to Jim Morrison--I quote him in "The Hungry Duck" story in IRON--to Milan Kundera to Zen monks’ death poetry.  

Russian literature holds a special place in my heart.  I was so pleased and rejoiced to read the IRON review by James Warner, author of All Her Father's Guns: "Zabrisky follows in the tradition of Nikolai Gogol, using witty nightmarish realism to illuminate Russian dysfunctionality."

So, Gogol, of course. Dostoevsky's characters feel like my family members.  I re-read War and Peace every two years--at least. Russian poetry does not translate too well, but Pushkin and Lermontov are essential part of forming most Russian-speaking writers and readers. I feel a special connection to Nabokov; I was thrilled to find out that, like me, he was synesthetic.
Victor Pelevin is an interesting modern Russian author.  I really enjoyed "Yellow Arrow." 

BOLD MONKEY: Many writers see readings as a last resort. Why have you embraced public readings so eagerly to date? 

Readings turned out to be an amazing discovery.  Not only did I meet many incredible writers but I also found out that I have a voice.  I've never been on stage and reading my work to a live audience turned out to be liberating and empowering.  I am very grateful for this opportunity.  

BM: Can you briefly explain your dealings with Epic Rites Press. How did they first approach you to publish your work and what were they like to work with?

Praise and admiration.  I'm in awe of Epic Rites Press.  Julie Michelle Sparenberg, acclaimed SF photographer, and a friend of mine, introduced my stories to Wolf Carstens.  We clicked right away.  ERP published my first book, IRON, and it was a smooth, elegant, and exciting ride.  Wolf Carstens is a multi-talented publisher with a passion for all things literature.  He takes no prisoners and means business.  I could not dream of a better publisher.

BM: SAMMY’S inclusion of Julie Sparenberg’s black & white photos in IRON are marvelous in capturing the tone of your writing in a symbol way. Can you explain the background to the photos and their use as short story headers?

I am so lucky to have these marvelous artists as my dream-team.  SAMMY gets my stories on a gut level and responds with imagery that feels like my own.  He incorporated Sparenberg's photography, rich in nuances and visual metaphors, into the very core of the book.  So, I feel that reading became an all sensory experience.  I love holding the book, feeling its texture, and looking at the illustrations. 

I can see the essence of my story "Iron" in the curve of the mannequin's neck, in the balcony's cast-iron roses.  The image captured its longing, pain, sadness and--strangely--joy.  I find something heart-breakingly tragic, yet heroic in Sparenberg's mannequins. They are so fragile, so artificially beautiful; their eyes are like Modigliani's models eyes, empty, yet full, dark, yet naive and hopeful. Haunting, stunning images. I knew they belonged to "Iron" when I saw them.  

The cover is characteristic of SAMMY's art. Striking, laconic and edgy, it sums up four stories in a splash of color and a clever icon.  I was thrilled when SAMMY showed me the photo of the magnified blood cell he used to create the texture of the dripping-red background.  In his own words, "My design was based on the theme of "Iron:" power.  Zabrisky's post-Soviet women reinvent themselves. The high heel stiletto shoe represents the desire to regain power that traditionally belongs to man and the totalitarian state without losing the femininity."

BOLD MONKEY: Where do you go from here? What projects do you have in the pipeline?

 I am so excited and grateful for all the opportunities that 2013/2014 are presenting.  I have two books forthcoming, my second short story collection from ERP and my debut novel from Numina Press.  The short story collection, "Odd Foods and Funerals," explores the mysteries of love and death in exile.  My novel "We, Monsters" tells the story of a Californian soccer mom moonlighting as a dominatrix.  Its main theme is fantasies--literary and sexual.  It took me over seven years to write and I am both thrilled and frightened to see it published.

I am also working on new writing: a novel and two short story collections, one set at an oilfield in Kazakstan where I once worked. All I can wish for is more time. 

Thanks Zarina, for your extraordinarily detailed responses!

I really appreciate your time and interest.

Further Links 

You can purchase Iron on Zabrisky’s website found here:

Here are two excellent examples of Zabrisky short stories linked to her site:

‘Fortuna Destina’ from Blue Stem Magazine:

‘Speed’ from Fiction 365:

Suggested Readings on You Tube:

Zabrisky reads in full ‘Weeping Poppies’ the first short story of the collection:

Interview: Radio Valencia- Drinks With Tony:
Zabrisky fields some general questions, reads from the third story in the collection ‘The Hungry Duck’ and plays contemporary Russian songs.

Critical Review:
SF Gate:


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