Yulia Yakovleva’s [book series] The Leningrad Tales marks a high note in the new children’s literature, and it’s no surprise that The Raven’s Children English translation will be published in September 2018 by Puffin Books. , the first book in the epic series, was included in Munich International Youth Library’s 2016 “White Ravens” catalogue. Teen readers have also reacted enthusiastically. Meanwhile, The Leningrad Tales (and [the second book in the series] Stolen City in particular) have excited fierce debate among teachers and librarians. We decided to speak with Yulia Yakovleva about the difficult path ahead in the development of our national literature, and to find out what it means to be a “contemporary writer.”
- Yulia, some time ago I read your article on [arts and culture website] Colta (“The Adventures of Children’s Literature Against the Backdrop of Nonfiction”), and I was struck by a phrase I thought was especially important. You wrote that Russian contemporary children’s literature could not, for a very long time, gnaw through the umbilical cord that tied it to the literature of the 70s and hampered its development. Could you elaborate on that thought?
- Of books written in that period, some are, of course, among my favorites. But as a whole, I find that the body of late Soviet children’s literature feels stillborn. Art cannot be made under surveillance. If people write while constantly looking over their shoulders at the censors, if they must constantly wonder if it will pass or not—nothing good can come of that. The result is something formless and meek—both from the aesthetic point of view, and even, just the human one. It reeks of untruth. I find it hard to imagine that people once thought all that had any connection to actual life.
- Among other successful projects, [editor] Ilya Bernshtein is working on republishing Soviet literature of the 1970s. He considers certain books of that time to be true masterpieces.
To borrow a term from modern art, Ilya Bernshtein could be called a “curator” of literature. I, on the other hand, am a person who produces literature. Naturally, my position is more subjective. I do read practically everything that Ilya Bernshtein publishes. I think it’s right to try to bring certain texts back into circulation, those that may have gone unnoticed in their own time. Now they will be seen completely differently, as it so often happens in art. Art knows of many pieces that were “set aside” and that later made their “comebacks.” Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was performed only once in the composer’s lifetime. It was performed for the second time fifty years after his death. And now, it’s one of the most commonly performed pieces in the world. Contemporaries often have only nonsense to say of the masterpieces of their time—and vice versa. All those like Serafimovich and Pavlenko, with their million-copy print-runs—they got Stalin’s awards, they were read and discussed. Where’s all that now? Now we know that at that same time, we had writers like [Daniil] Kharms and [Nikolai] Oleynikov [who were victims of Stalin’s Purge]...
- Was there anything from that time that was written without that look over one’s shoulder? Something that you chose to take with you from childhood into your adult life?
- I had a favorite book I loved so much that I dragged it everywhere with me, this chewed-up rag with its cover torn off. The cover came off from many years of “use” and the author’s name had disappeared along with the cover. They were absurd poems and I knew them by heart: “Stirring it with a spoon, Sidorov ate starch. The chair rocked, and down he sped, he bumped the back of his head. Dinging spoon in pot, long and hard he lay and thought, lucky I don’t have the suit I ought…” Then, when I had grown, I typed these lines into Google and learned how their author, Oleg Grigoriev, had lived, and what had become of him. In Soviet times, the only life left for him was that of an outsider and he became an alcoholic. I think he tried to write the way he saw fit and, really, the only way he could, without worrying about whether that was how he was supposed to do things or whether he would get a dacha or apartment out of it. And there are other things. For example, [Vladimir] Zheleznikov’s The Scarecrow (Chuchelo) is a joy to read even now, even though it is an utterly Soviet book, moored in the minutiae of everyday Soviet life. But it breathes; it’s a living work. I can’t say the same of the vast majority of late Soviet texts.
- And yet we could say the majority of contemporary authors grew up largely on the books of the 70s?
- Yes. The editors that edit today’s texts, and the parents raising kids today, they all belong to the generations of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s. We have to acknowledge our need to break with that literary tradition. Otherwise you’ll never be able to write without looking over your shoulder. You won’t be able to break the unspoken “pact of the well-behaved book.” Even now, there’s still fear. Sometimes, it’s a calculated caution. Sometimes, a simple unwillingness to leap over the barriers. And I think it holds back many talented people.
- Could you explain what those barriers consist of? The necessary happy ending?
- That too. And fear of “distressing” readers. The desire to worry them only very sparingly, in small doses. The great trouble in Soviet children’s literature was its normativity. It was produced with a set of interchangeable approaches to “smoothing things over”: the book should behave. As a result, from a stylistic standpoint, we got what [Sergei] Dovlatov called “the color of wet asphalt.”
- But the books that were written in the “color of wet asphalt,” are still widely read. They may even have more readers than what you would call non-normative literature.
- It’s a product, after all! The product then was an ideological one, now—it’s commercial… The Victorian era probably had its own normativity—a set of known approaches to making a book. Then, as now, you cannot break with what is expected.
The Soviet Union had editors, so that writers wouldn’t write “outside the box.” In the West, literary agents fulfill that role. It’s “production,” over there, too. A good English novel is a well-made product. Here I am criticizing Soviet literature, but really, why should I? It too is a product, a product of a particular time, with particular ends, produced according to a particular formula.
- Would you say you’ve had to cut that umbilical cord that ties us to the literature of the 70s?
- No. Our family had no particular culture of “children’s reading.” My mom found the gibberish written for children quite nauseating. She preferred to read me Pushkin. We never had a tradition of bedtime stories. Reading is an intellectual activity. When you’ve brushed your teeth and gone to the bathroom, it’s hard to then apply yourself mentally like that. So I was read to during the day. And I learned to read rather quickly. As soon as I could read independently, I was given free rein. Children’s books made up a very insignificant number of the books I read. I read fast. I got through the list of recommended books and then moved on to grown-up literature—Anna Karenina, Zola, Maupassant. Of course, I was incapable of understanding what these books had to say about the interaction between the sexes. But I was captivated by the intrigue, the energy, the bright lives of the characters. I found it immensely enjoyable.
- So you would argue that, by and large, we can do without teen literature?
- I suspect we can. I’m not a teacher or psychologist. I’m all for the reader’s complete freedom. Once children learn to read—that’s it, they’re free. They can read anything they want, anything they come across that seems interesting. If the book engages the child, it’s a match. I don’t consider my own books “children’s literature.” They’re just books. And if an adult picks one up to read, he doesn’t feel lobotomized.
- Thinking back to your childhood, can you recall ever being traumatized by reading a book too early?
- If a book were to fall on my head, and it was a big, heavy book, it could certainly traumatize me. Quite likely. But what does “trauma” mean when it comes to reading? When I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the heroine, a young girl, died, I cried inconsolably. Then I’d pick up the book again, and cry again. I think it’s wonderful to cry over a book like that, wonderful when a person experiences so much emotionally while reading. What did in fact traumatize me were documentary photographs: the disfigured body of [World War II heroine] Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya lying in the snow, with clear evidence of torture. The photographs and newsreel of Hiroshima. That was unutterably terrifying: a nightmare you couldn’t shake. Rubens’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son is quite scary. But it cannot traumatize like documentary photographs and newsreels. I don’t think a child should look directly at the Gorgon Medusa. Perseus, when he fought with the Gorgon, had a polished shield so he looked not at the beast herself, but at her reflection. Art is just such a shield.
- Right, and it can find a way to speak about what is unspeakable, what we cannot speak about in our ordinary lives, what we have no words for. In the children’s literature of the Thaw Period of Soviet history from the death of Joseph Stalin (in 1953) until the mid-1960s, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. Associated with the denunciation of Stalin’s cult of personality and his repressions, along with a weakening in totalitarianism and an expansion in free speech. and the literature of the 70s, there emerged a set understanding of how we can and should speak about difficult things. The works of that period are often written from the point of view of a person who survived a terrible catastrophe. Yes, he went through Hell—but he made it through: life goes on. And the author inevitably tries to “humanize” the events—not so much to give them meaning, but to give them a meaning relative, in scope, to his own life.
- I agree with you there. That perspective imbues you with an incredible optimism. After all, that joy of life, it’s deafening, it’s incomparable. Generally, that’s the way it’s described—it’s bright, captivating, without dry state-sanctioned convention, without normativity.
- Because it’s the literature of witnesses.
- Yes. When I was collecting material for The Leningrad Tales, I read many war memoirs, letters, and diaries. You’d be surprised how many of those who were young when the war started and were lucky enough to survive it, would say: “That was the best time of my life! Yes, it was difficult, and sometimes horrific. But I felt alive.”
- I got the sense that in The Leningrad Tales you tried to deviate a bit from tradition? Is that right?
- I tried to “give voice” to those who didn’t survive, as well: to take a look at what happened through their eyes and see that, for them, there was no good in it, and there could not be. It’s impossible to say, of those that died in the repressions or during the [Leningrad] blockade, “Those were heroes that died.” After their deaths is when it all begins—the events are retold as great feats. The dead are venerated.… That’s how the traumatized consciousness of the survivor tries to come to terms with what has happened. But you cannot justify these events. It wasn’t a rational decision, but I made children the main characters of my stories. It just worked out that way. Just now, in speaking with you, I understand that it serves to heighten the tension. When a child dies, when a child’s life is crushed, the events are more terrifying, more dramatic.
Is there anything that can possibly justify the death of a child? No, there is nothing. A child’s death is the highest indictment of war, repressions, genocide. Children shouldn’t die before their parents (there are, of course, incurable disease or freak accidents that cannot be prevented)...That’s why I hate when small children are dressed up in military uniform for May 9th [Victory Day] celebrations.
- Yulia, as I’m sure you know, people would tell you it’s a way to connect with the memories of our fathers’ and grandfathers’ heroism.
- My grandmother, Olga Samsonovna, was on German-occupied territory during the war. She was an incredibly tough person and she did only what she believed she should. She became a Soviet partisan and was made a signaller. People said: “Olya, come to your senses! What are you doing? You have a small child!” And she would answer: “That’s all right. So much the better. With a small child I’m less likely to be a suspect.” And she became a suspect. They locked her in a shed and told her they would burn it down. Little Zhannetta peed herself from fear. And that became her first childhood memory. A child at war—it’s not a cute soldier costume or a stroller shaped like a tank. It’s little Zhannetta peeing her pants.
- I can’t help asking: but the Germans didn’t burn them?
- They survived. How, why—I don’t know. It was too awful a story to get into details and philosophize about. Our grandparents, who survived the repressions and the war, tried to shield us from such stories. Actually, our family tended to avoid generalizing. Their thinking was: here’s the story, draw the conclusion yourself. And I concluded: war is no place for children. Under any circumstances. You cannot flirt with the idea of war. You just can’t—that’s it. It’s not a game, not a [toy] store—it’s a child, peeing herself in fear.
- Maybe the weight of silence which hung over the literature of the 70s was related to that as well? With the fact that the witnesses tried to avoid speaking about it? We are children of the 60s and 70s, so we knew living witnesses. We lived with them. It would seem they could have handed down some knowledge, some information from their experience, first-hand. But they didn’t do so, for various reasons. They were silent about the war because it was hard for them to talk about. They were silent on the subject of repression because it was still dangerous to speak of. But unsaid words also have a strong impact on us.
- That’s how it was in my family. My mom would even say: Grandpa was in prison. Well, okay, prison. What of it? Those are skeletons in the closet, unburied dead. It’s a very serious subject… and it’s our difficult responsibility—to bury our dead. Simply bury them, that’s all.
- Should we maybe consider this the context for our need to break with 70s literature? Since it inherited the tradition of holding back and not saying what needed to be said? Those that created the literature, as well as those who read it, lived in a world where everything was hushed, silenced.
A world of silencing—and fear. We can’t write like that anymore. Art is, after all, a very serious business. It can’t be tied up with “they’ll love me—they’ll love me not.” In order to understand that, we need new books, a modern literature. It’s not just so that we are able to come to terms with the past. It’s a way of finding ourselves in our own time.
In conversation with Marina Aromshtam
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Photograph from Samokat Publishing House archives
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