Nadya Frank Bauman talks about her fiction “This Is How We Rise” from issue 7 of Arkana.
INTERVIEWED BY LIZ LARSON (FICTION EDITOR).
Liz Larson: Your use of time-telling and awareness of cycles ground the reader from the beginning of the story. Was this type of awareness part of your own family traditions?
Nadya Frank Bauman: I don’t think there was much awareness. This short story is an attempt to make sense of time, aging, and the churn of generations, and like my protagonist, I began asking these questions only after I got to live as a separate grown-up person. In a way, traditions are exactly the opposite of awareness. It wasn’t until my first Christmas in the US that I started to wonder why Russians celebrate New Year, not Christmas, as a magical night when a bearded wizard leave presents for kids under the tree. Christmas has always been secondary in Russia. Turns out, it’s the legacy of Bolsheviks who tried to downplay religious holidays, but I would never look it up if I didn’t discuss it with American friends. So many things in our lives are taken on faith, and it takes a whole new generation to start asking why we do things this way but not that.
LL: In “This is How We Rise,” you make a choice to write from a second person point of view, which is rare in fiction. (Probably because it is difficult to maintain.) Did you write in second person for a specific reason or to create a certain kind of interaction/response in the reader?
NB: I’ve noticed that two types of stories tend to use second person point of view. First is this subgenre of literary short stories that mimic how-to articles and manuals, and their imperative mood implies a “you”. The second is #OwnVoice-kind of writing, telling about authentic, often marginalized experiences. Lorrie Moore’s How to Become a Writer and Porochista Khakpour’s How to Write Iranian-America are examples off the top of my head. In This Is How We Rise, I wanted to immerse readers into this bizarre Easter experience (tinting eggs with what?!), and using second person POV seemed logical. I tried to rewrite it in the first and third person but neither felt right. Besides, “you” is how I address my past selves in my head, so it felt natural for a story that reflects on different ages of the character. And the imperative mood of the recipe is at odds with the protagonist who discovers there’s no foolproof rules and indisputable authorities in life.
LL: What stories influenced you as a child and young adult? How do they manifest in your writing?
NB: The funny thing about my childhood reads is that I start to realize these books are weird only now when I read them to my daughter. Imagine Dr. Seuss-like rhymes about a crocodile who finds out animals are kept captive in St. Petersburg zoo, so he gives inspiring speeches about freedom and starts a rebellion, and the animals who follow him swallow people alive and kidnap a girl. That’s Crocodile by Korney Chukovsky, the most renowned children writer. Many books in my childhood had this awkward political overtone.
Some stories were Soviet adaptations of Western books, like Dr. Aibolit (Dr. Dolittle), Buratino (Pinoccio), and The Wizard of the Emerald City (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). The originals were already available in Russia in my time but my parents and me never considered reading them—the inertia of traditions, again.
There was a fair number of great female leads in books like Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors and a cult middle grade sci-fi series about Alisa Selezneva, but the “grown-up” speculative fiction of Strugatsky brothers that I started in high school featured thoughtful men and naïve boys as protagonists. My own first short stories were a blatant imitation of the Strugatskys and I couldn’t imagine serious fiction with a female lead.
From the school reading list, I loved magical realism of Gogol and Bulgakov. I read a lot of SFF: Ray Bradbury, Lois McMaster Bujold, David Weber, Terry Pratchett, all in translation. Stanisław Lem and Andrzej Sapkowski were delightful reads, perhaps because Polish-Russian translation allows to preserve the rhythm of prose, which is often lost when translating from English.
LL: You create rich descriptive moments throughout your story. Tell us about your character, Granny, and the development of her through description. She is such a vivid character!
NB: As I said, this story is autobiographical, and Granny is rendered from my Grandmother who passed away several years ago. While I fictionalized some details of my experience, all Granny’s lines and biography details are real. She indeed grew up in Belarus (I ignorantly call it “Belorussia” in the story; it’s an outdated, Russia-centric name). During WW2, she lived on an occupied territory and they used the potato trick to keep German soldiers away. She was used to the Soviet shortage of pretty much everything and regarded our consumer habits wasteful.
In this short story, I tried to understand how Granny’s worldview was shaped by her history, and how we should be grateful to the previous generations of women whose hard work made our lives a bit easier.
LL: Eggs and onion skins are at the core of “This is How We Rise.” How could the reader view them symbolically that is apart from their down-to-earth physicality in your story?
NB: I didn’t plan to load the story with symbols, but like it often happens with writing, the additional meaning eventually crystallized. An egg is a symbol of fertility, and while the protagonist defies the Easter traditions of her family, she might be questioning her reproductive role as well. Also “an egg” is a term related to women’s reproductive system, and a red egg might stand for menstruation, a natural and necessary process which, according to the Orthodox church, makes a woman “dirty.” Isn’t it hypocritical to ascribe women with a task of childbearing while demonizing a healthy part of the reproductive cycle? As a writer and an agnostic, I wanted to throw this taboo topic into a story about a religious holiday.
Onions don’t have symbolic meaning to me. Onions are just onions.