Friday, May 22, 2020

Onwards with the Felixes!

What do a sly, sexy, sharply political collection of poems and a graphic novel depicting flat-chested rabbits and elementary school blues have in common? The Felix Awards. This year, Extreme Kids & Crew celebrates Ilya Kaminsky for Deaf Republic and Cece Bell for El Deafo. The Felix Award Committee selected Kaminsky and Bell because their brilliant work is informed by their experience of deafness. Despite--or perhaps because of--their different takes on this experience, both artists illustrate how expansive and unbounded disability art can be.

While we understand that many people in the deaf community do not consider deafness a disability, we at Extreme Kids & Crew believe that disability, very broadly defined, is something we all share. The sooner we accept our own oddities, pains, flaws, gaps, and terrors, the sooner we can access the understanding, insight, community, creativity, humor, and forgiveness these very same things can bring. We celebrate art that brings this to light.

To introduce you to our 2020 Felix Award honorees, the novelist and Extreme Kids parent Emily Schultz has conducted interviews with both of them.  Below is her Q&A with Ilya Kaminsky. (I can’t recommend Deaf Republic highly enough. If you haven’t yet read it, now would be a good time. We’ll be discussing it at the Extreme Kids zoom book group in June.)

Next week: Cece Bell.

A special thanks to the Felix Awards Committee: Brenda Shaughnessy, Craig Teicher, Jerron Herman, Maysoon Zayid, Rebecca Alson-Milkman, Eliza Factor and Amy Herzog. 

Emily Schultz’s Q&A

Ilya Kaminsky’s linked collection of poems Deaf Republic is set mainly in a fictional Eastern European town under martial law. A story is told in snippets: during a puppet show, a boy is shot by a soldier; the townspeople protest by becoming deaf simultaneously. When the framing poems--both of which concern state violence in the United States--are considered, a larger story emerges.

Kaminsky came to the U.S. as a teenager and works as a writer and translator. Deaf Republic was the winner of the National Jewish Book Award, a finalist for the National Book Award, and was a New York Times’ Notable Book for 2019. It was also named Best Book of 2019 by The Washington Post, Times Literary Supplement, The Telegraph, Publishers Weekly, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, and Library Journal, among others.

In May, I spoke to Ilya over email and asked about his book, its setting and imagery, his technique and creative process. The interview has been edited for length.

Emily Schultz: Where did the idea for a whole town that has gone deaf come from?

Ilya Kaminsky: I did not have hearing aids until I was sixteen: As a deaf child I experienced my country as a nation without sound. I heard the USSR fall apart with my eyes.

Walking through the city, I watched the people; their ears were open all the time, they had no lids. I was interested in what sounds might be like. The whooshing. The hissing. The whistle. The sound of keys turning in the lock, or water moving through the pipes two floors above us. I could easily notice how the people around me spoke to one another with their eyes without realizing it.

But what if the whole country was deaf like me? So that whenever a policeman’s commands were uttered no one could hear? I liked to imagine that. Silence, that last neighborhood, untouched, as ever, by the wisdom of the government.

Those childhood imaginings feel quite relevant for me in America today. When Trump performs his press conferences, wouldn’t it be brilliant if his words landed on the deaf ears of a whole nation? What if we simply refused to hear the hatred of his pronouncements?

But — of course — the book has its own life, one quite different from mine. It is a love story that begins with newlyweds: a pregnant woman and her young husband see the soldier shoot and kill the young deaf boy. They watch the townspeople protest this murder by refusing to hear the authorities. In the middle of public calamity there is the private life of a young couple, and the depictions of days others in that imaginary town. The book is a fable, a fairy-tale in verse, but I hope it touches something in the lives of those who read it in our moment.

For those who haven’t read it yet, I wonder if you could tell me about Vasenka, and what type of town it is, whether there are real-life places it resembles?

IK: Like many others, I am a misplaced person, a refugee, a man cut in half by history. A part of me is still in Odessa, that ghost limb of a city I left. While these characters are imagined, they are also my family. I keep seeing images related by my grandmother about her arrest by Stalin’s regime in 1937:

When the police come to arrest her, they go straight to the kitchen. Right past her. The first policeman. Second policeman. Third. Straight to the kitchen. To the stove. To smell the stove, to see if she has burned any documents or letters. But the stove is cold. So they walk to her closet. They finger her clothes. They take some for their wives or daughters. “You won’t need any of this,” they tell her. And only then do they shove her into their black car.

They are so busy taking her things that they don’t notice the child in the cradle.

The infant stays in the empty apartment when she is taken to the judge. (The child in the cradle, my father, will be stolen and taken to another city. He will survive.)

She doesn’t know this. She also doesn’t know her husband was shot right away. The judge tells her, “You have to betray your husband in order to save yourself.”

She says, “How can I do that to the father of my child? How will I look into his eyes?”

She doesn’t know he is already dead.

And so she goes to Siberia for over a decade. And behind her, the infant stays.

That is my family story, from the past. But the book, of course, was written in the present, in America today.

As Americans we want to distance ourselves from a text like this one. But there is pain right here in our neighborhoods: We see stolen elections, voter suppression. Is this happening in a foreign country? No. A young man shot by police in the open street lying for hours on the pavement behind police tape, lying there for many hours: That is a very American image. And we talk about it for a bit on TV and online. And then we move on, like it never happened. And children keep being killed in our streets. This silence is a very American silence.

That image of a shot boy lying in the middle of the street is central to Deaf Republic. Of course, the book is a dream, a fable. But as you note, it begins and ends in the reality of the United States today. That is intentional. It is a warning of what we might become. Of what kind of country we have already become.

Americans seem to keep pretending that history is something that happens elsewhere, a misfortune that befalls other people. But history is lying there in the middle of the street. Showing us who we are.

ES: I love the way you use birds more than once to show sound — danger. You also punctuate the poems with street dogs (they are medics, and later “thin as philosophers”). Tell me about why you have let animals into the poems. To me, these are very cinematic touches.

IK: Humans aren’t the only citizens in our streets: the pigeon, the dogs, the rats, the sparrows, mosquitoes and so on are cohabitating this place with us. We can pretend they don’t exist. We can pretend we don’t live in nature. But where will that take us? In most fairy tales worth remembering humans and animals talk to each other; objects, too, talk. There are no walls, real imaginary. There is an act of engagement of reaching out, stepping outside the predictable, the prescribed. And, of course, poetry — any poetry — by definition, is one giant step outside the prescribed and predictable. The reaching out to the other.

It happens, in poetry, also on the level of speech itself — poetry wants to leap away from the generic. It wants to broaden the ranges of the possible in the language itself. The language shouldn’t limit us, it says, it should blast us open. The silences inside the language shouldn’t be suffocating. They should be revealing. Poetry understands silences. The language that we share with animals — anyone who has pets knows this — isn’t stiffening, it is not one where in silence is a suffocation, it is one where silence is a language all its own, a tongue of gestures, of engagement, of understanding. Same should happen on the page.

I tilt this conversation towards language because that slightly odd attitude towards speech is important to me.

When we came to this country, I was sixteen years old. We settled in Rochester, New York. The question of writing poetry in English would have been funny, since none of us spoke English — I myself hardly knew the alphabet. But arriving in Rochester was rather a lucky event — that place was a magical gift; it was like arriving at a writing colony, a Yaddo of sorts. There was nothing to do except for writing poetry. Why English then — why not Russian? My father died in 1994, a year after our arrival to America. I understood right away that it would be impossible for me to write about his death in the Russian language, as one author says of his deceased father somewhere, “Ah, don’t become mere lines of beautiful poetry.” I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it; no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.

After all, what changes for one as a poet when one writes in a second language?

Even the shape of my face changed when I began to live inside the English language.

But I wouldn’t make a big deal out of writing in a language that is not one’s own. It’s the experience of so many people in the world; those who have left their homes because of wars, environmental disasters, and so on.

What’s important for a poet speaking another language are those little thefts between languages, those strange angles of looking at another literature, “slant” moments in speech, oddities and their music.

ES: This image of the newborn placed atop a piano and a song no one hears being played to her really stayed with me (in the poem “Arrival”). There are tender moments throughout the book, especially the love poems between Alphonso and Sonya. Did you write the poems consecutively or order them later to construct the narrative? Or did you always know what the story linking the poems would be?

IK: Yes, many poems in this book have to do with civic strife. But the story circles around the life of two newlyweds, the moments of small joys in a young marriage. It is a book of motherhood and fatherhood; it is a book of private happiness. I am a love poet, or a poet in love with the world. It is just who I am. If the world is falling apart, I have to say the truth. But I don’t stop being in love with that world.

True witness isn’t just about violence and war. To only notice those things is to witness only a part of our existence. But there is also wonder.

I see it as my duty to report this lyricism in the whirl of our griefs. It is a personal responsibility for me: My father was a Jewish child in occupied Odessa who not only suffered, but also learned to dance. He was shaved bald so that Germans wouldn’t notice his dark hair. The Russian woman who hid him, Natalia, hid him for three years. It is not an easy thing, to keep a restless child inside for three years. Natalia taught him how to tango. And so they danced for the three years of that war, in a room where the curtains were always drawn. Once, he escaped outside to play and the German soldiers saw him, so he ran to the market and hid behind boxes of tomatoes. All my friends tell me there are too many tomatoes in my poems. They say there is too much dancing. Is there enough? I don’t know.

Today Ukraine is at war again. I go there about once a year. Donetsk is occupied. In Odessa, that party town, there are terrorist attacks. A café I liked to frequent got blown up hours before I was to meet a friend there. That friend, the poet Boris Khersonsky, gathered neighbors around the ruined entrance to the café and read his poems aloud. Some folks brought food to give away for free.

Even on the most unnerving days there are very tender moments. We have a duty to report them, too.

Here is another image from the early 1990s, from a different war: Transnistria, just sixty-five miles from our apartment in Odessa. I am fifteen years old. People knock on our door saying they fled without a change of underwear, asking to please let them make a phone call. In this chaos people lose their pensions, their homes, but they still go to the city garden in Odessa and dance while old men squeeze their accordions. Old women polka across the street, their medals clinking, beer bottles raised in the air as the rest of us clap from the benches. Time squeezes us like two pleats of an accordion.

Is it foolish to speak of little joys that occur in the middle of tragedy? It is our humanity. Whatever we have left of it. We must not deny it to ourselves.

As to the second part of your question — the one about the writing process — I write in lines. So the lines find their way on paper whether I overhear two boys insulting each other at the gas station, or see a gull cleaning her feet, or two old men playing dominoes on a hood of a car, or two young women kissing at the fish market. They become lines on receipts, on my hands, on a water bottle, on other people’s poems. Lines collect for years, but once in a while they discover that other lines are sexy and, well, the poems may come from that sort of a relationship. If I am lucky. Which isn’t often. But one has to have faith.

ES: What are you working on next?

IK: I am writing new poems and finishing a book of essays. And, I am also working on being a better husband to my wife! And, a better friend to my cat! And, a better dancer in my kitchen!

Emily Schultz is the author of the novel The Blondes. Her next novel is Little Threats, forthcoming from G.P. Putnam and Sons in November 2020. Her son is an Extreme Kids kid who is on the spectrum.

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