Tuesday, May 28, 2013

An interview with Eugene Yelchin by Oksana Lushchevska

Eugene Yelchin: "We want to believe that the real world is a better place than it so often is."

Eugene Yelchin is a Russian-born author, painter and illustrator best known for illustrating picture books for children. He grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated from the Leningrad Academy of Theater Arts in 1979. Before Yelchin left the former Soviet Union in 1983, he worked as a stage designer, but after his arrival to Boston, he became an editorial illustrator. Later he moved to Los Angeles to attend the graduate film program at the University of Southern California. In Los Angeles he worked in advertising, film and television, and in 2007 he began writing and illustrating books for children. In 2012, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, his first middle grade novel that he also illustrated, was awarded a Newbery Honor Medal. Currently his novel is translated into Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Russian.

Oksana Lushchevska completed a Master degree in Russian and Comparative Literature and a Graduate Certificate in Children’s Literature from the Pennsylvania State University. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, studying children’s literature. She is an author of children’s books, written in Ukrainian.

This interview was recoded via Skype in Athens, Georgia, on February 28, 2013.

Oksana Lushchevska: What was the genesis of Breaking Stalin’s Nose? Please describe your writing process in creating the novel. Did you base it exclusively on your own experience of life in the Soviet Union?
Eugene Yelchin: The events in the book are fictional, but the feelings conveyed by means of those events are real. The feelings are mine. Stalin died three years before I was born, but Stalinism in the Soviet Union was alive and well for many years after. I am intimately familiar with what Stalinism feels like, but to write about it was far from easy. To describe the feelings I felt while living in the Soviet Union I had to feel them all over again, but those feelings still frightened me. Consequently, the book is shot through with fear, and that fear is completely authentic. Additionally, the hero of the book Sasha Zaichik’s character is very close to mine. Not because like Sasha I also wanted to become a Young Soviet pioneer, or because I grew up in an overcrowded communal apartment, or because my father was also a devoted Communist. All of that is true, but not essential to writing fiction. Sasha and I are similar in a more profound way, namely in the way we react to the world around us. We want to believe that the real world is a better place than it so often is. We are always surprised when we come face to face with brutality, unfairness or lies. And someplace deep inside both of us we have a moral line we would never cross no matter what our circumstances are.

OL: How do you think growing up and living in a communist country shaped you as a person, as an author, as an illustrator?
EY: If you happened to live in a place where over sixty million people perished through starvation, terror, and war you are bound to feel the effects of those deaths. My grandparents and my parents spent their lives in a continuous state of terror. What is terror if not anticipation of death? When a state of terror of such magnitude continues over the lives of several generations, it is reduced to norm. You learn to hide it, ignore it, and even joke about it. I survived Stalinism, but the defensive strategies that I was taught from birth became a handicap when I came to America. It took many years to admit to myself that I was still terrorized, to identify that terror in my personal life and in my art making, and finally, to challenge that terror. In fact, writing Breaking Stalin’s Nose was that challenge. On the other hand, I feel very fortunate to have been born in St. Petersburg. I benefited greatly from rich Russian culture that surrounded me and to this day I explore the depth of its heritage in my work. I am proud to be simultaneously a Russian and an American artist.

OL: Sasha Zaichik, the character of Breaking Stalin’s Nose, is a real example of a pure and naive young person who cannot recognize the false ideology of the Soviet Union. How did you learn to recognize and break through this ideology?
EY: I often wonder if the fact that I was born in 1956 has something to do with my subsequent departure from the USSR. In 1956 the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made a speech "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences" that sharply criticized Stalin’s rule. For the first time some of the crimes committed by Stalin were revealed. The speech initiated a period known as “Khrushchev’s Thaw”. The Iron Curtain was lifted for a brief moment, but long enough to reveal a way of life drastically different than the ones my parents and my grandparents were forced to live. In 1964 Khrushchev was ousted and the Thaw ended, but the dissident movement that went underway as a side-affect of his decision to expose Stalin couldn’t be stopped. I was too young and too scared to take any part in it, but it certainly influenced me. I began reading books that were banned in the USSR and smuggled in from abroad. The books were very small, no larger than a deck of cards, and printed in miniscule typeface on cigarette paper for easy concealment. To read these books was dangerous business. If apprehended by the police with any of the banned books in possession, one would most likely be incarcerated. But this was how I read Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak and Mandelstam and Bulgakov and so many other authors silenced by the state. As a young man reading these precious works, I began to understand the way not only our government but also we ourselves, Soviet citizens and the readers of these books, contributed to a system of oppression we called our home. By my twenties I understood quite clearly that knowing what I came to know from reading books and nevertheless electing to remain a Soviet citizen would implicate me in the crimes of my government. I did everything I could to leave the Soviet Union.

OL: In the "Author's Note" you state that your historical novel is relevant for our contemporary times. How is it relevant?
EY: Breaking Stalin’s Nose is relevant on many levels. First and foremost the book is about the effect of orthodox ideology on ordinary people, particularly on young people. In many places around the world today, orthodox ideology is far from being a thing of the past. Further, the book describes a totalitarian state from first hand experience. For the American kids a totalitarian state is an abstract notion, but I believe that it is important for them to recognize the totalitarian tendencies in case they do come across them. To make the issue concrete I turned a regular grade school in my book into a model of a totalitarian state. In such a familiar context, the young readers can easily identify the mechanisms of power and oppression. They see the unfairness of it all, the brutality. Additionally, the book explores tension between an individual and a group, something that we all experience daily. Belonging to a group allows us a certain degree of safety and comfort, but there are moments in life when we must make our own decision regardless of the collective will. My book is asking how can we find courage to disagree with the majority? How can we preserve our humanity in a situation where humanity is devalued? How can we live our own lives instead of the ones expected of us by others? I believe that these questions are not only relevant for children but urgent.

OL: In your interview with the American Jewish University, you state: "I always felt that Hitler’s terror is well documented, but Stalin’s terror– millions and millions of innocent lives lost – is not widely known." How difficult, or dangerous, is it for Russian writers to write such critical books?
EY: I hope it is not dangerous, but, curiously, several Russian interviewers asked me why did I take the risk of writing about Stalinism? Clearly such questions show how insecure the Russians are about the future of their country. I believe their future is uncertain because they have never seriously analyzed their past. Hitler’s Germany lost the war and the Germans were forced to admit to crimes against humanity. Stalin’s Russia came out a winner in the war, and the Russians were forced to either repress their crimes against humanity entirely, or at best, to dismiss them as necessary sacrifices in order for Russia to win the war and to become a superpower. We are shocked when we come across a Holocaust denier, but in Russia, the denial of mass murders committed by the Stalin’s Communist party is commonplace.

OL: Your book is sometimes compared to Peter Sis's autobiographical picture book The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (2007). Did you read Sis's book before creating your own novel? Do you believe the books are, in fact, comparable?
EY: Peter Sis’ book encouraged me to write Breaking Stalin’s Nose because he was able to bring complex ideological issues to children in an accessible way. It is a masterful work. I wouldn’t compare our books, but I do believe they compliment each other in many ways. On another note, our experiences with Communism were quite different. In the second year of my studies at the Leningrad Academy of Theatre Arts, a small group of the stage design students were sent to Czechoslovakia on a cultural exchange tour. I was chosen to go. I think it was 1975, and to us, coming from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia was not the gray Communist wasteland it was to Peter Sis but the epitome of Western lifestyle and culture. I still remember how hard it was to return to our drab, depressed and deprived homeland. Context is everything.

OL: In the novel, you incorporate the absurdist theme from Nikolai Gogol's (1809-1852) short story "The Nose," which refers to something that takes place only in someone’s imagination or dream. Why did you decide to use this brief allusion to this short story?  
EY: Initially, it was an intuitive decision. “The Nose” is one of the St. Petersburg’s stories by Gogol that I read and re-read since childhood. At some point in Russia, I even attempted to illustrate it. The story is considered to be a precursor to magical realism, and as such it influenced my own writing. In Breaking Stalin’s Nose, Sasha Zaichik accidentally breaks off a nose from a plaster bust of Stalin. Then that same plaster nose appears to him, smoking his pipe and trying to convince Sasha to denounce his father. This scene happens at the moment of high crisis for Sasha. In psychological terms, Sasha needs to retreat into his imagination in order to cope with reality. But there are other reasons why I allude to Gogol. In “The Nose”, the hero of the story Major Kovalyov awakens to discover that his nose is missing, sets out to look for it, and finds it riding in a carriage and wearing a uniform of a higher rank than his. Impressed with the Nose’s uniform, Major Kovalyov fails to convince his own nose to return to his face. Similar to Kovalyov, Sasha Zaichik is impressed with the symbols of power. Flags, slogans, and statues, he perceives them all with near religious awe, consequently allowing himself to be fooled by these ideological props.

OL: I read about the translation of your book into Russian by the Pink Giraffe Publishing House (Rozovij Zhiraf). According to the news, you and a translator Olga Bukhina co-translated the novel. Is it your first experience with translation? Are you satisfied with the translation (i.e., was anything lost in translation?). What response are you expecting from the young and adult Russian readers? 
EY: Pink Giraffe hired Olga to translate the English text, and she did a wonderful job, but when I read it I realized that I needed to tell more. Given the hot-button nature of my novel, I assumed that both adults and children would be my readers in Russian. As a result I had to take a different approach than just a standard translation; I had to ensure that there were no inaccuracies and that the world felt authentic to a Russian audience. Using Olga’s translation, I essentially rewrote the book in Russian, and then she corrected what I had written. It was a true collaboration. In addition, Nadya Kruchenitskaya, ourMoscow editor was very much involved in the process. We worked and reworked the text countless times, sentence by sentence, word by word. As a result, nothing was lost in translation but much was gained. The book came out in Moscow on March 5th 2013, the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death, and caused a great deal of controversy. Breaking Stalin’s Nose is the first book in Russian language that addresses the issue of Stalinism for young readers. Consequently, those in favor of Stalinism vehemently attacked the book, the publishers, and me personally. Regardless, what feels tremendously satisfying is that Breaking Stalin’s Nose became a starting point for a public debate about Stalin, Stalinism, Democracy, and the future of Russia. Whether the debate will continue or not, remains to be seeing.

OL: What are your current writing projects? Do you plan to write another book that will represent either the Stalinist era, or the Soviet Era in general?
EY: My next middle grade novel is due in 2014. I am writing as well as illustrating it. The story is set in Russia on the eve of World War II and explores a relationship between a schoolteacher and a boy he adopts from an orphanage for children of the enemies of the people.

OL: Thank you, Eugene! Good luck with your new book!

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