In the early pages of Oksana Vasyakina’s Wound, the narrator finds herself tucked into a small car with distant acquaintances in a small town outside Volgograd, on her way to pick up her mother’s ashes, where she cannot help but overhear her companions’ conversation: “The cousin said that Western propaganda had gotten really shameless. What are they even doing there over in the West, he asked. Prancing around in sparkly underwear, those queers, and what if there’s a war? What happens if there’s a war? Sexual education is a travesty, said the cousin. Children should be taught how to hold a Kalashnikov in kindergarten.” After a moment, the narrator asks them to be quiet, out of respect for the solemnity of the occasion. She does not mention her wife back in Moscow.
Published in Russia in 2021, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Wound is now available in English in a lucid translation from Elina Alter. The cousin’s speech, with its conflation of sexual identity, militarism, and toxic masculinity, contextualizes everything that comes after it. Far from an exploration of Russian politics, Wound is a very personal work, a deep dive into the author/narrator’s consciousness. American readers might be reminded of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Kate Zambreno’s Drifts—books that largely abandon the trappings of external plot for a stream-of-consciousness romp through the bookish female narrator’s thoughts and experiences. Vasyakina, however, takes a much greater risk in writing about her personal life; following the passing of a 2022 law, so-called LGBTQ “propaganda” is now illegal in Russia. “My writing,” she notes laconically, “is unconventional in form and criminal in content.”
Autofiction is a relatively new form in Russia, where Wound’s most immediate forbear may be Maria Stepanova’s 2017 In Memory of Memory (translated by Sasha Dugdale). Like Vasyakina, Stepanova is a poet and her “novel” reads much like a work of nonfiction, in which the narrator feels closely bound up with a barely disguised version of its author. In Wound, the narrator even shares a name with the writer. Vasyakina is also a member of F-Pis’mo (F-Letter) a collective of feminist and LGBTQ poets in Russia whose work embraces the political. Though controversial, Vasyakina’s work has been nominated for several prestigious literary prizes in Russia, where Wound received the 2021 NOS prize. It is the first in a trilogy of autobiographical novels, and the first to be translated into English; Steppe chronicles the death of Vasyakina’s father from AIDS, while Rose recalls an aunt who died from Tuberculosis.
Wound’s outer plot recounts the narrator’s journey to recover her mother’s ashes in the small steppe city of Volzhsky, her return to a life in flux in Moscow, and subsequent trip to the small Siberian town Ust-Ilimsk to lay her mother’s ashes to rest. The narrator’s inner journey flows in parallel to the outer one in a self-consciously postmodern text that includes essay-like asides on the art of Louise Bourgeois and the Greek myth of Philomela. At a few points, Oksana even breaks from prose into free verse. The text references feminist thinkers such as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, and is itself a response to Hélène Cixous’s call for écriture féminine, a women’s writing that encompasses bodily experience and gender difference.
Oksana’s mother has died of breast cancer and she recalls in harrowing detail the experiences of her mother’s final days and of having to identify the body in the morgue. Yet her mother’s death is not the original wound; rather it has opened up a much older, more primal one: “The wound is there not because she didn’t survive, but because she existed at all.” This is the wound that Vasyakina’s poetic text seeks to understand and also to heal. A single mother who worked for the local wood-processing plant, her mother had a series of physically abusive boyfriends from whom she failed to protect herself or her daughter. Yet Oksana loved her, the way that all young children love their parents. Wound is a painful read, but rewarding, reflecting through the particulars of Oksana’s story larger themes about motherhood, familial relations, trauma, and grief that any reader is likely to relate to.
Alter’s translation captures the simple, understated nature of Vasyakina’s prose, in which each word feels like it has been selected with great care and attunement to the possibilities of multiple meanings. Both Russian and English can trace the origin of the word ‘mother’ back to the Latin ‘matrix’ for ‘uterus’:
“I felt my mother as a space. A matrix. A place. After her death this place disappeared. The world itself didn’t disappear, but the complex symbolic network that had allowed me to orient myself using my surroundings was gone. A matrix is the continuous interpretation of lived experience. After her death I had to become accustomed to a space rendered meaningless and become my own matrix. But I became suspended in a world without meanings or names.”
Bodies and spaces, inner and outer, play important roles in Wound. Oksana is especially aware of Russian space, contrasting urban Moscow with the steppe and finally with the Siberian taiga of her childhood:
“We lived in a taiga town, and the town was like a small island. We were alone in the forest and for some reason we weren’t afraid that we would perish or be forgotten… And how can a space as enormous as the taiga fit into your consciousness? It cannot be perceived. You can’t see enough, and you can’t feel enough to fit it inside yourself. Nevertheless, the taiga is the place where I was born.”
The taiga shocks with its vastness. In a different way, the uterus disquiets us, a small space that holds vast potential.
Wound appears in translation at a time when Russia and Russian culture are not very popular in the West, when the traditional canon of Russian literature itself is being re-thought, and many Ukrainian writers are finally being given their due. The debate over reading Russian books at this moment in time seems to me to reflect what Claire Dederer has called “moral feelings” rather than “ethical thoughts”—it’s an irrational, but also understandable, maybe even inevitable, response to the war in Ukraine. But I would still recommend Wound to anyone willing to pick up a Russian writer right now, precisely because this is not the sort of book that many of us might expect, a novel that feels both Western and Russian, feminist and queer. In a “Russian world” that is closing in on her, Vasyakina fights to keep a small space open.
by Oksana Vasyakina
Translated by Elina Alter
Published on September 5, 2023