Sometime ago I read this piece of work by a Russian girl, Serafima Fedorova. I was really inspired by her writing and I realised what it really means to be a good writer. I really wanted to share her work with you because I know that her candour and expression really touched me. She has passionately braided two parallel lives in a heart achingly beautiful way. I cannot stop myself from reading this over and over again and trying to understand what it is about her writing that draws me in. It changed the way I thought about my work. Not many writers possess that power. To the beauty behind her words and to appreciating art.
From Russia with Love
by Serafima Fedorova
We walk into our homeland as if we are strangers. Moscow is a hand-me-down sweater I don’t yet know how to wear. My sister and I sit on the pavement, forgotten. My mother has been jolted into the past. We are not her children yet. We have to give her time to remember.
I breathe in. My first cigarette is a lungful of my birth city.
I see my grandmother for the first time in eight years. I do not know this woman. We are a broken chain link of a family I can never love. I don’t hold my mother’s hand; she bristles with electricity and I have had enough of her shock therapy to know that lightning searches for the shortest route out of the body.
I want to become land-locked. I want to be the right key that encrypts culture into my bones.
If I had known anything about Miami before I learned English, I wouldn’t have bothered with my careful syllables. Mama wouldn’t have pounded my face into my alphabet book, and I would have known Spanish by now.
When I went to school, the children teased my wording. I wrought phrases from dictionaries and was surprised when my artificial language wasn’t enough of a bridge to let me cross over to them. They twirled Spanglish before me like gypsy scarves and ran away laughing.
I am too much of a coward to dig out the splinters of language.
The only American soda they had in Russia back then was Coca-Cola. I remember the kids in my street sharing the bottle before running home to fill it with water. The taste of syrup clung to the edges of the plastic and we savored it for days.
My first culture shock came when I told my Russian friends it didn’t snow in Miami. We sat in silence when they couldn’t imagine a land that didn’t encrust in ice every year, and because I only returned to Russia during the summers, I couldn’t picture snow.
Those summers we played football because the playgrounds were stripped. Nobody replaced the swings that were stolen, or fixed the unbolted slide. We were left with a dirt-filled area and a ladder that didn’t yet reach heaven. And I never questioned it, or the syringes, abandoned in the empty park.
Things that Americans ask a Russian:
Is it true that you guys drink vodka, like, all the time?
Do wild bears walk the streets?
You guys are still Communist, right?
Who do you think won World War II?
I have no preconceptions of this land. My Russia is the birch trees wilting by the highways. She is drawn into the cement of buildings, still bearing the tattoo of Communism. Nobody has bothered to wash disgrace off the pavements of Moscow.
I walk by a two-story furniture store about to be torn down. The advertising has been stripped, and in its nakedness the original mural is exposed. The woman depicted is strong and modest. She carries a scythe and her austere clothes drape her ample body. She is very blonde and blue-eyed – obviously, all Communists are. The man next to her carries a hammer. He smiles into the distance and they are walking hand in hand, looking as if at any moment they might step out of the 1960’s and walk into the McDonalds across the street.
I want to take a picture: Whip out an iPhone, hash-tag it #USSR4LYF and send it to my friends in Miami. But I don’t. It would be too complicated to explain the joke.
I was walking home from school when I saw my first gay couple. They were two men, one black and one Latino. I watched them intertwine their multi-hued fingers and walk bravely through rush hour traffic.
Maybe it was the heat; Miami sandwiched me between the scalding pavement and the glaring sun. But the reason for why they were clasping hands didn’t occur to me until I was unlocking the door to my American house.
For my mother’s sixteenth birthday, my great-grandmother waited sixteen hours in line for a birthday cake.
I imagine the darkness of mid-September. The stars are still laughing over human folly and my great-grandmother is huddling inside a thin coat. My mother will wake up that day to a two-tier cake in her kitchen.
She won’t have a cake like this until after the Perestroika. Not even for her wedding.
I string together my history like glass beads. I need to wear them on my neck, showing off my heritage even if it throttles me.
My mother’s grandmother made bombs for WWII. She searched for oil in Cuba and married a man whose father was told he was a traitor of the nation. They placed him before a firing squad on a bright, sunny Sunday.
My grandfather made submarines, using the same technology that was utilized in the war his parents fought.
My other great-grandmother wrote poetry. Loosely translated:
“The earth shakes and I yell
‘Mama!’ as bombs rain.
I lost my God
when I saw the boys
with burnt-off limbs
and tried to heal them.”
Things that Russians ask an American:
Is it true that you guys eat hamburgers, like, all the time?
Do you even have snow there?
You guys are all obese, right?
Who do you think won World War II?
One summer, I sat in a Moscow park with a friend. The anti-gay, propaganda politickers were beating their homophobic war-drum.
We were people-watching. Guessing how many of us were walking a safe distance away from their partners. Worrying that they’d be beaten bloody if anyone found out. Or pretending that everything was normal. Accepting that they’d rather never know love if they’d have to sacrifice their nation’s approval.
My friend sighs. “Russians know only one way to protest without being shot: They laugh about it.”
How many of us are laughing now?