Interview: Sophia Shalmiyev

Editor Katie Collins Guinn, Interview, September 26th, 2019

“I am trained and brainwashed to expect more of mothers and women than I do of fathers and men. I fight this every day.”

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Sophia Shalmiyev’s writing is captivating; it enters through the eyes, ties strings to the brain and then dances through the entire body. Every page holds lines that tease tears and make one put their hand on the heart.

Her brain is quick, concise, artful and intriguing. 

Sophia doesn’t just talk about the things and tell her story, she has crafted it in such a way that shows how passionate she is to transform, not just her own self and life but the fucking world. And it’s not ridiculous. If we all follow that candor, we absolutely will transform the world.
Because we have to.

This book also carries one of my favorite last lines ever, and one has to read the entirety of it to fully experience the magnificence of it. It’s the final punch. The final fuck yes.

She opened up with Katie Guinn for Nailed and we are so pleased to finally share this with you.

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The number four is obviously a significant element of your story and it grabbed me as a reader throughout the book. I’m always drawn toward the power of numbers and their symbolism. One part in particular that was less obvious but called out to me was this line:

“She was a pantry-moth mother. Stuck mottled in sacks of grain.”

Moth is part of the word, “mother” and it’s first four letters. Is this a coincidence? 

Also, the symbolism of moths aligns with you and your story in my mind. One thing I found was,

“Although moths are nocturnal, they are driven toward light for some unknown reason. Even when its efforts toward light prove dangerous and futile, the moth continues to drive forward, demonstrating its faith and determination.” Am I looking too deeply into this?

We have many connections and this observation and how you are placed in it as an observer is not a coincidence, though I love a coincidence.

You are also a visual artist so you can relate to this synergy I want to explore through your question. When I was in psychoanalysis during my training as an art therapist in NYC I would make a lot of pieces about my childhood. One day I brought in a collage of a ceramic doll in pigtails riding a giant moth through a city run by a witch opening a door to her townhouse at the bottom of the scape. The girl was going to finally land somewhere that was safely dark, in a pleasant and life-affirming way, and get out of living with the moth in the shadows one minute then seared by her unmitigated curiosity the next. The idea was that I hadn’t examined my penchant for wanting to tame and ride the moth. I was never the moth figure; always that cracked thrift-store doll pulling on the reigns and steering some wild force beneath me away from heat and beauty so as to not fall off and die. I came to understand that was my maternal grief, eventually. And I mean that in the day to day functioning self of when I have been incapable of self-regulation and executive functioning skills, of meeting my own basic needs, of regressing, of living like I was neglected rather than an adult having to suck it up and wash my shirts or do dishes.

This is not talked about as much, but many women I know who have been sexually violated are either slobs (and amen to that) or neat freaks or very controlling of their environment with no hair out of place. There is a shame-spiral in both. And it is unacceptable to be a slacker, be dirty, like really fucking filthy, as a girl because the world has trained us to always be groomed and have our pits, legs, pussy, ass, tits clean and ready to go at a moment’s notice. To be uptight is also to be a laughing stock. I just resented both ways of coping for pulling at me depending on how activated my own shaky foundation was at any given moment.

     artwork by Sophia Shalmiyev

Thank you for expanding on this visual.  The idea that women inhabit these extremes as a result of sexual assault/violation makes SO much sense.  I have to take a moment and just let that sink in.

There are a plethora of passages, lines that grabbed me, that I read over and over. Not because I couldn’t understand them but because I did! The language you use is so urgent but in a lyrical, gorgeous, deep in your veins way. 

For example: “Nearly being killed, nearly being raped, is like constantly smelling the rotting food you can’t find in your fridge every time you open the door to get something new to eat. Your appetites have been trashed…”

Saying the actual thing and then driving in the feeling of it, the metaphor of it just in case the reader can’t comprehend. Besides the artistry of it, is your intention to open the door to the reader so they absolutely get it? 

I have this poem where I say: repetition is everything in me. And of course, I source the Ackerman film and mention the sadism of ritual and repletion being not the actual doing but the erasure and surrender. It has become popular now to ask why mothers are not in the pictures of all the things they DO with their loved ones. They make the things, stage the characters around the props and snap the photo of the assemblage, getting their own evidence of looking rather than being looked at. We have practiced so much undocumented looking because it is called dailiness and is boring and we have been practiced on as moving sculptures, but maybe there is a fear of being called out as narcissists that is preventing more women from staging a repletion of their chores and their actions so that we have it as archived evidence.

I love photos of Grace Paley and Jane Jacobs on the streets and cannot bear the thought that if someone wasn’t there that day to document it or didn’t deem it newsworthy I would have even less to step into and repeat. So why shouldn’t I say the hard and all-too-ordinary thing in such a way. I do want to address just how mundane and fatigued and completely duh, dude, raped girls and women feel. Stop acting shocked or whatever. Talk to men about all the ways they have been ignoring us and never making the connection that probably almost every woman they have slept with has been harmed by a man.

It makes not an ounce of sense to me how men can pretend it’s normal or not happening or is too sensitive a topic. Like I said, I smell trash every time I want to eat. It is a simplistic metaphor to say to men (and validate other women) that I really do love to fuck and I am driven to fuck but the shit that I was put through in the context of how men treat you in bed or leading up to or directly following the tryst really stinks.

 

Yes! It absolutely does.

Let’s talk Step mothers! This element pulled me in because I am a “step-mother” and have been half my life now (which is so bizarre and splendid to me now).

This line: “She was my anchor, my rival, and a sister-mother-friend hybrid of sorts.” I really felt this line because I feel like the relationships between women and girls in this situation are SO layered and not just one easy to define thing. I am also 12 years older than my husband’s first daughter, so the age aspect does play a role, I agree.

You show us how Luda seemingly nonchalantly traumatizes you with her cutting words toward you and about your mother, while simultaneously giving us slight insights into her humanity and own personal struggles. Still, each insult made my heart crack a little bit. How does this all play a role in your life as you move forward now as a single mother? What insight can you give parents towards protecting their children from this kind of behavior from a non-blood parenting adult? 

Do you want to talk to us more about your relationship with her then and how you have processed some of the things you went through together? How is your relationship now? You thanked her in the acknowledgments which made my face wet.

artwork by Sophia Shalmiyev

It is very important to me to acknowledge that being a non-bio mom in a situation where you nurture and create a household with the person you love is incredible. It is not easy. It’s a very cursed or blessed kinda split. Like, there is rarely an in-between. I am only recently starting to process all of that in my adult relationship because the man I am dating also has two kids. We parent in such a different way and our relationships with our exes also don’t align and so I can’t work it out yet, but it is my time to reckon with how I was to Luda, how Luda was to my dad and why, and really, most importantly, how my father was towards her.

The times of extreme violence were the heaviest and saddest thing in our bond because she was so wrapped up in my father and not seeing me; she didn’t want to be comforted by me. I wanted her to leave him. Not leave him here and there and to teach him a lesson, but take all of his shit, burn it, move to another state and only look back to write me a letter inviting me to a secret location to visit her when I am old enough to escape. I had so many fantasies that screwed with my head around her inability to economically, emotionally, sexually, traditionally part with this man I also loved and relied on. And yet, he stopped physically hitting her, which was her goal as someone who made a choice to stay. He gave her the opportunity to become a bio mom, which was society’s brainwashing of what a proper woman has to be, and she ate it up. In every way, they have this chauvinist bond that doesn’t seem so to most people because she is no wall-flower. Currently, they work together, with her doing all of the behind the scenes stuff like his billing at the dental office.

My father is not a monster, even though he was abusive. I couldn’t just take off as a child, so I projected my self-hatred and fear onto her. I know it is cruel (and dangerously banal for female bonds) but I still cannot fully forgive her for staying and having two kids with him after all that I witnessed. I meant what I said in my book. I am trained and brainwashed to expect more of mothers and women than I do of fathers and men. I fight this every day. It is work. Lying about it would be gross. 

artwork by Sophia Shalmiyev

Luda, ironically, in her stance against my drunk mother, is now on methadone because she relapsed about six years ago. I wish she would get real help, but she told me that she is so fearful of the stigma of a doctor documenting her addiction on her records that she would rather buy the stuff on the street. With the exception of a few months here and there I have only known her to be driven and competent and extremely keen to survive, sometimes tricky, in the best way. She is a magician. I am so enamored with her and have never met anyone like her or ever will. We speak sometimes but there is a wedge between us. It’s not even around my mother. I am simply not in the family anymore because I left. I am a beloved guest. When I did sex work it felt like the same culture. You are a tourist once you exit the life. Her reaction to my book has been a bit of worry and amusement, but mostly she has let me be. It’s liberating.

 

I really appreciate your honesty here.

On page 129 you say “The women I worked with at the domestic violence shelter as part of my training never knew that I hid a battered bird inside a black breasted sparrow.” This is such a striking metaphor for your experience, but did you literally own a stuffed bird of such, also?

Oh no! I wish!!!! There is so much sparrow imagery and poetry that I grew up with in Leningrad. It was more to obliquely point to my being what they called a Black Jew in the Soviet Union (I believe this term preceded The Revolution and exists today in near-totalitarian Russia). Sparrows being so common they just blend and I couldn’t blend. I always had a secret and I didn’t understand what it meant to be Jewish in a place with no religion. Then all of a sudden not be Jewish on American soil where separation of church and state don’t seem to actually exist. Then become a Jew through the rituals at yeshiva. Then be an atheist—bless my stepmother, she would sit me down and have debates over religion with me and would scream and laugh about aliens being more probable than god. I experienced this conundrum and shape-shifting again when I entered the domestic violence shelter not as a client but as the helper, an ill-equipped therapist in training. It felt like a gas. I rebelled hard.

 

Did you become an art therapist?

I sure did! And then I burned out, lots of vicarious re-traumatization played some part, but it was the cliché of not being able to figure out full-time work with mothering an infant, or toddler for that matter. Part-time work, subsidies, and universal day-care every twenty blocks, mostly run by male-identifying folks, please!

 

Your newest collection of paintings were hung at Powell’s during the month of your book launch there. Did you work on the paintings while you were writing the book, or longer, or before or…? What was your process for both the writing and visual art? 

When did you begin painting in general? You don’t talk a lot about being a visual artist in the book, can you tell us more about that part of yourself and how it’s played a role in your life? 

Do I sound like a very silly person if I say I just always made some kind of art, but mostly in private? In Olympia I met other people who were into my aesthetic and were not about commercial value or competition and so I would show sometimes. I keep a studio here in Portland by the Morrison bridge that I share with two other cool and supportive female artists. I hate the art world and know very few people who are seriously in it or are pursuing it who are not annoying as hell. I want to find my visual art community. I dropped out of so many art classes at Evergreen because I couldn’t stand the garbage and posturing and have had to retrieve my eyes from rolling back in my head. I love art and literary criticism and I read art history for fun but give me Guerrilla Girls over all this subtle and nuanced crap being peddled. Let’s start a thing!

Sophia Shalmiyev’s artwork at Powell’s

Yes please! I am aaaalllll in.

Few things do I love more than a strong feminist book that credits in its pages the women who inspired the writer. You do this, a lot. It’s important to acknowledge those who came before us and machetied those overgrown old weeds of a trail that everyone followed. In order to innovate, we do look to the past right? It both inspires us and shows us what not to continue doing. Also, if the reader is unfamiliar with these artists, and adores the writer’s work, this is a portal into deeper shit that truly never ends once you follow it. What more can you tell us about your love for Sappho?

I have only wanted for women and girls to pick up the book and find other women to follow and emulate and try on and discover and research and then pass the torch. That was part of the goal. There are codes and messages in a bottle and secret passageways but nothing that’s sacred or hidden in a sadistic way. So much of the cannon is about saying that some piling on of allusions is sophisticated and enlightened and a test of whether you are in the club. I read a bunch of the club. I don’t hate it. Ezra Pound is problematic on so many levels but I did get what I needed from him. He is not my people. And so I wished to do something in the same vein but for my own tribe. Sappho is my mother. She is a legend because a stitching is performed around her words and persona every day. It’s a parallel process for me.

 

 When I first saw the wall of your paintings at Powell’s, there was a copy of Mother Winter along with a copy of  The Giving Tree. by Shel Silverstein on a cord so no one could take it, and it said “artist’s copy.” or “Author’s copy.” I don’t remember precisely. I knew right then I would love you and your art.

Would it give too much away to go into the significance of this book.

First, I need to say that my chained, precious copy of this Shel book was stolen. Or maybe someone bought it? Or Powell’s restocked it, accidentally? I didn’t grow up in America so I only read this as a parent to my own kids and thought I was going to have a panic attack of pure recognition of never having a childhood; I have only been the tree. But, Katie, this is also a sign. It is a twinning and a parallel process to what THE (you/me/her/feminine) giving tree goes through. And I took it like the giving tree. I told myself that it was ok, more than ok, necessary, even, that someone who made a mistake or needed it more, removed it—a piece of me—and it now has a new life.

I think everyone knows the moral of the giving tree without its assertion of conventional morality. It’s a mother, but it can also be a daughter or a girlfriend. I have been a stump before. I have given away all of my apples before. I still do. I feel dead without feeling useful. But most women don’t know that it’s in the arts we are most needed, not at home. As a Soviet child, utility, function, form, and martyrdom were my bread and butter. And no one really butters my bread like that old country anymore and it makes me sad. I have been in positions where I was demanding and exacting and wanted things my way and asked more of people than they could give me, because I have almost no limit to my own giving. But that is a tic, an involuntary action like a breath. Examined, I see that my own stamina is un-mirrored and inconsolable for good. I can make my own butter and share it, but it’s not the same.

 

It seems like such an obvious story that so much of our culture still doesn’t recognize about itself.

How do you write a novel with two young spawn as a single mother? 

artwork by Sophia Shalmiyev

Okay, yeah! How does anyone without another parent in the mix to share duties with write a goddamn thing? Single mothers with absentee dads have it way harder. It is not even a comparison. At AWP I was on a panel with four other single mothers discussing our experiences, and I was brutally honest, and not boastful, just candid, about how lucky I feel that the choice I made to live and be on my own is a liberation only because the father of my children is a kind and trustworthy man towards his kids and community. He was not the right romantic partner for me and that is all that there is to it. We had no way to create equality in our household; we came from very different socioeconomic backgrounds and involvement in mental health. I grew up beaten, raped and poor so my expectation was that a man who had every advantage the world could offer and took it all for granted would lift me up and be more than an ally, he would create a correction of sorts. That was impossible because we fell into traditional roles and he shut down and had no insight to share; he was present without ever being present.

I fucked up because I resort to anger to manage my disappointment and so the wall between us became the family. Now we lead separate lives and I still do all the shit I used to that he won’t…taxes, doctors, school, just the fucken necessary drudgery of every day that requires executive functioning that is not the male zone of “work.” I have pointed out many times that men hide in their paid labor. They diminish and distort and contribute to the way society shits on mothers with the refusal to willingly and voluntarily perform unpaid labor. That is reason one I left. It keeps happening though and I have yet to meet a man whom I am physically attracted to who isn’t this way. And they know it and they are smirking, they are kind of nervous laughing the way a teenager who got caught stealing a candy bar does. I am hovering right at the poverty line now after having finally achieved middle class through my marriage and the joint incomes we had. Teaching and writing are around the clock and the financial rewards are a punch in the face bad.

I want there to be an expansion of our view into the variations on the theme of parenting and writing. The mothers who have partners at home are often more strapped for time because they are like another child to corral and feed and plan for and clean up after. That is a tradeoff for not being able to go to the store at 8 pm if the kids are in bed and there is no one to leave them with, or there is an emergency. I am locked in with them. When Franny was 2-4 it was so hard because I couldn’t really bargain or reason with her and my son was really dysregulated and depressed and none of the meds or therapies were working for his diagnosis. I survived that more than I lived it. The other question is: do you have family around to support you? My father and stepmother are far away and they work seventy hours a week, so, No, on that one. However, my ex-in-laws are fantastic grandparents and if I am stuck and they are available, it’s amazing.

 

I usually detest this question, “What’s Next?” because can we just please appreciate the now and this thing we are talking about? And why are artists SO pressured to churn out more more more constantly, Buuuuuutttt I have heard you read from and talk about forthcoming work, so can you tell us what that is? Because I DO selfishly want more of your art forever as long as I am alive!

Well, I am in heaven and hell (but am heartened and encouraged by someone like you asking me for the next project to come through). I am working on my novel, I MARRIED THE BUTCHER TO GET TO THE BONE. It changes for me every day, but it’s about anxiety, earthquakes, single parenting, slackerism in women, being sick of dudes, dating dudes as a middle aged woman, and finding your tribe.

I am also working on surrounding myself with other mothers who can be there for each other in a pinch, but I have to be honest, it just isn’t seamless or even possible. Most women I know are ashamed of asking for help and are too depressed or anxious to share their private time and watch your kids for you on the fly. This is something I am hoping to change. Why are we so uptight with each other? It is capitalism at its worst. Apologies for asking, but can I get some crumbs? Or, You prob don’t want to be around me right now anyways, there is so much TV to check out to because you are already so overstimulated from social media and work and the news cycle and…? The toxicity and dis-ease are palpable, but if another woman reads this, she will automatically feel guilt or think I am reading her up and down or demanding something. I am not. I am observing the manifest destiny of mothering through isolation. It’s not our fate. We can be vulnerable in this one way we do not usually allow.

artwork by Sophia Shalmiyev

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You can learn more about Sophia and purchase Mother Winter at her website, here.

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Katie Collins Guinn

Katie Collins-Guinn is an artist, mother of blood and non-blood daughters, designer and writer, wifey, flower gardener, 4th generation North Portlander and lover of the beautiful.

She’s part of the corporeal writing family, which has brought about work that’s been hiding in her lungs, liver and heart for years.

Her adult coloring book The Stoner Babes was recently published with Microcosm Publishing. She’s spent time as a contributing freelance writer for the Portland Mercury and has been published in Entropy, Nailed Magazine and The Manifest-station.

She cares for 19 roses and counting.