First off, this was a record-breaking week at Dispatches From Siberia: nearly a thousand people visited the blog and many of you interacted by asking questions through email and social media channels. Because of the awesome response (and because of the great questions you asked), the Q & A format will remain a weekly component of DFS—I’ll include and answer at least one reader question each week. I’ll tag my contact information to the bottom of this week’s post; keep sending your questions!
Now, let’s jump straight into the Q&A:
Question from K.W.: Has your time in Novosibirsk inspired any new writing? Can you give us a sneak peek?
A: It’s always hard to know if a place directly inspires something. What triggers me to write are very specific moments that lead to questions, and I’ve definitely had a few of those. I haven’t yet completed a story that I’d fully call a “Novosibirsk Story,” but the experience of living here has colored and shaped everything I’ve written about during the last five months.
Novosibirsk is probably a place I’ll write a lot about once I return home, and I don’t think that’s uncommon. For example, in the spring of 2010, I had a semester-long grant to live and write in Ireland. I spent most of my time in Ireland writing about home, and once I returned home I spent most of my time writing about Ireland. That distance and lamentation helps develop story ideas that might not have been initially evident.
My most fertile pattern for gathering writing ideas in Russia has been to travel. I spent a couple of days in Irkutsk and came back with half a dozen ideas, and a number of the stories are already in progress. There was a bar/café across the street from the place I stayed where someone—not sure if it was the establishment or some other entity—was clearly paying young girls to talk to foreigners in English to keep them in the establishment longer. One-by-one, they came up to me and others with the same script and list of generic questions. That’s the kind of thing that screams for a short story, and so I’m nearly done drafting one called “The English Girls.” Along the Circum-Baikal Railroad, there are plaques on the rock face, many of them commemorating railroad “accidents” so that suicides wouldn’t have to be recorded in official registries, and so I’ve invented a widow who makes an annual trek around the lake, commemorating the sites for what they are.
Now, the quick-in, quick-out nature of a tourist visit is more conducive to the idea spark, but the rest of the story needs detail. So the setting information and the way the forty-below temperatures make your nose hairs freeze and all of the regular-life details? Those have come from Novosibirsk. So I’d say that traveling has inspired the topics more, but Novosibirsk has helped me build the real details that let the characters become meaningful and real.
Question from O.V.: A lot of “Russian star constellation writers tried to catch a specific “Russian feeling” that fills you when you return from abroad—something like determined apprehension of the fact that life goes on without you, and everything will die anyway, so you need to embrace it and be ready. Do you have any specific “Russian feeling” aside from living in another language environment?
A: I’ve left the country twice and come back: once for vacation and once for work, and both times I immediately felt this Russian Feeling you describe. The thing is, it’s hard to actually describe. The angle of the sun is different. Attitudes about everything from forming lines to public education are different. Obviously things look different: buildings and parks and shops and flags, fashion—even the way people walk.
*Funny story about that one—a barista recently told me everyone in her café always looks confused I order with an American accent, because I walk to the counter not with the happy bounce of an American but the with aggressiveness of a Russian. This makes me feel much better about a student's assessment last year that I “Be rollin’ into class like Rick Ross.” It wasn't a references to my weight after all--instead, it seems to derive from the 2014 T.I./Rick Ross collaboration "You Can Tell How I walk (I'm a Boss)".
I think the biggest thing, though, is the distance. Obviously, the distance between cities can be striking, and even the distance across towns or between districts of a city, which can be very spread out. But even when things are geographically very close, travel can take some time: there may not be a direct road or transportation route, which causes a lot of connecting and backtracking. The traffic might be absurd. Someone might shove in front of you to reach the stairs, and then creep along like a turtle on Quaaludes. There’s just distance everywhere—real and manufactured—and it becomes part of life. I imagine impatient people must be very unhappy in Russia. But then, there are a lot of opportunities to practice patience.
The plus side of all this distance for me is there’s a lot of time to stare out the window and think, to slow down and be inventive or imaginative. The downside is that I’ve got to block off most of a day if I need to go to the grocery. For better or worse, from geography or from questionable highway engineering, I think distance will always be the feeling of distance and separation, and the amount of work that sometimes goes into bridging those.
Question from numerous readers: “How do you handle the weather in Siberia?”
I’ve received versions of this question since the moment the grant was awarded, and I received a few more iterations this week. I think the first thing that’s important to clarify is that I chose Russia, and ultimately, I chose Novosibirsk, which is to say I chose Siberia. Cold was always going to be a part of the deal, but so, too, was the chance to see parts of the world few westerners ever happen across.
I got good advice early on fro my university host about clothing and good practices for being outside, and I’ve paid attention to advice from people who live here. Part of experiencing a new place is really digging into the experience, and so I’ve tried to embrace the cold. I’ve participated in a snowball fight on the top of a frozen sea. I’ve walked through town when the temperatures felt close to apocalyptic. I haven’t been senseless or risky about my interactions with the weather: like anything new, I’ve found that it’s best to ask and pay attention to people with prior experience. The net positive of Siberian winter is that it’s consistently cold.
In the Ohio valley, it’s fluctuated this year, alternating between snow one day and T-shirt weather the next. Those huge leaps are what brings illness. I’ve managed to stay fairly healthy, largely by being smart about how I interact with the weather. You don’t walk around drinking hot coffee in -30 degree temperatures, for example. It’s the differentials that get you, so I’ve learned to limit those.
But, it’s one of those things you adapt to, and adaptation happens best if you work to keep positive. I enjoy seeing the steeled attitude Siberians take toward the cold, the snow, and ice. There are multiple meters of standing snow outside right now, and to my knowledge, there hasn’t been a single missed day of school or work in the city due to snow or cold. People resolve to handle their business, they adapt to it, and manage to navigate the difficulty. That’s not something to gripe about: that’s something to admire and learn from.
Thanks for the wonderful questions, including those I didn’t have space for this week. I’ll continue to answer the backlog, but please send you additional questions and follow ups via the comment box below, or the following social media sites or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Fulbright Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.