This inexplicable, disembodied smokestack in the middle of a residential neighborhood could be equally at home in the Rust Belt, Appalachia, or Siberia

This inexplicable, disembodied smokestack in the middle of a residential neighborhood could be equally at home in the Rust Belt, Appalachia, or Siberia

Late last night, I got the first round of edits from Peasantry Press, the upstart Canadian publisher that will put out my first novel in early 2017. While I certainly haven’t made it through all the notes yet, there’s been a common stream in the editor’s questions through the first couple of chapters, and they are largely connected to the level of described sunlight versus the physical time of day.

What I’ve got to make clearer to both the editorial staff and my eventual readers is that in the middle of a continental landmass—whether the southern Rust Belt and northern Appalachia where I’ve sent most of my life, or in Siberia where I am now—the level of brightness often has nothing to do with the sun’s daily functions. There is a particular cast that the sky gets at the confluence of the Rust Belt and Appalachia. Not quite a gloom, I would tab it as a grey calmness. Often, it arrives without much of a hint and lingers for days at a time. While seasonally driven to an extent (this grey tone is likelier from mid-Autumn through the end of spring), it can happen anytime. It can carry rain, and it can come completely dry. I’ve felt it in the Mountains of eastern Kentucky, the hills of West Virginia, on the plateaus of western Ohio. It even crept over to Carbondale, Illinois a few times, but it’s more common closer to the mountains. In Pine Gap, one of the characters describes this grey tone as having the feel of a great hovering, as though the mountains have caught the clouds in one place and won’t let them go anywhere, even if they refuse to rain. It’s a calm feeling to me, and a comfortable one. As I said earlier, I don’t really see it as a gloom, just a coolness. When I woke up this morning in the middle of Russia, I saw that familiar tone outside my window and if took me straight home.

Granted, there was also a half-inch of snow on the ground, so these clouds did let go of some precipitation. But the sky, that middling grey, that low fog, that cool tone devoid of defined cloud edges: that was familiar. That was comfortable. And it wasn’t the only thing that’s reminded me of home.

Starting slowly: the first Siberian snowfall of 2016.

Starting slowly: the first Siberian snowfall of 2016.

When I landed in Russia, Moscow was frenetic energy. New York-and-a-half. Rooftop nightclubs that left the windows of my hotel room pulsing until six in the morning, with spotlights outside to boot. Runway apparel and Vogue Magazine ensembles were all over the place—a sea of fashion interrupted only by tourists who’s shambled together whatever pieces of clean luggage were left in their suitcases. There were trendy restaurants, wine bars, coffee shops of all different styles, stripes, and clienteles. The whole scene was a shot of morphine into my jetlagged body and mind. I stayed up too late, woke too early, and generally wrecked my sleeping schedule because I wanted to see it all.

On the way out, even the airport was electric, crammed tight with passengers diffusing back toward homes across Russia and neighboring countries after weekends spent partying or sightseeing, visiting, or remembering. There were no places to sit, hardly any to stand, and anytime you did stop to rest, there was a constant barrage of bumping as others tried to make their way to the flight gates.

The next morning, I landed five time zones and a veritable world away.

Novosibirsk on a Monday morning was the calmest scene anyone could possibly expect from city of a million and a half. The few moments we spent in traffic were more from light placement than actual traffic volume. Our entrance into the very heart of the city was quick and simple. As I looked out the window, I quickly noted that the high fashion was gone, the pretense too. What I saw were people who look a lot like me, and a lot like what I’ve known, the American Rust Belt and the Edge of Appalachia.

We rolled past factories on the way into town. Some were shuttered, some were deeply active, and most were haphazardly placed. There’s good reason for this. During World War Two, as Hitler’s armies pressed past the Soviet Union’s western shoulder blade and into its core, the Soviet government realized it needed to relocate key industrial concerns in order to keep wartime manufacturing on track. The solution was to pack up essential factories that were under threat of being overtaken. Entire plants—from food factories to steel mills—were dissembled, loaded onto trains and sent east, toward Novosibirsk and other cities. When a large enough patch of land to hold that train’s factory came in sight, the trains stopped, unloaded, and was rebuilt. Workers built hovels—often from found objects—close to the reconstruction site, and production resumed. Seventy years later, many of these factories remain. Sometimes, they’re surrounded by new shops and neighborhoods. In other spots, the worker hovels remain. Some are still inhabited. 

This is the most familiar thing to me. Neighborhoods butting up against factories. Districts and even whole towns built for one specific purpose, whose job has been outlived and now the buildings remain. No one knows what to do with them, on either continent. Are they cleared in the name of progress? Restored in the name of memory? Converted into something new, with a nod to the past weaved into the design? These questions breed debates and odd town designs and misshapen borders to neighborhoods. This means random, disembodied smokestacks. Like the one in Portsmouth, Ohio, that I pass when driving between my hometown in southern Ohio and Huntington, W.V., we’re I’ve worked the last two years. Once part of a mile-long steel mill, it now watches over a Wal-Mart parking lot. There’s one just like it, nestled between the rectangular apartment buildings that comprise my neighborhood.

There are even more cognates between Siberia and the Rust Belt. They’re both in the flyover zone. They’re ringed by spectacles of nature. They’re characterized by fierce regional pride. They’re growing, changing, re-shaping themselves in new economies. But one of the most exciting similarities is in the growth and proliferation of small businesses. Just like the thriving, hip neighborhoods springing back to life in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Akron, and Toledo, the central part of Novosibirsk is bustling with fun, innovative, new businesses, many of them run by young people. Coffee shops and burger joints lead the way. There are dozens all over town, each spot differentiating itself with some signature product. Borscht burgers. Acorn coffee. Doors built between neighboring businesses to encourage customers to buy a drink at one spot and grab a sandwich next door without needing to walk outside. At one of the coffee shops that just opened up near my flat, the owner told me he worked in the Louisiana oil fields for five years in order to save up and buy a business. When he did, he chose a shop format that would yield a profit while reminding him of his time abroad. The connection is working: not only do I feel at home in his shop; I feel at home in this region, which day by day seems a little more like home.

The fall specialty menu at Coffee Akademie, proving that pumpkin spice lattes are a worldwide phenomenon. But the maple raf and acorn coffees are the sort of inventive mixtures setting Siberian cafes apart as unique and exciting. 

The fall specialty menu at Coffee Akademie, proving that pumpkin spice lattes are a worldwide phenomenon. But the maple raf and acorn coffees are the sort of inventive mixtures setting Siberian cafes apart as unique and exciting. 

One Dubious similarity is the historical negativity associated with the names of these places. Siberia is associated with the consequences of of angering the power brokers in an authoritarian regime. Appalachia is associated with poverty, and the Rust Belt is connected to decline. There are factual flecks in all these descriptions, but they're dwarfed by a richer, fuller reality. That's something all three regions are working hard to overcome. They all seem to be doing splendid work in overcoming outdated conceptions.  

My creative writing course began this weekend, and it’s hard to describe just how ecstatic I am about the students and their ideas. There are a lot of benefits to institutionalized study of creative writing. One of the drawbacks to building a community for examining work is that the feedback sometimes (maybe too frequently) begins with the word “no.” These students haven’t been exposed to that. They’re writing in a new language, playing with new ideas, and testing limits. All of it leads to a free playfulness with the idea of story that is nothing less than inspiring. I’m terribly excited to see what sort of stories they produce; if their early exercises are an indication, they’ll be putting out jaw-dropping texts by the end of the semester.

Next week, I return to Moscow. First, I’ll participate in the second half of Fulbright orientation. During July, program participants were given a thorough preview of the program and its expectations. Now, we’ll get a bit more in-country information. More exciting, though, is a chance to meet up with colleagues who are working all across Russia and to catch up on how their projects and lives are going. Once the orientation is done, I get to stick around the capitol for a few extra days, as I’m privileged to join one of the panels charged with selecting Russian language experts who will come to the U.S. next year under the Fulbright program’s Foreign Language Teaching Assistant program.  

I'll have news and new photos from Moscow next week. Until then, everyone's favorite closing sentence, the Fulbright disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.