by Jeff Von Ward
Zarina Zabrisky started to publish her work in 2011. Since then her work appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada and Nepal and three of her short stories are nominated for Pushcart Prize. (Nominations by Eleven Eleven Journal of Literature and Art, Red Fez Literary Magazine and Epic Rites Press Publishing.) Amy Hempel has picked her short story for distinction as Finalist in The Normal School’s Normal Prize in Fiction, 2012. Her debut collection of short stories, IRON, was recently published by Epic Rites Press. She has been touring and reading all over the western United States in support of it. I recently caught up with Zarina to ask about her amazing book.
What inspired you to write IRON?
IRON is a tribute. Each of the four stories is inspired by the people I loved and lost and my whole lost generation, the generation that came of age during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Is there a uniquely Russian sensibility to literature and, if so, do you feel like you’re writing in or against this tradition?
Like many Russians I do have a passionate love affair with books. I arrived in America with a cat and a couple of suitcases, one of them filled with my family’s books. I could not leave them behind. It’s fairly common. Do I follow the tradition? I think we all internalize parts of our culture, only to rebel against it later. What results might be our true unique selves.
What does the title refer to, beyond the specific item that Vera uses in the title story?
The Iron Curtain. Iron lady. Iron maiden. Iron symbolizes power. Iron women are strong women. But pure iron is soft! Steel is hard, not iron. What is the real power? Is there power in softness?
I loved the nicknames of the characters in “Weeping Poppies”: Pilot, Philosopher, Legs. Do you consider yourself an allegorical writer?
The underworld’s nicknames are always poetic.
Also, it recently occurred to me that Europeans grow up with allegory all around. The statue you walk by on the way to school is not just a woman with a shell in her hand, it symbolizes the sea, the port, the motherland and the victory in some long forgotten battle. The hand with a stick represents the supreme power and the dynasty of monarchs long gone. You grow up learning this language of secret signs. If you happen to be a writer you most likely will use it at some point, one way or another.
Is it Philosopher’s sensitivity that leads to his downfall?
All philosophers are doomed, junkies or not. You know the legend about Nietzsche’s last mental breakdown, when he saw a horse being flogged and covered the animal with his body to stop its torture? Sensitivity is a gift but it comes at an enormous price.
Is “The Hungry Duck” based on a real location?
Yes. I lived close to there. The Hungry Duck was an infamous Moscow bar of the 1990s. It was called the Den of Sin. The Duck’s “Ladies Night” was exceptionally popular, bringing almost one thousand women in a single night. Women danced on the bars and stripped. It was fun, but also dangerous—the bar tops were slippery and narrow. The Duck was owned by a Canadian businessman and Georgian mafia—like pretty much everything else those days. Everything belonged to expats and mafia.
You write really strong female protagonists. Do you consider yourself a political writer? Is the book, in part, about the political made personal? I’m thinking, in particular, of the title story. It feels like there are both geopolitical and gender issues at play, but ultimately it is a kind of hair-raising escape.
I feel that in life everything is mixed, politics, personal and gender issues. A young woman losing her fiancé because he is killed at war—is it political or personal? A family leaving their home to become refugees? The women in my stories are survivors, not politicians. But by making their choices they make history.
Is Marina too naïve or just a romantic? Is there any problem with that? How does one balance “street savvy” or cynicism with being open to new experiences?
Marina is a dreamer. Blinded by her dream, she refuses to see reality. Young people tend to think they are invincible and immortal. Songs of Innocence and Experience. I think the question is: How does one learn life lessons and stay optimistic?
One of my favorite minor characters was Sergey, the ne’er-do-well brother and hanger-on who perpetuates the family curse in “The Hungry Duck.” I feel like we’ve all known people like him. Have familial bonds for people become more or less important in Russia since the arrival of capitalism?
Depends on the family, really. I left Russia a long time ago, and it is hard for me to tell. I like Sergey, too. Impossible to live with, hard to leave. Also, the Russian intelligentsia stereotype: bookish, bright, super-sensitive, yet hopeless.
“The Cross of David” was the only story in this collection set in America. Do you share David’s cynicism about religion? When it comes to magical thinking, are Russians and Americans both guilty of the same excesses?
My position is very similar to the protagonist’s view. I am a bitter atheist. I’m not cynical about religion or faith. It is lonely here and people want to feel protected and loved. I respect that. I’m cynical about those who use religion to control, brainwash or profit off others in need.
Religion in Russia is a whole different animal. In the last hundred years Russia went from burning churches and banning crosses to mandatory religious education in schools. I think Americans are way more subdued.
Can you talk about your treatment of violence? For example, in the stories “Weeping Poppies” “The Hungry Duck” and “Iron”? Is it harder to write about violence than to see it in a Tarantino movie? How do you know what to imply and where to linger?
Sadly, I’ve seen a lot of violence in life. It is not exciting. I don’t like writing about rape, fist fights or shootings. I don’t like writing about death either. But… as Siddur, a Jewish prayer book, says, “It is darkness which makes us aware of the stars.”
I write from moving pictures in my head. It is like a movie so I don’t really decide about the scene. I can choose details to cut or to leave when I’m editing. I prefer a minimalist style.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
I don’t feel like I’m in a place to give advice. I think it would be: Write, read and never listen to anyone telling you that you can’t write.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel and two short story collections. My novel, “Light Catchers” is a story of three artists pursuing perfection in art and finding deadly passion instead. One short story collection explores love and death in the extreme conditions of a remote Kazakh oilfield. The other one is based on my travelling in Europe and Africa.
Zarina Zabrisky started to write at six in Russia. She escaped the aftermath of a collapsing communist empire and wrote traveling around the world as a street artist, translator, and a kickboxing instructor. Her work appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada and Nepal. Zabrisky now lives in San Francisco. IRON is her debut short story collection.