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.
by Donal Mahoney
Two minutes more, Father Cal,
and you will hear another
of my strange confessions.
Right now, I’m outside
watching the rain on my glasses
running in rills.
Once inside I’ll confess
the usual stuff
with a few variations,
the same plot,
the same ploys,
the same frenetic tale
I have always to tell.
Next week, I promise,
it will be different.
Next week, I promise
I’ll fall on the kneeler
through the grille,
“Father Cal, it is I.
You know the rest.”
Next week, I won’t make
another list in the diner
across from St. Peter’s.
Next week I’ll swig
on a milkshake instead.
Father Cal, you and I
will both profit.
Donal Mahoney was nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes. His work has been published in a variety of print and electronic publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his earliest work can be found here.
photo by emilio labrador
by Faith McGee
“I should have remembered that you divorced me before I made you nachos,” Ramona says as she presses her forehead against the cool kitchen wall.
Charles grunts from the recliner and says without abandoning the television, “These nachos are not so good that you should feel regret.”
When Ramona closes her eyes, she sees the seagull wallpaper that she picked out for her new house with Fred. On their honeymoon, he took her to California. It was just like the films, but with more seagulls. She’d waited twenty years to be a fascinating person. Even her hairdresser was taken aback when she showed her the haircut she wanted from a magazine. She had invested heavily in five new skirts. Everything was magical except the time a tourist asked if “her son” could take their picture.
“You’ve changed nothing since I left,” she says while taking a sponge to pizza crumbs and pork chop grease on the stove. Charles looks over at her and wonders if she’ll clean the microwave. Her sullen eyes make him worry.
“Why should I? I thought the house was perfect when you lived here,” Charles says crunching on nachos. He looks at the wall clock. The batteries died the day after Ramona left him. Once while waiting in line at the hardware store, Charles thought about replacing them, but chose last year’s Female Firefighters in Bikinis calendar instead.
The clock is like a souvenir, he thinks.
When Ramona walks by him to shake out the rug, he smells her hair and thinks about how she’s used the same type of shampoo for thirty years. Jasmine and vanilla. Twice he’s caught himself rationing out small amounts. He would never admit on the construction site that he’d done anything new to his hair.
“How does Fred put up with you looking so frumpy?” Charles asks.
Ramona forces a weak laugh as she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She’d liked the way the dress looked in the dressing room. The saleswoman told her that the yellow took ten years off her face. Ramona asked what would take off fifteen.
“I guess he likes frumpy. It’s natural. Not like the women in the strip clubs.”
Charles winces. He wishes that he went to strip clubs. Women are too far away from him.
“Navajo Nation Police too strict for driving from Flagstaff at night. Besides my foot is too bad for driving,” Charles says pointing to his cast.
“Why do you beat up yourself?” Ramona asks sitting in her chair.
A dog barking makes them both turn to the window.
“Construction site is cursed. Two men fell off the scaffolding on the first day. Maybe witchcraft.”
“Was the construction site cursed when you broke your arm or when you cut your finger? I’ve spent almost as much time here taking care of you as I did when we were married.”
“Maybe I have noodle legs,” Charles says grinning. Once Ramona made spaghetti, and threw the noodles on the ceiling. When they caught, she said the ceiling had noodle legs.
He looks down at the hole in his shirt. He’d caught the bottom of it on a nail the night Ramona told him she was in love with Fred. She was casual about it like when she would tell him the sink was clogged. His younger brother Simon told him there was nothing in the marriage he could fix. Simon promised that there were plenty of fish in the sea, but I have run out of bait, Charles bitterly thinks as he plays with the hole.
“I guess I could have saved you some gas money by eating cat food for weeks.”
“Cat food would be a step up for you.”
Ramona sighs. It’s already noon. Back at her house, Fred is painting a nude model in his workshop. Everyday, she makes them turkey sandwiches for lunch, because Fred is slightly obsessed with Thanksgiving. Ramona chalks it up to him losing his mother at an early age and never getting a proper sit down dinner. She asked him once if he was in a “fowl” mood, but he never got the joke.
She pictures him spooning macaroni leftovers into the model’s mouth. In her mind, the model is throwing back her long hair, crossing and uncrossing her legs and secretly spitting bits of pasta into a napkin.
“Why not call Sara to come help you?” she asks, annoyed.
“She’s too busy with her own family. Our grandkids are giving her problems. Mary is boy crazy and Chuma is busy with dance groups. Her husband is lazy too.”
Ramona nods her head, “I told her that at the beginning. When she told me he was a software engineer, I was like ‘he sits all day?’ not a good sign.” She peeks at their family photos on the wall. Her favorite is the one with Charles holding Sara wearing her ceremonial clothes. Charles looks young and proud. Instinctively, she reaches for Charles’ hand. But remembers herself.
“Ouch. The skin is itchy. This foot will get infected. You will see.” He picks up a straw to wedge between the cast and the skin.
“That looks like a terrible drink.”
“Ramona, I could end up on one of those television crime shows for all you care. The ones where they bring a bunch of high tech equipment to some body part found at a pool”
“Those shows aren’t real.”
“It doesn’t matter. I could wind up a body part next to some cocktail with an umbrella in it,” Charles says while despondently pointing to his foot.
Ramona’s face softens. She remembers their honeymoon in a shed behind her aunt’s house. Charles paid her aunt twenty dollars a night to use the backyard. They silently touched each other as her nephews booby-trapped the shed’s door.
“I’ll bring you a picture that Fred just painted to pick up your spirits. It’s of the ocean.”
Charles groans,” Why is it always about the ocean? The ocean is a million miles from Arizona. Is the Big Mountain not good enough for him?”
Ramona is silent. She met Fred at the grocery store in Tuba City a year ago. His wife had just died and he had a cart filled with canned cranberry sauce.
“This is no way to live,” she told Fred. They had promised to remain friends. He was thirteen years younger and fit into slim jeans, so she never guessed he’d be interested in her.
“I’m going to leave.”
“The baseball game will be over soon, and I will need to take my medicine. Tell me about the book you are reading,” Charles says anxiously.
“It’s about tropical fish.”
Charles turns off the sound on the television and looks at her. When he is alone, he pictures her much younger like when they first met. They were twenty and dancing at the Buffalo Dance. Ramona’s braids flew around her feathers, her eyes were young and interested, and dust never seemed to settle on her ceremonial clothes. Right away, he knew he wanted to marry her. Her mother thought he had a decent job that didn’t depend on something as fickle as the brain. “Better to make things with the hands than in the brain,” she would say.
“There are these black and white fish called angels or angelfish. When they swim, they look like one hand applauding.”
“I like the way you look when you talk about them,” Charles says. He fumbles for the remote and turns on the sound.
The sound of the game fills the room. Ramona thinks about what she could make Charles for dinner. There’s a steak in the freezer. They could watch an old classic movie like they used to on the weekends. Fred refuses to keep a television in the house. He says it is for those disinterested in life.
Charles is looking at her from the corner of his eye. Her hand is a mere inch away from his. Ramona stands up and walks to the front door. She lights a cigarette and stares out onto the driveway. She notices that her yellow roses have made a turn for the worse.
“You’re back to smoking? Is that what all the artist types you hang out with do?” Charles says wondering if she’d like to see the photographs of the sunset he’s been taking. Everyday, Charles makes his way over to his window to capture the last remaining rays of the sun.
Ramona shrugs and thinks of Fred painting the contour of the model’s breasts.
“You smoked too when we first met.”
“I did it to impress you,” he says looking away from her.
“It didn’t impress me,” Ramona says rubbing out the fallen ashes with her sandal.
“Why not? You are too hard to impress Ramona,” Charles slides his photographs back into the drawer of the side table.
“I just thought you were like me.”
“I was like you. We’re the same age. Isn’t that enough?”
Ramona walks into their bedroom and closes the door. She takes off her new yellow dress. Her hands release her hair from their braids. She lies in their bed.
Throughout the years, she’s made shapes and animals from the texture of the popcorn ceiling. There’s my old friend giraffe, she thinks.
“How have you been little bird?” she asks the corner of the room. “When will Charles hobble in here snake?” The snake remains silent. She imagines the white snake uncoiling from the ceiling, dropping down and wrapping around her body. At first, the snake’s soft belly holds her lightly, but then become firm. Its forked tongue licks the sensitive spot behind her left ear. Her hand drifts past her bellybutton.
Charles turns up the game from the living room. Her snake swiftly travels back to the ceiling. Ramona dresses herself slowly.
She opens the door to the bedroom and ignores Charles’ bewildered look. Ramona sits back down again. No, I will make Charles take me out to the new hamburger place, she thinks.
“We could go…”
“Did you go look at your old dresses? There are a few left. They are much more suited for you than the cheap one you are wearing. You could change,” Charles says as he puts down the plate of nachos. His face looks soft and young.
Ramona stands up and grabs her purse.
“You should get new sheets Takala,” she points to the open door of the bedroom, “I see you still use the old ones.”
Charles is surprised that she used his Hopi name. Through the window, he watches her walk down the driveway. He thinks of jumping up and stopping her. He thinks of kissing her like he did at the Buffalo Dance. He pictures them looking at these applauding fish together.
Charles hears crunching gravel. He bolts off the couch and hurries through his living room. As he struggles with the door, Charles expects to see her outside with young eyes like that day they danced.
There’s nothing left in the desert, but a hot breath on his hand. A black and white dog scurries behind dead rose bushes and reveals a row of crooked teeth. Charles sits on the driveway. With one deft movement, he pulls off the cast, stretches his leg and wiggles his toes awake. The dog licks the homemade cast. Off in the distance, Ramona’s truck kicks up dark dust. Charles stands up and wanders back into he house. The sound of the baseball game spills into the desert.
Faith McGee graduated from California College of the Arts with an MFA in Creative Writing. During a trip to New Mexico this year, she was inspired to write this piece.
photo by soccerkrys
by John Grey
How to render a bomb harmless:
just say goodbye sweet, it’s over,
I’m tired of you, your family, your friends,
your dress sense, your habits,
even your voice, your smells,
the lines of your face, the feel of your hands.
Just imagine all these things,
so personal, so precious to you,
as shards scattered, splattered,
here there and everywhere.
That’s how you know it’s a bomb
and not just a balloon.
You don’t just let out the air.
You breathe it deep if anything.
John Grey is an Australian born poet, works as financial systems analyst. Recently published in Bryant Poetry Review, Tribeca Poetry Review and the horror anthology, “What Fears Become”with work upcoming in Potomac Review, Hurricane Review and Osiris.
photo by John Goode
by Zarina Zabrisky
The train was bulleting forward, through the darkness and the vast snows, away from smoking ruins, midnight sirens and the smell of charred human flesh. The shoebox compartment I shared with my colicky baby and two strangers rattled and shook. Lola screamed. Ivan and Victor—Chechen war veterans—drank vodka. I hadn’t slept for five months.
“You need sleep,” said Ivan one night, pouring me a full glass of vodka. He covered it with a thick slice of stale black bread, and balanced a sliver of murky-green pickle on top—it trembled as the train flew forward.
“Drink it, woman,” said Ivan. “You’ll sleep and you’ll feel better.”
The vodka burned my throat. Victor snored. Lola kept screaming.
“I can’t live like this,” I cried. “Where are we going? Ivan, Ivan, what is the purpose?”
Ivan stood up. Crumbs in his grey beard, sparks in his radiant blue eyes, he looked like a saint from a Russian Orthodox icon. The train flew, the floor shook. Ivan gripped the bunk-bed with his left hand. He lost his right hand when a Chechen home-made bomb exploded under his feet. His empty sleeve—tucked under his belt neatly—scared me.
“This is the purpose of life, woman.”
Ivan turned into one long pointing hand, his yellow bumpy finger suddenly steady. His thick flat fingernail almost touched Lola’s crunched-up face.
I held Lola to my chest. She smelled of tobacco and sour milk. Suddenly she smiled at me—toothless jaws shiny pink—and grabbed my thumb. I kissed a dimple on her right cheek. Ivan snored next to Victor.
“We’ll have a good life, Lolly,” I whispered. “Far, far away there’s a magic country with big, big buildings and fast red cars. You’ll have Barbies, jeans and bubblegum. You’ll have a good life. We’ll fly there, you and me. Don’t cry.”
Life flew like a Trans-Siberian Express. It rattled and shook, full of drunks, empty sleeves, and smelly pickles, and I always felt like a transit passenger, a crinkled ticket in my hand, a pulsing question in my head.
I asked it everywhere.
At a dance club, on Saturday nights. I’d lean against a cold wall, the grainy stone printing into my naked back. I’d look at the long line of yellow taxis, green lights blinking, girls hopping in and out in bright silk dresses like exotic butterflies in jungles. I didn’t need a drink. I was intoxicated by the mingling scents of cigarettes, exhaust fumes and perfume—the dizzying tang of the San Francisco night.
Inside disco lights pulsed, snatching a shaved head here, a swinging arm there, a silver bracelet, a hoop-earring, a sweat bead above a curved lip. Men—potential husbands—with goatees and musky cologne twirled me around.
“What is the purpose of life?” I asked them.
I asked about fifty or a hundred men. They all said the same thing. A stare. A big smile. Tobacco and coffee stained teeth, a wink, “The purpose of life is to have fun, baby. Wanna go to my place?”
“Fun?” said my best friend Masha. “They want to have fun. Disgusting. Shallow. Low. Aren’t they ashamed to even admit it?”
I looked at the dark circles under her eyes.
“Men are pigs. That’s all they want to do, fun!”
Masha’s first husband was a cocaine-addict, and her second husband was an alcoholic.
“Try driving kids to school,” she said, her Russian accent getting thicker and thicker, “work all day like a dog, drive kids back from school, feed them, bathe them, change them—”
“What do you think is the purpose of life?” I asked her.
“It is obviously to suffer.”
One Tuesday morning, at the weekly marketing meeting, the conference room felt like a commercial freezer. I color-coordinated folders on the desk. Zelda Slemish, a Product Manager, sipped her Starbucks latte.
“Zelda,” I asked, “before we get started. What’s the purpose of life?”
Zelda frowned—she had a Socrates forehead—shrugged, and gave me a long stare. I could imagine her dialing HR after the meeting.
“Work,” she said, patting her mermaid hair. “I believe in what I do.”
Zelda then opened her orange binder, latte foam trembling on her upper lip.
“First item on agenda. Global Marketing: Tangy Teriyaki Boneless Wings.”
On the way to my cubicle, I asked Lucy, our office manager. She smiled. Her teeth always made me think I had forgotten to floss. Lucy was twenty eight, a vegan and a volunteer at the SPCA.
“Lucy, what’s the purpose of life?”
Lucy closed Twitter. She beamed at me as if she had been waiting for this question for the last twenty five years. “Isn’t it obvious? The purpose of life is to connect with other people.”
Her voice was soft, like a kindergarten teacher’s.
“Men do not think that way,” I said.
“Oh,” said Lucy. “Right! Of course! They probably think the purpose of life is to provide for their families?”
I got married about five years ago. A few months after my wedding, I asked my new husband, “Honey, what’s the purpose of life?”
“What purpose?” he said, his face behind the Economist.
“Why are we here? Where are we going? And why?”
“It’s all bullshit,” he said. “Go do the dishes.”
On Lola’s eighteenth birthday, I Skyped her.
“Happy Birthday, Lolly,” I said. “How are you?”
“Fine,” she said. “Thanks. Wait a second.”
I watched her shuffling out of bed in her plaid pajamas. She searched for her cell phone—first in her canvas bag among an open pack of cigarettes, loose dollar bills and a half-eaten candy, then in her jeans pockets.
“Did you have your breakfast?” I asked. “Did you eat oatmeal?”
She was checking her texts, the dimple on her right cheek making me feel happy and anxious at the same time.
She looked away, bit her lip. Then, she said, “Mom. What’s the purpose of life?”
Zarina Zabrisky started to write at six. She wrote traveling around the world as a street artist, translator, and a kickboxing instructor. Zarina 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. IRON, her first short story collection, is now available from amazon.com in the US. You can find more about Zarina and read her published work here.
Read our interview with Zarina here.
photo by last cookie