Sophia Shalmiyev’s childhood was marked by a profound absence. Her first book, the memoir Mother Winter, explores the author’s traumatic experience of effective abandonment by her alcoholic mother, Elena, who was deemed unfit to parent by the court in her native Russia. This left her in the care of her physically abusive, if present, father. As she puts it, “My father was as dependable as the dawn. My mother was a mythical beached mermaid swimming home from the bar in the dark.” She immigrated to the United States with her father when she was eleven years old, leaving her mother behind.
Shalmiyev’s mother failed her. However, in an interview with David Naimon on Between the Covers, the author talks about how she subverts the expectation that she will trash her absent mother, opting instead to lean into her empathy for her as a sick person who was not given help, a woman under a lot of pressure, a woman with an ex-husband who was abusive and wielded all the power.
The original title for the book, To Mother, was taken from the Babes in Toyland album that Shalmiyev says in the select bibliography was a major influence. In reference to the current title, in the memoir, she writes, “Born in January 1958, Elena was a true Russian winter mother—you’ll never know how bad she’ll be, or when she’s coming or going.” She adds that it is in January that Russia experiences its longest winter nights, with darkness almost all day. She explores the grief of her mother’s absence, and also her own emergence from the cold of her dark winter, into a life of art, ideas, sex, and the complex relationship she has with the label of mother.
In writing of her mother, part of Shalmiyev’s compassion comes from a clear-eyed understanding of the misogyny that she and all women face. While in her twenties, living in Seattle many years after settling in the United States, a member of her small music and art community taught her “a lesson about who gets to speak in public and what last words, last rites look like.” He made stickers of her face, taken from an ad for the strip club where she worked. He typed around the edge, “Read my poetry! Understand my feelings!” It was revenge for graffiti she had made in a bar restroom days prior, which commented on the poor treatment of women in their local music scene. After the incident, the aggressor left town and eventually joined a famous band. As for her, “I didn’t write any poetry for about a decade.”
A feminist rage seethes beneath and helps drive the narrative. The memoir is in some ways a response to this singer who was upset that she was “harshing his mellow.” Shalmiyev’s mellow was harshed more than he, or most men, could imagine.
Her writing style is rich with defamiliarization, a technique that overturns conventions. She might describe objects or actions, structure a story, or explore a theme in a way that makes the reader reconsider these elements from a fresh stance. A well-known Emily Dickinson poem says, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—”. Shalmiyev does this in every paragraph. For example, of her daughter’s outfit, she writes, “Franny’s dress didn’t fit at her baptism, so I left the back open with its buttons untended.” The surprising idea of untended buttons echoes the author’s own feelings of abandonment.
Luda, the author’s stepmother, is only twelve years her senior. “She was my anchor, my rival, and a sister-mother-friend hybrid of sorts,” she writes. Of her stepmother’s reticent stance regarding the author’s biological mother, she writes, “Luda is still a bed-skirt mother, hiding Elena away like an impulse purchase from the discount mall.” Original phrases and images like these characterize her style, her original and unapologetic voice.
A particularly striking description adds to an alarming account of her work at the age of twelve as a car window washer on busy street corners in Rome, as she and her father saved money for their new start in the United States. Sometimes, men would wave money at her, and she would find that they had their pants undone, their penises out. “The really old guys were usually dressed in dapper khaki suits or linen button-downs and the dicks they waved like wrinkled flags back and forth were flaccid, all out of girl-harassment juice, but the desire to participate was still there.”
The image of the “dicks they waved like wrinkled flags” that were “all out of girl-harassment juice” is a dispassionate, vivid, and thus terrifying way to describe such an encounter. The key objective of defamiliarization is to slow the reader’s perception by enhancing unfamiliarity. The novel phrases in this brief passage compel the reader to linger in the discomfort of the moment, while processing the unusual descriptions.
Elsewhere, a sewing machine is presented in a meditation spanning three paragraphs. The image begins, “A sewing machine is like a mother bent over, cradling her pregnant belly, with the round bobbin inside firmly attached: moving, beating, fluttering, and spinning out a new life.” The metaphor builds: the bobbin a uterus, the thread it holds a “baby of new silky thread.” The author fantasizes about having a sewing machine of her own. For her ninth birthday she received one from her father and stepmother and became preoccupied with stitching things together—even paper. It becomes clear that the mission of “making contact, willing things to go together” is a fruitless enactment of the desired reunion, the realization of the mother-daughter bond she yearns for. She develops this metaphor through the prolonged exploration of the form and function of an object, a sewing machine. Throughout the memoir, objects and actions are re-envisioned and perceived through the lens of her pain, her profound sense of active loss.
Along with the missing biological mother who haunts the book, a corps of writers and other artists has a woven-in presence. Shalmiyev writes, in a section directly addressing her mother, that when she was a teenager, she was “editing a high school feminist newspaper, listening to riot grrrl bands, writing poems for you, and auditioning surrogate mothers for myself: feminists, writers, activists, painters, ballbusters, killjoys, sex workers, gay men.” She names and discusses various “surrogate mothers”; facts and vignettes about their work and their themes appear in glimpses: Marguerite Duras, Penny Arcade, Sappho, Susan Sontag, and many others. Of Anaïs Nin, whose coupling with Henry Miller Shalmiyev finds upsetting, she says: “I hated that the woman I admired gave in to a bad romance, but since Anaïs was the closest comparison to both damaged and regal I could find, she was therefore the embodiment of Elena on a pedestal and in the gutter of my imagination.” The emotional pain of the lack of connection with her mother seems tempered by the strength she draws from these artistic foremothers.
Another source of comfort and inspiration is Renate Adler. Shalmiyev speaks directly to her inclination to make art with defamiliarization as an objective by citing Adler’s way of structuring her narrative: “Renata Adler’s work was compared to a strange type of travel writing, with little quips of observation in a touch-and-go manner of sketching a scene here, a restaurant there, impressions of people elsewhere. Instability. Velocity. Refuge. Disjointedness. The only kind of narrative in motion I can stomach—defamiliarized.”
Adler’s novel Speedboat is cited in the selected works and seemed to guide the organization of the memoir, with its own “sketchings” of various kinds. Shalmiyev’s story is told in micro-sections that are clustered by their association around a theme or event, proceeding in loosely chronological chapters that leave much room for memories. Each paragraph is its own territory, interrogating a recollection, a belief, a phenomenon. Occasionally a transition from one paragraph to the next seems jarring. But by repeatedly wandering in a direction that seems unrelated and then circling back to the core of her search and her grief, Shalmiyev teaches the reader to trust that all seemingly loose threads will indeed fasten to the narrative, stitching it tighter.
Roughly the last third of the book, as well as memories found throughout, involve the author’s experience as a mother herself. She realized in her youth that she had a lot of responsibilities, and so viewed herself as a caretaker early on. Shalmiyev describes a date with her friend Mike a few months after she and a photographer boyfriend broke up. After coffee, drinks and dancing, she returned to his apartment, where she lay her head on his chest. The passage where she describes the sensation of that closeness concludes, “I smelled our future children’s dandelion scalps shedding in the bath all by laying my head on him.” They had two children together. As she adjusts to parenthood, she continues to yearn for connection to her own mother. She strives to give her children the maternal constancy she lacked growing up, while still attending to her artist self and her writing career:
Do I make my children cold when I leave this apartment to write, to get a drink with friends, if I’m hungover after a fun night out, if I lose my temper, or spend the night lying awake and going over a perfect day of inhabiting a studio apartment with nothing but books and a television and no kids around? Do they feel the chill of all the wide-open doors my mother left ajar within me? Am I freezing them out when I write down what my life would be like if I never had them?
The impossibility of true work/life balance is treated with refreshing frankness here. And the added challenges of finding the peace and space necessary to create art while young children need attention and care is something any artist mother can relate to.
As an adult, Shalmiyev travels to St. Petersburg in search of her mother. However, that trip, like the memoir, offers no easy solutions for the author’s powerful longing. Shalmiyev’s poignant and profoundly introspective memoir, Mother Winter, travels through the territory of new homes and changing relationships to her phantom mother, her father, her stepmother, as well as her children, and most of all to herself. In lieu of a neat conclusion, she offers defamiliarized hunks of raw humanity faceted with grief, ache, desire, tenderness, and a hunger for art-making.