‘Sarif’s Russia is the devil’s black hole of hell’ Despite The Falling Snow by Shamim Sarif

Shamim Sarif is known for her strong female characters and explorations of gender, class, and discrimination. She directed films of her novels I Can’t Think Straight, The World Unseen and Despite The Falling Snow. The latter was first published in 2010 and made into a film in 2015despitethefallngsnow, with a new paperback edition by John Blake Publishing Ltd coming out this April 2016.  It is set in Russia’s post-Stalin years, and the present day in Boston, USA.

The country has just buried Stalin, and Khrushchev’s thaw has begun. Against that background, Sarif places Katya – a young woman who lost her parents to Stalin’s repressions, and whose brother has managed to escape to the US. Katya has sworn to avenge the death of her parents, and when her friend Misha first recruits her and then asks her to spy on Alexander, she sees it as an opportunity to help destroy the communist regime. The only problem is, Katya’s heart has already fallen for Alexander, and no matter how much she tries, Katya is unable to keep her mission a secret from him. She convinces Alexander to run away with her to America, where they can start a new life. He agrees, and defects whilst on a trip to the US, but Katya doesn’t manage to get out. She is murdered by Misha, who has been caught and turned double agent.

Years later, Alexander is still consumed by guilt and cannot move on with his life. He is successful in the way he could not have been in Russia, he has become ‘the model of capitalism and free enterprise’ just like he was the model of communism in his youth. He would have been a government official all his life – here he has built an ethical and powerful company. But apart from his work and his niece Lauren, Alexander’s life is empty. When he meets Estelle, the mother of a potential buyer for his company, Alexander is forced to access memories he has tried to bury.

Sarif’s style is pared down, script-like, and would read a lot like a synopsis were it not for the author’s visual deftness. Katya’s glass of tea instead of a cup is a powerful detail that brings the imagery of the 1950s Russia into focus. But other details are under-researched and break up the flow of the narrative. There was no Christmas in the Soviet Union, for instance, and had there been, it would have been on 7 January in accordance with the Russian Orthodox calendar:

‘She smiles. “It wasn’t there. It was at the 6th district school. A joint production. We did it last month for Christmas. They did it now for New Year.”

The affectionate name that Katya is given – ‘Katyushka’ – is possible but unlikely, although it may sound pretty to the Western ear. ‘Katyusha’ would have been a more authentic choice. The narrator’s voice is all-seeing at times, then suddenly limited to one character’s perspective, an inconsistency which feels distracting.

In contrasting Alexander and Katya’s life with Estelle’s, Sarif invites an important question: does a privileged upbringing and a life in what looks like a free country compared to Stalin’s Russia mean more freedom and less limitations? Or do we set our own limits, and live within the confines of our own ideas of what’s possible?

Estelle has not had to overcome the kind of challenges that Katya and Alexander have encountered. She has lived a comfortable life, and yet she has allowed herself to be controlled by the limitations set by her own mind. Her life has been unfulfilling, and she still struggles to accept herself as a writer, or to follow her heart when it comes to her marriage and Alexander.

This contrast of Russia and the West, or of communist ideals and the principles of capitalism, form the central point in Sarif’s novel. Estelle’s daughter Melissa asks Alexander if he has ever believed in communism.

“How do you move from one extreme mind set to another so easily?’

‘It wasn’t easy. And yet it wasn’t hard either. The first belief – in communism – had been drummed into me from childhood. I knew nothing else, and was convinced, for a while anyway, that such a state was the fairest way for everyone to have something… Then I lived here, worked hard. Rose on my merits, as they say.’’

Alexander feels that by getting involved in charity work and philanthropy he is helping correct the failings of capitalism. It is supposed to be, like communism, about equal opportunity. But like communism, it has not succeeded.

Stalinism is something Russia is still trying to understand. It would be madness to argue that it never happened, or that life under Stalin did not have a sinister tinge. From our vantage point of the 21st century, we may wonder how these people, these mysterious Soviets, could live through the years of repression, of murders authorised and ordered by their own government, without a chance of making their own choices. But we must not forget that life has not been all that different in the West. It has had its own share of atrocities, and we all still live under the constant surveillance, whilst the appearance of the freedoms we enjoy is often just that. Still, underneath, normal, human life goes on, with its love and its sorrows, with shared gossip and smiles, with our mundane struggles and victories. Just as here in the West our lives are not all dark and terrible despite all the misery that can be going on around us, in the Soviet Russia people found joy and happiness in life itself. Sarif’s Russia is, as often happens in spy novels, the devil’s black hole of hell. This extreme contrasting of regimes takes away from the story, making it too reliant on existing clichés and therefore, less powerful.

The theme of strong women who overcome their circumstances to inspire others is a favourite of Sarif’s, and is present here in Katya who fascinates all three other female characters of the novel: Melissa, Estelle and Lauren. All three find empowerment as they find out more about Katya’s life. Sarif succeeds in creating a striking character who transcends not just the limitations of time, geography and her own life, but the author’s own limitations of writing about a time and a country she has not fully experienced.


Writers in conversation: Jason Howell

A few weeks ago, writer Jason Howell messaged me on Twitter and asked if I would like to take part in that week’s discussion on his website Howlarium. I did, and from there grew the idea of flipping the tables and getting Jason to answer some writing-related questions for once rather than just ask them. He didn’t want to, at least not if it didn’t involve him asking questions at least half of the time. I think Jason really likes asking questions.

Jason is a short story writer whose work has appeared in The Sun, The Mental Illness Happy Hour,  and in other outlets, and who runs Howlarium, an online weekly Q&A where he grills writers about all sorts of stuff related to being a writer.

So here’s the product of our conversation, conducted over several weeks through Twitter.

JasonHowellJH: So, would you mind if we start off talking about the novel you are writing, Maia? In particular, your drafting process. In your blog you described each successive draft as being very different from the one before. Do you know why this occurs? Is it even in your interest to know? And is this an enjoyable process?


maiaMN: The drafting and re-drafting is not something I am used to all that much. What I mean is that I don’t tend to do several drafts when I am writing anything else. I worked as a journalist back in Russia, in the late 1990s, and I did use several drafts when writing articles. But with short stories I tend to just jump in and go, and not change much after it has been written. I almost feel uneasy at the thought of changing anything. It would be like changing my kids once they are born. But novel writing is different. For me, anyway. There is more to say, and some of the things I am trying to say I have never said before. I have never even formulated those things as worded thoughts. They were unspoken, unformed thoughts before I wrote them down, and so I think the reason for many drafts is that to say something that I have never even thought in words, I need to try saying it in several different ways before it rings true. Sometimes this process of saying the same thing in different ways can feel frustrating, but it is always enjoyable. It feels a little like being a sculptor who takes off layers and layers of clay or stone to finally get to the sculpture within. Do you write this way too Jason? How you know when to stop? A painter friend of mine said to me once, that to know when to stop is the biggest dilemma, the biggest task for any artist. How do you know when the draft is the final version?

JasonHowellJH: I’m constantly putting pressure on my stories to end. If I’m writing well, I’m looking to end with each new sentence. This is my own little internal way of making sure newly generated material actually needs to be there, and that I’m respecting the reader’s time. Whether it works or not is, of course, not up to me. As you’d imagine my finished stuff comes out short, and since this principle can be applied to first sentences, often what results is “Well, don’t need to write that one today.” Revision-wise I just keep poking and prodding and peeling at the thing until whatever’s on the page stops bugging me. So with that combination of pressure and taste, I don’t normally have trouble with endings. My problems are usually generative ones. I heard Mary Karr say in an interview that most writers either have a generative gift or an editing gift. If I have any whatsoever, they’re in that second camp. It’s interesting that novel writing demands you excavate these thoughts you’ve never put language to. Some people might find that scary. Like walking into a dark cave maybe. How have you gotten to a place in your life where you enjoy that sort of thing?

maiaMN: No, I don’t find that scary. If anything, I find the idea of not writing those thoughts down much more terrifying. So for me the association with a dark cave doesn’t work because when I find a way to say something for the first time in that true way I feel as if I have come out of a dark cave into the brightest sunlight. The question you ask, and the way you formulated it, is very interesting. I don’t like to agree that writers are a certain type. But I do sometimes catch myself mistrusting the kind of extrovert writers that you talk about in one of your recordings. They seem too put together to create the kind of thing I would read. Whether they are that way naturally, or out of the necessity to promote their books, I don’t know. On the other hand, I don’t believe that being an introvert, or strange, guarantees the quality of writing. I think that a writer and their writing are separate entities. If a ‘normal’, well-adjusted writer produces a book I love, I wouldn’t care about their personality or worry about them being too happy. Talking about being well-adjusted, I’d like to ask you about your writer/life balance. You said in an interview that you only see three choices in this dilemma: sack the personal life and be the writer you always wanted; sack the writing life and be Mr. or Ms. Well Adjusted; or integrate writing and personal life as thoroughly and healthily as possible. Which one of these have you chosen for yourself?

JasonHowellJH: I totally agree with you about quality. I don’t think being a loner, in and of itself, makes you a better writer. Could just be my age. I’m in my 30’s and I remember a time when writing selected for misfits, deep readers, people who spent a lot of time alone as kids (and who carried that into adulthood). The internet has sort of changed that. When you walk down the street half the people you pass are staring into the palms of their hands, dead to what’s going on around them, but communicating with someone at the same time. So introversion and extroversion seem tricky to pin down in 2016. Writing still demands you spend huge amounts of time alone, but even life-of-the-party types are doing that with devices. So it’s no wonder we’re seeing more writers who are outgoing people, and some of them are probably very good, like you I’m just less likely to be interested in reading them. When it comes to “integration” I’m trying to tug my way toward it. This is the second time I’m going to mention Mary Karr, which I wasn’t planning on, but I asked her a Howlarium question recently, just sort of cold-contacted her, and this is what she sent back:

oh jason sorry i am
so busy
i do
interviews unless
my publisher makes me

Dumb as it might sound, that was eyeopening to me — her going about a boring drudgery (i.e. saying no to some random nobody’s request) and using it as an opportunity to exercise form. At least that’s how I chose to see it. So to me that’s master-level integration. Always being in-practice. How do you handle this sort of thing? Or how do you look at the problem of managing an everyday life and also being deeply immersed in imagination and craft?

maiaMN: I’m still learning to find that balance. On a typical day, I now spend a couple of hours writing and the rest of the time, as I go about my day, I tend to think about the next page if there is something to think about, or to let it lie at the back of my mind if it needs a rest in order to rise. I have found, after years of feeling bad when I needed that time alone with a notebook or the laptop, that I am a much nicer person when I allow myself to be me, to write every day, and to say what I think. I’ve heard women say that their thirties are the times when they finally stop caring what other people think, and this is true for me too. Do you ever think about your reader, about their reactions when they will read something you wrote? And if you do, do you have a single reader in mind, or a group of imaginary (or real?) readers?

JasonHowellJH: I do think about the reader — possibly too much, and for the blandish reason that I’m always in conversation with other writers, and that those are the people likely to see my stuff before anyone else. So they’re always kind of in my head, either as an amalgam or as a few individual personalities bubbling up as I pop from phrase to phrase. I don’t know if this is good or not, for reasons that are probably obvious. Meditation could come in handy here, but I like to keep a noisy head when I write. What do you mean by “reactions” though? Let me throw that same question back to you and maybe your answer will open up new vistas for me.

maiaMN: I used to think about the reader. Sometimes it was a fellow writer, sometimes a friend or even a whole group of people, maybe a country. I found that it was very distracting. I am, by nature, a people pleaser, so it is better for me to please no one else but myself, so as not to find my writing stifled by the various ideas I may come up with about what such and such would think. I can also be, like many writers, quite a paranoid person, so having a reader in mind would inevitably bring forth some imaginary reaction or response they would have. Now I write with an attitude of come what may.

JasonHowellJH: Mind if I pour a little of that in my coffee? I could definitely use more of that outlook. Well, my work could. Maybe we can round things out by talking about the novel you’re working on. How does it feel to be almost finished? Is it nerve-wracking, exciting, anxiousness you’re feeling? Do you think you’ll explode when you’re done?


maiaMN: There was a point, not long ago, when I realised that I had what I had been searching for. That was very exciting, and it propelled me to write much more than what I usually write. There were days when I was frantic, getting six, seven thousand words down in one go. Then I suddenly saw, without actually realising it, that once it’s written, it’s done. Like a bar of chocolate one devours until the last strip, and then spends ages prolonging those last few squares, wanting them to last as long as possible. When I write short stories, once I get to the point of no return, to the point when I can see it all so very clearly, I tend to get quite emotional. I can sometimes laugh out loud, or have a little cry. It would be comical to watch if anyone ever recorded it, I’m sure. This point comes much later in a novel, at least for me. A short story I can see, first in glimpses, then it just opens up to me. With this novel the process has been largely the same but much more drawn out. The whole thing took much longer, and opened up so suddenly, one day, that it was a massive emotional upheaval. I was quite hermetic for a few weeks after that, just writing and staying indoors. And now I am very fired up, and excited, not yet nervous or anxious but I’m sure I’ll get there once I start sending the novel out and getting people to read it. Does it work in the same way for you Jason?

JasonHowellJH: The only frame of reference I have is a novella-lita that took me five years to complete. A frighteningly deformed, endearingly goofy thing when it finally stood up and spoke. I may have cried, I don’t remember. But I definitely prolonged, not just near the end, but throughout. You described the whole of the experience better than I could. There is nothing like that feeling.


Shelves full of books no more

A couple of months ago, and again today, I did what many book lovers may consider a crime. I took dozens of books off my shelves, put them into bags and gave them to my husband with the instructions of getting them out of the house. He ended up donating them to a book charity, but that’s not the point. The point is, I am getting rid of many books that have been crowding my bookshelves for years. I am almost done – there is probably a sixth left from what I once had. And there will, most likely, be another cull, the last one, which will distill all my books to the few that, as Marie Kondo puts it, bring me deep joy.

I grew up in a family of book lovers. Our bookshelves reached the ceiling and books stood in double lines, so that behind every one of them hid another layer. On the bottom shelves, my parents kept literary magazines to which they had subscribed for years. They had cost them a fortune, and god knows how they had managed to arrange for some of the subscriptions in the first place. Once I read all the books, even the ones my parents deemed inappropriate for my age (and which I found in the second layers, hastily hidden by my mother), and exhausted the school library, I focused on the magazines, especially one called Foreign Literature (Inostrannaya Literatura). My mother once told me that it was in one of those magazines, years earlier, that she had first read Salinger.

I remember myself sitting on the floor, on a summer day, covered in dust and surrounded by piles of those old magazines, reading as if nothing else existed. Those are some of my happiest memories. My parents had every Russian classic, in those uniform complete collections of eight, ten, twenty tomes. Many foreign classics too. When I close my eyes, I see those beautiful books lining the shelves like wallpaper. I played with them as if they were toys. Every few months, I re-organised them in alphabetical order, or by genre, by country or even, once, by colour.

So why, in that case, get rid of my own collection? Random paperbacks I picked up on street corners when I first moved to England. Novels I read when I studied for an MA. Books I have reviewed, little pocket detective stories I ordered from Russia to entertain my mother while she was visiting one year. Recipe books, books on fitness, martial arts, writing, art, child rearing… I have clung on to them, until now, maybe in an attempt to recreate my childhood home, or maybe with the idea that my own children would read them, and play the way I used to.

But that’s exactly the point. My random collection was just that – random. Apart from the few books that are now gazing back at me, lovingly, from the half-empty shelves, I was holding on to a pile of paper. When I first got a Kindle, or, to be more precise, borrowed one from my son, I was convinced that I would never become a fan. To read on a screen seemed half an experience. Now it is still that, of course. With one exception. The books that get to participate in the full experience  – their pages rustling, loudly or quietly depending on where I am and whether my toddler is asleep next to me; the smell of paper; the heaviness in my hand; the little marks, stains, scratches on the pages that remind me of every single time before – those books bring me more than a story, a narrative, a memorable character. More than their physical presence on my shelves. What they bring me is a feeling of such excitement at holding them in my hands, maybe because of the memories they carry within themselves, or because of the emotions they evoke in me, that they are the ones that I want to keep, just for that reason.

My children will read the books I talk to them about. Or maybe they won’t. It’s their experience of literature, and I don’t want to intrude. They will hold on to their own true favourites, not mine. To pass on a legacy of loving literature is not the same as passing on a giant pile of books. In fact, literature is not the same as books. Do you remember the debates we had, a few years ago, about the future of literature? Would it survive in the age of technology? It looks like it’s doing more than surviving. It is riding technology, making it its own, and I’ve got to ride it too.

Writers write

Tasteyahere comes a time in each writer’s life when they have to face the consequences of their decision of becoming a writer. Not that many of us have a lot of say in that decision. It seems to have been made for us, the way it often feels. But what I am talking about are the real, dire consequences of saying ‘I am a writer’. Not just to yourself or to your mum/husband/best friend but to other people. People out there who will look at you as if you are either crazy or lazy and then will probably ask you about your published work, or what kind of stuff you write, which is not that bad, or maybe, and that happens the most often, they will just never mention it, as if you told them something very embarrassing which is best never to be discussed again.

The reason I’ve brought this up is because I am almost done with my novel. I can see the light, I am relieved that I finally have a completed structure, so clear in my mind that I wonder how on earth I ever wrote without one. I am a few thousands words away from the end. I have left so much unsaid that it is comforting me, knowing that I will still have things to write about once this is over. And yet I have said everything I wanted to say. For now.

I spend two-three hours a day writing. I used to count words but I don’t anymore. When I glance at the total word count I usually see that I have written at least fifteen hundred words in one sitting. Some days I have to go out and do other things like work but on those days I am impossible. If you have seen me on a day like that, you probably know not to approach me. That’s the consequence I am talking about.

On the days when I am stuck, I squeeze out a few hundred words onto the page, no matter how snarky my internal editor’s comments. Then I wander around the house, trying to tidy up and picking fights with my family. I have a three-hour window of opportunity when my husband takes the baby out and so when I miss my chance to get a lot down because of being stuck, I am not easy to live with.

I used to write when I got everything else done, after work, after tidying and cleaning, food shopping and cooking. Now I do the opposite. Everything waits until I’m done. Then the kids come home from school and I realise that I have no idea what to feed them. That’s another consequence. (Don’t worry, they get very nice fresh meals).

I have also stopped chasing other people’s dreams. In yoga, there is a commandment of non-stealing. Like a good yogi, I have stopped stealing the dreams and opportunities that others could have, and instead I focus on my own. I’m a writer – so I write.