Zarina Zabrisky is the author of three short story collections Iron, A Cute Tombstone, Explosion (Epic Rites Press), a book of poetry written in collaboration with Simon Rogghe, and the novel We, Monsters (Numina Press). Her work has been published in seven countries. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a recipient of a 2013 Acker Award and a co-founder of The Arts Resistance. See more at www.zarinazabrisky.com
Interview by Jack Little (Mexico/UK) carried out by email for The Ofi Press issue 48.
1. How do the themes of freedom and censorship impact upon your life and writing?
A tongue cut off: that was the complete lack of freedom of speech in the Soviet Union. I once brought a cow’s tongue and an axe to my presentation on censorship.
It doesn’t mean that I was a victim. We had the freedom of thought. Anyone has it, anywhere. My father taught me to think independently—by listening to banned BBC and Voice of America radio stations at the locked kitchen at midnight, by hiding Mandelstam, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn behind the dust covers of Lenin, Gorky and Evtushenko books on our shelves. I knew the exhilaration and excitement of a free mind, of free thought. Hannah Arendt said that “all thinking is dangerous.” It is--for totalitarians. It allows for the inner freedom in any life circumstances.
Recently, I watched “Professor Mamlock”, a film by my great-uncle, a Soviet director Adolf Minkin. The movie is considered one of the very first Holocaust films in the world—shot in 1938. Its message targeted not only the Nazi Germany, but the Soviet Union and any totalitarian, prison-based regime. In the last, striking speech—not unlike Charlie Chaplin’s in “Great Dictator”—a prosecuted and doomed Jewish doctor speaks about “the right for thought.” I think it is the most important human right.
2. As a poet and an author of fiction, where are the overlaps and differences in the process of writing in each form?
I do my best to stay away from the word “fiction.” In Slavic languages and cultures the divide “fiction/non-fiction” doesn’t exist. I love the Russian term “artistic literature.”
"Fiction" sounds derogatory. What is fictitious? What is real? I once was in Paris penniless and homeless—I had my wallet and passport and credit card stolen, and the American Embassy was closed for holidays. I was cold and hungry. So this guy invited me for coffee and bought me a croissant and we talked. I told him he looked exactly like Raskolnikov and he asked me: “Who’s that?” “A character from a novel.” And he asked, “How do you know how he looked?” Well, I just know. He said it was nonsense and invited me to have dinner but I preferred to be hungry. He looked like an axe-murderer, anyway. In regards to fiction…Was it fiction or non-fiction that I just told you?
I wrote about it a bit, here is one of the stories:
To me prose and poetry come from the same place deep in my body, chest, and stomach, everywhere and they might be coming from deeper sources, collective unconsciousness, perhaps. Both are hot waves, energy, rushing out of me and through me. Art came from shamanic rituals, after all. Articles come from the head, they are different, cold.
3. Where is 'home' for you? How does this sense of home impact upon your work?
In our bio, my partner and I wrote: “Simon Rogghe and Zarina Zabrisky are poetic orphan gypsies of cosmopolitan origin... Together, they perform their writing to music, driving and dancing around the United States and Europe.” Of course, we will drive and dance in Mexico, Australia or anywhere else. Whenever we stop at a motel during our road trips, it feels like home. Some homes are better than others. It is all inside…
But also, I love my bookshelves and this one antique piece of furniture that I inherited from my ancestors and have been hauling it with me over the oceans and such. Built in 1866 of walnut, it survived two wars, revolutions, a siege, emigration… It has many drawers, and I feel that I can live in each of them. Sometimes I imagine it sailing over the ocean waves, like a ship, with me sitting in it like in a boat. Maybe, it is my home. A bookshelf swimming in cosmos.
4. What do you consider to be the strongest marker of your identity?
5. Do you believe that people are born with an essential goodness or evil inside of them?
Funny that you ask. Recently, I have listened to the course of lectures called “Why Evil Exists?” by Charles Mathewes. It is a horrible title but let it not scare you; the lectures are brilliant and cover the concept of evil (and goodness) from Gilgamesh to Hannah Arendt. (That’s how I found the lectures, I was looking for interviews with Hannah Arendt on Youtube. I read some of her work on the banality of evil and wanted to hear more.) There are as many answers to this question as there are philosophers. Let me sum up the course so far:
In Enuma Lish, it is a cosmic battle between good and evil. Plato thinks that evil can be fixed with the right society design. Aristotle believes that evil is in human nature and often can’t be fixed. The Hebrews in the Book of Genesis see evil as the human rebellion against God. Christianity offers a somewhat melodramatic version: The Savior takes the guilt… Judaism has a more mundane approach: there is no cosmic proportion to evil and the humans are responsible for their own evil (I'm in agreement with that, actually.) Islam explores evil as good gone wrong. Luther, Calvin and the Reformation thinkers find evil inside the psyche. It keeps going…
I think Freud really tapped into it. We are born with love and death drvies, Eros and Tanatos; in the process of socialization our instincts are suppressed and we are but the shadows of our real passions. And then shit happens. William Blake feels that way, too, I think. But I don’t have an answer yet. I am thinking.
I find this question really important and relevant. In Russia, an astounding amount of talented, intelligent, educated people are doing unthinkable things these days as if suddenly there is an epidemic of evil. Like bubonic plague…
6. Can writing and literature 'make a difference'?
(I can’t stand this phrase, I am sorry. I heard it so many times, I am desensitized.)
I believe that without literature, without art the world would be unbearable. I watched a conversation with GULAG survivors. They had drama, opera, ballet, music in labor camps, in rat-infested barracks. They all said that if not for art they would die.