Maria Tumarkin is one of Australia's most interesting writers and thinkers. Her books are intellectual journeys deep into the core of their subjects, blending the personal and the political; philosophy, history and memoir. Her first book, Traumascapes, was a survey of the impact and meaning of sites of horrific events. Her second, Courage, is an eclectic and engaging study of the true meaning of that much-discussed quality. Rachel Power spoke to Maria about her new book, Otherland, for Readings New Australian Writing feature series.
When does your motherland become an 'otherland'? Perhaps when you are seeing it through the eyes of your Australian teenage daughter. Russian-born writer Maria Tumarkin’s third book is the story of her journey with daughter Billie back to Russia and Ukraine, the world she left behind at 15, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Set against the fallout of political and cultural upheaval, Otherland tells a very personal story of the currents running between three generations, each one variously affected by the weight of history. The result is an exhilarating account of her family’s experience of fleeing one of the world’s most complex countries – and a self-deprecatingly comic take on the gap between the fantasies and the realities of parenthood.
Tumarkin has recently emerged from the final months of finishing Otherland, ‘when you don’t see the light and you just write and sleep and do things with your children and hope they don’t notice that their real mother is gone’.
The book was mostly written in her aunt’s one-bedroom housing commission flat in Prahran, filled with elderly Russian speakers conversing loudly along its military barrack-style corridors. It was an appropriate place to write, she says. ‘I don’t work well in designated writing spaces. It was just small and cluttered and densely populated, like the kind of spaces most people inhabit and that I write about [in the book].’
Tumarkin imagines rediscovering her birth country while forging a fearsome bond with 13-year-old Billie, whose own diary entries are interspersed through the text. It is not, though, until they are confronting Russia’s still opaque – and, for Billie, utterly perplexing – bureaucracy, that Tumarkin makes clear the reason why her daughter is the ‘non-optional part’ of their six-week trip to the former Soviet Union:
Your grandfather and grandmother just wanted someone in our family, bearing our surname and our features, to be perfectly unhabituated to being screwed, to being genuinely surprised by not being shown respect. And this someone is you, Billie, you realise it?
Unfortunately, we cannot control our children’s experiences; we cannot on them impose a sense of wonderment or enforce gratitude for a freedom they take entirely for granted. As Tumarkin says, ‘Children instinctually feel that this is what you’re doing: you’ve constructed a little oil painting in which they’re going to walk in and sit in their designated seat ... Billie really felt I was waiting for her epiphanies, and even if she was going to have them, she certainly wasn’t going to now, under pressure.’
But if Tumarkin failed on that front, as she claims, her book is the beneficiary, exposing not only the fraught nature of the mother–daughter bond, but raising larger questions about where the past begins and ends.
‘I wanted Billie to see what the past – as a family, and the past of the country that we come from – smells like and what it tastes like. That it’s not benign and dusty. I want her to know that where her family comes from, every breath they take is infused with history.’
‘In Australia, in some instances, you can imagine that history is a separate thing and you don’t carry it around with you. In Russia, you’d have to totally blind yourself not to be aware of it. I wanted Billie to be really bitten by that realisation that history has teeth and it has claws and it can come and sit on your chest when you least expect it.’
Currently a Research Fellow with the international ‘Social Memory and Historical Justice’ project, at Swinburne’s Institute for Social Research, Tumarkin does not shy away from thorny territory – and Otherland is no exception. If there is a connection between this and her previous books, Traumascapes and Courage, she says it is a desire to ‘go further and further into the core of experience’.
Describing herself as being of the ‘only write when you cannot not write’ school, each of her books is infused with the urgency of needing to be written. While she doesn’t want to lecture or be didactic – her books are refreshingly candid – Tumarkin educates the reader by default: as a narrator hungry to tell the stories of so-called ordinary people otherwise crushed beneath the weight of a much larger history.
With Otherland, the author first had to overcome the fear that the return to one’s birthplace has become a hackneyed theme. ‘“Going back” – that narrative – it’s really done to death. You think, my God, what am I doing: am I suicidal; or am I so arrogant to think I could pull it off?’
She eventually decided that, having been in Australia for 20 years, but still having a deep connection to the former Soviet Union, she had earned the right to comment by sheer virtue of having ‘clocked up the time’.
Tumarkin is critical of writers who travel to other countries and presume to know what they’re talking about. ‘You have really brilliant writers who can write the most piercing and exhilarating books about their own cultures, and then they go to Russia and they just don’t get it. You have to hang around for years and years; it’s not enough to just fly in to another world.’
It was the birth of her daughter that finally made her accept her adopted homeland, Tumarkin admits. ‘Before Billie was born, I did not deeply respect Australia. My stance as a 19-year-old narrator that this is a hollow country evaporated, because what is more important than knowing your daughter was born in a welcoming world.’
‘As a mother, all your pretences: “People do not know how to be friends here, people are so polite you never know what they’re thinking”. All that dissipated. My daughter was in a country where people smiled; it wasn’t dog-eat-dog and you didn’t have to spend 90% of the time on survival, you could spend a bit of time just on living.’
Another impulse for the book was her growing disgust with the way the former Soviet Union is portrayed in high-end media and literary journals. ‘It is just so off-key. We see all those kinds of clichés, the analysis of why Putin is where he is, that it’s because of the Russian people’s intrinsic need for an iron fist. It’s a kind of Orientalism, if you like. Or you look at the lawlessness and people flushing incredible amounts of money down the toilet with 12 hookers on each side. All these caricatures invite simplistic explanations, and I do want to take them head-on and say “You got this wrong.”’
While she didn’t want to negate those realities – there are more billionaires in Moscow than in any other metropolis in the world – she wanted to show ‘something else that doesn’t normally get shown,’ she says. ‘How do you give flashes of another layer that you don’t get to see generally but is very much there and tells us much more about what’s going on really?’
The answer was to delve into her own family history. ‘I realised that in order to talk about things I wanted to talk about and go places I needed to go, I needed the reader to come with us on our badly judged and frequently dysfunctional trip; it wasn’t a kind of abstract survey. I did not have any desire to give any comprehensive journalistic account of Russia or Ukraine – I don’t think you can and I think you shouldn’t try. So we were the collateral damage of my desire to tell the kind of stories I wanted to tell.’
As a result, the pain of writing her earlier books – ‘with Traumascapes, I felt like I was bleeding non-stop for several years’ – has now been replaced by the anxiety of publishing a book about her family.
Her obligations were the central concern, she says. ‘The obligation to my friends, who will not be able to read this book in English, and so will never fully know fully what I say and doesn’t say about our friendships; to my parents, who left in their late 40s and never once said to me and my sister, “We did it for you?”; and to my readers.’
But perhaps most of all, her obligation to daughter Billie, ‘who was born in this country but is increasingly recognising that she bears the imprint of a different world’.
Rachel Power is the author of The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood.
Correction: This article originally carried the sentence 'Leaving her 18-month-old son in the care of her mother Tumarkin imagines rediscovering her birth country...'. Readings wishes to assert that in Maria's absence, Miguel was cared for by his father, with the help of Maria's mother and aunt.