When I realized I was a lesbian in the summer of 2005, I seriously thought I was one of the only ones in the wide world.
I had never read a book about a lesbian. I had never seen a movie about a lesbian relationship. I had never visited a lesbian bar, or attended a lesbian concert, or gathered in a house with a group of lesbians. I did listen to the Indigo Girls, but they were famous, and the Swamp Ophelia album only reduced me to more weeping. I was twenty-eight, married to a man, and in love with my best friend. No one anywhere had ever had my experience.
The internet told me something different. On Netflix, I found movies, which were delivered to my house in their anonymous red and white sleeves: When Night is Falling (Canada, 1995); Fire (Canada/India, 1997); Aimee and Jaguar (Germany, 2000); Tipping the Velvet (UK, 2002). On Amazon, I searched for “lesbian books,” and found Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Somewhere out there, there were other women who loved women. Their stories, often anguished, but almost always fiercely passionate and true, became my community.
In November of that year, I flew to New York to stay with a college friend who lived boldly in a civil union with her partner. They took me to The Oscar Wilde Bookshop (now closed, sadly) and to Bluestockings, and I loaded my arms with more stories, as if I could, with reading, ward off my fear and loneliness. Rebecca Brown, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Joan Nestle, Lillian Faderman, Elana Dykewomon. Tell me, I pleaded with these other lesbians, who I am. Tell me what to do.
Meanwhile, I wrote mostly about parenting and adoption, about Alaska (where I lived at the time), about climbing mountains. My own story as a lesbian was fragile, in the way a tinder-dry forest is fragile. I feared that if I wrote about my love for Lia, it would flame to ash. And of course, it did, far more violently than I ever imagined. That’s the story Grief Map tells, but Grief Map also tells the story of the lesbian who emerged from that ash, the living woman, writing now about allof her experience because she had no other choice.
But after Lia died in 2011, I once again felt like I was the only one. I crouched in my grief and wondered what it meant to be a woman who loves women all alone. And again, the community spoke to me: the movies and the books reminded me that I was not the only one to have lost, that I could survive. I wrapped myself in those stories. I breathed there. I kept writing.
And yet I still felt as much awed distance from the lesbian community as I did from the Indigo Girls. I was just an isolated lesbian writer in Colorado. When my wife Meredith and I first met in 2014, I was keeping a sad blog called “The Boulder Lesbian,” as if I was the only one. It still felt that way.
I discovered the Golden Crown Literary Society by chance one early morning, when I was taking a break from a scene I was trying to construct in a short story. I wanted connection. Where were the other lesbian writers in the world? I googled “lesbian writers” and Google offered me “lesbian writers conference.” I clicked—and GCLS was the top post. I found myself on a website offering “the premiere lesbian literary event” each year, and an ongoing mission of dedication to “the promotion and recognition of lesbian literature.” I told Brain Mill Press, Grief Map’s publisher, about it, and they submitted Grief Map for a Goldie Award in the non-fiction category. But I didn’t feel part of it. It was another famous place where lesbians gathered, somewhere else.
Then I found myself at the GCLS Conference this July, listening to Lucy Jane Bledsoe and Rachel Gold and Elana Dykewomon and Dorothy Allison read from their work. I told myself, I am part of this community. And I was! For three days, I attended master classes and presentations and panels, readings and speakers in an all-lesbian space. I exchanged my card with other lesbian writers and readers. I discussed story ideas that revolve around lesbian lives. One woman told me she thinks of this annual conference as a sort of lesbian summer camp, and it did have that otherworldly shimmer. With its diversity of age and race and background and expression, the conference had the open-hearted kindness I’ve always imagined those circles of lesbians had in the 1970s communes. How wonderful, to move among these other lesbians in this lovely safe space, a literal haven from the smoke and crowds and din of Vegas.
Each morning, I walked through the Bally’s casino and breathed in relief to reach the conference rooms, where we lesbians retreated from the world awhile. Each evening, when Meredith returned to our room from her poker tournaments, I told her the stories I had heard people read during the day: a lesbian pirate, a lesbian doctor in a helicopter, a lesbian who disguised herself as a man in the 1890s, a lesbian who discovered her grandmother’s secret love had been a woman. I told her that Elana Dykewomon’s poetry made an entire room weep, and that Dorothy Allison was just as funny and wise in person as she was on the page. I told her that I had never imagined the power of an all-lesbian space, the way I literally felt all of us were embraced and held up there. Meredith smiled at me and kissed me tenderly and, because Vegas is like this, just outside our sixty-sixth floor window, the Eiffel Tower throbbed purple and blue with a party and the giant digital eyes on the Cosmopolitan reflected in the water in front of the Bellagio. We were in our own lesbian romance story.
At the GCLS Goldie awards ceremony on July seventh, I stood at the podium with Grief Map’s award for non-fiction in my hands, and I said to the gathered community of three-hundred and fifty lesbians, “Thirteen years ago, when I realized I was a lesbian, I thought I was the only one,” and a wave of loving, understanding laughter rolled toward me. I had never been alone at all. Later, when Meredith and I danced in each other’s arms on a dance floor full of only other lesbians, some in suits, some in dresses, some in wonderful ambiguous amalgamations of the two, I kissed my wife and I knew we moved, now, in the community, part of it all.
What’s next? At first, when I came home to Denver, the same slump threatened me that used to threaten me after summer camp when I was a kid, as if the world could never be as supportive and vibrant and connected as camp was. It really can’t. But the stories I tell in the next year can reach toward that energy. My new protagonist Sam can long for it. And then next summer, I can return to that all-lesbian space (in Pittsburgh in 2019) for a few days. I’m excited already.
The blue light from my computer screen illuminates my face as I scroll through my friends’ Facebook posts. This friend has just traveled to Hawaii with her husband. That friend has just hand-made clothes for her children. That friend has completed a Tough Mudder with his boyfriend. I click the thumbs-up icon, or I leave little encouraging comments. An hour passes. Two.
I joined Facebook late, considering that the company began in 2004. In 2007, the summer I decided to adopt my daughter Mitike, I created an account on the blue and white website people were talking about, and shared a photo of me, my mom, and my sister Katie tubing on the Upper Iowa River in Decorah. We are all grinning in the photo. Five people liked it, then ten. People with whom I had lost touch began to request me as their friends. At the time, I lived far away from all of them — all the way in Alaska — and my new cellphone (I was late to that trend, too) allowed me only a limited number of monthly minutes. Facebook was a free way to stay in touch.
A year later, when Mitike came home from Ethiopia, Facebook was a way I could stay sane, a way I could show everyone the sweet and astonishing little person I had promised to raise. I shared videos and photographs, and more people liked them, and more people requested friendships. I connected with adoptive parents’ groups and with Ethiopian culture groups. Every day at nap time, I checked my Facebook account — and I felt a little more connected in a life that, while beautiful, contained mostly cheese sticks and raisins and discussions about poop.
In 2011, when Ali died, Facebook became a place I haunted in my grief. I studied our old posted photographs for clues, and I left cryptic messages on a Facebook page that had outlived its face. The blue website no longer connected me, but encouraged my drifting, alone. For hours, I zoomed in on photographs to examine a smile, a look in the eyes, the clues I had missed. I ignored all my friends’ happy updates, and I dwelled in the darker places.
And then, still later, there were the years — the recent ones — when Facebook functioned as a joyful declaration: I survived! I have found love again! Hey, everyone, this is Meredith! We’re married! We’re happy! I posted photos and videos, links and updates. Mostly, I checked and checked Facebook. What had people said about my photo? Had people commented on my column? Had others liked my link? Facebook was part virtual scrapbook, part live feed into my life. I engaged with friends’ posts; I found and shared exciting events; I shared pictures of the dozen pink pussy hats I had crocheted; I vented my anger about the Trump administration. Morning after morning, I clicked on the little white “f” in the blue square on my phone, and it was like walking into a crowded room — look at this photo of my quinoa plants, have you seen what Trump’s done now?, can you believe how much my daughter’s grown?, there’s a rally downtown next Saturday and I plan to go.
This past June, when my family and I traveled west to stay in a rented cabin on the Oregon coast for a week, I decided, on a whim, to take a sabbatical from all technology. For seven days, I did not access the internet in any way; I used my phone only as a camera, on airplane mode. And…I began to take photographs so I could remember the moment, not so I could share it with five hundred strangers. At night, I reflected purely on the conversations I had had with Mitike and Meredith, not on the chatter of that crowded blue room. My mind was clearer, like a desk I had sorted.
For the few months after that, I returned to posting and checking and liking, but my brief sobriety had taught me something essential: I didn’t need Facebook. It distracted me from living my real life. Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened, and former Facebook creators and executives began to admit that the site is deliberately designed to addict us to more clicking and to direct certain companies’ ads at us, and, like Montag (Fahrenheit 451 is frighteningly apt here), I shouted, “No more!”
I deleted the app. It took seconds. I stopped logging on to Facebook every morning as I ate breakfast. I stopped visiting the page when I needed a break from my writing. I stopped scrolling through the 515 “friends”’ posts at stoplights on my way home in the afternoons. I just stopped, cold turkey.
And — I missed it not at all. For the months of September and October, as I moved through my life without Facebook, I did not once wonder what all the posters were posting, or what the likers were liking. When a November New York Review of Books article revealed some of the darker, far more serious reasons we should all free ourselves from social media like Facebook, I happily breathed my free air.
Then, in mid-November, I needed a few photos so I could craft our Christmas card. Like many people, I have not printed photos to store in shoe boxes or leather albums for years; instead, I have stored them on Facebook. Until I spend hours one day downloading all those photos (and Mitike’s baby and toddler videos) and burning the files to a CD, I cannot actually delete my Facebook account. That day, when I logged on to grab the photos I needed, the 6 messages, 68 new notifications, and 2 friend requests nearly seduced me to start scrolling.
But I held to my resolve. Facebook does not improve my life. It does not connect me more deeply to anyone. It does not inform me better than my daily reading of The Guardian and The New Yorker. It may announce events, but mostly, it pulls me away from real engagement in my community. Again, I say: no more.
I have been accused at several junctures of my life of Luddism, mostly because I resist texting everyone constantly, because I watch little TV, and because I have seriously restricted Mitike’s screen time (at age eleven, she still only gets three hours a week; we bought her a flip-phone for emergencies when she started middle school, but her iPhone is years away). Now I am deleting Facebook. However, like the original Luddites, I do not oppose the technology itself, but its threat to genuine human skill and human interaction. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter claim to better connect us, and yet the hallways of the high school where I teach are crowded not with boisterous teenagers but with solitary figures hunched over their iPhone screens, shuffling forward as they scroll through friends’ Snapchats. When I pass these zoned-out kids, I call out “Look up!” to startle them back into their real lives.
The original Luddite movement began in Nottingham, England, in 1811, when a group of angry factory workers smashed textile machinery in protest against low wages and too little work. In the months that followed, the British government deployed soldiers; the Luddites set fire to factories and broke more machinery; the soldiers fired into mobs; people died. Mostly, the Luddites feared, in the words of the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1829, a world in which “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”
In 1996-97, I lived in the Luddites’ Nottingham, in a second-story flat with eleven other American college students. There I knew a far better balance between my humanity and technology. Our flat possessed a single Apple computer that was good only for slow word-processing, a single land-line telephone, and a single television set. Sometimes, I took the bus early to the university so I could send electronic mail to my mom with my new Yahoo account, but that was it. My flatmates and I spent most of our time hanging out, attending plays, frequenting pubs, venturing into the green countryside. I wrote more, sketched a little, took photographs of crumbling walls and pubs on a film camera. When we couldn’t think of an answer or a definition, we engaged in fierce debate, because Google was still an idea in a Stanford dorm room. Except for the parents we called periodically, no one received daily or hourly updates about the pints we drank or the castles we visited.
And yes, I am saying that Luddite life was a better, healthier existence than this one. This fall, when my Nottingham roommate, Sarah, and I decided to move our friendship back into handwritten letters, I was astonished. Sarah and I have remained close for the entire twenty years since Nottingham, but these letters! In our rushed handwriting — while her kids slept, while Mitike did her homework, with early-morning coffee — we dove more deeply into reflections about our lives than we have in years on email and on Facebook. Paper and pen, actual envelope, the imprint of one page’s writing on the next: I read and re-read her letters like I have never done with her digital communication. True, I caught myself wondering why she hadn’t responded yet just an hour after I tucked my letter to her into the mailbox, but these habits are difficult to smash immediately. True, I considered posting a photo of my steaming cup of coffee next to Sarah’s letter with a caption like “Old friends, and a return to real communication,” but I resisted.
Oh, Facebook. I will not grow mechanical in head and in heart. I will not “take things at second or third hand.” I will see this world with my own eyes, experience it as it is, read more actual books of paper, connect with real friends face-to-face. I will look up.
When I was my students’ age — seventeen, eighteen — I didn’t know what a strike was.
I had never witnessed one. In U.S. History, a teacher must have mentioned one of the famous ones — the labor strikes of the 1800s, maybe, or the post-WWII auto strikes. But to me at seventeen, a strike sounded simple: the workers refused to work, the owners tried to hold out, the workers kept refusing to work, the owners tried extreme measures (police, water, threats, firings, replacements), and usually, the workers won. The end. I was a farmer’s daughter when I learned about strikes for the first time, the daughter of a man who daily labored for himself and for his land, and who could not refuse to work a single day, because the hogs would suffer, the corn plants would wither. It seemed a kind of privilege to refuse to work.
On the Friday before the Denver teachers finally went on strike on February 11, I stood before a class of high school seniors and tried to explain to them why I would not be standing there on Monday if the district could not reach an agreement with the union. The students listened quietly, a little warily. The Denver Public School PR machine was regularly cranking out emails to the community insisting the teachers were refusing “millions” on the table and demanding more. The real story — that Denver teachers wanted a traditional salary schedule with dependable annual base pay, limited incentives, and respect for what we already do as professionals — was a more nuanced and thus more-difficult-to-craft soundbite.
I told the students I wanted them to apply to the events of the strike all the college-level research skills we’ve been learning: stay curious, formulate your own deep questions, evaluate each source for credibility and originality, question everything again, compare what you’re finding so you can discern the truth. Still, they watched me from the corners of their eyes.
“You’ll remember this,” I said finally, “far more than you’ll remember any college research skill I could teach you.” This made them laugh, and the room relaxed. Because of course they would. All their teachers were marching out of the building and refusing pay, starting Monday. They’d be in these classrooms with district-paid substitutes, staring out the tall historic windows at us on the picket line. I told them I’d wave, which made them laugh again.
It is a privilege to refuse to work. My family had enough in savings that I could afford the pay cut for a few days, but what I meant was more profound: I work as part of a collective group. I am no single farmer cultivating fields alone. I show up every day to teach in a classroom that is next door to ninety other classrooms, and our school is united with 161 other schools in the district. I’m not alone. When working conditions are unacceptable, it’s our great right to link arms together and demand more. Alone, it would be impossible. That’s what I didn’t understand at seventeen — what my students, each engaged in his/her individual battle for college and future, do not understand.
It’s what the Denver Public School District did not seem to understand, either. It’s what any group of powerful bosses does not understand. They tell us what to do, what to accept, what to swallow, until one day, we rise up as a group and shout “No!” and the bosses realize they never actually had power, that their power all along was dependent on our acquiescence.
On the Tuesday of the strike — day two — hundreds of teachers dressed in red marched down Denver’s Colfax Avenue to Civic Center Park, where we gathered with more hundreds, our signs aloft. The signs said it all. “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.” “I choose to change the things I can no longer accept.” “More education, less administration.” “Pay us a living wage.” The one I carried asked, “What is the value of your child’s education?” On the other side, I alluded to the 1912 Massachusetts textile workers’ strike: “Teachers deserve both bread and roses.”
On all sides of us, members of other unions marched, too: firefighters, steelworkers, truck drivers, plumbers. My colleague Nick, from Michigan, often insists that ours is a blue-collar job, which seems strange, since we all have college degrees and many of us have master’s degrees and PhDs, but in these days of marching miles and miles through the city, chanting for fair pay and respectful working conditions, I understood how right he is. The teachers who marched on either side of me just wanted the chance to buy a house in this city; they wanted to have some money to save for their children’s college educations; they wanted to emerge from three decades of teaching other people’s children and find some kind of rest. They are also the most hard-working people I know. They are people who stay late to tutor students, who step out into the hallway to comfort students, who wake early to give students meaningful feedback on papers, who spend all weekend planning lessons that will light learning in students’ minds.
Without teachers in the schools in Denver, the city was eerily silent. True, the schools are open, but most students stayed home, waiting for us to return. Some marched with us. One student’s sign read: “I march because our teachers love us.”
I didn’t know how difficult it would be to strike. It was far harder than teaching all day. Every day, I woke early and put on my long underwear and then my jeans and my three sweatshirts, stocking cap, two pairs of gloves. On the picket lines each day in the cold, we walked nine, ten miles. My hips and lower back ached. And yet: every day it became clearer that if we did not strike, the bosses would continue to do as they please. This was our reminder of who was in power.
In the end, the Denver strike was the shortest in the city’s history: only three days. The district awarded us the salary schedule, and raised everyone’s salaries to meet surrounding school districts’ levels. By Thursday, we stood in our classrooms again, exhausted and exhilarated. By the middle of Thursday, it seemed we had never left; we were badgering students about turning in assignments on time; we were trying to motivate a whole class to care about our content areas; we were again fighting the relatively smaller battles between teachers and administrators. But there was this difference: starting in August, the pay we receive for this hard work will actually allow us to put down payments on houses in Denver, save for our kids’ college years, and maybe travel a little. In Denver, teachers will have enough to buy both bread and roses.
A few naysayers visited us on the picket line. One man squealed the brakes on his shiny silver BMW and jumped out, shaking a fist and shouting, “Get back to work! Get back to work!” I’m sure he believed his tax dollars fund our salaries and that we shouldn’t complain. I’m also sure that, if he had chosen to make a living as a teacher, he would have likely been out there marching with us, too.
The Friday before the strike, a student in one of my colleague’s classes rolled his eyes at her and said, “I don’t know why you’re so upset about the pay. You chose this job.”
True. And most of us teachers, at some point, frustrated by student apathy or by parents’ vitriol or by administrators’ hoops or by the long hours of grading papers and planning lessons, have said we wish we could quit. It’s a small salve sometimes in this hard job we chose. But it’s also true that most of us don’t quit. Most of us keep slogging on, because of the shining moments when a student gets it, and cares, because it is actually wonderful to plan educational experiences for teenagers each day — far better than working in an office would be.
Now, in Denver — and in Los Angeles, and in West Virginia, and hopefully soon in Oakland — we’re paid fairly for that work, too, because we chose to walk the picket lines for a few days. It’s connected us. When the bell rings to start each class, we wave at each other down the long high school hallways, and then step into our classrooms, to begin.
As a poet and lover of music, fiction, and other creative media, I’ve always considered art to be magical.
There is something fantastic about how a poem or a song goes from the creator to another person and makes them connect to things. In Daniel José Older’s urban fantasy Shadowshaper, Sierra Santiago uses art to reclaim her magical heritage and strengthen her community.
Set in Brooklyn, New York, Sierra Santiago is an Afro-Latina teenager who just wants to enjoy her summer vacation with her friends. When she notices a neighborhood mural fading and the expression of the subject growing sad and angry, she is urged to finish her own mural by Manny, a friend of her grandfather Lazáro. Then, a walking corpse of a neighborhood man crashes a summer party and Sierra is thrust into the magical world of the shadowshapers. In order to protect her loved ones, Sierra must uncover the shadowshapers’ connection to her family and become a shadowshaper herself.
As an urban fantasy book, the real world manages to feel just as wonderful as the magical world. This is mainly due to the wonderful cast of characters that make up the people in Sierra’s life and the personal backgrounds that they come from. Two of my personal favorite characters were Tee and Izzy, lesbian girlfriends that were funny and loyal. Other favorites included Sierra’s Uncle Neville and Sierra’s intelligent, fashion opposite friend Bennie.
Besides their personalities, each character has a way of speaking that feels magical. One bit of dialogue that caught my attention features a back-and-forth between a group of domino-playing older gentlemen that were friends of Sierra’s grandpa Lazáro. In chapter six, Sierra pays them a visit and hears the following:
“Trouble at school, Sierra?” asked Mr. Jean-Louise. “Public school is a cesspool of poisonous bile.”
Manny threw his hands up, “¡Cállate, viejo!The child needs her education. Don’t ruin it for her just because you dropped out of kindergarten.”
Since the characters have strong ties to each other and their neighborhood, having the magical world of shadowshaping just underneath it makes them even more memorable. Shadowshaping involves giving spirits of departed loved ones and ancestors a physical form by fusing them with art. For Sierra and the other shadowshapers she encounters, the art is mainly visual, but shadowshaping can also be done through other creative means such as storytelling. The purpose of shadowshaping is to remember those who have come before and recently passed, preserving the past and present for the future generations.
Shadowshapertakes these things a step further by using the magic of shadowshaping to fight back against forces that try to eradicate an entire heritage. Protagonist Sierra Santiago must learn not only about shadowshaping, but also to stand up for the neighborhood and the culture that makes her who she is.
In the real world, we already use art to remember and pass on the memories, traditions, and cultures of departed loved ones. Murals painted around cities become memorials and certain songs are sung, listened to, and written in tribute. However,
At the same time that the shadowshapers are being eradicated, Sierra’s multi-cultural neighborhood is experiencing gentrification. Places that Sierra and her friends used to go to are being transformed into establishments for white, middle class consumers. When the book opens, Sierra is in the middle of painting a mural on a building known as The Tower, a large-scale incomplete building that looms over the junklot where Manny and his friends play dominos. It is later revealed that Manny has a connection to the shadowshapers and that Sierra painting the mural was his way of trying to protect the neighborhood and the remaining shadowshapers.
Not only is Sierra fighting a battle within her own neighborhood, but she is also fighting an internal battle as well. Although she is confident in herself, there are times that she doesn’t feel she is enough of an Afro-Latina girl. Tía Rosa, her aunt, makes comments that contain anti-blackness and colorism (i.e. discrimination based on how light or dark one’s skin tone is). She says that Sierra’s friend Robbie is too dark and that Sierra’s hair is too nappy. In addition, Sierra also deals with sexual harassment while walking around her neighborhood, being shamed by her mom for her interest in shadowshaping, and sexism as a female shadowshaper.
Given all that Sierra experiences in her daily life, her heroic journey is deeply compelling. Sierra uses her artistic talent and shadowshaping to protect her neighborhood and reclaim a magical heritage she learns to appreciate through her family and friends. As a poet, I can’t help but admire Sierra Santiago and see part of myself in her. With paintbrush and chalk, Sierra Santiago shows that an artist can be a hero, a creative making something from shadows in order to express herself and preserve and protect what is important.
The narrative of immigration is peripatetic—and not just in a physical sense. The experience of leaving and coming, of going and arriving, of coming to terms with and never fully accepting the elusive nature of the very experience is like a ribbon that you attempt to straighten out that curls up the moment you let go.
For a while, during the years where I felt neither here nor there, I hated having to admit where I was from. I think it may have been partly in high school, but in that circular way that our brains have of unraveling the threads of loss and fear and dread, I remember feeling this in college, too. It would come in like the tide, here now, gone later, then back again. In my mid-twenties, I spent years avoiding most interactions with Russians who were strangers to me because I didn’t want them to know I was one of them.
Even as I did it, I asked myself, why?
Saying the word “Russia” carried with it a Pandora’s Box of truth and myth that exhausted me to even think about.
It’s not the same in my head, because in my head, it’s Rossiya.
Once, I think I was thirteen, someone asked me why Russians said “Russia” in a certain way. I think she emphasized the “shia” part as sounding wrong coming from our mouths. I hadn’t noticed before, but then I began to. The answer is the simplest there could be—we have accents. We know how to say the name of our own country, but not in someone else’s language.
Another time, a boy in school asked me if all Russians carried bombs with them. I was twelve, only a year into America, and I didn’t quite have the vocabulary to pull off the pithy ‘yes, I’ve got one in my pocket right now’ response I really wanted to give. In the meantime, my sister was being asked if bears really walked around the streets of Moscow. She was in college.
The word “Russian”—these letters in this combination—evokes a picture of a country like a reflection in a shattered mirror. Sure, there are truths to that name, but they’re skewed, seen through a lens that doesn’t care for introspection or even closer inspection. It’s tiny pieces, certain slivers of truth that have lost some crucial point of a whole picture.
Russia is funny accents; mafia thugs; mail order brides; vodka; endless winters; fucked up laws. It’s Putin shirtless on a bear being pasted onto a unicorn via Photoshop; illegal music downloads and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. It’s laughable pop music and mangled phrases that lose their meanings because no one really cares what they actually stand for, just that they sound funny. It’s the ironic hipster T-shirt with CCCP on it, a beanie with a hammer and sickle worn to set off a carefully cultivated neckbeard; it’s comrade, it’s Stalin, it’s the butt of a joke.
Rossiya—my Rossiya—isn’t that.
It’s my ordinary tragedy, a loss of what I had intended. At least, what I had expected. We none of us had planned on exile, but here we are. It sounds overwrought, overly self-important. For years, I’ve denied the truth of it. Whenever anybody asked, What was it like, to leave? I’d simply shrug it off.
It sucked. What else can you say? It sucked, but thank God we made it.
It sucked, but it sucks much less now.
We’re free here, and we’re doing well.
But the loss persists—insidious, incomprehensible, impossible to put into words. As I try to lay them down, they jump around and refuse to land in a way that would pinpoint the why of it. Why it happened, why it matters. I was only a kid, after all. But a kid is a sponge. I absorbed what it meant to be Russian before I could fully form a consciousness. And once you’ve taken it all in, there’s no wringing it out—at least not completely.
II. Missing Space
Ours isn’t even the most tragic story. As far as these things go, it’s actually a good one. When we flew across an ocean, my dad had a job offer from a prestigious university in his metaphorical pocket. We were poor as dirt, but there was a promise of a better life. He’d be paid so little we’d need food stamps, but he’d be paid. The life we were leaving behind couldn’t even offer that much, as I found out later, when my mom decided we were far enough away from it all to take me into her confidence. “If I hadn’t typed up all those dissertations on the side, we would have starved,” she told me when I was sixteen, over breakfast. Matter-of-fact.
Again, I’m trying to straighten out a ribbon that refuses to unravel. What am I really trying to get at, what am I really saying? Am I talking about leaving? Am I talking about being sad about leaving? Am I talking about leaving having been the best decision my parents ever made?
Yes. And I’m talking about how, even at eleven years of age, I was keenly, sharply aware that this was a loss that was permanent. There would be no going back.
For the last twenty-two years, I’ve straddled two countries, at first unwilling, and then resigned to simply being unable to land on just one.
When I think back, I see a gilded, liminal time when I spoke a language I had been born into and felt different in a way that was commonplace. The fears of my childhood were ordinary and, when they weren’t, were at least shared by others.
Sure, it said “Jew” in my parents’ passports—but wasn’t that normal? I learned fairly early on not to discuss my ethnicity. For the longest time, I believed that all Jews were good, because they weren’t a danger to us. They were fellow Jews. Boy, did that one annoying family friend fuck me up. “But he’s Jewish! How can he be soannoying?” I’d ask myself after yet another encounter.
My grandpa, prominent journalist of his town, was suddenly severed from a friendship with a local poet. They’d shared a plot of land for years, growing cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries—all the staples of a Russian garden—when suddenly, his friend ended it all. Why? He’d discovered his inner Russian.
We weren’t Russian, of course. We were Jews.
It’s a tangled, spiraled thread that feels impossible to unpick even at thirty-three.
After we immigrated—how I hate that word; it feels diagnostic in its stigmatization—I would ask my dad if he ever missed Russia.
“No,” he’d shrug. “What would I miss about it?” In his overly sentimental moods, he would add that all he’s ever needed has been us, his family. The rest was pointless nostalgia. “I don’t miss places,” he’d say.
I did. I missed it viciously, in a way that felt like I’d been eviscerated at the airport.
With my guts hanging out, I was forced to go to school deaf and mute. When my mom and sister took me to the middle school to get my English tested, I’d forgotten how to even say “door.” All I knew was “mother, father, sister, brother.” They put me in Level 1 ESL.
I showed up to my first day of school with a note written by my sister: “My name is Elizabeth. I don’t speak English. Can you show me where to find the ESL classroom? Thank you!”
My name wasn’t Elizabeth. But that was what I was supposed to call myself from then on.
In ninth grade, a history teacher said “Russia” in the middle of a sentence and my head snapped up.
“She wasn’t talking about you,” said a girl I’d been friendly with for years. “Calm down.”
I shrank back, lowered my head immediately. I knew the teacher hadn’t been talking about me. But it’s the cocktail party effect. You know—you’re at a party, there’s chatter every which way, and then somebody says your name and you immediately twist around, trying to see where it came from before you’ve even fully registered the movement.
The tangle goes further, even more confusing and insidious.
For years, I shrank away from anything or anyone Russian. After devouring War & Peace and all of Chekhov at thirteen, I refused to pick up Anna Karenina in high school. “I know how it ends,” I’d tell my mother irritably. “That’s not the point!” she’d fire back, giving me a look like what she was really saying was, Whose daughter are you?
While she couldn’t get me to read any of the English books she’d picked out for me at eleven, at eighteen I was ignoring her pleas for me to read in Russian. “You’ll forget the language,” she’d fret.
Good, I’d think savagely but bite my tongue before it could come out and start a real fight. And anyway, my parents were the ones who’d made the decision, the ones who’d picked up our lives and dumped us in the middle of the unknown—why were they fighting so hard to stay un-American? It was like the Borg—we’d be assimilated sooner or later.
“Russia” was shameful, it was unpolished, backwards. It was weighing me down and refusing to let me go. In the grand tradition of teenagers everywhere, all I wanted was to blend in and disappear but I couldn’t, because I still had traces of an accent, my parents’ English was worse than mine now, I had gaps in my cultural knowledge, and I hated all of it.
I was a mass of quiet, vicious rebellion.
Why wasn’t I getting all A’s, wasn’t I their daughter? But I was “doing my best,” I’d argue, parroting back the values that newly swirled around us like smog and were roundly rejected by my parents. Why weren’t B’s enough for my parents?
Because even with their gold medals for stellar grades they couldn’t have gone to the best universities. They’d both been marked as “Jews” and made to crawl to earn the same rights as those whose passports proclaimed them to be Russian.
I missed my town with an ache I couldn’t seem to fill. Stateside, we had everything—a good place to live, eventually two incomes, friends, food aplenty, relative security. Even my grandparents made it out, two and a half years after us.
It wasn’t enough. I carried that ache, that shameful love I couldn’t seem to shake, like a brand. The push and pull of it was exhausting.
Russia had taken more than it had given. From my grandmother, it had taken her father when she’d been a girl, imprisoned and later executed in secret for the crime of being a “Polish spy” (a Polish Jew, of course). It had taken her mother and thrown her in a labor camp for ten years, aging her to the point of no recognition upon release. It had stripped my grandmother of rights and forced my grandfather to later make a choice: divorce his “enemy of the state” wife with whom he had three children or get fired. It wasn’t any kind of choice, and he found a good job in a different city, but it had followed him all his life. He was a Jew, and he looked like a Jew, but at least his last name didn’t end in “shtein.” Of course, when he was born, the clerk at city hall refused to believe that the name his parents wished to give him was Jewish enough. “No,” he said. “He’ll be Meier in his papers.” How much easier to point him out then, you see.
From my sister, it took away the chance to not be terrified when, on a staircase of our apartment building, someone yelled, “Kill all yids!”
From me, it took away the chance not to live with constantly simmering fear and confusion. It took it away from all of us. When I was ten, before we left, life was pretty good, it was normal. I had friends, I had art school, I had music school, and I was happy. I had regular school, too, and I was doing well in all my subjects, except I couldn’t seem to get ahead in Russian and Russian Lit. My teacher was young, just out of university, and from her, unlike from everyone else, I never got a single A. One day, I came home, slumped against the door, and told my mom, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
My sister talked to a good teacher of hers. Something happened behind the scenes. I started getting A’s from a tight-lipped, pissy teacher. It was never spoken out loud, but it was known, anyway. She didn’t want to reward the Jewish girl.
I can’t stop loving the memories, I can’t stop being myself, shaped as I am by the values ingrained so deeply that they’re etched permanently under my skin. Values that fuck me up as I endeavor to evolve into something manageable, values that are like a yoke pulling me back—and sometimes, a prod that’s shoving me forward.
I have to battle myself every time I take a risk, because who do I think I am to believe that risks pay off? Risks are too dangerous, aren’t they? Better not to stand out. Better to immerse yourself in philosophical thinking, surround yourself with art and culture, so as to fill the space that’s telling you this is all you can do, because all other doors are shut to your ilk. We don’t investigate our own emotions, we glance off of them like a flinching touch because if we delve any deeper, we’ll never crawl out.
I’m slowly learning you can embody it all—because, of course, philosophical thinking and cultural pursuits do not in and of themselves preclude you from taking bigger risks. Maybe avoiding taking risks was not something I learned in childhood, after all. Maybe it isn’t cultural. Maybe it’s mine.
Whenever the anniversary of us leaving rolls around, I call my parents and say, “Congratulations!” Inevitably, my mother will argue: “It’s tomorrow.” “We left today,” I’ll say. “Yes, but we arrived tomorrow.” We’ve danced this dance for twenty-one years.
This love is heavy; it’s a burden. Even now, there are bills being presented to the Duma that would further stigmatize and flat-out prohibit homosexuality. I’m queer. What would have happened to me had we stayed?
I have little doubt that I’d already be married to a man, with children, living a life of more fear and bleak unhappiness—existing, but not the way I do now. The picture is blurry and gray. I think I would probably be surviving, at best. I’m sure I would love my children, maybe even my husband. I would also have invisible chains binding me, invisible maybe even to me. The ghost of that self haunts me almost daily, the potential loss like an abyss I stare into, flinging mental pebbles just to see how far down they’ll fall. A pebble for the loss of the identity I am free to own today, another for the loss of the future that now unspools before me, open and hopeful. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat, dreaming about the might-have-beens.
America has given us all a chance. I’m married to a woman—married on my own terms. I’m in love, and I’m free to be in love, for all that homophobia is alive and well here too. I’m free to write this, free to think in any way I do. I was free to get upset and pissed as hell when my parents expressed a dislike for the idea of this marriage because I had finally been told, by an entire society acting as an institution, that me being queer was not a moral issue, nor was it an evil thing. I was free to be mad at my parents because I knew that I was right and they were wrong.
They’ve since changed their views, and that’s another thing America has given us.
In America, I may be suddenly Russian, but I’m also white. I can say the words “I’m Jewish” and not be terrified of the consequences.
But in America, I also hear the underhanded comments. Jews run Hollywood. Your people are good with money. She’s such a JAP.This hasn’t changed—it’s just become less overtly dangerous.
Even still, I love the place where I am from. I love it for all the ways in which it’s doomed, the ways in which it tried its best to crawl out from under a dictatorial shadow only to be thrown right back into that endless, horrid void of xenophobia, terror, and propaganda.
“Vile country,” my sister said once over the phone when I called her about some particularly awful new homophobic law. “Just horrible.”
She lets herself feel the anger I wish I could feel, but I can’t. When I think of Russia, I think of our small town, just outside of Moscow. I think of the books that shaped me, for better or for worse, the artists whose works shone despite all the efforts to tarnish them with claims of treason and perversion. So many quotes and phrases float to mind every day that I simply can’t translate, can only mull over and cherish. I think in English, but there are these words, these Russian words that have no translation, and I think in those, too.
I love that they are a part of me. I love their meanings, I love the history behind each and every single one. When I think about Russia’s history, I see it all—I see the ugly truths, and I see the pursuit of greatness, of betterment, of enlightenment. The anger that I allow myself to feel is not at the country itself, but at the system that has shaped it. At the men at its helm who’ve done everything in their power to not care for the people they’re meant to be leading.
By all logic, there shouldn’t be much love to retain. What love could there be for a country that takes its brightest minds and exiles them to the coldest ends of the earth, sentences them to certain death, and then erects monuments in their honor like a guilt-ridden lover? A country that poisons and assassinates as a matter of political strategy? What could you possibly love about a place that gives you scraps and tells you to be happy with what you have because it could be so much worse?
I feel like I have floated all my life in different spaces, and I’ve rarely settled. But the idea of my childhood grounds me at the same time as it cuts another nick in my guts.
I know where I come from. I know that it isn’t here. I know that all the contradictions within me were not placed there by any single society, but were born out of who I am and who I’ve always been outside of external influence.
What would I have been had I been born on American soil? Another duality: the idea of existing in a place that gave me life feels singularly simple, uncomplicated like air, yet I would never give up where I came from, nor where and who I am now. It’s an impossible task to make sense of this. So I continue to exist on two separate planes.
Several months ago, someone asked me after a typically circular conversation about the whole experience: “Did you even want to leave?”
And with no preamble, I burst into tears—the sort of uncontrollable sobs that humiliate and empty you out. It hadn’t been my choice to make. My parents did the only thing they could have done, and it turned out to have been the best decision of their lives.
But I was eleven, and I have never fully forgotten.
There are a million ways to be Russian: there are millions of Russians. Those still living within its borders and those scattered around the globe. There are so many of us. I see us everywhere. I recognize our faces, I know our clothes, the looks in our eyes. I see us where I least expect to and hear us everywhere.
We left. We left because there was so little to stay for. But we gather in groups, we stockpile our nostalgia in movies, books, music. Some of us deride America even as we use its resources. Some of us pretend that our microcosm of Russians is Russia, that we can carry on like we never left at all. I reject this way of being Russian in America. But it’s still a way to cope.
My love for Russia is one that I hoard mostly inside myself, never fully letting it out—because if I let it out, it will get hurt. I protect it as I flinch away from others’ comments, hide it in the smallest pockets of my heart.
VI. Street View
In my darker, more masochistic moments, I open up Google Maps and search out my hometown. I look up our address. Every time I do, it sends a jolt of ‘Why is the building still there?’ through me. How is it still there? How has it not disappeared along with us? How can I look at it and not be able to touch it? How can it simply exist? It still looks the same, but some surroundings have changed. Instead of woods and pavement, there are restaurants, car dealerships, newsstands.
Incredibly, like a throwback, a reaffirmation of the other of it, the steam baths are still across the street—just sporting a new overhead label. An old tradition dressed up in new corporate clothing.
I scroll through the streets and think, This is where we walked and saw a family friend for the last time. My sister said, after we parted, “We’ll probably never see him again.” Now I look at that street and think, she was right. And that fence is new. I can’t get past the fence, just like I can’t get past the last of the forward arrows. I can’t fall into that world, I can only look in from outside, separated by thousands of miles and a screen.
I look up my school. The street with our old apartment isn’t on street view, and after I discover this, I dream about it that very night. In my dream, I’ve got my wife with me and I’m trying to show her all the places that have been locked up so long inside me. I even dream about the playground that is now, at least according to Google Maps, a parking lot. This is where I fell, I tell her.
Every now and then, I’ll call my parents and say, “Hey. Thanks for taking us out of there.”
In the end, this love is one-sided. The country never really wanted us. For all that the small petty bureaucrat tortured my parents when they went for their refugee visa interview, for all that he told them they were making a huge mistake, that America was awful, that his daughter was there and she hated it, so really, You’re better off just staying here, they don’t want you—it wasn’t America that didn’t want us.
I’ve learned this lesson over and over. I learned it when Russia officially sanctioned a neo-Nazi party after we left, and I learned it when it slowly began to cut off the small freedoms it had gained post-USSR. Step by step, anti-Western sentiment sowed the now-blossoming seeds of fascism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and we, Jews, simply feel grateful to have escaped.
My love for America is the flipside of this coin: intrinsically humiliating, because I’ll always be its charity case. It’s given me so much, but when asking for my loyalty, it looms over me and casts a shadow so large it absorbs me whole. This love will never be equal, either. I will always be subservient, groveling at its feet, enduring endless debates about whether or not outsiders like me have any essential value.
But when I came out to my parents, it was a million miles away from where I could have been. When I married my wife, it felt even farther.
Now Russia exists to me in online news sites and Twitter accounts. It exists in the futility of following the Russian LGBT Network on Facebook, knowing there isn’t a single thing I can do to make any of this easier on the people I’ve left behind. It exists where it can no longer hurt me, but it taunts me with its slow descent into abject horror.
That was my country once. It’s where I’m from, where I was born, where I was raised, where I have an entire mental map of my town as if I’d only seen it yesterday and not over twenty years ago. It exists in Technicolor stereotypes on my TV, in jabs from well-meaning people who want to show they care that I’m not American and stifle my ability to define myself for myself.
It’s no one’s fault, not really. Why should anyone care, much less know all the detail of, what it’s like to have been born into a country that would nearly devour you whole, then reluctantly spit you out? It’s unanswerable. I only know my own experience—I can’t speak for anyone else. But it never leaves. I try to have a sense of humor about it, I mock and I despair, and while I think in words, I remember in pictures.
I remember the present I got for my eleventh birthday: a shiny pair of white sneakers. I’d never owned sneakers before, and this was momentous. I’d be able to keep up with the other kids, the kids whose parents weren’t a barely paid nuclear physicist and an administrator. I vividly remember opening the box just as John Lennon’s “Imagine” played on TV (we had access to music videos by then; we even had a color television set) and I remember the feeling of being unable to imagine anything better than my new pair of sneakers. I took a walk later that day by myself, and I watched my new sneakers glow as they pounded the familiar pavement, and I thought, what language do they speak in America? I don’t even know. But I memorized each crack in the pavement, each street corner, each place where I had had memories.
We left two months and seven days later. I’ve never been back.
Liz Jacobs came over with her family from Russia at the age of 11, as a Jewish refugee. All in all, her life has gotten steadily better since that moment. They settled in an ultra-liberal haven in the middle of New York State, which sort of helped her with the whole “grappling with her sexuality” business.
She has spent a lot of her time flitting from passion project to passion project, but writing remains her constant. She has flown planes, drawn, made jewelry, had an improbable internet encounter before it was cool, and successfully wooed the love of her life in a military-style campaign. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her essay on her family’s experience with immigration.
She currently lives with her wife in Massachusetts, splitting her time between her day job, writing, and watching a veritable boatload of British murder mysteries.