This “vividly awesome and truly great” (Eileen Myles) memoir follows award-winning writer Sophia Shalmiyev’s flight from the Soviet Union, where she was forced to abandon her estranged mother, and the subsequent quest to find her again.
Born to a Russian mother and an Azerbaijani father, Sophia Shalmiyev was raised in the stark oppressiveness of 1980s Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). An imbalance of power and the prevalence of antisemitism in her homeland led her father to steal Shalmiyev away, emigrating to America, abandoning her estranged mother, Elena. At age eleven, Shalmiyev found herself on a plane headed west, motherless and terrified of the new world unfolding before her.
Now a mother herself, in Mother Winter, “an exploration of heartache and the ways life moves on even after irretrievable changes” (Booklist), Shalmiyev depicts in urgent vignettes her emotional journeys as an immigrant, an artist, and a woman raised without her mother. She tells of her early days in St. Petersburg; her tumultuous pit-stop in Italy as a refugee; the life she built for herself in the Pacific Northwest, raising two children of her own; and ultimately, her voyage back to Russia as an adult, where she searched endlessly for the alcoholic mother she never knew. Braided into her physical journey is a metaphorical exploration of the many surrogate mothers Shalmiyev sought out in place of her own, woven together with “lyrical prose...[that] splits open like layer after layer of an ornate matryoshka” (The Paris Review).
Mother Winter is the story of Shalmiyev’s years of travel, searching, and forging meaningful connections with the worlds she occupies—the result is “a rich tapestry of autobiography and meditations on feminism, motherhood, art, and culture, this book is as intellectually satisfying as it is artistically profound. A sharply intelligent, lyrically provocative memoir” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
When I learned English well enough to love it, I realized my inner tongue was running in the wrong direction. As does the Old Testament, the one we don’t call the good book. The one that became the bad, forbidden book, and is read back to front. The period blood came right after I began practicing my American accent in eighth grade: all smudged red clots to brown waste.
I have been teaching my daughter to wipe herself front to back to avoid the chronic infections her body is prone to. She squats and glares at me, then follows her instinct for revolt no matter the aftermath.
The daughters who live in flashbacks will suspend their tongues between the origin and the destination—the past more immediate, more urgent than any new day. “Mother, loosen my tongue or adorn me with a lighter burden.” Even Audre Lorde needs her mother’s permission to grease the gears on the train to the beginning, to knock on coffins.
I worship the flaneurs and flaneuses, those who stroll about the city—especially the women who dare to walk alone at night and then write about it. But those who slink around with too little purpose or not enough clothing to cover their bodies are marked as streetwalkers, or shlyuchas. This was one of your labels in my home. There may be no records, beyond arrests or death certificates, of a shlyucha’s gallivanting.
I don’t worship my real mother, but I can’t get her buttermilk smell off my mouth.
Almost all of the paper that contains your name was flushed down the toilet, lost, thrown away, or hidden like a lover who buries her face in the pillow when coming. All the letters I secretly wrote you were in English, and if I knew where to send them you would have needed an auxiliary, a translator to convert my scribbles into our mother tongue. I didn’t bother practicing my Russian on you. That river was dammed with teenage hormones and hopes of fitting in, a changeling in America. There was no address in Russia to mail anything to, and then I knew only your maiden name, Danilova, as well as the married-and-divorced-from name we shared at one time, Shalmiyeva.
I heard rumors that you had remarried and divorced twice since my father took you to court and the judge ruled you an unfit mother in the early 1980s. My uncle visited you in 1995 before he joined us on a visa in Brooklyn, but I only found out about these cordial gatherings a few years ago. At the time you sat in your St. Petersburg apartment looking frail and famished, close to our old place on Bronnitskaya, in what used to be Leningrad, I was a junior deciding between Reed and Evergreen colleges, editing a high school feminist newspaper, listening to riot grrrl bands, writing poems for you, and auditioning surrogate mothers for myself: feminists, writers, activists, painters, ballbusters, killjoys, sex workers, gay men.
And so, I assembled a fantasy caretaker army of mostly loose and tragic women mixed with audacious and assertive ones—a hologram of what I imagined you would be like if I hadn’t been stolen from you. If you hadn’t left me for the bottle long before my father took me away to America eleven-years-your-daughter.