Featured Fem | Vasilina Orlova

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Vasilina Orlova was born in the village of Dunnai in the Russian Far East in 1979. She has lived in Vladivostok, Moscow, and London, and is now based in Austin, United States, working her way through the PhD program in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

She holds a PhD in philosophy and is the author of seven novels in Russian—among them The Voice of Fine Stillness, The Wilderness, and The Supper of a Praying Mantis. Mostly they were published in Novy Mir literary journal. She has also published several books of prose and poetry, including Yesterday, The Wilderness, and Quartet.

Fem: Describe your latest publication.

Vasilina Orlova: My latest publication is a poem, dedicated to one of my peers, anthropologist Joseph Russo. It came out in a small New-Yorkian zine. The poem is about basilisk who has a valise and embarks on a kind of journey. It largely emerged out of play with sound, pure alliteration. It’s a little piece that I like.

F: Is there a theme to your writing?

VO: Indeed I do have recurrent themes. In my English writing, it has been ruins, technology as it mediates our relationships, dragons, aliens and cosmonauts, the figure of the emperor. In my English creative writing, I am more of a lyrist than anything else. So it is love poetry, most sentimental love poems imaginable.

F: What are some of the challenges when translating a novel from one language to another?

VO: Actually, I did not translate any novels, and I am not planning to translate prose, including my own novels. It’s easier for me to write something new than to follow my own traces step by step. I need a translator, someone who knows Russian as a native speaker, but also a great writer in English. I translated, however, several of my Russian poems. Mainly, I translate works of Russian classical and contemporary poets. Pushkin, Akhmatova, Tyutchev, Mayakovsky, Gumilyov, Khlebnikov, Odoevtseva. Some things were translated many times before. I do it for the simple pleasure of writing poems that I did not write but always dreamed that I could write in some ideal world. Also I think the classical poems should be re-translated anew all the time, re-written in the poetics of today-ness, if you will. Contemporary Russian poets that I translated are few: Vitaly Pukhanov, Danila Davydov, Andrey Vasilevsky, Yuri Mamleev. Mamleev is known as the author of short stories and novels; recently he died. And I translated into Russian some poems of American writers, Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, Austin poets Monty Jones and Thom Woodruff, and by young poets, you might say, Amanda Casco and David Scott. Well, I think they all are amazing, those poets. What is a more telling way to express my admiration than translation?

Translation is a difficult process. For me it’s an attempt to transform the breathing organism of a poem into a living form which would freely move into a completely different context, function in a parallel reality, in an environment where light is dispersed differently, you know, and all the physical qualities of matter, and space, and time, are dissimilar. You have to recreate the thing, and in the end you fail, but it’s a productive failure, a telling failure, a living failure, ideally.

F: How does your study of philosophy and anthropology influence your writing?

VO: Well, my study has created me, shaped me into who I am, whoever I am. Philosophy is a discipline of pure thought, and anthropology is a highly political science. I think anthropology made me more attuned to the complex power dynamics at play in the everyday life, dynamics which define our identities. Our identities are only partially under our control, in a lot of ways they are imposed on us by outside forces, inscribed in our bodies and are read by other actors in a way we could not define.

F: How did you get your start in writing professionally?

VO: My beginning has happened almost twenty years ago, but when I moved to the English-speaking world, first to London, and then to the United States, I had to start everything from scratch. It was not an easy journey, and more to it, it has just started. But I discovered with astonishment that practices of writing acquired in one language are still pertinent if you write in another. And then my English writing started influencing my Russian writing. I am curious what comes next.

 

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