Memory is a Merciless Editor
Snow In May
(Henry Holt, 2014)
Snow in May, Kseniya Melnik’s debut short fiction collection, is an impressive feat. Written in masterful prose, the nine stories span 50 years with protagonists both male and female, young and old. And although they are stand-alone pieces, some characters make multiple appearances, threading their way though the tales, rendering the book somewhere in between a story collection and a novel.
But the stand-out feature of the stories is their location: Magadan in the far east of Russia. Every story takes place there or is some significant way related to the town.
From the first few pages, it becomes quickly evident that Magadan is unlikely to become the next hot tourist destination. During the 1950s, it was “the gate to the most brutal of Stalinist labor camps—the most remote island in the notorious Gulag Archipelago,” reports Tolik in “Closed Fracture.” “By the mid-sixties, half the town was ex-convicts, some living and working side-by-side with ex-guards.” Their ghosts can be felt throughout the book. Desolate, cold, and isolated, it is one of the few port towns in a remote part of Russia, without a railway line and no easy way in or out.
This grim place has always loomed large in Melnik’s imagination. And with good reason. She was born and raised there before emigrating to Alaska as a teenager because of her father’s job. Extended family remained, and although Melnik has never been back since, Magadan has never left her. It’s played a prominent role in her fiction dating back to her earliest stories. “I’m drawn to writing about places that I’ve left and the distance that gives me,” Melnik explained.
And, in addition to Melnik’s personal connection, Magadan seems a writer’s ideal for a setting filled with dramatic and atmospheric potential. Deda Misha in “Our Upstairs Neighbor” describes arriving there in 1951. “‘The closer we got to Magadan, the more horror stories our fellow travelers told us about our future.’” Once there, Deda Misha finds "camps everywhere, even in the center of Magadan .... Barbed wire and dogs barking in the cold. If a prisoner lost a game of cards, he had to kill a random person on the street. Or be killed. Gulag’s criminal network reached outside too. Released prisoners lived in flotsam shanties or manholes and stole food from first-floor kitchens. If a prisoner escaped, the whole town would be on lockdown while soldiers hunted him down.”
Melnik started out by collecting oral histories from her family. The fragments and pieces of stories from her relatives and family friends became jumping off points for her. “Most of the stories were sparked by some element from my family history,” Melnik said. “But then when I wrote the stories, things would change. The premise might be based on a real event, but then the story itself would walk far away from that. I’m more interested in capturing the echoes from events, than writing personal narrative,” Melnik explained.
Instead, Melnik found freedom in the possibility that fiction offers. “The stories that go the furthest away from what really happened are the most successful, I think, and were the most fun to write. I used some biographical indicators, but then the characters themselves are not at all like the real people.”
Melnik has the clearest memories of the 1980s and 1990s when she was a child, but also wrote stories set in earlier decades. Melnik’s mother told her of an idealistic time during the 1960s and 1970s, especially compared to postwar Russia when people were starving. “My own memories from growing up in Magadan are happy ones. But I wanted to look at the more complex reality of the place, including some of the darker aspects,” she said. “The characters in my stories were affected by the changes in the regimes. But things are never black and white. There were great things about the Soviet Union and not such great things, to put it mildly. I didn’t want to make any sweeping statements about recent history.”
In the opening story, “Love Italian Style or in Line for Bananas,” Tanya, a married woman, is propositioned by an Italian footballer while visiting Moscow for a conference. The story details the routine of picking up supplies in the capital city because smaller towns, like Magadan, would not have had items like bananas in 1975 when it takes place. “The capital was the rich merchant, the pride of the country—a requisite stop on the way back to the provinces. [Tanya] and Anton had saved all year for this shopping trip. Baby Pavlik needed a winter coat, and Borya needed a backpack, notebooks, and all the bright school accessories to get him excited about first grade.”
The seed of the story was planted during a conversation with Melnik’s aunt and the facts provided the focus. “The year the stories were set in shaped them. When I wrote ‘Love, Italian Style,’ I was very conscious of the times,” Melnik says. “The main character is living in Magadan but visiting the capital in 1975, and she wouldn’t have encountered a foreigner before. Also the way she went about shopping in Moscow, there would have been a whole science to it. This kind of story could have only happened in a particular history.”
“Strawberry Lipstick” follows a troubled marriage where the husband loses much of his income through gambling. “‘Strawberry Lipstick’ is set in 1958 and I was aware of the social constraints that the main character, Olya, had. I was also aware of quotidian life in the Far East at that time. For a while, I had that her husband would bring her back flowers after he won at gambling. But I had to cut that because it turned out fresh cut flowers were not readily available at the time. I could have let that stay in because I liked the detail, but I was committed to accuracy. I had to figure out something else that a guilty husband could bring home to his wife as a gift.”
It was this requirement to fact-checking that initially felt so daunting to Melnik that she couldn’t manage to provide the real name for the location of her early stories. “My early stories were often set in cold, isolated Russian towns with a made-up names. This town was based on Magadan but I didn’t actually call it Magadan.” It was one of her professors at New York University where she earned an MFA who suggested to Melnik that she call this mysterious Russian town by its real name. “So finally, I took on the challenge of actually setting the stories in Magadan and getting the historical facts straight.”
Place and setting have always been essential elements to Melnik. “The setting gives a sense of atmosphere and mood. I’m interested in the history of a place, especially the layering of history, where there are so many different things that happen in the same location. Like with Alaska there is everything from the Russian fur trappers to Captain Hook, to the Gold Rush to the building of the Alyeska pipeline to Sarah Palin. This layering is especially true of the old cities of the world. Also the season and natural elements are important to me. I need to know what time of year a story takes place. If I have that down and the setting, plus a character then I can work in the conflict. But I need the destination. I think of a story like a plane ticket. I have the departure point and the destination point and then I can figure out how to get there.”
The title draws on Melnik’s use of nature to set mood and tone. “For me, snow has a magical element to it, especially when it falls in the spring after a brief thaw,” she says. “It covers everything and is cleansing. It’s like a second chance, which seemed fitting for the themes of the book.”
In “Love, Italian Style, Or Line for Bananas,” after Tanya loses some of her precious supplies, it is the snow that provides her comfort: “The snow kept falling and falling, covering muddy slush from the recent thaw, last year’s yellow grass, and the garbage on the sidewalks—masking for a short while, the old sins.”
Memory is another reoccurring theme and its role in shaping one’s own personal narrative. “Closed Fracture” starts with a missed call from an old friend from Magadan. “This morning, a phone call from an unfamiliar foreign number interrupted my game of golf. I winced, recognizing Russia's dialing code, and let it go to voice mail,” says Tolik, who is now living in California. “You never know what guise the past might put on to haunt you. Tolyan and I had been through the trenches of youth together, his loyal presence a watermark of authenticity on my every memory and image. I should have been happy to hear from him. Yet what I felt was acute annoyance at this rather minimal invasion of my privacy. Maybe I’ve become too American. Or not yet American enough.” The incident triggers memories of their youth together, a skiing injury, decisions to marry and have children. Tolik takes a drive while he thinks about his friend: “I continued to think about how luck is distributed among the living—a subject I’ve been ruminating on often lately. I began to understand why Tolyan might be so eager to get in touch with me. For him, the years when our roads ran parallel to each other were the peak of his life. I could only imagine to what legendary proportions our youthful friendship had grown by now in his imagination. For me however, those years were a takeoff strip, not the flight.” The story ends with his rumination on memory itself: ”memory becomes a merciless editor, cutting a bearable story out of the ever-accumulating mess of days.”
It is this looking back and trying to make sense of one’s life that interests Melnik. “Some people in later years have a certain ideal of themselves in their minds. They tell themselves stories to justify their decisions. Tolik, wants to think of himself as lucky.”
Revisionist history is on display in “Our Upstairs Neighbor” and “Strawberry Lipstick,” which are both about “reinterpreting events and personal history,” Melnik explained.
“Strawberry Lipstick” opens with Olya already feeling doomed. “Olya lay in bed between her younger sister, Dasha, and her older sister, Zoya, feeling that, at 18, her life was over.” Things never improve for her. She marries an alcoholic who gambles away much of his income and eventually she leaves him. Like many of Melnik’s stories, it is epic in scope, following Olya through decades of her life.
Spare, economical with words, short shorts these are not, and several cover decades in a character’s life. Almost like mini-Russian novels. Citing the influence of Alice Munro, Chekhov and Turgenev, Melnik has always written long short stories. “I love long stories,” she explained. “I’m drawn to that form. I think the past is always invading the present, so I want to include as much as possible.”
When she first began writing stories, she “had to figure out techniques to make the stories rich with details, but also not to include everything, so that they are not overburdened. When I do research, I sometimes make the mistake of having too many details and then have to scale back in later drafts.” An opportunity to contribute to Granta’s “New Voices” issue helped Melnik towards that end: the word count was 3,000. This resulted in “The Witch,” a tight story that follows Alina, a girl suffering from mysterious migraines, which nothing can subside. “Over the last year, the doctors had failed to establish any correlation between the excruciating pain that assaulted me weekly and what and how much I ate, when and how much I slept, what I did, the season, the weather, and my geographical location. No medicine helped. The witch was our last resort.”
Melnik’s interest in medicine dates back to her childhood in Magadan. She worked in her grandmother’s clinic and even considered going into medicine as a profession. In “Summer Medicine,” Sonya, who appears in almost every story in Snow in May, is a young girl who takes a fascination with medicine too far. She comes up with a plan to fake an illness so that she can be hospitalized. "Patients in faded pajamas shuffled along the flower-lined alleys, holding on to walking sticks or the elbows of visitors. Ambulances buzzed by....[d]octors hurried in and out of doors like white cranes. All the chambers of my heart were aflutter.... here I would finally observe real medicine.” Sonya’s plan, however, doesn’t quite work out the way she had hoped.
“I’ve always been fascinated by hospitals and my early drafts always included lots of doctors. And with “The Witch” and “Summer Medicine,” I was interested in exploring the contrast of how the young heroines dealt with pain, theirs and other people’s, and the world of medicine.”
Although Magadan is by and large the main setting for the stories, America hangs over everything. “The collection has a direction towards America and towards the West,” Melnik says. In “Kruchina,” which originated as a screenplay, Masha is visiting her daughter who has moved to Fargo, North Dakota and her grandchildren and the resulting cultural conflicts and alienation that the characters feel for one another. “As Masha was acclimating to the cluttered, overheated house in Fargo, a feeling of unsettlement lodged into her, and the more she tried to tease it out, the deeper it burrowed, like a fractured splinter.” Masha decides to sing a song called Kruchina, which means grief, at her daughter’s and granddaughter’s green card party celebration. The party ends in tears, and Masha contemplates suicide.
Melnik’s stories are largely devoid of a political angle. But because of the time period during which the stories are set—the 1950s through to 2012—they provide insight into recent Russian politics as told through the every day experience of its most ordinary citizens. Melnik approaches this subject matter with both a personal connection and the viewpoint that distance and time provide. It is this combination of reporterly tone, family history, facts, and imagination that give Snow In May such a unique voice and perspective on Russia during the past 50 years.