“Everyone Reads the Text That’s in Their Own Head”: An Interview with Linor Goralik

This post is the third in a series that begins here.

Tonight at 5 PM, the Russian-Israeli flash fiction author and Runet pioneer Linor Goralik will appear at NYU’s Jordan Center to discuss Found Life, a collected volume in translation co-edited by Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokour. In anticipation of her visit, All the Russias will be running excerpts from Found Life throughout this week. 

Today’s segment is an interview conducted and translated by Olga Breininger.


OB: Linor, imagine that none of your texts has yet been translated. Which would you choose to be translated first?

LG: There is this one book that I’d say is more precious to me than any other piece of prose I wrote. It’s called The Oral Folk Tradition of the Inhabitants of Sector M1. It’s a collection of folklore stemming from one of the sectors of hell. Wherever there are people, there is folklore, and these people, too, have their own folk tradition, which has been collected by a man named Sergei Petrovsky, who by the way is the father of Agatha [of “Agatha Goes Home”—Eds.]; I have this complicated network of Petrovsky family relations in my head. At the beginning of the book Petrovsky explains a bit why he collects folklore— it’s because there’s this universal human need to collect. But Sergei doesn’t want to collect objects and finally settles on folklore. He doesn’t really understand what folklore is—he is, after all, an IT person, not a linguist—he just collects certain texts that seem like folklore to him. My friend and editor Mitya Kuzmin and I spent a while arguing about whether the book is prose (his opinion) or poetry (mine), and ultimately we published it as a book of God  knows what. But I have no idea how you’d go about translating a book like that, how and into what language, for one thing because it’s all based on Russian folklore, but on the other hand it’s just, like, some crazy shit. But if there was some magical world where someone asked me, “What text of yours would you like most to see translated?” I would immediately say Sector M1.

OB: When you first saw a text of yours translated into another language, how did it make you feel? Did you have the sense that it was still your work or did you feel like it now had its own separate existence?

LG: This is actually quite a complicated story, because it all started with translations into Ukrainian, which is a language I could assess—partially. I grew up in Ukraine, but I wouldn’t pretend that I truly know the language, though at least I can understand a written text. And the sense was there; the translator was Marianna Kiyanovska, who is a wonderful poet and an excellent translator—I really love her work—and the whole thing felt very important and good, especially since, as I said, I grew up in Ukraine and have my own personal relationship to the country. So that’s one example. But, on the other hand, there were other, stranger situations, where my work was being translated into languages that I do know; and it isn’t just that you don’t like the translation, but you’re not quite sure what exactly the person was translating. When the translator was really out there. But on the other hand, again, you always remember that, after all, everyone reads the text that’s in their own head—that the translator reads what’s in his/her own head and that’s how s/he translates it. Then there’s a third type of situation, when you’re being translated into a language that you don’t know at all. And moreover it’s a language where you can’t even examine the structure of the text, how it breaks down into stanzas, for example—in my case I think it was Japanese. It was very interesting.

OB: I know you also work in content marketing. As a writer who’s also a marketing specialist, what do you think of Facebook? You get journalists and writers all writing and commenting, but if each person only reads for what makes sense to them, then what do you think of the result?

LG: Here I feel like I have to start a long and boring monologue on problems of semiotics and communication theory. But it boils down to the idea that we know that every message has a sender and a receiver, and all of us have to just hope for the best. As a marketing specialist from Ful.io, I’ve observed this one extremely interesting thing that diverges in many ways from what my fellow marketing specialists think. They often talk about how people are very slow to accept and absorb new information, and that this is one of the biggest problems in marketing—how to get people to understand the specific thing you’re saying and not some other thing. And my colleagues are always working really hard on this in various ways, or they just give up on the idea of their addressee understanding the message. But my whole experience, particularly with content marketing—which is entirely built around information—tells me the complete opposite. People respond to information with great interest and are ready to give it much more attention than we tend to believe. I think that we’re seeing a very interesting phenomenon that comes from what we call “fast” or “bite-size” information, this stream of information composed of micro-elements, posts, articles, images. People talk a lot about how this has led to reduced or fragmented attention. But in fact, it’s led to the opposite, it’s made it so that people can quickly pick the points of information that are interesting to them out of the stream. It also feels wrong to me to start from the assumption that our attention gets dispersed over the entire stream. Once again, it’s the opposite—we’ve been honing our ability to pick out what we need. There’s a whole lot of excess in  the stream, so we end up being very receptive to what we actually find interesting.

OB: You have this technique of creating the sense that a conversation has been going on for a while, but the reader has suddenly tuned in to hear a chunk of it—does that relate to some of these observations?

LG:  To me, it’s all one interconnected story, it’s a single story. I have this internal conviction that if you talk to someone about what’s interesting to him or her, your brain turns on. And it’s also important to realize that you’re not actually talking to completely random people, that it’s possible to imagine who you’re talking to, who you want to hear your voice. You realize that these people are ready, right off the bat, to leap headfirst into the story. And I’m talking about prose here, of course. With this kind of addressee, you can approach them and just start telling a story from the middle, they’re not required to understand the overall meaning, but you hope that they’ll be interested in having a listen, and after that anything is possible.

OB: How do you choose the moment when you “tune in”? Are you interested in specific themes or qualities of language? Is there something unusual that tends to attract your attention?

LG:  I’m writing a novel that I’ve been gradually publishing in the online magazine Colta.ru. I write it bit by bit, and Colta publishes it—which is really difficult psychologically, by the way. And the whole novel is constructed around this principle because the premise assumes the disintegration of the world, literally. The destruction of all business as usual. So that means the text is built around disintegration, and the pieces at the beginning are highly incompatible with each other stylistically. Like the range I’m talking about here is from a diagram—yes, a chapter can be a diagram—or it can be a play, it can be a line of graffiti (that’s the ninth chapter), it can be a normal-length story, or a mini-story, or  a Wikipedia article. I like for the duration of the story—not how long it takes to read, but the internal duration of events—to be miniscule. The story might go on for 5 pages, but the event itself only lasts 60 seconds.

OB: What about the works of Linor Goralik, as a corpus—is it a single narrative for you, or do you experience each of your pieces as a separate entity?

LG:  Well, first of all, I’m lucky that I’m not schizophrenic—in the sense that, for me, everything that comes out of one consciousness has one essence, one root, however the author might contort him or herself, and that applies to me, too. Deep down I know that all my different texts are connected, and I even know the specific places where they come together. They’re interrelated in that I’m interested only in people’s private lives. I’m interested in how people live out their internal lives, one-on-one with themselves—not in how they represent it or what they do with it or how they behave. I’m interested in the internal mechanisms of surviving with oneself. So that’s how all my texts are connected. But on the other hand, M1 is a standalone project, “Bunnypuss” is a standalone project, and this whole story about Tukhachevsky City—which is where the little girl Agatha and her father Sergei Petrovsky both live—that’s a standalone project too. God willing, someday I’ll write a standalone book about that made-up city in my head.

OB: How about the fact that you’ve lived in different countries, and move around fairly regularly—has that influenced your writing?

LG:  Of course, because I’m very interested in the structure, the “language” of speech, which first of all has to do with code-switching, and second with switching between—and boy, I sure don’t like this word, no one does, really—mentalities. Not even mentalities, but ways of thinking, that’s how I’d put it. And of course there’s a Russian way of thinking, an American one, an Israeli one. I am  fully aware of the theory of language as a basis for internal narrative, the idea that language determines consciousness. I know that this idea exists, whether you agree with it or not, but I’ve become convinced that people actually feel things in the same way. I know that affect theory and affect history teaches us the opposite, telling us that people in different cultures or in different time periods felt things differently—that is, they responded differently to identical circumstances. And I’m also willing to believe that we have no rational way of comparing different kinds of emotions and probably never will—you can’t even compare two different people’s headaches. But I often have the feeling that I am in an emotionally familiar landscape that might just be expressed in unfamiliar terms.

OB: Since your texts don’t really fit into a standard genre scheme, do you see your work as fiction or nonfiction? And how do you see the role of the author?

LG:  Something I really love to do, and do deliberately, is working at the intersection of nonfiction and fiction, leaning toward texts that look like nonfiction but are actually fiction. M1, for example, the collection of folklore, it’s more or less fiction, but it’s this guy’s notes that have been gathered into a folklore corpus, which arguably makes it nonfiction according to the conventions of the genre. I just mentioned Tukhachevsky City, and I really hope to write a book about it that would imitate nonfiction and talk about an imaginary post- or late-Soviet phenomenon: the Paper Church, which is an Orthodox Christian community, an underground community, within a Soviet city. So obviously nonfiction is so important for me as a genre that I end up imitating it when I write fiction.

OB: What is it that compels you to use the technique of disguising fiction as nonfiction?

LG:  It’s something I do to wake the reader up, or to play with their expectations. When someone picks up a nonfiction text, they  have certain expectations even if they don’t know that this nonfiction is actually fiction. The expectations are set even at the level of language, it’s a question of style, structure, formatting. This game where the reader knows that the allegedly trustworthy text they’re being offered is actually not trustworthy at all, that delicate balance, is incredibly interesting to me. That device gives me a lot of pleasure when I encounter it as a reader, and I hope others feel the same way.

OB: Do you think that your work at the juncture of fictional and documentary writing is similar to what, say, Svetlana Alexievich is doing?

LG:  I think it’s pretty different. The first difference is one of intention: Svetlana writes about actual events. The technique she chooses is nonfiction, which works very well for her. Her technique is actually very important because it shortens the distance between author and reader and helps the reader understand the topic under discussion, but Svetlana works to convey real events, to inform people about real events, whereas I do more or less the exact opposite. I imitate reports of real events, and the reader knows it, otherwise I’d be some kind of swindler and would deserve to be discredited.

OB: How do you contextualize your writing within the canon of Russian literature?

LG:  I’ve really lucked out in that I really consider myself to be a private individual, I don’t feel the need to look for a relationship to the Russian literary canon, in any real sense. I just don’t have that emotional sense of continuity inside, that emotional thread that would say “Here I am!” and tie me to my place in the Russian canon. For better or worse.


Excerpted from Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, & an Interview by Linor Goralik. Edited by Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokour. Translation © 2018 Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokour. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.