Red Hen Press and Fictional Cafe celebrate today the publication of Spring in Siberia, the first novel by a young writer named Artem Mozgovoy. Born in Central Siberia, he finds solace in the literature he reads and begins to write. Spring in Siberia is his coming of age story, told in fiction.
This excerpt is from Chapter 16. An interview with Kate Gale, Managing Editor
and Executive Director at Red Hen Press, follows it.
‘I’m afraid that I love you,’ my classmate spoke quickly and quietly, but I managed to catch his words before they melted in the evening smoke.
We were standing on the sixteenth-story balcony, on the top floor of the tallest building in our city. Neither he nor I lived in that block, but we knew that each level gave access to a public deck overlooking the vast provincial drabness in which we did live. First, we would stand by the locked door downstairs, waiting for some resident with a key; we’d tell that someone that we wished to visit Masha, or Sasha, or Dasha, or some other non existent friend, and hopefully be let in; then we’d ride the doddery, stinking elevator to the top, walk through a dark corridor and, after pushing open a rusty, creaky door, at last reach that secret place of our own.
The three walls of the balcony were smothered in smut and graffiti, its floor was thick with grime and cigarette stubs, but we were left alone and felt safe there, far from all the turmoil down at ground level. Hundreds of minuscule gray vehicles moved up and down Lenin Prospekt; their lights – red ascending, yellow descending – were the brightest points of interest on offer and our eyes, having nothing better to focus on, kept following them. If you went with the red stream, then after some mixing and tangling the lights inevitably merged with the thick smoke streaming endlessly, mercilessly, from the chimney stacks in the factory zone; and if you followed the yellow lights, the cars would steer your gaze to the ochre city center and then all the way on to the train station. On that balcony we spent hours talking, watching our bleak and dire town, which seemed even gloomier than usual on that miserable mid-April night.
‘And you, do you think you love me?’ my classmate turned away from the town and looked at me with both a glimpse of hope and the certainty of rejection evident in his wild black eyes. I stood still, shivering slightly, shocked by this confession which, to me, seemed to have come out of nowhere.
He was older than me, smarter than me, braver. Although, right now, he looked very scared, perhaps at his own words or at my reaction to them. But how was I meant to react? What could I possibly do to him? Punch him? Push him from the balcony? Hug him? Kiss him? No, I was left speechless. He, in turn, remained silent.
We used to talk a great deal every day after school. Back then we’d set out walking aimlessly, criss-crossing the town from one side to the other, from West to East, from South to North, diagonally. He was my guide because I was, after all, no more than the Taiga-boy, the outsider, the alien. When we got tired or cold, we’d take a tram to observe the same street scenes unfolding outside the scratched and filthy windows.
There was nothing beautiful or charming about our experiences in the big city, but later, when I looked back on those months, I knew that it was a most delicate time: the omnipresent drowsiness of the place, the rough streets, and our old reddish tram. Yes, that trembling Soviet tram, once painted a bright red and white, but by then worn out, gray and flaking like everything else in our world, with the doors bulky and mighty enough to split one in two, with stairs so steep that old women needed assistance to board or were left downstairs looking hopelessly up at the passengers above them, and with an unavoidable controller, a konduktorsha – usually, an obese, morose woman – staggering through the thick crowd, carrying a heavy black bag full of coins slung around her neck and screaming imperiously from her big, rouged mouth, ‘Pay the ride! Pay! Show your passes! Show! Pay!’
The konduktorsha addressed men as either muzhchina (‘Man over there! Have you paid?’)or malchik (‘Get the heck out of here, boy!’), so you were either manned up or still wet behind the ears. She addressed women as either zhenschina (‘Woman, hurry up!’), devochka (‘You’ve got a school pass or what, girl?’) or babushka (‘Granny, sit still!’). Oh, that ruthless tactless tasteless post-Soviet Russian language! Where was your Sir, your Madame, your Senore or Monsieur? Or at least, What’s good?, or a hi, friend, please, tovarish? All crushed under the wheels of a brutally inhuman uprightness. A woman knew for sure she’d got old when the controller in her daily tram started calling her babushka.
Enveloped in the Siberian winter, we couldn’t possibly walk for more than an hour even on a good day without stopping somewhere to get warm. The city had few shops. Their security guards were unwelcoming: they humiliated us by checking our pockets and even the sleeves of our coats as we left. The few cafés scared us off with their prices. We dreaded the school when classes were over and the bullies let loose. But the tram… the tram offered us a relatively safe refuge with its warm engines right under our seats. Once we climbed aboard and showed our school passes, we’d sit one behind the other – this was how the seats were arranged – and start calculating the numbers on the tickets we’d been issued: there were six digits on each, so if you summed together the first three, then the last three, and the two numbers coincided, then you’d won a ‘happy ticket’. ‘I got a lucky one!’ one of you would exclaim. ‘Eat it!’ the other had to respond. If you didn’t then chew and swallow that flimsy, dirty piece of paper, happiness would never come to pass. Never!
The tram ran for hours, or what seemed hours to me. Visitors from Moscow and most locals considered the city a small provincial place but to me it felt enormous: a megapolis with dozens of bus and tram lines, with hundreds of streets, hundreds of thousands of people, constant noise at night, something always happening outside the barred windows of our flat. I didn’t know the place and always got lost, which was dangerous. You were taught to trust nobody, not to open the door, not to venture far from home – but of course we did.
My classmate volunteered to be my guide, showing me the sights: the bridge, the circus, the observation deck above the industrial zone (with its splendid view of coal plants and chimneys belching soot, that deck served as a vantage point for wedding photos or panoramas for the odd visitor from Moscow) and, finally, the margins of the city where all the trams and buses ended their journeys. At the final station, we had to get off and jump on a tram heading in the opposite direction. Each time we did so, we asked ourselves, why don’t these trams go in circuits instead of running back and forwards? Then Zemfira, the Bob Dylan of the Russian music scene, struck upon the same thought in one of her songs, ‘How strange the trams never run in circles but only from edge to edge,’ and we knew she wrote it about us.
Although we spent every day together, the idea of our being something more than mere friends had never crossed my mind. It was way too adult for me – I was not yet sixteen, I looked thirteen, and felt like I was still eleven. I felt younger than everyone else in that new school where I’d met Andrey.
One day in late February, six months after I’d started attending the gymnasium and some time yet before Andrey made his confession, the boys in our class gathered to prepare for the forthcoming 8th of March. After a brief talk, we collected the money for one of our number to go to the city center to select the obligatory gifts for the girls and the female teachers. Usually skeptical about such matters, Andrey surprised everyone by volunteering and after the meeting he asked if I wanted to join him. I was thrilled! Never before had I participated in the gymnasium’s extra-curricular life or talked with Andrey in private.
Snow was deep everywhere on the streets, but on that day it felt as if spring was approaching. The sun was finally giving some of its warmth away and not just hanging about indifferently behind the heatproof glass as it did all winter. We took our hats off for the first time that season and strolled downtown, chatting as we went. When we reached central Kirov Street, we entered the department store, quickly selected some souvenirs on the ground floor level, asked if they had two dozens of them, paid without giving it all much thought, and left.
‘Have you ever been to the pine forest?’ Andrey asked as we left the store.
‘The pine forest? No, I haven’t, I’m not very fond of skiing, to be honest.’
Andrey laughed. I knew that the forest, which was right across the river from the city center, was popular among skiers. Having resisted skiing ever since the mandatory marathons of my previous school, I had never cared to visit the place.
‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to force you to ski. We’ll just have a walk,’ Andrey reassured me, and we headed off to the tram station.
At the first stop after crossing the river, the tram paused, hesitating, yet not opening its doors. No one rose from their seats, but Andrey quickly approached the driver asking him to let us out. The moment the doors were opened, I felt a breeze of freshness fill the tram: it was as if there was some cold sea, the North Ocean, right there, right behind the wall of majestic pines confronting us.
Andrey was right, no one was to be seen in the forest that day: only the perfectly parallel lines in the snow told us that someone had been skiing there some time earlier. Having no better alternative, we stuck to the ski trails, our legs sinking knee-deep in the snow every now and then, and when I looked back, I saw that the skiers’ two perfectly parallel lines – lines destined never to meet – had now been rearranged into a chaotic, criss-crossing tangle of footprints.
The soft aroma of the frozen pine trees, the sand-like sparkling snow, the overwhelming quietness of the winter forest broken only by the regular distant rattle of a woodpecker and the occasional soft fwhump as some bundle of snow slid free from the branches of a pine – I couldn’t imagine how, in the middle of this noisy industrial region, such a solitary, pristine place could survive. Andrey, seeing I was mesmerized, seemed proud to have been the one who introduced me to this refuge, and on his face, for the first time since I had begun to watch him closely, I read signs of – if not yet happiness – at least some ever-blossoming, pink-cheeked, hopeful anticipation of joy.
Returning home that evening I was excited and cheerful because I felt as if this was a day which a couple of friends had split in two and shared. As soon as I reached our flat and said hi to my mom, I went straight to my desk to write in my diary. It felt so special to get close to the classmate whom I had observed for so long, to be in touch with a character who had lived on my pages for months already.
Then my mother walked into my room with a bucket of water and went crawling on all fours, washing the floor with a wet rag. I offered to help her. She looked at me in a very strange, bitter way, and went on with her silent cleaning… I couldn’t write anymore. I sat motionless, trying to figure out what had I done wrong. Could it be the very endless exhausting day she’d spent standing by her stall in the department store? Could it be my own unexpected happiness that was causing her bad mood?
Finally, she approached me, pierced me with her eyes – wet cloth in her hand, hair sticking to her burning face – paused, and then exclaimed angrily:
‘Why didn’t you stop by my kiosk today?’
I stared at her, confused.
‘I… I… We didn’t plan to go through the whole department store… I was just following my classmate,’ I explained lamely. ‘How did you know we were there?’
‘I saw you.’ Her lips softened a little then, and she added in a quieter tone, ‘And I was so happy to see you… So I waved to you…’
At that moment, I saw the face of my mom, the strongest, most self-controlled person, change dramatically.
‘And you… you just turned away from me.’
Kneeling back down on the floor, she broke into tears.
‘You’re ashamed of me. Ashamed of me and my pathetic kiosk…’
No bullying at my Taiga school, no difficulties at the gymnasium, no absence of my father had horrified me as much as my mother’s tears that evening. Never before had I seen her cry, and now the simple sight of her filled my eyes with tears.
‘Mama, mamochka,’ I fell on my knees next to her. ‘How on earth could I be ashamed of you? What are you saying? How could I possibly be ashamed of you? You are my greatest pride!’
I also wept, trying to hug her stiff, shaking shoulders. Gradually she let go of her silly thoughts and hugged me back. We remained sitting on the floor of our new home, holding each other tight, in silence and fear.
from Spring in Siberia by Artem Mozgovoy (Red Hen Press 2023). Used with permission from the publisher.
Born and raised in a small town in Central Siberia at the time when the Soviet Union was falling apart, Artem Mozgovoy began his career as a cadet journalist in a local newspaper when he was sixteen; at twenty-six he was an editor-in-chief. In 2011, as Russia began legalizing its persecution of gay people, he left his homeland. Having lived in six different countries, including the US, and worked as a movie extra, a yoga instructor, and a magician’s assistant, Artem today holds a Luxembourgish passport, speaks five languages and, with his Romanian partner, lives in Belgium.
Artem Mozgovoy ( Author Website )
Publication Date: April 4, 2023
Genre/Imprint: Fiction, Red Hen Press
Shop: Red Hen, Bookshop, Barnes & Noble
Kate Gale: The Red Hen Press Interview
Kate is the co-founder, with Mark Cull, of Red Hen Press. Founded in 1994, it is a non-profit press located in Pasadena, concentrating on publishing poetry, literary fiction, and nonfiction. She spoke with Lorraine Martindale, Fictional Cafe’s Editor-at-Large Barista.
FC: What were the early days like at Red Hen Press?
Red Hen Press started because two of us, Mark Cull and myself, wanted to take a risk and see if we could build literary culture in Los Angeles. For the first seven years the two of us did all the work. Eventually, we had staff that came on and soon enough, we had an amazing team.
FC: Can you talk about the work you publish, and your interest in women’s voices?
We are a woman-led, queer-leaning press. Much of the work we publish is by women, and a significant part of that is by women over sixty years old. We are proud of the age range of women we publish. Older women are often invisible in our culture: Ellen Meeropol, Cai Emmons, and Jacqueline Tchakalian are some of those women we have published: amazing women writers whose stories and poetry have changed the world.
FC: We’re excited to include an excerpt from one of your new releases, Spring in Siberia by Artem Mozgovoy. Can you tell us about this author and his book?
It was such an honor to work with Artem. His story tells of a man who comes of age in Russia and realizes he is gay, which is punishable by death. He figures out that he will need to leave the country to live a glorious, intentional, authentic life. But in the meantime, he hangs on. It’s an elegant survival story; a coming-out story in another country where coming out can carry the death penalty.
FC: Who are some of your favorite discoveries?
We have been so honored to publish the first works of some incredible writers, including: Chris Abani, Douglas Kearney, Artem Mozgovoy, Ellen Meeropol, Brynn Saito, and Camille Dungy. We have watched many of them soar and fly, and for some newer authors like Artem we are so excited to start that journey with him and see how high he will fly.
FC: How do public events and readings shape your press?
We have had some amazing events I’ll never forget: Deborah Digges reading with Carl Phillips at Boston Court, Percival Everett, Maxine Hong Kingston and Brynn Saito at City Lights Bookstore (in San Francisco). We have been blessed with amazing events. We have an ongoing series now, sponsored in part by the NEA, that started with Juan Felipe Herrera, and in April we have Afaa Weaver and Douglas Manuel, and it ends with Richard Blanco. These events give our authors not only a place to launch their books but a place to discuss with friends of Red Hen Press the ideas that stirred them to write their book. Recently, Francesca Bell read at The Utah in San Francisco with Atsuro Riley and Patrick Phillips. Their conversation afterward about poetry and writing made the evening stay with all of us for days.
FC: Can you share a bit on events you do in schools?
Writing in the Schools (WITS) brings our whole love of reading and literacy full circle. The twin pillars of Red Hen are literature and literacy, and our WITS program allows us to send writers out into the schools to teach poetry. We have had Chris Abani, Douglas Kearney, Brendan Constantine, and countless other writers teach in the program, giving children an opportunity to experience poetry and to get a book published — we gather up one poem from each student to publish in a student anthology. At the end of the program, the kids get to keep the book we taught them from, and the book in which their own poem is published. For many kids, these are their only two books.
FC: What do you look for in submissions? How would one send work to you?
Work is sent through agents or Submittable, or sometimes through a friend. I look for a level of mastery and excellence, writing that is literary, has levels of meaning: the writing magic of Duras, the genius of Calvino, the ingenuity of Kafka, the magic of Marquez, the darkness of Ellison, but entirely your own unique voice calling to me from the edge of your world.
FC: Thank you, Kate, for sharing both your story and Artem Mozgovoy’s with Fictional Café.