The release of Portland author Sophia Shalmiyev’s debut memoir, Mother Winter, comes at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is teetering on the edge of hysteria, funding for birth control and access to abortion is precariously positioned, and eyes are looking to Russia, a looming question mark in our current political saga. Distinctly feminist and speaking to the experience of an Azerbaijani-Russian immigrant, Mother Winter could not come at a better time.
Shalmiyev weaves an interlocking bricolage of abandonment, transnational identity, feminism as salvation, and the many mothers who shape our psyches—at the center of which is her biological mother, Elena, a figure of loss and unresolved longing. Elena is a woman haunted by alcoholism and instability and Shalmiyev, as a child and political refugee, is forced to leave her behind in Russia.
Many makers become de-facto mothers to Shalmiyev through art: Susan Sontag, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Richardson, Sappho, Catherine Millet, Anne Desclos, Sinéad O’Connor all make appearences, and the list goes on. Throughout the text are anecdotal meditations on holes, the number four, car accidents, and photographs—symbolic windows into the obsessions of the author that always channel back to the question of what it means to be mothered and find belonging.
A particularly memorable section occurs when Shalmiyev recounts a conversation with an American-born citizen who shows his distaste for this country and his desire to move abroad. She responds, “I ain’t ever leaving. I love America. It’s broken, like me.”
When I ask her about this moment, Shalmiyev says, “I do not mean it as a patriot or nationalist, but I feel so passionate about how hilarious women are allowed to be here, how irreverent we’re allowed to be…. Feminism [in the Soviet Union] meant you’re just the best at your career, and in America I feel like I can really fail. And I need, and all women need, the right to be wrong. People who feel they want to leave and say, ‘Fuck this place, I’m leaving’ should totally do that, but a lot of times, they just have the privilege to do that. But for us crawling here, trying so hard, I can’t afford to really shit on America.”
In conjunction with Shalmiyev’s book release, the Basil Hallward Gallery at Powell’s City of Books in Portland will present an installation of paintings Shalmiyev created during the writing of Mother Winter. Thematically intertwined with the book, Forty by Forty, Paintings from Mother Winter: A Memoir, will be on display for the month of March.
Rendered with an urgency consistent with the language of Mother Winter itself, many of the paintings feature figures adrift and enmeshed in layers of webs and paint, creating a sense of being held under. There’s a feeling of raw ugliness beneath them, which stands in contrast to some of the more mesmeric and painfully constructed sentences that pepper the text.
The prose of Mother Winter is rendered with perceptive, enduring grace. “My mother is a cut flower, a bloom crinkling brown on one end and a closed stalk with no water to drink,” Shalmiyev writes. “By what means does this orphan-maker survive? Her child was all daffodils between her thighs. Spilling out yellow. Slimy fungus water on stems in the jar kept too long on a shelf. Her daughter transplanted, transported. A twig re-grafted onto another species of tree.”