Catcall in Daylight

A setting assignment based on Kazan, written for my fiction writing class in fall 2013, the beginning of junior year:

Graffiti stares from the ground, the walls, in three languages: English, Russian, and nondenominational drawings. The streets are brown with dirt, but they are not littered, even by the occasional cigarette butts. The dust coats your feet. Buildings, strictly categorized as visionary or boxy-grey, rise high over streets trafficked by red buses and heels. At no time are the grid of buildings oppressive or dark, but instead they stand in maze-like nakedness that puts you out alone on busy streets. You’ve been to New York, or Paris, or at least seen pictures, so you know those places judge and laugh and shout and hate and whisper and drive forward. That’s not your city. She owes nothing but function, like the paper ads, proffered by stationeries without smiles or selling words, and glancelessly accepted by passerbys.
And yet, your city is not dead. She heaves graceless artistry from a cold-stricken chest of history and shared, proud pain. That much is evident in the spray paint.
You, the men, the guys, saunter slowly, if you move at all. The women, in contrast, walk quickly, pursed, heeled and skirted. You’re stopped now, leaning against some scribble or drawing, something or other, on the wall behind you. A devushka with long legs is gliding along the sidewalk, with some unevenly pebbled pavement and weeds between you. You’ve seen her before, around. Her skirt is short, fluttering up behind her, and her arms swing bare, one hand beside her and another tucked under the purse strap over her shoulder. You don’t know her, and shamelessly, you watch her walk.
When she passes, your gaze follows her, which she’s clearly noticed by now, and when she’s closest you audibly appraise her, flicking your tongue and drawing your lips together: ch, ch, ch! And now you smirk, because you see how she heard and looked again, at you, and for that second she’s all yours, and now you’re getting a new angle as she walks off, all drawn up high, as you sink satisfied down the wall.
She passes the Sovetski playground, swings and a slide, still bright in primary colors, and you lose sight of her after she turns by the water vendor, then heads towards the produkta. As she waits at the bus stop, another one of you, also young, busy on his iPhone, doesn’t even look at her. Standing in front of identically grey apartment blocks, beholden only to the vibrant character of each one’s graffiti, she wonders, why all American crosswalks have the standardized walk/stop sign, even where people never actually cross the street; besides, are cars and people so far removed that the they can’t both use the green-yellow-red streetlights dangling so high above on wires?
Somehow, hordes of cars have pulled themselves into the middle of the street and they honk at one another. Deciding to walk instead waiting for the bus, she seizes the moment to hurry across. One of you glances at her through windshield, but you have no sense of feeling either patient or impatient with her; the city life just happens, without a great deal of self-reflection. You speed by her heels once she is almost across.
When she travelled to America, she received many blank, easy smiles. She even learned to give a few. Back at home, the same meaningless human understanding is nonexistent. She walks the streets, seen and forgotten by all of you, noticed but ignored like benches that everyone almost sits on but then decides to reserve for a babushka. She’s no more than a pretty thing to you.
She’s a thing, though, that is part of a city. She belongs here, in the collective impression, like an unstaged and unassuming weed-flower in an untamed strip between the street and storefronts.
Another one of you men picked such as flower for her as you waited at a café that looks new, like the banks. You smile when you see her.



The following essay was written summer 2014, before my senior year.

I love my country. I want to serve in government, working to further international relations or national security. For years, I carefully designed outfits for Independence Day that showcased red, white and blue. On July 4th, 2013, however, I was not at home. I was in Kazan, Russia, and we wanted to broadcast our Americanness as little as possible, so I wore only blue and white, hiding red in a hair tie.
I love Russia. I love my family’s small apartment with my bed in the living room, where I was surrounded constantly by people whom, as of the first day I met them, I called Mama, Papa and sister. I love the crowded streets, the majesty of mosques in Kazan and streetside palaces in Saint Petersburg, the unassuming housing blocks and fruit stands. All of these things filled me with life. Yet it was the sweeping, endless view of the countryside at the dacha that left me silent with awe. Where my breath had been was a powerful phrase, a phrase I mentally resisted translating because I could obviously never own it: rodina moya, or my homeland.
My parents are divorced, so I have two homes that are equally mine and enormously different. Every time I switch houses, I shift my expectations, the way I speak, and what I do; I am happiest when I match the people around me. I have learned, through my family dynamic and my fiction writing, to observe people closely. Likewise, in Russia, I strived to match the details–the turns of phrase, the way to glide quickly over sidewalks, the doll-like style of makeup–so that the gross inconsistencies like my accent could be overlooked. And they were; I managed to act close enough to the expected that I was usually pegged as a little odd, but not American.
My matching of Russian mannerisms was not just a matter of fitting in, however. I felt comfortable there. To me, the empty smiles of mutual understanding that we give on American sidewalks never made sense. Russians don’t flaunt their friendliness to strangers. I do not understand why, in our culture, saying “how are you?” to a friend is merely a pleasantry. In Russian, I never had to assume a facade of cheerfulness to answer politely, for it is a genuine question. Moreover, my appearance was vaguely Russian. I felt healthier than ever eating Russian food. Sometimes, I wondered if I had been born in the wrong country.
Conflictingly, at the same I felt more fervently patriotic than I ever had. I smiled every time an American song came on the radio and cried in defensive frustration when I didn’t have the linguistic ability to explain why I would not entertain the idea that the 9/11 attacks were a government conspiracy. I realized that while at home I regularly critique politics and ridicule pop culture, abroad I desperately held onto a vision of America as heroic. I was proud to speak beautiful English and hail from the birthplace of movies and the internet.
The vast love I had for Russia and the people I met there, the disparate soul of the country, and the rolling feel of the language on my tongue smashed into my newfound appreciation and gratitude for my American lifestyle. As I flew away from one home to another, chasing an eternal sunrise through many time zones, my emotions were as vast as the half-lit sky around me. Suspended between the two countries, I thought that my heart was irreconcilable.
Coincidentally, had I chosen to wear red, white and blue on the Fourth of July that year, I would have been wearing the colors of the Russian flag as well.

Отражения (Reflections)

I love words. I love their sounds, they way they are constructed, and the shadows of meaning they can carry. When I was in Russia over the summer, we were told early on that, in addition to our demanding classes, we would have to complete a culminating project. I originally chose to study the graffiti of Kazan, which led to several fun afternoons of exploration and photography. However, I knew this was not something about which I was passionate.

I was sitting in the back of a bus on our way back from an excursion. My mind adrift, I considered some verbs conjugated in genderless forms, and what likewise genderless nouns could possibly be their subjects. I slowly built a phrase wherein all the words ended with “o.” My abstract consideration of grammar transformed into an appreciation for a mellifluous combination of words, which in turn blossomed into a poem with deep personal meaning. My dad was twice divorced, and the verses that followed explored what it felt like to lose marriage and its symbolic promise of permanence–twice.

I realized, after I finished the poem, that this was my project. I love the simple beauty of Russian poetry, its clean lack of meaningless, soulless words that English semantics require, like articles, and the subtlety that can be conveyed through a myriad of verb tenses. Russians have a deep respect for poetry and poets. I knew that this was worth pursuing, although it was not easy, either intellectually or emotionally.

When I write poetry in English, I take great care to choose my words. This does not mean, however, that I choose them slowly. My best poems, in fact, are ones that I write quickly, because all the interlocking parts are held in mind simultaneously. This style of writing was not possible when I wrote in Russian. I could either express the abstract or the concrete, either alliterate or rhyme, have a good rhythm or be idiomatically  correct.  Writing poetry in Russian forced me to contend with immense frustration. I, who had always been relatively capable in both of these separate areas–speaking Russian and writing poetry–was reduced to stumbling attempts. Writing in Russian rather than in English felt like being locked in a maze with limited choices of paths, most of which would lead to something “wrong.”

Writing the poems was difficult, but showing them to others required me to expose myself in frightening ways. Sharing my poems in both English and Russian force me to step up onto an empty pedestal, hoping that I deserve and can withstand the deeply revealing scrutiny I receive. Writing in English, I at least stand solidly on my native language. When I wrote in Russian, it felt like I was stepping onto a pile of rocks that could crumble with any mistake. I had no reason to believe that they would understand my work at all, and usually, they didn’t. My host mom helped me correct my original drafts. A lot of the mistakes were simple errors, but in many cases I had chosen the wrong word to convey the literal meaning, let alone any deeper layer of interpretation. I cried that night. My poems were not good; I understood that. But what really felt like failure was that they weren’t even mine anymore.

Eventually I finalized drafts that were not perfect Russian nor perfectly mine. A lot of my work is important to me in and of itself; I am proud of the result. This is not the case for the two poems I wrote that summer in Russia.

I realized that the words, which I had professed to love, were beside the point. It was only when I let myself fail in an attempt to synergize my passions that I understood that the core of both writing and speaking Russian  is for me a bare, wholehearted attempt to engage with other people.

Our projects were presented orally, but this was my final written draft:

Исскуство, и литература особенно, использующая язык обычных людей художественно, отражает культуру и народ. На мой взгляд, не возможно оналогично переводить стихи, и поэтому русская поэзия очень итересует меня, и читать и писать.

Я написала два стихофторения о разных видах отражений. Первое называется “В зеркале”.

Вы меня меняете

Медленно, раз за разом.

Редко мы встречаемся

А Вы всегда со мной рядом.

Себя представляю

Приятно у Вас памяти

Вечером, пока не сплю

Перед солвами жили Вы

Замечаю в мечтах

Черты лица Вашего

Влюбилась, а боюсь

Для меня значите все

Я Вас еще не знаю

Вы не говорите мне

Надо верить друг-другу

Но видимся во мгле

Почему молчите,

Пока я Вас ищу?

Вочему же Вы звоните,

И я прятиться хочу?

Отражение в зеркале

Против меня боролось.

Свое будущее:

Я слушаю Ваш голос.

В этом стиховторений я старалась наидй слова с похожими буквами, из памяти и в словаре, особенно В, М, П, и Р. Вдохновение было простой идеей: разныцей между словами “Вы” и “ты”, которой у нас нет по-английски. Например, “Я Вас любил” Пушкина использует “Вы” потому, что герой чуствует далеко от своей любви. Я тоже хотела создать такой эффект, потому что, как я объяснила в 13-ой строке, “Я вас еще не знаю”. Будущее для нас очень дорогое, несмотря на то, что оно всегда будет далеко. Теперь, нам эта тема очень актуальна, потому что за границей, перед решением карьеры, пока мы молоды, мы много думаем о будущем.

Второе стихофторение называется “около озера”.

Озеро украло мое кольцо

В глубину оно спускалось

Посмотри на белое платье,

Ночью калыхалось

Я стою на берегу

Где волна раздувает

Как тянет ее ветер

Мной судьба играет

Мимо пар влюбенных

Под звездами хожу

Их свет на синеве воды

Я одна люблю

Хочу, а не возможно

Верить в то сверкание

В озере вижу

Только окончание

Благодаря окончаниям и прификсам слов и глоголев, каждое слово носит великое значение. Не надо истользовать много маленьких слов как партикли по-английски, и тоже легче рифмовать из-за похожих окончаний- раздувает и играет, например.

У меня две главные проблемы, когда я пишу стихи по-русски. Во первых, я не прывыкла исрользовать длинные слова с одном ударением, и поэтому ритм- разные. Во вторых, я не знаю русский поэтический язык, слова как лишь. Мои стихи в американском стиле: обычные слова и конструкций, просто, надеюсь, художественые и с ритмом.

Рассказать о мысле этого стиховторения, я написала из-за личной причины: развода. Кольцо и белое платье- симболи брака. Волна- метафора изменения, и сверкание- нечестных обещаний жизни. Стих кончается печально, но это просто в моменте. Ситуация уличилась бы, если бы она продолжала.

На конец, я люблю слова. Русские слова с мякими и твергими знаками и буквами, создают красивые имоционалные стихи. Когда их пишу, надо хорошо знать грамматику и разные, яркие слова. Уже я получила глубокее понимания языка, и людей, которые по-нему говорят. Я надеюсь, что мой произведения вам понравились.

My Favorite Place in Kazan


The second floor apartment in the corner of this Soviet-style apartment block was my home for six weeks in Kazan, Russia as I participated in the National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship. Every day I would walk from my bus stop, past the small food stores and the stands selling drinkable water, past the decades-old playground in bright primary colors, past the pigeons and the friendly stray dogs and shadow-dwelling alley cats, past the babushki (old women affectionately called “grandmothers” by everyone) who had lived through the height and fall of the Soviet Union and still were sitting on the same benches, chatting with the same grandfathers about the same things. All this was one face of what Russia meant to me. Yet the most important part was through this brown door.

As soon as I met my host mom, she asked me what I wanted to call her. Thinking I knew less Russian than I did, she said very slowly: “My name is Leysan. My name is Leysan. You can call me Leysan, or Aunt,  or” –she said with a smile– “Mama.”

“I would like to call you Mama, if that’s alright,” I replied firmly. Over the course of my stay, the people I lived with turned from a host family to just a family, the apartment from a house to a home. I walked with my Russian Mama on every errand to the store. I painted my nails, gossiped, and baked a cake with my 13-year-old sister. I taught my 8-year-old sister how to knit and sat with her as she very patiently helped me read aloud, explaining words I didn’t know with big hand gestures. My  bond with this family and our mutual regard and affection can best be demonstrated by what my host mom told my older sister near the end of the program: “If you love Katrina, learn her language.” Likewise, during the course of my stay I grew to view my study of the Russian language as not an academic liaison between countries, but a personal connection between people.

The place in this picture is far removed from the expansively beautiful Russian countryside, the modern, proud buildings of the city or the spectacular cathedrals, rich with history, that I saw on a later trip to Saint Petersburg. I probably could not have chosen a simpler, uglier photograph from my time in Russia if I had tried. However, loving a country is not just about the face it presents to the world: the dome-topped churches, the thunderous Olympics, Siberian tigers on rugged mountains. It is about loving the slightly dirty other side, that which is commonplace and real. This is a place I was relieved to see every day as I got home from a hard day at school. This is the place where I started to look forward to a hot cup of tea and where my mind started buzzing with the words I would need to chat about my day. This of the place where I knew all the graffiti, from which I could go exploring, to which I could always return and unlock with my own keys. This is the place in Russia that I love most of all.