Sophia Shalmiyev’s first book, Mother Winter (Simon & Schuster 2019), is a memoir of immigration and motherhood. She holds an MFA from Portland State University and a second master’s degree in creative arts therapy from the School of Visual Arts. Shalmiyev was born in the Soviet Union; emigrated from Leningrad to New York in 1990; and now resides in Portland, Oregon with her two children.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
I write about feminism across genres because closets, gag orders, hangers, boys’ clubs, and a fear of jogging in the park at night are still weapons used against us. Also, inconsolable loss.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
That my mother was seen as a lost cause, especially because she was a woman with a familial history of alcohol abuse, and no one knew how to help her or have empathy for her plight. I have a line in my book where my father’s university professor back in the Soviet Union instructs him to steal me away from her and give up on his wife getting sober because of some made-up diagnosis called Stage II Severe Alcoholism in Woman. She was considered terminal. I am a product of that traumatic theft, but I also lived without the added chaos of addiction in my household. The violence, poverty, and emotional instability from my father was challenging enough.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
First of all—a drunk girl is the biggest target for violence. The men who willfully and casually misuse their power will find the sloppy girl with falling lids and swoop in (and there is nothing wrong with being that girl, yet we are judged way more harshly for losing control). What if even one woman ever thought in such a predatory way about men? Not that it has to be that bad, because men just interrupting our fun when we are out and following us around and acting creepy because they hope our defenses are down is scary and a real drag, to say the least. The irony of taking a substance to get loose and forget your troubles only to find more of the same trouble in the form of sexual violence or even a coerced or manipulated experience is my nightmare.
I spent my twenties trying to get closer to my estranged mother by taking drugs and drinking to black out. I didn’t know how to survive being motherless and wondered if I am doomed to be just like her–so much of what we are told about addiction is that it is genetic–and, yet, I came through mostly all right somehow. It wasn’t my cross to drag on my back, it turned out, though I do tend to have problematic drinking from time to time.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
I do write in a feverish way, but with a lens trained on reconstruction and a posed, theatrically bratty tone around serious issues–no one with money actually cares that much about studying women’s health. Hahahaha. So, let us die, I guess. Our holes of mystery are vast when it comes to estrogen, socialized subordination, and emotional labor women perform and how that folds into substance abuse and recovery. I have this great insight, through never having to reject my mother because I was taken away from her, the shamed and shunned alcoholic, that allows me empathy and nuance. I often say that a useless woman is a dead woman. That’s a mother under the influence. She must heal herself through community and self reflection, which requires the luxury of alone time and the grace of a collective, but we insist that she shut up and be nice and take care of us instead, dammit. A useless man is a man waited on and soothed; his self-destruction is stoic or romantic. We [women] are garbage if we fail at being clean and come clean as good worker bees and maternal influences.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs function in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
My interest in bringing to life discarded and desecrated bodies will keep being a thread in my next book, a novel called I Married the Butcher to Get to the Bone. Addiction is also about trying to mute the ringing bells of fight or flight so that one can feel peace and ease rather than an alarm going off at all times, screaming hold me. I am fragmented. I also see charm and sense of humor and the adventure my mother (and sometimes I) chased when drinking socially. I took drugs almost exclusively due to peer pressure–welcomed peer pressure. I wanted to bond at all costs, and I wanted to fall down a well in a pile of like-minded bodies with heads dangling.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Mother Winter gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
X-Ray Spex, “Germ Free Adolescents“