Dialogues/Dialogi pairs stories by Tillie Olsen, Toni Cade Bambara, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Leslie Marmon Silko (reprinted here in full) with Russian stories by I. Grekova, Liudmila Petrushevskaya, Elena Makarova, and Anna Nerkagi, many of them appearing here for the first time in English. Exquisite in their stylistic and thematic variety, suggestive of the range of women's experience and fiction in both countries, each story is the subject of paired interpretive essays by an American and an (ex)Soviet critic from among the book's authors.
A colloquy of diverse voices speaking together in multiple, mutually illuminating exchanges, Dialogues/Dialogi testifies to the possibility of evolving relationships among women across borders once considered impassable.
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About the Author
Susan Hardy Aiken is Professor of English at the University of Arizona.
Adele Barker is Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Maya Koreneva is a scholar at the A. M. Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow.
Ekaterina Stetsenko is a scholar at the A. M. Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow.
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Literary and Cultural Exchanges Between (Ex)Soviet and American Women
By Susan Hardy Aiken, Adele Marie Barker, Maya Koreneva, Ekaterina Stetsenko
Duke University PressCopyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
* * *
I came home from work dog tired. The boys were playing chess—what else is new! It's some sort of peculiarly male disease.
"What the hell is this?" I said, "That stupid chess game again! How long this time?"
On the table there was the usual mess—an ashtray full to overflowing with cigarette butts, beer bottles in which oversize bubbles slowly swelled and burst.
"Regular pigs in a sty!" I said, "Don't you have anything better to do, with your exams starting tomorrow?!"
"Let's have a paw," Kostya said ingratiatingly.
"No paw for you. Pigs, that's all you are. I may as well be coming home to a public tavern. Couldn't even empty one ashtray after yourselves! Do I, an older woman, really ..."
"Objection!" said Kolya.
"Cut the crap!" I shouted.
"Paw!" Kolya demanded.
I shouldn't have smiled, but my lips somehow started to part, and I gave him my hand.
"Not diat one!" Kolya yelled like one possessed, "The left one, the left one!"
(The left one is prized more highly because of the birthmark on it.)
"The right one's just fine for us commoners," Kostya said.
I gave him the right one. Each kissed his respective hand. Two lowered heads, one yellow as straw, the other black as coal. My little fools, my sons. But don't diink you got ofF the hook that easily. I'm still angry.
"Clear off the table this instant!" I shouted, trying to stand my ground.
Kostya, groaning, loaded the ashtray onto his shoulders while Kolya started wiping off the table with someone's trousers.
I was as hungry as a horse.
"Have you eaten?"
"No. We were waiting for you."
"Is there anything in the house?"
"No. We'll run and get something now."
"Some hell of a reception!" I said, working myself into a rage. "Do I really ..."
"Do you, an older woman, really ..." Kolya prompted helpfully.
"That's right, damn it! An older woman!" I yelled. "A working woman! A woman trying to raise you two fools!"
"Note with only limited success," Kolya interjected softly.
"Yeah, unfortunately—with limited success! My whole life's shot to hell and I have nothing to show for it!"
"Take it easy, girl" said Kostya, playing the peacemaker.
I grabbed a bottle and wanted to throw it on the floor, but didn't do it.
"I've had enough of this roadhouse! I'm leaving. You can live by yourselves."
"Live and let live," Kostya advised in that same quiet, even voice of his.
"Enough of your idiotic observations! I'm dead serious—life isn't a circus!"
"What was that?" Kostya asked, "Life isn't a circus? Permit me to write that one down!"
He took out a notebook, licked the point of his pencil and took aim.
"You know ... life ... isn't ... a circus," he wrote down.
"What's more," I broke in loudly, "I'm sick and tired of all this! Sick and tired! Got it? I'm going to Novosibirsk. No—better yet, I'll get married!"
"Aah—that's a good one!"
"What's that supposed to mean—you think I can't marry anyone at my age?"
"Only a lion tamer," Kolya said.
To hell with it!
I went into the kitchen, slamming the door behind me.
Even a glass of milk would do ... I opened the refrigerator. It was empty and dirty, with one solitary withered radish on the second shelf. More like a crypt than a refrigerator. No milk in sight, naturally. There was some this morning ... "Down the hatch," the kids' wet nurse used to say.
I've had enough of this, I thought, combing my hair and angrily tearing out whole clumps. Those two idiots can't even take care of themselves, to say nothing of their mother.... "Let's have a paw"—what nonsense! They lie around stuffing themselves while their mother goes hungry. I'm sick and tired of it.... And my stupid, neglected hair, half-grown-out and all over the place. So many gray hairs coming in, all in ridiculous places, like behind my ears—not the way to go gray with dignity, at the temples. Stupid—I can't even do that properly. And those home-cut bangs! Stupid old woman— you rolled them on curlers yourself. Now I can't sleep with them, it hurts too much.
I'm not cooking dinner for them any more. Let them fend for themselves ...
But I've got to do something with this hair. Get it cut, maybe? ltd be too bad—I've spent years growing it out, all that work down the drain.... No, enough. I'll get it cut. "I'll get a haircut and get started" my father always used to say. My father lived a troubled life, wanted to "get started" right up to the very end. "Get a haircut and get started ..."
"I'm going out," I said to the boys.
"Where?" Kostya asked.
"To get married," Kolya answered.
Still, it was lovely outside—everything was covered with fresh raindrops, and the newborn leaves of the linden trees were bright, lacquered. A street cleaning truck made its way down the street—for some reason watering the already wet asphalt—a rainbow sparkling in its mist. I bought an ice cream and as I walked took small bites from the hard candy rose that decorated its top. My teeth ached slightly, but I enjoyed eating on the go like this. Like when I was in school.
My legs are still sprightly, the spring day's not over yet, people walking, hurrying places, lots of pretty faces—I'll get a haircut and get started.
And here's a hair salon. In the enormous window display, photographs of girls three times larger than life, each one taking great pains to preserve her hairdo. The sign reads: "All styles, no appointment necessary. First come, first served."
Now or never. I opened the tall, heavy door with the word "PULL" written vertically on it. Inside it smelled of cheap perfume, burnt hairs and something else disagreeable. There were about two dozen women standing and sitting around.
God, what a line! Maybe I should leave? No—I've made up my mind, I'll stick it out.
"Who's last?" I asked.
Several heads turned toward me without answering.
"Would you be so kind as to tell me who's last?"
"There are no last ones here," joked a dark, Southern-looking woman with a big front tooth.
"You're looking for the end of the line, dear?" an older woman in light blue socks with a gray mop on her head asked me. "I thought the last person was in the place behind me, but she seems to have left."
Her red, overworked hands lay heavily between her knees.
"Then I'll be behind you if it's all right. What do you think, comrades, how long will it be?"
"About two hours at the worst," the older woman answered.
The others were silent. One of them, an imposing woman with bleached hair, rotated her swan-like neck in my direction, looked me over with piercing blue eyes, and turned away.
I'm not a particularly shy person, but for some reason I'm shy around women. Especially when there are a lot of them and they're all involved in some kind of peculiarly female ritual. It always seems to me that they should be judging me. For what? For whatever—for my respectable age (she's here to make herself beautiful, too!), for my glasses, for the English book visible in my net shopping bag. In this particular group I immediately gravitated toward the older woman with the socks. It was obvious that she had also noticed me. Two grandmothers. She moved over on her chair to make room for me.
"Have a seat, why don't you? Standing there won't get you anywhere, as they say."
I perched myself carefully on the edge of the chair.
"Don't worry, go ahead and sit on your whole bottom. We'll both fit; all the juice has gone out of mine, anyway."
We both sat down.
"I want to have a six-month perm done, a firm curl," she told me. "I'm afraid my husband won't go for it. Lately he's started paying visits to a younger woman."
"Do you have any children?"
"Sons, two of them."
"And does your husband fool around?"
"I don't have one."
She fell silent.
"Everyone's got their problems," she said, having given the matter some thought. "Mine fools around, but at least he doesn't drink, and you don't have one at all. Well, don't you give up. Keep your hopes up. You're not all that old, you've still got some meat on your bones."
"I'm not giving up," I told her.
"Next!" a fattish man in a white labcoat and bright green tie shouted through the doorway.
The dark woman with the tooth jumped up and darted forward.
All the women started yelling:
"It's not her turn!"
"Don't take her!"
"I'm here for a firm curl," she hurled back, trying to defend herself.
"Just like everyone else!"
"I'm here for the same!" I squeaked.
"It says out there 'all styles' ..."
"It also says 'first come, first served! Were you here first?"
The line was shouting and agitated.
"Don't make a scene, lady," the fat one said. "We'll be sure to get to every single one of you."
The dark woman slipped into the salon. The racket continued.
"He's sleeping with her," the bleached one with the swan's neck said.
"So what if he is? A line's a line. Who cares who's sleeping with whom? ..."
"We'll demand the complaints book ..."
"Where's the manager?"
"Get die manager out here!"
A graying elderly lady sitting behind the counter of the coat room took up her knitting. A redhead in a blinding white labcoat sitting in the cashier's booth yawned, took out a small mirror and, frowning, began layering on mascara.
The mascara did it. My shyness evaporated instantly. I went up to the cashier's booth.
"The complaints book, please."
She gave me a hostile look. "Whadd'ya need the complaints book for?"
"None of your business. A patron has the right to ask for the complaints book at any time."
The line began to rumble, but this time it was directed at me.
"Didn't take her long ..."
"One person out of turn and she goes for the complaints book ..."
"She writes a complaint and someone else catches it..."
"She should understand herself, people are trying to make a living here ..."
There's no love lost on complainers around here. But the fat was already in the fire.
"Ma'am," I said in a police officer's voice, "if you don't hand over the complaints book this instant ..."
"I'll get the manager for you," the woman said, leaving the booth.
A moment later a hulk with black, curly hair who looked like he belonged in a butcher shop appeared. "Whadd'ya need, lady?"
I explained to him that they'd just taken someone out of turn. I gestured toward my witnesses, who remained silent. He heard me out without reacting then called back toward the salon, in the same way people call their dogs, "Rosa!"
A pockmarked woman wearing a muslin turban came out.
"Take this lady next, Rosa."
"Very well, Ruslan Petrovich."
"That's not why I came up here! You think I wanted to get in first?" I said, getting upset.
Ruslan turned and left the room.
"Rosa," I said, turning toward her, "please. This has nothing to do with me. I just want things to be orderly."
"It's you thoughtless people who cause the disorder around here yourselves," said Rosa, also leaving the room.
I returned to my place in line. The women were silent. Even the older one in the socks was planted firmly on her chair and didn't move over.
Still a long wait. My thoughts wandered as I stood leaning against the cool, glossy surface of the wall.
... Still, it might be nice to move to Novosibirsk. I could get a one-bedroom apartment, or, even better, a room in the hotel where I stayed the last time I was there.... It's such a sweet and quirky little place, all different colors, green here, pink there.... Forest all around, dense, green grass up to my neck. Birds singing everywhere, sidewalks full of mathematicians, physicists, people wearing glasses, people with beards, young people, happy people....
... And maybe it would be nice to surprise them all, to marry my old friend from school and move to his place in Evpatoriia. He's loved me his whole life, loves me to this very day, I know it. He's already over the hill— but how much older than I can he be? Ten years? As the saying goes, anyone ten years your senior is over the hill. But why not? Why not up and marry him? Let them learn to take care of themselves. And what about work? I'll find something easier. Or, I'll just live without working. Take swims in the ocean, plant flowers in the garden, raise chickens.... And what about it? There'll be plenty of washing, I'll hang out the laundry to dry in our sunny pebbled courtyard.... Soapy hands, hair all wet and mussed up, I'll brush it out of my face with my elbow.... Then he'll come up and touch me on the shoulder: "Are you tired, dear? Take a break, honey." "No, I'm just fine." What raving nonsense!
"Who wants to be next?" a shrill, boyish voice rang out.
I came down to earth.
Standing next to the line was a kid of about eighteen, with a tuft of hair on the crown of his head. He was more than just gaunt, he was as thin as a pencil, with a pale, narrow, somewhat wild-looking face, thin arms bare up to his sharp elbows, and intense brown eyes. A cross between a fawn and a wolf cub.
"Who wants to be next?" he said again. He looked at the women standing in line with disdain, as if they should have been serving him.
"So do I!"
"I was first!"
"No, I was!"
The line began to hum again.
"By the way, I am obliged to warn you," the kid said, "I haven't reached the level of master hairdresser yet. I'm only in training, and it's completely possible that I'll disfigure you."
The women fell silent.
"No, thanks. We'll just wait here and have it done properly," the older woman sighed.
I made up my mind.
"Well, go ahead and deform me, then."
He immediately started laughing. There was something wild not only in his eyes, but in his smile as well, with its sharp, white teeth.
"You put it well. On my part, though, I'll do my best not to disfigure you. Please follow me."
He led me not into the salon, but rather into a tiny back room. Two master hairdressers, dressed in black labcoats that had once been white, were practicing their sorcery on two women's heads reclined backwards into beat-up tin basins. One was applying hair color with a shaving brush, the other was examining in the light a green liquid in a measuring glass. Don't tell me they dye hair green, too?
There was a different smell here, something musty and stuffy. Near the doorway two suspicious-looking punks with slanting sideburns in tight pants were conducting a strange conversation in lowered voices: "Thirty bottles of solution and fifty bottles of neutralizer ..." It smelled of the black market.
"Don't worry," the young fellow said. "I'll put you behind this screen."
The unstable blue partition swayed back and forth so much it seemed to be breathing. On the wall, in a cheap gold frame, hung an award for progressive management'.
I sat down in the chair.
"Take out your hairpins," he ordered. I took them out.
He lifted up a lock of hair, ran it through his fingers, then took another.
"You have split hairs from curling them yourself," he said. "What do you want done?"
"Cut it and do a firm curl, if it's possible."
"Everything's possible, including a firm curl. I should warn you, though, that that kind of permanent isn't in style now. Personally, I would suggest a wave."
"You mean a chemical wave?"
"Precisely. It's the most fashionable style now. Keep in mind, they never do firm curls abroad anymore, they've completely gone over to waves."
"How does a wave differ from a firm curl?"
"Like night does from day. A firm curl leaves you looking like a sheep. Now, it's possible that some people may like sheep, but personally I'm opposed to them. With a wave you get a more interesting look, like the wind had tousled your hair a little."
All of a sudden I wanted hair that looked tousled by the wind.
"Go ahead with the wave," I said. "Will it take long?"
"Four hours at least. A hack could do it in half that time, but I'm not a hack."
"You mean it's going to take until eleven?!"
"More like eleven thirty."
And this with Kolya and Kostya sitting at home hungry. Will those dopes think to buy themselves something for dinner? Well, never mind—let them get used to it.
"Okay, let's go."
"Don't you worry," the kid said to me suddenly. "I'm just as qualified as a master, if not more so. It's just more advantageous at the moment for me to be a trainee than a master. There's no quota, and less responsibility. This way I can experiment freely when someone provides me with her head of hair."
Excerpted from Dialogues/Dialogi by Susan Hardy Aiken, Adele Marie Barker, Maya Koreneva, Ekaterina Stetsenko. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Notes on Transliteration and Editing xix
1. Ladies Hairdresser / Grekova 43
Tell me a Riddle / Tillie Olsen 88
Stages of Dissent: Olsen, Grekova, and the Politics of Creativity / Susan Hardy Aiken 120
Revolutions from Within / Ekaterina Stetsenko 141
Witchbird / Toni Cade Bambara 163
That Kind of Girl / Liudmila Petrushevskaia 178
Children of the Sixties / Maya Koreneva 191
Telling the Other('s) Story, or, the Blues in Two languages / Susan Hardy Aiken 206
Home / Jayne Anne Phillips 229
Needlefish / Elena Makarova 242
The World of Our Mothers / Adele Marie Barker 253
Hopes and Nightmares of the Young / Maya Koreneva 266
Aniko of the Nogo Tribe / Anna Nerkagi 285
Storyteller / Leslie Marmon SIlko 312
Retelling the Legends / Ekaterino Stetsenko 327
Crossings / Adele Marie Barker 340
Afterword: Histories and Fictions 357
Selected Bibliography 393