July 26, 2021 by Miguel Coronado
Valeriya Kipnis, recipient of the 2021 Bette Howland Nonfiction Prize for her essay "Little Yellow Pills," shares some of the thoughts and inspirations behind her writing.
What are some of your favorite ways of approaching a sentence? Do you find yourself gravitating toward any recurring structures, styles, or particular narrative voices?
I usually try to approach sentences with my ear, with music in mind. I like to start off a sentence with almost a booming, demanding cadence and then let it go off softly in the end, quietly. Sometimes, like I just did, I like to add a word to the end of a sentence that offers a sort of echo to the main thought—a whisper, maybe? I also like to have a healthy diversity of sentence types. Kind of like regenerative farming: I try and make sure that I’m not monocropping any single type of thing, or else I’ll totally devastate the soil. I always love when a short, to the point, didactic sentence follows a seemingly never-ending one. It feels nice: that push and pull. I also have an affinity for colons and em dashes which is really more of a guilt-ridden affair—I know I should stop, and everyone keeps saying I should stop, but it just feels too good.
As for structure and style: I find myself gravitating towards fractured, shattered writing because I write how I remember, which is messy and often nonsensical. My biggest goal is to mimic thought in writing, to mimic memory in structure, which I hope comes through in this essay, where I tried to infuse the thought patterns of OCD thinking and the memory of denial into the writing itself.
Your essay "Little Yellow Pills" is part of a larger book-in-progress—how does it factor into the project as a whole? What sort of things might end up getting expanded upon or reiterated in other pieces?
As I guess is quite common: I started working on this essay far before I knew I was. For years, I’ve been writing about my mother, about the women in my family, about words that don’t translate from Russian into English or vice versa, about how that impacts immigrants. Then, life happened, the diagnosis happened, and all these things that were percolating beneath the surface: thoughts about my mother, my mother’s mother, mental illness, and untranslatability just started crowding my mind and then, shortly thereafter—the page. So all of that is to say: the ideas that come across in “Little Yellow Pills” surface in everything I write, and especially in the book I’m currently working on, which aims to expose just how much does—or does not—translate when we find ourselves outsiders in a country. In a way, “Little Yellow Pills” is part of an essay in the book called “Toska,” which is about the untranslatability of mental illness for Russians who left right after the Soviet Union fell apart and immigrated to America with a very specific understanding of psychiatry. In another way “Toska” is a part of “Little Yellow Pills.” The two are inseparable.
I was really struck by this idea that comes up in your essay of taking up residence in a "no-man's-land—a place that is not exactly American and not exactly Russian." Can you talk more on that experience and how it appears in your writing?
I can still remember the first time I heard the phrase “no-man’s-land.” I was on a community tennis team for the summer and the coach yelled at me to “just get out of the no-man’s-land,” and something about tactical disadvantages. I remember asking him to define the term for me after practice, and when he did—I was maybe thirteen at the time—I had this eureka moment where I thought to myself: that’s like being an immigrant. Neither here nor there and not really in between. Since then, I’ve always encapsulated my experience, and my family’s experience, of immigrating to New York but living within the confines of a tight-knit Russian émigré community, as a place that is not exactly American and not exactly Russian, a “no-man’s-land.”
Despite immigrating at such an early age, I’ve always felt not as American as everyone around me—my family doesn’t really participate in quintessential American life, I don’t really understand pop-culture references, and I never feel like I can adequately express myself in the English language—but I also am not quite as Russian as my parents who came here at the age of twenty-seven. I have no real memories of my homeland, only what was passed down to me. And I’m definitely not as Russian as the Russians back in Russia. (I know this because after college, when I was young and stupid and convinced myself that I would find myself back “home,” I flew back to Saint Petersburg where I quickly realized that I didn’t fit in among the people that had stayed behind in the country my family had left.) I think it’s this “outsider” experience that has impacted me most as a person, which is why it’s so prevalent in everything I write.
What were some of your biggest inspirations as you worked on this essay and other pieces in your book-in-progress?
I’m a big fan of reading multiple books at the same time, and as I was working on this essay I was shuffling between the work of a few authors, namely: Eula Biss, Emily Bernard, Honor Moore, Vivian Gornick, T Kira Madden, and Carmen Maria Machado. There’s no doubt that their work inspired my thinking, and certainly my writing, as I worked on this essay.
For the book-in-progress, I try to always keep a few books within reach so that whenever I feel stuck, as if I’m flailing in the deep end, they are there to comfort me with their wisdom and never-ending inspiration. In addition to the ones I’ve already listed, and will list in the following answer, here are a few authors that I have kept close to me for the last few years: James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Margo Jefferson, W. G. Sebald, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jia Tolentino, Durga Chew-Bose, Jenny Offill, Sheila Heti, Kate Zambreno, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Alex Marzano-Lesnevich.
How much has Russian literature influenced your writing? Who are some of your favorite Russian writers?
I mostly know classical Russian literature as what my grandmother read to me when I was young. Since then, I’ve resisted reading translations of Russian books in English, because I feel as if it is somehow betraying my Russianness. I won’t read any Russian classic unless it’s the original, and since reading in Cyrillic is a daunting and time-consuming task, I haven’t actually yet been able to finish any Russian classic in its entirety. So even though I can recite the first few verses of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin from memory, I can’t say that I have actually read Anna Karenina.
That being said, I am a big fan of Russian émigré writers who write in English: especially Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky, who have been a great source of insight for my writing process. I am also deeply inspired by the work of: Svetlana Alexievich (who is Belarusian but writes in Russian), Elena Gorokhova, Gary Shteyngart, Masha Gessen, and Lyudmila Ulitskaya. I think it is the dark sense of Russian humor and the attention to small, often seemingly insignificant details, that I love to borrow from these literary giants.
But to be totally honest, I find myself being most influenced by work written by immigrants, and children of immigrants, living in America, with no real attachment to the Russian aspect of things. I am constantly in awe by the work of authors such as: Valeria Luiselli, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, Ocean Vuong, Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yaa Gyasi, Cathy Park Hong, Dina Nayeri, Rabih Alameddine, Esmé WeijunWang, Jamie Figueroa, Sejal Shah, and Quiara Alegría Hudes.
Valeriya Kipnis is a Russian-born, Brooklyn-raised writer. She received her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from The New School, where she was awarded the 2021 Bette Howland Prize by writer Emily Bernard. The recipient of a Fulbright grant to Ukraine, she works as a reporter and producer for Vice News Tonight.