Good question alert: Can you be a “serious writer” while also just being yourself?

Good question alert: Can you be a “serious writer” while also just being yourself?

The daughter of a friend is taking a summer journalism course, and one of her assignments was to interview “a journalist with international experience” about their “career choices and future goals.”

One of the questions she just sent me was so excellent that I am reprinting it, alongside my answer, below (with permission):

Q: Your byline has been seen in many internationally significant publications and you regularly comment on current events. Today I read your comments to Yahoo Sports about Russia’s doping scandal. Also today I opened your blog and read a song about “shrieking demon heads” that you wrote. Is there a contradiction between your professional persona and your artist persona? Has it affected your work? What would you say to someone who wanted to follow your example?

A: What a great question. I will be honest, I think I would have had more professional success as a journalist if I played it straight – as in not had a blog that featured songs about demon heads, nor posed for artists in my spare time, nor written plays about sunken ships and haunted bureaucrats, and so on.

My generation grew up on the mantra that you should “be yourself.” This rarely works out well. For a woman it can be especially hard to “be herself” and not experience career setbacks. And forget about being taken seriously if you’re also seen as a kind of “sex object.” Serious journalism, of the kind I’ve always been interested in, is a macho field, and if you don’t play by its rules, people are going to be weirded out by you. And when people can’t put you in a box they’d rather not deal with you at all.

On the other hand, songs about demon heads, poems about sex, and plays with ghosts in them are also part of my professional life. They’re also just an intrinsic part of who I am.

Over a decade ago, I received the shock of a lifetime when my cousin was killed in a car accident. She was a talented pianist and singer and just weeks before she passed away, she and I had an argument about me becoming “who I really am” eventually. I was leading a pretty strait-laced existence at the time and she saw right through it. She told me that I was a “crazy artist type” no matter what I did. I was not prepared to listen. We parted on an awkward note. I never saw her again, unless dreams count.

Her words stayed with me. No matter how much I tried to fight her vision of me, deep down inside, I knew it to be correct. I think I would have escaped a lot of disappointment and drama had I accepted that she was right much sooner.

Any meaningful life choice involves a degree of sacrifice. So you do what you must. And you give thanks for being disliked, because, honestly, most people in the world won’t care enough to dislike you in the first place.

I consider myself a serious writer, a serious journalist (though I barely work as a journalist anymore, tbh), and I think it shows in everything I do, because I try to do it well. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to be able to do what I love. Were they justified? I don’t know. I probably won’t ever know, since you can’t draw conclusions until your life is done. And who knows what my loved ones will eventually come to say about the choices I’ve made.

So, should you be like me? No. Be like yourself. Be clear-eyed about the consequences of being like yourself. Be clear-eyed about the consequences of not being like yourself. Whatever you do, try to do it well (and I include crap you do to pay the bills in that category too). Don’t let anyone, no matter how well-meaning, decide anything for you – because owning your screw-ups is sometimes even more important than not screwing up in the first place. Let your heart hold fast and good luck.

Q: P.S. Did you come up with phrase “tornado of shrieking demon heads” yourself?

A: Of course not. I got it off of Twitter and annoyingly enough can’t remember whose account that was.

P.S. I owe a word of thanks to WordPress Discover for featuring this post. I’m glad so many of you found it useful. This blog continues to exist due to Discover support, due to your support, due to me very much needing an outlet, and due to the occasional tip, which you can send here, if you wish:

For Natalia's stories

Owing to her young age, the author of the question that prompted this post would like to stay anonymous, but I’ve let her know that you guys have been reading, and she wants to say she’s glad that she inspired this post and this discussion❤

From Pavel Sheremet to Trumputin: my summer 2016 links for your reading pleasure

From Pavel Sheremet to Trumputin: my summer 2016 links for your reading pleasure

I don’t usually archive the links to the work I do elsewhere, but it’s been a long summer with few updates, and I thought you guys might like to take a look at a few of these anyway:

An important online flashmob on sexual violence recently began in Ukraine and quickly spread to Russia and Belarus. These are NOT the countries you associate with any kind of frankness on the topic. So it was a pretty big deal. And being a big deal, it attracted plenty of trolls and critics. I wrote about how the flashmob and the reaction to it are great examples of this region’s collective PTSD.

Also in Ukraine, a very prominent and gifted Belarusian-Russian-Ukrainian journalist was tragically killed by a gangland-style car bomb. I wrote about what happened – and the implications.

But of course in the States, all we can really talk about the election. And Trump. And, nowadays, Trumputin. I wrote about the bad bromance between the Republican presidential nominee and the Russian leader – and how it may not work out that well for the Kremlin (in spite of every other American writer currently pointing out how Putin is the one who’s playing Trump. Which is true, by the way. He is playing him. But it will be hard to play him in the long term – and the Kremlin is remarkably bad at long term planning).

Last but not least, a link to my essay on Eurovision, Jamala, the Dakh Daughters, and Ukraine’s new femininity. I finally got to use the phrase “kill your boner” in a serious piece. I don’t know if it gets any better than that.

In Russia, August is traditionally associated with disasters. May we all avoid them to the best of our ability. Stay beautiful. Stay fabulous.

walk walk fashion baby

His Sin, Her Soul: On Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (republished from The Second Pass)

His Sin, Her Soul: On Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (republished from The Second Pass)

Original publication date: MONDAY NOVEMBER 30TH, 2009. Republished with kind permission from John Williams.

His Sin, Her Soul
By Natalia Antonova

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

The luster of scandal wore off Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita a while ago. Anyone reading the testimony of Roman Polanski’s teenage victim on The Smoking Gun must have little capacity to be shocked by Humbert Humbert’s fictional crimes. I’m willing to bet that for the modern reader, the only shocking thing about Lolita is how the writing transforms the subject matter into a thing of startling beauty, and how effortlessly Nabokov avoids prurience in order to create something more chilling.

But while the scandal of it may have faded, the book’s vocabulary continues to live a life of its own. When a young girl is called a Lolita, we imagine a knowingly hyper-sexualized child, one who wears too much of her older sister’s make-up and lets her underwear peek out as she wanders into the peripheral vision of some man. If “Lolita” isn’t always code for “she was asking for it,” it’s at least a suggestion of some impropriety or mitigating factor, an indication that an older man’s younger victim wasn’t exactly a gentle-faced virgin — or she certainly didn’t look like it, Your Honor.

In light of this cultural appropriation, I wasn’t surprised when a fairly good friend asked me why on earth I — a stridently vocal survivor of sexual abuse, someone who screams her head off every time someone shrugs that “boys will be boys” — would profess so much admiration for Nabokov’s most famous book. Don’t I realize that Lolita the book and Lolita the term feed off one another in the public sphere? And that even if it were possible to separate it from the hiss of cultural static that has amplified around it over the years, Lolita is still a book that takes an extremely ugly story and makes it extremely gorgeous? Implicit in these inquiries was the real question, of course, which emerged after my replies failed to satisfy: “How can you stand reading it, with everything you say you have been through?” Continue reading “His Sin, Her Soul: On Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (republished from The Second Pass)”

If you like my poetry and stories, please consider donating

If you like my poetry and stories, please consider donating

Dear subscribers, regular readers, and anyone who happens to be wandering by, I need your help. This blog features a lot of random updates, but there are also two sections that involve a lot of work: the so-called Fairy Stories (I chose that category name to piss J.R.R. Tolkien off in the afterlife, but it has stuck) and Poetry (in recent years, as I began to publish my own poetry on this site).

There are also some personal essays that deserve your attention. Specifically: on Kate Atkinson, on my Ukrainian Jack of Hearts, on how my life went all wrong (or right?), on Kiev and some of the men I’ve met there, and this photo essay on my family in 1970s Crimea.  Oh, and this not-at-all personal essay on why Russians are into anal porn in a big way, heh heh (admit it, you’ve always wanted to know).

An editor myself, I believe in the power of editors. I rarely have time to have anyone else proof or critique what I publish on this site. I always think that while some of it can be compelling, it is also very raw.

Still, over the years, I’ve noticed that many of you have enjoyed my writing, and found it interesting and/or entertaining.

Some of you have occasionally donated to this site over the years. I’m sheepish about donations, but it’s time to admit it – they are very helpful. And in one instance, a donation tided me over through some fairly dark times.

Today, I need your help for two reasons.

1) Financial: I get a fair bit of freelance work, but have not been steadily employed for a while, and the freelance economy is brutal. It is like “Gladiator,” minus a hot Russell Crowe. Due to various complicating factors, I have really struggled these last few months. 

2) Psychological: I won’t bore you with a litany of professional setbacks. Let’s just say I have discovered what feels worse than being ignored: It’s having people be enthusiastic about you and your work, and then abruptly decide that they’re no longer enthusiastic. It’s part and parcel of being a writer, but when it happens repeatedly, it erodes your confidence. It’s like having a man tell you he loves you before being all “LOL JK.”

The ensuing sadness is a vicious cycle. You doubt yourself more, so you work less, and you doubt yourself some more, and so you work even less, etc. For years, I’ve been my family’s dependable breadwinner, but in these last few months, I’m just…not. I am paralyzed by doubt. I can’t even read a good book now without telling myself, “Why, here’s a person who can write – AS OPPOSED TO YOU, YOU DUMB COW.”

If you donated, it would not only help me stay afloat, it would also show me that my writing means something to you. It would be a big deal for me at this point in time. The amount is entirely up to you. Thank you. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. Love to you and yours.

No guilt-trip, just good times

(P.S. The featured image on this post is taken from Fellini’s excellent “Nights of Cabiria.” Please watch it if you haven’t. But not if you’re horribly sad)

Why it sucks to be a journalist (and why people do it anyway)

In the West, the news is a commodity, a product. And the customer is always right. If you’re not giving the customer what they want – you’re usually screwed.

In places like Russia, the news is more like a government-owned resource. And the government gets to set the agenda on how said resource will be exploited. If you’re not giving the government what it wants (or getting a little too uppity or bothersome) – you’re usually screwed.

I’ve worked for both English-language Russian state media and Western independent media. I’ve been lucky so far. Lucky for having intelligent editors who set good standards, for being able to speak my mind, for being able to walk away when facing censorship. Lucky that I’m still, at this stage in the game, able to feed my family (on a diminishing income). Lucky that I’m not an exploited freelancer in a conflict zone (for now, anyway).

Im-not-anybodys ygritte says

But the more online harassment I experience, the more threats I receive, the more insults (many of them gender-based, others aimed at my complicated cultural and ethnic heritage) I hear, the more I have to wonder if I’m tough enough.

When I was writing about the fateful 2010 winter election in Kiev, there was an incident I’ve been loath to talk about. Perhaps a couple of my friends know. It made me feel vulnerable and unprofessional at the time. I certainly didn’t want to complain and make it seem as though I was afraid of anything.

I had argued with a security guard near a polling station. He insisted I couldn’t be on the sidewalk, talking to people. He thumped me on my chest and pushed me hard. I went flying on the black ice that seemed to encrust every surface that winter, landing on my back, hitting my head in the process. After the immediate shock and pain wore off, I let a woman who had just voted help me up. The guard had scampered off. I went back to doing my job.

The incident stayed with me, because the pain stayed. I had problems with my back before, but that one bad fall caused chronic pain that lasted for over a year. After I got pregnant, I had to seek out specialists capable of helping pregnant women with severe back pain. The pain sapped my strength and bank account. It still flares up every once in a while. X-rays so far have been inconclusive, and I am convinced that a part of it starts in the mind. Chronic pain is complicated, but it has its roots. Some are abstract.

People don’t like journalists – for reasons are both abstract and concrete. People take, ah, liberties with journalists, especially in countries with brittle regimes and a high tolerance for violence. People don’t like it when journalists tell them what they don’t want to hear. People don’t like it that journalists take money from either governments or corporations or NGOs – i.e., people don’t like it that journalists have a powerful need to eat every once in a while.

I’ve been both a reporter and a pundit – a reporter takes risks in the field, only to be shouted at for bias. A pundit feels like Cassandra with tongue in place, but no one listening anyway. Everyone is down in the comments section, bitching about how you’re the wrong ethnicity to have an opinion on some matter, while others are busy e-mailing you detailed odes on how awesome it would be when you’re finally gang-raped.

“You go out there and do your job!” People shout at me on the internet, from the comfort of their homes. I’m remembering the first story I did for The Moscow News – on a neo-Nazi stabbing in southwest Moscow. I visited the scene of the crime, talked to the neighbors of the victim, talked to the crying wife on the phone outside. On my way back, I had to walk through an apple orchard at dusk. Two guys began following me. They weren’t neo-Nazis, they were thugs, enraged at seeing a reporter asking questions “without permission” on their territory. Didn’t I know I could be “punished”? There was no one else around. We were in the middle of a major city at peacetime, but in a second it was brought home to me – how unsafe I was. I let them catch up with me, joked with them, bummed a cigarette off of one of them, discussed my story. I smiled at them. They eventually began smiling back.

Female journalists are lectured on “using our looks” and following “the principles of feminism.” We’re still seen as women first and journalists second – hello, “mother of three” headline! – but we must pretend as though this isn’t really so in our work.

In the company of bad men, however, there are no illusions. You appeal directly to their strength. A strong man wouldn’t need to prove his strength by hurting a girl-reporter, would he? Except sometimes, he would.

Our readers hate us. We hate each other. When I joke about dick-measuring contests on Twitter, I’m not really joking. Professional solidarity usually only appears when someone gets their head cut off – to be quickly forgotten.

Everyone knows that you don’t get ahead by being the best. You get ahead by proving that the others are worthless.

If you’re a young woman, prepare for the possibility of getting harassed, raped, or simply used by colleagues you look up to. And then, of course, they’ll tell their friends that you only got that one gig because [insert body part, outfit, etc]. Hoity toity male journalists will punish you for admiring them as surely as they will punish you for not admiring them.

girls see more blood ygritte says

(And if you’re ever, say, attacked while doing your job – men will write hit-pieces about it, minimizing your suffering while making your entire job about your looks. And when you start getting older, people will begin getting mad at you about it – and asking why the hell are you still on TV, you fat cow)

In times of conflict and tension, you will be seen as a tool first and a person second – by everyone from the security services to Jim-Bob who’s never frozen his ass off at a demo that swiftly erupts into violence when the boys with the batons move in, but will still write your bosses and demand you be fired for your “pro-[insert whatever it is that Jim-Bob doesn’t like at that moment] coverage.”

In a conflict zone, you will be accused of propaganda if any particular side appears to trust you – though trust is how you get people talking, how you get them to let you in, and how you get them to not kill you.

The late Andrei Stenin got the pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine to trust him – so now I’m constantly being told that he deserved his death. Meanwhile a friend has reported extensively on the right-wing Azov battalion on the Ukraine side – only to be accused of being a “Nazi sympathizer” in the process.

When you acknowledge the pressure you are under, you’re weak and hysterical. When you don’t acknowledge it, it begins to do your head in.

I was in a bar in Kiev with a cousin last month, when your typical Douchebag Expat Stereotype who’d only been in the country for a couple of weeks but had oodles of opinions he was dying to share sidled up to us. In the course of trying not to talk to him, I found out that he follows the work of a friend of mine who has been reporting on the armed conflict in the Donbass. “He’s just so biased! And so cocky!” Douchebag Expat Stereotype ranted.

“So why don’t you go out there and show him how it’s done,” I replied – then instantly regretted my words.

The last thing you want to do is give a self-assured blowhard the idea that he can do this kind of job.

Meanwhile, one of the defining characteristics of the human race is our need to tell stories, to bear witness – and to pass the information on. I think that people tend to get into journalism because they’re human. And a little crazy. It’s a calling – in the sense that a pied piper is playing a tune somewhere. You stumble off the safer path and follow the song. You live to regret it and you live to love it – sometimes in equal measure.

but first well live ygritte says