A Conversation with Katya Kazbek
BY JOHNNY GOTTSEGEN
Katya Kazbek is a bilingual Russian/English writer, translator, and editor who cofounded the online magazine Supamodu. A graduate of writing programs at Parsons and Oxford, Kazbek received her MFA from Columbia University. She lives between New York, New York, and Moscow, Russia. Little Foxes Took Up Matches is her debut novel.
Johnny Gottsegen: Little Foxes Took Up Matches is the story of Mitya, a teenager growing up in Moscow in the 1990s, right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He navigates both the chaotic world he’s been born into and the tricky process of, to borrow his framing, becoming someone, which in his case includes exploring his nascent queerness. Woven into the main narrative is a re-imagining of Slavic fairy tales, which function as both a thematic mirror and an inspiration for Mitya in his exploration of identity.
The novel is also a vibrant portrait of life in Moscow during a tumultuous period in Russian history. How did you go about describing Moscow so vividly—capturing that sense of not just space, but also time? What was your thought process like?
Katya Kazbek: Essentially it’s the same time and place that I grew up in. When Mitya is looking at things around him, it’s basically from my eyes, although the situations are of course purely fictional. Like Mitya, I was a very introverted and observant child, so everything that was happening around me was something that I paid attention to.
And the nineties in Russia, just like everywhere else, are this source of nostalgia because of the goofy sweaters, and the slinkies, and the Tamagotchis. But at the same time, in Russia it was a very specific period where a lot of suffering was happening, because, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, you basically had a lot of people lose their jobs, lose their lifetime guarantees, and be thrown out into the wilderness. Life expectancy dropped drastically, there was crime, there were suicides, poverty, and homelessness, that were just sweeping through the ex-Soviet republics. I wanted to juxtapose the cultural mementos of the era with those very particular hardships that existed, through this very personal story that’s at the same time giving us glances into different parts of society.
JG: Were you thinking specifically about writing for a non-Russian audience?
KK: I started writing this book in my native Russian, but the final version of it I wrote fully in English. So I guess I was doing this specifically with the foreign audience in mind, and with an emphasis on things that I thought I would need to tell the foreign audience, that would probably seem too banal to readers back home.
I think that there’s this certain universality that the story has that will be accessible even if you’re not entirely interested in the story of Russia. But if you are prepared to do a deeper dive, then you can actually go into more caveats, and maybe delve deeper into that or do extra research. So, I want this to be a sort of gateway book for those who are willing, and for those who are not, just an interesting journey in itself.
JG: I know that you do a lot of translation. I’m curious about how that work informed the way you approached language in the novel. There’s a lot of Russian vocabulary sprinkled throughout, but while you offer direct translations for some words, some you leave the reader to intuit from context or to look up themselves. How did you think about the language you were using? What was the process there?
KK: I think that the majority of the words that remain are slang. When cooking, you add spices to ensure flavor; I was adding the Russian words the same way, and I wanted to make sure that when people are talking, they’re from this particular era, and that they’re Russian, not just anyone.
I also think that slang is very difficult to translate properly. When you have particular words, it’s not as easy to give them the same prominence as they would have in their original language. Some words, unless you go and check the translation, you’re not going to know what they mean, but I thought that it made sense to include them for the sounds only. When I was workshopping an early draft with my professor, Paul Beatty, he asked me what the slang word for penis was in Russian. I told him it’s pipiska, which sounds like something small and weird, and he said, “That’s a funny word. You should use it.” And so the sounds of Russian slang, as well, were things that I wanted to infuse the novel with.
Even the constant long Russian names are something that adds a lot of flavor. The grandmother’s boyfriend, Khristofor Khristoforovich Kherentzis, is Greek, and even in Russian, it’s very long and annoying to be repeated, but I wanted that to pop up constantly, to refer to him with that whole name from time to time, just because that establishes the prominence of the role he plays in the grandmother’s life.
JG: To me, the modernity of the slang offers a really interesting counterpoint to all the folklore present in the novel. The central myth is that of Koschei the Deathless, a Russian wizard who has achieved immortality by storing his death in a needle, but there’s a lot of other Slavic mythology present as well. I’m curious about how you worked out the particular grand myth that you’ve built out of all these other myths, and whether there were more recent Soviet or post-Soviet works that you were pulling from as well?
KK: Of course, Koschei was the first thing that came to mind, because the needle is such a big element in the story. In its first instance, the novel was just a realistic story about a time, place, and Mitya, but it seemed like something was lacking. There was a shapelessness. I thought that maybe a creation myth, in a world that Mitya dreams up or invents, would tie it all together nicely. I was pulling from a lot of the fairytales that I felt were interesting to me when I was growing up or that freaked me out, because a lot of them are very dark.
And of course, there are parts of Aleksandr Pushkin’s The Tale of the Tsar Saltan, which is probably one of the biggest literary renderings of fairy tales that we have in Russian literature. But a lot of the other things are just smaller plots from here and there. There’s this toponymy of different fairytale subjects that exists—I think they also exist in folklore studies for different cultures—but I specifically used the Slavic ones. I basically looked through them, looked for the plots that either I remembered or that seemed fitting.
JG: The Koschei story is something that Mitya is telling himself as well. I remember doing something similar, especially during my own early exploration of queerness. Is this kind of self-mythologizing, this kind of making of one’s own creation myth, inherent to queerness, especially young queerness?
KK: Definitely, yeah. I think that my own first queer moment was when I told everyone, even though they knew me as a girl, that I wanted to be known as Noki, which was the name of the boy who would present fairy-tale films on TV. I invented a last name, I invented friends, and pets, and a past for him, and told my mother everything from my personal point of view, self-mythologizing. In general, growing up in the contemporary world, you have to become someone, and you always self-mythologize. Whatever tools in your arsenal you have, you take them and you craft yourself an identity.
I think that in the capitalist logic, we are all told that we need to become something to earn our worth. And it takes a lot of time and effort to reach the point where you understand that it’s your humanity that determines your worth from the beginning, and it was there all along. I guess that’s why all myths always have a moral, so your own self-mythologizing will hopefully lead to a moral as well. I think that is very humanizing and something that you can live for, happily with yourself in the world.
JG: Mitya doesn’t have a lot of role models to help him understand the value of his humanity; he’s lonely. Is that kind of myth-making in some ways specifically about creating a community for oneself, or replicating a world to give oneself a feeling of, “I’m not alone and there are people like me”?
KK: Oh yes. I think that there’s always a way to build bridges with someone or something out there that can ground you if whatever you have in your real life is not enough. And it very often leads you to actually achieve that for yourself, or maybe even—as I think is the case with Mitya—to be able to find community around himself in ways that he didn’t expect. We all ultimately want to be seen, respected, and loved. Sometimes there is a crevasse between what society lays out for us in terms of what everyone is expecting, because it’s often the mythologies of others that are projected upon us, or even the mythologies that are created by power or the market. It’s not entirely easy to hold your own in this onslaught, but so satisfying, because it’s as any pursuit of truth and any pursuit of community is.
JG: At one point, Mitya goes to a birthday party with his Babushka, and afterwards he realizes that, “he had no idea whom he would prefer to like him, but the thing that he knew for sure was that he desperately, overwhelmingly wanted to be liked.” I think all our identities are influenced by the desire to engender a particular response from other people. How do we, especially as children, navigate between what we think is expected of us and the version of ourselves that we imagine?
KK: Mitya, I think, struggles with that a lot—there are certain pointers that he receives, that you have to be, say: wealthy, or attractive, or successful, interesting, cool, funny, trendy. And for kids today, you must like certain rappers, care about specific issues, watch particular shows, follow the right influencers, or must have overcome particular obstacles. But those are all still superficial. They don’t capture your personhood. You might share one particular trait or interest with others, but at the same time, it will not define the whole of you, and it’s not enough to understand you.
There’s also a danger that when trying to navigate ourselves, especially as kids, we can become preoccupied with how people perceive us and lose sight of things that actually do influence relationships. And I think that Mitya is struggling with that a lot, in that he thinks he has no worth, because for his father he’s not masculine enough, for his classmates he’s not privileged enough, for the cool crowd, like Marina’s friends, he’s not old enough, and for the homeless boys, he’s not destitute enough to belong to them. Even when he tries to be a girl, he isn’t girly enough either, because it’s this very particular version of a girl he wants to be.
But he also discovers little by little that when he is liked, it’s for being himself. That kind of becoming one’s own is independent of the expectations of others, but still could be achieved through trying to appeal to their interests while staying true to oneself. I think that that’s essentially Mitya’s journey and the journey of many a young kid in our society.
JG: You mention Mitya’s father not considering him masculine enough. In fact, he tells Mitya that, “It’s the goal of every father to see his son a hero in the fight against terrorism or fascism, decorated, even if it’s within the coffin.” I was struck by the extent to which performance of masculinity in this environment seemed like something that almost necessitated death. Mitya’s cousin Vovka, for example, is a veteran who’s returned from the Chechen War with serious physical and psychological wounds. Do you feel like that self-destructive expectation was part of the national character of masculinity at the time?
KK: I think that it was something that was formed throughout the Soviet Union, but at one point it was more coherent than in the later years, especially around World War II, and a lot of the industrial sacrifice that went into actually building the country up from almost nothing. Sacrificing oneself for the greater good was something that people did not mind doing. But at the point of the narrative, it becomes sort of nihilist. You don’t really know what exactly it is you’re dying for, because the country doesn’t exist anymore. Now there’s another one, but it’s all in shambles. So you and everything that the people were collectively building is going to some people’s personal pockets.
That was also a big change: the gradual understanding that the wars are not framed in the same way as World War II, so your sacrifice is not appreciated the same way. Vovka returns very scarred by his experiences, and with survivor’s guilt, and does not even see a place for himself because the military was going through a very hard time. There’s just this emptiness, and it raises the question of, if masculinity, and sacrifice through masculinity, don’t bring about any good for anyone, what is the point? Even though there were particular goals pursued in the Chechen War to safeguard the country from insurgencies, the ideological basis of it was gone, and it just was falling apart. And this is something that broke Vovka, I think, and quelled his life in a sense, because where can you go after all this guilt mounts and mounts and becomes absolutely unbearable and soul-crushing?
JG: Just as masculinity carries the threat of outright violence, femininity seems to carry the threat of sexual violence. The overwhelming majority of the sexual contact that takes place in the novel is either nonconsensual, transactional in some way, or leaves one or more of the characters feeling profoundly guilty about their behavior. Sexual attractiveness and receptivity are also consistently linked with femininity. Why is sex such a difficult element of so many of these characters’ lives, and why is it such a fraught element of femininity specifically?
KK: I think about this a lot: whenever a society is forced into a crisis, sex becomes a commodity and a very cheap one at that. We see it everywhere across the world: regimes change, factories immediately start being privatized, the public sector is plundered, and humans essentially don’t have much left for them except for their own bodies. If the body is desirable enough, then there’s a chance to sell it. That’s why political upheavals and poverty always end up attracting sex tourism and pedophiles. Mitya is too young for sex, but it is being forced upon his world in one way or another.
And of course, when sex becomes commodified, it becomes very patriarchal. So masculinity comes to take and femininity comes to give. That’s why when Mitya investigates femininity, it is through the male gaze, even though he views this intrusive desirability as something that gives him worth too, because if I’m desirable, that means I’m worth something in this world. In a cold world, you think that any kind of touch is warm, even one that, instead of affection, carries malice. That’s why the subject of sex is a very negative thing in the narrative of Mitya’s life, because essentially he has not yet seen it from the positive sides, which hopefully are going to be there for him in the future.
JG: It does very much seem that, because femininity in patriarchal structures is tied to sexual objectification, there’s this idea that you are more successful—you are doing femininity better—the more you are dehumanized sexually, and the more that you are available as a sexual object.
To me, that felt like one of the very true-to-life and difficult elements of wanting to identify more with femininity. That is, entering a space that is in some ways inherently, in terms of societal expectation, degrading or objectifying.
KK: Absolutely. And since Mitya, not voluntarily of course, but just by strains of his existence and self, rejects masculinity, the thing that would allow him to have power in this, there’s essentially no escaping this subjugation that femininity brings.
JG: One thing that I thought was really interesting, and that worked very well in terms of establishing a child as the protagonist, was the focus on immediate sensory experience, what Mitya smells and sees and, instead of identifying emotions in reaction to something, how he feels physically in response to things. What was the thought process behind focusing on the immediate sensory experience, and how did you go about establishing that?
KK: Well, when I started writing Mitya, it was clear that he sets out to explore the world. Since his interactions with people are limited, and he’s shy, the way to explore the world is through his own sensory perceptions. As the story progresses and Mitya starts to know people better and to try to understand them, he discovers that people don’t always tell the truth, that they can be vague on purpose, and that sometimes they don’t even fully understand or rationalize whatever they’re doing. People’s explanations are not enough for him, and this leads him to try and explain the world through matter: the smells, the physicality, touching surfaces, and tasting things. Each physical thing becomes a clue for something else that’s happening, a continuation of his search for truth in the world.
His way of processing everything that he lived through in the material world is also sensory because he starts creating artworks with found objects that are based around events that happened to him. He’s trying to take slices out of his personal history and preserve them for the future, to ground his takeaways and his growth in physical matter. I was very inspired by art brut, artists who don’t have any formal education but process the world through their works in a way that sometimes can seem naïve, but at the same time, take reality in its most material, unreflected version and present it for everyone to see. I thought that that would be consistent with Mitya’s path in life.
JG: I agree with you completely, that there is a strength in focusing on the sensory as a way of navigating the truth or lack thereof. I feel like there’s a space that has been created, or a gap, between the brain, which we think of as the true self, and the body, which is secondary or belongs to us but is not us. It was wonderful to have a character who is experiencing so much through his body and through the immediate sensory world around him, because I think it allows you to recognize that gap as untrue or illusory.
One aspect of that sensory framework is a consistent theme of, for lack of a better word, grossness, or corporeality, that I thought was really interesting and quite noteworthy. I’m curious if that was something that you did intentionally, and what kind of power that has.
KK: I think I did it in part willingly, because I think that there’s this certain alienation from bodies in our culture. When they’re described or reflected upon in works of literature, it’s either absolute idealization that is perfect and has nothing to do with the material world, or rejection of everything conventional and glorification of something abject. I wanted to find something in between because neither of those two rings absolutely true to me. Our physicality is fascinating but also weird and funny and gross. And at the same time, it’s very normal.
I think that in life and in literature we must take care of the bodies that exist and treat them kindly but also not mythologize or fetishize them. In the novel, as Mitya tries to figure people out—which is very difficult—sometimes the only direct access that he has to them is their physicality. It’s sometimes unwelcomed, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes aggressive, but it’s always recognizable because this physicality is something that unites everyone and defines everyone. Whatever the hubris or the aggression or the circumstance, it’s essentially the same thing, in a couple of varieties. The realization of that grounds Mitya a lot, especially since he is such a sensorially-oriented person.
JG: The novel places a lot of value on ambiguity and fluidity, with Mitya very much avoiding explicit categorization in terms of gender and sexuality, and pushing back when people try to do the same to him. When deciding whether or not to tell his friend Marina about his exploration of gender, he worries that “she might diagnose him again, like when she concluded he was goluboy [gay], the previous time. Maybe he was. He had been thinking hard about this ever since, but that was his call to make.” I was wondering if you could talk about that, and about the emphasis on queerness as a process rather than an outcome. That really rang true to me, that idea of sustaining a sense of ambiguity and space and change.
KK: I also relate to that a lot, and I think that being a human in our economic and political system is a process of stripping away layers of dehumanization and alienation. Queerness is just one part of it where you also strip away those layers. So essentially, queerness is a path of human evolution as well. Indeed, I don’t think it needs to have an outcome.
There’s also this danger of giving in too much to the superstructural definitions of self that loom large for all the atomized, artificially isolated individuals in our world. When I was writing about Mitya, the only things that seemed certain to me were that he’s a kid and he’s working-class, so he has no power in the world that he inhabits in both these positions, and everything for him just constantly oscillates. People try to fit in to survive under the given conditions, and that’s something that he needs as well. But for Mitya, survival is found more in selfless coexistence with others, in helping them, and ego and his thirst for definitions become not goals, but sort of obstacles to selflessness. So Mitya can’t be something definite, because otherwise, he would not be Mitya.