This year, PEN America asked me and several other PEN members to celebrate the freedom to read by reflecting on the banned books that matters most to us. This is PEN's way of taking part in the American Library Association's annual Banned Books Week, which brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
My choice was Daria Wilke's Playing a Part, a young adult novel (which I translated and which came out this year from Arthur A. Levine Books) that addresses Russian censorship around LGBT themes:
In Daria Wilke's young adult novel Playing a Part, young Grisha is happy at home with his actor parents in a Moscow puppet theater, but he is young and trying to sort out the whole identity—especially gender identity—thing. He's harassed not only by school bullies but even by his grandfather, who doesn't think he's macho enough. Meanwhile another actor, Sam, who is Grisha's mentor and friend, is leaving Russia for the Netherlands because he's gay and can't endure the daily harassment being gay brings upon him.
I describe the book in this way because of its publication in Russia, where homosexuality was criminalized throughout the Soviet period and, in the last few years, criminalized anew. The fact of Russian censorship of "gay propaganda" has shaped my presentation and made this thoughtful and engaging novel also political.
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"The Russian expats who inhabit these stories aren't given a lot of time to nurse their wounds between the revolution back home and the impending world war in their adopted city of Paris. And Berberova's graceful but merciless portraits—of fading countesses, dreary bohemians, former elites now busing tables and cleaning floors, all clinging if only barely to their memories (or fantasies) of a fancier life—had me aching right along with them. One heroine, Sasha, wakes up from a dream with "a strange aftertaste, a mysterious knot that weighs on me to this very day"—words I could easily steal here to describe the spell Berberova casts with each story in this collection."
First published by Knopf, it's currently in available in paperback from New Directions.
Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Slavic literature at Northwestern University, wrote the brilliant introduction to my translation of Anna Karenina and was the featured speaker at the Read Russia awards ceremony this year, where he explained: "Because Everyone Needs a Little Russian Literature." Morson, one of the foremost authorities on Russian literature in the United States, was interviewed by Russia Beyond the Headlines about his love for Tolstoy, the ongoing popularity of the Russian classics and what, if anything, politicans can gain from studying literature.
In the story, 20-year-old Chechen War veteran Kostya, maimed beyond recognition by a tank explosion, spends weeks on end locked inside his apartment, his sole companions the vodka bottles spilling from the refrigerator. But soon Kostya's comfortable if dysfunctional cocoon is torn open when he receives a visit from his army buddies who are mobilized to locate a missing comrade.
The terrific screenplay is also the work of the book's author, the extremely talented Andrei Gelasimov.
A short, sweet review from Frogma of a book I recently translated--Daria Wilke's Playing a Part--that seems to have slipped under the radar but is so much more than your standard YA novel that I recommend it to all readers: ". . . What really gave this story an intereresting and unusual feel is that Grisha's parents are actors at a puppet theatre and that's where he's grown up and feels the safest. The descriptions of the theater, the puppets, performers and performing, puppet makers and puppet making are just luscious. . . . a quick read, but a satisfying one." I wholeheartedly agree.