The Noirwich Lecture 2022: Yelena Moskovich

It’s Terrible to be Terrible and Still Want Love

We were honoured to welcome the award-winning Soviet-Ukrainian American and French novelist and artist Yelena Moskovich for the annual Noirwich lecture 2022. Moskovich’s ground-breaking novels trenchantly atomise and repurpose tenets of crime fiction to explore fractured identities, living histories and uncanny sins.

Their timely lecture – a transcript of which you can find below – reflects on the volatility and mutability of the written word and the world, and explored what if crime wasn’t a story being told, but a language being spoken?

Yelena Moskovich at Noirwich 2022. Credit: Beth Moseley

There are things we think and things we do. Terrible, terrible things. There are feelings we feel and secrets we keep. Terrible, terrible code. I had never thought of myself as a crime writer. Though in retrospect – which happens to be the only way crime can be viewed, by looking back – I suppose I’ve always been a wayward type. More of a wildcat of language than a writer. In short, I have always been terrible. From a young hooligan of melody to a ripened offender of prose, I’ve told stories by going against the grain of storytelling.

In my first novel, The Natashas, Cesar, an immigrant actor vying for the role of a serial killer in a TV series, finds himself following a strange woman. We think the wires of reality and performance have crossed and surely he will kill her. But when he walks up behind her, she turns around and she tells him it’s too late – she’s already been murdered. She sings him a song and asks him to carry her pain.

In my second novel, Virtuoso, there is a bar called The Blue Angel, where people who exist and don’t exist can meet.

In my third and most recent novel, A Door Behind A Door, characters cross in and out of a purgatorial underground between America and the former Soviet Union.

I never thought of myself as a crime writer because the world of my writing is lawless by nature, and those who inhabit it, trespassers of form. In my stories, no one dies, because they are already dead. No one breaks the law, because the laws are already broken.

I stated in an essay I wrote about crime fiction that “all Russian literary work is a crime novel.” (By Russian, to be precise, I mean Russian-language works, which of course stem from all the post-Soviet Russian speaking countries.) This is in part because these literary works, like the Slavic character, exist inside a philosophical crime scene. We are not concerned with the human moral dilemma as much as the human metaphysical dilemma. The pain and poetry of being alive.

In Chekhov’s The Seagull, the teacher Medvedenko asks Masha, “Why do you always wear black?”, and she replies, “I am mourning for my life.” There is a simultaneous seriousness and satire in her response. Part of living is killing life and mourning for the life that we have killed.

Perhaps the apple doesn’t fall from the tree – or in this case – the cherry doesn’t fall far from the cherry orchard, and I can’t escape this Slavic literary heritage. It may seem like a Hellish consciousness with which to lead a life, but to us – life isn’t life without Hell.

And as I admit further it in the essay, it’s true, I’ve always liked novels where people go to Hell. Since the Soviet Union was built upon the communist rejection of religion, our Hell is a bit different. It is not a moral Hell. It is rather a place of transgression and truth. Above, upon our dear Earth, is a social and political code. Below, in our beloved Hell, there is the opportunity for truth – to contemplate, to face, and to integrate the spectrum of human conscious and unconscious intention free of right and wrong. It does not mean there are no consequences and no structure. It is far from the derelict anarchy the West has culturally defined it to be. It is actually a place governed by the purest rules of humanity, the innocence and the shame of our desire to live.

Within these spaces of existence, death becomes more of a hallway, a rite of passage, or a journey towards the purity of the self. In all my works, I write about immigration as a kind of death, a departure wherein the immigrant becomes the literal and figurative ‘departed.’ But there are many kinds of immigration as there are many dimensions of borders that one can – or is forced – to cross. For example, puberty is an immigration we all share – where our hormonal and physical body crosses the border from childhood towards adulthood. Loving someone is also a kind of immigration, across the border of the self to the other.

Then there are the extreme cases of immigration we are most familiar with via the media, refugee and asylum seekers escaping mental, emotional, or physical persecution. I could share with you in detail my own experience of having been a Jewish refugee from Soviet Ukraine to America in 1991 at age 7. And there is much to say about the experience of refugees and asylum seekers and their relationship to language and form. But unfortunately, this relationship does not garner much interest in the culture or arts. Artists or writers who come from geopolitical trauma are met with a narrative obligation to be creative ambassadors of their historical context. The world wants anecdotes and explanations, testimony, and pathos. These expectations are often our ticket into the arts and literature.

But being a difficult child of patronage, I’d rather stay terrible, terrible, and difficult. This is why I’m not going to go through my experience as a refugee from Soviet Ukraine or its parallels with the current war. I’m not saying this is not an important subject. But in general, I’m not so interested in subjects at all. I’m interested in the phenomena of a subject, its language, its movement, its way of coming into life and dying out.

In this respect, I’m inviting you into the metaphysical sense of immigration, or the journey of dying, of killing, and of being killed. What if this journey wasn’t a subject, but a phenomenon? Which brings me to the question at the heart of this lecture: what if crime wasn’t a story being told, but a language being spoken?

The queer experimental artist and writer, Renee Gladman, talks about ‘the inner anguish’ of language. The friction between something dying and something new being born. This twist in being also appears in the form containing language. Gladman goes on to speak of ‘a novel tired of its form.’ This phrase has stayed with me over the years. This is perhaps the perfect description of every novel I write. A work in resistance to itself. Writing that doesn’t want to be what it is expected to be. A novel that comes alive in its own disgrace. Though Gladman doesn’t point to this directly, her words evoke a certain criminality of a work. A way that the text, in order to exist as itself, must become an outlaw.

Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and semiotician, proclaims ‘language is never innocent.’ Barthes is firstly speaking of intentionality, whether conscious or subconscious. From the time a baby starts formulating the sounds they overhear, the blocks of language have significance and will to them. The baby does do not need to understand the structure of language in order to use it with connotation. As it pertains to literature, Barthes is pointing to the capacity of creative consciousness. The writer is composing with what words mean and with what they don’t mean, what they could mean and what they don’t want to mean. The writer is taking the subconscious existence of language out of its familiar shadowy place, and flipping the light switch on it.

I’m not sure if Barthes also intended this idea to extend to the cultural guilt inherent in language, but I’ll go there on my own and take the connotative leap. The rules of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and gender allotment of nouns come from the ways voice, its purpose and expression, has been sanctioned throughout history. The building blocks of language are a product of the socio-political regime. A regime which has been (and continues to be) heavily governed by religious moral code. Language existed as a way to spread the guidelines of holy texts and in turn keep people in line. Language existed to create empires, fortunes, military. Language existed to profit, to exploit, to control.

And so a writer is left in a peculiar position. How to use a guilty language?

Monique Wittig, a French writer and queer activist, wrote in her novel Les Guerillieres : “There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. …You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

If the very mechanisms of the grammar we use today are constructed from centuries of crimes upon the voices and speakers and their languages, we as writers must go to Hell  – so to speak – to go down into the underworld of the text, beneath grammar and syntax and lexicon as we know it, and remember or, failing that, invent form and language.

Queerness, in its essence, is an act of the imagination. It is existing in what does not yet exist. In José Esteban Muñoz’s book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, he writes:

“The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalising rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. (…) we must dream and enact (…) other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.”

It is not merely as a poetic idea that queerness incites dreaming. As Carl Jung described, dreams allow for a mythology that has been forgotten by the day to exist at night. It’s a mythology in hiding, one that must not only be found, but made safe enough to step into the light. In the underworld, this mythology both yearns and refuses to be seen. This is Gladman’s anguish of language, a lingual anxiety.

Barthes also described this lyricism of our personal pain, stating that “each of us has his/her/their own rhythm of suffering.” We don’t often consider the intersection been crime and poetry in literature. Though a wonderful example is the crime novel written in verse, The Monkey’s Mask, by the Australian poet Dorothy Porter. My last novel, A Door Behind A Door, can also be described as a sort of crime novel in verse. Not just for the way the story unfolds in lyrical episodes, almost like a succession of poems, but also in the lyricism that is used to place and advance the plot – particularly when the plot begins to blur into surreal or imagined spaces.

For example, in this novel: Oxana, a mother who loses her husband then her young son in a tragic drowning, is murdered by an eight year old boy who lives in her building, Nikolia or Nicky. Nicky stabs her to death and yet doesn’t understand his own actions. He seems to have entered a trance and have been pulled to commit an crime that has no link to any personal intentions. This enigma stays with him for the rest of his life. But as the novel continues, we start to wonder if perhaps it is the woman herself who created the murder to be able to die from grief, and therefore unconsciously beckoned an innocent boy up the stairs with a knife.

When she dies, though she doesn’t quite die, she immigrates. We find her again in a small town in America, at a diner, dipping fries into a strawberry milkshake. She is told by a mysterious waitress that her name is now Sally and she must learn it. She repeats her name as she sees the waters of the Black Sea where her son died. The passage is a short stanza. It goes like this:

Sally. Sally. Sally. I sailed.

I felt so alone that my skin could have peeled off with the wind.

This sparse stanza contains her whole metaphysical immigration, from devastation to grief to a distant quiet. This simultaneously becomes a manifested literal immigration in the form of a teleportation from Ukraine to America.

The boy-murderer, Nicky, makes a similar journey. He knows that he will go to Hell for what he has done. He is put in prison, and as Olga, another neighbor describes: “Nicky was a bad boy and he went to prison to become a bad man.” But his years in prison become a portal through life, and he also magically immigrates through time and space to this small town in America. Olga, who immigrated to this town with her family long ago, doesn’t understand why he is here and not in Hell. Nicky explains: ‘To get to Hell, they take you through America. There’s a door behind a door.”

Growing up on Slavic literature, my inspiration for this episodic form made of sparse poetic lines came more from Alexander Pushkin’s quintessential novel in verse ‘Eugene Onegin”. I also thought about Russian crime novels, like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Evgeny Zamatyn’s The Flood. For those not familiar with the latter, it’s a much overlooked novella about a flood that eerily brings out violent impulses between a husband, wife and an orphan they adopted. I thought about these works and wondered – Could crime be unhinged from its story and made lyrical and queer ? Queer in the sense of queer characters, but also queer as in – imagined beyond our here and now into the ‘then and there’.

In the Jewish-Ukrainian writer, Margarita Khelmin’s daring masterpiece novel Klotsvog, a sort of soap-opera telling of the persecution and survival of Ukrainian Jews, the narrator rarely and vaguely refers to the horrors of war and the ethnic cleansing she survived as a child. She states without much feeling: “At the hospital, during evacuation, I’d heard the moans of the injured without arms, legs, and tongues. The only thing left from the entire person was the moaning.” There is a leitmotif of the musicality of suffering throughout the novel, not just as subject, but in the Khemlin’s dry and tempo-ed language. And yet, Khemlin creates a world where the dead live amongst the living, their music a shadow of our human walk.

In my first novel, The Natashas, there is a group of girls and women who exist without themselves. As one of them explains, “There are people who leave their bodies and their bodies go on living without them.” I’m evoking the trafficking of women and girls from East to West. But on a deeper level, I’m inventing a language for the fragmented self. Just as Wittig, in her novel, The Lesbian Body, cuts the first person “I” (which is 2 letters in French Je) in half with a slash so it is J/e, as an attempt to disown the self, I intersect various storylines, lyrical screams, proverbs, that slash each other as the story advances.

“To be dead, there is no need to die,” Marina Tsvetaeva writes in Letter to the Amazon. Herein lies a different sort of crime. One that has nothing to do with the story – the who, what, when, where – but with the chasm of storytelling. In this chasm, the crime is no longer the event, but a language. It has not been committed but is being committed – over and over, with no finality to the breach of life. The crime and the criminal is out of sync. At times the crime seems to be happening ahead of the criminal and the criminal is catching up to it. At times the criminal is guilty before the crime has even been conceived.

Fragmentation and re-assembly is not only the corner stone of the mystery format of fiction – the gathering of clues – but a psychological exploration of the self, especially as insight into the effects of trauma on the psyche. I’m particularly interested in the construction and sense of reality of those who have experienced trauma as well as those with mental health neurodivergence.

From an early age, educators and care-takers alike noticed that I had a different way of storytelling. Highly creative and quick on my feet with languages, at the age of 7 I went from Russian to Hebrew to English, 3 different alphabets I learned simultaneously. It may be that refugee children become rapidly resilient as a way of creating safety and control for themselves in a drastically mutable environment. But for me, language as a whole, felt intuitively multi-dimensional. I held it both in fragments and its entirety, and had no need for linear organisation of narrative.

Three decades later, I’m an author whose work is described as experimental. I have no qualms with the label itself, but I do think it’s important to look at the reputation of this category.

There are many people who have a very different relationship to language and story. I’m one of those people. It may be shaped by my personal history or my own neurodivergence. I do have a way of experiencing the world and people that is perhaps atypical. But my rendering of this experience is not a stylistic choice. Most of the time, experimental literature is seen as a reaction to so-called traditional literature. As if it cannot exist on its own, but in relationship to the norm. This echoes our societal perception of those with a difference in mental, emotional, or physical abilities. They are often defined and categorised in relationship to a majority or norm – a norm that has been constructed within a system that functions and profits from the existence and measure of this normality.

I have ceaselessly been encouraged to make my writing more accessible, more cohesive. I have been nudged to iron out my fractured prose into something with less poetic divergence. It’s been alluded to me that I would certainly sell more books that way. I would be nominated for more prizes and get more funding that way.

I agree that every publisher, editor, agent, and reader has the right to like what they like. But I can’t help but be troubled by the reputation of experimental writing as reactionary, a sort of tantrum or fuss that lacks the level of sophistication or craft we associate with traditional canonical literature. When in truth, experimental writing merely takes interest in its own phenomenology, it braves the underworld of the text, seeking Hell. And yet this writing is deemed: tedious, dense, laborious, or even self-indulgently anarchic.

I do wonder why there is so much energy put into protecting this sort of patrimony of writing within the so-called norm, the need to discourage and contain writing that puts writing into question. Is it that writing like this is a threat, not just to the literary canon on which modern fiction is built, but to the societal and political structure at large?

If we look at Russian-language literature, writing that comes out of one of the most censored regimes, it has opted for another solution to this dilemma: Russian-language writers figured out that literature needs a decoy. This decoy is what it said. And literature happens in what is not said.

Reading Russian literature is a different way of reading, something actually more akin to the experience of reading experimental works. It’s a sort of reading in the dark with night-vision, where we can see language move in the wild, beyond its decoy.

Crime is precisely about darkness. It happens in the dark, always in the dark, even if it’s daylight. It is born in the shadow that our human glow has cast, in the black spotted vision of our blinding light. Most of crime fiction – let’s say most of fiction, regardless of genre, actually – is focused on the thought, feeling, and action contoured in the subtextual darkness. But what would this contouring look like if it was not revealed through the character’s relationship to themselves, the other, or the world, but the relationship between the text and the story?

An early poem of the Russian-Jewish poet, Boris Pasternak is called The Blind Wander at Night. It’s about a blind person crossing a square at night. It’s about navigating a darkened world. It’s about what it means to see and to not see. While Soviet verse prided itself on a diligent meter and rhyme scheme, this poem jumped out of these poetic credentials, with no discernable poetic scheme, and yet a distinct and strange melody. An experimental poem. It seems to step on its own feet, to stumble, to grope for light and catch itself on the walls of its own syntax.

I just want to share an excerpt of this poem:

“The blind live by touch.

Touching the world with their hands,

Without knowing light and shadow

And feeling the stones:

Walls are made of stone.

Men live behind them.

Women.

Children.

Money.

(…)

It’s terrible to die at night.

It’s terrible to die by touch.”

I want to read the same section in Russian so you can hear the way in which it grazes a rhyme scheme, but stumbles out of it.


Слепые живут наощупь.
Наощупь,
Трогая мир руками,
Не зная света и тени
И ощущая камни:
Из камня делают стены.
За ними живут мужчины.
Женщины.
Дети.
Деньги.
(…)
Плохо умирать ночью.
Плохо умирать наощупь.

A near generation later, the Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky solidified the writer’s tactility towards language. In his poem Author’s Prayer, he describes the work of a writer, “I must live as a blind man / who runs through rooms without / touching the furniture.”

Darkness becomes a threshold, a way towards voice. The writer traverses this darkness as if walking down their own throat towards the act of speaking. In this darkness, the voice carries and contours the area, delineates it so that the echo fills the hollowness and outlines a space we cannot yet see. The dark allows us to distort time and territory, to stretch out one footstep into an entire life.

In another poem, Tsvetaeva evokes this poetic spatiality in relationship to the writer. “A poet starts her speaking from afar. / The speaking takes the speaker far.” It is not the body that carries the voice, but rather the voice that carries the body.

There is a dismembering of the physical self in this poetic space. The voice can travel where the body cannot. The arm can reach where the eye can’t see. The mouth can taste what the brain cannot identify. The suffering, pain, injustice, disconnection, isolation amongst others, can be evoked in the dismembering of the literary senses, chronology, point of view – and so on. In this way, a story does not to be told, but rather put into movement.

The African American Vietnam veteran and poet Yusef Komunyakaa wrote, “I am this space my body believes in.” Physical reality is made tangible through our belief in it. At the brink of creation, there is a suspicion, and language as suspect. It means what it means and what it doesn’t mean to mean. It says what it says and can’t quite say. It asks what it asks and what it already knows the answer to. It assembles in grammatical order and roams wild. It starts and it ends and it has always been speaking. And if I can offer anything to you all today, it’s to go to Hell and be as terrible, terrible, terrible as you haven’t even yet imagined.

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The Noirwich Lecture 2022: Yelena Moskovich

We were honoured to welcome the award-winning Soviet-Ukrainian American and French novelist and artist Yelena Moskovich for the annual Noirwich lecture 2022. Read a transcript of their lecture here.

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