On a Sunday morning, I sat four rows away from a bored gate agent, phone pressed between my ear and shoulder—an attempt to ward off the woman trying to goad fellow passengers into a ‘dialogue’ about her support of “our president” and “the Wall”—listening to a friend lament the current state of literary pop culture. Their main complaint: the number of books praised as feminist just because women wrote them. Since there has been more progress in movements to get space at the proverbial table, there’s a greater (somewhat welcomed) pressure for my friend and I to be vocal about our experiences reading while Black. So, it was no surprise that the book jacket description of Sophia Shalmiyev’s memoir Mother Winter (Simon & Schuster, 2019), “…equal parts refugee-coming-of-age tale, feminist manifesto, and a meditation on motherhood, displacement, gender politics, and art,” was part of our conversation.
Is there a universal bar?
In the year 2019 is there an official gold standard definition for what can be considered feminist literature?
Is it wholly obtainable? That definition? Or, does it have all the asterisk-burdens rightfully placed on the word ‘feminism’—well not actual feminism, but, you know, fill-in-the-blank-type-of-feminism.
Part of the answer to those questions, for me, is scattered along a plateau of odes to shades of Brown, hot combs, non-blood related aunts and uncles, relaxers, “You’re very well spoken” microaggressions, twist outs, Whitney’s rendition of the National Anthem, roller sets, line dancing, blowouts, reminding folx Martin Luther King, Jr. never disavowed riots, finger-waves, HBCU vs. PWI woes, scents of Blue Magic and Isoplus, the boss Miss Ross, dreadlocks, vestiges of the brown paper bag test, Jheri curls, Luther crooning on the radio, high-low fades, code-switching, box braids, wondering when and if you can ‘come out’, weave, the preschool-to-prison pipeline, the Aaliyah hair swoop over the eye wrap, removing biological sex from womanhood, cornrows, and, ‘sometimes-you-hurt-me-but’ love letters to the Culture. Or, in a gross summation, a litany of feelings and events that aren’t necessarily widely relatable, let alone general topics of discussion when pinning down the ‘what’ of feminist literature. However, there has to be space for them—the scents, textures, hues, sounds, and politics of ‘living’ versus ‘being’ Black coalesced into the non-monolithic Culture of Blackness, right? If there’s a gold standard it must inherently include room for and edification of the wonders on that plateau, yes?
On my flight from Portland to Dallas, I read Sophia Shalmiyev’s memoir, Mother Winter. I didn’t ask those specific questions about her work. I looked for her feminism, her manifesto. I sought out the “equal parts” promises of the blurb.
While running to my connection flight’s gate, I decided the blurb was mistaken. The word “meditation” is something I tend to associate with the sensations of being soft, malleable, and, subdued with closure. Those feelings don’t quite fit this memoir. For one thing, it’s loud—close to the volume level you turn “One Sweet Day” up to right before the chorus hits. Shalmiyev does not give soft ruminations in subjective matter or narrative voice. From cover to cover, even when the writing is restrained, Mother Winter is nothing short of the word ambitious.
Sprawling with prose that is skillfully crafted in romanticism and pensive mourning, it’s difficult to imagine not plunging into the depths of the text. From the opening page, she uses space—chapter numbers are centered one-fourth the way down the page, followed by the text around three-fourth mark with no paragraph indentations—to create a sense of endearing openness rather than a hurried demand for undivided attention. This formatting, in combination with the foundation set by the book’s opening line, “Russian sentences begin backwards,” sets the stage for Shalmiyev’s drifts between speaking to her mother, the reader, and society at large. Driven by the absence of a mother, she recounts her journey from child immigrant whisked away from an alcoholic mother, adolescent seeking out maternal warmth in others—from the Riot grrrl movement to Sappho, young adult retracing the steps of childhood memories in search of her lost mother, to adult accepting the role of mother.
Primarily taking place in Leningrad, New York, and Portland, Shalmiyev, with a vulnerability that deserves praise, does weave together a refugee-coming-of-age tale that explores motherhood, displacement, gender politics, and art. However, I’m not certain this mosaic should be called a feminist manifesto. When I think of the word manifesto, I think of clear demands that are placed before the public. Following that idea, a feminist manifesto would be a list of demands built around socio-economic equality of sexes that intersects with racial disparities. Using that scope, I’d argue, first, that this a love letter—as that is the statement being painstakingly made in every chapter: “Elena. Mother. Mama. You. I choose You.”
Does this mean I also wouldn’t call Mother Winter a feminist text? No. Where a feminist manifesto is a clearly defined list of demands towards obtaining equality between the sexes, a feminist text is a looser, fluid work that exalts the goals and intersections of feminism without the aspect of public policy—observation versus declaration. Shalmiyev’s journey not only explores womanhood through the lens of social norms—who is and gets to be treated the way a ‘good’ woman deserves—but is entangled with otherness, from wanting to sever herself from her native accent and tongue in order better blend into American life to struggling to adapt to the changes in her body during the shifts into adulthood and motherhood. That otherness gives room for drawing connections to the wonders on top the plateau—that space I require for half of the yet-to-be-defined gold standard definition of feminist literature. Nonetheless, because there are no outright demands or proclamations given the level of depth or affirmation as her love for Elena, instead of “feminist manifesto”, I’d describe this memoir in terms of voice.
Sophia Shalmiyev and I have only met once, technically: when I sat at the right corner end of a U-shaped table during an October MFA Creative Writing Alumni Panel. It may have been the ease of talking about a past experience, how she waded through the highs and lows of the MFA program, but I recall being struck by her voice: sharp in moments of excitement—“don’t just stick to your strand take a bit of everything”, tonally muddled in flashes not-so-feel-good honesty—“your first book is probably not going to look anything like your thesis”, but delivered in an almost silky gentleness. Mother Winter echoes that sound. If I were to put this in terms of music—in homage to the bands she lists as the soundtrack to her life—I would describe the memoir as a mix of What’s the 411? by Mary J. Blige, “Missing You” from the soundtrack to Set It Off, and the instrumentals from “The Boy Is Mine”—or, in short, a wonderfully rich and ambitious memoir.
Editorial Notes: While I am certain that without attending that Alumni panel, I would have just as easily been able to immerse myself in the voice of Mother Winter, I won’t pass up the chance to recommend attending one of the stops on her upcoming press tour, or, picking up the memoir’s forthcoming audiobook.
Jennifer Cie is Portland Review’s Editorial Assistant.