Author Yelena Moskovich plays with pop culture, clichés, and language to explore everything from gender and queer desire to immigration, memory, nostalgia, and the impact of political historical events over individual lives. Born in Soviet Ukraine, Moskovich immigrated to Wisconsin with her family as Jewish refugees in 1991 and is currently based in Paris. The Slavic diaspora communities in the American Midwest are the backdrop to her new novel A Door Behind a Door, recently published with Two Dollar Radio — her third book after The Natashas and Virtuoso.
A Door Behind a Door creates a haunting cinematic world in which the protagonist Olga, a young, introspective, lesbian emigre in Milwaukee, finds her life interrupted by a mysterious phone call. The cracks in the mundanity it creates are soon filled with memories of her Soviet childhood as she navigates a wholly new parallel world: one filled with diners run by the Russian mafia, recurring murder mysteries, and long-lost brothers. Soon enough, memory, violence, and love become an intricate net from which she can’t escape without casualties.
The poetic language, which brings an idiosyncrasy to each character and place, carries through the sense of alienation and sadness, love and desire, longing and unreliable memory. Strange and cryptic, Moskovich’s sentences reflect an immigrant’s creative and malleable use of language: “I HATE HOW MEMORY FEELS ON ME – There’s Time and there’s Death and there is a succession of lies trying to braid my hair,” she writes. “THE OLD WORLD – It’s not just a place and time”.
Moskovich talked to The Calvert Journal about the lives of Soviet diaspora of the Midwest, freeing herself linguistically, and writing about queer love and migration in a rapidly shifting world.
Could you tell me a little bit about the world you created for A Door Behind a Door? How much does it draw from your personal experiences?
For a while now, I’ve been wanting to write something set where I grew up in Milwaukee because it has such a Twin Peaks atmosphere. There is a big population of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants that have moved to Milwaukee — and that was the Midwest I was interested in. There are a lot of small town murder mysteries out there which do really well, but there was nothing which involved the Soviet diaspora or lesbian characters. I had a very distinct vision of that setting, even though it’s not even so much about the place but the mood. I think this Slavic Midwestern world is part homophobic and part highly queer, which are two sides of the same coin. I find those contradictions really interesting, because that’s also part of the experience of having these multiple identities that contradict each other. For a long time, I thought I had to choose between being either Jewish, Slavic, or American, or queer. As if I could maybe have two of those, but not all of them. So, in a way, the novel is a space where they could all play together and intersect.
What were you able to express in this book, which you felt you couldn’t in your previous novels?
I think all of my novels deal with those types of identities in some way. There’s a type of violence that I keep trying to talk about in my novels, and I feel like I was able to access it in A Door Behind a Door in a way that I hadn’t before. It’s violence that leaves no mark, violence that sometimes becomes something very poetic or soft, things that will take years or generations to understand as violence. Part of that is probably coming from issues like the antisemitism in the Soviet Union, and the fact that it hasn’t been properly acknowledged. I think in today’s culture, we’re all being heavily gaslit all the time. And it’s really hard to hold our own truth. That’s the violence that I really wanted to talk about. Some of it became literal, because it deals with stabbings and mafia, but at the heart, there was a way where that type of more metaphysical violence was able to come to the surface.
What pushed you to experiment with your use of language?
I think my first novel was very much just me deciding how the text is going to contain this story, this world, this journey. And then my second novel was a lot more highly edited. It’s hard because you can be very heavily influenced by your editor. I still don’t think my second Virtuoso novel is anywhere near traditional, but for anyone who knows my work, they can see it’s a bit more polished, a bit more structured. There was a lot of pressure to be “a little more inside the box while you’re outside the box”. This novel has a lot more rage. The character Tanya, who is in prison, is my alter ego, she’s pretty rageful. I wanted to be able to scream and to express my anger at being so contained, so unseen, or seen in the wrong ways. It wasn’t always intentional, but it has existed in my life on many levels: on a personal, familial level, on a cultural level, on political, socio-economic level, but also on a professional level. So some of that anger is like, No, fuck you. This is who I am. And this is how I write.
The identities you explore, whether Slavic or queer, are often very heavily stereotyped — do you write against or around clichés?
I definitely love playing with my own tropes — they are like the kernel of someone’s soul, something you cannot possess, or tokenise. So I enjoy flaunting them in a way that’s like, you can’t have this, look at how amazing this is, but you can’t have it, can’t possess it. Having said that, though I very much enjoy playing around with tropes and stereotypes in an artistic way, I get protective of it when it comes to exposure, or the promotion of my work.
When I was reading A Door Behind a Door, I thought a lot about gender. The book includes several classic characters from Slavic stories: an old lady, brothers, or bad men. How did you write these roles from a queer perspective?
I did use a lot of these classic tropes, like the old lady, or the brothers — because I was interested in their social positioning. In Soviet terms, the idea of an old lady is not so much about her gender but her place in the class system. Which makes me think that the Soviet or Eastern sense of gender is super traditional, and limited, but also inherently queer — because there are spaces where gender becomes a signifier of a certain commodity.
Sometimes I like to think about my novels as if they were films or TV series, and imagine what they would look like. If I had to cast A Door Behind a Door as a TV series, the majority of the actors would probably be trans. That would make most sense to me because there’s this liminality to all of the identities, and there is no one in the book that’s very Western gender performative — apart from Brendan, who embodies the capitalist sissy, if not the whole of the American capitalist system.
What I especially loved about the book is the presence of queer and lesbian sex and intimacy, which is so rare in literature. Is this something you set out to explore?
I’ve been interested in this for a while. I think in Virtuoso there are some scenes that would be called “explicit sex”. Generally, now, I think this is changing, but before, whenever I read about lesbian sex or intimacy, it felt like it was the same old thing, there was no representation of people using different positions or toys, or lesbians doing anal – why don’t we have more of that?
Also, when I’m developing a character, I need to know her sexual preferences, because everyone has theirs. It’s not even about sexuality but about desire, which is integral to life.
You’ve been living in Paris for quite some time. How did you construct this American narrative from a distance? And how did weave your own immigration story with stories of the diaspora?
I think now that I have that distance, and I have my own immigration story, I have a lot more insight, understanding, and compassion for some of the shortcomings of my parents. I can’t imagine doing all of this with children and being completely culturally shell shocked… There’s something about the distance that makes me see America differently. In Europe or France, speaking with my American accent, I am clearly perceived as American. But when I go back to the US, I realise that I haven’t known the country for the last decade and a half, so that distance allows me to observe it like an outsider again.
Does the novel also reflect the place of immigrants’ bodies within the system in the US?
I like that you used the term immigrant bodies because I feel like we need to realise that immigration is not just conceptual, it’s a very physical experience. This is why I like to step away from realist literature. The more I use surrealism, the closer I get to writing the physical experience of immigration. This is why it’s so integral for me, with every novel, to figure out how I can use language bring topics to life — to make this journey happen.
A Door Behind a Door is out now via Two Dollar Radio.