Mikita Franco’s novel The Days Of Our Lives was undoubtedly one of 2020’s most outstanding Russian literary debuts. The story of a teenager navigating their turbulent coming-of-age in the 2010s is told with a raw honesty and gripping sensitivity. Yet it is also a story which contemporary Russia is perhaps not ready to hear. The novel’s protagonist grows up in a household with two gay parents, after being adopted by his uncle and his partner after his mother dies. It is a story which may not seem remarkable in many Western countries, but in Russia, such arrangements remain surrounded by judgement and fear. Franco tells the story in all its beauty, joy, pain, mundanity, and overwhelming realness.
Published by the independent Popcorn Books, The Days Of Our Lives is a first-person account which grew out of Franco’s blog on Russian social network VKontakte. The book captures the complex journey between childhood and adolescence: the heady mix of love and friendship, school and mental health, sexual awakening, alienation from adults, and the search for one’s identity. But there is one more puzzle piece in the protagonist’s life which influences all of these spheres: the secrecy which comes from growing up in a family deemed to be “inappropriate” by the outside world. In many ways, Mikita Franco’s book is about the LGBTQ+ experience in contemporary Russia. But it is also a book about having agency, voice and humanity as a child, a teenager, a LGBTQ+ person, or as someone who struggles with mental health. It is a message of hope that in an often intolerant country with a conservative literary establishment, it’s still possible to tell the stories of the marginalised and the othered in all of their complexity.
Franco is fascinatingly open both in his life and creativity: about his experiences, being a trans man, and advocating for LGBTQ+ issues. He talked to The Calvert Journal about The Days Of Our Lives, the line between autobiography and fiction, and being a LGBTQ+ writer in contemporary Russia. You can also read an extract from The Days Of Our Lives here.
How did The Days Of Our Lives begin?
It started with depression. I had been ill for a few years, and at the time I was trying to find a suitable treatment, but nothing was helping. Then I had the idea to start a blog – to process my personal feelings and problems in a creative form. I didn’t think that it could heal me; it was more that I just had the desire to do it. Like Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky said: “I write because I can’t bear thinking of it anymore”. That’s how it was for me.
I remember my first post from 16 February 2019. It was a post which is now the first chapter in The Days Of Our Lives, titled “How it All Started”. This chapter in the book is exactly the same as how it was originally written; I haven’t changed a thing. The blog still exists, but I rarely write there now. It’s more of a personal diary where I complain about my problems and ask my readers for advice. There are only about 70 of them, mostly people who were there from the beginning. I haven’t accepted any new readers for a while.
Now that you’re looking back at this text as a published book, has your attitude to that writing changed?
The way I look at it hasn’t changed. I loved this text and still love it. It cured me: now I don’t even remember what depression feels like. Maybe the text is clunky, raw or half-baked, but I needed it that way, it saved me that way, and the way I feel about it will never change. I know that eventually I’ll become older, wiser, and will write better, but The Days Of Our Lives has taken me out of such darkness that I don’t care if someone says that there’s something wrong with the text.
It’s often the case with first-person fiction that the audience don’t separate the main character from the author. Would you say you and the novel’s protagonist are alike? To which degree is your writing autobiographical or fictional?
The character comes from me in many ways. The only invented character traits are the unmotivated aggression and wild adolescence, which I didn’t have. I had to explain to myself why my parents were so rude and unfair to me at times, and so I reinvented myself as a bad son. It made me feel better. A lot of events in the book happened to me, but not all of them. I distorted stories in a way that made them easier for me to process. There are chapters in the book from my childhood where all of these complex stories and events finish happily in the end, but my real childhood was honestly a lot more sad. Certain events I made up because I wanted them to happen and they didn’t (for instance, the scene where the main character meets another teenager on the train tracks in the woods is sadly made up).
People often describe you as LGBTQ+ author, which might be a bit constricting. How would you describe your literary interest and aspirations?
I have a lot of interests, but not for every interest. I might be interested in writing something about war, but I haven’t been to war and I don’t know anyone who has. I understand that I can’t handle that topic at the moment, and generally, I try not to get into areas where I am not that knowledgeable. I believe that many things will come with age and experience. At the moment, I can speak about the things which I know: childhood, coming-of-age, youth and everything that intertwined with that. I also think I have sort of hyperempathy for children and it’s easy for me to speak from their point of view. LGBTQ+ issues are part of my experience. They are important for me because I face discriminattion daily; it’s one of the biggest problems I face, and I want to be a part in solving it.
You speak openly about being a trans man. Was it difficult to make the decision to come out publicly?
I have never hidden my face or voice, and I was always worried that there were going to be rumours that I was a woman writing under a male pen name, or that I was somebody “pretending”. And when that did start happening, I made the decision to talk about it openly. Being trans is one, big, endless difficulty which you have to deal with every day, so coming out didn’t add to that. If you are trans, society doesn’t really treat you like a normal person anyway, so who cares if there’s one more trans person or one less?
Tell me a little bit about your future plans and new projects. How are you hoping to evolve as a writer?
I just want to keep evolving. The more I read, watch, learn, and understand about the world, the more ideas I have, and the more inner resources I’ll have to pull off these ideas. I would love to get working on any of those ideas, but I can’t pull off some of them for now. So I’m hoping to pump my intellectual and writing muscles, and that’s all the plans I have for now. The rest will come.