The Body Screams Silently or Collapses: a conversation with Maria Tumarkin

A series of borders—imaginary and real—thread their way through Maria Tumarkin’s extraordinary book of essays Axiomatic, a book whose own essays sometimes burst out of their confines and escape into each other. The subject: trauma and its lengthening shadows, how its understood/misunderstood, talked about/never mentioned, how it bleeds into the lives of its victims and into those around them, sometimes for generations. And how, in our conversations around trauma, we’re often asking the wrong questions or failing to understand or hear the answers.

Born in Ukraine, Tumarkin immigrated as a teenager with her family to Melbourne, Australia in 1990. She writes books, essays, reviews, and pieces for performance and radio; she collaborates with sound and visual artists and has had her work carved into dockside tiles. She is the author of four books of ideas, including Traumascapes, Courage, and Otherland. Axiomatic is her latest work. Tumarkin is a recipient of the 2020 Windham Campbell Prize for nonfiction. She holds a PhD in cultural history and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Melbourne.

For this interview, we corresponded via email from behind our respective Covid-complicated borders, Tumarkin in Australia and myself in India and Canada.

Ranbir Sidhu: Let’s talk about borders, which seem central to your work. You grew up in Ukraine and emigrated to Australia as a teenager. Many of the people you write about have crossed borders, sometimes multiple borders. Can you reflect a little on what the idea of the border means to you and your work. Have border crossings in your own life—be they political, geographic, social, etc—affected how you approach your art?

Maria Tumarkin: Well, I just know that most people are multiply positioned and constituted in their lives. I don’t love the word ‘hybridity,’ but I am just aware that people—at least people I am interested in writing about—are constituted by a multitude of histories and experiences and cultures. They are fundamentally heterogenous. Crossing invisible borders is a daily activity for so many of them, of us. Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman talks about his bicultural fate—he uses the word ‘fate’!—as marked by the “incessant and often perverse doubleness.” I am aware of doublenesses and triplenesses in people around me and in myself. But I am also thinking about hard borders of course as I re-read your question, both in relation to what has been called ’the global refugee crisis’ and to the shutting of international borders due to Covid-19. So I am kind of wanting to de-exoticise this idea of crossing borders and at the same time to make it feel newly dangerous because it is that for so many people whether they can—or cannot—cross borders. I would recommend Kapka Cassabova’s book Border if book recommendations are allowed within the framework of this interview :).

Sidhu: You tell a story in Axiomatic about a young man in post-Soviet Russia who finds an old diary in his small town that tells of an atrocity that happened there during Stalin’s purges. As he researches it, he discovers that the perpetrator might be his grandfather, only to learn later his grandfather is innocent of these particular crimes but is in fact guilty of far more terrible atrocities. You write of the psychological shock the young man suffers, “Be afraid of its opposite—of the absence of shocks.” Do you find value in certain kinds of trauma?

Tumarkin: I absolutely don’t want to suggest that trauma is some kind of a precondition of a developed consciousness of the world. I wish suffering on no one and I do not believe in eulogising suffering’s affects or uses. What I am saying is much more specifically about one’s interaction with history. If you have created a society in which you have ’neutralised’ history, in which the past produces no jolts or shocks or moments of rude awakening, you have created something dangerous. The past needs to tear the fabric of the present from time to time, leaving holes in it that cannot be mended. I guess that’s the point I am making. Thank you for noticing this moment in the book which is dear to my heart. I attempt to describe this moment of ambush and this feeling of not being able to protect yourself from your country’s and your family’s history. I find value in those things.

If you have created a society in which you have ’neutralised’ history, in which the past produces no jolts or shocks or moments of rude awakening, you have created something dangerous.

Sidhu: At times you seem to suggest that trauma can give the sufferer a particular clarity of thought. I’m thinking about the grandmother who snatched her grandson from an abusive stepfather and hid him in a secret room. During her trial, she fails to defend herself because she sees through a system that seems engineered to fail her grandson. Her silence isn’t about repression, it’s far more chilling, far more poignant than that.

Tumarkin: It’s very childish to have favourite moments in your book of nonfiction, let alone declare them, but this moment in the courtroom you allude to is one of my favourites in the book. So this woman was convicted in Australia for quote-unquote kidnapping her grandson. The woman’s only son died in a motorcycle accident. The mother of his two sons started living with a violent man. The grandmother had a strong bond with Grandson no. 1 who was in his early teens and who had spent most of his life with his grandparents before going back to live with his mother; that connection was not there with Grandson no. 2 who was younger and always stayed with his mother. I am leaving lots of details out, trying to get to that one moment really. When grandson no. 1 asked for help and protection, the grandmother threw her arms around him. The mother, also abused, was covering up for the man. Both the Department of Human Services and Family Court were useless. The grandmother, assisted by the boy’s grandfather, hid her grandson well, lied to the police well—no, officer, we have no idea where he is. Straight to the face of whoever. However many times. Police couldn’t find the boy for four months. 

When the boy was found, his grandmother was sentenced to fifteen months’ jail and had to serve a minimum five. The violent man, who had spent more than a decade inside Pentridge Melbourne’s maximum-security prison, armed burglaries and the like to his name, was rendered invisible in the criminal process (not being a lawyer or a legal scholar I cannot comment on this invisibility, except to say that I am enraged, possibly inappropriately, by it). The violent man’s name and his history were not mentioned in a single newspaper article. Court psychologist said the grandmother was still grieving the loss of her only son (read between the lines: she was acting irrationally and eventually unlawfully as a result of this protracted grief), the sentencing judge described what the grandparents did as ‘outrageous, manipulative, extensive, elaborate, sophisticated.’ As I said, she hid him well. The grandmother was called a ‘mastermind.’ Her jailing though is the least of our worries here. She told me she had an interesting time in jail, observing how people conceptualise freedom when at least one form of it is taken from them. How they think and dream on the inside. She had art materials and could paint. Yes, she is an artist. The grandson was sent back to his mother’s home to continue being abused—that’s the kick in the guts. His contact with his grandparents was, from now, on to be banned.

So this moment you evoke. I am going to quote from my book if you forgive me, just one paragraph:

“‘In media reports,’ she will say to me years later, ‘you might have noticed them talking about me not saying anything, not showing any emotions. If they had asked me why I said nothing – nobody asked me, but if they did – I would have said I had nobody to talk to. And when people say to me why didn’t you bring this or that up I say there was no one to bring it up to. When I was in the courtroom, what can I tell you . . . I felt above it. Above it all. I talked to myself. I looked at the judge and thought you little piglet. I had nothing to say.’”

The grandmother’s refusal to see the judge—she looked, she says, and saw nothing and no one—one journalist present in the courtroom described her as stone-faced—that’s how we might imagine the confrontation between the machinery of justice and a person this machinery is about to run over, only in reverse. Usually, the system looks and doesn’t see. Usually, the system says, sorry but there is nobody to talk to. This time the logic of the refusal is enacted by the powerless. She is physically tiny, the grandmother.

I was kind of floored by meeting her, by our conversations. I expected the supernatural strength – I met and spent time with other Holocaust survivors—but I didn’t expect contempt. I expected anguish, outrage, hope, hopelessness, resurgent memories of foundational traumas standing tall as mountains (no way around them, the only way is through them), but I didn’t expect the refusal to participate in a legal process, the comprehensive withdrawal of emotions. The affective blankness, the inscrutability – not something we associate with mis-apprehended innocence in quiet Australian courtrooms. Sure, disassociation is a state directly linked to trauma, but we—or at least I, let’s stop with ‘we’ and start with ‘I’—I always wait for an affective spill of some kind when justice fails.

In a sentencing hearing, the one about-to-be-wrongfully convicted might be denied an opportunity for unbroken speech, for legible protest, but doesn’t innocence ooze out, bleed out, is this not the case that at least in some sense it cannot be contained? The body screams silently or collapses, the face breaks open, there is an affective upheaval, a surge, you can see it, sense it (provided you have a heartbeat). Not with her. For her everything is at stake. She was born Jewish in 1943 in Poland, she and her mother are the only ones out of their family to make it through the war. To fail to protect her grandson is a catastrophe. The worst thing that could have happened to her that had not happened yet. In the courtroom she says nothing. You little piglet, she thinks.

I wanted my readers to meet this kind of silence. The grandmother is not intimidated or bullied into saying nothing, not traumatised into numbness. She refuses to recognise the authority and credibility of the institution that has no interest in her grandson’s safety.

The past needs to tear the fabric of the present from time to time, leaving holes in it that cannot be mended.

Sidhu: I’ve been thinking a lot about the title and asking myself what is it that’s axiomatic here. The closest I’ve to come to is this: the absolute unknowability of the experience of another’s trauma, that however much it is described, written about, shared, the core experience of trauma is one that is totally personal, and singularly unshareable.

Tumarkin: The title is kind of ironic and also not. My starting point is five commoner-than-mud aphorisms: ‘Time Heals All Wounds,’ ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It,’ ‘History Repeats Itself,’ ‘Give Me a Child Before the Age of Seven…,’ ‘You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice.’ In this book I am not: a debunker, an apologist, a historian, a social commentator. I take the aphorisms as deep statements about our world and our times (they are also the crustiest of clichés, part of our culture’s furniture). So I am not saying anything is necessarily axiomatic, I am using axioms as a way of structuring this book, like five little hills in a landscape around which I am walking or five rocks on the ground that I am sitting on, circling around, putting my bag on, twisting my ankle on etc.

Sidhu: I recently read Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses, a book of interviews with adults who were children during World War Two in the Soviet Union. It’s perhaps the single most harrowing book I’ve ever read, and feel there’s a me as a person before I read that book and a me after I read that book. What’s central to that book, and as we discussed above in your work also, is the chasm between the experience of trauma and how its talked about and described. When the experience of trauma is fundamentally unknowable, where do you feel the value lies in writing about it, examining it, sharing it?

Tumarkin: Hard agree, as young people say these days:). Alexievich’s work does it to me—I am a different person after finishing most of her books. That’s what I think literature at its most powerful can do. Zadie Smith says it brilliantly: “Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry—we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it.” You want your interface to be messed with, you want your beliefs in the universality of your experiences to be shaken up when you read. I teach Alexievich and sometimes students talk about how they couldn’t stop reading her and go check on the cupcakes in the oven, because it felt like some kind of an abdication of their responsibility to the people in her book. They let the cupcakes burn. To answer your question—to write about trauma doesn’t have to be about wanting to know trauma, in a sense of wanting to capture it, nail it, distill (all such violent verbs), lay it bare, explain it away. It could be about wielding language to move towards the ineffable, in Toni Morrison’s words. In her incomparable Nobel Prize speech, Morrison speaks of how a dead language is an official language is a policing language is an oppressive language is a knowledge-limiting language is an exclusionary language and it has “no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance.” There is a big difference about the dead and alive language in the way they approach the question of trauma. The alive language can stay with the fundamental unknowability of trauma without diluting or distorting it and can be a witness, a chronicler, a poet of the painful and the ineffable. Svetlana Alexievich says about the aftermath of Chernobyl, “there was nothing in the human past that enabled us to deal with this situation.” This is why she wrote her book on it, to put in that language something for which nothing had prepared us.

Sidhu: Even with all that’s going on in the world these days, so much of mass culture and social media blasts us endlessly with positive messages and upbeat scenarios. The human need for melancholy, for sadness, is hardly ever acknowledged.  

Tumarkin: Positivity! When people use words like ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’ as in X is a very positive person, I feel like we’re having the dumbest conversation ever. Any human being, as you say, has a whole spectrum of emotional states and needs and modes. Sadness is not a problem that needs to be fixed, it’s a necessary way of being and responding to the world and one’s inner processes. So is melancholia. And of course, our need and capacity for mourning.

I mean a lot has changed in the last two decades. For instance, grief is now recognised as a persistent and significant part of public life, public sites and public conversations. So much is in the process of being actively reimagined around grief – our ideas of what grief might look like in the immediate aftermath and long-term, how it may be expressed, what sites it may seek to inhabit, what communities and publics it may create and so forth. Most crucially, these ideas are no longer formed by the experts, but are negotiated and reimagined publicly. This is huge. And we have an increasingly thriving subgenre of grief memoirs with its remit to lay bare much that is uncontained and unscripted about human responses to loss and to demedicalise the language of grieving. We are witnessing a new emphasis on the right to grieve as part of political processes of peace-building, reconciliation and political settlement. Online, we have an explosion of memorial and bereavement sites, which seek to create and sustain virtual communities of mourners. Offline, spontaneously erected temporary memorials appear virtually without fail in the wake of tragedies of many kinds.

The world is changing and yet my middle son has positive education as a compulsory subject in his progressive high school. What?!!!

Sidhu: Being born and brought up in Ukraine, do you think of yourself as an outsider in Australia? Or is it more mixed—part insider, part outsider? So much of your work feels rooted in Australia, but also rooted in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. How do you feel being on the edges of those very different worlds informs your work as an artist?

Tumarkin: My family came to Melbourne in 1990, having immigrated from the former Soviet Union at the end of 1989 a month after the Berlin Wall came down. We were part of a massive wave of immigration of the Soviet Jews: an exodus that changed not only us, but the country we left behind – the country that, of course, has long since stopped existing. When I say exodus, I am not being even remotely poetic: they were more good-byes in those few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when we left, than in the entire preceding post-war period. Because as we were leaving, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed inconceivable to us even though it was only – in historic terms – a breath away, we thought that this was IT, that we were saying our good-byes for good. 

I remember looking at people in Melbourne – people who were not immigrants, people who were at home, people who didn’t think twice about being at home so utterly natural it was to them – I looked at them as you would look at a different species: neither with particular envy nor with anger, but with intense, anthropological interest. What did it feel like for them? What did it mean to be at home? If I could have looked at them under the magnifying glass, I would have.

About Ranbir Sidhu

Ranbir Sidhu’s books include Deep Singh Blue, Good Indian Girls and Object Lessons (in 12 Sides w/Afterglow). A winner of the Pushcart Prize, his work appears in Conjunctions, The Georgia Review, Fence, Zyzzyva, The Missouri Review, The Happy Hypocrite, The Literary Review, Vice and Salon. He lives in Athens, Greece. Follow him on twitter: @ssranbir

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