All Russians Love Birch Trees marks the English debut of a remarkably talented young writer and an important international voice, Olga Grjasnowa.
Grjasnowa was born in 1984 in Baku, Azerbaijan (formerly part of the USSR and currently bordered by Iran, Armenia, Russia, and the Caspian Sea). She now lives in Berlin, Germany, and is fluent in many languages—just like Masha, the main character of her book.
Grjasnowa writes in strong and declarative yet flippant sentences that tend to undermine the importance of the serious topics she tackles; All Russians Love Birch Trees revolves around the themes of trauma, genocide, religion, racism, xenophobia, anger, communication, the immigrant experience, and how all these are intrinsically tied together.
Over the course of a week in December, I had an epistolary conversation with Grjasnowa about the challenging ideas behind her first novel, and the cool irony with which she writes about them.
Tweed’s: What is the idea behind the book’s title? It has a great ring to it—especially in the English “All Russians Love Birch Trees,” rather than the direct German translation of “The Russian is One Who Loves Birch Trees,” which sounds clumsy. But I’m not sure how the title relates to your book, because it isn’t about Russians.
Olga Grjasnowa: The title was ironic. On the surface it has nothing to do with the book, since neither Russians nor birch trees are mentioned. But, then again, cliché ”winks” from the very title of the book, with the nostalgic Western stereotype of the “Russian soul.” In German the statement has a very hard connotation, a racist statement like “A Russian/Turk /Arab/whatever is somebody who…” It’s a statement that is never questioned but always made.
Tweed’s: There seems to be a lot of irony in your work. Masha says she didn’t want a genocide to be the key to her personality. But it is. Can you talk about this contradiction that lies at the core of Masha’s personality?
Olga Grjasnowa: You’re absolutely right—the genocide is the core of her psyche and still she tries to hide it, from her boyfriend Elias, her friends, and especially from herself. She doesn’t want to appear as a victim, she wants to appear strong, normal. Still, she suffers from a post traumatic stress disorder—I’ve done a lot research on that subject, read specialist literature, talked to psychiatrists and psychotherapists, and of course to people diagnosed with PTSD.
I was interested in a contradictorily and vivid character, someone who isn’t necessary a hero. But I think in the end this is what makes her human.
Tweed’s: Masha is very angry, sometimes when there’s not really a reason to be. She frequently has urges to punch people—people who flirt with her, people who attempt to befriend her by sympathizing with Israel, people who don’t seem to have bad intentions. Why is she so angry? If it’s due to PTSD, then it makes more sense.
Olga Grjasnowa: Masha’s anger was a tool for me; regarding the German discourse it was important to create a character who is female and an immigrant, though neither weak or particularly “nice.” Besides, for me it was a way more interesting to write about anger. But I’m unsure if I’d say Masha is overreacting, at least not in reaction the declarations of solidarity with Israel.
Tweed’s: What do you mean by “the German discourse”?
Olga Grjasnowa: The German discourse regarding immigration is quite special, full of racism and Islamophobia. Basically, people born and raised in Germany are still regarded as “foreigners,” even if they are German citizens. Of course, there are also two kinds of “foreigners”—the good ones, like French, Asian or Jewish, and the bad ones, Turkish or somehow Arab, for example. A couple of years ago in the media emerged the term “Jewish-Christian virtues,” always connected to Islamophobic outbursts. I ask myself where these “Jewish-Christian virtues” were 1933. It’s not that Germany overcame anti-Semitism either, but as you may have noticed, I hate the expression “Jewish-Christian virtues” from the bottom of my heart, especially as it’s used as an excuse for racism. I’m fascinated by the German obsession with Israel and Jews—but only with the Ashkenazi and not with Jews from the east, the “Ost-Juden”.
Tweed’s: There’s also the juxtaposition of Israel and Germany, and then Israel and Palestine, both of which provides a deep irony and mirroring in the book, with Jews being first the oppressed and then the oppressor.
Olga Grjasnowa: Actually, I never meant to write a book dealing with Israel/Palestine. For me it was always clear that Masha would leave Germany after Elias’s death, but I thought she would go to Russia. This idea didn’t work out during the writing process, and I was ready to quit the project. Around that time I visited my cousin in Israel, and in Israel I saw so many things that were connected to the themes of my books—racism, ethnic minorities, violence, and pogroms. In contrast to Germany, Israel should fulfill this idiotic concept of a homeland. Actually, “homeland” sounds frightful in German. But the marginalization, abuse, and racism are a way stronger in Israel than in Germany. Maybe the whole book is a crusade against the concept of a homeland and a nation. Nothing good ever came from this.
Tweed’s: Speaking of homeland, one of the most powerful lines in the book is when Masha says: “To me, the term homeland always implied pogrom.” Are you saying pogroms are always a result of nationalism?
Olga Grjasnowa: I think that a pogrom—against Jews, Moslems, Christians, or whomever—is always connected to nationalism. One of the most dangerous moments is when a group tries to create a homeland. A homeland must always be protected from others, and so the “others” are created exactly at the same instant as a “homecountry.”
Tweed’s: I’d like to go a bit deeper into what you’ve brought up, saying that the very idea of a “homeland” creates an other, and so inherently creates a situation that could lead to genocide. Do you think that genocide is situational? When describing the Sumgait Massacre, you write: “the hatred was nothing personal.” How do you think people can develop the mentality to murder each other “impersonally”?
Olga Grjasnowa: Unfortunately, I’m not able to answer—this is exactly the topic which has haunted me since a very young age, from the Holocaust memories of my grandmother to the pogroms on Armenians in Baku, and later with the news coverage on the genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. I never managed to get close to an answer. I cannot explain how a human being—a loving parent, a good neighbor—manages to live close to people for his whole life and then is willing to kill them. Maybe genocide is situational, indeed.
I don’t know, I’ve read books, seen documentaries, spoke to people—but I’m so far from understanding. Maybe nobody does. In the worst case, it’s a human feature.
Tweed’s: For much of the book, Masha doesn’t know what she wants, but toward the end of the book, she says, “What I want is running water, electricity, and a place where no one is killed.” Do you think that this wise perspective is the benefit of living through (or studying) genocide and mob violence—that people can finally understand what’s important and stop wanting unimportant things?
Olga Grjasnowa: Well, I guess avarice and lust are human features as well. So, no we won’t stop. But maybe there is still hope—through understanding the structures leading to a genocide and making them visible.
Tweed’s: Something that struck me while reading your book was that its pace is quite slow, without much building of tension, which is odd because Masha’s mentality is pretty high strung. You’d think the pacing of the narration would match her hyper-active mentality, since she’s narrating the story. Did you do this deliberately, to show contrast, or is the slow pace simply your natural writing style?
Olga Grjasnowa: I was trying to develop two different paces of the narration—a slow one for the first two parts, and a faster one for the third and fourth parts. The question is if it works out or not, but I was trying to manage the speed basically through the length of the scenes. It seemed necessary to speed up the pace after Masha went to Israel, due to her mental condition and repeated panic attacks.
Tweed’s: The later parts do have more intensity, especially as Masha’s relationship with Tal develops. Which brings us to my next question, about sexuality and relationships. Masha seems more attracted to her girlfriend Tal than to either of her boyfriends Sami or Elias. People will try to label her a lesbian, or bi-sexual, but I liked how you did not define such categories. Can you talk more about your idea of the role of sexuality in the book and in general?
Olga Grjasnowa: Elias was never Masha’s greatest love—it was rather a relationship that makes one feel comfortable and which is never meant to last more than a couple weeks, until someone realizes that years have passed. The importance of the relationship between Elias and Masha comes only after Elias’s death.
In my opinion there is a correlation between sexuality and nationality—both are more or less absurd instruments for classification.
I’m just finishing my second novel, which is really about sexuality, homophobia, and the body, and in first place about desire. But I needed to write the novel to understand my own point of view, and I’m afraid it was easier to write it than to actually explain my ideas.
Olga Grjasnowa has been selected as one of the six “best up-and-coming German-language authors,” and will be in New York City from February 22nd through March 4th to participate in a series of conversations and readings for the Festival Neue Literatur.