Translator, author, and Moscow Times columnist Michele Berdy writes about the author Tasha Karlyuka, whose novella Being Frosya Shneerson Michele is translating with support from the RusTrans project. You can read an extract from her translation-in-progress here.
Translating Tasha Karlyuka
Several years ago, the Short Story Project, a web-based program based in Israel, sent me a text to translate by a young writer named Tasha Karlyuka. Born in Kyiv, living in Tel-Aviv and writing in Russian, she works as a chef while writing screenplays and prose. I sat down to read it and instantly fell through time and space into a Soviet communal apartment by the sea, where a troubled teenage girl lives with her larger-than-life grandmother and eats the only thing her grandmother knows how to cook: chicken morning, noon and night.
I instantly fell in love with the writing — the kind of storytelling that carries you along, as if you were listening to your friend sitting across the table in a café or your kitchen, telling you about what it was like growing up. She’s very, very funny as she describes Uncle Isaac cutting up “Mein Kampf” for toilet paper in the shared toilet or the vendetta between her grandmother and a neighbor who can’t forgive her for stealing Lenya Utesov away 56 years ago. Karlyuka has an eye for the absurd in human relations, sympathy for outsiders and misfits, and a gift for seamlessly moving from comedy to the surreal, from the pain of being human to beautifully lyrical observations.
Some of Karlyuka’s characters are émigrés — from the former Soviet Union and Africa — but she doesn’t write about émigré life per se. She writes about being Black in a white country; being a religious Jew with people who are not; being desperate; being in love with everyone but the right person. She often writes about an enormous, dysfunctional, multi-national, multi-racial and multi-confessional family in a way that reminds me a bit of the young Philip Roth — or rather, it would if he’d been a woman with a master’s degree in psychology and walloping great sense of humor.
Karlyuka’s novella Being Frosya Shneerson (Byt’ Frosei Shneerson) is about a little girl — the Frosya of the title — born into this large family. Grandmothers, grandfathers, parents, aunts and a great-grandmother all vie to control Frosya’s upbringing. One wants to turn her into a good observant Jew; another wants to baptize her; her mother, a famous pianist, wants her to be “the female Mozart,” while another grandmother feeds her whole grain oats and nori; an aunt arrives with her new husband, who is Black and a Muslim, and news that she is pregnant. Her father, a tailor, is considered the family failure — but he is the person she loves most deeply, even as he leaves a trail of threads, pins, and fabric scraps wherever he goes. And Frosya? She is the product of this family: strong-willed, wicked and too smart for her own good.
Karlyuka’s Being Frosya Shneerson is shortly to be published in Russian: a Russian-language extract from the novella in Snob magazine can be read on this page.
Read an extract from Michele’s translation of Frosya’s adventures here!