In conversation with Maria Tumarkin, 2019
Sometimes we have an experience and while we’re having it, we realise it will be something to cherish for a long time. In this case, my conversation with Maria Tumarkin was something I didn’t want to publish immediately, because I wanted to keep the memory –– the sheer pleasure of the experience –– to myself for a little longer. Kurt Vonnegut said “practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” Vonnegut also stressed the importance of not only creating art, but putting it away somewhere and not telling anyone about it. The pleasure is found in the secret, silent satisfaction. The feeding of the soul. And so felt my conversation with Maria. Maria Tumarkin is a writer, academic, and cultural historian. She is the author of Traumascapes, Courage, Otherland, and Axiomatic, for which she won the Best Writing Award at the Melbourne Prize for Literature 2018. Axiomatic has recently been published in the US (Transit Books) and in the UK (Fitzcarraldo Editions). Publisher’s Weekly called it a “remarkable tour de force”, while Helen Garner said “Nobody can write like Maria Tumarkin.” We meet at a quiet cafe in Elsternwick, and Maria arrives with her newborn baby, Nico, whose eyes are so blue it’s hard to believe they’re real. We sit in the courtyard, which we have to ourselves. I warn her about the olive tree above us, because a few minutes earlier, an olive fell onto the table, narrowly missing my head. I don’t want an olive falling onto little Nico. She holds him in her lap, we order coffee, and I kick things off with what literature means to her today. Only Maria could give an answer so multifaceted. “I was listening to one of my favourite Russian writers, she is translated into English, and her name is Lyudmila Ulitskaya, and she is in her seventies, an incredible writer, and she was talking about how she grew up in the Soviet Union, where each book was an event, because good books were not freely available or in fact permitted. “Often you would get books through special connections and through building relationships and trust, you would get one photocopy of one book for one night. And the exhilaration that that produces is amazing. You have to read it, because this is an extraordinary event. “She was talking about how she saw people who would sell books in a black market type way. And she saw a woman with Nabokov’s Gift and the woman said, ‘I’m not selling it’, and Ulitskaya, who was in her early twenties, she took off her ring which had a little bit of a diamond on it, and gave it to the woman, and the woman realised that she would never get a better purchasing price for the book. So these sorts of transactions would take place. “And Ulitskaya said, ‘Of course, books are worth all of the rings.’ And perhaps I’m lamenting that books are no longer like that. You cannot find a way to feel that sense of possessing a book as the most important thing for you as a young person at this point in your life. We have to find a way to feel that exhilaration, elation, the world-kind-of-stopping because of a book. And how to get there? I don’t know, but sometimes I feel that. But that, to me, is a horizon.” At that point, Nico drops his dummy and I pick it up. “You know what they say,” Maria begins, “The first time you have a baby, you boil the dummy, with the second baby, you do this,” She wipes the dummy on her top and gives it a lick. “The third time you just say to the baby, ‘You eat whatever you want, the only restriction is cat food’, and with the fourth baby, if it eats the cat’s food, that’s the cat’s problem.” I burst out laughing, and we both make cooing noises while Nico giggles and squirms. “I guess, to me, it’s because I come from a place where I caught the tail end of that history, where books are these extraordinary things, I know how it feels. And I understand a diamond ring being exchanged for a book, I understand that much,” she says. Nico continues giggling and smiling, and I tell him, in a higher-pitched voice that he’s so entertaining. Maria responds, in an even higher pitch, “Oh thank you very much! Very kind!” The literary horizon is always visible for voracious readers, just like the edge of the earth from the seashore. “It’s in my bones, I know it’s no longer possible and yet I look for it. And it means something. Literature can stop time, to me. As a writer, as a teacher, that’s the horizon. You get there like once in your lifetime for two seconds and you don’t even realise you were there.” I tell Maria about a podcast that I recently listened to. An editor mentioned something along the lines of only one book reaching the literary canon every ten years, and claimed that editors and readers shouldn’t really work with the expectation that every book is canon-worthy. I ask Maria if she remembers the last thing that took her to that horizon. “I suppose with my studies of Svetlana Alexievich, and before the Nobel Prize, I think she totally made not only time stop, but she made my heart stop. If you’re able to get somewhere with people, and I’m primarily interested in nonfiction, and interested in where it can go, while remaining absolutely faithful to facts and transparency. “I feel like she made me, as a writer, discover what’s possible when you talk to people and where you can get in a conversation as opposed to an interview. She showed me what it is to truly love the people you talk to, and to talk about trauma in a way that you see people not as trauma victims.” Nico starts yelling and Maria interrupts him. “What is going on? Is this a protest?” I agree with Maria in regards to the beauty of the interview. In them, we are given permission to ask the things we normally wouldn’t be allowed to ask. Is the interview the mirror that shows us our blind spots? “I respect so much what you’re doing, because I think, increasingly, people are not talking to other people.” Of course people are talking to other people – but they’re not really talking. They’re filling up time and covering their arses. “When I came, it wasn’t to do with technology. I came here in 1990. And as a young person, and I think this is the experience that lots of people from ‘elsewhere’ talk about – being made to feel as though I was too intense. As though my temperature was too high. So the level of intensity is too much, there’s always ‘too’ something. “One of the big choices that I had to make is what is the relationship that I’m going to have, with being told all the time, that I’m way too much? Am I going to try and make myself smaller? A little less conspicuous? Am I going to try and hide my intensity, to be chill or whatever? Or am I going to manifest myself in the way that I am? “But back then, I did really have more of an impoverished sense of friendship. Which was to do with people not being too intense. And at the time, friendship was the quintessentially intense experience. And it is about surrendering yourself to another person to some extent. It’s not simple, not polite, not sterile. There is a kind of wildness to friendship. There is the coming together that is occasionally ecstatic, which can happen when you see them and think, this is your person, the one who understands you, which is a big deal when you’re young. But how do you do that when no one is wanting to be intense, about anything? Some friendships feel like barely reheated soup, and they’re never anything more than that. “What I ended up doing was cultivating friendships around me that were actually what I wanted and needed them to be. I wanted a 3am phone call if my friend was in pain, and they wanted that too. I have been writing quite a bit about friendship. In this book, [Axiomatic] my best friend is in it and in Otherland there is a lot about friendship. It’s about a friendship broken by history, and what can it be now? Can it be reassembled? You cannot enter the same river twice, so what sort of river is it post-rupture? It’s a big topic for me. With my kids it’s a big topic for them as well.” Nico starts wailing and Maria asks me to hold him while she removes her jacket in order to breastfeed. I realise I have never held a baby before. I hold Nico close to my body and rest my chin on his shoulder, hearing myself humming for a second or two. I ask if she has any reading recommendations. “At the moment I’m reading Mary Gaitskill. I love her, I think she is such a deep, brave, fascinating writer. And she is so great on sexuality and desire and dirt under our fingernails. And she’s seventy, so it’s amazing that she’s able to write like this. “But I do think that some of the best writers to me are the writers who are women in their sixties and seventies who have nothing to lose, nothing to prove. And they’ve got some kind of freedom where they’re able to write incredible stuff. “In terms of critical work, I recently read Rachel Cusk’s review of Yiyun Lee’s two books. I think the work that Rachel Cusk is doing as both a writer and as a critic is on a sort of a continuum. Her review has so much pain and intellect.” As we part ways, I am struck by how much we discussed in an hour. My time with Maria is a testament to the power of literature, culture, friendship, and conversation. But also, it is a testament to the power of motherhood, of working women, of women, full stop.