Yelena Moskovich is a Ukrainian-born, American and French artist and writer, author of Virtuoso (Serpent’s Tail, 2019) hailed by the Guardian as “arrestingly self-assured…hard to resist” and her debut novel The Natashas (Serpent’s Tail, 2016) acclaimed by the Financial Times as ‘brave, original prose [that] radiates with heat’, and named a book of the year by the Irish Times, Telegraph and Guardian.
The French translation of The Natashas (Les Natasha, éd. Viviane Hamy, 2017) was applauded in Le Monde as “a novel of tact and image” and praised by François Busnel of the TV show La Grande Librairie (France 5) as “a sulphurous and enigmatic novel, fascinating and astounding”. Les Natasha was also named as one of the top ten books of 2017 by Elle Magazine France.
In 2019, the Times Literary Supplement declared that “Moskovich’s books are unlike anyone else’s…an unusual read and tantalizing specimen of her talent.”
Born in the former USSR, Moskovich emigrated to the American midwest with her family as Jewish refugees in 1991. After graduating with a degree in playwriting from Emerson College, Boston, she moved to Paris to pursue movement and performance at the Lecoq School of Physical Theatre, and later its theoretical lens with a Masters in Art, Philosophy and Aesthetics at Université Paris 8.
Her plays and performances have been produced in the US, Vancouver, Paris, and Stockholm. Her work as a visual artist has been exhibited at the 2018 Queer Biennial of Los Angeles, where she has also served as a curator. She has also written for Mixte Magazine, Paris Review, New Statesman, 3:AM Magazine, and the Happy Reader.
You were born in the former USSR and emigrated to Wisconsin with your family as Jewish refugees. How has this affected your writing and your view on life?
Anyone who has immigrated, especially under stressful or traumatic circumstances, has a sort of unshed tear set within their eye, that same eye that looks out into the new world. I was very young when I left, seven years old. At first, we were supposed to move to Israel; then by a miracle, we obtained permission to go to the US. Almost a year passed as we waited for all our proper exit papers. All nerves, we took a train to Moscow and from there flew across the world – a world I didn’t even understand existed, as I had assumed that the whole globe is just the Soviet Union that stretches around. The farthest I had traveled before was to the Black Sea coast of southern Ukraine in the summertime. I didn’t understand what it meant to be leaving, that we would never come back. My parents were so nervous that something would go wrong, that we would be denied exit or entry at some point. I had to listen, to be quiet, to go to the bathroom when it was bathroom time, to step aside, to behave in front of border control, to be a good girl at customs, but not too good, that would be suspicious, and I was so afraid to mess something up for us, whatever it was that was happening, that was so important, so I disappeared into my terror and awe for all these deadly rules.
Only in recent years, as an adult and new-citizen of my own country of choosing, France, was I able to start integrating this experience into my sense of self and the expression of that self.
One critic in the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote of my second novel Virtuoso that “Nabokov’s “untranslatable” toska is present…a profound existential longing, a response to something missing. For the children of communism, the loss of a homeland is an ever-present reality. There is no going back…but they still carry with them a kind of void.”
It’s true that toska is present as both subject and atmosphere of my writing. But it’s not limited to melancholia or the burden of homesickness for a home that doesn’t exist. There is also a lot of vigor and humor and transgression present; the tragicomedy of culture-clash, misunderstanding, delayed meaning, the playfulness with narrative and point-of-view, the dexterity of languages (other languages and vernacular and slang…). Those skinless feelings of loss find a sort of theatricality and music, a lingual, spatial, and sensual joy.
How did you pick the title “Virtuoso” for your new book?
The title itself actually came to me in a dream. A friend of mine had told me about this technique she was using to remember her dreams: you leave a piece of paper by your bedside, and if you wake up in the middle of the night from a dream you want to remember, but you don’t have the energy to get up and write it down, you just take the piece of paper, crumple it and throw it on the floor. When you wake up in the morning and set eyes on the crumpled piece of paper, your dream should come back to you.
I was inspired by her method, so I was leaving sheets of blank paper by my bedside, waiting for an opportunity to test it, but as life would have it, I slept deeply and distant from my dreams. Then when I had let go of the experiment, I woke up in the middle of the night from a dream. There was the pile of unused blank pages. I took one, crumpled it, threw it on the ground. When I woke up the next day, and my foot stepped upon this paper wad, one word came back to me, “virtuoso”- but nothing else.
My second novel had a completely different title at the time, but that day I was researching medical exports from the Czech Republic to France (to situate my interpreter character, Jana, who I wanted to specialize in medical translations), and stumbled upon a medical bed supply company named Linet, one of the biggest Czech medical exports. I clicked on their newest brochure, and there it was, stark and center, their newest critical care mattress system for patients on the verge of death- it was named…The Virtuoso Bed!
Sign-driven by nature, I decided there and then to name this novel, Virtuoso. Only later, as I continued to work on it, did I discovered how impeccably suited this title was for the work. I’ll let you discover for yourself in what way.
You have studied theatre at Emerson College, Boston, and in France at the Lecoq School of Physical Theatre and Université Paris 8. What are your favorite plays, and how has theatre influenced your work as an author?
In my early years, a squirmy aspiring avant-gardiste, I found my companionship with the absurdist and existentialists (Edward Albee, Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre) and I’ve always loved the melodramatic structure (of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams). This was based on what I could find at the local library or second-hand bookstore (not too many women or playwrights of color on those shelves).
Then, as I gained more awareness of myself and more access to other writers, I discovered Caryl Churchill (Cloud Nine, Top Girls), Paula Vogel (The Mineola Twins), and Suzan Lori Parks (Topdog / Underdog), Sarah Kane, the French Nathalie Sarraute and Marie NDiaye, the Norwegian Jon Fosse, the German Roland Schimmelfennig (Arabian Night), the Ivorian Koffi Kwahulé…
After going to the Lecoq school of physical theatre, my interest was pulled towards collaborative, spatial, almost architectural theatre, wherein the composition of the play was not achieved through a plot-based dramatic structure, but rather through patterns and movement dynamics. Pina Bausch and Tadeusz Kantor were my quintessential inspirations for this period.
In your book, you describe the world from a feminist, strong, and unique point of view. What do you think are some misconceptions people have about women? How do you view women?
There is a way that women behave, a way they must behave to be accepted as functioning members of the patriarchal society, which is very misleading to the complexity of their internal landscape. Therein the misogynist myth of woman’s nature as nonsensical or “mysterious” (with that discrediting tone). But there is an intricate struggle within the voice, gestures, and posture of many women, between what is sanctioned and what is condemned. For me, it’s how to get into that frequency that is navigating identity within familial, societal, or ideological approbations.
I find it most freeing to speak of this when I disrupt the dominant storytelling structure. By that I mean, to eschew linear or hierarchal narrative that is often action-based, and to reveal the way a story can move towards the reader not by what the characters do, but by the states of awareness within which they are shifting, shaping, growing. Not only do the characters have an identity, but place has an identity, streets, lamps, a hairbrush, a passing dog, the coming night. There is fusion, and there is friction. This is why my work is often fragmented, piecing itself together as it goes, changing points of view, time, location, consciousness (waking life vs. dreams)…etc.
There is a lot of compassion in a de-centralized story, a lot of space for contradictions, for the unresolved, the ambiguous, the incongruent… This is where a new way of seeing ourselves can materialize.
How does “Virtuoso” differ from your debut novel “The Natashas.” What do they have in common?
The main difference is proximity. Virtuoso is very enveloping, intimate; the story is unfolding around the reader (multiple first-person perspectives). Whereas The Natashas is all in third-person, it has more of a birds-eye view, and it’s also a lot smokier, you can put your hand right through it. Although both share many themes like identity, queer sexuality, sense of solitude, transgression, multi-dimensional synchronicity — The Natashas is very focused on the individual, whereas Virtuoso speaks of relationships within those themes.
Do you have a favorite character in your book? Someone you relate to? If so, why?
Zorka, hands down.
She’s unruly, outspoken, impulsive, wild. Everything I was not outwardly growing up, but I would have loved to be, even for a day – so it was just incredibly freeing to relive a childhood as her in a sense, to let that rebel out of me.