A Queer Poet’s Bittersweet Trip Across Russia to Return Home

WOUND, by Oksana Vasyakina. Translated by Elina Alter.

“Wound,” Oksana Vasyakina’s debut novel, recounts a road trip that is both an elegy to the dead and a homecoming. Its heroine, who like the author is a prizewinning Russian poet and L.G.B.T.Q. activist named Oksana Vasyakina, has watched over the death of her mother, Angella, from breast cancer. Now Oksana is transporting her mother’s ashes 3,000 miles from a steppe town in western Russia to Ust-Ilimsk, the industrial city in the Siberian taiga that was their hometown.

“I thought trumpets would sound above me as I went,” Vasyakina writes. “I imagined myself as Charon, as Persephone, as a funeral crier. I was traveling to hell.”

Certainly, the family history “Wound” revisits is hellish, a trail of “poverty, environmental issues, alcohol and poor patterns of behavior.” The family matriarchs are tough, resourceful women each brought down by a “mean, drinking, cheating husband” who steals her money and beats her to a pulp. Oksana’s own father was a philanderer who was addicted to heroin and died of AIDS. The only decent-sounding male — Oksana’s great-grandmother’s lover — was shot as a counterrevolutionary in Stalin’s Great Terror. “We’re all cursed along the female line,” Oksana’s cousin Valya concludes, a curse that she suspects Oksana is trying to dodge by being a lesbian — “meaning that I’m not a woman but a sort of half-man, or half-woman, or half-child.”

What constitutes a woman is a question central to Vasyakina’s novel. Angella, in her daughter’s estimation, was “a real woman. A woman squared.” A “woman-woman,” according to Oksana, is someone who “even as she waits for a doctor while she is on the brink of death, asks for help putting on her three-kilo prosthetic silicone breast, so that the doctor won’t see that she isn’t whole.”

“A woman-woman,” we learn, is also someone who is too focused on men, whether abusive husbands or passing lovers, to mother her own child — a pattern of intergenerational neglect that produces daughters haunted by abandonment, loss, self-hatred. The wound of Angella’s amputated breast thus echoes the metaphorical wound of Oksana’s own “wild unrequited love” for a mother who refuses to acknowledge her: a callousness revealed in darkly comic touches such as Angella’s sending her daughter off to sailing camp wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a still from the movie “Titanic.”

A road trip, especially in literature, is rarely linear. “Wound,” its author explains, is constructed like a “stone cast into the water,” rippling into “rings of little stories.” These “rings” include the characters Oksana meets on her journey — the man who gives her a ride to the crematory and boasts that “our Russian kids can handle a machine gun in diapers,” unlike those Western pansies “prancing around in sparkly underwear.” They include an account of Oksana’s own sexual unfolding, culminating in her redemptive marriage to a woman named Alina, whose “warm wide gaze … gathers me into itself as though I were a tiny insect and her gaze were a drop of oozing warm honey.” And they include the author’s “Ode to Death” and her essayistic reflections on female weavers (like Homer’s Penelope and Ovid’s Philomela) and the spider-mother who appears in Louise Bourgeois’s art.

When Vasyakina’s raw, hypnotic book ends — with an unexpectedly merry wake in a Siberian banquet hall and a final address to Angella that creates a new language out of their shared pain — Oksana understands at last that the wound at the heart of her writerly practice “will begin to close on its own, and I’ll hear the crackling of flesh coming together.”

Fernanda Eberstadt’s book, “Bite Your Friends: Stories of the Body Militant,” will be published next spring.

WOUND | By Oksana Vasyakina | Translated by Elina Alter | 229 pp. | Catapult | $27

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