On Identity, Perspective, and Influences: A PEN Ten Interview with Katya Apekina
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s Public Program Manager, Lily Philpott, speaks to Katya Apekina, author of The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, published earlier this year by Two Dollar Radio.
1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
I don’t have one uniform identity, I have a fragmented one. I guess everyone does, but maybe as an immigrant I’ve always been more aware of it. I spoke Russian at home, and English at school—my home-self was one way, my American-self was another. So from a young age, I think the split in identity was pretty clear, and having them exist in different languages made them even clearer.
I think that split self affects the way I tell stories. My novel, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, has multiple first person narrators. I can’t really imagine writing it in an omniscient third person. Whenever I’ve tried an omniscient voice, it comes off as falsely self-assured and smug. Who is this know-it-all narrator?! And I don’t know how to get that type of voice to account for all the contradictions present as I’m trying to describe the truth.
As for my identity as a writer, it became particularly important to me after I had a baby. I felt like I clung to my writer identity even harder because it was at risk of being subsumed, or I felt like there was this expectation that I would suddenly become a different person who cares about things that are not very interesting to me. I don’t mean my kid, (my kid is interesting to me!) but like all the domestic stuff around parenthood.
2. In an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” how does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction?
I think truth is in many ways the central subject of my book. I’m looking at emotional truth, and that’s subjective and contradictory. The facts might be the facts, but how does one interpret them? What do they mean? What are the intentions behind the actions? Does it matter? Since the novel is told through multiple first person accounts, you can see the way the various points of view contradict and refract off of each other. I think of truth as being a kaleidoscope, not a brick.
I don’t know if that really answers the question though, since “alternative facts” are just lies used specifically to manipulate people. I guess it’s possible that the people furnishing these lies believe them. Who knows. Some people believe whatever is convenient for them to believe. I guess my novel looks at this idea as well.
“I’m looking at emotional truth, and that’s subjective and contradictory. The facts might be the facts, but how does one interpret them?”
3. Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?
Well, I’m not sure. I’m a fiction writer, and I don’t write autobiographical fiction. I don’t base characters on specific people that I know. I might take anecdotes or details people have told me as raw material, but I sort of pulverize them and use them to my own ends.
But even though the characters and the events are completely invented—the emotional truth in the book is autobiographical. I have felt all the things my characters have felt, though the sources of those feelings have been different. I think maybe that if I didn’t feel deeply what my characters felt alongside them, but imitated what other people have described feeling, that would be appropriation?
4. “Resistance” is a long-employed term that has come to mean anything from resisting tyranny, to resisting societal norms, to resisting negative urges and bad habits, and so much more. It there anything you are resisting right now? Is your writing involved in that act of resistance?
I’m resisting . . . oversimplification, disengagement, disinterest, apathy, despair, the Bottomless Hunger that devours everything.
5. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
I guess it depends where you are. In Russia and other places the threat is overt. But, I think it is terrifying that with this administration the idea of truth itself is being undermined, so you can express yourself but nobody believes you or listens. I don’t feel like my right to free expression has been challenged, but I’m sure there have been times when I’ve censored myself consciously or subconsciously out of an instinct for self-preservation.
6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I think anytime you write something that feels true it can be uncomfortable but also exhilarating. My novel required me to go deep within myself, and get into some very dark and uncomfortable places.
7. Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?
I don’t usually publish nonfiction, but I think if I did, I’d want to take it all back. I’m fairly private.
8. Post, stalk, or shun: What is your relationship to social media as a writer?
I am on it pretty minimally. I don’t love how it makes me feel. I’m an introvert, and it feels like an extrovert’s game. I see the benefits, and it’s cool to feel like you have a way to connect with other writers and readers, and it’s useful for following the news or seeing pictures of friends’ kids, but it takes up a lot of my time and attention if I let it and leaves me feeling kind of gross.
9. Can you tell us about a piece of writing that has influenced you that readers might not know about?
Growing up I read a ton of Russian lit. One book I loved was The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov—the matter of fact way that magical elements are treated, the way the disparate story lines are woven together, the way tragedy and humor are mixed up. I haven’t re-read it in a long time, so I don’t know how I would feel about it now, but I read it so many times when I was younger and I’m sure it influenced me in all sorts of ways.
10. In Publishers Weekly, you mention reading multiple oral histories like Jean Stein’s Edie while researching your debut novel The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish. Jean Stein strongly believed in the importance of oral history, and we’re honored to work with her family to confer the PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History each year. Can you provide some more information on how your research into oral history informed the craft and content of your novel?
Jean Stein’s Edie is brilliant. I loved what it does with negative space, with the things left unsaid around people’s accounts. And it’s so prismatic, the way everybody’s stories refract off of each other. As I was reading it, I loved the way my sense of “truth” kept shifting. That slipperiness really inspired my book. My novel is told through multiple first person accounts. It’s not quite an oral history format because one of the characters tells her story in present tense, and the rest are reflecting on past events. I wasn’t trying to write a fake oral history, or have the book be a fake document that was being compiled for some specific purpose; I’ve seen that done before, and it just wasn’t what I was interested in doing. I took the things from oral histories that fascinated me—the way that everyone sees themselves as the hero of their story, the way people can justify almost any actions to themselves with little view towards how it will affect those around them, the things people don’t say or don’t notice that you feel pulsing in the silences.