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Shishkin's Rejection and Gender Priviledge

This is a guest post from Tanya Paperny, a writer, translator, event planner, and adjunct professor of journalist and composition. Her translations of Andrei Krasnyashykh have recently appeared in The Massachusetts Review and _The Literary Review. You can read more of her writing at Culturally Progressive, her personal blog.

As Chad has already written about, Mikhail Shishkin officially declined an invitation to attend this year’s BookExpo America as part of the official Russian delegation. In his public letter, he wrote:

By taking part in the book fair as part of the official delegation . . . I am simultaneously taking on the obligations of being a representative of a state whose policy I consider ruinous for the country and of an official system I reject.

Now some Russians accuse him of trying to “create a certain image for himself” or of “having no right to say anything” because he has lived in Switzerland since 1995. Of course Masha Gessen was right when she wrote in the New York Times that Shishkin’s critics are just the “old anti-dissident demagogic standbys.” Certainly they are no different from xenophobes in the U.S. who call for immigrants to “go home if you don’t like it here.”

A similar rejection was made around 2003, when poet Kirill Medvedev renounced the copyright to all his previously-published works and stopped publishing (except on his blog), focusing his energies on leftist political actions (read more on the recent English-language translation of his work here). I believe both these men were being genuine. They were not aiming for a publicity stunt but at an honest effort to change the status quo.

But the aspect that seems to be missing from these conversations is one about gender and the priviledge inherent in male writers making these types of rejections.

As Liz Clark Wessel, editor at Argos Books and Circumference, told me: “I don’t doubt the authenticity of their pronouncements; they are just very gendered.”

Were a woman writer to make a similar public statement—rejecting an opportunity or declining to publish—she likely wouldn’t cause such a stir. A woman who made the same choice might be seen as prioritizing the domestic rather than as motivated by a political consciousness. When a woman writer has children, the world assumes she’ll retreat and stop writing, anyway. She doesn’t have the privilege of choice.
Largely this is a product—in Russia as in the United States—of the notion that the big important novels of our time are being written by men. In the U.S., the books that are said to speak to a generation (often titled “The _____”) are written by Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. These are our American literary ‘towering figures.’

It’s no accident that Shishkin has twice recieved the prestigious Большая Книга prize (translates to “The Big Book”), which has been given to 25 men since 2005 and only 6 women (by my count).



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