Soviet Jewish Trauma Is at the Heart of This Darkly Comic Novel – Kveller
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Soviet Jewish Trauma Is at the Heart of This Darkly Comic Novel

Katya Apekina tells Kveller about the diasporic parenting, superstitions and historical trauma that inform her new novel "Mother Doll."


The transcript of my conversation with novelist Katya Apekina is a hot mess. We vibed so intensely, talking over and into each other in that classically Jewish way, that my transcription software thought our conversation was an hour-long monologue. Apekina, whose sophomore novel, “Mother Doll,” is out March 12, is a fellow Los Angeles writer and parent whom I look up to as a baby novelist and new mom myself. 

Her novel is — and I don’t say this lightly — a total triumph, and I’m a little pissed I didn’t write it myself. “Mother Doll” is a darkly funny family saga about a pregnant 20-something, Zhenia, living in Los Angeles and her Jewish Russian Revolutionary great-grandmother, Irina, who comes to her through a medium, demanding that her life’s story be heard. It’s the funniest book you will ever read about matrilineal intergenerational trauma, the Soviet orphanage to domestic terrorism pipeline, and unconventional family-making. I was deeply affected by how Apekina captured the ache of living between worlds, and how we pass that ache on to our children, whether we know it or not. And, like my very favorite books, the language is arresting to the point that I can still recall lines I underlined six months ago. 

I spoke with Apekina about mysticism as a container for historical trauma, diasporic parenting, and how to write deeply embodied characters. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Katya, I have so much I want to ask you. Let’s kick off with something light — matrilineal intergenerational trauma! How did that become one of your book’s obsessions?

That is my beat, for sure. When I had my daughter, I started thinking more about how I was one in a chain of people. I think a lot about what I am passing down and what has been passed down to me. Once, I was flying to this art residency in Wyoming on this tiny plane. And I was just, like, freaking out. And then I just realized I’m not actually scared of flying. That’s my mom’s fear, not my fear. And then — poof — the fear was gone. It was instant. 

That’s completely wild. It reminds me of this moment in Sheila Heti’s book, “Motherhood,” where she writes about a girl who cooked chicken by first tying up the legs, because that’s how her mother taught her to do it. But she has no idea why that was an essential step. So, she asked her mom, who said she’d learned to do that from her mother. Eventually, the question made its way to the girl’s great-grandmother, who said she tied up the chicken’s legs because that was the only way it would fit in her pot. 

[Laughs.] Even our traditions that originate from a mistake or a very particular circumstance take on meaning for each generation afterward.

Even if there’s no longer any utility in tying up the chicken legs, it becomes a way of honoring those who came before you. And in that way, it gains utility and becomes kind of an essential step?
Yeah, absolutely. 

There’s something mystical about it. Where did your interest in mysticism come from and how did that become a useful vehicle for writing about family legacies in “Mother Doll?”

There’s a history of strong superstition in the Soviet Union. I don’t know how much of that has to do with how, when your religion is repressed, you lean on other stuff. My grandmother would always be like, “You’re wearing your shirt inside out — that means somebody’s going to beat you up.” 

I still get that one.

I think a lot of superstition comes from when you don’t feel you have much control over your life. Also, I live in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of new age-y stuff that I am both into and skeptical of. As a little kid, I was obsessed with spells and witchcraft and magic. I wanted to write a multigenerational book where there’s a medium — who doesn’t speak Russian — through whom a story (Irina’s) is being told and then translated into English by her great-granddaughter (Zhenia). There’s these layers of remove. That gave me the space to say that if I get some of the facts wrong, it’s not my fault — it’s a bad translation.


Trying to reach back into the past to understand your family trauma is always going to be full of omissions and speculation. I wanted to capture that incompleteness. I don’t know that I believe in ghosts, but I’ve definitely had visitations in my dreams from people who have died and this felt very otherworldly. My grandfather, whom I was close to and grew up in the same house as, died while I was writing this book. I think that when you experience something, and it feels real, you’re not really thinking about it in terms of whether it’s true or not true. It’s so unknowable, that it seems beside the point to interrogate whether the experience was “real.” 

Did your grandfather passing away while you were writing the novel change the book at all?

I think I was always writing towards the book’s particular ending. But I was with him in his last days, during which he was dictating his memoirs to me. The desire to be seen, to have your story heard, to not disappear, was so strong. Those feelings were already in my novel, but the experience with my grandfather informed how I wrote about them. 

You write about the Russian Revolution so vividly that images from “Mother Doll” still pop into my mind — the severed head rolling down the street “like a cabbage.” You use history as a scaffolding to help the reader feel what life would have been like for these characters. I must know what kind of research you did, because I would be so intimidated to write a book like this.

I was intimidated too. I read a ton of diaries, journals, oral histories and books that were written at the time or soon after the revolution, which helped me picture what daily life was like. I also read a bunch of contemporary history books that placed all of this in a larger context, because when you’re so zoomed in, it’s hard to write meaningfully about historical events. 

You capture how people still have very human concerns, even though they’re living through totally revolutionary times. There’s this line that haunts me, when our protagonist Zhenia’s great-grandmother, Irina, is having Shabbat dinner with the aunt and uncle she lives with: “The cook made kugel and we lit the candles and said the prayer and ate it, not acknowledging that half the city was starving and on fire or that their conversations about distant mutual acquaintances were punctuated by the sounds of machine-gun fire and breaking glass.” 

That’s really what it was like — people continued to live their lives while they could amidst the chaos. 

It’s so dark, but it’s also so funny in that classic Soviet Jewish orientation toward the world. Like me, you were born in the former Soviet Union and came here as a child. And now, you have a child of your own. How has your diasporic inheritance affected how you parent?

I came here from Russia when I was 3 with my mom and her parents. I don’t feel like they talked very much to me about life in the Soviet Union. I think it was very painful for them, and they just wanted to move forward with life in the U.S. There’s a big former Soviet community in Boston, where we lived, and I remember how, for college essays, people would write about how hard it was to be an immigrant. I remember thinking that was such a scam and being so dismissive of it. 

But when my daughter was the same age as I was when I left Russia, I started feeling all the things that I must have been suppressing for 30-plus years. Of course, it was traumatic to leave behind your entire life, to come through Italy and Austria to Boston, where you knew nobody. My dad had to immigrate after us, because his parents were pro-Soviet, and he wasn’t given permission to leave. My maternal grandparents refused to join the party and were voted out of their jobs by their own colleagues. My grandfather needed heart surgery and was doing handyman work as his lips turned blue. There was so much uncertainty. 

When I was a kid, I wanted to cheer up the people around me who were weighted down with all of this heavy stuff that was happening. I don’t think I really had the space to feel these things myself or process them until recently. 

I’m sure your family tried to shield you from a lot, too — that they didn’t want you to feel like you had gone through major trauma. 

I felt very protected by them. But in that protection, there wasn’t space to feel some of these heavy things. Then, when I had my daughter, I started to feel all of those things. To remember the struggle of being newly arrived in the U.S., the feeling of being an outsider. I never understood those feelings’ source until I had my daughter and began thinking more about what I’ve inherited, what I’ve passed down to her. 

I’ve had a similar experience of being born outside the U.S. but being raised in America, and having this otherness that’s always there from growing up in a hybrid culture. The way we think doesn’t quite match how our American-born peers think, and that definitely comes up in parenting. Your husband is American-born too, right?

Yeah, he was born in America. He’s a lot less anxious than I am. It’s also hard to parse what is my personality versus what is my cultural upbringing. I think I’m raising a very American and a very LA child. It’s very funny, how her childhood is so different from mine. Like when she was 2, she showed me yoga poses she learned in preschool. She was like, “This is my heart. And these are my core muscles.”


Just the idea of like, a 2-year-old wellness influencer.

Oh my God. Meanwhile, when you were that age in Soviet Russia, you were probably telling your mom, “This is the bread Grandpa waited in line 8 hours for.”

It’s incredible. 

A daycare we toured the other day was like, “Let me tell you about our STEM program.” She’s 6 months old! 


I was in the thick of early parenting when I read “Mother Doll,” and I so related to the way you capture that feeling of wanting to literally consume your baby.

Motherhood is definitely a major theme in my writing, because it’s a big part of my life. And I feel like whenever I read stuff about motherhood, it’s often so negative. It’s definitely very hard, and there isn’t enough support in the U.S. for mothers, for sure. But the early days with my daughter were so joyful — so straightforwardly happy. I don’t see that a lot in books about motherhood. Maybe it’s harder to write joy. There’s something kind of ineffable about it. 

It feels almost gauche to lean into the joy, when for so many people, external factors make the experience of early motherhood totally brutal. 

There’s something a little private about the joy, too. I should add that I got this Elizabeth George Foundation grant right before my daughter was born, which helped me afford childcare. That made early parenting a lot easier to enjoy, as did having a partner who was very engaged in childcare. With my first novel, “The Deeper the Water, the Uglier the Fish,” I felt like I needed to finish it while I was pregnant or else I’d never finish it. And then during my pregnancy, I was vomiting constantly. I did very little writing, and I had horrible brain fog. After giving birth though, I was able to finish the book. It wasn’t the deadline that I thought it was. 

There’s so much stigma placed on asking for help. But it’s become clear to me that the only way to survive early motherhood without giving up your entire self is to lean on other people. It feels like family structures outside the nuclear family are having a moment. Maybe because of how precarious the economic situation has been for millennials or because of a larger cultural shift away from the rigidness of the nuclear family, or some combination of the two. I want to avoid spoilers here, but, can you talk about the surprising family structure that emerges later in the book? 

It definitely takes a community. People are really isolated, and it makes sense that we’re looking for new models of support for raising kids. In the first year of my daughter’s life, I was spending so much time with friends who had babies. That dreamy, joyful time of just being together with our kids definitely informed the ending of the book. There’s also a lot of mirroring of Irina’s life in Zhenia’s life. I read about this three-way relationship that the Russian poet Mayakovsky was in and other unconventional family structures during Soviet times. And I was thinking about how Zhenia has no agency and no connection to her desires, and talking to her great-grandmother through a medium is what allows her to connect to what she really wants — and it’s this not very traditional arrangement that she has in the end.

Zhenia feels stuck throughout much of the book, and one of her fixations is that there is a moment where your life truly begins. Do you believe that too?

It’s something that I have definitely felt, but I don’t think I believe it’s true. I think your life is always happening to you. 

A book I read when I was pregnant talked about the idea that, at some point during labor, you might feel like you can’t possibly do this. But you are literally doing it. It’s happening. 

I was so miserable during my pregnancy that it didn’t even really occur to me to be scared about labor. I think I was just like, well, the baby has to come out. Get her out!

One way or another, that’s how this ends. 

With writing this book too, it felt very much like I was just letting it happen. Doing all this research, sure, but mostly not getting in the way of the story. Not resisting anything. Just letting the book go where it wanted to go.

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