Taisia Kitaiskaia is a Russian-American writer who creates poetry, prose, and more. She is the author of two forthcoming books: Literary Witches (Hachette/ Seal 2017), a collaboration with illustrator Katy Horan, and Ask Baba Yaga (Andrews McMeel 2017), based on her advice column in The Hairpin. Her poetry can be found in literary journals such as Crazyhorse, Guernica, Fence, and many more. Poems from her “Queen Harp” manuscript will be published in the upcoming Translucent Issue of Fairy Tale Review. I interviewed her about the influences of folklore in her work, her portrayals of feminine characters, and various witches.
Baba Yaga is a witch from Slavic folklore and mythology, and you invoke her character in an advice column and your upcoming book, Ask Baba Yaga. What was your first introduction to this mythology? Was there a particular story you remember being told, or one that has become your favorite?
Before my family moved to America, when I was five years old, we lived in a city called Irkutsk by Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. We had a summer house, or dachya—almost everybody in Russia, at the time, had a summer house—edged between the lake and the woods. These were deep woods, very magical and mysterious; one of my earliest memories is of my parents saying I couldn’t go berry picking with them because we might run into bears. I must have heard about Baba Yaga early on, because I knew that she lived in those woods along with the bears. I felt her nearby, creeping around, making concoctions in her hut that moved around on chicken legs. Even when we went back to Irkutsk, she was close. I remember taking a walk with my mother through a city park and seeing Baba Yaga’s face in the hollowed-out part of a tree.
Every story begins with a story that you already know: something that is entrenched in your core despite it seeming completely foreign at first—the moment when you realize that you dislike the bitter taste of almonds; the sight of your own blood as you dab at it with your thumb—the scarlet seeping into the ridges of your fingerprints before you rinse your body of itself clear in the bathroom sink.
At the edge of my bed, a bookshelf filled with hardcovers—texts that I could call “mine” in a way that children claim things; all things received as a gift; the ornate pages, the gold trim that I would scratch at with my fingernails if I hadn’t already bitten them to flatness. The stories, too, were mine: girls and boys and frogs and toads rooted to my stomach, curving their way around the bumps in my spine, as if they had always been there, just beneath the surface, leaving their marks on the inside of my skin.
The games too, were mine, in a different way: whereas the stories of my youth were found within, as if they had been stitched into my core, the games were explosive in their moments—they burst into my world from the exterior, and it was my duty to capture those days sitting on a stained carpet in an upstairs hallway trying to make this other version of myself run fast enough that the boomerang would get lost amongst the rocks.
These too, were stories that I already knew: of awakening in a land where all things are equal and the touch of a fleck of light could kill you where you stood—these stories of danger, or warning, of beware the outside, but push forward toward an unknown end and eat all of the fruit whole.
There was a time when I would have to shut the game off, but I could enter a different world through the pages at the foot of my bed, often scanning the same stories over and over before it was time to put my glasses on the nightstand and let all worlds blur. Some nights, when the room was too warm from the heat of all of the electronics, I could see the images of the parallax scrolling still engrained in the darkness, glowing a warm red, even when all of the lights were out—a constant revisiting, as if I were the vacuum tube casting images against the blackened windows.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, So You Know It’s Me (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011), a series of Craigslist Missed Connections, Leave Luck to Heaven (Uncanny Valley Press, 2014), an ode to 8-bit video games, Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press, 2015), essays on NBA Jam, and i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015), a memoir in the form of a computer virus. He is at work on a memoir about translating his grandfather’s book on long distance running and recent work appears in Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, Passages North, and Another Chicago Magazine.
In 2011, artist Ana Teresa Fernández painted swathes of the Tijuana border wall pale blue. From a distance, these painted sections blended with the sky so well that the wall seemed to disappear: it ceased, for a moment, to be a barricade, a reminder that the Global North is fortifying itself against the Global South. Fernández’s work reminds me of the fairy tales of my childhood, where the edges of forests are boundaries between known and unknown worlds. In those stories, borders function as thresholds.
In Ambos Nogales, where I volunteer at el Comedor, an aid station and soup kitchen for recently deported migrants, the border wall starts outside of town. It’s a rust-colored snake that wriggles across the hill crests before descending into the city itself. It cleaves the broad avenues and beige-brick buildings of sleepy Arizona from the narrow streets and tumble of vendor carts and pharmacies of urban Sonora–cleaves city from suburb, Mexico from the US, “them” from “us.” On Sundays, families picnic along the fence, cousins with Mexican citizenship passing Coca-Cola and condiments to cousins with US citizenship, holding hands instead of embracing. The border here is porous enough for fingers, voices, shared meals; for lives to be lived across and between–but not permeable enough for whole bodies.
I’m a gring@ from north of the line; I live in a country where politicians and public intellectuals fuel fears that legions of people from Mexico and Central America are crossing north to take jobs away from US citizens and to, God forbid, speak Spanish while browsing the supermarket. In his poem “187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border,” Juan Felipe Herrera writes, “CAN’T CROSS because ‘xenophobia’ is a politically correct term.” Secure borders! US conservatives scream, and Xenophobia! the liberals respond–a cloaked word that doesn’t sound quite as bad or honest as racist.
I also live in a country that just elected Donald Trump to the presidency–a man who once said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.” But he’s wrong–those are not most of the people crossing north, and they’re certainly not most of the people I’ve met and talked to: undocumented millennials who grew up in the United States, were deported, and are trying to get back to Chicago, Phoenix, or California; families fleeing gang violence and economic poverty in Honduras and El Salvador; a Oaxacan university student whose visa application was rejected by the Mexican government because he looked “too indigenous,” and came from a family without wealth or social standing.
Herrera’s poem also includes the portentous line, “CAN’T CROSS because brown is the color of the future,” which hints at the dream that someday Mexicans, Central Americans, and other migrants will be able to travel north freely. Herrera and other writers and artists are making a new mythology of the border: Prefiguring what could be and should be, they transform the militarized line into a threshold. “I see a whole generation … wandering around // a continent without a name,” Guillermo Gómez-Peña writes in “Freefalling Towards a Borderless Future,” “Standing on the map of my political desires // I toast to a borderless future // (I raise my wine glass toward the moon).” Queer, Chicana writer Gloria Anzáldua–who grew up in the borderlands of south Texas–considers the northward migrations a “return odyssey to the historical/mythological Aztlán,” the original Southwestern homeland of the Aztecs which, according to Anzaldúa, they “left … in 1168 AD,” bound for the Valley of Mexico. “This land was Mexican once, // was Indian always // and is. // And will be again,” she writes in her poem El otro Mexico.
In October 2015, Ana Teresa Fernández and a group of volunteers painted a 50-foot section of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico the color of the sky. In April 2016, volunteers in the Mexican border cities of Ciudad Juárez, Mexicali, and Agua Prieta did the same. With each brush stroke, they enacted the project’s name, Borrando La Frontera. They offered those on the south side of the wall a vision of what they might someday see looking north–after the steel, barbed wire, and Border Patrol trucks that divide the two countries dissolve, there will be nothing but houses, schools, mountains, mesquite trees, clouds in a hot desert sky.
This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Wren Awry.
If you’re interested in supporting direct humanitarian aid to end migrant deaths and people of color-led pro-immigrant groups in southern Arizona, please consider volunteering with or donating to the following organizations: