Interview: Sonya Vatomsky


collageSonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist, born in Moscow in 1985. Sonya currently lives in Seattle with their cat, Magpie Underfoot, and a growing collection of taxidermy, wet specimens, and other oddities. Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015) is their full-length debut — a poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival. Sonya’s poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in Entropy, Lodown, The Hairpin, VIDA, The Poetry Foundation, and other publications, and their chapbook My Heart In Aspic is available from Porkbelly Press. They hold a BA in Linguistics with minors in German Linguistics and Finnish from the University of Washington.

Salt is for Curing is a dark and delicious book. Your poetry is teeming with folklore and food, evoking a hunger that simmers in magic. Blood, bones, vegetables, herbs mingle with robbers, wolves, Baba Yaga, Ivan the Fool. There is bread and there are potions. Ripe plums and Koschei the Deathless. You’ve said “There’s not really a divide between folklore and my… sense of self — at least the stories I had told to me as a child, and that’s usually what I’m referencing in poetry.”

Which figure from Russian fairy tales did you most identify with as a child? In whom do you see yourself now? Did you connect more deeply with male or female characters as a child, and has that changed?

The one I felt pulled to was Koschei Bessmertniy, though not in an identifying type of way — more like I wanted to be his lover or flunky or something. I never ever cast myself as a hero, and I can’t decide if that’s because I was a timid child or because I had such a strong sense of ego that I disliked role-playing as someone other than myself. Maybe both. “Male-adjacent” is a good way of describing how I connected with characters, though. I internalized gender roles enough to know I couldn’t be Koschei, but you’d never find me in Baba Yaga’s camp either. I was really intimidated by female characters. Baba Yaga scared the shit out of me, to the point where I didn’t even like her as a folktale figure, whereas Koschei was bae.

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The Body Horror of Tam Lin

by Sonya Vatomsky

A note for readers: this essay mentions sexual violence.

bc0da84b13315d7d46f4457197fb0affIn folklore, the term “transformation chase” refers to the use of shapeshifting as a means of combat or escape. The wizard duel in the animated film The Sword In The Stone, for one, but more traditionally the plot of several Celtic ballads. “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” was included in a book of folktales I had as a child, translated from song to prose. I remember loving it. I remember the way the name “Tam-Lin” felt on my Russian tongue, liquid and strong. For those unfamiliar with the story, it goes like this: a girl comes upon Tam-Lin in the woods of Carterhaugh, where he is being held prisoner by the Queen of Fairies. To rescue him from the Queen and win him as a lover, the girl must hold him fast through countless transformations: a roaring lion, a terrifying snake, the painful scald of flame. To my young sensibilities, this seemed extremely romantic. I appreciated the ritual of endurance; trials and pageantry were a necessity of love stories because some outside force willed it, not because of the lovers themselves. Years later, “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” made me pissed.

Granted, what sounds romantic to a four-year-old-girl can hardly be expected to ring true to a thirty-year-old non binary queer person. All the same, I wanted to slice apart this story with my feminist lance — which is like a feminist lens, but for folktales. The basic premise of “Tam-Lin,” where a woman holds a man as he hurts her, was no longer abstract but a common narrative played out through a million books and films fetishizing a woman’s abnegation and self-sacrifice for the sake of a man’s potential. “Tam-Lin” became our culture’s unfortunate connection between pain and love, equating the latter with a willingness to suffer on behalf of another. “It’s only true if you bruise by the force of it,” as Chris Corner once said. Fuck. What had originally drawn me to such a sexist, heteronormative depiction of devotion? A poem from my poetry collection, Salt Is For Curing, tried to understand: “She holds and she hurts and / she wins. Maybe I liked it because the woman / is doing something, not waiting. It’s always / either waiting or hurting, you know, and often / one can’t tell the difference.”

Yet the more I thought about it, the more “The Ballad of Tam-Lin” seemed itself to change shape, to become something other than what I had previously seen. As I looked back on an extremely difficult period of my life when I frequently lashed out in anger and attempted to isolate myself from those around me — and as I thought about the people who remained by my side throughout this — I began to see “Tam-Lin” not as a patriarchal narrative of pain-acceptance but as one where a character holds another through change. Tam-Lin did not become a flame and slowly burn hotter; he shifted indiscriminately, the changes done to him as he assumed monstrous forms akin to those in body-horror films like The Fly or Tusk. The transformation chase in “Tam-Lin” is a battle against the Fairy Queen and not really between the two individuals. In this forest, the courage required in love is made literal.

To be forcibly changed, especially as a means of achieving freedom, is a strong metaphor that does double-duty here: the girl can leave the forest and head home any time, but enduring the transformations is the only way for Tam-Lin to escape the Fairy Queen. Someone we love can certainly assume different shapes to frighten or hurt us, but the experiences that make us shift and change are as varied as all the animals in the wood of Carterhaugh. Which is to say: is it possible that there is something beautiful in love’s tenacity? Not in the sense that it’s good or admirable to endure pain, but in the sense that a transformation chase represents the monstrous qualities people display as they pass through tragedy — the qualities we might take on during the processing of grief or trauma. This link of change with pain, especially in the context of external pain (vis-à-vis the Fairy Queen), is in some ways a very honest look at any long-term relationship, where we must each see the other’s wounds and mold each other back into, if not our perfect form, then at least something passable. A transformation chase is not discomfort for the sake of another but the choice to remain by their side in a moment of shared discomfort — because, after all, it is only in fairy tales that change can happen with something as easy as a kiss.


Sonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist with too many feelings on the inside and too much cat hair on the outside. They were born in Moscow and currently live in Seattle with their cat, Magpie Underfoot, and a growing collection of taxidermy, wet specimens, and other oddities. Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015) is their full-length debut — a poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival. Get in touch by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at @coolniceghost and sonyavatomsky.com.

Image by Jill Karla Schwarz.

Hedgehogs, the Keepers of Order and Knowledge in Slavic Fairy Tales

by Margaryta Golovchenko

The folk tales of various cultures have characters that act as guardians of some sort. Some are like Merlin, King Arthur’s wise advisor, while others are like Puss in Boots, the mischievous and clever protector of the miller’s youngest son. But arguably none are as unexpected, nor as little-known, as the hedgehogs of Slavic folk tales.

These adorable animals are predominantly found in Russian movies and fairy stories but they appear, also, in tales from neighboring countries. The Bulgarians have two particularly interesting accounts of the hedgehog, both of which point to his wisdom. In one tale, he advises God on how to use the sky to cover the earth, while in another he is the only animal not to attend the wedding of the Sun and the Moon. When asked for the reason, he says that he’s busy learning to eat rocks, for if the union takes place and the Sun has lots of little sun children, all the plants in the world will dry up.[1]

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In other stories, the hedgehog is an embodiment of magical powers. The Slovenian duhovin, for instance, is a version of the bewitched child, possessing special abilities and qualities, and appearing with the body of an animal such as a snake, hedgehog, or raven.[2] And, in the Soviet animated film Ezhik v tumane (Hedgehog in the Fog, 1975), Hedgehog is the bridge between the conscious and the dream world, evoking sympathy from the audience as they watch him lost in a thick mist, chasing after the mirage of a white horse in the clouds.

Perhaps the infrequency of hedgehogs in other cultural stories speaks to a unique characteristic of Slavic culture–the stereotypically cold exterior of the Slavic people gives way to a wise and kind nature. Initially, the hedgehog’s kind personality might seem difficult to find under his intimidating façade. For the persistent reader who takes the time to discover more about him in Slavic tales, however, the hedgehog serves as a reminder that wisdom, kindness, and courage come in various forms.


Margaryta Golovchenko a first year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, Canada. She serves as an editor for the journals Half Mystic and The Spectatorial.  Margaryta’s work has appeared in various publications including [parenthetical], The Teacup Trail, In/Words, and Pear Drop Press, and her debut poetry chapbook Miso Mermaid is forthcoming this fall from words(on)pages press.


[1] Tolstoj, Svetlana M. Словенска митологија: Енциклопедијски речник. (Zepter Book World, 2001), 244-45

[2] Kropej, Monika. Supernatural Beings from Slovenian Myth and Folktales. (Ljubljana: Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2012), 222.

 

Editor’s Note: Baba Yaga’s Fiery Devices

The following is an excerpt from “Baba Yaga Burns Paris to the Ground,” which can be read in full at Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness.

In Russian stories, Baba Yaga is tougher on Russians than anyone else, and she lusts particularly for Russian blood. It’s suggested that she’s testing her fellow Russians, ensuring that they respect and deserve to live on Russian soil. The industrial revolution and three-thousand odd miles stand between Baba Yaga and the pétroleuses; they belong to different worlds. Still, I see similarities between Baba Yaga’s defense of Russia’s forests and the incendiaries’ defense of their sprawling city.

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Baba Yaga has an array of magical objects: her house on chicken legs, her mortar and pestle ship, her one leg made of bone. All of these give her power and bring the stories that she stars in to life on the page. But what interests me most is Baba Yaga’s associations with fire. Her house is sometimes located across a river of flame and is ringed by lanterns made of human skulls. Her stove is her greatest threat, a place where characters believe they will be incinerated, although it as often resurrects life. Like Fitz Fitcher, Baba Yaga has the power to take life, but like the youngest sister, she can also put it back together again. Baba Yaga can even resurrect herself: in fact, she sometimes dies at the end of a story, only to turn up in yet another tale.

Baba Yaga is neither fairy godmother nor evil sorceress. She is something more ambiguous. She teaches those who come to her door essential survival skills. She teaches them when to be honest or to lie, when to obey or demand, to steal or stay. Baba Yaga doles out punishment, but she also doles out tough love. Why, then, the bad reputation? Perhaps she is called evil to remind the young that she is opposed to the Christian order of things, that she cares not for polite society. That even if she helps the hero, she is a wild woman and not to be trusted. If Baba Yaga builds incendiary devices to give to little girls, and Baba Yaga is good, doesn’t that mean the social order is at least a little bad?


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Founding Editor Wren Awry.

Image by Ben Passmore