- Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges Between (Ex)Soviet and American Women
Few books are published with bilingual titles, and in this case the doubled name of Dialogues/Dialogi aptly points to the dialogical approach that is the unifying theme of this volume. Dialogism also marks the exemplary writing practice of the four editors. This substantial and diverse collection of short fiction by women acheives the editors’ broad aims—to take advantage of new collaborative possibilities that occurred as the old Soviet Union was falling apart and Cold War barriers were falling down; to catch a spirit of new interest in women’s issues in Russia and Ukraine and of intensified attention to Russia in the US; and to intervene in American feminism at a time when it was (and is) focused on questions of difference. The editors have assembled a volume that concentrates on national differences, but they never lose sight of how national identity works in and through the constructions of gender, ethnicity, race, and class.
The editors speak across the cultural differences that familiarly divide the United States from the former Soviet Union, including a presumption of greater awareness about feminist issues in the US, but this assumption is not taken for granted in Dialogues/Dialogi, since one of the two US editors, Adele Barker, describes herself as initially skeptical [End Page 205] about gender theory. Both ex-Soviet editors are specialists in American, not Russian, literature, which positions them as equally knowledgeable literary and social critics, not as “native informants.” These perceptive and self-conscious aspects of the editorial collective let them highlight the ways in which principles of literary criticism have been quite differently taught in the US and the former Soviet Union. As a result, dramatically opposing views of individual stories and of larger social and cultural questions quickly emerge. In their illuminating refusal to diminish these differences, the editors provide a powerful demonstration of how highly charged conversations about literature, gender, and culture can occur constructively, honestly, and (happily) inconclusively. The collection is open-ended, posing many more questions than it could possibly answer and sustaining a rich internal conversation where many leads are pursued, sometimes in wonderfully unexpected ways.
The eight short stories begin with Tillie Olsen’s ever impressive “Tell Me a Riddle” and I. Grekova’s “Ladies’ Hairdresser.” Grekova almost has to suffer next to the authentic speech cadences of “Tell Me a Riddle,” especially in translation. The accompanying critical essays at first seem to demonstrate what we already think we know about how an American feminist scholar will talk about these stories, as opposed to a literary critic trained in the former Soviet Union. Aiken draws on Bakhtinian theory, whereas Stetsenko uses the particulars of Russian history to frame her discussion. But it is Stetsenko who sees the sexism in Grekova’s story, while Aiken’s argument about carnival tries to find the tale more subtly liberating. In subsequent essays, Stetsenko and Koreneva are generally readier to state firmly the limitations in the stories, while Aiken and Barker tend to seek some explanation for any perceived shortcoming. The presence of two interpretive essays about each paired set of stories means that readers essentially pause twice over each story, and this rhythm almost perceptibly pushes toward reconsiderations and rereadings. I began to sense my own mind being changed as I continued to read. I agreed with Stetsenko about the Grekova story, for example, even wondering why it was chosen over the more artful fiction of Natalya Baranskaya. But thematically and formally, “The Ladies’ Hairdresser” turns out to work very well in the collection, setting up the dialogues that grow ever more fruitful in succeeding sections. [End Page 206]
Each of the following three parts of Dialogues/Dialogi presents the same structure—two stories followed by two essays. Of the six other stories, several choices are simply remarkable: Liudmila Petrushevskaia’s “That Kind of Girl,” Elena Markova’s “Needlefish,” and Jayne Anne Phillips’s “Home” are especially complex and...