Sunday, December 18, 2022

Q&A with Yelena Lembersky




Yelena Lembersky is the author, with her mother, Galina Lembersky, of the memoir Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour. It focuses on their experiences as refuseniks in the Soviet Union. They emigrated to the United States in 1987. She also has written the book Felix Lembersky: Paintings and Drawings, about the work of her artist grandfather. Also an architect, she is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you and your mother to write Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour, and how did you collaborate on the book?


A: I’ve wanted to write this story since I was a child, when I saw three men from the Soviet police rip apart our home. My mother was falsely accused of a crime and I could do nothing to help her. She went to prison when I was 11. We were homeless a year later after she returned.


It took us nine years to leave Russia. But when we finally came to the U.S., we wanted nothing to do with our past. We closed that door and did not speak about that past for 30 years. Our closest American friends knew nothing about our lives as refuseniks. And yet every few years, my mother would say to me, “I want my criminal conviction overturned.” She needed justice.


And I needed to tell my children about the place where I grew up. They were becoming curious about Russia and their references were Eurovision and sweet spice cakes from a local Russian deli.


I began to write. After a while I knew that the book needed my mother’s story and that it had to be told in her direct voice. I asked her to share her memories. She said, “No! Why stir that toxic sludge?” Then she started talking and her story came in perfect sequence, full of detail, as if she had been retelling it for the past three decades.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Oh, the struggle! When you start writing, the book is too blurry to be defined. After it is done, how can you reduce all those pages to a couple of words? I had many working titles, none were singing.


Then one day I was looking through my mother’s papers and found a poem she wrote in her early 20s, before I was born. I felt an electric shock. With uncanny precision, the poem conjured up the images that would become my mother’s future. It was called “Memory.” Her memories of the future. “Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour/ These Memories Blur and Dissolve. . .” And there was my title.


Q: What role do you see the arts playing in the book, particularly your grandfather's work?


A: My grandfather, Felix Lembersky, was a prominent artist, who was offered an opportunity to build a successful career within the official Soviet establishment. But the trade-off would have been creating a propaganda art. He rejected the success and the money that the Soviets offered to their well-behaving artists, and turned to prohibited subjects.


The discussion of the Holocaust was not allowed after the war. Having lost his parents during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, he created three Execution: Babyn Yar paintings that are now considered the earliest artistic representation of the massacre; the last of the three was completed in 1952, during the worst of Stalin’s antisemitic campaign. There paintings and his expressionist nonfigurative art was never included in the official exhibitions.


After Felix Lembersky died, my mother felt that she had an obligation to free her father’s art and take it where could be shown to the public. Her reasons for emigration were neither antisemitism in Russia nor economic opportunities in the West. It was her father’s legacy.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: You can find kindness and beauty in unexpected places – in the forests, at a train depot, on a screechy bus, or at a penal labor camp. When I started writing, I found good, sweet memories. They came flooding back. I didn’t know that I had them.


I also want to tell my readers that difficult experiences do not undermine us. I am grateful for my childhood. There was a tree by a river bank near a farm where we were staying. The tree had a long bough over the water, with a long rope tied to it end. You hold that rope, walk backward as far as it lets you go, then run to the water, push off, and you are flying.


Then crash. Down into the river. Down . . . down at the muddy green bottom. You see nothing but tiny bubbles and spooked fish. And for a split second, you think, what if I can’t get up? Then you come to the surface and take the first gulp of air. It is the sweetest breath.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I want to do many things . . . write a novel, run a marathon, illustrate children’s books, live in a Buddhist monastery and be enlightened. But honestly, I am looking for my next project and that all-consuming passion to walk through a wall to reach that goal.


Perhaps it will have to be painting. My painting and my grandfather’s. My mother always wanted his art to be in museums. Or to build the museum for his art. It’s a moonshot. But everything begins with an idea. This will be my mission. And if not me, someone else will have to take it forward.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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