Natalya Sukhonos is a poet, academic, and educator with a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard. She grew up in Odessa, Ukraine and Brooklyn, New York, and now lives in San Francisco with her husband Ian Singleton, who is a writer.
Natalya enjoys Russian and Latin American literature, long bike rides, art, and great conversations. She has lived in Odessa, Brooklyn, New Haven, Spain, Boston, Rio de Janeiro, and Istanbul. Two of her poems have appeared in Dr. Hurley's Snake Oil Cure and the Yellow Medicine Review.
In this interview with editor Dariel Suarez, Natalya talks about her childhood in Ukraine, her travels across the world, and the similarities between Russian and Latin American literary traditions.
Dariel Suarez: Growing up in Ukraine and Brooklyn, how did those experiences influence you as a person?
Natalya Sukhonos: Spending the first 9 years of my life in Odessa, Ukraine exposed me to the vertiginous and beautiful hustle and bustle of fresh fruit and old stones, a tightly knit family and walks with my grandfather among the old stones of my native city. It made me aware that lyricism can exist anywhere -- in an old pithy joke, in the ochre boulders by the Black Sea, in the way that my childhood fears were dispelled by a hedgehog family coming to feast on a bowl of milk in the middle of the night at our dacha. I am very close to my family and have always had a passion for art and languages because I grew up in a family of teachers. I am also very grateful that we only immigrated in 1992 and not earlier because this allowed me to become fully bilingual and conserve my Russian, which I am excited to teach to my children. Growing up in Brooklyn allowed me to explore New York City, its museums, tree-lined streets, and its quiet places of refuge, like Caesar's Bay in Dyker Heights, where I used to walk along the ocean with my family.
DS: You list cities in Brazil, Turkey and Spain as places where you’ve lived. What has remained with you from these different cultures? How have they shaped your worldview and your writing?
NS: I have always loved to travel, and so, during sophomore year in college, I participated in a study-abroad program in Madrid, Spain. I lived in Spain for 4 months, and then did a one-month stunt in Paris by myself. Before going to Spain I had never been alone for such an extended period of time, and being forced outside my comfort zone had really allowed me to think more deeply about my priorities, my desires, and my fears. I loved visiting the Prado and the old Spanish theaters, and learning about Goya and Cervantes. Because my program was pretty strict with its language immersion rule, I spoke only Spanish and, as a result, became really fluent in the language. This also allowed me to pursue my passion for Latin American literature. And I've always loved Brazilian music, so I went to Rio and saw how uncannily similar it was to Odessa -- its brazen passions, the sea, and its love of music. I loved speaking Portuguese and roaming old bookstores. I also discovered a classic Brazilian writer, Machado de Assis, whose sense of irony was very similar to Chekhov's. In Istanbul I spent hours staring into the Bosphorus Strait, which helped to dispel my anxiety about an urgent family situation; the mosques and their fractal-like geometry made for a great meditative experience. When my husband came to visit, we made many trips across the Bosphorus, hung out on picturesque rooftops and had wonderful Turkish tea and sweets. We loved seeing the frescoes in Chora Church and the palimpsest-like Hagia Sophia. I suppose that all of these cities shaped my writing in providing me with many paradoxes and a mosaic of visual moments of beauty that I could draw on. I also feel like hearing different languages has made my own languages richer and more subtle.
DS: Can you describe your experience obtaining a literature doctorate at a prestigious institution such as Harvard?
NS: Getting a doctorate at Harvard exposed me to the way in which the world's most prestigious intellectuals often radiated indifference, callousness, and a total disregard for their students. Not all of them, but some for sure. There's a lot of ego and pride there, and it wasn't always a healthy environment to be in. But I met my husband on a campus bench near the Harvard Law School; at Harvard, I had also met some of my closest friends, who have remained kind, genuine, and passionate. And for this I am really grateful.
DS: Russian and Latin American literature rank among my personal favorites. What about Russian and Latino/a authors do you like the most? How has their writing influenced your own work?
NS: Some of my favorite Russian authors include Mikhail Bulgakov, Joseph Brodsky, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, and Nikolai Gogol. Among Latin American writers I enjoy Reinaldo Arenas, the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Borges, and Cortazar. Both Russian and Latin American literature have a strong oral and storytelling tradition, and both literatures use the fantastic to encode political messages or hint at the unknown. I love the way that both literatures use detail to create a fantastical, dream-like, and yet totally believable landscape. And in spite of the suffering their people had gone through, both Latin American and Russian writers usually have a great (often dark) sense of humor. I've been influenced by both in terms of their often seamless, often maddening transitions between reality and its underside.
DS: Your poems in Middle Gray seem to have some contrasts: one has references to Christians, Aphrodite, Dante, and Jesus, while the other feels a lot more intimate. What drove you to write each of these pieces?
NS: I wrote "Aphrodite" after seeing a Greek bust of the goddess in the National Gallery with my husband and in-laws. My intention was to write a love poem, but somehow it morphed into a meditation on organized religion and the way it treats carnal and romantic love. I'm glad that the poem circled back to the personal at the end -- to the trip across the country I took with my husband, which was when I realized that we had formed this one mysterious unit, and we were totally on our own. It was exhilarating and scary at once. The "August 25, 2010" poem I wrote about my parents, and I'll let it go at that.
DS: What plans do you have for your writing at the moment?
NS: My plans for writing include working more on a laconic, personal, and meditative style and publishing a chapbook collection.
DS: Where can readers find more of your work?
NS: To see more of my work, please see my “Land’s End” poem in Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, www.snakeoilcure.com, June 22nd, 2011 and also my poem “Urban Legend” published in Yellow Medicine Review in May 2013.