canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


St. Petersburg, Russia: June 2006

This past spring, the author a writer and teacher in Montreal received an e-mail informing her that she was a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars/St Petersburg 2006 literary contest (sponsored by The Walrus). She was also invited to attend their literary workshops. So, from June 24 to July 8, the author was in St Petersburg, Russia, workshopping and exploring. This is her attempt to put the experience into words.

by Amy Reiswig

Before I left for St Petersburg in June, a Lithuanian friend tried to prepare me for muggers, pickpockets and other unsavories by teaching me the Russian equivalent of "fuck off" — which, translated, is "sit on the dick." Afraid that I would somehow end up inviting people to sit on my dick (which, as a woman, would have been problematic), I instead opted for a more Canadian approach and learned the phrase for "excuse me." I was, after all, off to an international writing conference in one of the world’s most celebrated cultural cities, and figured humility was wiser to pack than fear or aggression.

Indeed, contrary to the paranoid warnings I’d received, neither of the latter were at all necessary. The SLS — or Summer Literary Seminars — St Petersburg program is co-run by writing professors at Concordia and Eastern Michigan University (Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker), and has been running for almost ten years. Held for a month during the fabled White Nights of summer, its writing workshops, lectures and readings attract faculty and students from places as varied as Canada, the US, Britain, Spain, Japan and Kenya (where SLS runs a similar conference in December). It is extremely well-organized and simply wouldn’t have grown so quickly if participants were regularly assaulted. Actually, only one SLS-er got robbed this year: a local assistant. The theft was committed, apparently quite politely, by a policeman.

Aside from the emotional energy needed to expose one’s writing to a group of strangers — including, in my case, Guggenheim Fellowship-winning teacher Jayne Anne Phillips — St Petersburg itself, and the SLS events, demand one have great energy for cultural selection. On a daily basis one must decide, "Should I go to the Hermitage? The Pushkin Museum? The Akhmatova Museum? Go on the Dostoevsky walk? To the lecture on Russian Absurdism? Wayne Johnston’s reading? The Kirov ballet? A boat ride on the Neva? A picnic in the Summer Garden? Visit the Museum of Curiosities? The Russian Academy of Sciences? The Museum of Hygiene? See the churches? Stay out all night drinking? And, hey! The Leningrad Cowboys are playing a concert, and Billy Idol too!" I took a lot of naps. Even a simple stroll down infamous Nevsky Prospekt confronts you with questions that go beyond language: do you really want to give money to the begging fatigues-clad amputees? Or are they, as one person told me, controlled by the Mafia? Who can you blame when you see the Senegalese student, dressed in white livery and powdered wig, employed by the Chocolate Museum to look like a walking piece of chocolate? Gogol, I was told, wrote that the devil lights the lamps on Nevsky.

Still, lest one get the false impression of an overly intellectual or dour affair, I should confess to the physical pleasures St Petersburg offers. The, shall I say, surprising nature of Russian fashion never got old. First you noticed the legs…I mean the skirts, the really really short skirts and the ‘shorts’ that were essentially just denim gotchies. Then the shoes: lots of shiny, sequined or gold stiletto sandals sometimes worn with either fishnets or little nylon sockettes. I was told that someone makes small rubber traction discs women can put under their heels for winter. "That’s why we should never go to war with Russia," one American guy, Ryan, told me: "With commitment like that, we wouldn’t stand a chance." Those Russian women gave us lots of chances for other things we didn’t imagine. For instance, when we could read what was written on a woman’s underwear through her skirt — a common sight, unless the undies were thongs, which was often, in which case you could tell if she’d shaved—thoughts easily turned from Gogol to ogle. Not entirely a bad thing in a city so apt to stun you with the anxiety of literary influence. In fact, I fully admit to sacrificing a lecture on publishing (by reps from The Walrus and McSweeney’s) for three hours of hedonism at the all-nude Russian bathhouse. It felt necessary to return to one’s own body. While the description could sound like ‘Girls Gone Wild St Petersburg’--a bunch of naked sweaty women wearing only felt-smurf-hats (to prevent heatstroke) getting beaten on our backsides with a bundle of birch branches--it was truly salubrious and relaxing. It was easy to tell in the workshop next morning who had been to the banya.

And part of the key to the St Petersburg puzzle box was daring. To walk around alone. To get lost. To look stupid. To go where you would stand out. If I hadn’t gone to a particular nightclub, for example, I would never have witnessed what I’ve dubbed the crotch ‘n’ cross: a young man pressed his crotch against my ass as he passed behind me to get to the bar, then crossed himself before ordering. Or if I hadn’t gone to the ice bar (and I tried not to ask who can afford to keep it frozen in 30-degree heat) I would never have seen how beautiful purple orchids look encased in an ice wall. Or if James Boobar, leader of the Dostoevsky walk, had been deterred by a changed gate entry-code, I wouldn’t have gone up the "Raskolnikov staircase" and seen the incredible palimpsest of multi-lingual graffiti carved into the wall, proclaiming "Raskolnikov forever," "good riddance she had it coming" and "all is permitted."

Indeed, St Petersburg has — from its conception by the traditional-beard-hating Europhile Peter the Great — often tried to do and be what others thought it shouldn’t. Mr. Boobar described it thus: "Imagine moving the capital of the United States to the Badlands, then building it all in Turkish architecture." Another theorist, I was told while visiting the Freud Museum of Dreams, has suggested that Russia functions as the subconscious of the West, where everything the West fears yet desires is acted out. 

However, the blue busses converted into public toilets (complete with protruberant snaking hoses) outside the sumptuous Hermitage is one example where this hasn’t worked out so well. (That was one place I did not dare to go, and I’m still curious: where is the actual toilet in there? In the driver’s seat? In each seat? Are there stalls?) The nature of these kinds of St Petersburg contradictions makes it the perfect place for a creative writing workshop designed to encourage growth and boundary-pushing. The devil might be said to light Nevsky’s lamps, but St Petersburg’s own particular exhilarating and exhausting genius loci lights countless artistic fuses.

To anyone who still thinks it’s not worth the risk, particularly for women, to travel in ‘the wild East,’ I will only say "excuse me."

Amy Reiswig is a teacher of English Literature at Marianopolis College in her hometown of Montreal, and likes to get around the world as much as possible.  She is also currently working on a novel and other non-fiction writing projects (a short travel piece about the Faeroe Islands is scheduled to appear in The Walrus' February 2007  'Field Notes').  







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