the contextual life

thoughts without borders

a conversation with Gina Ochsner

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a few weeks ago i’d written a review of the russian dreambook of colour & flight by author gina ochsner. here’s an interview i conducted with her for my other gig over at the portland book review. gina is as awesome as her writing.


Oregonian author Gina Ochsner’s debut novel, The Russian Dreambook of Colour & Flight, just released in paperback, is an irresistible contemporary folktale that feels something akin to MTV’s Real World—Russian-style.

Instead of hip, sexy 20 to 30-somethings living in a plush, urban apartment or an airy, waterfront condo, the inhabitants of this story are a ragtag group of tenants living in a dilapidated apartment building in Perm, a Western city in Russia. The quirky cast of characters consists of a one-armed war veteran who jumps to his death, his wife who finds mysticism in her job as keeper of the outhouse, a journalist at the local state-run newspaper who witnesses censorship of the press on a daily basis and her son, a young man damaged by war who thinks he’s a fish. There’s a grandmother who shouts racist and anti-Semitic slurs out the window to the embarrassment of her granddaughter, who suddenly finds herself with the task of convincing a visiting committee, The Americans of Russian Extraction for the Causes of Beautification, that the local subpar museum where she works is worthy of their Western riches.

Lulled by the fanciful surroundings and bizarre happenings—and charmed by the lamentable characters—it’s not until the moment when the Americans arrive, with their elitism and overstuffed luggage on display, that the desperation and darkness of life in the small community becomes shockingly clear.

Ochsner’s Russian Dreambook is a clever infusion of folklore, humanity, and humor and I’m glad it gave me the opportunity to speak with her about her work.

Contextual Life: Your novel has a strong folklore feel. What did you find while researching that aspect of Russian history and culture? Is there one story that captured your imagination?

Gina Ochsner: I draw quite a lot of inspiration from old tales, parables, and myths. Like the epic, myths are a form of storytelling that explain natural phenomenon or anomalies, historical events, or truths of being. And like the epic, myths take into account human nature: we love and sometimes love badly, we hurt one another, injustice incenses us while at the same time our greed, envy or anger (righteous or otherwise) can get the better of us, yielding dire consequences.

A kissing cousin to the myth are those tales (old wives tales, superstitions, legends) that swirl like dry leaves kicked about by a mischievous wind. I remember visiting the St. Charles Bridge in Prague. Every day for two weeks I walked to school over the bridge and walked home at night. The bridge, I had been told, was magical. Built in 1357, it was first known as the stone bridge long before it was called the St. Charles. It was protected by a golem who had been created by a rabbi. This rabbi, it was said, could perform miracles and in those days, the Jews needed miracles. During that time, Jews in Prague were forced to live in a ghetto (Josesov Sectre)  of suffocating confines encompassed by tall walls, to which they were remanded each day  by sundown. The Emperor, Rudolph II, a lover of sciences and particularly alchemy, had heard a rumor that the Jews possessed the secret for turning ordinary metals into gold. The formula, he reasoned, must be contained somewhere in one of their holy books. Naturally, he decided to seize all the holy books. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague, went to the palace to plead with the emperor. On the way a crowd of bystanders  threw stones at the rabbi. But before the stones could harm the rabbi, they turned to roses. When Rudolph heard of this, he returned to the rabbi the books he had seized. Other stories and tales have had a similar lasting effect and managed to work their way into Russian Dreambook.

Why are folktales important today?

What I’m interested in these days are tales built from older cloth, patches sewn to a larger fabric. Tales are a way to reconnect with the ancient, familiar mythic stories that tell us who we are, why we are, how things started and how things got to be the way they are now. Tales are a means of preserving, remembering, honoring, and passing along history and ideas and identity (communal, familial and inidfviudal). They are a way of preserving as a thumbprint in soft wax the shape and texture of voice—again, that of the larger group as well as the family and the individual. I can hear this in in Romanian fairy tales. Yiddish tales and Russian tales in which repetition and seemingly absurd phrasing is used as memory devices, little anchors of syntactic surprise that also peel back the patches on the fabric so that we can see how people thought, how people think, how vital and dynamic story is in helping establish here and now, there and then.

read the rest of the interview at the portland book review

Written by Gabrielle

March 18, 2011 at 11:57 am

Posted in books, interviews

Tagged with , , ,

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