24th November, 2021

In Conversation with BOTY shortlisted author: Tanya Vavilova

“I think what I struggle with most is this question of fitting in, of belonging. If you find yourself on the outskirts of society and then on the outskirts of an already marginalized group in that society, what do you do?”

Tanya Vavilova, We are Speaking in Code

Tanya Vavilova is an award-winning writer, having won the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund Best Prose and Wollongong Writers Festival Short Story Prize. Her debut short story collection, Grub, won the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award in 2019. We are Speaking in Code was released in 2020, and is her first full-length book. We Are Speaking in Code explores themes of mental illness, queerness, class and migrant identity in a collection of essays that make us question what it means to belong in the boundaries, and explores the fluidity of our identities.

We had a chat with Tanya about her book We Are Speaking in Code, one of this year’s shortlisted titles for the Book of the Year Award. The winner of the award will be announced on Friday 26 November.

Chloe: How did you develop this essay from the original essay published in Meanjin?

Tanya: That essay I wrote now coming up to five years ago when I was visiting my grandmother in Moscow, and the essay got picked up by Meanjin and was published soon after that. And at the time I was working on a few other essays and they were all coming together around the themes of identity and outsider status and culture and mental illness. There were parallels between the essays and I submitted them to various publishers and it was picked up by Brio.  

C: Did you always want to create a collection of essays like this or was it a happy accident?

T: I think some essays probably didn’t quite fit into that collection but when you’re starting out  as a writer you want to try and fit everything you’ve written into your first book. I definitely tried to fit in more essays than belonged, so it was a process of culling for this book and re-writing essays and writing new essays. The essay’s I’ve written about my grandmother were specifically written for the book itself.

C: How did you keep track of the events and stories you included, was it a matter of memories or journals? How did you choose which parts to share in this book?

T: With some of the essays, they were written over a long time, I tend to write in the midst of an experience, so the events that I’m writing about are happening to me right there and then and of course that material isn’t usable because you don’t have the distance, and there’s not a lot of reflection. Some time passes, I let it sit then dive back in, and then it changes from writing for therapy to writing for publication.

With the essays about my grandmother, I had recordings, and that was what I was using, and so the material was all there. I had conversations with my parents around those recordings and then I would write it down and it would find itself in the essay. I don’t keep journals, but I start essays in the middle of an experience, let it bake and then come back. That’s my process.

C: When you’re writing for therapy, it’s a very vulnerable state that you put yourself in and then to share that work with editors and share that work with people, what was your experience with that?

T: So, in that collection, I am talking about my personal intimate experiences and they’re not something I would discuss at the pub or with someone I’ve just met, and I’m quite a private person so it’s strange that I’ve written a memoir. I’ve always had control over what I include, and so what’s in that book is the stuff I’m comfortable sharing, and it’s a curated version of my experience. The ‘I’ that I write from is a persona, it’s not quite me, it’s a character in the book, so I have control over what I include and what I leave out, and there is so much that is simply not in the book because it’s too uncomfortable or I didn’t have permission to write about it, so that stuff just isn’t there.

C: This collection very much feels like a tribute to your family and your cultural heritage, how did you navigate writing about your identity and your relationship to your family as a queer woman.

T: So I have a very small family, it’s just my parents and my sister and I that live in Australia and the rest of my family live in Russia and don’t read or speak English, so there’s a natural privacy there. And my parents have always been of the view that what I write about and what I’ve written is my personal experience and that might not reflect how they see things; so that has always been the view, that’s your experience, that’s not necessarily how we see your upbringing. My family here is comfortable with my sexuality now, it was a long painful journey, and my family abroad don’t know about it, and my mum still pretends to my grandmother that I’m straight. And so I guess the fact that I write in English does provide that privacy. It’s very important to me that my family are comfortable with what I’ve written, because their lives are written about.

C: Do you have anything in the works at the moment?

T: Yes! I’ve got an essay coming up with Griffith Review in December. It’s this project where five female writers are matched up with five female artists and then write about the work and the artists, which is what I’m working on now. The other thing I’m working on at the moment is a queer dystopian romance, I’m hoping to have a draft done by January and then I’ll be trying to find a home for it!

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