by Elaine Elinson

I brought my grandmother with me to my last residency at Hedgebrook.  Together we settled into Oak Cottage, lit the fire, put the water on for tea.

Over the next two weeks, with her photo as my screensaver, I pored through her diaries, lovingly handwritten in pencil, in Yiddish, on yellowing paper held together by fraying and chipped brown cardboard covers.

In the comfort of the cottage, I tried to shape a story from her stories.  Should it be about her working until midnight in a Chicago garment factory, wishing she were a poet?  Should it be about a lost love, the one who married another but still slid his hand on her thigh at political meetings?  Should I start with me reading the diaries or her harrowing tale of having to leave Russia after the pogroms terrorized Jews in her shtetl and all around her.

She was 14 when the Cossacks rampaged through hundreds of Jewish villages, burning homes and temples, and  slaughtering children in front of their desperate mothers to the shouts of “Kill the Jews.”  In the wake of the massacres, my grandmother helped her mother bundle up her two younger siblings and they fled to America.

Fast forward a century  to the AWP Conference in Seattle.  I had just spent a fun two hours volunteering at the Hedgebrook booth with my friend Wendy Call, sharing experiences, explaining the application process, soliciting comments for the Equal Voices board. When our shift was over, I decided to walk around the book fair before going to the next panel.

I was exhilarated by the plethora of booths – from publishers, to literary magazines, MFA programs and writing retreats.  But then I saw a sign that stopped me dead in my tracks.  It said The Cossack Review.

The Cossack Review? Who were these people?  I stopped and asked a young man behind the table.  Why do you call yourselves The Cossack Review?  Oh, it’s just a name, he said, our editor likes Russian literature.

Well, I like Russian literature too, I explained, I love Dostoevsky and Gogol and even Gary Shteyngart.  But do you know who the Cossacks are?  Well, not really, he said.

I couldn’t believe someone would represent a magazine and not know what the title implied.  But he was young and frank, so  I tried to keep an open mind.  I told him that they were the brutal soldiers of the czar, responsible for murdering thousands of Jews.  They wiped out the village of Kishinev in 1905, I explained, completely destroyed it, burned it to the ground, murdered babies in front of their mothers and then raped the mothers. Forced pious Jews to spit on the Torah at sword point. And then slashed their necks anyway.

It’s just a name, he said, repeating that his editor likes Russian literature.  Okay, a more contemporary approach? Did he recognize that it was the Cossacks who whipped the women of Pussy Riot at the Sochi Olympics a couple of weeks ago? Let me introduce you to my editor, he said, and he passed me off to a young woman sitting at the other end of the booth, who smiled sweetly.

I told her why I objected to the name of the magazine. How painful it was to see the word Cossack, prominently displayed on a literary magazine.  As I repeated my capsulated history of pogroms, I’m sure I was sputtering, so I tried to think of an apt comparison.  It’s like calling a literary magazine in Hiroshima “The Atom Bomb.”

She looked at me blankly.   Or how about “General Custer’s Literary Journal” or the “Idi Amin Anthology.”

In a voice dripping with condescension, she said, I guess any title might have a bad connotation for someone.

All I could do was stare at her.

I wanted to swipe the whole table full of shiny Cossack Reviews to the floor,  I wanted to  see their bookmarks emblazoned with a horseman holding a raised sword, their postcards and obligatory bowl of chocolate candies go flying.

But I just stared, and she stared back, smiling her vacuous ignorant smile, eager to dismiss me.

I needed some comfort, some positive energy, somewhere where history, bloody, savage history and those who endured it, was understood and confronted.  I ran back to the Hedgebrook table.  Once there,  I looked at the big poster of the fire-lit cottage surrounded by green, listened to the voices of women talking about their writing, thought of my bold grandmother, and took a deep breath.

 

About the Author:

ElaineElinsonElaine Elinson is coauthor of  Wherever There’s a Fight:  How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California, which received a Gold Medal from the California Book Awards and  a Bronze Medal from Foreword magazine.  Her earlier book, Development Debacle: the World Bank in the Philippines, was banned by the Marcos regime.

Elinson received her MFA from Goddard in 2005, was named a San Francisco Public Library Literary Laureate in 2010.  She has been awarded writing residencies at Hedgebrook, the Headlands Center for the Arts, Mesa Refuge and the Anderson Center. A former reporter with Pacific News Service in Southeast Asia and editor of the ACLU News, Elinson’s writing has appeared in a wide variety of publications from the San Francisco Chronicle to Poets and Writers and Woman’s Day. 

Elinson is a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Daily Journal researches and writes about hidden civil rights history for the National Park Service. She also teaches creative writing at several senior centers in the Bay Area.

To read excerpts or articles please go to:  http://members.authorsguild.net/eelinson/

 

Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

 

Elaine Elinson
About Elaine Elinson

4 Comments

  • Adrienne Wilson Dodi
    8:01 AM - 21 March, 2014

    Immensely enjoyed the article.
    Rennie

  • Adrienne Wilson Dodi
    8:02 AM - 21 March, 2014

    Great article

  • Risa Jaroslow
    11:48 AM - 21 March, 2014

    I loved this article Elaine.

  • Rebecca Alexander
    8:40 AM - 24 March, 2014

    I had the same reaction when I heard about this literary journal. Thanks for speaking to them, and what a pity they didn’t have listening ears.

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