Twice in my life I have landed in the middle of history, first time by chance, second time by chance and by decision.
The first time I was thirteen, going home from school in Berlin, by the Russian Embassy, which was situated on Unter den Linden avenue. I was walking to the S-Bahn and was swept by the crowd surging toward the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate). The crowd was so thick, I couldn't break through them to move in the opposite direction. I had no choice but to go with them. It was November. It was chilly. It was drizzling. On the podium by the gates important people stepped up and made speeches, and gradually I understood that I'm about to witness the opening of the Berlin Wall, or more accurate, its fall. Dread filled me. I knew that if someone found out I made it to the western side of Berlin, my family would be deported back to Russia, my father would lose his job as a journalist; his career would be over. And it would be all my fault. But I couldn't move. I experimentally tried lifting my feet, and I hung, squeezed between bodies. Then the bodies rushed through the gates. I thought my ribs would break. Somehow I found myself on the other side, and everyone was chipping pieces off the wall with hammers and chisels. One man thrust a camera into my hands and posed with a hammer. I took a picture. He gave me a piece of the wall—a little stone—and I finally found a break in the surge of people and rushed home, terrified out of my mind but also excited. I witnessed history! Nothing bad happened, of course, and I don't even remember when and how I told my parents what happened, because I was guilty of sneaking into West Berlin by simply not getting off the S-Bahn train at the Friedrichstrasse station, and riding a station or two to the other side, staring out the window, then quickly making it back.
Yesterday I was in the middle of history again, only this time at forty-years-old and by choice, though still by accident as I had no idea there was a Women's March in Atlanta until I woke up that same day after sleeping for twelve hours straight, exhausted from all the traveling preparations. This time I knew what I was marching for—for my rights as a woman and as a human being, my rights that are threatened by Trump's regime, by his disparaging of women, minorities, immigrants, and anyone who doesn't fit into the mold of a white Christian male or a white obedient female. I was marching for asserting my right to my body and to my mind and to myself as a person, and I was marching to remind the president that his diversion of attention toward women of color and disabled women and immigrant women and women of low class is a clever neo-fascism tactic that lies at the heart of the while male patriarchy cult—to squash the weakest first, while those fortunate and privileged enough to stay ignorant think they're safe. They're not. The game is for the while males to do with them as they please, once they're the only ones left. That is, us white females. We are starting to be told what to do with our bodies and our minds, and it will only get worse. So it gave me immense satisfaction to shout together with thousands marching in Atlanta, "My body, my choice!" and to hear men shout in response, "Her body, her choice!" I felt thirteen again, terrified and excited, and I knew that simply running away to escape my fear is no longer going to work. So I'm going to stay and fight.
I have met wonderful women in the march, LLA and Lisa and Heather, and LLA gave me her pussyhat, which she has knit herself (and sent many pussyhats to the Washington marchers), as a parting gift. I will wear it in Moscow and field questions. Actually, already had, when I was riding an elevator packed with several men and one woman here in a hotel in Atlanta, and when the woman has complimented me the hat, I said, "Thanks! It's a pussyhat," to the started look of the men. I proceeded to explain what it meant and what it stands for—the Pussyhat Project—and the clever wordplay on "pussyhat" and "pussycat" and how "pussy" became the derogatory term for female genitalia. I don't think I've ever seen men exit the elevator this fast. They kept their faces down. However, this was only one such incident. The rest of the people who complimented me on the hat raised their fist in solidarity.
I have heard stories. In the morning the story of an Uber driver who was worried about where America might go in the next four years and whose dream was to build houses with his own hands. Another story of the girls at the march, Lisa's and Heather's daughters, who have spent the whole night decorating their t-shirts for the march with words, "We, the women," to Lisa's surprise and delight, "I thought they'd write, 'Girl power!'" A story of the waitress at the hotel where the award ceremony was happening—which was, by the way, an informal gathering in the hotel bar, so no stage and no speeches were needed—she is a poet but has stopped writing poetry for over a year due to writer's block. A story of the two other writers whose books have received honorable mentions just like ROSEHEAD—they both have full-time jobs and write their books in their spare time and flew out to Atlanta only for the ceremony, and both have attended the march on the fly just like me—their first march of this kind ever. A story of a twenty-five-year-old young man on the street who called to me and asked a question about relationships, and I was amused, as this kind of thing doesn't happen in Seattle—people just don't ask strangers on the street to talk about intimate things—though it happens plenty in Moscow. I chatted with him and his friend about women and relationships, and why it's so hard or seems to hard to him. A story of another Uber driver who is from Sudan and has been in the US for twenty-six years and has served in the Army but was only able to bring his wife and three kids here three months ago. We talked about home. I asked him, "Where do you feel your home is?" And he said he didn't want to be in America, not after Trump won, and it seems to him a difficult country. But he didn't want to be in Sudan either, the Muslims there dishonest, not following Islam like it was meant to be followed. He said it saddened him that they would lie to him and cheat him just because he lived in America. He said he studied to be a lawyer but could never find a job and so he drives Uber full-time, earning $700-800 a week for his family of five. His wife can't speak English yet, neither can his kids. He told me his dream would be to live in Brazil. He was there three times, and he loved the people and the country. If only he had the money. I told him I don't know where my home is either, but when King County Library has blogged about me winning the award and called me "Seattle-based author," I nearly cried, because I thought, maybe I did find home. Maybe I finally did.
And then I crashed to sleep, exhausted but happy, thinking back to more stories told by the librarians I have met at the ceremony event, the many women and men who believe in the power of books. A story of one elementary school librarian who loves wearing mismatched socks to make kids wonder. When he would sit down to read to them, one kid would invariably say, "Your socks!" And he would pretend surprise and say, "What's wrong with my socks?" And the kids would laugh when he would make a face, "discovering" that the socks don't match. And the story of one of the cofounders of what you now know as CreateSpace but which was BookSearch, before it was bought out by Amazon. He and his partners from BookSearch are the people behind Biblioboard, whose project SELF-e Library Journal is making it possible for us indie writers to get our e-books into the hands of the librarians, and where I have submitted my e-books, and where Rosehead had won an Honorable Mention in the YA category, which is how I got to Atlanta. So you see, no speech was needed, though I did manage to write it while marching, inspired by the energy around me. Here it is:
"I'm a woman. I'm an agnostic. I'm an immigrant. And I'm an American. I found the country that gave me home. My crazy little book has won an award, and King County library blogged about me as a Seattle-based author. It made me tear up. You see, I ran away from oppression in Russia to find home. America took me in. And now, what I ran away from, came to America, an old fantasy of white male supremacy and patriarchy that no longer exists, but there are those who believe it can be brought back. And for once I won't run anymore. This is my country now. Thank you for giving me home. Thank you for recognizing my voice. I will fight for freedom and democracy in America. I will write stories until I die, and when I die, I'll write some more, because even death can't stop me. Thank you. I love you."
And today, after writing this, I'm going to the Georgia World Center to the ALA (American Library Association) MidWinter meeting to see lovely folks from IngramSpark, whom I met yesterday, and talk shop. Then talk shop with Biblioboard folks. And hopefully to hear more stories and share them with you here. Three more days until I go to Russia. Three more days.