Interview: Lara Palmqvist

An interview with Lara Palmqvist, winner of the 2023 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction for “In Another Life” (Issue 44)

BLR: You write with sensitivity and insight about a Ukrainian couple whose lives have been painfully altered by the war with Russia. Kolya has lost a leg in the fighting; his fiancée Nadia worries about their future, “desperately afraid that he still might die.” How did your time as a Fulbright scholar in Ukraine inform your fiction writing? 

Lara Palmqvist: I lived in Ukraine as a Fulbright scholar from 2015-2016, just after the annexation of Crimea and the Maidan Uprising ignited the latest iteration of a long-waged war that continues to this day. The complexities of the war are impossible to succinctly describe, but perhaps the simplest summary is that the Ukrainian people are fighting to redefine the story of their independent nation as distinct from its Soviet past. This ongoing struggle to reclaim the narrative of Ukraine and of what it means to be Ukrainian testifies in part to the power of stories, especially against the backdrop of a war that has seen the broad weaponization of disinformation. My time in Ukraine raised new urgency and awareness in me regarding questions of who gets to tell the story of a place or culture, which stories are circulated, and whose stories go unrecorded or intentionally silenced. I saw how changing the stories we live by can in fact change our perceptions of the world. The very idea that no story is final—be it the story of one’s own self, or the story of a nation—is ultimately something in which I find great hope. All of these considerations have continued to inform my fiction and my understanding of what it means to be a writer.

I also want to note that Ukraine is replete with brilliant artists, many of whom continue to create spectacular work despite economic difficulty, lack of resources, and horrific warfare. For decades Ukrainian culture has been systematically targeted for repression or destruction, and in response Ukrainian artists have redoubled their efforts to preserve folksongs, stories, and art that carry forward their traditions while also crafting new work that contributes to the shifting identity of their country. The message indelibly modeled for me time and again by the people I met in Ukraine was this: creativity is worth protecting, and art is not an indulgence—it’s necessary to survival.

BLR: “In Another Life” dwells in a single moment: Nadia watching Kolya in the bathroom. “…From the bedroom in the half-light she watches Kolya prepare to shave and cut his hair, a razor and rusted scissors lying on the lip of the sink.” Why did you choose to focus on this moment of quiet domesticity?

LP: The domestic scene at the center of this story arose from an impulse to write toward tenderness despite the horrors that dwell in the narrative’s background. Across my time in Ukraine I routinely witnessed moments of profound care and mutual aid that counteracted the urgency and material scarcity that resulted from the early stages of the war. One of the most bewildering truths is that the mundane demands of daily life continue even in times of crisis. Kolya physically embodies this fact; he has lost a leg, yet his hair still grows to the point of needing to be cut. Wartime existence is rife with such contradictions, fragility and vulnerability existing alongside incredible resilience. The image of scissor blades moving along the nape of a shrapnel-scarred neck seemed to speak to this in a way I could never articulate more directly. My desire to write toward a domestic space, rather than attempt to invoke the warfront, also stems from the fact that the former is, fortunately, more broadly relatable. When Kolya bends his head to receive his haircut, when Nadia worries for the man she loves, I hope readers can draw on their own experiences from similar moments and better imagine themselves into the story’s world. The title of the story gestures toward several things, but one concept I hoped to convey was that the lives of Nadia and Kolya could just as easily belong to me, or you, or anyone—that only those most mutable elements, luck and fate, separate those who live in safety from those who live in a land ravaged by war. Small details on a domestic scale ultimately have the potential to speak to a shared humanity and offer evidence that we’re all built of the same architecture. This view seems even more valuable when set in contrast to war reportage, which often relays information in grand strokes and stark divides.

Finally, turning my attention to the domestic sphere in this story was an act of mourning. When I see footage of the destruction in cities where I once lived and worked, I think of the people I passed on the streets, the shops I frequented, the old women who knelt on the stone steps of their church, the blind man who sang on street corners, the cats that slept on sun-warmed cobbles that still bore marks from the second World War. I think of the history of the land and all the lives that occupied it—valiantly, nobly, beautifully. I look at the apartment buildings torn open like doll houses or reduced to ash, and I think of all those quiet, intimate moments that once played out within them, innumerable, unspeakably precious, no longer allowed to exist.

BLR: In the span of a few pages, you create a world that feels rich and complete, peopled by psychologically complex characters: Kolya’s fierce refusal of pity, Nadia’s “desire, rising like bile, to be cruel to Kolya.” We understand this couple, and we sympathize with them. What do you think happens next for your characters? 

LP: The question of ‘What happens next’ is excellent and perceptive, for it addresses one of the story’s central concerns. War results in untold sorrows, yet one of its cruelest effects seems to be the way it narrows possibilities, dulling hopes and extinguishing dreams. In wartime the future collapses under the uncertainty and precarity of the present. Nadia struggles with this form of loss as she considers the alternative lives she might have led before the war shattered her former existence—the home she once dreamed of in the countryside, the children she hoped to have, her impending marriage to Kolya as she imagined it before his injury. Even when she recognizes the reality of her situation—Kolya needs a doctor; Kolya might be dying—her options remain constricted, access to medical care and funds to pay for treatment both desperately limited. This sense of entrapment informs the fact that the entire present action of the story takes place in a bathroom barely large enough to hold two people. If there is any expansiveness in the story, any sense of opening or intimation of what’s coming, I think it arises from the fact that love still exists between Nadia and Kolya, even if that love has shifted in register as a result of their losses. Their protectiveness of one another is still palpable, undefeatable, and there’s hope to be found in the fact that, whatever they might face next, at least for the moment of the story, they are not alone.

BLR: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about your process in writing this story?

LP: This story was largely guided by Kolya’s voice and demeanor, a spirit of resilience directly inspired by the Ukrainian people I lived with and worked beside. Kolya is facing grave challenges in a situation that has no easy or forthcoming resolution, yet his sense of humor never fades. He is full of jokes, defiant in the face of his fate, his pride undiminished. Even with a severed leg he laughs, writes, and listens to music, letting the rhythms move his broken body—letting nothing reduce him. Kolya’s energy is the current running underneath this story, its engine and its reason for existing. The Ukrainian people offered me such proof that in the midst of war there is still music, still laughter. Witnessing that, more than anything, motivated me to write this story.

Finally, I want to note that despite my great fortune to briefly call Ukraine home, my depiction of the country and its ongoing war remains that of an outsider. I would encourage any readers of my story to continue on to other works by Ukrainian authors, such as Ilya Kaminsky, Artem Chapeye, Lesyk Panaisuk, Sana Krasikov, and Anastasia Afanasieva to cite just a few of my favorite contemporary writers among many outstanding examples. The art and literature coming out of Ukraine—even and especially now, against all odds—is nothing short of extraordinary.

Watch Lara in conversation with BLR Assistant Fiction Editor Doris W. Cheng as part of our 2023 Spring Reading.