Russians have a peculiar habit of naming their young after poets, scientists and war heroes. Yet, it must’ve taken a special inspiration to christen one’s daughter Stalina after the ill-famed Soviet tyrant. Or, it may have been a brilliant attempt at survival: even Stalin wouldn’t send a Jew named after him to Siberia. While this cultural subtlety may not have been apparent to an American ear, it interested Emily Rubin, a New York writer, broadcast professional and stage manager, who herself had Russian roots.
Rubin met Stalina while teaching an Oral History class to Russian expatriates at the Brighton Beach Community College in 1997. Her students, the former U.S.S.R. citizens in their 60’s and 70’s, told intense and vivid stories of the World War II, Stalin’s regime and life in their old country, being both passionate and angst-ridden about their homeland.
“In order to better understand my students and perhaps shed light on my own family history, I asked that they tell about the person for whom they were named,” Emily says. “Each student’s account brought up stories of war heroes, scientists, painters and poets along with dreams for future generations. Among the Yuri’s, Anna’s and Tatiana’s there was a woman named Stalina. She stated very simply that she was named for Stalin. With her name, she explained, she carried her country’s painful history. In this stoic and alluring woman, I had found my main character.”
A sixty-something émigré, Stalina became Emily’s inspiration for the book. But, Rubin was interested not only by the woman’s life journey, but also by the Russian history and its citizens’ exodus of 1990s. To research her book, Rubin joined the Summer Literary Seminar’s program in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2002, where she conducted interviews, visited historical sites and read at the legendary Stray Dog Café frequented by many famous Russian writers and poets, including Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetayeva. She also attended writing workshops at The New School. It took her several years to finish the book, and her unexpected breast cancer battle had slowed down her progress, but she was determined to see her work in print.
Rubin’s vivid description of Stalina’s 18th birthday instantly deposits us into the Leningrad’s reality of the 1950s. Stalina is allowed to invite only three guests because Stalin is dangerously sick, festivities are banned and citizens are holding vigils at their radios. Seasoned survivors, Stalina and her friends find a way to celebrate without music and laughter: they agree to interact like their favorite silent movie star Charlie Chaplin. The talent of surviving with a smile becomes Stalina’s most distinctive quality. It carries her through the journey of leaving her motherland with a bag of bras and porcelain cats, and helps her make her American dream a reality as she transforms a short-stay Connecticut motel into a fantasy destination. It also fuels her revenge on the high-rank government official, who, years ago, was responsible for the disappearance of her father and her childhood dog Pepe. Once a professional chemist trained by the Soviets to “make things smell like what they are not” Stalina knows neither fear nor limits when it comes to choosing her weapons, including her mother’s ashes.
When STALINA was finished, Rubin decided not to choose the traditional road of placing her manuscript with a big publisher, but submitted it to Amazon Encore, a subsidiary of the book mogul that is dedicated to discovering emerging talents amongst new writers. Months later, she was excited to receive a phone call informing her that she had won the Breakthrough Novel Award and the paperback would be released in early 2011.
An active East Side artist, Rubin believes that the foundation for her creative thinking was laid years ago at Bard where she studied dance with Aileen Passloff, Arlene Laub, and Albert Reid. She remembers being profoundly stimulated by the workshops of Isaac Bashevis Singer as well as the cinema studies taught by avant-garde filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas, Peter Kubelka, and Warren Sonbert. “The confluence of film, poetry, movement and rhythm filled my young mind with ideas that pushed me to challenge the status quo and bring my own creations forward, even if stumbling at times,” she reveals. Her close interaction with her Bard mentors was a key element to her writing methods later in life.
“The process of making a dance required attention to details of gesture, emotion and bodies moving through space,” she explains. For her senior project, she chose to create a choreographic sequence to the words of Six Significant Landscapes, a poem by Steven Wallace. She recalls that as she recited Wallace’s stanzas, the words became structure, form and emotion in the body. “Today when I write, I think of the words as movements I am placing in positions on the page to describe a place, a feeling, and a point of view of a character,” she says as she elucidates her writing approach.
Rubin’s fiction also appeared in the Red Rock Review, Confrontations and Happy. Currently, she is working on a sequel to STALINA, and is also sending out its screenplay adaptation, which already made it through the first round at Sundance.
Rubin wore many artistic hats in her life. A member of the Directors Guild of America, Rubin has been a television stage manager for over 18 years, producing shows for Food Network, VH1, MTV, Nickelodeon, History Channel, ABC, NBC, PBS, and others. She was a stage manager of many off-Broadway theaters, including LaMama and Theater for the New City, and a director of Yoshiko Chuma’s School of Hard Knocks, a downtown dance and performance company. She also worked as a program director of Charas/El Bohio, a community cultural center set in a former public school, where she raised funds to develop two theaters and produced shows in the renovated spaces. Her original performance pieces and plays were presented by the Nuyorican Poets Café, PS 122, HERE, Abrons Arts Center, One Dream Theater and the Ensemble Studio. As she watched cultural spaces in Lower Manhattan disappear due to skyrocketing rents, she founded a reading series Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose that takes place in New York laundromats and has been covered by The Villager, Time Out NY and The Brooklyn Rail.
“Sipping drinks in the newly established German beer garden on Avenue C, we looked down the avenue considering the places we might hold the readings,” Emily recalls the day she found the venue for her unusual project. “There was a bodega, a church, a Chinese restaurant and then, at East Fifth Street, a laundromat. At the time, the HOWL Festival was organizing and the producers asked us to participate. Sam Lipsyte and Legs McNeill read at the first Dirty Laundry event to more than 70 people that August. The writers and audience were enthusiastic and wanted to know when and where the next laundromat reading would take place. Since then we have done over 30 readings with close to 100 writers who have read their work in between the washers and dryers throughout NYC, San Francisco, Boulder and Stockbridge, MA. We have been featured on NBC, Reuters and the NY Bureau of Russian TV.”
A Lower East Side resident, who also has a black belt in Aikido, Rubin divides her time between New York City and Columbia County, NY, with her husband, Leslie, and their dog, Sebastian. Remaining true to her community that had historically been home to so many Russian emigrants, Rubin will read from STALINA at Dixon Place on Tuesday, January 25, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
You may buy STALINA on Amazon.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Takahachi, 85 Ave A, my neighborhood sushi place. I love going there because the staff is great, the sushi chef knows me and the food is delicious. The broccoli rabe oshi tashi is wonderful and a pick of any of the special rolls is a treat. I usually pick a roll and get some sushi ala carte.
Favorite Place to Shop: Love Shine, 543 East 6th St, a design shop and boutique. The place is filled with the most fascinating bags, toys and art.
Favorite New York Sight: I love walking down the steps to the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. The view of the angel on the fountain with the lake behind her is so special, panoramic and intimate at the same time.
Favorite New York Moment: Bumping into an old friend of mine on a New York City street, who I would end up marrying a few years later. Now it’s been seventeen years.
What You Love About New York: Riding my bike to get to the subway and take care of errands. The new bike lanes are wonderful.
What You Hate About New York: The days it rains because it’s so hard to get around and I can’t ride my bike.