At the End of a Telescope
Tanya Paperny is an award-winning writer, editor, educator and community builder in Washington, DC. Her op-eds, reporting, essays and other work have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, VICE and elsewhere. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from Biographers International Organization, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Vermont Studio Center, Art: Omi and Poets & Writers and she is at work on her first book. You can find out more at tpaperny.com. I spoke to her about her first book, a memoir about her and her family’s life, beginning generations ago in Soviet Russia, on to Stalinist Russia and then migrating to the United States, and what the book holds and encompasses:
What has been your own experience with mental illness, or mental health?
I tried answering this question a few different ways, like tracing the ups and downs of my 20s or listing out labels I use to describe my mental health. But I don’t have much practice speaking about these things publicly beyond my intimate circles, and I want to model for people that there are ways to share your story without having to share ALL of your story. What’s most important for me is to make conversations about mental health less intimidating, to encourage people to be open about their best and worst mental states with those they can trust.
One way for me to destigmatize mental illness is to answer this question through the lens of my current book project.
A little about the project [content warning: state violence, murder]: At age 47, my great-grandmother Tatiana Ivanovna Shatalova-Rabinovich was executed by the Soviet secret police. In her too-short life, she organized for the release of political prisoners, co-edited radical socialist pamphlets and gave birth in prison.
Why did I only learn about Tatiana when I was 20 years old and an activist in my own right? Because I am the child of refugees who fled legacies of Stalinist violence and hoped to spare me, the first-born American, the gory details. My book, a family memoir, will animate my great-grandmother’s extraordinary resistance alongside an intimate coming-of-age story of how I became politically passionate as an American teenager in a family for whom such politicization had been unsafe for at least two generations.
I recently got a grant for this project, which I initially planned to use for research-related travel. But the continued global pandemic, my own worsening mental health and severe repression of civil liberties in Russia made me think twice. It did not seem like a smart time to interview Moscow-based human rights defenders, risking my health and safety along with theirs.
I am instead using the funds to offset the cost of individual therapy with a provider who doesn’t accept insurance. Writing about the murder of my great-grandmother has always been emotionally taxing — as evidenced by the 10+ years I’ve been trying to write a book about her — but moral and emotional exhaustion have been at all-time highs as of late (partly because of the pandemic).
At first I judged myself for using the funds this way (“this isn’t what the granting organization intended!!”), but then I decided: what better use of a grant than to heal more so I can actually write the book? I’m happy with my decision.
Could you talk about the journey that got you writing your current book, and what you learnt about intergenerational trauma? What do you hope to say with your work?
During a summer study abroad program in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I took a course with Dr. Yvette G. Flores on Latino family psychology. Yvette taught us something that resonates with me to this day: “That which is not resolved by the migrating generation will be manifested in the children.”
On that same trip, my mother came to visit me. For the first time in my life and completely out of the blue, she told me about my great-grandmother and how she was killed in 1938, years before my mother was born. That conversation shattered silences kept between us for decades and launched me on a journey to unearth Tatiana’s story from the grips of totalitarianism, deceit and fear — and to relearn vulnerability, a skill my women ancestors had to bury.
This project and my research on intergenerational trauma have shown me that naming the repressed pain of our ancestors can break cycles of silence and violence.
What were some surprising, positive or negative, things you learnt while working on this project?
My mother and I had already been collaborating on this project for many years when she discovered, or rediscovered, a poem written by my great-grandmother. The Xerox copy of handwritten text was languishing in one of my mom’s drawers. To discover that this woman I already took after in my activism was also a writer and poet like me was just incredible.
Reading her words made me feel closer to her than ever before, even though the poem is quite dark. As I said to some friends, it made me feel like I was at the end of a telescope watching generations of women be sad.
Who are some other writers, artists, people on the Internet, who inspire you in your work?
There are so many, but one who particularly comes to mind is Gowri Koneswaran. I’m blessed to call this queer Tamil poet, curator and activist a friend. Her work interrogates Sri Lanka’s Tamil genocide, as well as white supremacy in the U.S. In “What Questions Will Be Asked?” (which she once recited on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court), she uses words from U.S. immigration interviews to spotlight their cruelty. Coded “official” language becomes a chant, a drumbeat, demanding recognition and an alternative world.
I employ these strategies in my book, excerpting language directly from government documents to subvert the cruelty Tatiana experienced and use it in service of justice instead.
I also adore writer and activist Courtney Martin. Her Examined Family newsletter is one of the few things that I read from beginning to end when it lands in my inbox! She describes it as “a weekly newsletter for people who get all twisted up inside about the brokenness of the world, and wonder how to actually live in it, loving and humble, but brave as hell.”
I have to give a special shoutout to five artists and writers who keep me afloat: Fid Thompson, Temim Fruchter, Julia Cooke, Artis Henderson and Suzanne Mozes. These people are essential to my book’s existence!
What are some misconceptions or things you wish people knew about mental health (either in the era of your grandmother and what she went through, or now — in your role as the biographer)?
We are a “rich” nation without a basic social safety net for its low-income, working-class and even middle-class populations.
We often neglect to talk about how getting our basic needs met is also a form of mental illness prevention! Safe and secure housing. Jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage. Clean drinking water and good food. Free and/or affordable healthcare. Healthcare that covers wellness techniques like acupuncture, peer support or counseling. All these things keep us alive. But for far too many people in the United States, these basics are out of reach.
I hope this pandemic has given privileged Americans increased empathy for our neighbors who shoulder extreme stress due to this country’s nonexistent social safety net.
If you’re so moved, here’s one thing I suggest you do: Give away your money. Give it to causes you care about and which directly benefit people in need. (If you’re between the ages of 18 and 35 and care about wealth redistribution, I suggest you check out Resource Generation. If you donated to any mutual aid organizations during the pandemic, that’s a form of wealth redistribution!)