Julia Zarankin: “Victor Shklovsky coined a term that speaks to what I see as a higher goal of the genre at large”
I could date my first encounter with creative non-fiction to an autumn day in 2006, when I hopped in my car and headed for my first (and so far last) organic chestnut roast in New Franklin, Missouri, hosted by the Slow Food Katy Trail group. What followed was not at all what I expected. Instead of befriending a group of like-minded foodies and possibly, hopefully, through one of them, meeting an irresistibly dateable fellow, my only encounter of the day ended up being with a policeman who pulled me over but ultimately took pity. I must have resembled a bespectacled, slightly unhinged woman speeding toward an organic chestnut roast with nothing but a (poorly) hand-drawn map. No friendships emerged from that afternoon, no dateable fellows materialized. I returned home to my bare-walled apartment devastated, with five pounds of chestnuts I knew not what to do with. But even in that moment of emptiness, missed connection, and inexplicable loneliness, I detected a kernel of generative strangeness, something that I knew was already on its way to meandering into an essay.
The access to creative non-fiction—telling true stories while fully resorting to fictional techniques—allows me to tap into and illuminate the total strangeness and wonder of this world we live in. Writing non-fiction is my attempt to make sense of the bizarreness of the world around me and the unimaginable, unexpected, and sometimes dire absurdity of it all. The Russian formalist critic Victor Shklovsky coined a term that speaks to what I see as a higher goal of the genre at large; he admired Leo Tolstoy’s prose for its ability to estrange, or defamiliarize an object or experience so as to make the reader perceive it as if for the first time. This form of estrangement—this ability to render the ordinary and absolutely prosaic somehow fundamentally new, as if seen for the first time—is what I aspire to every time I sit down to write.
Instinctively, I gravitate toward the incongruous and the absurd and constantly find myself recognizing the strangeness in the ordinary. I took up birdwatching because I found myself fascinated by those people who donned Tilley hats, multi-pocketed vests, and discussed the finer points of optics with gusto. Who were these people? was the question that motivated me to pick up binoculars for the first time. But what happened when I went out on my first birding adventure was something different than I’d imagined. I fell in love with birds the minute I saw a red-winged blackbird and realized that this stunning (and common) specimen had always been around. I just hadn’t bothered to look. How many other extraordinary things had I overlooked because I hadn’t yet mastered the art of seeing? Suddenly those multi-pocket-vested people weren’t the absurd ones any longer; I found them endearing and generous in their knowledge and myself as the stranger creature among them. I was the one who hadn’t yet taken the time to look. So began an exercise in training my eye to see the peculiarly ordinary—details, plumage, behavioral ticks, avian coiffures. The process of noticing, which invariably led to writing, transformed the commonplace into something marvelous and extraordinary.
I write about my family with similar sensibilities. I write in order to understand, and my way of understanding usually begins with something I find mildly baffling. My re-reading of my mother’s recipe collection, written in a mixture of English, Russian and frankly bizarre doodles, ultimately shed light on my mother’s experience as a young émigré and allowed me to read my own mid-Missouri displacement in relation to her more radical dislocation. When family members read my essays and begin their comments with, “Thanks for reminding me of that strange detail I had completely forgotten,” I know I’ve done something right. I believe there’s wisdom in the saying “truth is stranger than fiction,” and I welcome the chance to illuminate a moment of incongruity, absurdity, the unexpected, or the unplanned. I write to explore what it means to dwell in this world that makes so little rational sense but is so completely and ephemerally marvelous.
Honing my ability to see, notice, and transcribe the strangeness in the ordinary is an exercise in empathy. And that’s perhaps the greatest gift that writing creative non-fiction has given me: the time and space to revisit, re-imagine, relive, and come to understand anew my life and the lives of those around me. In other words, I write to fully capture the miraculous strangeness of my present moment, replete with chestnuts, memorably coiffed cedar waxwings, and a dose of Russian émigré nostalgia.
Julia Zarankin’s writing has appeared in such journals as The Threepenny Review, The New Quarterly, Maisonneuve, PRISM International, The Dalhousie Review, and Antioch Review. She was the 2014 winner of the Sutzkever Award from Summer Literary Seminars, first runner-up in PRISM’s 2014 Nonfiction contest, and is longlisted for the 2015 CBC Nonfiction Award. When not writing or lecturing to later life learners, Julia can likely be found birding at a nearby sewage lagoon.