Image by Pierre-Yves Beaudouin 

Maria Tumarkin talks about her new book Axiomat­ic, an inves­ti­ga­tion of trau­ma and how peo­ple cope with­in soci­etal sys­tems. She dis­cuss­es the book’s jour­ney to fruition, the myr­i­ad ways we see trau­ma talked about, and the strug­gle to rep­re­sent indi­vid­u­al’s sto­ries with­in the work. 

Dalia Wolf­son: From the very first pages, we under­stand that you are deal­ing with a moun­tain of mate­ri­als: tran­scripts, sta­tis­tics, cre­ative writ­ing assign­ments, email threads, archival finds, aca­d­e­m­ic essays. What was the time­line of col­lect­ing these sto­ries, sort­ing sources, and then plan­ning them out into a book, struc­tural­ly speak­ing? What did you leave out?

Maria Tumarkin: Time­line! Axiomat­ic took eight and a half years to write. The first chap­ter went through twen­ty-six drafts, the last chap­ter fell out ful­ly formed. I prob­a­bly spent a total of a year, at least, pur­su­ing leads that went nowhere. I prob­a­bly spent two years over­all active­ly doing any­thing but writ­ing this book. I sus­pect that, at one point or anoth­er, most peo­ple in my book thought it wasn’t ever going to hap­pen. Some for­got they’d even spo­ken to me. I broke two con­tracts with two pub­lish­ers, repaid one advance, and wasn’t able to repay the oth­er. People’s lives that I was writ­ing about kept chang­ing, and those changes were sig­nif­i­cant and need­ed to be in the book, but books are not built to keep up that way. There was no nat­ur­al place I could see for a full stop.

At one point, I had to ditch twen­ty thou­sand words I wrote about Vera Wasows­ki, one of the book’s main women. I was tak­ing way too long and Vera gave up on me and pub­lished her own mem­oir.

Vera’s mem­oir beat my book by three years. My chap­ter about her was now mean­ing­less. This is a cau­tion­ary tale about tak­ing for­ev­er! I tried to make myself walk away, tail between my legs, but inex­plic­a­bly I couldn’t. I end­ed up writ­ing about Vera in a dif­fer­ent way, and the dis­ap­pear­ance of a chap­ter in front of my eyes turned out to be a bless­ing in dis­guise. So, per­haps, this is a cau­tion­ary tale about how books take as long as they take and it’s okay.

DW: How did you decide to incor­po­rate your per­son­al sto­ry into the book?

MT: I was very clear at the start that I didn’t want to turn my book into a mem­oir or make myself a big­ger pres­ence in it ­so as to make con­fronting mate­r­i­al more palat­able to my read­ers. Palat­able’, digestible’, relat­able’ — I am no fan of this tri­fec­ta of omnipresent adjec­tives. I have a strong pres­ence in the book,not as some­one telling you a sto­ry of their life, but rather as some­one think­ing and feel­ing hard on the page. My pre­vi­ous book, Oth­er­land, was pri­mar­i­ly a mem­oir; Axiomat­ic is a fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent project. It’s not about me.

DW: Your nar­ra­tion shifts from aca­d­e­m­ic cita­tion to report­ed speech to per­son­al reflec­tion. How did you arrive at the nar­ra­tion style for this book? What authors have informed your voice?

MT: I like non­fic­tion writ­ten by writ­ers who are, first and fore­most, poets — Anne Car­son, Eliot Wein­berg­er, Mag­gie Nel­son, Joseph Brod­sky. Michael Hof­mann is my favorite crit­ic and he is a poet too. I mean, they are all schol­ars and every­one on this mod­est (in size but not in stature!) list, apart from Nel­son, is a huge­ly accom­plished lit­er­ary trans­la­tor. So I am influ­enced by peo­ple who move between dif­fer­ent lan­guages and dif­fer­ent lit­er­ary modes but who have a dom­i­nant sen­si­bil­i­ty that is poet­ic. Poets think faster, make con­nec­tions faster. I am drawn to the speed of thought in non­fic­tion. I feel like there are so many swollen, bloat­ed bits of non­fic­tion out there — books that should have been essays, essays that should have been two para­graphs. But also for poets, each word counts in a way that per­haps it doesn’t for fic­tion and non­fic­tion writ­ers. If I try to emu­late any­thing oth­er writ­ers do, it’s that com­mit­ment to every word uttered, every word put on record. Inevitably I fail, but this striv­ing is there, under the skin of Axiomat­ic.

DW: I was struck by sev­er­al metaphor fam­i­lies. First­ly: the body as a container/​vessel of trau­ma — moments of feel­ing trau­ma out/​inside of skin, with/​out skin, body as blimp or bal­loon, etc. Sec­ond­ly, the ongo­ing search for a fixed metaphor for the role of time in trau­ma (some­times an engine, some­times a vor­tex, etc.) What were the chal­lenges of intro­duc­ing metaphors to explain the com­plex dynam­ics of trauma?

MT: Thank you for notic­ing these attempts to find my own lan­guage with which to speak about trau­ma. I feel that the pub­lic lan­guage of trau­ma is way too over-deter­mined both by the clin­i­cal lan­guage of PTSD and trau­ma the­o­ry. As a writer, it is my job to run as fast as I can from dead or dead­en­ing lan­guage towards some­thing that feels alive and illu­mi­nat­ing, more ten­ta­tive than cat­e­gor­i­cal, some­thing that doesn’t seek the air of author­i­ty. Metaphors, per­haps para­dox­i­cal­ly, allow a cer­tain kind of nec­es­sary naked­ness to come back into the way trau­ma is spo­ken about. They are also my way of not using ready-made language.

DW: Your book deals with immense­ly heavy top­ics like sui­cide, child abuse, and drug addic­tion. But there are also light moments: casse­role peri­od,” drink­ing red and white wine. What is the role of humour/​laughter/​‘fric­tion’ in the process of recov­ery (or even in the face of retraumatization)?

MT: I don’t think of humour in my work as some­thing that makes the med­i­cine go down. I respect jokes way too much for that. I think humour is a way of deal­ing with feel­ing stuck — stuck in too much rev­er­ence, stuck in a par­tic­u­lar way of think­ing about some­thing, what­ev­er that might be. It is a lit­tle like open­ing a win­dow in a room that feels a lit­tle dusty or a lit­tle too cocooned from chaos and chance that the out­side world invari­ably brings.

You open the win­dow and your papers fly off the desk, things are set in motion, the air feels dif­fer­ent, all sorts of sounds invade the qui­et of the room, that’s what humour does, it’s invaluable.

DW: Since the book was pub­lished, were there any sig­nif­i­cant reac­tions from your sub­jects? I’m espe­cial­ly curi­ous about Vera and your best friend.

MT: Those women I write about at length in Axiomat­ic knew what I was doing, most of them read their sec­tions and had the right to veto any bits that felt untrue or dan­ger­ous to them. I believe in show­ing peo­ple what I write about them when I can. Some­times it’s not pos­si­ble or some­how doesn’t seem appro­pri­ate, but for the most part I try to be trans­par­ent. I don’t think there were sur­pris­es, but I did do an event with Van­da, Sophie (Vera’s friend) and Lisa where — the chair, who is a dear friend of mine, asked my co-pan­elists what it was like to be writ­ten about by me. And Lisa said these words that put the fear of God into me. She said, The per­son in the book is not me.” She read the book, and saw some­one oth­er than her­self in my words, and it was fine, she got it. She under­stood that look­ing at your­self through the eyes of anoth­er per­son, a writer, was nev­er going to be like look­ing in a mir­ror. But to me it was a gen­uine jolt. I was so ter­ri­fied of inad­ver­tent­ly mis­rep­re­sent­ing one of the peo­ple I was writ­ing about, of being blind to some impor­tant part of their his­to­ry, of caus­ing injury, I was so obsessed with trans­paren­cy and ongo­ing con­sent, I didn’t think to ask a sim­ple ques­tion, Do you recog­nise your­self in my words?’

As to Alexan­dra, she is study­ing the Eng­lish lan­guage and her brain is the size of an Olympic sta­di­um. She is get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter, but she did have to put some of her chap­ter’ through the google trans­late, with pre­dictably far­ci­cal results. Vera liked the Pol­ish part of her chap­ter the most, which pleas­es me to no end.

DW: In Axiomat­ic, the cycli­cal, sys­temic prob­lems at play are prod­ucts of a par­tic­u­lar Aus­tralian ecosys­tem, even as your explo­rations of the inner work­ings of trau­ma feel pro­found­ly cross-cul­tur­al. What do you think trans­lates’ eas­i­ly for non-Aus­tralian read­ers, what might not?

MT: I won­der. Per­haps you can tell me. The specifics are thor­ough­ly Aus­tralian — the names of insti­tu­tions, their par­tic­u­lar con­fig­u­ra­tions, con­straints on teach­ers or lawyers — but it seems to me that the stakes are total­ly intel­li­gi­ble to non-Aus­tralian read­ers. A school in the mid­dle of a cri­sis, or the way in which each soci­ety pro­duces and repro­duces under­class­es of peo­ple that have always already been aban­doned by that society’s insti­tu­tions and safe­ty nets. I was con­cerned that my Amer­i­can read­ers might be put off by the specif­i­cal­ly Aus­tralian ref­er­ences, but it seems not to have been that much of a bar­ri­er. Sur­vival, after­math, love, loss, for­ti­tude, kin­ship — I think these themes trav­el well across cul­tures and contexts.

Dalia Wolf­son is study­ing Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture — with a focus on Russ­ian and Judeo-lan­guage lit­er­a­tures — at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania.