Russian sentences begin backward,
Sophia Shalmiyev tells us on the first page of her striking, lyrical memoir, Mother Winter. To understand the end of her story we must go back to her beginning.
Born to a Russian mother and an Azerbaijani father, Shalmiyev was raised in the stark oppressiveness of 1980s Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). An imbalance of power and the prevalence of antisemitism in her homeland led her father to steal Shalmiyev away, emigrating to America, abandoning her estranged mother, Elena. At age eleven, Shalmiyev found herself on a plane headed west, motherless and terrified of the new world unfolding before her.
Now a mother herself, in Mother Winter Shalmiyev recounts her emotional journeys as an immigrant, an artist, and a woman raised without her mother. Depicted in urgent vignettes that trace her flight from the Soviet Union and back again to find the mother she never knew, Shalmiyev’s story is an arresting, impassioned account that is equal parts refugee-coming-of-age tale, feminist manifesto, and a meditation on motherhood, displacement, gender politics, and art. Her years of travel, searching, and forging meaningful connection with the worlds she occupies culminates in a searing observation of the human heart and psyche's many shades across time and culture.
Sophia Shalmiyev’s story transfixed me from the moment I started reading. Here was a woman on a mission—quite literally, to find the mother she was forced to abandon in Leningrad as an eleven-year-old girl, and to reunite with her in Mother Russia after years of searching and longing. Here was a woman looking, not only for the woman you see pictured on this book’s jacket, but for the essence of a near-stranger who had been woven so intimately into the fabric of Shalmiyev’s own life.
I soon realized that she was on another mission entirely—one that extended beyond geography or consequences. Here was a writer concerned with breaking narrative conventions, to find and forge a voice so fiery and unapologetically her own, to tell her story, of course, but also the story of many—Russians and Americans, women and artists, immigrants and citizens, misfits and bandits, and perhaps most potently, mothers and daughters.
Mother Winter upended my own expectations of what memoir is, and can be. I think this is what all good writing should do: take conventions and color them in a new shade so unfamiliar and enticing that you can’t help but see your world with new eyes.
Zachary Knoll, Assistant Editor
Simon & Schuster