“Who am I? Who are we? Why? What next?”
These are Zamyatin’s questions. Throughout the Russian writer’s great body of work, he repeatedly asked those four questions. By asking, he steps back…way back, away from God and country, away from all the binding strictures of religions, and institutions, and popular culture. He finds the core, the seeds from which all else grows.
It is a valuable exercise for a writer. Slipping into the minds of each of my characters, I begin by asking those four questions. At the start of FACE OF OUR FATHER, Stu and Angie have very different answers to the question, “Who are we?” And their answers supply the core difference from which their discord erupts.
But it is a more valuable exercise for me personally. And perhaps, for you.
For instance, what are my answers right now? Who am I? A writer. Who are we? There is no “we.” Why? I’m trying to write honestly. And, for me, writing honestly means stepping away from everyone and everything that’s gone before, to find the honest core. What next? FACE OF OUR MOTHER.
I can use Zamyatin’s questions to examine any part of my life. Slipping into my mind at age thirty, who was I? An American fighter pilot. Who were we? NATO Cold War warriors. Why? To stand against the corruption of art, the destruction of human hope. What next? Victory or death. By the time I was forty, the Soviet Union had crumbled. Who was I? A husband and father. Who were we? A family. Why? Love. What next? Secure my children’s future.
Maybe by asking ourselves Zamyatin’s questions, by examining the phases of our lives, we can find our core, find ourselves, and find our “What’s next?”
Zamyatin died in self-imposed exile, in Paris in 1937. In the introduction to Zamyatin’s novel WE, Mirra Ginsburg writes of his final years. “To the end he regarded himself as a Soviet writer, waiting merely, as he had written in his letter to Stalin, until ‘it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas without cringing before little men….’”
With Russian President Putin assuming personal control of the investigation into the killing of his greatest critic, Boris Nemtsov, I wonder what Zamyatin would write today? Let me see if I can do some small justice to the inimitable satire of this great Russian writer.
It is a glorious day! The Exalted President Putin has extended his gentle hand to reign in the chaos, to quell our minds, to calm our souls. The Exalted One will secure justice, ensure peace, and yes, guard us closely even unto our final night. Long live the Exalted One!
Perhaps it is a good time for Russians to listen to the voice of their ancestor, and ask themselves, “Who am I? Who are we? Why? What next?”
Stream of Consciousness Quote:
“The world is kept alive only by heretics: the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy.” -Yevgeny Zamyatin