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'Soviet Daughter': How A Great-Grandmother's Diary Became A Graphic Novel

Jan 22, 2017
Originally published on January 22, 2017 6:32 am

Author Julia Alekseyeva's great-grandmother Lola lived to be 100 years old, long enough to see the birth, and eventual collapse, of the USSR. In 1992, she and her family — including young Julia — moved from Kiev to Chicago.

Unbeknownst to her family, Lola began to write her memoirs, recording the stories of her life as a Jew in the Soviet Union, filled with vivid details and enlivened by a strong, independent spirit. Upon Lola's death, Julia discovered her great-grandmother's memoirs, and has now transformed them into her debut graphic novel, Soviet Daughter.

NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks with Alekseyeva about what the process of creating the book revealed to her about her great-grandmother's life.


Interview Highights

On discovering her great-grandmother's writing

My family emigrated from what had just become Ukraine in 1992, and she slowly started writing certain things in a notebook and sort of keeping them hidden from everyone. And to a couple of people she had said, "Oh, I'm writing memoirs," but no one really took it seriously.

Then after she died it was discovered and she had actually written a little note in the beginning, "Do not read this until my death." And so my grandmother and I read it, and I just thought it was completely extraordinary, because it had so many details from the [Russian] Revolution through the Civil War and then World War II and then the thaw — all of that was completely there, in writing.

So I thought it would make such a great work to be able to show this to other people, and for them to understand what was really happening in the USSR through one person's perspective.

On her great-grandmother being a "wild child"

Something that was, I think, kept from me as I was growing up was the extent to which she was kind of a wild child ... and would go out on dates and have all these affairs and then just drop them — be like, "Oh, not interested anymore, sorry." Which was not something that was praised in my family.

On their relationship

I was left alone with her a lot as a young child when we first emigrated to the United States. My mother was trying to find work, and my grandparents were trying to help out in other ways and trying to help my mother, so I was pretty much left with Lola by myself for the bulk of my early childhood.

We played games, she taught me a lot, we talked and we just bonded and stayed very close. I think I was one of the few people that she did open up to a little bit, and something I talk about in the [book] is that when I was 20, I had this little janitorial sort of gig when I would go to her apartment and sort of clean it and then she would give me tea, and we would chat for a couple of hours.

And at that point ... I was going through a breakup, so I thought everything was the most dramatic thing in the entire world. So [listening to her stories] gave me an interesting perspective.

On why her family emigrated to the U.S.

Something that I had always assumed — and what was on the official paperwork — was that we were refugees due to being Jewish and ... anti-Semitism in the former USSR.

But [what] was made clear to me [only] two, three years ago was that it was actually due to Chernobyl. So a lot of people were unsure what was going on health-wise, and everyone sort of thought, "We have to leave here, we don't know what this cloud is, hanging over Kiev in 1986." ...

I was born two years later ... I was not sick as a child, but I found out that I had thyroid cancer as a senior in college and got treated, and it's fine now but I think this happens to a lot of people that were emigrating from the USSR at that moment.

On why she chose the graphic novel format

My great-grandmother was a very, very bright person but she was not educated in the classical sense of the term. ... [In her memoirs] there were a lot of run-on sentences, some words that were a little too casual ... and if I just translated directly from Russian to English you would lose that kind of aura.

Also [by using the comics medium], people could actually visualize what was happening in this book, because I think it's hard for a lot of people who didn't grow up with the same imagery to really understand what these people were, what was going on in those regions — the uniforms, the parks. The idea of just Soviet living is so far, far removed from what most Americans expect.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A secret diary, a hidden history. Julia Alekseyeva discovered her great-grandmother Lola's memoir, and she turned it into her debut graphic novel. It's called "Soviet Daughter." It tells the story of Lola, a barely educated Ukrainian woman who lived through the creation of the Soviet Union and its eventual collapse. Julia Alekseyeva, thanks so much for being with us.

JULIA ALEKSEYEVA: Thank you so much for having me on the show.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me first how you discovered your great-grandmother's writing.

ALEKSEYEVA: So my family emigrated from what had just become Ukraine in 1992, and she slowly started writing certain things in a notebook and sort of keeping them hidden from everyone. And then after she died, it was discovered. And she had actually written a little note in the beginning, do not read this until my death. And so...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

ALEKSEYEVA: ...My grandmother and I read it. And I just thought it was completely extraordinary because it had so many details from the Revolution through the Civil War and then World War II and then the thaw - all of that was completely there and in writing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So when you opened this book, this sort of history, what was written there? What surprised you? Were there things that you didn't know?

ALEKSEYEVA: There were. She put as many details in there as she could remember. I think it was also a way for her to stay lucid in the last 10 years of her life because she lived to be 100. And she put in all of these details, many of which were kind of unnecessary in the context of the book, like which cousin married which other person that they knew, how they got together. You know, all of that was cute, but...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All the minutia of a family. Exactly.

ALEKSEYEVA: Exactly - and that this person liked apples. And I was like, all right, fine. But there were a lot of sort of surprising details. Something that was, I think, kept from me as I was growing up was the extent to which she was kind of a wild child, you know? And, you know, would go out on dates and have all these affairs and then just drop them, be like, oh, not interested anymore, sorry. Which was not something that was praised in - (laughter) in my family. And so - but...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And probably not very well known. It's not very often that one's great-grandmother will sit and discuss the affairs of their youth. Did that make you feel this connection? All of a sudden she became a much more real person. Her story became much fuller, more nuanced.

ALEKSEYEVA: Absolutely. It did. Although I have to say that she - weirdly enough, we did have that strong bond in person. So I was left alone with her a lot as a young child. When we first emigrated to the United States, my mother was trying to find work and my grandparents were trying to help out in other ways, so I was pretty much left with Lola for the bulk of my early childhood. And we just bonded.

And something I talk about in the story is that when I was 20, I had this janitorial gig when I would go to her apartment and sort of clean it, and then she would give me tea and we would chat for a couple of hours. And she would tell me all of these stories, but I didn't write them down. I just sort of took them in. And at that point, as a 20-year-old, I was going through breakups. I thought everything was the most dramatic thing in the entire world. So it gave me an interesting perspective.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You came here together with your great-grandmother. You moved from Kiev to Chicago right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why did your family come here?

ALEKSEYEVA: So something that I had always assumed and what was on the official paperwork was that we were refugees due to being Jewish and due to anti-Semitism. The real reason that I think many people emigrated and - but this was made clear to me two, three years ago - was that it was actually due to Chernobyl. Everyone sort of thought, we have to leave here. We don't know what this cloud is hanging over Kiev in 1986. And I was born two years later, and there was a sense in which they didn't know what would happen to all of these kids that were born around this time. And so a lot of families, even though there was anti-Semitism, chose to leave for other reasons. And Chernobyl was that moment where a lot of people decided, we have to go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Were you sick?

ALEKSEYEVA: I was not sick as a child, but I found out that I had thyroid cancer as a senior in college. And got treated and it's fine now, but I think this happens to a lot of people that were emigrating from the USSR at that moment, especially young children.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you choose to make it into a graphic novel and not a more sort of conventional novel?

ALEKSEYEVA: So my great-grandmother was a very, very bright person, but she was not educated in the classical sense of the term. She stopped going to school in fourth grade in order to take care of her siblings and to sort of run her household in a crazy way, so she didn't have the kind of diction that one would expect from a writer. There were a lot of run-on sentences, some words that were a little too casual. And so she wasn't...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Educated.

ALEKSEYEVA: Well, she was - she was self-educated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

ALEKSEYEVA: So it's a very different kind of intelligence. And if I had just translated directly from Russian to English, it would lose that kind of aura. And also, that way, people could actually visualize what was happening in this book because I think it's hard for a lot of people who didn't grow up with the same imagery to really understand what was going on in those regions - the uniforms, the parks, the idea of just Soviet living.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this work, you also talk about the sometimes difficult relationship with your own mother. How did your family react to having this story told?

ALEKSEYEVA: My family is not necessarily with it in terms of, like, literary activity. They're not big readers. At least my mother is not a big reader. So she didn't realize that this genre existed. So she just thought, oh, it's just some activity that she has going on. And so once I got a publishing deal it became very, very serious. And I don't think the majority of my family was very happy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why?

ALEKSEYEVA: I think to them it's like airing dirty laundry. You know, like, why would people want to know these things? We're not so special. What are you going to say? That's not something that we want everyone to hear. I think they would never think of this story being useful for others. I, of course, disagree (laughter). But it varied, and my closest family members were not very happy with what ended up happening with the book.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has that been difficult for you?

ALEKSEYEVA: It has because I started the book to pay homage to a family member that I loved very deeply. And what ended up happening is that it kind of pulled a lot of my family apart. So unfortunately, I think these things kind of happen. I think once they realize that they're not getting phone calls saying, leave the United States now, we don't want you here, you know, kind of thing - I think it'll get a little better with time. But right now it's still a very stressful situation with my family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Julia Alekseyeva's debut graphic novel is "Soviet Daughter." It came out this month from Microcosm Press. Thank you so much.

ALEKSEYEVA: Thank you so much. This was wonderful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.