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A Kamchatka Story – or is it?

April 1, 2020

Koryaksky Volcano towers over Petropavlovsky-Kamchatsky, the only city on Kamchatka. (Photo: Kuhnmi, CC)

Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, 2019

Kamchatka is a large peninsula in east Russia, across the Bering Sea from Alaska. It is a land of volcanoes, earthquakes and geysers, and was a military zone until the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is separated from the Russian mainland by hundreds of kilometers of impassable mountains and tundra, so that the only ways to enter or leave are by air or sea.

This remote and isolated region is the setting for Julia Phillips’ first novel, Disappearing Earth. Rather than focus on one or two protagonists, Phillips portrays a whole community. In the first chapter, “August”, two sisters, aged eleven and eight, disappear. This is followed by twelve stories, one for each month of the year after the abduction. Each story is from the point of view of a different female character, who has been affected in some way by the girls’ disappearance. For example, one woman’s partner used the abduction as an excuse to increase his controlling behaviour.

Julia Phillips

The community consists of two groups: ethnic Russians and Indigenous people. Racism is rife and the characters refer to the groups as “whites” and “natives”. The police try, ineffectively, to find the girls, who are Russian, but ignore the earlier disappearance of an Indigenous girl.

Disappearing Earth has received almost universal praise, was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and was one of the New York Times books of the year for 2019.

I found the early stories to be the least interesting, and I wondered if I should continue reading. I’m glad I persisted, as the prose and story-telling gets better and better as we read on. It is worth reading the book just for the emotional roller coaster of the final two chapters. The penultimate story, “June”, is from the viewpoint of Marina, the mother of the missing children. A journalist, she has come to the town of Esso to cover Nurgenek, the summer solstice new year celebration of the Indigenous Even people. Pushed along by the crowd, she is urged to jump over the fire of the old year.

Marina’s hands were full. She could not press them flat to her chest, and she knew how much she needed them there, how soon she would choke without their comfort. What was the point of all this? She was trying to push out of the line but people kept coming. … No one near Marina understood. Without her girls, all she had was this breathlessness. Terrible as it was – and it was, it was – it was all she had left to mother.

She jumped.

As I read the novel, I flicked between admiration of Phillips’ writing skill and uneasiness at how she writes from the point of view of First Nations people and ethnic Russians. Phillips grew up in New Jersey. Did her year in Kamchatka on a Fulbright Scholarship give her the insight to access the people’s inner lives?

In an interview for the Paris Review, Phillips testifies against herself:

“I feel like what I brought to the story and the place were very much American concerns and American ideas. As much I tried to accurately reflect what I was seeing, what I was seeing was deeply informed, if not completely informed, by my Americanness.

“The design of this book was intended to explore the range of violences in women’s lives. … A lot of what I’m talking about are things that I brought with me to Kamchatka. These are things that preoccupy me all the time.”

The issue that preoccupies Phillips can cause immense damage to people and communities. Does the urgent need to confront this issue justify writing her own way of thinking about it into the heads of people of a very different culture? How is this different from a white person wearing blackface?

I’m still trying to work my way through that puzzle.

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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