Threadbare: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s family drama

“Russia is a land of women Homers,” Petrushevskaya has said, and it is this informal narrative tradition of ordinary Russian women which gives shape to this novel.

Such women as the protagonist, Anna, who move us throughout day and night, through the piecemeal actions that patch her story, herself and her family, and who pull us into a bleak drama of family tensions that are quite often comedic. Anna is a struggling poet whose adult children continue to depend on her and use her. And it is through this window that Petrushevskaya’s language shows the striations and micropolitics of the Russian state.

Petrushevskaya’s novella has elements of purposeful realism brought into the domestic sphere. There are many details of Russian poverty, and yet there are glimpses of a life lived, Anna’s engagement with language, for example; her performance at readings. “The time: Night” is repeated throughout the novella and becomes like a rhythmic refrain, in which Anna unspools her thoughts about her family members, a different register each time. Aesthetically, it becomes linked with indoors, the place where she can write.”The time: Night”: and now a further narrative progresses that is not exactly linear.

Even though Anna’s voice is forthright, I think Petrushevskaya’s work has postmodern tendencies in that Anna does not present as a traditional subject. From the beginning it is clear that she is writing to her family from beyond the grave, and is a decentred/deconstructed construct. The conceit here is that her poems and narratives are on scraps of paper and telegrams. Character development is also disruptive in temporal peaks and troughs, and the novella tends to blur the line between tragedy and comedy. However, the force of affect is apparent in Anna’s desire to both connect and sever relations with her family members, and this is perhaps a sign that the gendered subject is in motion in a new way. This is most exemplified by Anna’s harsh questioning and refusal of the ‘mother’ role and, in turn, by her melodramatic swooning over her grandchild, Tima.

combine sounds & ideas

Collaborating is about acknowledging the edge of your own experience, and appreciating what someone else brings. It is about respect and sometimes confusion, while moving forward. And it is allowing space for the combined art to surprise — where did this come from? In this sense, collaborations should not hold on to expectations once an initial framework has been given. Or, the process should be lightly reviewed as both parties move into production.

beginning again

You need courage to look in the dark, and even more to pull out what you find. Not only that, you need guts to be able to think about what to do with these things when you’re putting the globules, pixels, sparklets — however different — together in a room. I’m writing several articles and while some of these draw on my PhD research, I’m getting that research bug again and wanting to write afresh. But along with the excitement of the new, comes a little uncertainty about writing the new material.

I found this, written in the early stages of my thesis:

“I see what my supervisors meant when they said you get better at living with the uncertainty and anxiety of research as you get on and it never goes away completely. You just have to sit with it, write through it or over it. What is worrying me is that I may have become so reliant on language that I may not be able to find my way back to a sensing sound, compositional approach.”

There are two things here. One, I was surprised to find that I am in need of this very advice (really?) — after the euphoria after passing a PhD! The cycle of research continues, though at a faster rate. Two, I may have had times where I was writing more than I was making or playing, but I always I return to experimenting with sound and producing music. My body is fitter than it was and now I am playing the flute with more resilience. In general, even though my seizures continue, I feel very connected to sound and musical ideas. And to get back to my opening point, although there is uncertainty with bringing divergent ideas together into an argument, I am writing through it whenever I can.

Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim

Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim has spoken about feminist issues concerning the African and Arab world since the 1950s, active in the women’s and anticolonial struggle in the Sudan. Her political streak soon became evident in secondary school when she started her own wall paper (like a paste up) called Elra’edda, meaning “Leading Girls”, which explored women’s rights issues, democracy and the oppression of colonialism. After school she joined the Sudanese Communist Party and became an active member, opposing the Abboud military dictatorship; she also became editor-in-chief of Sawt al-Mara (Women’s Voice). In 1962, she published Our Path to Emancipation, which articulates a Sudanese feminist history and praxis — an approach that moves beyond the toppling of sexual oppression, to consider the configurations of society that form collective and individual experience  (Abusharaf 2004). The work was important and was often debated within the Sudanese woman’s movement.

Decades before the contentious and unjust debate on the veil in the West, Ibrahim introduced a conceptual framework for the Sudanese Women’s Union stemming from her belief that:

Women can be veiled but liberated. The equation of the veil with male supremacy is shortsighted and narrow. The veil does not oppress women, but politics and oppressive regimes do.

Ibrahim knew that taking off the veil wouldn’t result in liberation, rather empowerment would come through economic independence and, education. The other element that mattered was habit, social relations, and tradition. In a 2003 interview, Ibrahim states that “changing deeply entrenched traditions and norms are far more difficult than changing governments.” The way to counter this is to engage in engage in critical thinking about oppressive practices. What is significant is that emancipation means “transcending culturally sanctioned oppressive practices”: a ‘woman’s movement’ — a movement of multiple women that a freedom fighter might lead then — is about women gaining “the culmination of (..) consciousness about their grievances as a sex. It is also a manifestation of the increased recognition of their rights and the significance of coming  together to organize for change.” (Ibrahim 2003). In other words, consciousness raising. Ibrahim also points out that although education might be one road to liberation, it is not the way to necessarily change the status quo (Abusharaf 2004). She mentions that a large number of educated women were not members of trade unions, for example.

I have given only a fragmented view of a woman’s life, but this is a reminder that there are remarkable feminist thinkers and doers who are not part of the academic west, who have evolved their own theories and practices in cycle with the politics of context. I would like to read Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim’s texts Our Path to Emancipation and Our Harvest in Twenty Years when they become available. Her (1996) journal article “Sudanese Women’s Union: Strategies for Emancipation and the Counter Movement” is available (open access) here — it is worth reading in her own words.


Corellas in the conifer eat the budding cones at the tip of the tree. Binding bird and bite – I see them and hear them first in the distance, crest-less cockatoos. Two of them reach for the tree’s crunchy fruit, and then a third hangs upside down bending on a tree spindle. Large white birds with naked heads. And a call somewhere between a cocky’s, a waterbird and an old human, graceful in her frailty.