Professor Ian Ross Singleton is a writer and translator and teaches in the Baruch Writing Program. His short stories, translations, reviews, and essays have appeared in journals such as New Madrid; Digital Americana; Midwestern Gothic; Fiddleblack; Asymptote; Ploughshares; The Los Angeles Review of Books, and several times in Fiction Writers Review, where his essay “Of Translation and Politics in Russian Literature” was the most read of 2016. His short story collection manuscript Grow Me Up was a finalist for the 2017 Tartt Fiction Award.
He was a student at the University of Michigan and earned an MFA in Fiction from Emerson College. He has taught creative writing and literature for New York Writers Workshop, PrisonWrites!, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at San Francisco State University, Cogswell Polytechnical College, the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, the Prison University Project, and the PEN Prison Writing Program.
What are you writing these days?
Well, I’ve been working on a project for about seven years. It’s a novel about Odessa, Ukraine, and it’s inspired by my having learned Russian when I met my partner, who’s from Odessa. A lot of it has to do with learning Russian, speaking Russian as a second language learner, and the American fascination with finding one’s roots. You know, nobody wants to be just American—not nobody, but Americans seem to find that that’s not enough, that there’s something lacking in being just American. So it was 2012 when I started writing that. Then in December 2013,when I had already gotten this project well underway, the Euromaidan movement started, when Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal with the European Union and took one with Vladimir Putin.
That started an ongoing war, and throughout the winter and early spring, there was a lot of violence in the East of Ukraine. Nobody really seemed to think it would reach Odessa, which is in South Central Ukraine. But it did on May 2nd; there was a protest of partisan people in a place called Kulikovo Field. There was an encampment there of pro-Russian people who took over the Trade Union building there. And at some point on May 2nd, 2014, during the clash between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters, somebody set fire to the building. Around 50 people died. It was the worst violence in Odessa since World War II.
That really changed everything. I mean, that whole conflict had put Ukraine on the map, so to speak, for Americans. And for a long time, I felt conflicted about whether I should write about that. It really affected people: my in-laws, the family of my partner, my wife who was born there. And so I started writing it in. I’m interested in politics, and I think the reason why I’m telling this long story is because I think that a lot of American writers jump on these kinds of topics. There’s something ethically dubious about that. I mean, I’ve heard a writer who has been very successful writing about the post-Soviet world say that at one point he realized that region was “hot.”
But the other side of that is many people died. And I always try to make it clear that I didn’t start writing about Ukraine because of this. I did choose to write about it, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that people have died and people are suffering, and what’s happening in Ukraine is a legitimate independence movement. I don’t think that Putin is really that interested in anything more than just keeping Ukraine from being able to bring itself up economically. But I always want to make that clear when I talk about this project. I’m not trying to write about Ukraine to exploit it, to entertain people.
I’m rewriting the novel manuscript. Some of it needed to be overhauled. I did a lot of research on the 1930s Soviet Union. But, in the end, this wasn’t that meaningful as a place of comparison with that time and with what’s happening in Ukraine now. And although I thought there were some interesting stories about that time, they’ve already been told—few pay attention. That was the research I did. I wasn’t researching unpublished documents; I was researching memoirs of people in the gulag. Those people can speak for themselves. They already have.
I overhauled the book and thought a lot about the voice. I put more in the female protagonist’s perspective as much as I could instead of in the perspective of the male character. So I’ve made it more about her, which I like. For the time being, I have no interest in writing males except in a kind of satirical way—or if not satirical, in a way that’s critical.
What do you feel like Americans could learn from the novel? What do you think maybe Americans either don’t know or often don’t seem to understand about the Ukraine situation?
I mean, there’s so much that Americans don’t know. I remember seeing a Washington Post article about how something like 80% of the U.S. populace didn’t even know where Ukraine was on the map before 2013 or 2014. If I had to pick, I think the linguistic history alone is something that I would like people to understand about Ukraine. In Odessa, most people speak Russian because it was always kind of a cosmopolitan place. Russian was the imperial language—like how in certain parts of the world, English is the colonial, imperial language because of the British Empire. The linguistic history is a big part of it because you can trace the conflict just with the language. That’s one way of looking at the conflict.
So how do you try to do that in your book? How does that kind of conflict play out in the story that you’re trying to tell?
I’m trying to capture the language of Odessa as close as I can with my limited knowledge of it. That language is Russian with some Ukrainian. It has some German influence because of the Jewish population—well, and the German population. I’m trying to reflect that. My novel talks a lot about language, and I try to pay close attention to the way people speak, even though I assume that many readers won’t speak Russian. I try to explain it as best I can, but I also anticipate that some of my readers will speak Russian. I would love to be read by as many people as would love to read me, but I think specifically about readers who have some knowledge of Russian while trying also to make sure that I’m not writing exclusively for those people because that seems to me to be kind of esoteric in a bad way.
So you wear a lot of hats—as a writer, an editor, a translator, and a teacher. When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
I don’t remember. Well, [laughs] I guess playing with “dolls.” They weren’t called dolls, because they were toys for boys. They were called “action figures”. . . but they were dolls. Once my grandmother said to my mother that she’d heard what I was saying while playing with them—and that I was making up all these stories that she thought were really interesting and good. So I got praise from my grandmother when I was a little boy, and then heard about it through my mom. Up to and through high school I got a lot of good praise for writing–almost never from men, it would appear. But it didn’t feel like I was putting that much effort into my writing. I wasn’t striving and struggling like I do now.
And then I got to college, and I was kind of expecting to just keep riding that wave of praise—it had kind of spoiled me. At Michigan, the stakes were higher, and there were a lot of people from different places. The world became bigger, and I stopped getting the praise that I had so quickly gotten used to. I started when I was a child, but when I started to think about questions such as,”Am I willing to put up with all the difficulty and labor of this?” and “Am I going to get to continue to do this?”—cause it’s hard and you’re never entitled to success—it became something I believed I had to do because I had once been good at it, had chosen it, and was, for all intents and purposes, stuck with it. It continues to be that kind of a situation for me. That first began around college age, around 20 or 21, the undergraduate years. Like my students now, I started to see it more as a practice. Talent, or perhaps just luck, only took me so far.
What was your experience at Michigan like?
Well it was just bigger… There were more complexities. I started noticing class differences a lot more. It was a diverse place. I started noticing how many students in Ann Arbor were from a different part of southeast Michigan than where I was from.
In my first year, I went to a commuter campus. There were a lot of people studying to be engineers to go and work for Ford. It’s Dearborn, where the headquarters are located. When I went to Ann Arbor, there was almost nobody from Dearborn. Dearborn is a nice kind of solidly middle class factory town of Detroit. In Dearborn, I had known a lot of people from downriver Detroit, which is lower in terms of class than Dearborn. And when I went to Ann Arbor, there were very few from downriver Detroit or Dearborn. Almost everybody from the area was from north of Detroit, which is the wealthier part. So I was able to start reflecting on my own background, the privilege that I had, and the privilege that I didn’t have.
I also, while I was there, had a friend leave college. He and I lived together, and I worked during the summer in the post office. I was a letter carrier for three-and-a-half months, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I would be working six days a week, getting up and delivering mail all day long. I remember a couple of times I had a route on which my friends lived; I would bring their mail to their house, and they would be like waking up at noon, hungover. And they were going to go swim in a lake, and that was all they were gonna do all day. And I realized that to others “that’s what you’re supposed to do”—that summer is your time off, it’s your break.
After that summer, I met with the friend I mentioned, who had dropped out. At the beginning of that summer I had thought that the mailman gig was a more valuable job. I was kind of lost. I didn’t know what I was doing in college. Meanwhile, I felt that it was very clear what I was doing as a mailman. I was just earning money. It was just, you know, a blue-collar job—a literally blue-collar job. I thought that there was nothing wrong with that. A lot of people I knew in Dearborn hadn’t gone to college, had gone to work for Ford, and were making pretty good salaries. I mean, they were working horrible hours, and their jobs were incredibly boring, but they were making good money.
I got inspected one day while I was a letter carrier. The union guys were telling me how to handle it. One guy said, , “Go as fast as you can and try to lose the inspector.” Another guy said, “Go as slow as you can.” The inspector was timing me If I went too fast, I’d make it harder for anybody else who does that route. The inspector and management could say, “Well, Ian Singleton did it in that amount of time.”
So union pressure? …Don’t be too good, don’t be too bad. You gotta be just mediocre.
Yeah, but it was fun.
They’re union guys. One day I stepped in some dog manure, and the union guys were like, “Go into the supervisor’s office and walk around on his rug a bit.” They were really tough, but they were good, good people. It was hard work. You have to work on Saturdays… It’s a hard life. And so by the end of that summer, when I went back to class, I appreciated college more.
Nonetheless, I was starting to question what I was doing, and I mentioned this to this guy, the one who had dropped out, offhandedly. I said I’d thought about dropping out, and he said, “Don’t. Don’t drop out. It’s really hard to get back in.” He’s in prison now, for grand theft auto. I’m not joking.
I mean, that was convincing. I could see that it was one of those kind of moments when he looked hard at me. He said, “If you don’t ever listen to anything I say, just listen to this one thing.” It was very intense.
What was the first thing that you published?
I published in some student journals at Michigan. The first publication that was in a “big journal” that I had was a translation of a story by Rainer Maria Rilke that I had never seen translated. It was from when he was pretty young. It was about a couple eloping, but they kind of chicken out. It’s a great story, “Die Flucht.”
So you know German?
Yeah, I studied German while I was at Michigan. I published this translation after Michigan, when I was in graduate school at Emerson College. My first piece of fiction was in an online journal called Conte. It was about an interracial couple in North Carolina in the 60s during the Vietnam War.
Why’d you pick that topic?
I was just getting interested in race and the different ways that it affected people who went to war. My dad was in Vietnam, but he was in the Navy. Nobody ever thinks he’s a veteran. He doesn’t wear the hat, the patches on his coat, and stuff… He doesn’t have any of his uniform. He just forgot about it—or tried to.
Did he come back against it?
Well, I don’t think that he was really for it in the first place. He got drafted when he was in college. It’s complex. Sometimes he says stuff that sounds like he was against it, but sometimes, he kind of agrees with the reasons why it happened in a way that I certainly don’t. But that might be why I put in a character who went to war and one who didn’t in that first published story. I wanted to explore racial privilege. It’s about a young white man, kind of a hipster at the time, and his girlfriend is black. She’s worried about him going to war, and he’s not worried about that. He should be. It’s also about the consciousness of black Americans about our vulnerability. The white hipster character doesn’t have that..
What were some things that you’ve read over the years that have kind of stuck with you: model forms, inspiring fiction works that you come back to for style, or otherwise?
Well, Franz Kafka is number one. That’s actually why I learned German. I really liked the way he turns things into such deeply meaningful parable, and he seems to be able to write about anything—the most boring, seemingly boring, everyday thing, in a way that becomes really significant and meaningful. And I guess some people find his works depressing, but I tend to like that somewhat gloomy perspective. So that’s a huge influence, but I’m almost afraid to try to write that way. Another is William Faulkner. Because I grew up in Alabama, William Faulkner was always a big influence. But he’s so wild, I’ve had to take a step back. Through him I went to Cormac McCarthy. I kind of tried to imitate Cormac McCarthy for a while, so I had to step back from that too. I hesitate to say dangerous, but it’s risky for a young writer to try and pull it off because it might just end up being lazy or not being that accessible.
What do you like to read with your students?
I try to use the approach of letting them guide me a little bit with that. Now I have two curricula: one is about the geography of the city or “hoodology.” In short, it’s about walking through New York City. For that we always start out with the first chapter of Teju Cole’s Open City. I was reading that when I moved here. It discusses the various layers of “information at rest,” which is what Cole calls the forgotten past of New York City.. So I try to give them examples and models to follow. In my other class, roughly about “identity,” I’ve had success in getting students to look at language as a way of narrativizing their lives. I have them read essays like “Borges and I” by Jorges Luis Borges and “Me Myself and It” by Margaret Atwood. I have a whole book of essays and short-short stories about the authorial I or the authorial personality. I’m always looking for new things to share with them.
So how do you feel like working with multiple languages in a text like that has changed your attitude about how language is used?
It has made me think about how any one language actually has many languages within it. I suppose these are discourse communities. Each of them, I’m sure, speaks more than one language because they speak differently with their friends or with their families. Many of them don’t speak English with their families. But even when they speak English, they speak differently with their friends, with their lovers, or with people with whom they engage in transactions. And so then I tell them that we’re learning academic-ese, or something that can be used to write essays, to participate in the discourse community of academics. And I do that because I want them to objectify what they’re doing and think about it as learning a different language. I tell them I want them to show a certain level of proficiency in this language before I can pass them. I think that can help them to appreciate all the languages they speak. I learn slang and things from them all the time, and I don’t want them to think that they need to get rid of that lexis. I think that’s rich, beautiful material. But I also want them to think about language as a tool and be able to externalize it a lot.
A lot of times when I’m grading, I find myself asking my students to proofread out loud because that’s a really quick way of doing it. I ask them that because I realize how busy they are and that they have other classes and things like that. This might not be the primary focus of their college career. But I also think that they need to learn why it is that they’ve made what I’m now learning to call not mistakes or errors but the choices that they have. I try to suggest better choices. So I kind of think of it as something objective, something that they can mold to their ends, to their means—a way of keeping it from just being about, you know, what’s “normal.” I don’t think that’s a good way of doing it, just to kind of hammer down any dents. I use the translanguaging exercises that the Writing Center has and encourage my students to think about other languages—but in order to write in academic-ese. I do allow them to write outside of academic-ese at the beginning, but then we move into it with rhetorical analysis.
How do you see your role as an instructor in the classroom?
I think a mentor would be what I would say, and sometimes a cheerleader. And then a coach, too, because sometimes they just need somebody to make them go through the motions. Also sometimes, as an advisor. I know they have people whom they actually call advisors, and that’s not me, but sometimes I think about giving them advice about language—but I also feel like there’s a desire sometimes for more than that. I don’t become their therapist—and I don’t want to use that role either—but I feel a need for that a lot from them. I try to use that need to get them to put those questions and those requests into their writing and into their analytical and research purposes.
Sometimes it comes out really well. I have seen this with the last assignment that I assigned. It’s called “Mistaken Identity” because it’s about being misidentified as a certain kind of person—or just being misidentified, however that can be interpreted.
What kinds of things do you hope students take away from your writing classes?
I hope that they can see writing only as something positive in their life—a tool, a very valuable tool. And it’s hard to argue that they’re not going to use it in their careers. I’ve occasionally heard said, “It’s not like you’re going to go back to your boss, and your boss is going to tell you to write a three-page essay, and you’re going to go back to your cubicle and do that.” I have no idea how that could be true, actually. I think that happens every day in many of the professions that students will go into. I just think that’s complete crap that they won’t use it.
Maybe their work won’t be called an essay, but it’s definitely often the same kind of work, yeah.
I was really surprised by that attitude. It undoes a lot of the work that I do. So I guess I don’t want them to think of writing as something of which they should be afraid. That’s why I like journaling assignments, and that’s why I try to get them interested in writing a research paper about something that is a very legitimate question for them. But just getting them to see it as a question is a big part of the work.