Excerpt from How to Be UnMothered


An excerpt from How to Be UnMothered: A Trini Memoir. 


Come now. Peer through the fancy blocks in the walls’ top. And watch. Three little girls in a semicircle. One perched on the edge of the couch. Not sitting back comfortable. Looking on at the tableau, troubled. That’s me. 

Pan next to the other daughter sitting fold up in an armchair. Let your gaze rest there. See her caramel fingers fidgeting in her lap. See a smile flickering in and out of focus to reveal the gap where her permanent canine is still playing shy. That’s Ericka, who can’t seem to keep her lips stretched. Benign. In a smile. Nor can she keep the crease from her 10-year-old forehead. That practiced line. Ericka, who can’t seem to keep a fun expression. She’s overdone. And, doesn’t know now, in the third act, what is the Mummy-required emotion. 

Excerpt from How to Be UnMothered



An excerpt from A Broken Russian Inside Me. 


It’s New Year’s Eve 2019, the chief holiday for me, an irreligious relic of the dreaded Soviet system. I call my mother’s friend, Bronya. Since Mom’s death in 2004, I’ve stayed in touch. Bronya met Mom at school around the age of ten. No one else, living or dead, has known my mother for that long.

“Have you been going out to the philharmonic this year?” I ask her in Russian, our first language.

A former English teacher, Bronya is an opera buff with a vast collection, supplemented by several DVDs I sent from the United States. Still, she refuses to buy a computer to access operas online.

“No, I couldn’t. I’ve not been feeling too well this year.”

“I’m so sorry. What’s going on with you?”

It’s awkward to discuss health issues on the phone, especially with someone in her eighties. It grips me viscerally, the fact that Bronya and the rest of her generation are on the front row, preparing to be weeded out by time.

“I’m old.” Her tone is matter-of-fact.

“But what are the doctors saying?”

“I don’t need any doctors.” Sarcasm in her voice. “What can a doctor do?”

I hear my mother’s opinions in this statement, recall her death at sixty-nine.

 Bronya sighs, as if reading my thoughts. “I remember your mom so often. So strange, how the whole life has passed.”

“It’s beginning to feel strange even to me.”

“You should come and visit.”

Invitations from folks in Russia break me each time.

“I’d love to, but I’m not sure when I’ll make it to Russia again.”

“Where are you now?”

The question stops me, squeezes air out of my lungs. We’ve been in touch ever since I visited her in St. Petersburg in 2011. She should know where I am.

The growing pause presses on my ears.

“I’m in America.”

“Very good. Well, if you’re ever in St. Petersburg, please visit. I’d love that.”

“I will.”


It’s July 4, 2020, a dubious holiday in the United States. This year is worse than most, with coronavirus cases rapidly growing and the Trump presidency deteriorating at the same rate. Protests against police brutality continue; hope and tragedy are in the air. Black lives matter, but what other obstacles will the conservatives place in the way of this self-evident statement? How many more innocent Black lives will be lost?

This also happens to be Bronya’s birthday. She is eighty-five, and I call her at the dacha, where she tends to spend her summer months.

“Aunt Bronya, Happy Birthday!” It’s nighttime here in Portland; it’s morning in St. Petersburg.

“Thank you.” Her voice is tired, like the last time, but something in me hopes that she will snap into her familiar self, full of operas and plays, books and opinions.

“How’s your health?” I ask.

“So-so. But I like it here at the dacha.”

“How are you doing with the pandemic?”

“Tola, what did you say? I can’t hear you very well.”

I repeat, but she can’t seem to parse the word or the alternatives I try: coronavirus, quarantine. I give up; it doesn’t sound as if she’s kept up with the medical scare.

“And your cats?” I try.

“They’re happy. Here they are, resting.” I imagine the two orange cats. “They like it here in the country. You should visit.”

“Thank you.” A tightness in my throat. “Not sure when I’ll be in Russia.”

“Where are you now?”

“I’m in America.”

The distance hangs self-evidently over the phone lines.

“Really? How long have you been there?”

“Almost thirty years.”

This duration sounds unreal, even to me. I check myself. In the gap of information between the two of us that is vaster than our geographical distance, am I really the one who has a hold on truth?

What truth?

“I didn’t know.” Surprise in her voice. “How’s your English?”

“Not bad. I’ve had some practice, you know.” Every word I say feels like cutting through stone, or my own flesh.

When I was seven, Bronya recommended my first English instructor, Marina Phillipovna. Dad had his lesson first, then it was my turn. Without a doubt, Bronya is complicit in my writing about her now.

“I can help.” A confident tone. “If you run into any problems with word use, or how to distinguish between one tense and another, I’d be happy to explain it to you. There are so many tenses in English.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” I hold back the tears. “And how’s your dacha? It must be beautiful out there, in nature. Mom used to love it.”

I wait for her to react as she would in the past: by saying something about my mother. Not far from her dacha, Bronya took the photo that ended up on Mom’s cemetery wall here in Portland. I imagine the moment so many years back, so full of futures that are now over or ending. Maybe she doesn’t realize that the mother I’m referencing is her childhood friend, Valentina?

“You should come and visit,” she says instead.

“Sure, if I’m ever in Russia.”

How can I, given what Russia has become?

“Please call in advance, just to make sure. I might be at Mom and Dad’s. You’d have trouble getting ahold of me.”

Who am I, the caller? Will I call again? If I do, will I be an anonymous voice from a distance far too long to cross, the kind of distance that will take me the rest of my life to cover? Once we hang up, how long will she remember the conversation?

“Sure,” I say. “I’ll call in advance.”


It’s summer 2022. Every few weeks, I check up on my dad in Moscow, feeling like a suspicious element as I call that center of the world’s evil. But the phone lines still work, and my dad still hates Putin’s regime. I don’t bring it up, since in Russia, everything and anything might be monitored.

I’m fifty-four; my father, ninety-one.

“How’s your work?” I ask, in my typical manner.

Physics. He’s finishing a volume on the distribution of temperatures in the sun’s atmosphere. His other research areas over the years include tsunamis, failing nuclear reactors, intercontinental data cables, mathematical models for socioeconomics. He loves to grapple with complex phenomena still undescribed by mathematical equations. A few of his books are available in English; his article “An Analysis of Processes in the Solar Wind in a Thin Layer Adjacent to the Front of the Shock Wave” was published in a 2018 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

“I can’t work anymore, Tola,” he says. “I can barely see. And my mind doesn’t always cooperate. It depends on my blood pressure and so many things. It takes too much effort to focus, to keep it all in my head.”

Everything in me sinks as I listen. It’s tempting to cheer him on, to suggest tools, but that would be condescending. He doesn’t need my advice. He knows when he’s done. I’d be lucky to have a creative life nearly as long.


Another year of the war has passed. Many people have died. It’s 2023.

“What’s on your mind today?” I ask my father.

“Tola, Tola, I can’t hear you. What did you say?”

I repeat my trivial question, but he still fails to hear. I can’t help but think of my conversations with Bronya.

“Tola, where are you right now?” Dad asks.

“Still in the United States.”

 “I know that.” It hurts to listen to his attempts to cover up the growing areas of uncertainty in his mind. “But where?”

“Portland. Do you remember that song by Bulat Okudzhava, ‘When We Return to Portland’?”

Bulat Okudzhava, whose songs we sang when my parents’ friends gathered in the 1970s and eighties, had meant a different Portland. He probably didn’t give Oregon much thought. A poet, singer, and novelist whose father was executed in 1937 for Trotskyism and who fought against fascism in World War Two, Okudzhava would be devastated to know that in the twenty-first century, Russia has become a fascist state. The charges against his father, and later his mother, were fabricated, like any in the broad category of “enemy of the people” that equaled ten to twenty years in the Gulag, if not a death penalty. You didn’t have to be familiar with Trotsky or with his thoughts to be so accused.

“Tola, I can’t hear you. What are you saying?”

“How’s Slava?” Slava is his youngest son, twenty years my junior, who emigrated last year because of the war in Ukraine.

“He is no longer living, unfortunately.” A sad, somber voice. No, no. Is Dad thinking of someone else?

“Slava is fine. Your dad remembers his earlier life very well,” my father’s new wife explains when he and I are done talking. “He has clear days and confused days. Yesterday morning, he was trying to get me to take him to his lecture at Leningrad State.”

I recall listening to his lectures in my first year at the university. He was excellent. Eloquent, easy to follow.

How recent it seems. He quit that job when he moved to Moscow in 1990, the same year I left the USSR. I imagine how he must feel. Confused. Lost. The hearing problem must be an attempt to avoid revealing that he can’t answer. That he doesn’t remember.

I’m stuck in a painful inability to do anything more. I can’t visit. Not during Putin’s regime. And when Putin is gone, a black hole will remain. The dark gravity of lost conscience.

I can’t repair my dad’s mind. I grieve his gradually escaping self. I grieve a Russia that has lost its soul and will not regain it in time for either of us to see.

I grieve not being able to see him again, in this life.


A. Molotkov’s poetry collections are The Catalog of Broken Things, Application of Shadows, Synonyms for Silence, and Future Symptoms. His novel A Slight Curve is forthcoming from Run Wild Press; he co-edits The Inflectionist Review. Please visit him at

Read more excerpts by the finalists for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. 


Translation: Excerpt from In Anne Frank’s House


Translated from the Arabic by ADDIE LEAK.

Piece appears below in both English and Arabic.


A countryside landscape with grassy hills and mountains in the distance.

Translator’s Note:

When In Anne Frank’s House (Al-Mutawassit, 2020) was published, it was met with near radio silence—a strange reaction to a new book by a celebrated author. In an interview I conducted with Hassan in fall 2021, she suggested that this reaction was one of fear. The fact that many in the Arab world conflate Judaism with Zionism—and Israeli oppression—means that writing about a young Jewish martyr like Anne Frank was automatically taboo, and any response to Hassan’s book would be wading into murky waters. Hassan was accused of writing about Anne Frank to court international favor, and the memoir was automatically labeled as political. In my later attempts to locate a publisher for the English translation, I came across a similar hesitation and mistrust—concern, among other things, that an author from an Arab country might not treat Anne Frank with the respect she deserves.

Translation: Excerpt from In Anne Frank’s House

City of Leaves


“Clouds are like cotton candy,” Obasan says. “I could reach up and grab a piece.” At this, she pretends to pluck a cloud out of the wide summer sky and drop it into her mouth.

We’re in the beach chairs in the backyard, afternoon heat washing over us. After a pause, Obasan continues, “My grandfather, he was a fisherman. And he used the clouds to tell what kind of fish he would catch that day.”

I point up at a grey mass that’s about to block the sun and ask, “What does that cloud say?”

Obasan says, “That one’s too big. Too dark. But sometimes, he would look up at a cloud, and it would be a big sardine day…”

City of Leaves

How To Sleep In Your Car



First, something must break.

For you, it’s your marriage. Your husband and his six-pack and fifth-a-day habit. Him and his blank job applications sitting in a pile on the floor. Him and his teary proclamations that your lives will never get better in California. Him saying you are the only thing he has: if you leave, I’ll have nothing. Does he see that you’ve wanted this the whole time? To leave? He must. Maybe it’s you that breaks. Your willingness to take it. Your eagerness to soothe. To pick up beer cans and cigar wrappers. Certainly, it’s the illusion that breaks. That it’s perfectly reasonable to marry someone only after months of knowing them. Did you even know what marriage would be? Did you only assume it would be all pleasantries and his-and-hers bath towels? Well, those are gone now too. It’s what you used to gather what he smashed on his way out. The dinner plates. Your bike helmet left in pieces on the sidewalk. You know what was left behind because he’s the one that walked away, but you’re the one that asked for the vow to be broken.

How To Sleep In Your Car

Ramadan in Saint-Denis



It is Ramadan in Saint-Denis, the banlieue north of Paris. It is almost 21:00h on a June Sunday, and the sun hangs a hazy orange in the sky. The elevator in Amir’s building is broken so we climb the six stories, past the floors of muffled French Arabic and children’s screams. His mother’s home has one bedroom and a narrow tile-floored kitchen, like the one in my grandmother’s apartment in Beijing. There is a cigarette lighter for the stove, but I am too clumsy for this, so Amir manages.

Ramadan in Saint-Denis

The Story of a Box


Marcel Duchamp's Boite: a box that folds out to reveal miniatures of various art works.



“Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase.”
—Marcel Duchamp, Life magazine, 1952

For many years I hardly told anyone that my grandmother’s sister Teeny was married to Marcel Duchamp, and before that to Pierre Matisse, the art dealer son of Henri. Friends I’ve known all my life have stopped me in disbelief when these facts have come up in passing—a disbelief arising not from the facts themselves but from my never having shared them. The first time I ever mentioned the connection to anyone outside the family, I was in college, sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Avenue with my professor, the poet David Shapiro. “Wait,” he said, “Teeny Duchamp is your great aunt?!” I was surprised he knew exactly who she was.

The Story of a Box

On Drowning



“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”
-Norman MacLean



On a Pacific Northwest wild-fire summer evening, Emmett and I drive the babysitter while the edges of the world burn. She’s chatty and optimistic about fall classes, but I’m distracted by the sun, which is Crayola-Orange, perfect circle, unnatural and eerie. The sky is a muted monotony of ash, like gray-brown construction paper. She prattles away, while I think about being trapped in a naughty child’s apocalyptic crayon drawing.

On Drowning

Jamali Kamali Airborne in History


Image of plaster ceiling with red and blue sunbursts and floral forms

This story about how history and imagination infect one another unwittingly began a week after I arrived in Delhi for a month-long writing residency. The Sanskriti residents were told that we would have a chance to visit the newly restored Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb. It was about to open to the public. O.P. Jain, the founder of Sanskriti, was a major supporter of the restoration, thus this outing.

Our bus arrived at an overgrown park entrance where we traipsed alongside a river full of plastic garbage, climbed through hills of brush, stumbled over unrestored ruins, and finally arrived on top of a hill, a plateau, where the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb stood. At its entrance, a brand-new sign informed visitors that the tomb held the remains of Jamali, a sixteenth-century Sufi court poet and saint, and a person named Kamali whose identity was unknown. The conservator of the restoration would guide us at the site. 

When we entered the small space of the tomb, I was stunned by its beauty. Two white marble graves sat side by side on the floor. The red and blue circular ceiling was decorated with sunbursts and floral forms carved in plaster. A band of Jamali’s verses encircled the ceiling. The conservator spoke, “Some have thought Kamali was Jamali’s wife or perhaps his brother. Others have thought that Kamali was a disciple of Jamali, the saint. The undisputable fact is that both were men. A symbolic pen box, traditionally a sign of a male, is carved on each of their tombs. It is believed, through our oral tradition in Delhi, that Kamali was Jamali’s homosexual lover.” 

“But,” I said, “the new sign out there that you just put up says his identity was unknown.” 

The conservator explained that in India a public sign would never mention homosexuality.

Jamali Kamali Airborne in History

Excerpt from Tell Me How It Ends


This piece is excerpted from Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli, a guest at Amherst College’s 2023 LitFest. Register for this exciting celebration of Amherst’s literary life.

Valeria Luiselli's headshot: brown woman in a blue jacket against a metal grate.

“Why did you come to the United States?” That’s the first question on the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants. The questionnaire is used in the federal immigration court in New York City where  I started working as a volunteer interpreter in 2015. My task there is a simple one: I interview children, following  the intake questionnaire, and then translate their stories  from Spanish to English. 

But nothing is ever that simple. I hear words, spoken in the mouths of children, threaded in complex narratives. They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes  distrust, always with fear. I have to transform them into  written words, succinct sentences, and barren terms.  The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered,  always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order.  The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has  no beginning, no middle, and no end. 

Excerpt from Tell Me How It Ends