NER staff reader and former intern Emma Crockford talks with Sam Wachman, whose short story “The Right Way to Drown” appears in NER 42.4, about the Russian word Rodina, first love, and gentle masculinity.
EC: I’m interested in how “The Right Way to Drown” came to be. Could you tell me where the seeds of this story started? What did you set out wanting to write?
SW: I wanted to write a story about what it’s like to be a gentle boy in a place where the expectation of masculinity is that it’s rough and unforgiving. Many aspects of this story are from a friend’s life. I wrote this carefully, because, with the Russian-specific experience, I’m using someone else’s story to tell my own, so this friend read over each of my drafts and made sure everything rang true to them.
EC: Could you talk a little more about Roma’s complicated relationship with his hometown of Malinovka? There’s a lot in this story about what it means to love and be tied to a place, even if that place perhaps can’t love you back.
SW: There’s a Russian word that comes up a lot in my conversations with Russians who, regardless of how they feel about the political situation of their country, tend to have a really strong connection to the land, the language, and the literature. That word is Rodina, which I’ve heard translated to “motherland” a lot, but in my opinion, that’s a little bit of a mistranslation. Rodina means more literally the place that you were born. And the connotation is that it is the place that made your flesh and blood, the waters that you grew up swimming in, and the land that you belong to.
In some ways, Roma and Nikita began as personifications of the two ways that people might react when you are rejected by your Rodina. Nikita dreams of getting out before he even knows why he dreams of getting out. Whereas Roma feels a more acute sense of Rodina, and his connection to his father and his homeland are so strong and so integral to who he is as a person that he would be unwilling to sacrifice them to be a truer, more genuine version of himself and to no longer have to hide who he is. Roma and Nikita are two ends of this spectrum, but there is also everything in between. You can love a place and hate it at the same time. I think that a lot of us feel that way about the United States right now. Certainly, there are countless Americans who, for a myriad of reasons, have not been welcomed by and are unsafe in the US both today and throughout history, even if they love their town or their country, and even if they consider this to be their homeland.
EC: You write about Roma “unfocusing” his eyes and turning Malinovka into a more magical place, populating the mundane world around him with “a swarm of fireflies, a smattering of stars, a bonfire.” Could you talk a little bit about that line?
SW: When Roma is with Nikita in their little shared universe the rest of Molinovka sort of slips out of focus and he no longer sees the sharp corners that are around him. Everywhere Roma is with Nikita turns into somewhere beautiful. From the very beginning, even in childhood, even before his awareness of his sexuality, Roma feels euphoric around Nikita, who he understands to be the only other boy in the world who is like him in some deep way that he can’t place. Even before something romantic arises, they’re whispering in each other’s ears and keeping secrets. And this isn’t really about romance yet, but about a feeling of belonging with someone. Roma gets to inhabit this most genuine version of himself around Nikita. They’re gentle, which is a radical thing for boys to be, and when he gets to be gentle, which is who he inherently is, he gets to relax and let everything slip away and go fuzzy.
EC: Another line that stayed with me is when Roma and Nikita first fall in love. You write, “the secret swelled and swelled inside our bodies until, little by little, it began to replace us.” I’m interested in how secrecy shapes the relationship between the boys and I’d love it if you could talk about that line.
SW: I suppose that my intention with that line is about how what isn’t said can come to define every aspect of your life. Roma and Nikita have discovered this wonderful new intimacy that’s private to them and only them. And on the one hand, this is thrilling and they’re discovering new facets of themselves and each other in a way that is essential to growing up. But they also now realize that this shared secret is at odds with nearly everyone else around them and that their safety is contingent on this remaining secret. And when you’re only one slip up away from ostracism it shapes the way that you move through the world. It’s difficult for your sense of belonging as a member of your community, your town, or your neighborhood to survive this kind of realization. It’s excruciating to keep such a salient part of yourself concealed from your loved ones and to suspect that all of your relationships now have an asterisk attached. When I write that their shared secret begins to replace them, I mean that their former selves, who never questioned their belonging to Malinovka, will slowly be supplanted by these new selves, perpetually aware of their fundamental otherness.
EC: Could you talk a little bit about that conditionality and the relationship between Roma and his father?
SW: At the end of the story, Roma feels a rush of relief and love towards his father when he shows him how to fold the origami robins, and even though nothing specific is said and there is in no way a coming out, Roma sees in that moment that his father is at least partially aware that his relationship with Nikita goes deeper than friendship. We don’t know if he knows that relationship is romantic, but he at least knows that the sense of loss Roma is feeling is unusually keen. By showing him how to fold the robins, he’s implicitly comparing Roma’s relationship with Nikita to his own with Roma’s mother, so he must understand on some level. And that asterisk, that conditionality, is no longer attached to his relationship with his father.
EC: For me, the father was the character that stayed with me the longest after reading. Could you tell me more about how he came to be?
SW: I’d be remiss not to mention my own father as inspiration for the more tender aspects of Roma’s father, although my father is not as taciturn or as troubled as Roma’s father. Looking back at the earliest drafts of the story, I hadn’t originally intended to focus so much on the complicated, quietly loving, slightly brooding father figure as a character. I originally wanted the story to stay in the intimate little universe of Roma and Nikita, but parents are unavoidable facts of kids’ worlds. The world of kids is populated with parents. So often in these coming-of-age narratives parents are relegated to the background. I wanted to write a truer kind of father figure, who isn’t anywhere approaching perfect, who rings true as a father and a person, and who feels culturally genuine as a Russian man who adheres to Russian expectations of masculinity but who is also a layered character unto himself who would give his life for his son.
EC: Could you talk more about Roma’s father’s connection with Nikita?
SW: The relationship between Roma’s dad and Nikita is something that sort of emerged organically. As an adult, Roma’s father has more insight into Nikita’s situation than Roma realizes. He sees that Nikita is essentially fatherless and he also sees that Nikita’s inherent soft and caring nature and his capacity to be emotionally expressive and vulnerable is still intact and hasn’t been shattered by the world yet. He sees Nikita and wants to protect him. This dynamic bubbles to the surface when he dresses both Roma’s and Nikita’s wounds. Those feelings of protectiveness over a boy’s inherent gentleness are really important to me. I’ve watched how societal expectations can beat boys into traditional masculine expectations of non-emotionality and violence as they grow older. So Roma’s father’s protective urges are also my own protective urges.
EC: What inspired the father’s origami animals?
SW: It’s a gentle motion, origami. He expresses through it his longing for his wife, and his love for Roma, and his desire to protect both boys from the world around them. It requires a sort of care that runs counter to the violent masculinity that Roma is surrounded by.
EC: You study Russian at Brandeis University. Could you talk a little bit about how learning Russian led to this story?
SW: My Russian professor has been so helpful and has been like a mother figure to me throughout college. I think part of why I wrote this is because of Irina, my Russian professor. In my freshman year, she took me under her wing. She runs Russian cultural events every Thursday, and every week we meet for tea. And that started to feel like home to me. I hadn’t realized how much Russian culture was similar to my own culture. My family are Eastern European Jews, which I had always figured was a separate thing, but all of it just felt very much like home. That’s when I started to fall in love with the language and I became voracious for more knowledge about Russian culture. I’m really grateful to her for providing that space for me.
EC: What do you do when you aren’t writing?
SW: I’m a senior, so I’m studying a lot. I practice the Russian language every day. I fell madly and irreversibly in love with it my freshman year. I’m trying to learn Danish. As far as hobbies go, I live in the city but love to go hiking in the White Mountains with my father. I’m an EMT at Brandeis on the weekends. And spending time mentoring kids is what I find most fulfilling and joyful because kids are this very unapologetic version of themselves, which feels refreshing in college when I spend every day surrounded by twenty-somethings. Oh, I also live with two middle-aged cats who I love dearly.
Sam Wachman is a senior at Brandeis University. His short fiction has been published in Sonora Review and the Hunger, and was awarded honorable mention in the 2021 Emerging Writer’s Contest in fiction from Ploughshares. He is an EMT, a scuba diver, and an inveterate language-learner. He lives in Cambridge, Massachussetts.
Emma Crockford is a senior at Middlebury College. She is a fiction reader and was a fall 2021 intern for NER. She is a producer for Middlebury MothUp and a member of Middlebury’s sketch comedy club. Her work has been awarded the Helen Creeley Student Poetry Prize and has appeared in the Emerson Review and Brown University’s The Round.