'Snow In May': The Lives Of Magadan, Gateway To The Gulag

Kseniya Melnik's debut collection of short stories portrays life in Magadan, Russia, a town notorious for it's Gulag labor camps. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Melnik about her book, Snow in May.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a town in Russia on the far eastern reaches of the country closer to Alaska than any major Russian city. It's terribly cold, and snow falls late into spring. That place is Magadan, and it's the focal point of a new collection of short stories by Kseniya Melnik. It's called "Snow In May."

In it, we meet the young Sonya, a girl fascinated by medicine who fakes her own illness to see doctors working up close. We're also introduced to her mother, father and grandmother whose lives are woven through the collection. Melnik paints a picture of a vibrant Magadan, spanning generations from the Soviet era till now. It's full of musicians, doctors and intellectuals. But when I asked her about this city that she grew up in, Melnik told me its history has not always been so bright.

KSENIYA MELNIK: Magadan has a very interesting history, actually a pretty dark history, that has to do with its roots as sort of an entryway into a network of Gulag camps. But to be honest, I wasn't really aware of it so much when I was growing up there. I really only started really learning and understanding what the town meant when I started writing this book.

MARTIN: Did you go back and look into the history of this town and its history as a prison camp, as this place where - that had this dark chapter?

MELNIK: I did do a lot of research when I was working on the book. I didn't actually traveled back, but I talked to my parents a lot. I talked to my grandfather who lived there in the '50s. And actually, when he arrived in Magadan, there were still camps there. And so he was able to describe to me what Magadan was like at that point.

MARTIN: There is a character in your collection, Sonya, who, like you, comes of age in Magadan. Can you tell us about her?

MELNIK: Sonya is someone who thinks outside of herself from the very young age. She is able to imagine the troubles of others, whether it's the diseases or calamities and accidents that happen to others, or lives that were lived in times much earlier than her own.

She believes in prior lives basically, and she's able to imagine herself living in the early 20th century or even earlier than that. And I think it takes her out of the confines of this small, dark, wintry town. She wants her life to be bigger and more adventurous. So I don't want to say that Sonya is my alter ego per se. But I think in a way, I explored some things through her that I didn't get a chance to explore myself when I was living there.

MARTIN: What were some of those themes? What did she allow you to question or analyze?

MELNIK: Well, I think this whole book is a way of reconciling my happy childhood memories with a more complex reality. Some of the issues are the lives of women, for example, and what a successful life means. I think it's a thread that connects all the women in the stories, where they're never quite satisfied with what they have. And they have dreams, and they, you know, just on a very basic level bump up against either historical circumstances of how can a woman advance her life, for example, in strawberry lipstick.

One of the ways that you could move up is through marriage. And of course, Sonya - Sonya's grandmother there, who's a young 18-year-old woman who jumps into a marriage with a military officer, realizes pretty quickly that a quick change is not always the best change.

MARTIN: You immigrated to the United States to Alaska when you were just 15. Has writing this book made you want to visit Magadan again?

MELNIK: I am torn about that. You know, my father has always said never return to places where you've been happy. And I also feel that Magadan, even if I'm not directly writing about my childhood memories, Magadan, I imagine, is this kind of cauldron of inspiration and atmosphere and memories that are my fictional paints almost. I know it has changed a lot. I basically don't want to dilute those childhood memories.

MARTIN: Kyseniya Melnik, her debut collection of short stories is called "Snow In May." She joined us from our studios at NPR West. Kyseniya, thanks so much, and congratulations on the book.

MELNIK: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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