Writer Yelena Moskovich’s Corner In Paris

Interview by Shana Chandra
Images by Camille Vignaud

Walking around the 20th Arrondissement on the way to writer and lecturer Yelena Moskovich’s apartment, I make a slight detour when I spot a series of houses on a hidden street, decorating their exterior with pot plants of all shapes and sizes. Each house displays their leaves with the festivity of Christmas lights, yet each are so different from each other it’s as if the pot plants the home-owners have chosen are a complete expression of themselves. It’s the same feeling you get when you walk into Yelena’s apartment, tucked away in a huge apartment block near the main roundabout. The apartment, a studio, is a celebration of exactly who Yelena is, something you feel as soon as you enter its door. From her own illustrations and drawings leaning against the wall (she’s an artist too), her bookshelf packed with titles (including her own), the windows that take up one wall beaming with sunshine (her want for a modernist aesthetic, primed in her former hometown Wisconsin), to her postcards arranged in such a way on the wall near her bed, that the spaces in between become just as important (hinting at her studies of spatial significance in experimental dance and theatre) you can tell that Yelena has found her little corner of Paris that expresses her and her new little kitten, Anoushka best.

“I really like the 12th and the 20th arrondissements of Paris. The 20th where I live, it is one of the cheapest neighbourhoods, and has the perfect mix of being low-key, intimate and village-like. It’s filled with families of all backgrounds and people working in the arts, teaching, making ends meet in various forms.”

“Anoushka loves to watch the sky, the change of huge in the horizon and the birds through the window. The view is why I got the apartment. It looks out far over the rooftops but also on a small cobblestone street and the building’s green courtyard – including one of the resident’s outdoor cat who comes and goes. Before I got Anoushka, I watched him come and go and it paced my day.”

“It’s a modest space but the wall of big windows gives it breathing room. I’m claustrophobic, so I’d rather live in a small space that has a lot of light rather than a big space with none. I spent a large part of my childhood in Wisconsin, a region influenced by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, which is much more in conversation with the nature, humble, geometric, wide spaces with big windows.”

“When I moved to Paris I wanted to live in a Haussmann, and I did live in tiny ‘Parisian’ apartments. One of my first apartments was 10m2 and I shared it with a girl who also had her boyfriend over all the time. It was such an intrusive, awkward situation looking back, but I was young and just thrilled to have my own corner of the bed in Paris (there was only one bed and the girl and I had to share.) When you’re young you just want live wildly at all costs, even and often your own. Then at a certain age, you have more awareness and personal history. You want comfort and more privacy.  So when I was looking for this apartment, I had my eye out for a modern building, I wanted an elevator, because before I lived on the seventh floor with no elevator, and I also wanted things to be sturdy for once. I’ve had my share of places that were “poetically” falling apart.”

Yelena’s bed is dressed in an IN BED 100% flat sheet, fitted sheet, duvet and pillowslips in our beautiful, soft peach.

“I think the building is from the 1960’s because of its style. That’s kind of what I like about it. You know how Berlin is kind of ugly sexy because it’s industrial? This is as ugly sexy as Paris gets. I also like the feeling of being anonymous, that there’s a lot of people here, even the fact you can see everyone’s window. We can all watch each other and be watched and somehow never lock eyes.”

You know how Berlin is kind of ugly sexy because it’s industrial? This is as ugly sexy as Paris gets.

“I moved to Wisconsin from Soviet Ukraine when I was seven. We left as Jewish refugees. It was an inexplicable, mute experience for me. Now I have a language for the trauma but when you’re young you survive by any narrative means you can. Especially in immigrant families, you see other people living differently, but you think that they have a right to live in a way you don’t, because you are a guest at best and a beggar at worst in their country."

“My family is very insular, as many immigrant families are. We kept to ourselves. I was raised like that. I was the risk-taker in my family, the one who kept venturing beyond. My parents always supported my artistic drive. It’s more the personal ways in which my path was atypical that frightened them. I know they just don’t want me to suffer. I think it’s hard for them to understand that we have different ways of suffering.”

“Playwrighting is what I pursued at Emerson College in Boston. As I was studying, I was drawn to experimental and movement theatre. I didn’t want to write things where you write it, the actors act it, and the audience watches it. I was interested in other processes of creation and reception: collaborative and physical-based work. I had read Le Corps Poétique by Jacques Lecoq, who started the Lecoq school, and ended up moving to Paris to study at his school.  It was a way of studying that I’d never done before, we didn’t write, but scored everything physically.”

“We learned quite a few different techniques were you re-learn movements and gestures that you take for granted. It was like being born again in your body in a sense. And feeling the space around you prickling in a whole new way. It also gave me my foundational understanding of the space of words, which are also bodies part of one body, alive and yearning to move.”

“After finishing at the Lecoq school, I co-founded a theatre company, La Compagnie Pavlov, with a friend of mine. We were developing a show that was based on physical dance theatre, called Vestiges/Vertiges. Many of us came from mixed cultures and backgrounds, so we all had vestiges both literally and metaphorically as a common space. The piece was a physical exploration of that. We worked on it for years, and then we performed it in Paris and Los Angeles. But by the end I had completely burned out. The whole time I had been working part-time and studying for my masters. Theatre doesn’t really pay, or at least didn’t pay for us. Never quite figured out how to get into that that funding loop. After all these years, suddenly I thought ‘I’m done with theatre.’ It was really painful. When people talk about their first love, it’s usually their first intimate investment in another person. But theatre was my first love. It was also my first heartbreak. For most of my life, I opened myself up completely in art, but didn’t quite know how to do this with people, romantically, intimately. If anyone was interested in me, I would push them away. It was an echo of the deep isolation that I grew up. I only knew how to be brave in my art, and lonesome in my life.”

“I had a full-time job as a secretary at the European Jewish Congress in Paris and then at an ONG called Yahad-In Unum, which is basically the job that is open to you when you speak multiple languages but studied the arts. After I left theatre, I really wanted to write a novel. To be honest I rarely read novels myself, mainly plays and poems. But I was infatuated with the idea of that type of relationship over time that a novel had. So, when I was writing my first novel, I was working full time and waking up really early, at about 5am, writing before work and after work and on the weekends. It didn’t leave much time for a social life. But at the time, I was so elsewhere, I’m not so sure I even noticed. I defined myself through writing and it gave me the most meaning and sense of purpose. Also, it was the only space I felt truly received. ‘No one really understands me, only my writing understands me,’ that familiar voice repeated itself, the voice that raised me to live wildly on my own.”

“I’ve always had what now I see is an unheard of amount of confidence in my own writing. But it’s probably because I was cut-off from the real world growing up. I lived in my own world and my world was writing. It wasn’t so much that I thought of myself as ‘the best’, but that I was a bit oblivious to what was happening around me, I didn’t even consider that fundamental doubt in your work or yourself as an artist was something that existed. I just did what I loved privately and loved what I did privately. It didn’t occur to me that it was supposed to be ‘hard’.”

I’ve always had what now I see is an unheard of amount of confidence in my own writing.

“I was very pure during the publication of my first book. I just thought, if you write it, it will be published. I wrote it. It was published. Now I’m a bit less idealistic perhaps, because I know more about the industry and its inequalities. At the same time, that’s good as well, being conscious of disparity, injustice, or just how to stand by my own values within a market or industry. There’s a time in life to be naive and there is a time in life to be sceptical. Both are valuable.”

“I don’t know how you can be a writer nowadays and expect to live off your writing. It really helped in the beginning of my career for me to have a full-time job. That way I knew that I could do whatever I wanted with my writing and I didn’t need to make a cent from it, because I was financially independent by other means. I wish that writing could be a profession like other professions but it’s just not possible, unless you’re going to be making decisions about your work you may not want to make. Also writers, we’re waiting for the gatekeepers to let us into literature, but we’re the ones who make literature. We forget that we’re the content and so we can shape the industry as much as they can. Our power is in saying ‘No’.”

“All the artwork in the apartment is mine apart from the photo of Debbie Harry. The cover of my book, The Door Behind the Door, is actually one of the first auto-portraits I did of myself. I drew a bit when I was young. When I was living in the Soviet Union I used to doodle and draw ,and there was this woman in my building who was a bit of a mystic. She told my Mum, ‘I think this little girl is going to be a great painter.’ When I came to America, I stopped drawing.  I was the first to speak English in my family, so I was concentrated on helping my parents. Of course I still played, but I think when you draw you need to have a lot of free space around you to feel safe and to dream, and I didn’t feel stable or safe enough to dream like that then.”

“I don’t remember the logistics of language being hard, but I remember feeling ashamed about being so noticeably different; about my clothes, even my hygiene. I remember kids telling me I was dirty. In America, people took showers every day. But we couldn’t do that in the Soviet Union. It trails me to this day. I sometimes feel insecure and inadequate when I let people into my home. There’s still a child in me that’s terrified to be called dirty, smelly, poor.”

“I remember being on the school bus and all the kids yelling, ‘Go back to Russia’ (there was still this Cold War mentality in the Midwest). I was terrified but also wanted to pipe up and correct them: I’m not from Russia, I’m from Ukraine. I was stuck between the two walls, being picked on at school while pretending that I was blending in perfectly at home so as not to add to my parents’ worries. I felt like I had to take care of them and myself, and often I prioritized the first, sure that I could handle it. I think I had to believe that I could sacrifice myself for them, otherwise the despair and powerlessness would destroy me.”

Yelena wears an IN BED Cashmere, Silk & Linen Sweater in light grey.

“This tattoo is in my mum’s writing, it’s three Cyrillic letters, the initials of a Vladimir Vysotsky song, who was a subversive Russian bard and singer. It’s a song about making it out of a rough childhood, but he always has this dark humour to his songs. I wanted it on my hands, because in Russian culture at the time it would have been considered vulgar, especially as a woman, to have your hands tattooed. It was one of the ways I could embody both my queerness and Slavicness.

This tattoo is in my mum’s writing, it’s three Cyrillic letters, the initials of a Vladimir Vysotsky song, who was a subversive Russian bard and singer.

This hand poked tattoo is also Russian, and it says Podruga. It’s a reference to a poem by the Russian poet called Sophia Parnok that she wrote to another Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. It avowed their relationship, which was quite daring for the time. (Podruga can mean a friend that’s a girl or it can mean girlfriend.)”

“I teach post-graduate fiction and writing at the University of Kent’s Paris School of Arts and Culture. I never thought teaching was something I would be drawn to, but then I started doing some workshops and I thought ‘this is kind of nice’. I was so used to doing these day jobs that had nothing to do with my writing, so my habit was you go in and work but then you leave and give all your energy to your art. But then when I was in front of these students, I just cared so much, there were so many things I wanted to discuss, explore and try out.”

“I feel really lucky because the university trusts me and gives me so much freedom to create my own curriculum for my classes. I choose all the reading materials, and I teach some super bizarre books all from small presses, things that normally few would study. My approach to teaching creative writing is more about expanding the space of the possible. For me, craft is such a small part of this. It’s about honing an awareness and sensitivity to language, how it lives, how it dies. It’s also about compassion for oneself as an animal who desperately wants to speak."

Yelena’s bed is dressed in an IN BED 100% flat sheet, fitted sheet, duvet and pillowslips in peach.