Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips has relevance for Alaska
Set in the Kamchatka peninsula of far northeastern Russia, debut novelist Julia Phillips writes in Disappearing Earth about the interior worlds of women, the importance of community, and the impacts of gender-based violence on both, with a depth of human insight reminiscent of Tolstoy. The story opens with the kidnapping of two young Russian girls from the region’s largest city, who we understand are Caucasian. This horrific loss is later juxtaposed with the prior disappearance of an Indigenous Even teen from a remote village family.
Disappearing girls and the complexity of responses
Through this plot twist, Disappearing Earth presents the complex influence of cultural differences, colonialism, and the rural/urban divide on law enforcement and public response to the disappearances, all in the context of post-Soviet Russia. Loosely connected stories through the months of a year reveal the range of emotional impacts these disappearances have on women among the interlinked villages of this peninsula with no roads connected to the outside world.
Geography and history constrain patterns of behavior
In the rural north of Disappearing Earth, conflicting desires and impulses settle into maturity and acceptance of community expectations. Relationships between people of multiple cultures, ages, and beliefs reveal intergenerational struggles between those who experienced the relative wealth of Soviet Kamchatka and the younger generation who have grown up with Internet and social media. And the disappearance of the girls impacts every woman in this story, weaving into their larger internal narrative,
” . . . Kamchatka was no longer a place to raise a family. Just look at the hole in her cousin’s life where a daughter belonged. The communities Revmira grew up in had splintered, making them easy places to be forgotten, easy places to disappear. Revmira’s parents had raised her in a strong home, an idyllic village, a principled people, a living Even culture, a socialist nation of great achievement. That nation collapsed. Nothing was left in the place it had occupied.” (p. 140)
A visitor’s perspective to the landscape of Kamchatka
Phillips spent time in Moscow in college, and later spent a year in Kamchatka on a Fulbright. Book publicity has emphasized both its landscape description and the human interactions. Her perspective as an outside observer being out on the land will feel especially familiar to those who moved to the rural North later in their lives:
“Esso in the summertime was beautiful–cottages were repainted in primary colors, gardens grew dense with vegetables, the rivers ran high, and the mountains that surrounded the village turned dark with foliage. Ksyusha did not get to appreciate the sight until she was seventeen years old. Instead, the demands of herding ruled her summers: kilometers on horseback, legs aching, back sore; mosquitoes crawling under her clothes and staining her skin with her own blood; hurried baths taken in freezing river water . . .”
Representation matters: advocacy and community building in Disappearing Earth
Indigenous characterizations are handled cautiously, with awareness that she lacks a deep familiarity with the rhythms of life on the land. Still, there is nuance here; she makes the reader think about Russia’s diverse cultures and complicated history. It’s refreshing to see this attention to justice through a range of community interactions among people of various cultural backgrounds, in a novel written about people living in the north. It’s clear that she was deeply affected by the time spent with people in rural Kamchatka, both ethnically white as well as Indigenous Russians, and whatever American motivations and perceptions she brings to the story, she has done her best to represent fairly the cultures and conflicts of a place with problems perhaps not so very different from our own in America, and in particular, Alaska:
“Something happens in the north,” he said, “and no one pays any attention. Then the same thing goes on down here and it’s news. When we had the fuel crisis in ‘ninety-eight–remember? At home we had a solid year without power. People froze to death in Palana. But the ones in the city talk like it was just three or four months of cold, like the rest of the time didn’t matter because it only happened to us.” (p. 73)
In Disappearing Earth, a major publisher brings attention to these complex issues
Knopf backed Phillips with the expertise of their Editorial Director Robin Desser, who also edited Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Penguin Random House has invested heavily in Disappearing Earth with a first-run printing of 125,000 copies. With increasing publicity in Alaska and Canada about longstanding concerns of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the north, this debut novel, presented with enthusiasm from a major publishing house, has potential to spark broad reflection and public discussion in North America about the misperceptions and walls between communities and structures of governance that must dissolve in order to bring these women home.
Writing and cultural exchange across the circumpolar North
On an Instagram post just prior to this book’s release in May of 2019, Phillips expressed her gratitude and sense of overwhelm concerning time she spent with a reindeer herding family in central Kamchatka the summer of 2015, revealing how much she is still struggling to understand what she saw and felt during that season. This description resonated so much with my experience moving to rural Alaska, that I reached out directly to the author to request an interview, which she graciously granted. If you’d like to be notified when that transcript (and podcast audio file) is available, please use the signup form on the bottom of the page if you aren’t already receiving our newsletter. A transcript of the first few minutes of the interview, edited for clarity, is below.
An interview with Julia Phillips:
Lisa: So, I have a range of questions and some are geographic and some are literary and hopefully we’ll have fun with this.
Julia: That sounds really good.
Setting: An American in Kamchatka
Lisa: Let’s start with the setting of your book. I was intrigued both by the location, which is relatively close to Alaska in terms of geography, and also similar in its relative disconnection from the rest of the country. Can you talk about that?
Julia: Yeah. It’s set in Kamchatka, a peninsula also on the Bering Strait; you sort of picture the Aleutian Islands swinging out; they swing in to this, an island chain that’s part of the Kamchatka region. And it also feels very similar to Alaska topographically and culturally in some respects and in other respects of course very different. Kamchatka was a closed Soviet military base for much of the 20th century and it wasn’t permitted for foreigners to visit the entire region, which is quite enormous, the size of California. Although I guess everything is small in relation to Alaska. And so, its modern-day culture is so influenced by that Soviet history, by the post-Soviet moments. It has relatively very very little infrastructure in comparison to Alaska in that, for example, no roads connect Kamchatka to the mainland part of the country of Russia whereas roads connect major cities in Alaska to the mainland. So, Kamchatka is effectively an island in many ways. But in the terrain and geography and so much of the culture I think it has so much–It speaks to Alaskan life and landscape in many ways.
Lisa: Geographically we have those roads but there’s still that sense of, there’s so many communities off the road system and this rural-urban divide, and I think that was a lot of what spoke to me. Thinking about the cover of your book in both the United States and the UK, they’re really compelling in terms of the color and the imagery in the title as well, it captures the color of the sky here in Alaska, and maybe that’s part of what spoke to me when I first picked it up to look at it. I thought it might touch on environmental issues related to climate change. I encountered people who saw me reading it when I was in public and they wanted to look at it, and that’s what they started talking about. I was sort of curious to hear you talk a little bit about the selection of the title and that process in relation to the story because that particular theme actually doesn’t come up in the book.
Cover art: Blue-purple light of the north
Julia: I’m so glad you’re talking about the covers, really happy to think of them as part of the sky. They’re so beautiful and I love that sort of blue-purple mix, I think it’s just gorgeous and very evocative and the title–makes me laugh. I confess I don’t think I had realized until entering the publication process how sort of climate change-related that is. There are two books that came out in April one called Losing Earth and one called The Uninhabitable Earth, that are both about climate change. So it makes total sense, that’s the association.
Title: Constant threat of loss
I wanted to call the book Disappearing Earth as a sort of direct reference to a part of the narrative that comes up in the first chapter, which is a story that’s about these two sisters that go missing and one sister tells the other one in the very beginning a story about a tsunami that hit Kamchatka in 1952. She sort of tells an urban legend version of the actual story of this tsunami hitting, that in her telling washes a whole part of the city away and washes a village away and then just a few pages later, those characters are sort of swept away by something out of their control and I wanted the title to be a reference to that, to their story and to their experience and also the experience of so many people, so many of the characters in the book more generally, a feeling of building their lives on unsteady ground. They are coming out of a history in which they just lost their nation or their national identity only a few decades earlier. They are very much living in a part of the world that is both prone to geographical or natural disaster, and also a part of the world that is underfunded and overlooked and having a lot of its resources taken from it by the state and is experiencing a sort of constant loss or threat of loss from that. And so, it doesn’t directly allude to climate change. And yet climate change is one of the things that sort of looms over and adds a sense of dread and uncertainty to communities on the coasts and to communities whose lives are so interwoven with the fate of the natural world.
“They are very much living in a part of the world that is both prone to geographical or natural disaster, and also a part of the world that is underfunded and overlooked and having a lot of its resources taken from it by the state and is experiencing a sort of constant loss or threat of loss from that.”
If you’d like to read more, or listen . . .
We spoke for nearly three hours, touching on many themes that intersect between Kamchatka and Alaska, including the rural/urban divide, changing sources of food and energy, murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls (#MMIWG), the experience of gender and culture and ethnicity in the north, and of course, books (see below). As this post goes up, we are still in the process of editing the recording and transcript for publication. Newsletter notification and link will go out when the recording goes live and the transcript is posted. (Newsletter signup form is at the bottom of this page). If you’d like to buy the book and read it first, you can find it or order it through your local bookstore, or purchase it online at the link in the box below. For more information about justice issues and resources in Alaska, please check out our page, Resources: Freedom and Security. See the blog post, “Indigenous Women Authors: Review of The Round House by Louise Erdrich” for more on the topic of representation of Indigenous women in literature.
Podcast download link
An Interview with Julia Phillips, Part 1: Click here for immediate download of MP3 file, it will start playing immediately upon download.
The first episode is available at the following places, more direct links to the first episode of our podcast, “Salmonberries” (An Interview with Julia Phillips, Part 1) will be added below as they become available (access pending at multiple other podcast venues):
Books, books, books
The following is a list of authors and books mentioned throughout the course of the interview. Links provided to the books available in our bookstore.
Louise Erdrich (The Round House, Plague of Doves)
Tanya Talaga (Seven Fallen Feathers, All Our Relations) (book reviews coming soon)
Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina)
Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich
Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
Floating Coast by Bathsheba Demuth
Yuri Rytkheu, A Dream in Polar Fog, Chukchi Bible (translated by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse)
Denali Sunrise Publications Bookstore
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