Chechnya. Syria. Ukraine. Gorbachev. Yeltsin. Putin.
To Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, a Russian-Armenian émigré now living and writing in Southwest Virginia, the invasion of Ukraine is just the latest chapter in “the novel of loss” that defines her homeland.
“I’m hoping Ukraine can be helped, that other countries will stand up for its citizens,” she recently said. “But I don’t see anyone ever helping Russians, especially now. A lot of good people are there who hate wars, but they’re held hostage. I don’t know where we go from this. Nobody can ever rescue Russians.”
But in some small way, Gorcheva-Newberry hopes her debut novel, “The Orchard, does just that. “I hope more people will read it and that it introduces American readers to Russia and its people – not the politicians but the common people with the everyday struggles.”
Coming out March 15 and inspired by Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” Gorcheva-Newberry’s novel depicts the lives of four Soviet teenagers in the late 1980s who, according to the author, “are about to lose their country and one another, and who struggle to survive, to save their friendship, to recover all that has been left behind.”
She herself left Russia behind in 1995. After graduating Moscow State Linguistic University, she was hired to interpret for a group of American hang glider pilots traveling in Russia on a People to People exchange program. Among the group — Randy Newberry. The couple married and she moved to Bland County with her new American husband. “One does things for love.”
“I am generation perestroika,” she lamented. “All of us have endured so much and continue to endure. It started in the 1980s and never went away. From 1980s ’til now there is this constant upheaval. Now it’s more than that. [Ukraine] is the biggest tragedy of our generation. It’s like living on top of a volcano. I’ve been losing my country since the 1980s and now I’ve lost it forever.”
Her personal story is as much about what she’s found as well. After moving to Bland, she enrolled at Radford University where English professor Moira Baker recognized that Gorcheva-Newberry, even writing in non-native English, had an “extraordinary use of language.”
Baker wrote: “Her sentences, even in that stodgiest of forms – the academic research essay – were at times deftly crafted, rhythmically flexible, and compelling in their movement. Clearly, there was an unusual gift with language at work in the crafting of those sentences, a gift that not everyone who aspires to be a writer possesses.”
Baker introduced Gorcheva-Newberry to luminaries like Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro and the writer whose name she speaks with reverence, Toni Morrison. She also encouraged her to become a writer and enroll in Hollins University’s famed Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program.
She has published 50 stories and received nine Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, Electric Literature, Indiana Review, The Southern Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Nimrod and elsewhere. She won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, the Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Prairie Schooner Raz/Shumaker Book Prize in Fiction for her collection of stories, “What Isn’t Remembered.”
“I don’t know if I would have been a writer if I hadn’t come to America,” Gorcheva-Newberry said. “I’ve never written anything in Russian.”
But Russia takes center stage in her new novel, which hearkens to her adolescent days as the Iron Curtain fell when she and her friends took to the streets to protest. Now more than 30 years later, she says, “We have to do it again, but we’re tired. But we have to do it for our kids.”
On Feb. 28, she was in New York for the 2022 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award ceremony, for which her story collection was long-listed, and all the writers gathered for a candlelight vigil for Ukraine.
“Writers and artists are more needed now than ever,” she said. “We build bridges, we create empathy.”
Her former teacher couldn’t agree more. “The world watches in horror as Putin has ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine in an irredentist campaign to reclaim some nostalgic vision of the Soviet Union or, perhaps, the Russian Empire,” Baker writes. “At times, it seems as though Kristina must have had a premonition, as she was writing the novel, that the historical events her novel chronicles were about to repeat themselves.”
Gorcheva-Newberry and “The Orchard” will be celebrated at an author night April 14 at Blacksburg Books.
“She has a lot to say of the destruction the government has wrought on people who are just trying to live their lives and find happiness and connections with other people,” said Ellen Woodall, Blacksburg Books manager. “The more we can recognize the humanity of people who live on both sides of the conflict that are being impacted by the Russian government, it’s important now and always.”
As for her adopted country, Gorcheva-Newberry says she’s seen a lot of changes over the last 27 years. “When I first came here, there was this feeling of freedom in what you can say and that you can achieve things, that you can do great things if you really want to.”
Now she struggles to comprehend the forces at work that, for instance, seek to fine teachers for what they teach, or curtail certain educational topics, or ban books altogether, especially those by her literary god, Morrison.
“When I heard about the Virginia mother who complained to a school board that her son had nightmares after reading ‘Beloved’ I thought, ‘Good! That means she’s got a good boy there. He’s got a heart.’ To make sure such things never happen again, we have to read ‘Beloved.’”
Still, between the bleakness of her native country and the beauty of Bland, she feels fortunate to live where she does. Mountains are prominent in both Armenia and Southwest Virginia – different, of course, but contemplative all the same.
“I don’t know if I’d be a writer if I wasn’t here,” she said. “Something about the mountains. I became everything here: wife, mother, writer. Virginia is my heritage now. I’m a Virginian.”