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Today it’s my pleasure to host my friend author Marina Julia Neary on Outtakes as she introduces her latest release, Saved by the Bang, based on her experience growing up after the disaster at Chernobyl. Her book is an eye-opener, especially for those of us who remember the Cold War (for more, read my review). – Kim

By Marina Julia Neary

Marina Neary author photoAfter years of being nagged by my readers, I finally wrote something autobiographical (God forbid!) Most of my fiction deals with the Anglo-Irish conflict, even though I’m not Irish by blood. I spent the first 13 years of my life in Belarus, a former Soviet Republic, which is now a sovereign country that has managed to stay out of world news. Nothing remarkably good or bad happens there.

The last major tragedy dates back to 1986, when one of the reactors blew up in Chernobyl across the Ukrainian border, drenching Belarusian cities in raw radiation. The full scope of the damage was not communicated to population to prevent an outbreak of panic. The authorities could not stop the flow of radiation, so they stopped the flow of information.

Chernobyl sign

2013 photo by Paweł “pbm” Szubert via Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Almost 30 years later, people are still paying the price. Leukemia, lymphoma, thyroid cancer, and birth defects will continue to afflict the generations to come. Since I as an author specialize in disasters, I decided that my next novel would deal with one that I had experienced firsthand. It’s an opportunity for me to showcase my dark humor. As one of the reviewers mentioned, the novel is “not for the faint of heart.” Some readers will be disturbed and offended by the fact that I inject so much humor into my narrative depicting such tragic events.

The joke is that every Chernobyl story has to feature a girl named Maryana, just like any Jane Austen novel has to feature a girl named Elizabeth. Maryana was the name my biological father had originally picked out for me. He liked the archaic, folksy, old pan-Slavic slant. My mother hated it for those very reasons, so they settled on a more cosmopolitan Marina. Maryana is my alter ego, a privileged yet suffering child with a Jewish heritage, a lonely, old soul watching the world around her quietly slip into chaos.

The City of Swans and Violets

Much of the action takes place in Gomel, a squeaky-clean, low-key riverfront city famous for its gorgeous flower beds and summer folk concerts. The city’s coat of armor shows a muscular bobcat, a trademark Belarusian animal.

During World War II Gomel was occupied by the Nazis, and 80 percent of the city was destroyed. Luckily, the most prominent landmarks like the Rumyantsev-Paskevich Palace compound and the gorgeous Orthodox church were spared. The city has everything to satisfy an average person’s intellectual and cultural appetites. There are several universities, a drama theater, a swan pond, museums, and countless cinema art houses.

Of course, there will always be those who’ll wrinkle their noses and say that Gomel is a provincial hole. But guess what? Not everyone can live in Moscow or St. Petersburg. As far as medium sized cities were concerned, Gomel offered enough opportunities to work and play. Growing up, I don’t remember being bored. Children had an ample selection of educational activities. Art, music, and dance lessons were accessible and affordable.

I’ve been asked on several occasions, “So what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain?” Personally, I’ve never experienced the horrors of draconian censorship. By 1980s, most people had grown disillusioned with the Communist ideal so successfully force-fed to them in the previous decades. It was still customary to celebrate Communist holidays like the October Revolution Day (which actually falls on November 7, according to the new calendar) and Workers’ Solidarity Day (May 1). Most people used that time to party and get drunk, forgetting the symbolic significance of those holidays.

Gorbachev, an impressively progressive and democratic leader for his time, promoted free speech. Criticizing Socialism as a political and economic model became more commonplace. The West was no longer demonized. American pop music, bestselling novels, and blockbuster movies became widely available.

A Child of Dangerous Privilege

An only child of classical musicians, I was considered privileged – by the standards of the time. We belonged to what was called “artistic intelligentsia,” which automatically placed us in some imaginary capsule. In a socialist economy, in which fiscal mobility is severely limited and professors do not get paid significantly more than factory workers, your class was measured not by how much you had but by how much you knew, how many languages you spoke, and how many musical instruments you played.

Respectable professions were not always well compensated, and prestige did not translate into money, yet members of intelligentsia were adamant about setting themselves apart from the rest. I firmly believe that this quest for superiority is one of the fundamental human drives. People will find creative ways to rise above their peers. If they cannot do it through material possessions, they will do it through mannerisms, special skills, and knowledge.

In my novel, Maryana lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her parents and grandmother. An American reader might find such living arrangements horrifying, but by the standards of late Soviet era, this family is considered well off. Having famous parents and a high-achieving engineer grandmother makes the girl privileged.

At the same time, that privilege and her ethnicity make her a delicious target for her less fortunate peers. There were no anti-bullying campaigns, and teachers and school administrators looked the other way. Pedestrian anti-Semitism was widespread, and if a student of Jewish ancestry was assaulted verbally or even physically, the authorities would shrug it off as “Kids will be kids.”

Saved by the Band coverMarina Julia Neary is an award-winning historical essayist, multilingual arts and entertainment journalist, published poet, playwright, actress, dancer, and choreographer. She has written several books set in 19th and 20th century England and Ireland. Her latest release, Saved by the Bang, is available on Amazon.