Anna Starobinets

Now available from Three String Books / Slavica: a heartbreaking, controversial memoir about the loss of an unborn child, Look at Him by Anna Starobinets. Translated from the Russian by KATHERINE E. YOUNG. Honorable Mention, Heldt Prize for Best Translation in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Women’s and Gender Studies, Association for Women in Slavic Studies (2021).

Look at Him

Journalist, scriptwriter, and novelist Anna Starobinets—often called “Russia’s Stephen King”—is best known for her work in horror and her writing for children. In this groundbreaking memoir, Starobinets chronicles the devastating loss of her unborn son to a fatal birth defect. After her son’s death, Starobinets suffers from nightmares and panic attacks; the memoir describes her struggle to find sympathy, community, and psychological support for herself and her family. A finalist for the 2018 National Bestseller Prize, Look at Him ignited a firestorm in Russia, prompting both high praise and severe condemnation for the author’s willingness to discuss long-taboo issues of women’s agency over their own bodies, the aftereffects of abortion and miscarriage on marriage and family life, and the callousness and ignorance displayed by many in Russia in situations like hers. Beautiful, darkly humorous, and deeply moving, Look at Him explores moral, ethical—and quintessentially human—issues that resonate for families in the world beyond Russia, as well. 

Cover image: The Human Touch by Ghislaine Howard, oil on board

Starobinets Cover-1

Book Tour: Anna Starobinets in the UK

In July 2022, author Anna Starobinets and translator Katherine E. Young spoke in London and Exeter, UK, about Look at Him.

Watch Anna Starobinets, Katherine E. Young, and moderator Elena Malysheva discuss Look at Him at Pushkin House (London) on July 6, 2022. Sponsored by the Pushkin Club.

Statement by Anna Starobinets about the war in Ukraine

[This statement was posted in Russian on Facebook on March 11, 2022, and later translated into English by Muireann Maguire.]

“But who needs you, anyway!” say my elderly relatives. “Live quietly in Russia. Just keep your mouth shut.” Of course, they mean something else – that as long as I gag myself with a metaphorical handkerchief, no-one will threaten me – but there’s still truth in their words. I’m not needed any more. Not needed anywhere. Neither “here”, nor “there”. I’m not needed “here”, because I call the war what it is: war. Because I insist that the people of Ukraine are peaceful, not fascists. People who are being bombed by my own homeland, controlled now by a crazy psychopath. I’m not needed “there”, because now I carry the mark of Cain. Of someone who kills his own brother every day. Because I am from Russia.

What can I do? Stay in Russia, take to the streets every day with those who are brave enough? Get beaten in the face and kidney-punched? Get sent to prison for three years, or twenty years? Probably not twenty, of course. Three is more likely. And for the first offence, just two weeks or so. But I can’t do it. I cannot bear to leave my children. They have no-one in the world but me.

What can I do? Stay in Russia, and remain silent? Become part of it? No, I can’t do that either.

What can I do? Go elsewhere, lose everything? Everything except the shreds of my self-respect, and my children. That’s my choice. I’ve made it – and left.

I’ve come, first, to Sri Lanka. I booked and paid for this trip in the happy days before the war: I wanted to see the jungle animals, because my next Beastly Detectives children’s book is meant to be set in a jungle. Coconuts, apes, elephants, heat – I feel feverish; delirious. The jungles of Sri Lanka symbolize my homelessness. I see an elephant – and I remember I no longer have a home. I see a palm tree – and I remember I’ve given up my beloved apartment in Khamovniki, Moscow. Here I see apes – and there, my friends are packing up my life into cardboard boxes. I see snakes – and I have enough money for three months, at most. Coconuts, ripe to pluck – and I’ve left my parents and my friends. Here’s the new moon, lying on its back; and I have no idea what to do for the rest of my life.

From here we’ll move on to Georgia. Then, maybe, to Montenegro. Farther on, I see only fog: thick, like the mist above jungle pools at six in the morning.

This is the choice I have made. Silence, for me, is the worst. The only thing I can do well is string words together in Russian. That’s all I have. I’ll comfort myself that I can still do this when far away. Perhaps I’ll be more useful like this for toppling the regime, than if I shut my mouth or went to prison. Maybe the same children who read my Beastly Detectives will do something when they grow up. Since I couldn’t do it. Since we couldn’t.

With these words, I burn my bridges. My sympathy: for Ukraine. My respect: for those who remain, to fight on.

Ich hatte einst ein schönes Vaterland.
Der Eichenbaum
wuchs dort so hoch, die Veilchen nickten sanft –
es war ein Traum.
Das küßte mich auf deutsch und sprach auf deutsch
(man glaubt es kaum,
wie gut es klang) das Wort: “Ich liebe dich” –
es war ein Traum.

(Heine, 1832)

Press Coverage of Anna Starobinets and Look at Him

Look at Him awarded Honorable Mention, Heldt Prize for Best Translation in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Women’s and Gender Studies, Association for Women in Slavic Studies, 2021

This finely tuned translation makes available to readers of English a gripping memoir by Anna Starobinets that documents the arduous experience of non-viable pregnancy, its termination, and mourning in the radically different contexts of the Russian and German healthcare systems. Starobinets’s intelligent and demanding text explores painful themes of decision-making in the context of carrying an infant known to have fatal birth defects, made all the more excruciating by the inhumane treatment she receives from Russian medical professionals, and giving birth to that infant abroad. Her deeply personal perspective on the shortcomings of women’s healthcare in Russia courageously tracks the psychological complexities of evolving maternal and family sentiments during this difficult process. The second part of the book presents the testimony of doctors, psychologists, and grieving mothers in more journalistic fashion in order to both to acknowledge these issues and initiate open discussion of them. Young’s translation will allow English speakers to participate in this international conversation.

Judges’ citation, Heldt Prize for Best Translation in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Women’s and Gender Studies, Association for Women in Slavic Studies, 2021

As abortion again takes center stage in national and international politics, Look At Him underscores the fact that even with birth defects, there are still so many sides to this issue.

Nancy Naomi Carlson, “The ‘A’ in Abortion,” On the Seawall

Hear translator Katherine E. Young read from Look at Him as part of the 2021 PEN Women in Translation Month Reading Series. The reading begins in the first chapter of the memoir when, during a routine 16-week ultrasound appointment, Anna’s doctor notices the baby’s kidneys are five times larger than normal. He says the baby may have something called polycystic kidney disease.

See author Anna Starobinets, translator Katherine E. Young, and scholar Muireann Maguire (University of Exeter, U.K.) discuss this groundbreaking book at the online book release (sponsored by Punctured Lines).

Hear a passage from Look at Him read by Katherine E. Young as part of the American Literary Translators Association Bilingual Reading Series, ALTA 43, here.

Listen to Christine Sloan Stoddard’s Badass Lady-Folk podcast (Quail Bell Press & Productions) featuring Katherine E. Young discussing Look at Him here.

See Lisa Carter’s Intralingo interview with Katherine E. Young about Look at Him here.

See Katerina Stoykova’s Accents interview with Katherine E. Young about Look at Him here.

Read Svetlana Satchkova’s interview with author Anna Starobinets about Look at Him here.

Read Joanna Chen’s “Making People Feel Uneasy: Joanna Chen in Conversation with Katherine Young” in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

What’s your goal when you start a new translation project?

I want to make something beautiful. I’m a poet myself, and a lot of my translation work is getting Russian-language poetry into English. There are many different schools of thought about what translation should be, but my goal is pretty simple: I want to make the work sound as if it had been written in English. In terms of larger prose projects, I choose books that I love myself, and authors I admire… I seem to gravitate towards controversial projects—as if by translating them I could write a wrong or negate an injustice. In the case of Look at Him, I’m hoping that both sides in the abortion debate will find a little bit of common ground in this beautiful and heartbreaking memoir. That’s a pretty quixotic notion of the power of translation—but it makes me very proud of what I do.

Katherine E. Young, TBR: Look at Him by Anna Starobinets. Translated from the Russian by Katherine E. Young

Reviews of Look at Him in Katherine Young’s Translation

Look at Him offers readers both an affecting portrait of parental grief and a call for action to address these long-standing systemic problems and improve women’s health care in Russia. The translation by Katherine E. Young is excellent.

Emily D. Johnson, World Literature in Review

Let me start by saying that Look at Him probably is the best, if not most important book I’ve read this year. I was so overwhelmed by the impressions that it took days before I was able to let it go… Starobinets is such a great storyteller, and the translation by Katherine E. Young is masterfully executed.

Amanda Sonesson, Lossi 36

I read the manuscript Young had sent me through the night, unable to put it down, a memoir of a young woman in Moscow who discovers in the 16th week of her pregnancy that the baby she is carrying has a fatal defect. The book chronicles not only the author’s personal anguish as she contemplates abortion but the inflexibility of the Russian medical system and Russian society in general.

Joanna Chen, Los Angeles Review of Books

This book is searingly accurate. In the first, main section, Starobinets rigorously documents her own changing emotions – shock, hysteria, fear, irrationality, guilt, panic attacks, grief, grief, grief. The second, shorter half of the book consists of interviews with medical staff (all German – no Russian clinicians would respond to her questions) and with mothers who suffered stillbirths or late-term medical abortions… The translation is excellent; Young follows Starobinets’ transitions between medical jargon, lyrical outpouring, and casual slang faultlessly.

Muireann Maguire, The Pregnancy Test

Praise for Anna Starobinets and the Russian Edition of Look at Him

[A] most important statement on a topic that no one has ever spoken aloud here [in Russia]—necessary, traumatic, but also healing reading for any woman, and also for any man living with a woman and contemplating having children with her.

Galina Yusefovich

[W]hat makes the book so compelling and human is that Starobinets puts her fiction-writing background to good use, pacing her book to develop a story arc and suspense. I could only read a little bit at a time because a personal story about late-term abortion is so intensely emotional. Even so, I had a hard time putting the book down at night.

Lisa C. Hayden, Lizok’s Bookshelf

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