Nastia + Sarah
Having made waves in the Bay Area culture scene with their editorial prowess and strong dedication to the Oakland community, Nastia Voynovskaya and Sarah Burke are journalists, music and art critics, and old friends who met each other during their time at U.C. Berkeley. For this issue of nasi, both women asked one another about their heritage, their current work, and where they come from.
N: Hi Sarah, I'm so excited to be interviewing you! Please introduce yourself and describe where you come from.
S: Hey Nastia, it's cool to be interviewing an old friend. I'm a journalist, art critic, and aspiring curator. I live in West Oakland with my best friend and two cats right now. I'm originally from O'ahu, Hawaii. I grew up in a tiny town called Waimanalo just outside of Honolulu, then moved to California when I was seventeen to go to UC Berkeley — where I met you!
I've been thinking a lot lately about the ways that growing up in Hawaii has shaped my conception of race and how that plays into my work.
But before I get into that, let's talk about you. What do you do? I know you were born in Saint Petersburg, Russia but moved to the U.S. as a kid and grew up both in the Bay and Florida. How did those moves shape your concept of race and who you are?
N: I'm a journalist with a focus on music and culture also living in Oakland — North Oakland to be exact.
I came to the Bay Area from St. Petersburg at the end of first grade (almost exactly twenty years ago!) with zero English language skills. The first town we lived in was Foster City, south of San Francisco on the Peninsula. My first school had a lot of other first-gen kids from Chinese and Mexican families so it was actually a great place to land as an immigrant kid in retrospect.
In third grade, though, we moved to Danville, which is the much whiter East Bay town I lived in til I was 14. I feel like a big part of my experience living there was struggling to awkwardly assimilate into white America and constantly dealing with my status as a cultural outsider. It's the kind of town that has that liberal Bay Area of mom-and-pop shops and farmers’ markets, but there's hardly any diversity and plenty of racist attitudes because of that. All throughout this time, though, my family was pretty active in the Russian community in Berkeley and San Francisco so I spent a lot of time in those cities, too.
Then the summer before 9th grade my family and I moved to Tampa, Florida, which was like the polar opposite. On one hand, Tampa is a really boring city where the only scenery is strip malls, regular malls, and Wal-Marts with huge parking lots. On the other hand, I went to a huge, extremely diverse urban high school, which is perhaps why I didn't grow up to be a total valley girl. Then I moved back to the Bay to go to Cal in 2008 and started hanging out in Oakland while I was a student. Oakland is where I really had my coming-of-age experience, and I feel like getting older here and being exposed to things like the history of the Black Panthers and the current, POC-led activist movements have helped me put in perspective my simultaneous white privilege and immigrant experience. I've always been the kind of person who cares about equal rights and is interested in people's cultures, so I've kind of learned to sit back and be a student of the game in terms of activism, and also to use the platforms I have as a writer to amplify people's voices from marginalized communities.
How did growing up in Hawaii and then moving to the Bay Area inform your knowledge of race and class and shape the person you are today?
S: That's so interesting. Learning to reconcile your privilege and experiences of oppression is such an important ongoing process for everyone, I feel.
I've been obsessed with Jeff Chang's essay "The In-Betweens: On Asian Americanness" ever since We 'Gon Be Alright came out. He writes about the process of learning to "become Asian-American" after he moved from Honolulu to Berkeley. I totally had the same experience. Race is dealt with so differently in Hawaii than it is in the continental U.S. It feels like the majority of people you meet are mixed-race. So, growing up, I had no concept of what a "person of color" was. It would have seemed like an unnecessary distinction to teenage me because being mixed race was the invisible-ized expectation in the same way that whiteness is here. Meanwhile, White people are called "haoles" — a pejorative that literally means "no spirit" in Native Hawaiian and has become completely accepted into daily conversation. It's only now that I'm started to reflect on the effect that growing up in a place like that had on me. There was definitely a point at which, around the age of 18, I had to learn to become Asian-American and learn what that identity category meant on the Mainland. It's bizarre to come into an imposed identity that late in life. It felt jarring, but at the same time very gradual. In fact, I'm still figuring it out.
In "My President Was Black", the essay that Ta Nehisi Coates wrote late last year for The Atlantic, there's a section about how growing up in Hawaii predisposed Obama to be less threatening to White people because he had less of an internalized resentment for Whites. (I'm crudely paraphrasing.) Meanwhile, Obama was able to adopt Black culture later in life without having had experienced much of the typical trauma of growing up Black in America. That, too, has been something I've been continually considering since I read it. There's a way in which — beyond all of the obvious benefits of living in "paradise" — growing up in Hawaii can be a huge privilege for people of color.
My mother is an immigrant from the Philippines, but when I was growing up I didn't feel a need to tap into that heritage much. Its importance didn't feel contested or threatened, if that make sense. So, although I ate adobo regularly, it didn't feel totally necessary to memorize the recipe. Now, I'm more interested in going back and learning about Filipino traditions, the history of colonization there, and so on. But there's a way in which it feels kind of phony at times — I don't feel like it really belongs to me.
Have you ever had feelings like that? I know you've been connecting with more Russian immigrants lately through activism, and thinking critically about the ways that Russians are viewed in America. What has that been like?
N: Yeah, I totally understand your feelings of trying to connect with an ancestral culture that doesn't quite feel yours. Since I moved to the US as a little girl, there are a lot of things about Russian culture that I had to re-discover or learn for the first time as an adult. I feel like I spent a lot of my adolescence trying to become American that I forgot a lot of things about being Russian — but it wasn't only that, it was also living on the other side of the globe from where I come from. I feel like I did always have a strong sense of Russian traditions like food, holidays, old movies, literary classics and religion. But I didn't and still don't really have my finger on the pulse of what people my age there are doing, what media they're consuming, and what they're thinking. I’ve always only had one or two Russian American friends growing up and only one cousin I’m close with in Russia.
Recently I've been doing a lot of activism with fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union, which has been awesome. I'm part of a Facebook group called Anti-Trump Soviet Immigrants and I've become friends with some of the members who live in the area irl. It's been really empowering discovering a whole world of like-minded Soviet immigrants on the internet because our community tends to be really conservative. It's been powerful for all of us to find each other. Of course, not everyone agrees on everything and there have been bumps in the road. I started an anti-racism subgroup as sort of an educational resource for people in the main group recently because racism in Russian culture is really widespread and ingrained. It's part of the reason why a large portion of the Russian American community voted for Trump even though we're immigrants, and many of us are refugees. I think it's really important for us to do work in our own communities to address racism — which is something I've read time and time again from the different Black scholars and intellectuals I follow on Twitter, like Feminista Jones and Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous. I'm trying to put that advice to practice in the former Soviet community because we really need it.
Working with former Soviet immigrants has also taught me about my own privilege as a Russian person. Russia colonized the other former Soviet republics and imposed our language and culture onto them, and as someone from St. Petersburg, I never questioned the narratives of the dominant culture too deeply until recently. It seems like a no-brainer now, but as a Russian American person in the US, you grow up with elders who tell you horror stories of the oppressive conditions of life in the Soviet Union. There's this notion that everyone was equally oppressed that stops you from interrogating the layers of ethnic, religious, and racial privilege that exist within that.
What about you? How has your activism evolved during the Trump era?
S: The layers! That’s so fascinating and real. I’m glad you’re digging into that — and also organizing with fellow former Soviet immigrants. It’s inspiring. I’ve wanted to connect with Filipinos in the Bay, possibly doing anti-Duterte work, but I haven’t found an avenue and I don’t even know what that kind of work would look like.
Trump’s first 100 Days have been a whirlwind for me — partially because they’ve intersected with a lot of personal life changes. Since I decided to go freelance, I’m much more aware of my own intentions because there are so many possibilities for how I could be spending my time. I was feeling really listless and disempowered for a while, so I decided to throw myself into a ridiculously ambitious project and start a temporary free resource center for creative resistance projects in downtown Oakland, Anti Lab at Gallery 2301, with my best friend Holly. The whole process has been so ridiculously exhausting, because I’m spending 80% of my time doing work that isn’t making money. It feels like doing a durational performance piece or endurance test or something. But it’s totally shifted my attitude and my overall worldview. I feel so much more hopeful and grounded because I’m in the space all day helping people make things, and having long conversations with new friends, and learning from long-time activists and artists who come through (rather than obsessing over the news alone on my laptop). It’s been thrilling.
What have you found hope in recently?
N: That’s incredible, Sarah! Seriously, I applaud you for bringing this crazy idea into fruition and giving people such a vital space to have important conversations across cultural and community lines. I’ve been finding hope in the little things. It’s hard not to feel down because of all the horrible things happening in the world right now. Organizing with my community has been a major source of empowerment, but beyond that I'm just trying to stay happy through practicing self-care and having fun with my friends.
Written by Nastia Voynovskaya and Sarah Burke
Photography by Janel Kajisa