A front cover for the Perito Prize 2019 accessibility and inclusive design short story competition

The Spirit Can’t Be Confined

By Margarita Meklina

 

For eight years, with magical regularity, e-mails from a far away, mysterious world appeared in my mailbox. Pressing F9 and refreshing my Outlook folder, I was peering into the land of yurts and nomads. Taiga and flatlands. Kazakhstan: the vast territory once ruled by the Russian Empire. Later – a Central Asian Republic lying in the political ruins of the former USSR. When I received my last letter, it was still a country dominated by a totalitarian ruler, who stepped down only after thirty years in power.

I was a penniless writer, a Russian-born immigrant lifting packages for UPS in California, and I needed all support I could get. From Russia, from Kazakhstan, from anywhere! It suddenly came from this petite woman in glasses, with fragile bones but with a spirit of steel. Devoid of allegiance to clichés, she published my writings: an essay about Vladimir Nabokov’s son and butterflies, a novella about a young queer woman looking for love in San Francisco, a short story about the frequent abusive relationships in immigrant families. Printing my texts in her magazine in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s cultural capital, this physically distant yet warm and caring correspondent offered her critical eye. Her mental, inner vision was sharp; her eye vision was blurred. She was even prohibited by doctors to write on a computer, but she continued to give me her vital feedback.

Raising a baby and trying to keep my writing aspirations alive, I was inspired by the quest of my virtual friend. Her vision was vaster than Kazakhstan steppes. As it turned out, this woman of small stature in a wheelchair created what the entire Ministry of Culture in Kazakhstan couldn’t achieve: a new wave of writing. Her name was Olga Borisovna Marcova and she was an editor, an educator, an activist, a guru, a researcher, a mentor, a friend.

Not having access herself to regular doctors or libraries, she underlined the importance of the accessibility of information. Placed into a confining jacket of censorship together with other Kazakhstan citizens, she dreamed that young writers would find the freedom within. “I am a mixture of terrible pessimism and unending idealism,” one of her letters proclaimed. “These weeks, I have been depressed, but I have to keep up my appearance for the people in our office. I’d better tell you about the new round table I organized. It’s called ‘Literary magazines as an instrument of cultural politics.’ Representatives from Central Asian Republics and Russia will all be there!”

In the second letter Olga reported, “Our writers were just sent to Russia’s capital for a special gathering! There they’ll get access to publications in Moscow!” Then she added mischievously, “And yesterday, for the commemoration of Pushkin, one of our writers had to eat his prize, a huge Pushkin chocolate sculpture.” Suddenly, in small font, she mentioned her aging parents, “They are nearing their eighties and I hope that I will die before they pass away.”

The next month, she proudly described an event, “With the British consulate, we organized a literary seminar with a writer who writes for teenagers. Have you heard of him before? I’m researching him and he is a gem.” When I was about to send a congratulatory response, I noticed a post scriptum, “There are very few buildings in Almaty suitable for wheelchairs. My eye sight is bad, there is a problem with retina but because the ophthalmology equipment is on the third floor, I can’t go for my checkup.”

She asked me about the difficulties of raising a new baby, almost never mentioning her own problems. Suffering and setbacks were hidden among the reports of success, “I’m training a new editor. I wrote an essay about book publishing in Kazakhstan. We’re organizing a contest for the best writing by a woman writer who writes in Kazakh. We also conducted master classes for writers from far away regions, those who due to their geographical location can’t get access to cultural places.”

And in the next sentence, “The majority of public buildings, offices, medical centers and supermarkets are inaccessible for people like me. Our society doesn’t think of it as a problem. My father took me out for a walk near our house in my wheelchair, but the wheel got stuck in a crack and the wheelchair overturned, together with my father and me!”

And then she again wrote to me about her everyday life, “We had an evening of poetry organized together with the American embassy… How important was it for you to participate in elections? When I see the news from the West, I think that such activity in my country wouldn’t be possible. By court order, they just closed the office of Democratic party. Also they shut several media outlets. And now the access to LiveJournal and other social media sites is blocked completely…”

Olga had been confined to a wheelchair since birth. Yet, in my then-precarious situation as a main breadwinner raising a baby, it seemed like she was the one who was more stable. Traversing the Web on her virtual wheels. Reaching out to every corner of the globe with the literary masterworks of her pupils. “She turned a wheelchair into a throne, she was an empress,” as another friend of hers said.

Transplanted from Russia to the U.S., I was trying on different languages like new clothes and, not always fitting into the new attire, was consoled by encouraging letters from far away. A young mother struggling to secure the first professional job and to write in two languages, I heard from Olga, “Please kiss your daughter from me and let your husband take care of you. The baby surely will be like her mother, an avid traveler and a storyteller. Wasn’t she conceived in Kazakhstan when you visited us?”

Olga’s public triumph was at the front of her letters, “Literary magazines here limit the number of acceptable topics. The government demands loyalty. There is no other organization besides ours that supports writers who steer away from the government ideology. We make sure that our authors reach an internal freedom that will allow them to say what they want.”

Her personal problems were hidden behind, “There was a literary seminar on the four floor, organized by our sponsor from the Netherlands. I couldn’t get there. Once they moved it to the first floor, I was able to participate… Recently, when I called a tour agency, they were so surprised that a person in a wheelchair wanted to travel by air. They even reprimanded me for assuming something like this! But I want to see Paris!”

Now, eleven years after our e-mail exchange ceased to exist, I pluck the saddest parts of her letters:

“You can’t imagine how I look, just like a scaled dragon… at home, one of my aging parents lost their balance and overturned a pot with boiling water on me.”

“A terrible thing happened today. A woman hit me in the eye with her large bag inadvertently when my father took me out in a wheelchair. Now I have to go to eye doctors again, but all the diagnostics equipment is on the third floor and there isn’t a lift.”

“My father is eighty-one and he fractured his hip. For two months he has been confined to his bed. My mom is my only helper for now.”

Then, “Mama broke her arm, I’m drowning in everyday problems. Papa still didn’t recover after his stroke. I’ll die without their assistance.”

The letters stopped arriving eleven years ago. My daughter had just turned fourteen and, as Olga predicted, she is a steady writer and a stoic traveler. Did I just tell you that Olga’s last letter came in 2008? That I didn’t hear from her since that time? That because of Kazakhstan’s poor healthcare and Olga’s weak immune system she died of flu at forty-four? Did I mention that she was able to visit Paris with parents her and that she managed to write a number of books?

You just read excerpts from her letters, which means that something of her is still alive. In some geographic locations, these pleas for help are still urgent. In many countries, in many regions, there is still no accessibility. Can’t life extend after death? Out there, there are writers she raised. Some of them became quite well-known. There are ideas she planted. There is her spirit that still traverses the roads of information; her wheelchair crosses the borders. Last month I was riding my bike and suddenly a woman at the bus stop raised her arm to waive the approaching bus and hit my shoulder quite badly. I shook. Was this a reminder from another realm, telling me that as a fully-able adult and a fully-fledged writer, I have to do more?

More than anyone else, Olga understood that “accessibility” means the right to be free, both in physical movements and in movements of thought. As much as a people with limited capability need physical freedom, spiritual and political freedom is also a must.

My daughter, the one for whom Olga always blew virtual kisses, recently went on a trip with her school, visiting a wheelchair facility. They made teenagers ride in wheelchairs, so that they knew what a person in a wheelchair experienced. Wouldn’t Olga find it amusing? She was quick to adapt new ideas. She’d say, “I would like the health officials in our country to ride in wheelchairs, to understand what it means to have accessibility.” Now I’m reaching for my archive to let out her spirit, which has been confined to our private e-mails, and her spirit is reaching out to you.

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