Languages

Disappearing Earth

Julia Phillips, alumna of the Fulbright program for U.S. students and researchers of 2011-2012, is about to release her first novel titled DISAPPEARING EARTH, inspired by her Fulbright research year in Russia. The book is to be released on May 14th, yet it is already gathering riveting reviews from critics. To promote her book and elaborate upon her vivid memories of the Kamchatka peninsula where she did her research and where the story takes place, Julia has begun posting the photos she took during her year in the Russian North-East and kindly allowed us to share some of her reflections and images here as well.

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"Kamchatka is on the Pacific Ring of Fire, so it has 29 active volcanoes and 131 more dormant ones (plus geysers, hot springs, thermal features galore...) Thanks to Tatiana Oborskaya, I had done some translation work for a tourism agency in the years before I went there, so when I arrived in 2011, that agency gave me a free helicopter ride to the most picturesque parts of the peninsula. I took this picture out the window of the helicopter. I thought, oh! This is how easily the rest of my time here will go! That turned out to be not quite true."

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"A picture from my first few weeks on Kamchatka. Autumn in Uzon Caldera. A caldera is a collapsed volcanic mouth, like a fallen bowl on a pottery wheel. Uzon was huge, red inside with leaves, and gorgeous. I think back on this afternoon like I remember a dream."

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"A long view of Kamchatka's khrushchyovki, the classic concrete-paneled apartment buildings put up all over the Soviet Union during the 1960s. (Named after Nikita Khrushchev, of course!) They were built to be temporary but never replaced, so they're rusting. In their symmetry, their sameness, their discoloration and strangeness, they are beautiful to me. All the time now I try to remind myself: look at your home this way, look at your surroundings, look at New York, open your eyes, be fresh and surprised by the world around you. But that's easier to do when you're not used to somewhere already. Everything on Kamchatka amazed me."

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"The person in this picture, Denis Pikulin, was (and remains) an extraordinary friend on Kamchatka. Really, pretty much everyone I met there was excellent to me, far kinder than I was able to recognize or than I deserved. When I was there, I was very young, 16 time zones away from home, and missing my own language and culture even as I was grateful to be learning other ones. I struggled a lot with linguistic and social norms. I spent much of my time very, very lonely. Denis went out of his way every single day to take me around the city, introduce me to people, teach me new words, and share movies and music. He made my long winter in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky wonderful."

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"Many of my favorite pictures from Kamchatka are from one short chunk of time: the month I spent with the mushers and organizers of the Beringia, a 685-mile dog sled race through the peninsula. Being on the Beringia was the first time I saw tundra. It was the first time I rode a snowmobile. It was the first time I left Petropavlovsk for any extended period and saw what life was like on Kamchatka outside the capital city. It was one of the most vivid, beautiful, terrifying, challenging months of my life."

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"I looked at this photo from Kamchatka a lot while I was working on DISAPPEARING EARTH. I remember how I felt about this place when I first saw it: I was terrified. It felt like I was looking at the end of the earth. Like there was absolutely nothing beyond the horizon. By the end of the day I took this picture, we had traveled to the horizon, and I learned that of course the world didn't end, and in fact there were many towns there, and thousands of people, and a million things richer and more interesting than anything I knew. The memory of that terror stuck. I had looked at the land, recognized nothing, and imagined total absence. What did that say about my city eyes and imagination? What else was around me without my seeing it?"

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"DISAPPEARING EARTH is about the kidnapping of two young sisters on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Kamchatka is a particularly excellent setting for a fictional disappearance: it's a region the size of California with a population the size of St. Louis. It is isolated geographically (a peninsula that might as well be an island, with no roads connecting it to the mainland), politically (a closed military zone during the Soviet Union, it only opened to outsiders after 1990), and socially (more than half its residents and nearly all its infrastructure are concentrated in a single city). Huge swathes of Kamchatka are accessible only by helicopters, dog sleds, or all-terrain vehicles like this one. That's a lot of space to go missing."

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Photos & captions by J. Phillips

The Fulbright Program in Russia. Institute of International Education.
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Tel: +7.495.966.9353 Contact: info@fulbright.ru