By: Rachel Park
One of the first things you notice upon entering 4118 Dwinelle is the colorful array of maps that cover the majority of one entire wall, turning its boring, grey uniformity into, quite literally, whole other worlds. It is here, in the office of the undergraduate advisor for Comparative Literature, that we have our first indication of Anatole Soyka’s wanderlust. Having earned Bachelor’s degrees in Food Science and Medical Technology as well as having a Master’s in Education , it might seem counterintuitive at first that he is the advisor for Comparative Literature majors, a domain that seems far removed from the factual theorems and laws that dictate the realm of science. Nevertheless, it is precisely this love of traveling, as well as his unexpected roots in science, that make him so well suited for the unique world of Comparative Literature.
In fact, you might even say that he was born for this job. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan to refugee parents from Russia, Tony’s world has always contained multiple languages. He confesses to having struggled with his own identity as a result of this multilingualism: “My parents didn’t speak English, and there I was, trying to learn, but with nobody to help me or teach me”. Yet this did not deter him and along with language, he found other unexpected ways to adapt to American culture: “For me, baseball was my tool to ‘assimilate’, rather than language. It was universal, and made me feel more a part of American culture without having to speak English straight out. After that, I changed my name from ‘Anatoli’ to ‘Tony’ because it was more “American”.
Like most children, particularly those that are first generation Americans, Tony felt the struggle of negotiating two separate cultures and trying to place them in his own sense of identity. It was not until Tony started attending Michigan State University, however, that he was able to re-connect with his cultural roots and heritage. Though he earned a double Bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Medical Technology, Tony admits that he was “not that drawn to it, but in terms of career-choices, I thought it was practical”. Looking back, he admits that it was definitely the Russian language classes he took during his undergraduate career that he benefited from the most because it allowed him to understand and access his heritage and culture in a way he had previously never been able to. For him, learning the language of his parents and native culture was not just a means of being able to communicate or understand the Russian language, but a means of understanding the “spirit” of being Russian, of understanding the context and intangible connotations that each culture seems to carry. For instance, he mentions a class he took that studied aphorisms and he still remembers how they were given a phrase in Russian “Тише едешь, дальше будешь” which, when literally translated, means something along the lines of “The quieter you ride, the farther you will go”. But the English translation they were given was the more popularly known: “Slow and steady wins the race”. Beyond the linguistic discrepancy, Tony found the translation remarkable because of what it implied about each culture. The English version places an emphasis on the goal, on “winning” rather than the journey itself, while the original Russian aphorism highlights the importance of the way or the path to getting to a goal.
“I think this nuance is very important, especially as so much of academia is focused on the end-result and the product. As cliché it is, life is a journey and what we really should be focusing on is what is gained along the way. What are the lessons along that path? What skills or experiences do we gain? What sorts of unexpected encounters do we have along the way? Most importantly, I think that acknowledging and focusing on your own journey allows you to have a kind of flexibility and resilience when things aren’t going the way you want: it lets you adapt to change and to be accepting of yourself. If we focus on just achieving the goal, we are always living in the future, always asking, ‘what’s going to be my next destination?’ But you have to ask yourself, then, are you living in the present? It’s important to make goals, but also to not become so attached to them that they completely determine your identity”.
His Russian language classes are also what prompted him to visit his family in Russia for the first time. As a child, he had somewhat resisted learning Russian and embracing his Russian identity, but finally learning the language and realizing the nuanced differences between languages and cultures “humbled” him enough to step out of his comfort zone. And, true to expectations, his first time in Russia was a huge culture shock, in which being immersed in an entirely different culture and society completely destabilized his ideas of what he thought was “normal” and “universal”. It also taught him an important idea behind language and communication, which, as an avid traveler, would prove useful to him time and time again: “A lot of the time, surprisingly, you don’t need to have perfect knowledge of a language to comprehend or convey meaning; a lot of times, you can find the general gist of what a person is saying just through intonation, expression, and even gestures”. Ultimately, Tony’s three trips to Russia (in actuality, the separate country of Belarus) and his subsequent travels to New Zealand, Nepal, Turkey and Peru became a kind of proof of this sense of universal “human-ness”, that there is a dimension of being human that transcends languages and geographic borders as long as we humble ourselves enough to try and understand – that there is something universal in all of us that resonates with one another. It is altogether fitting then, that Comparative Literature feels natural for Tony and why he can empathize with those of us in the major:
“I think the word ‘passionate’ is over-used, but my advice to all undergraduates, Comparative Literature or not, is to find something that resonates with you – something that really connects with you. I think that one of the greatest aspects about Comparative Literature is that it goes beyond this language and cultural barrier so that you can always find someone or something you can resonate with. Reading is just another form of traveling, of coming into contact with another culture and challenging your norms, and it is this contact and its subsequent humility that continually reminds us of how much there is of the world we don’t know, but also, how much there is left for us to discover”
Correction: October 2, 2015
An earlier version of this interview stated Ти́ше е́zдешь – да́льше бу́дешь as the original Russian saying. Courtesy of Yana Zlochistaya, one of our editors, we corrected it to the proper spelling: Тише едешь, дальше будешь