Ksenia Anske might not be a familiar name to you just yet; indeed, you might not even be able to figure out how to pronounce it (ke-SEN-ya ON-ska). Born in Soviet Russia, trained as an architect, and having arrived in the States in 1998 knowing only the crumbs of English she was able to pick up from Beatles songs, she worked as a Seattle-based Internet entrepreneur before deciding a few years ago to abandon the world of tech startups and devote herself to her true passion, writing. Since then she has become one of social media's most popular authors: a bubbly, positive and enchanting Deepak Chopra of prose, dishing out daily wisdom and motivation to put pen relentlessly to paper that is lapped up and shared gleefully by almost 50,000 followers -- and climbing.
Without, by the way, having published a single word.
And yet the numbers -- undoubtedly the envy of thousands of aspiring authors struggling to establish an audience for themselves -- aren't the most remarkable aspect of Anske's personal story, one that has seen her transform from victim to inspiration. Her forthcoming debut novel, Siren Suicides, is the wrenching tale of a teenage girl, Ailen Bright, who jumps off a bridge to escape an abusive father, and is transformed into a mythological siren who can kill with her voice -- only to find that her father is actually a siren hunter, and that death hasn't been an escape after all. The cathartic tale weaves a spell of dreamlike yet fiery imagery, prying at your ribcage with claws of emotional torment, raw pain carved across the pages in a series of ink-shaped scars. In the midst of Ailen's despair, however, lies the promise of redemption, of forgiveness, of hope and of love. Our greatest truths are often found in our works of fiction, and Siren Suicides is no exception, birthed whole and screaming its haunting, aching and seductive song from the agonizingly real corners of Anske's past.
Candidly, Anske relates this most difficult truth -- that she suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father and step-grandfather, and when the memories of that trauma resurfaced after years of repression, she was driven to the brink of suicide. She recalls with vivid horror the exact moment she had decided to do it, standing in her kitchen, holding a knife to her stomach, thinking of trying to cut the pain out of her body. What saved her, she says, was the realization that her father could not hurt her anymore, the wish not to hurt her children by depriving them of their mother, and the plain fact that she wasn't strong enough to do lethal damage with the dull blade. Here, in her darkest moment, much like her character Ailen, she found her voice. Having seen that death was not the answer, "I decided to start talking about everything I've been through. I started writing. It helped me heal. It helped me so much that I couldn't wait to share it with the world. I felt so much pain and yet I somehow managed to recover. I want to help others see that writing can mend broken souls."
Suicide claims the lives of more Americans every year than automobile accidents. It is the third leading cause of death for children aged 15 to 24. Names like Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons have brought this sad fact into the forefront of public awareness, and yet there is still a reluctance to talk about it -- fear, shame, societal stigma, or, a complete lack of understanding, as Anske observes. "Unless you've been on the 'other side,' unless you've felt what it's like to hate yourself and your life so much that you want to end it, you won't be able to grasp the full extent of emotions it takes to decide to kill yourself," she says. "The psychological pain is overwhelming to the point where it hurts physically, and the only way out seems death. That is a scary thing to behold, and an even scarier thing for others to talk about."
Anske wants to talk about it. She has kickstarted the conversation by baring her soul in the digital space -- a realm that can often be unforgiving and full of schadenfreude, as the aforementioned two cases of cyberbullying have proven. But according to Anske, "the idea of sharing my pain became my reason to live. The ability to talk about it gave me new purpose. After having been very close to taking my own life, the typical angst of exposing my history was gone. I did have a very hard time beginning to talk about it -- incest is a very dirty word, and the fact that I was sexually abused by my family members, my father especially, caused people to step away from me at parties. Like I carried a disease, like I was contagious. But then I remembered it's my mission in life, to talk about it, to expose it and to make people aware of it, to help others, so the next day I would talk about it again. And again. Until it became easier and easier."
A key component of that mission, for Anske, is making Siren Suicides available for free, forever. She's been approached by interested publishers who have balked when she's refused to budge on this demand -- a revelation that likely provokes other aspiring novelists to facepalm as they flail under a pile of rejected query letters. It has never been about money, says Anske, and she shares one moving anecdote that proves as much: "One of my beta readers in Austria, unbeknownst to me, was reading Draft 4 aloud to a group of troubled teens. One teenager, a boy, came up to her after and talked to her about having suicidal thoughts. He said listening to Ailen's struggles helped him open up and talk about it. When my beta reader told me this, I bawled my eyes out all day, thinking, I did it. If I managed to maybe save this one teenager's life, my job is done."
Online, complete strangers have embraced Ksenia Anske like a sister, a daughter, a mom, a best friend. Her avatar is a self-portrait with arms raised toward the camera, inviting you in, telling you it's okay, I'm here, have a hug if you need one. Siren Suicides has become a community with Anske as a fun and friendly mayor, only too eager to share copies of it, even in draft form (typos and all) to ravenous readers who've been as bewitched as Odysseus' crew by the stirring words of this literary siren and the encouragement that she provides. Anske makes it a point to answer every tweet, comment or post directed her way, and, emboldened by this genuine sense of openness and engagement, fans respond with artwork and photographs and even personal journeys inspired by the novel. Two admirers in particular, having been introduced to each other by Anske through her Twitter feed, have even begun collaborating on a screenplay adaptation. Still, she's humble when asked why she thinks people respond to her in the way they do, as if she can't really believe that she deserves it, and she blushes at the thought of being considered a writing guru: "I simply tweet about things that come to my head, which mostly are encouragement to myself to keep writing, because I have a lot of fear around it still. When people told me that my encouragement helped them, I became bolder and less afraid. And, I always try to make it funny, to give love to my followers, to make them smile and make their day better. My Twitter followers are like my new family. Whenever I'm down, they pull me out, never letting me slide into my dark moods. They crack jokes back at me, they encourage me to keep going, they share their successes and failures with me -- it's the best thing ever."
The enthusiasm of those followers has moved Anske to make her next work, Blue Sparrow, a compilation of her best and most popular inspirational tweets. After that comes Rosehead, another dark tale rooted in Anske's past about a young girl who discovers that her grandfather is murdering women and turning them into roses. Mentor, friend and fellow author Michael Gruber is also encouraging her to write a literary novel, Irkadura, about her childhood in the Soviet Union. Her dream project is working with a professional team to bring Siren Suicides to the big screen, to further the spread of its most important message:
"That it will be okay. You will be okay. We will be okay. Life is horrible and painful at times, but there is love there too, if only we're willing to give it to each other. Because the only way to love is to give unconditionally, without expecting anything in return. Underneath that, I want to show how it feels when you want to take your life, how horrifying, confusing, and debilitating this desire is, and how one can overcome it. And given my personal history, I want to expose the problem of abuse in families, specifically, the abuse of women and children, that it's still very much a problem in our society."
The sirens of myth preyed on the loneliness of sailors, using the tantalizing promise of connection as their most lethal lure. In a far more benevolent sense, Ksenia Anske understands that connection is the heart of storytelling, and that the human value of a great story far exceeds anything anyone could possibly pay for it. Her advice to others who aspire to her example speaks to the importance of seeking that connection through honesty and genuine emotion: "Be yourself. Share yourself as you are, with your failures, your successes, your everything. Be as emotional as you can, let people glimpse inside your soul, and they will want to know more. Because it's how we connect; not over facts, but over feelings."
And perhaps most importantly, connection can stop a suicide -- a lesson that Ksenia Anske learned firsthand and will continue to sing in her clarion and captivating voice to anyone within earshot.
In postscript, a few fun facts about Ksenia, with apologies to James Lipton:
Favorite word? "Right. I often start my tweets with, right..."
Least favorite word? "Consciousness. I can never spell it right the first time and I never remember how to spell it right! (See, I used right twice just now!)"
Favorite curse word? The four-letter euphemism for excrement, in all caps, with an exclamation point (author's translation).
And finally, "In heaven, I want them to tell me: 'Hey, lady? Yeah, you. You're early. Get out of here. You have ten more years to live. So, shoo!'"
To learn more about Ksenia and Siren Suicides, check out her website, www.kseniaanske.com, or join her Twitter following: @kseniaanske.
Follow Graham Milne on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TheGrahamMilne