By Elizabeth Shvarts
“Sapogi” is a tender yet heart-wrenching examination of a mother-daughter relationship and a testament to the nuance of the cultural divide, or conversation, between immigrant parents and their children with shoes as the centerpiece.
take off your sapogi contralto crackles, staccato stick-letter spittle flying as i stand sopping slush on mama’s doorstep. it’s 30 degrees below zero and i can’t feel three of my toes but mama just creaks floorboard smile and hands me a dishrag so i can polish crater cheeks till pockmarks turn to porcelain. have i forgotten mama was hollow too? pomegranate pruned raked raw so i’d grow plump on a million seeds split ruby red she never buys brand name if she can help it. look at her now in sandpaper-shower-curtain-coat splendor milk bottles balanced on pitcher-hips. take off your sapogi laces drip with hot-dog grease so mama whips out steel to catch bacon fat before it bloats the carpet don’t i know how many chemicals are in there i bet the meat’s not even kosher. mama slips grocery list under her tongue before BPA and BHT drip into my double helix strands. mama says she is a cavern but she doesn’t need to remind me my boots are burial ground for ribcage starved of anchor of glass my boots sweep shards under the welcome mat. take off your sapogi daughter undress this “american” this “god bless” this star-spangled second skin are those lipstick-smeared soles like molten candy like canker sores like what kind of boy wears lipstick oh close the door on your way out.
Like its literary predecessors Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz, the idea for “Sapogi” stemmed from a shoe. Sapogi, to be exact, or the Russian word for boots. As I wrestled with the weight of the word and its role in the context of a story that subverted the tropes I’d read about immigrants, which while accurate, didn’t leave a lot of room to explore the parent’s perspective, I revisited my childhood. Growing up, I remember watching my jaw dropping as I watched characters in Disney shows casually prop up their converse on their beds. In front of their parents. Even if our teeth were chattering or we were so tired we could faint, wearing shoes inside the house was a criminal offense. I was intrigued by sapogi’s ability to function, not just as a cultural term but, a vehicle, transporting the supposed “dirt” of American assimilation to and from the threshold, yet a blank slate for the daughter, or child’s hopes and dreams.
Elizabeth Shvarts is a 16-year-old writer hailing from Staten Island. An avid spoken word poet, Elizabeth is an NYC Youth Poet Laureate Ambassador and finalist in Climate Speaks, a climate-themed youth spoken word program, highlighted by PBS, the Apollo, the New York Times and more. An advocate/entrepreneur as well as an artist, Elizabeth is the co-founder of the nonprofit Bridge to Literacy, which fosters a love for language through literacy in underserved kids from around the world. On the writing side, she's the co-founder of the international literary journal and youth community Aster Lit and its companion podcast Ad Aster.