Russian writers explore the immigrant experience
CHICAGO - A steaming bowl of homemade borscht that brings memories of the Russian homeland. An elderly Soviet immigrant who falls victim to the affection of two lonely fellow countrywomen. A young woman looking for a sense of belonging in a country where even snow feels alien.
With her new collection of short stories, "Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love," Lara Vapnyar, 37, is one of a growing group of Soviet-born immigrants to emerge as popular writers in the United States.
Mixing drama, satire and personal experience, they explore the bitter, confusing but often comic tales of Russian and Soviet immigrants stuck between their troubled homeland and the country where they long sought to live but to which they have not yet adjusted.
Some of these authors, who all write in English, moved to the United States as small children and adopted English as their primary language. Others, such as Vapnyar, immigrated in their late teens or early 20s and had a tougher time learning the language.
Drawing on the richness of their native tongue, their writing offers a glimpse into the Russian language with its colorful metaphors and descriptions - in works by such writers as Vapnyar; Gary Shteyngart, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" (2002) and "Absurdistan" (2006); Canadian David Bezmozgis and his short story collection "Natasha and Other Stories" (2004); Olga Grushin, "The Dream Life of Sukhanov" (2006); and Ellen Litman, "The Last Chicken in America" (2007).
Much of the work is devoted to Jewish characters and topics, since most immigrants are Jewish. And while America is often called a melting pot and immigrant literature is abundant, the authors insist that immigrants from the former Soviet Union stand out because they had a harder time finding their way.
Most came here as educated professionals who often had to accept unskilled jobs. The communist system from which they escaped was also drastically different from the life they found here: Most had no clue what a mortgage or a credit card was.
"There is definitely a trend," said Boris Fishman, a literary critic who served as an editor at The New Yorker. "American audiences have proven to be very, very interested in reading about the Russian-American . . . because it is funny and poignant because these people are ridiculous in lots of ways but they are also heroic in lots of ways."
Back in the "previous life," as one of Vapnyar's characters puts it, lines to buy toilet paper at a store were longer than lines to visit Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin's tomb on Moscow's Red Square; desperate customers stormed grocery stores to buy imported puffed rice and kindergarten children were made to sleep strictly turned to their right side.
In the new American life, supermarkets teem with delicious broccoli, but immigrants find themselves separated from their lifelong friends and relatives and even snow "doesn't crunch the way it did in Russia." Jobs are hard to find and immigrants are clueless about managing bank accounts and paying utilities and medical bills. In the Soviet Union, salaries were paid in cash and house heating and medical care were provided by the state.
With immigration "you win an opportunity," Vapnyar said.
"Every person is given one life and immigration gives you the opportunity to live a second life, but you lose touch with your country, with your language, with the people you grew up with, with your childhood," she said. "That is why food is so important to them - they are trying to reconnect with their childhood."
In the story "Borscht," for example, Sergei, who came to America to earn money, battles solitude by hiring a clumsy Russian prostitute, who feels as homesick and manipulated by his family as he does. When their sexual encounter fails, the two find pleasure and comfort in sharing homemade borscht.
Vapnyar's stories are inspired by her own experience. She moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and two young children in the early 1990s, and plunged into a deep depression.
The cumbersome English she had learned from Soviet textbooks proved nothing like the language spoken in the United States. Her degree in Russian literature became useless and she was reduced to teaching English to elderly immigrants who needed to pass a language test to receive US citizenship.
"The first year, I had such a horrible depression that I cannot remember a single pleasant surprise," Vapnyar said.
Life improved when she began writing - in English. Her first book, "There Are Jews in My House" (2004), which mixes snippets of Soviet and immigrant life, won high acclaim. It inspired her novel "Memoirs of a Muse" (2006), about a naive Russian woman who tries to inspire talent and love in a mediocre and selfish American writer.
Shteyngart was born in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, and spent the first seven years of his life as a typical Soviet child, playing hide-and-seek with his father beneath a giant statue of Lenin. "I was in love with him," Shteyngart said of the revolutionary.
The family moved to New York when Shteyngart was 7. It was 1979. The Cold War. When being Russian was not popular here. In the Hebrew school where Shteyngart enrolled, he felt humiliated and lonely: Classmates mocked his accent and wardrobe - he only had two or three T-shirts. The school organized a campaign to aid the boy, calling him into the principal's office and handing him a bag full of donated secondhand clothes as other students watched.
Reluctant to open his mouth to avoid being teased, he turned to writing in English. The effort eventually paid off.
In "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," he describes the adventures of Vladimir Girshkin, a confused and insecure 25-year-old immigrant who yearns for love and a sense of identity. Shteyngart, 36, uses bristling satire to convey his character's struggle to find a place in life, caught between a demanding Jewish mother and a hard-to-get American girlfriend in New York, a homosexual mobster in Florida and Russian mafia in a fictitious Eastern European city.
Although many of the works are colored by sadness and pain, Vapnyar remains optimistic: "Immigration is trauma, but it's not a deadly disease and most people get cured."