Our Fascinating Russian-Americans

I’m not sure how you get away with writing a lengthy piece on big-deal Russian-American novelists without once mentioning Olga Grushin; perhaps only the Russian-American novelists living in New York count. Still, Emily Gould‘s awful-titled piece on the alleged trend for Russia! is an interesting read, even if a lot of the quotes from Gary Shteyngart and Keith Gessen suggest they’re wary of her thesis that these writers are (ironic caps Gould’s) So Hot Right Now. (Gessen, for his part, is resistant to be included in this grouping, and no agent or publisher is quoted.) And Gould’s riff on Lara Vapnyar seems to argue that Russian-American authors have truly arrived only because you can now treat them with easy condescension:

[Vapnyar] is the most authentically Russian member of the club for the simple reason that her spoken English is still somewhat wobbly. She’s been able to distill that linguistic insecurity into an emphatically plain, nearly featureless writing style the New Yorker fell in love with. It gave her a career: “I had never written fiction before, in any language, and I spoke English with a monstrous accent and tons of grammatical mistakes,” she reminisces in a recent essay. It also made her a few enemies. “When my first story appeared in the New Yorker… one of my American friends said, ‘What should I do to get published in the New Yorker? Screw up my English?’” (This magazine’s editor once opined in a public forum that Vapnyar’s fiction “gets published for the same reason Thai elephants’ paintings get exhibited in galleries”; he has since recanted, and even translated one of Vapnyar’s short stories into Russian).

4 thoughts on “Our Fascinating Russian-Americans

  1. Last night I went to a (very good) Huey Lewis concert in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, “Little Odessa,” at which a state legislator was introduced as the first “Russian-American” legislator.

    Except that the person introducing him had been a state senator 30 years ago and he is of Russian origin, as I am. I expect the majority of Jewish politicians – U.S. senators from NY, CA, MN, VT, etc. and many more – are, like me, whose grandparents were born in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, “Russian-Americans.”

    Similarly, my Christian friends whose grandparents or great-grandparents were born in Russia are not really considered “Russian-American.”

    Is Philip Roth a Russian-American writer? Saul Bellow? Norman Mailer? Susan Sontag? I could go on and on with writers who probably, like I do, list their ancestral national origin as “Russian.”

    I’ve concluded that either being born in Russia or having a Russian accent makes a writer or politician or artist “Russian-American.” Their kids won’t be.

    What we’re talking about is Russian *emigres*. Like Nabokov.

  2. I think the definition of “Russian-American” depends on who you ask. To pick a different country and a different politician, Paul Sarbanes has proudly proclaimed himself a Greek-American, though he was born and raised in the U.S. Same goes for Harry Mark Petrakis, who’s written plenty on the Greek-American experience. Same goes for me, a person who knows his parents’ homelands only from a couple of visits. That kind of identification comes as much from where you’re raised as how you’re raised.

  3. I think what you’re saying, Mark, is that self-identification is the key? My friend, the fiction writer from the 1970s and 1980s, Crad Kilodney, is a Greek-Canadian, born in the U.S., and his grandparents (I knew them well) were Greek immigrants and *very* Greek, but although he’s published stories like “Rubber Greek School” and has other references that probably resonate with other Greek-Americans, he definitely did not want his ethnic background known – one of the reasons he took a pseudonym (although his real last name is actually his great-grandfather’s first name and is not recognizably Greek.)

    After about three generations, ethnicity wears off totally. To be fair to Emily Gould, her article did refer to “emigres” and quoted Keith Gessen (isn’t he her ex-boyfriend?, by the way) as being uncomfortable at being ID’d as a “Russian-American.”

    In tenth grade English class, my teacher Mr. O’Hanlon had us all do book reviews of an Irish-American author. But he let me get away with John O’Hara! As Gish Jen’s book of stories is titled, Who’s Irish?

    I’ve taught a class in multicultural literature and all the books were about or by first- or second-generation immigrants.

    These writers’ grandchildren will not be “Russian-American,” I am certain.

  4. I just finished reading Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen.
    It was strange, but interesting. Leo seemed to me to be delusional.
    Many who go into psychiatry do so for a reason-or so it seems to me. Perhaps the person has had a psychological problem and hoped to solve it by learing all he or she could about emotional illness. Perhaps the person had a family member or a friend who had a problem . Seeing a need for someone to try to help those with mental or emotional problems may have led some to go into the field. One man that I knew was thought to have a psychosomatic problem when he was a medical student at Columbia by non-psychiatric doctors. A psychiatrist told him his problem was not psychological. At the Mayo Clinic he was found to have a spinal cord tumor removal of which relieved his complaints.
    Another was doing general practice in England and was called to see a man whose lower extremities had been crushed by a roller machine. The nurse had removed the morphine from his doctor bag so he gave the man an intravenous injection of saline with immediate relief of the agonizing pain. I feel sure that these experiences led both these men to go into psychiatry. I had more sympathy and more empathy with psychiatrists than did many of my colleagues.
    Donald W. Bales, M.D. retired internist

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