Arts & Culture

Gary Shteyngart Becomes American

Unless there is a secret pocket of Choctaw Indians that look at this site, I’m going on under the assumption that very few of us are actual “native Americans.” And if I could go out on even more of a … Read More

By / January 29, 2010

Unless there is a secret pocket of Choctaw Indians that look at this site, I’m going on under the assumption that very few of us are actual “native Americans.” And if I could go out on even more of a limb, I’m going to guess a big percentage of Jewcy readers can trace their bloodlines back to Eastern European places like (taking a total blind stab here) Russia, Romania, Poland, etc. While none of this is big news, it is part what essentially makes America great: we are a country of immigrants, and we tell thousands of immigrant stories. The recently published Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of American Writing takes on the task of collecting many of those stories, told by a wide array of names, including late literary icons like Vladimir Nabokov and Isaac Bashevis Singer.  The anthology also shines a light on the current crop of American writers with foreign birth certificates, like Junot Díaz, Aleksandar Hemon, and my personal favorite, Gary Shteyngart.

Gary Shteyngart’s work makes me think about something a Russian friend said to me a few years ago during his little brother’s Bar Mitzvah. “We say cheers to anything. We say cheers to new babies, and we say cheers to nuclear war.” He raised up a shot glass. “Cheers to nuclear war!” He shouted, prompting the other three Russians at our table to lift up glasses of vodka along with him and respond “to nuclear war!”

I don’t say this to try and make some grandiose proclamation about the fortitude or drinking habits of the Russian people (although that has been well documented in the past), but to point out that nobody does absurd quite like the Russians. In Shteyngart’s two novels, The Russian Debutantes Handbook and Absurdistan, that quality is on display, but unlike many of the writers that came before him, it’s under heavy American influence. Monday evening, Mr. Shteyngart will join other writers from Becoming Americans at the 92Y for “The Immigrant Experience“. I asked him a few questions about “becoming American”, and his work and the ghost of Yiddish writers.

So I hear your alter-ego Jerry Shteynfarb is getting his own novel…
He is????? Where did you hear that?
I hear things. But I ask that because in your piece in Becoming Americans, you mention that Vladimir Girshkin “shares a few characteristics” with you, one being your shared “penchant for counting money in Russian.” Obviously, Jerry Shteynfarb shares a few with you as well (“The Russian Arriviste’s Handjob”, teaching at Hunter College, etc.). At the risk of sounding cheesy, how much of your own personality do you invest in your characters? Is it on purpose, or do you write something and say “oh, that’s weird, that character went to a liberal arts college in the Midwest, just like me.”
Yeah, you can’t really avoid the basic ingredients of your biography in the first few novels, especially when you’ve been dealt the rich comic hand i have, Brezhnev’s Soviet Union followed by Reagan America followed by Oberlin followed by God’s-greatest-gift-to-Satire, the younger Bush.
You came to America from Russia around the age of seven. Do you remember your opinion on America prior to “becoming American”?
I hated it and wanted to conquer the US on behalf of the Red Army and the communist party. Hmm, on some mornings I think I still want to do that.
From what I’m led to believe, the inspiration for some (or much?) of Russian Debutante’s Handbook came from time spent in Prague when you were unable to visit Russia. How many times have you been back to ?
To Prague? Not much, it’s become a Disneyland. To Russia, almost every year. Why says I wasn’t allowed to go back to Russia?
This is the second time you and Aleksandar Hemon have been featured in an anthology together, and you praised Anya Ulinich (also in the book) when her novel came out. Ulinich is Russian born, and Hemon is from Sarajevo. Is it fair to say that you guys are part of a ‘movement’ of writers born in formerly communist countries and now living in America?
Well, there are some damn good writers that emerged from all those countries. I really don’t think there’s a movement. I mean Indians and Indian-Americans have won huge respect from the literary community but they’re hardly a movement. All immigrant groups in the States eventually get their moment in the literary sun.
Do you relate easier to writers like Hemon or Ulinich?
They’re probably more amenable to digging into a juicy lard sandwich with me.
Last year you got to read at Gogol’s 200th birthday celebration at 92Y. You’ve been compared to him a few times. When did you first become interested in his work?
Well since day one. Gogol is the, um what’s the American word for it, the shizzle? The shnozzle? Let’s just say he’s the shnozzle.
The title of your story in the anthology is “The Mother Tongue Between Two Slices of Rye” and you seem to have an appreciation for food, especially smoked meat. The late Isaac Bashevis Singer, who is one of your fellow anthology contributors, was a vegetarian. Do you ever worry about his old Yiddish ghost haunting you for sayingI think meat is a big motif, with Jews. Smoked meats, especially“?

IBS was nuts, clearly. A Jew of his generation, a vegetarian? I’m eating a calf as I’m writing this and I’m appalled. One day my ghost is going to haunt HIS ghost.

I’m not sure if this falls under the “anti-Semite” category, but I found this article on a Christian website that I suspect is satire, and it’s titled “Jonathan Safran Foer: A Jewish Star Christians Really Can Follow“. The author rips into Sam Lipsyte, Michael Chabon, and says of you: “Shteyngart’s work is full of ill-advised immigrant humor while being secretly critical of the foundations of American democracy and morality. He would be the perfect CIA template of a terror suspect with his shady visage and divergent thinking. What country do you hail from again, Comrade Gary?” Is your immigrant humor ill-advised?

I’ve been told this is a satire, in which case it’s pretty funny. Yes, my immigrant humor is most definitely ill-advised.