Sara Brown & Armando Celayo
first published in World Literature Today 83:2, March – April 2009
Gary Shteyngart was born in 1972 in Leningrad, in the Soviet Union. He immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was seven years old, lost his accent at age fourteen, and graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in political science. He later received an MFA in creative writing from Hunter College, and is an associate professor in the creative writing program at Columbia University.
In October 2008 Shteyngart visited the University of Oklahoma along with world-renowned Soviet artist Vitaly Komar. The two were part of a five-day lecture course entitled “Russian Émigré Artists in the Context of American Culture,” which was sponsored by the Oklahoma Scholar-Leadership Enrichment Program. The participants in the class were able to have a 2-hour discussion with Shteyngart, in which he discussed his work, his influences (lots of Russian lit reference, surprised?), and the three Hs needed for diversity: Hispanic, Hasidic, and Hipster.
We were wondering if there’s anything you’re working on right now.
Yeah. It’s a very difficult book. It’s difficult because it’s so timely. I started two years ago, so it’s about the collapse of the United States. It begins with this sort of financial collapse.
A fictional collapse or the current collapse?
No, two years ago I started, so it’s completely fictional. But, now I find myself constantly having to rewrite parts of it—
Kind of how it was with Absurdistan.
That’s exactly how it was with Absurdistan. It’s driving me crazy. I feel like I’m the prophet of doom.
Stop writing, I know. I’m terrified.
Are there any recurring characters?
None. I don’t think so. I keep changing it because I’m so finicky about it, but it’s also a love story, which is pretty different for me. It’s really about two people from two different cultures and their relationship. So, it’s a very different book, in a way—it’s different and it’s not. I usually write about Russia in very different apocalyptic terms, but now I don’t have to go to Russia to feel apocalyptic.
Is it like their love story’s set on the backdrop of the collapse?
Yeah, It’s very—you know, playing with this kind of fiction that I write—character for me is the most important, but on the other hand, you also want to—I’m also very interested in a world of ideas. And also, I’m very interested in just day-to-day life in different countries and cultures and different politics, and how politics affects the personal. Kundera, for example—who’s now under suspicion of some not nice stuff, but frankly I always thought he was, I don’t know what the real story is, but I knew that he was an ardent supporter first, and then after ’68 he changed.
But they did find his name right in the papers.
They did, except there’s—I’ve been reading, I don’t know, this is going back and forth—he’s sort of hated, I think, in the Czech Republic, which is what I felt when I was there, which is odd because he’s the greatest Czech writer ever—there are some other connections for that post—
Small pool, but the meat of his work is just astounding. And The book I’m writing about is also about the death of literature. It’s set slightly in the future and—it’s a little bit in the future—and nobody can read and comprehend a sentence. And, there’s actually one scene in the book where one character tries to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being to another, and there’s a generational gap between them, about ten years, but the other character reading just cannot comprehend one part of it. It’s something I’m very worried about, obviously. Where things are trending.
Do you read Russian? Is that something that you think has helped out your writing?
Yeah, when characters come along. In the first two books, obviously, when you have Russian characters. In the third book, there’s one or two scenes—one of the characters has a Russian background, but was born in the United States, so he doesn’t have the same kind of memory that I’ve had, and other characters have had. So, yeah, I find it’s very helpful to have a second background, to have a second soundtrack, almost, going on in my mind.
And, it helps to keep up with Russian literature, what’s happening now—which is not a whole lot—but whatever’s happening is interesting.
It seems like you’ve got a whole lot of idioms in your language—especially with Absurdistan (2006), you had Misha, who’s very influenced by hip-hop culture, and uses hip-hop language. Was that something that you consciously wanted Misha to have so that it reflected his view of America?
In some ways, Absurdistan was really in the throes of globalism, what happens to globalism when the whole deck of cards collapses. At this point, certainly in terms of culture, there’s a huge amount of permeation of American culture in Russia and other countries. I would go to somewhere and hear local rappers. So I think Misha is just the source of, he is the Zagat Survey, or whatever, he’s the most global man he wants to be. Other identities he carries—whether nationalist identity, or religious identity, or even his identity as his father’s son—are so important to him. The easiest thing is to opt out and to be the world—We are the world, as that song used to say. I am the world, or I’ll eat the world.
In an article you said something about how you identify yourself as a Soviet Jew. Considering the Jewish diaspora, do you think that helps you to understand the diaspora of other cultures?
Well, being Jewish is being Jewish, of course, and being in a diaspora is being in a diaspora. Well, you know, it’s different. I think American Jews are—and I won’t speak for all of them—but I think those that are several generations behind feel certainly more American than anything. Although now there are organizations, there’s a lot of organizations for every ethnic group that try to keep the spirit going because it’s in their own interest to perpetuate. But, American Jewishism isn’t religious, and it’s really, maybe, a euphemism for feeling out of place.
So one aspect of migration in general is that it’s very difficult to incorporate yourself fully into one culture and it’s also difficult to go back to the other culture, so you kind of end up straddling the border, which is like what—Misha doesn’t end up straddling the border, he kind of embodies the perfect person who’s absorbed everything, but your Girshkin character, he’s straddling it. Have you found that in your experiences?
Sure. I mean, the question—look: that book I started when I was twenty-two, twenty-three, I was in college, my senior year, and when you’re that young, what are you going to write about? I’m amazed when people can break out and write about something different. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2003) was a very autobiographical book in many ways, whereas Absurdistan, my second book, obviously, was not. Absurdistan was based on a lot of things—on a lot of literature: Goncharov’s Oblomov, or Confederancy of Dunces, or even Candide.
But it also partly came about from somebody I knew in college, who was—there were a bunch of Russians there, and they were all very pre-law, pre-med kind of usual immigrant stock, but this guy was raising psychedelic frogs in his home, and I felt, like, god, here’s this rather large, portly individual, I thought he’s somebody who, for some reason, maybe because he was relative—oh I don’t know—but feels completely planted on American soil, and I was fascinated by that. He didn’t have the same conflicts of a non-native-born that I certainly had and that others had.
Also one of the people—Philip Roth for example—Philip Roth who’s obviously born here, and whose parents were born here—I think, yes—but he still managed to work with the complexes of feeling insecure in America. It’s interesting because America has this—well, whether America remains the beacon that it has been, depends on how well it does, how well it survives, and also how welcoming it is in comparison to other places like Europe and Asia. Certainly we like it the way it is.
Do you feel that as an immigrant writer you can add to, or you can give a more unique aspect of the American experience?
Well, we’ll see because in the first two books I touched upon America to some extent. The first book began in America, however many pages were set here. The second book is a constant riff on America and Russia. And so in some ways it’s like being dealt this huge deck of cards where you’re born in one gigantic empire and move to another gigantic empire. It’s not the same as being Norwegian, or from a place that’s small or entirely—it doesn’t have a messianic vision of itself. Russia—no matter what guise it’s under—and America—no matter what guise it’s under—will always have these messianic visions. But I, for one, felt myself—you know, there’s this certain class of people, I think, that’s just very comfortable on an airplane going between one place and another. On the flight from Dallas to Oklahoma was full of people from the subcontinent and Africa—
And they’re going to Oklahoma.
And they’re going to Oklahoma.
The thing about Oklahoma that not a lot of people realize is that it was built on three races—white, black, and Indian. But now, you look in Oklahoma City and you go to some parts and it’s very Asian, or you go to the Southside and it’s very Hispanic—you can go for miles without seeing a sign in English. Reiterating the question that was asked, do you see yourself more kin to writers like Junot Díaz or Aleksandar Hemon than you do other Russian immigrant writers?
Sure. Exactly. That’s actually what I was about to say. You know, there’s a reason—Nobel prize committee not withstanding—I think there’s a reason why American literature has been so successful, because it is the view—America is always going to be viewed forever as the epitome of industrialization for the last century or more, and in terms of grasping this and how migration will change the world, and how the migrants themselves will respond to this new environment, America has been taking the lead. Look at some of the other literatures that have been very vibrant, for example post–Zadie Smith literature in the UK, specifically in London, which is the most multicultural city in Europe, but also touching upon other places. I spent half a year in Germany last year, and it’s just not that—there isn’t a huge crop there. There are Turkish writers obviously, coming to the fore, but none—you know, if you want to look to the interesting writers, it’s still people like Orhan Pamuk or his contemporaries in Turkey—it’s just different. I do think that there will be a whole different group of writers coming up in all the countries in Europe. I spent a lot of time in Italy and I was looking forward to seeing the work of Nigerian and Italian writers.
It’s also the question of to what extent does that culture welcome and want to hear those voices, and immigrant lit is not just entrenched in America, in terms of literary fiction, but it comprises almost the bulk of it at this point. It is what people are interested in. It’s what wins the Pulitzer Prize. I know a lot of other Russian writers whom I respect and admire of my generation, but somehow I just feel more—maybe they have maintained a very great connection with their families and their communities—and I feel more sort of defamilialized—if such a word exists—I mean, obviously, I have a family—but I feel more un-tethered from community, from family, and I feel like I can sort of act as a more dispassionate observer from this point. And I do also go back to Russia, which I also observe, not just dispassionately, but with a certain amount of misgiving.
When you go to Russia, children don’t move out of their homes until later, but I mean that’s not necessarily a cultural thing, that’s just a lack of available housing.
It’s a cultural thing. It’s both. I think Russia’s one of—it’s the Italy of the north, where the ties that bind the family are very…are unbreakable. And that causes people a lot of psychological damage. The one thing I do like about America and other Anglo cultures is the sense of the worth of the individual, is the sense that you don’t have to exist solely within the framework of your nation, your church, your family. It’s a very exciting thing. In some of the other countries that I’ve traveled to it’s quite the opposite.
Do you think that the American interest in immigrant literature is a reflection of a post-9/11 event, where people are looking outward?
I wonder. It’s very interesting. I’ve never read it but the huge book that did very well in terms of critical acclaim and sales was…what’s it called? Something suns? A thousand suns?
A Thousand Splendid Suns? Khaled Hosseini?
Khaled Hosseini. Which is interesting. Russian literature was very big during the Cold War—Pasternak, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn—you know. People were lining up to buy a thousand-page Solzhenitsyn volume. I think Americans are always fixed on the enemy that represents the very opposite of their ideals. Educated Americans want to read about that other culture that people are scared by. It’s interesting, the kind of countries that do line up. Now there’s a mini-boom of Chinese literature that just started. It’s really interesting to see. Literature by Hispanic Americans is always important just because America straddles the border of Mexico, and also because it’s the fastest growing population.
In this part of the country?
Yeah. Do you think there’s a danger in Americans just focusing on just one author like Hosseini instead of getting the whole range of literature?
Well, we’ve all been feeding at the trough pretty well. In New York, I have a group of just immigrant writers that hang out together, and usually complain, but are kind of excited to see, obviously, what’s happened all of a sudden.
When I was starting out—I wrote the first book in college—and for most of six or seven years I didn’t want to publish it because I thought, Who the hell cares about some Russian immigrant’s story? And that was sort of the first book in that wave of Russian novels that people were certainly ready for. The Indian American writers are the other group that, I think, has really been terrific. In some ways to have the advantage of growing up with this kind of English spoken, at least, among the educated classes, but the way they manipulate that language is so exciting, you know. There’s colonial English, there’re different native—you know, the Gujurati, Marathi, Hindi, that inflects the speech, and it’s just amazing.
I blurbed two writers who’ve won the Booker: Kiran Desai and the gentleman that wrote The White Tiger [Aravind Adiga] that just won the prize. So I have a good track record in predicting, but these books are astonishing and deserved to win the prize.
I remember hearing that Akhil Sharma is one of your friends and he helps out with your books. Is his influence a cultural influence or is it just him, personally, as a writer?
As a writer. He’s the sternest critic I know. He’ll say exactly what’s on his mind.
You say you go back to Russia.
Maybe every year or two.
Are you accepted in Russia when you go back?
Yeah, nobody cares. It’s a large society. I have friends who I visit that are nice people. It’s just a very stressful society because it’s so…half of its economy collapsed. It was thrown from a very lower-middle-class country into a third world, developing country in the span of less than half a decade. All the industries collapsed, everything collapsed. To grow up in that kind of environment is incredibly stressful, incredibly depressing. On the other hand, you have this messianic idea that your country is great, it has the largest landmass and all these different things, and what’s happened lately is there’s been this collapse—the Democratic Party has been completely—it doesn’t really exist. And it’s been subverted by the capitalists. It’s like a kleptocracy where oil and gas sectors dominate the economy, in the way they do in countries like Nigeria and elsewhere. Other than Norway, I don’t think there’s a successful democratic petro-state. So, it’s the worst of all worlds in some ways, except there’s been the growth of the middle class and that’s one reason, especially in big cities like Moscow and Petersburg, where I’m from. There’s no underpinning to the economy other than oil and gas, they haven’t developed an infrastructure, they haven’t developed anything. So, these gains that are being made are subject to being rescinded. And then what? Then what happens?
But there’s a second type of collapse that’s already being funded and it affects the literature. You know, the literature that I like, Sorokin for example, is the literature of anxiety, we’re dealing with this, whether it’s boom or bust, this maximalist concept. Absurdistan was written right before the booms, so the country that it describes circa, say, 2001—which was about when Putin took over from Yeltsin—was, especially in Moscow, in a very big boom. St. Petersburg, where I’m from, still looks a lot of ways the way it’s described in the book because it’s a crumbling and a depressing place. It’s been gussied up since, but Russia is a place where it seems like the concept of adding fresh layers of paint isn’t condemned—but what’s underneath it?
You’ve referred to Petersburg as Leninsburg, instead of Leningrad. Do you think it’s more accurate to refer to it as Putingrad today?
Well, you know, I think I like Leninsburg because you can’t switch a country that quickly into a whole new world. You can’t say, Now we’re going to be a free-market democracy. Yeltsin has to be given credit for trying—he was not the man for the job, was drunk a great deal of the time, surrounded himself with all the terrible people. But at the heart is, you know, you can call it—even Petersburg also makes sense—he was a tyrant in his own right. There’s a restaurant in Petersburg called 1913 cause that’s theoretically the last good year in Russian history, when things were sort of trending in a good direction. So, you know, at least we never switched to Stalingrad. There was a Stalingrad.
What about American and Russian consumerism, just in comparative terms? There’s a vast difference between the two.
Well, Russian consumerism wants to be American consumerism, I think, in some ways. And not just Russia. You go around Asia, countries as diverse as Korea and Thailand. Everybody wants unfettered access to unlimited amounts of stuff. There’s a mall I went to in Bangkok, a mall that had Kentucky Fried Chicken on one level and a Lamborghini dealership on another. People want it all. The whole vast array of endless fatty goods. I mean, fatty goods and a Lamborghini. Stuff that’s not necessary to sustenance or to happiness, but which a group of people think will lead to a better life. Russians in the Soviet Union wanted so much—Abba records, Grundig shortwave radios from Germany—all these different things, it’s all we’ve dreamt about, my parents did. And then it’s there, it comes, and people in these countries also have been getting into huge amounts of debt trying to finance any kind of Western lifestyle. Huge amounts of stress. Countries like Korea are some of the most stressful societies. And you can understand initially, taking a country like Korea, which is one of the poorest countries after the Korean War and is now certainly an incredibly wealthy country like Argentina is, as far as any other developed countries, but it doesn’t go enough to just to the point where there’s enough sustenance. The mentality is globalism, one has to be the best—it’s an endless race. It’s like an arms race. You have to have all the top goods. And Russia is a great example of that. Until last week, after the collapse of the stock market, there were more billionaires in Moscow than any other city in the world. Think of it: more billionaires in Moscow than in London or New York. London is the world’s financial hub right now, and New York is the financial capital of, still, the world’s biggest economy. And Russia, by comparison, is a mess. I mean, c’mon, these people… You can see what people want, and how wealth is distributed. And they’ve spent it, they’ve spent it on such crap. It’s unbelievable.
On that, going back to hip-hop—hip-hop can appeal to either a materialistic culture but it can also speak to a working class. How do you think hip-hop plays in Russia?
Well, it began as a working class cry and then it became materialistic. In Russia there’s a version of—it’s not hip-hop—Shanson—it’s ballads by sort of gangster-sounding men, it’s the best way I can describe it—
Timoti, the gangster rapper from Russia?
No, no, no. Shanson is a little different. It’s sung usually by older men, Severny is one of them, you know, Vysotsky’s sort of, isn’t exactly, but that rumble-style, that tempo. But a lot of the songs are set in Odessa always a gangster-land capital in Russia, and they were thuggish, but they weren’t exactly materialistic, they were sometimes love songs, not exactly, but also, in their own ways, poking fun at society and poking fun at the state. So, I think there’s a great tradition of that.
But, in terms of hip-hop, I mean, I’m not as…I find it very difficult to listen to. It just doesn’t sound—I don’t like hip-hop from any other nation other than our own, in this nation. Sometimes British hip-hop. I don’t understand French, but I’m told that’s the situation. In the peripheries.
Hip-hop was very important to me in college, actually, because it was a very good point for me to sort of leave the very conservative environment in which I grew up, and in some ways it was the first time that I’d been exposed to African American culture in new ways. I grew up in a very, I would say, racist environment. I think Russians in America are a very conservative culture—always vote Republican. So, that was a very big change for me. Back then it was still switching slightly from the music of revolt to the music of materialism. The old school ones: Ice Cube—
Public Enemy, of course. And that was slowly giving way to the Jay-Zs of the world.
And even Notorious B.I.G., because he seems to kind of combine the two, because he had a fascination with—
Yes, he did, he did. And he was just starting back when I wanted to become. . . . So, yes, when I was thinking of my Misha, I thought Biggie. How could you not?
Sara Brown is a senior at the University of Oklahoma, majoring in Russian and Anthropology. She recently spent a year living and studying in St. Petersburg, Russia.