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Conversation with Gary Shteyngart

The immigrant experience – as seen through the eyes of a “Little Failure”

By Judie Jacobson

Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States seven years later. The author of three acclaimed novels, Shteyngart‘s latest book, Little Failure, is a memoir in which he shares his American immigrant experience, moving back and forth through time and memory with self-deprecating humor, moving insights, and literary bravado.

Born Igor Shteyngart, his world changed in the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev made a deal: exchange grain for the safe passage of Soviet Jews to America. For Shteyngart, coming to the U.S. from the Soviet Union was like stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor. His loving but mismatched parents dreamed that he would become a lawyer or at least a “conscientious toiler” on Wall Street, something their distracted son was simply not cut out to do. Fusing English and Russian, his mother created the term Failurchka — Little Failure — which she applied to her son. With love. Mostly.

As a result, Shteyngart operated on a theory that he would fail at everything he tried.

Shteyngart’s novels have been translated into 26 languages and have won numerous awards. Recently, Shteyngart, who lives in New York City and upstate New York, talked with the Ledger about his life, his book and the immigrant experience.

Q: In writing about your family, you describe a lot of tension, but there also seems to be a real warmth. To what do you ascribe the two forces?

A: There’s a warmth and the feeling of the family unit being almost too close. In some ways I think that is partly due to the fact that most people had one or two children at most; the one-child family wasn’t mandated like in China, but that’s how it worked out for a lot of people. So you have this very close family unit. That generates a lot of warmth, of course, but on the other hand, it also generates this feeling that you are your parents’ child forever and that it’s very hard to create your own individual identity. That’s part of the problem for many in this culture who come from a place where the family identity is paramount and then they move to a country like America, where the individual is the most important thing. That creates a lot of tension, but that tension is very good when it comes to immigrant novels.

If you read Philip Roth, who was born here, there’s obviously a lot of both love and concern for the family unit. His parents do remind me a little bit of the type of parents who are overly involved in their children’s lives, for example, and much too worried about their children’s future, and that’s obviously true of Soviet-Jewish parents as well.

Q: Several of your peers in the writing world — David Bezmozgis, Molly Antopol, Boris Fishman, Karolina Waclawiak, Junot Diaz — immigrated to North America as children. What do you think these voices add to Americans’ understanding of our own society and culture?

A: Some of the best writing around these days comes from immigrant writers – Junot Diaz or Jhumpa Lahiri, for example. There’s this feeling in America, I think, that we don’t want stories from foreign writers per se, but we want stories from people who have come here. The immigrant experience, despite all this Trump nonsense, is still how we define ourselves in this country.

What’s interesting about Americans is that, while immigrants very much want to become Americans, it feels almost like Americans want to become immigrants again, in the sense that they’re hunting down their roots in a very big way. Somehow, the American identity just doesn’t satisfy people enough. I don’t know what it is; to me, being an American is more than enough in many ways, but look at the success of something like, for example, where people are obsessed with hunting down their roots. It’s funny, because immigrants often want to assimilate to the extent where you can’t tell them apart from Americans, whereas Americans sometimes want to do the opposite, and I think these books actually fill a need for that.

There’s a universality to the immigrant experience that Americans hunger for. It takes a long time for this [hunger] to develop – it’s not the first or second or third generation, but down the line, all of a sudden, the need comes up, especially when all the attributes of being from another culture have disappeared. When you look at most cultures, all that survives is basically the food. When you talk to Italian-Americans, four or five generations down the line, they’re indistinguishable except for this great cuisine that we talk about. Jews too: if there’s one salient feature that secular Jews talk about, it’s the brisket and the matzoh ball soup — stuff that’s comforting and reminds them of family but doesn’t quite have the weight and anxiety of coming from countries that were incredibly messed up.

Q: Are there aspects of the Soviet Union that you miss and still identify with?

A: In the book, I talk about all the things that I loved there: Lenin and the futuristic stuff – riding on the futuristic metro – and a very clear belief system. So, in a sense, my life has been about moving from one system to another. At first, I was in love with Communism and then I was in love with Republicanism, if you will, so there was a sense of always wanting to believe in something, including Judaism. When I went to Hebrew school, I tried to be the best Jew imaginable; I was constantly hunting for chametz during Passover, almost in a militant way.

I’ll meet people who are Armenian or Georgian and I think there’s more that I share in common with them than I do with American Jews because the Soviet Union permeated every aspect of your life: you became disillusioned and suspicious and angry and fatalistic and all these attributes that I think people from that part of the world share. That just doesn’t exist that much in the American Jewish population, at least not necessarily to that extent.

The one thing that pops up in my mind is the fact that both [American and Russian Jews] have this kind of world-weary humor, and that has survived on both sides of the Atlantic. That’s interesting, because America is obviously a far sunnier country than Russia and, at the same time, you do get works like Seinfeld, which are steeped in a kind of existential darkness, almost.

Q: Do your parents still call you nicknames like “little failure” or have you found a way to reconcile with them?

A: They don’t call me these nicknames, in part because I have my own identity that’s separate from them. I think it’s painful for immigrant parents to realize that their child is not going to be the kind of person that they wanted them to be. But I think that, with time, people understand that they can’t recreate the kinds of family ties that existed in the Old Country.

When one comes from a position of knowing who one is, it’s possible to look at one’s parents without this kind of anger that one has when one is younger: why can’t they be like American parents? The key is really acceptance that they are who they are and you are who you are. That’s very hard for people who come from these very tight cultures to do. And sometimes it’s hard for native-born people to do as well; I shouldn’t say it’s just immigrants. There are people who are too intertwined in their family history, instead of figuring what attributes make them unique.

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