The immigrant era Seven Soviet-born writers who made it big in the U.S. reflect on their lives and careers
In the past, Russian writers who achieved success in the United States have had little in common with each other. Ayn Rand, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Sergey Dovlatov — each belongs to a separate era, and each has a distinctive biography. Since the turn of the 21st century, however, an entire generation of writers has appeared in the U.S. who all have Russian roots but rarely write in Russian. Almost all of these writers immigrated as children or adolescents in the 1980s and 1990s at the end of the third wave of Russian emigration, when large numbers of Jews were leaving the Soviet Union. By the mid-2000s, they had collectively become a notable phenomenon in American literature. Meduza asked journalist Svetlana Satchkova to profile a few of this literary generation’s most prominent members.
Where it all got started: Gary Shteyngart
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, a novel by the then-unknown Gary Shteyngart, was published in the U.S. in 2002. Gary – Igor Semyenovich, according to his passport – was only seven years old in 1979 when he and his parents boarded a plane from Leningrad to Vienna, ending up in Queens a few months later. He was enrolled in a Jewish school, where he became the object of constant ridicule and bullying, and later in the Stuyvesant school for gifted children, where – according to Shteyngart – he was the most gifted student. At 19, he entered Oberlin College in Ohio, where, contrary to the wishes of his parents (who dreamed of having a lawyer in the family), he decided to become a writer.
In his debut novel, published when he was 30, Shteyngart essentially describes himself. The main character, Vladimir Girshkin, also moves as a child from Leningrad to New York. Like Gary, he is considered a failure by his family: He is unable to grow up and feels like a stranger everywhere. When Girshkin meets a mysterious old man associated with the Russian mafia, his life spirals into a whirlpool. Written in the black comedy genre, the novel won praise from critics and readers alike. Its success not only established Shteyngart’s reputation, but also paved the way for publishing contracts for other writers with Russian roots who were trying to digest their own immigrant experiences. Shteyngart's second book, Absurdistan, about the son of a Russian oil magnate, was released in 2006. Next came Super Sad True Love Story, about a relationship between a Russian immigrant and an American of Korean descent.
For four years after that, Shteyngart worked on a memoir, published in 2014 under the title Little Failure. Self-deprecating humor became his hallmark. Shteyngart said he developed it as a student at the Jewish school so that he could laugh at himself before his classmates could. For 350 pages, he makes fun of his awkwardness and shyness, his lack of understanding of social norms, his inability to stand up to the father and mother who humiliated him – even his teeth, which were crooked and scary-looking until he got dental veneers. Despite the author's comic gift, Little Failure is a very sad book – Shteyngart dedicated it to his parents and his psychotherapist.
When Shteyngart recently met with readers at the Strand, a well-known New York City bookstore, it was standing room only. An audience of about 100 people hung onto every word from the writer, a short man with glasses and disheveled gray hair. He read an excerpt from his new novel, Lake Success (2018), then answered questions, peppering his comments with jokes, mostly at his own expense. For the first time, Shteyngart has written a novel in which there are no Russian immigrants. The main character is an American investment banker who runs away from family and work, gets on a Greyhound bus, and takes a long trip around the country. Like Shteyngart’s previous novels, it is a satirical work in which he comments sarcastically on contemporary issues.
Shteyngart told the audience he spent many hours talking with top managers of hedge funds in their natural environment, including the bars where they get drunk after work to relieve stress. “I realized that these people’s lives are completely empty, and wealth does not bring them joy. I also became privy to insider information. And I can give you this advice: For the sake of everything that is dear to you, do not put money in investment funds that promise high returns! Most of them are unprofitable: they lose billions, but people continue to trust them with their money,” he said. In order to write knowledgeably about his protagonist’s road trip, Shteyngart traveled around the country for several months on Greyhound buses. His fellow travelers were people from all walks of life in American society, and the writer said he learned a lot about his country. Asked what he does besides work, he replied: “I try to spend as much time as possible with my little son. In addition, I now can afford an expensive hobby: like my protagonist, I collect watches.”
After signing autographs, Shteyngart told me that he could live on the proceeds of the books he has published. “But since I'm an immigrant,” he said, “I’m anxious all the time and try to earn more. I’ve been teaching at Columbia University and have been working for television for some time: I was hired as a consultant for the show Succession, since I am now considered an expert on the rich. I also co-wrote the script for an adaptation of Lake Success for HBO. The main character will be played by Jake Gyllenhaal. "
Money is not the only reason he accepts such offers, Shteyngart said. “I get bored being cooped up, so I’m glad to get out into the world. I used to write a lot for magazines, but now I go back and forth between New York and Los Angeles — and I’m studying the world of cinema. It’s very interesting. Perhaps one of my next books will be about it.”
Previously, Shteyngart traveled frequently to Russia to gather material for articles and promote his books, which were regularly translated into Russian. But his more recent works have not been translated into his native language. “Moreover, when I was preparing to go to Moscow on an assignment for The New York Times, I wasn’t allowed to board the plane,” Shteyngart said. “They said my journalist’s visa had incorrect dates. I jumped in a taxi and drove to the Russian consulate, but they told me they couldn’t help and that I should contact the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. It may have been simple incompetence, but I had the feeling they didn’t want to let me into the country. Perhaps this was not directed against me personally, but against the Times. I never found out, though — I simply don’t go to Russia anymore.”
The accidental writer: Lara Vapnyar
Lara Vapnyar moved to the U.S. in 1994 with her husband and her mother after graduating from Moscow State Pedagogical University with a major in Russian language and literature. “My husband was a programmer and immediately found a job,” she said. “And I was sitting at home: first pregnant, then with a child. It was very hard and lonely — and in order to cope somehow with the depression, I read in English and watched movies. I did not learn the spoken language; I had no one to communicate with. Perhaps that is why it is still difficult for me to speak the language, although I am fluent in it.”
Vapnyar has dark wavy hair and a kind, slightly worried expression. She speaks quietly, carefully selecting her words. Her first job, she said, was in teaching: “I helped teach English to old Russian people who needed to pass the citizenship exam. I myself knew it at only a very basic level, but it was enough for them. I earned, of course, just pennies.”
Soon, one of Vapnyar’s friends suggested that she could study almost for free at the City University of New York and get a doctorate in literary criticism, so that she could really teach. Lara enrolled at the university and discovered that some of her professors there were famous writers: André Aciman (author of the novel Call Me by Your Name) and Louis Menand, who worked at The New Yorker. Vapnyar decided to show them the stories she had begun to write by that time. “Back then, I did not understand what kind of magazine The New Yorker was. I knew, of course, that it was respected, but I couldn’t imagine what publication there meant for a young author.”
When a story of Lara’s appeared in The New Yorker, she immediately got an agent, and then a contract with a publisher. In 2003, a collection of her short stories, There Are Jews in My House, was published, and three years later, so was the novel Memoirs of the Muse. She never finished her studies. “I had already passed all the exams for my doctorate, there were a lot of them, but I still had to write a dissertation,” she said. “That didn’t happen, since I was already working on my books. In the end, they gave me an intermediate degree between a master’s and a doctorate, called a Master of Philosophy.”
The lights in the New York University classroom were turned off, and the hum of Broadway could be heard outside the windows. On a screen occupying almost an entire wall, Vapnyar showed her students a fragment of the television series Black Mirror. Emphasizing the techniques used by its creators, she explained the basics of storytelling: “If you need the viewer to believe in a strange concept, introduce it gradually, furnishing as many specific and realistic details as possible.” Making references to popular books and series, Vapnyar led a discussion about the effect that can be achieved by interchanging the structural elements of history. At the end of the lesson, she talked about the students’ final project: ideally, each student will use social networks to provoke a real response. Students shared their ideas: one was going to tell a story through a series of posts on Twitter, another through a story on Instagram.
Vapnyar also teaches writing to undergraduates at Columbia University. In October, her schedule became even busier as her sixth book, the novel Divide Me by Zero, was published, and she began promoting it. Her new novel bears no resemblance to what she wrote before, Vapnyar said. Previously, she invented characters and stories, drawing only some details from her own life. Divide Me by Zero, though, turned out to be almost completely autobiographical. It is about the illness and death of her mother, her divorce from her husband, and her romantic relationships with a university professor and an oligarch. “In all my previous books, my daughter tried to find the details that came from my life,” she said. “This time, on the other hand, she had to search for what I had invented.”
Vapnyar said that despite her renown as a writer, she cannot live comfortably on her literary earnings alone, and so she recently started writing an original pilot script for one of the U.S.’s major online streaming sites. “This is not just money, but also the fulfillment of a dream,” she explained. “As a child, I didn’t plan on becoming a writer, but I really wanted to work in the movies.”
The sad literary man: Keith Gessen
“We all came out of Shteyngart’s overcoat,” Keith Gessen said, referring to himself and other American writers of Russian origin. Typically, that phrase is used to describe the influence of Nikolai Gogol on Russian-language literature — it’s a high complement. “For me, [Shteyngart’s] first novel was a revelation. Before that, it seemed to me that émigré culture could not be a literary subject. It was just my life, and I thought that it was of no interest to anyone," Gessen said.
Keith — relatives still call him Kostya — met me in his office at Columbia University, where he teaches journalism. The 12th-floor window of the building, named after Joseph Pulitzer, overlooks Manhattan; books and literary magazines in Russian and English were piled on shelves, on a table, on a coffee table, and even on the floor. Although Keith moved to the United States in 1981, when he was only six, he speaks Russian fluently with no accent. “My dad is a programmer, and my mother was a literary critic,” he said. “Both my grandmothers worked in Moscow as translators and editors, and the fact that I became a writer is quite natural. Literary work in our family was held in high esteem.”
Gessen began writing stories in grade school, and that was when he decided on his future profession. He went to Harvard to study history and literature: it seemed to him that before starting to compose, a writer should familiarize themselves with what had been written before and correlate it with historical context. After getting his bachelor’s degree, he went into journalism. He wrote for The Atlantic, Dissent, FEED, and The Nation. At age 26, he decided to enroll in a master's program in writing: "I realized that if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be able to start writing prose for real."
While studying at Syracuse University, Gessen wrote the first draft of his novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, which was published in 2008. “I found a publisher very quickly — thanks, I think, to the fact that I had already made a name for myself,” he said. “Some former classmates and I had founded a literary magazine, n+1. We wanted to write prose and political criticism with a left-wing bias, but no one would publish us, so we decided to do it ourselves: We found a free room and raised $8,000 — enough to print the first issue. The entire print run quickly sold out, and we did a second one. Soon, the magazine became successful. It still exists, although I no longer do editorial work there.”
Gessen admitted he was disappointed with the reaction to his debut novel: despite warm reviews by Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Franzen, some critics called the book pretentious and boring. “I was, let’s say, offended,” he said. He stopped writing prose and stuck with journalism. “Soon, I had the chance to move to Moscow for a while: my grandmother developed dementia and had to be looked after. I happily agreed. Nothing was keeping me in America. In Moscow, I did translations and wrote for The New Yorker about Moscow traffic jams, about Ukraine, about the trials of Khodorkovsky and the people who were involved in the murder of Politkovskaya. And when I returned, I realized that it had been a very interesting time, and I slowly began to work on a new novel.”
His incentive to complete the novel was the birth of his child. “When my son Rafi was born in 2015, I had been working on the novel for six years,” Gessen said. “I didn’t have a permanent job, and I really needed to sell the book and get an advance. I quickly put the first hundred pages together and got a contract with a publisher based on that.” In 2018, the novel was released under the title A Terrible Country. It tells the story of a young American who comes to Moscow to look after his grandmother and gets involved with a group of political activists opposing the regime. Despite the book’s title, Gessen writes with love and humor about the country where he was born. This time, the reviews were positive.
“Unfortunately, in the years since the release of my first book, public interest in fiction has declined,” Gessen said. “Now, people read more nonfiction.” Keith is the younger brother of Masha Gessen, who has written 12 books of nonfiction and received many prestigious American awards, including the National Book Award for The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. “Television shows have taken on the function of fiction,” Keith Gessen said. “When I myself come home in the evening, I don’t pick up a book; I watch a TV show with my wife. And who’s about to start reading novels in the Trump era? Everyone is analyzing and trying to understand what will happen to us.”
Gessen isn’t writing prose currently because his work as a professor takes a huge amount of time — and because he has two young children. “My wife manages to write a little more than me,” he said. He is married to the American writer Emily Gould, who runs her own publishing imprint and online bookstore with fellow writer Ruth Curry.
Most likely, Gessen said, his next book will be a collection of essays, but he still hopes to write a novel someday that will become a bestseller. “There is a powerful subculture of serious readers in America,” he explained. “These are people who read 30 or 40 books a year, but there are very few of them. All the other Americans read maybe one book a year. I want to write a novel not for the former group, but for the latter.”
The former programmer: Ellen Litman
Ellen Litman asked to be called Lena. She apologized for taking so long to set a date for an interview — and then completely forgetting about it because her life had devolved into chaos. "I caught a cold. You see,” she coughed, “I'm completely falling apart. I have two daughters, they are six and 10, now is the beginning of the school year, and I’ve just filed for divorce.”
Litman arrived in the U.S. as an adult in 1992 after finishing two years at the Moscow Institute of Electronic Machine Building. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and went to work as a programmer. “From the age of 12, I wanted to become a writer, but it was immediately explained to me that this was unrealistic,” she recounted. “They said, ‘Write for pleasure.’ And then my mom, who’s a mathematician, handed me a programming book.”
She told her story emotionally, as if sharing it with a friend rather than giving an interview. “I worked for a company in Boston, I made good money, and thought all the time about starting to write prose. For a long time, I didn’t dare: everything seemed to indicate that I would not succeed.” After a couple of years, though, she started to take writing courses, and soon she applied for a master’s program in writing at Syracuse University. “Kostya Gessen was in my class. Imagine, out of six people in the program, there were two Russians! In the city of Syracuse, there is absolutely nothing to do, so in three years we all became very close; we practically became a family. One of our teachers was the famous George Saunders, who is not only a wonderful writer, but also a very kind, generous person.” After graduation, Saunders helped her by introducing her to an agent who, in just two months, sold a collection of her short stories about Russian immigrants, The Last Chicken in America.
The book was published in 2007 and was successful. “For a while, I traveled around the country to meet readers,” Litman said. “And then, pretty quickly, I found a new job that wasn’t related to programming at all. For 12 years I have been teaching writing at the University of Connecticut, near where I live. I have wonderful colleagues and many friends. The place is very quiet, and I’ve gotten used to that, although I have loved big cities all my life. I liked living in Boston, and I really wanted to live in New York — but it didn’t work out.”
Litman signed a contract with the publisher W.W. Norton & Company for two books and started work at once on her first manuscript. As a child, she had studied at a Moscow boarding school for children with scoliosis, and she decided to write a novel about it. “The process turned out to be very long and complicated,” she said. “I sent drafts to the editor, she sent comments, and it turned out that our expectations didn’t match up. Often, I just did not understand what she wanted. I had to go to New York, sit at the table with her and discuss everything in detail. Then, we moved forward. I got the impression that she never read my novel. She held a high position at Norton and apparently couldn’t read everything — her assistants did it.”
The book was published in 2014, when Litman’s eldest daughter was four years old and her second daughter had just been born. For that reason, she was unable to travel and promote the book. Litman believes this was one of the reasons it did not sell well. However, she also was not happy with the story. “I wanted to reproduce in detail the world in which I grew up — Soviet life, Moscow — to make it as lively and real as possible. That distracted me from what was happening with the characters.”
Although Litman has never been back to Russia since her departure, she reads Russian literature and follows the news in her homeland: “I am drawn to what is happening in Russia. This is a part of me that my parents don’t understand. They get angry and ask, ‘What do you have in common with that country? Why are you writing this?’ But I didn’t want to leave Moscow — it was their decision. So I was always interested in the question: How would my life have developed if I had stayed? And that parallel, imagined life exists somewhere.”
Litman has conceived a new novel as a reflection on that subject. It will follow a group of friends, some of whom leave their native country and some of whom remain, as their relationship develops from the early 1990s to the present.
She admitted that she has practically no time to write: “In the past few years, it has been very difficult. I was bearing the burden of my family on my own. I constantly had to look for part-time jobs. I hope that after a while, everything will settle down, and I’ll be able to do what I love. "
The entertainer: Michael Idov
“I am very flattered that you’ve ranked me among the real writers,” Michael Idov said, “but I don’t perceive myself that way.” Together with his wife Lily and daughter Vera, Idov divides his time between Los Angeles and Berlin. Over the past few years, he has written scripts for television and film projects and even made his debut as a director. He spoke with me over Skype; palm trees were visible outside his apartment window. Idov exudes self-confidence and calls himself a man pampered by early success.
As a teenager, he moved from Soviet Riga to Ohio. After attending the University of Michigan, he moved to New York, where he became a journalist. He wrote for New York magazine, Vogue, and Pitchfork Media, winning three National Magazine Awards.
In the early 2000s, Idov and his wife tried to bring a dream of theirs to life: they opened a small coffee shop. The business quickly went under, however, and in 2005, Idov wrote an article about it for Slate. “Suddenly, it became a big hit,” Idov said, “and several literary agents immediately wanted to represent me. But the most important email in my life came from the late director Nora Ephron, who also liked the article. She said that it could make a charming book or movie and added that she would introduce me to her agent. Three days later, I became a client of the famed Amanda Urban. "
It turned out to be a book: the novel Ground Up, released in 2009. “I forbade my agent and publisher from mentioning that English is not my native language,” Idov said. “I didn’t want to be judged by less rigorous standards. For me, the highest compliment was that no one noticed. I established that benchmark for success because I had seen reviews in which the fact that a book was not written in the author’s native language dominated the reviewer’s perspective, and everything else was viewed through that lens.” Idov said he has never tried to pass himself off as an American in his everyday life — on the contrary, he always preferred drawing contrasts between himself and the people he talked to. Still, at that moment, he said, it was important for him to find out if he could deceive the establishment.
The novel was not very successful in the U.S., perhaps because Idov did not take the opportunity to identify it with the increasingly popular "immigrant literature” genre. But a year later, Ground Up came out in Russian, translated by the author and his wife — and immediately became a bestseller in Russia. The Russian edition of GQ named Idov its writer of the year, and in 2012, he was invited to become the magazine’s chief editor. He and his family moved to Moscow.
“I immediately realized that I had entered a very interesting period in my life,” he said. “I started keeping a diary, although I had never done so before. The diary turned into a book.” Idov’s memoir, Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putinʼs Moscow, was published in the U.S. in 2018. In the book, Idov describes how he became disillusioned with his work at GQ, how he participated in Russia’s protest movements, and how he unexpectedly changed his profession, writing scripts for the TV series Rashkin and the first season of Londongrad.
Since then, he has written — usually in collaboration with his wife — several more scripts, including one for Kirill Serebrennikov’s film Summer and one for his own film, The Humorist. When asked if he would write prose again, Idov replied: “I think not. I consider myself an entertainer. I never lived in literature, never suffered as real writers suffer. Also, when you write a film or series in which you invest no less emotion, meaning, and talent than in a book, and then millions of people see it, it seems very strange to spend several years creating a text that at most several thousand people will read. It’s become harder and harder for me to justify such a huge waste of time that would have such a small impact.”
The artist: Anya Ulinich
Until she was 17, Anya Ulinich lived in Moscow and studied painting. In 1991, she and her family arrived in the U.S. on a tourist visa — and stayed there. “For a long time, we were just trying to survive,” she said. “We had neither legal status nor money, and our total vocabulary in English was about 20 words.” In New York, with its large Russian-speaking community, things would most likely have been easier, but the Ulinich family ended up in Phoenix, Arizona.
“The only person we knew in America was the mother of one of my school friends. She lived in Phoenix and invited us there. Arizona is an amazing place: no matter where you come from, there’s culture shock. It's like being on Mars. The landscape, the weather, the ways the locals try to mask reality with green lawns in the middle of the desert, huge air-conditioned houses decorated with Christmas lanterns, cacti... At first, my life there was rather strange, and the things that happened to me that were almost as absurd as my Soviet experience.”
Ulinich gives the impression of a very cheerful person. When she talks about the hardships she endured, it seems as though they weren’t hardships at all, just raw material for funny stories. “The only work I could find without documents was cleaning houses for cash,” she said. “I was a spoiled girl from a family of intellectuals who grew up in a tiny apartment in Chertanovo, where they washed clothes in the bathtub. I didn’t know how to clean. There was a whole army of Mexican women in my employer's house who cleaned much better than I did, but my employer made me something like her protégé. I was a Jew from the USSR who didn’t know anything about Judaism, so she took my religious education upon herself. I’m an atheist, but I had to listen so they wouldn’t fire me.”
At 18, Ulinich married an American and, having received resident status, went to study art at the University of Arizona. She then transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago, moving there with her second husband. “I wouldn’t have gotten married so often if I understood the laws,” she said. “At the time, I thought that if I wasn’t married to an American, they would take away my permanent residency.”
The paintings she made during her studies were, she said, “overloaded with narrative: I tried to convey everything that I thought and felt, all of my split identity. I used text as a visual element — that started happening more and more often, and the pictures became more terrible, turning into a mishmash of words and allegorical images. These were stories disguised as paintings. In the end, I stopped doing that, and by the time I was in the master’s program, I was just painting landscapes.”
Still, the stories kept welling up inside. When Ulinich gave birth to a daughter and moved to Brooklyn in 2000, she sat down to write a novel. The apartment was too small to paint in, so when her husband came home from work, Ulinich left the child with him, grabbed a laptop, and went to the nearest coffee shop, where she worked on the text. “I couldn't just be a mom,” Ulinich explained. “I had to create something. I couldn’t set up canvases and paint at home, or in the café. It seems I chose literature because the work was more compact.”
When her second daughter was born, Ulinich did not stop writing. Her novel, Petropolis, is about Sasha Goldberg, a teenage girl from the Siberian town of Asbest-2 who comes to America through a bridesmaid service, leaves her husband, and decides to stay in the country by hook or by crook.
The novel was published in 2007 and received flattering reviews from critics as well as several awards. Seven years later, Ulinich published a graphic novel, Lena Finkleʼs Magic Barrel. The book tells the tragicomic story of Lena, a writer and mother of two teenagers, who plunges into the world of online dating following a divorce. The title of the novel refers to Bernard Malamud’s The Magic Keg, about a student named Leo Finkle who goes on a blind date.
Ulinich said she did not initially conceive her novel as a comic book. “I had a crisis in my personal life, and writing prose wasn’t working. But I was constantly drawing pictures on leaflets, writing notes on them — and suddenly, I realized that this was the story.” She admitted that she likes her second novel more than her first because it’s about problems that all adults face, regardless of their personal history. “Unfortunately, it didn’t sell very well: serious readers stay away from comics, and comic book lovers simply did not know about my book. It was released by an ordinary literary publishing house that doesn’t have ties with specialty [comic book] stores.”
Partly for this reason, the novel that Ulinich is writing now will be in a traditional format. “Of course, I want my books to be read. But there is another, personal reason,” she said. For several years now, she has been making a living with illustration and graphic design, so in her free time, she wants to work with text. She once taught writing but had to abandon that work: “In New York, there are a lot of writers and a lot of competition for professorships. And I don’t even have a writing degree.”
The interpreter of Anna Karenina: Irina Reyn
During a panel discussion on “Russian-American Writers: An Immigrant Narrative” at New York City’s Tenement Museum, Irina Reyn joked that she should thank her parents for her literary career because they provided her with childhood trauma. She attended the same Jewish school as Gary Shteyngart — which, according to his memoir, was a real nightmare. “I just don’t know what we would do without those injuries,” she said. “What would I write about then?” But Reyn doesn’t come off as a person who has problems: she smiles and laughs contagiously. Although she understands Russian, speaking her native language is difficult. “When Lara Vapnyar and I meet, she speaks Russian to me, and I speak English to her,” Reyn said.
She recalled her early childhood as completely idyllic: she liked living in Moscow and spending the summer with her grandparents in Ukraine. The family moved to the U.S. when she was only seven. Although she didn’t know a word of English, she had to take a placement test for elementary school classes. “I didn’t understand what was written on the sheets, so I simply chose the first of all the answer options. Based on the number of points that I scored, I was assigned to the third grade, which was, of course, ridiculous,” she said. Learning was hard, Reyn said — no one helped her adapt or master the language.
As a child, she dreamed of becoming a detective, and then as a teenager, she began to watch films about women working in offices. Reyn envisioned the same future for herself. After college, she held a series of office jobs: She worked in public relations, in TV news, in a nonprofit organization helping refugees, in advertising, at a literary agency, and at a wedding magazine. She eventually got bored with each new job.
“When I was an assistant editor at a publishing house,” Reyn said, “we released a collection of immigrant prose called Becoming American: Personal Essays by First Generation Immigrant Women. It was 1999, and the boss couldn’t find a single Russian-American writer whose text we could include. She asked if I knew anyone suitable. Unexpectedly for myself, I said, “I’m a Russian-American writer!” I had to quickly write an essay, and it was included in the collection. If not for that, who knows if I would have become a writer.”
Soon, Reyn discovered that she liked writing fiction much more than essays because it created a distance that allowed her to speak much more freely about her concerns. Her debut novel, What Happened to Anna K., was released in 2008. She shifted the story of Anna Karenina to a modern setting: in her version, 37-year-old Anna lives in New York in a Russian-speaking community, meets a young writer, falls in love with him, and leaves her husband — a successful businessman — and son. Anna K.’s story ends tragically, of course.
“When I was writing the novel,” Reyn said, “I felt excitement, as if I were committing sabotage. It seemed to me that Tolstoy would not be happy if he found out that his heroine was made Jewish. This is precisely the strength of the immigrant experience: away from the homeland, you stop revering the authorities. I decided: ‘Well, Tolstoy, so what? Big deal!’” The novel was enthusiastically received: critics said that the young writer had refreshed the plot of the classic without losing its emotional depth.
In Reyn’s second novel, The Imperial Wife, published in 2016, two story lines are developed in parallel. In one of them, a New York art dealer, Tanya, prepares to make the biggest sale of her career; in the other, an aristocrat from Germany is about to become the Russian queen. The second story takes place in the 18th century, and it quickly becomes clear that its subject is the future Catherine the Great.
Reyn’s third book, Mother Country, was released in the spring of 2019. It was inspired by a true story, she said. The main character, a Russian immigrant named Nadia, lives in Brighton Beach, works as a nanny and nurse, and is faced daily with petty humiliation. For several years, she has been trying to bring her adult daughter to the U.S from Ukraine, where the daughter was still living when war broke out there. Reyn wanted to explore the mother-daughter relationship in her novel, but it also turned out to be her most political work.
Reyn said that neither her second nor her third book received as much attention as her debut, “but I don’t see anything wrong with that. The main thing is that, for many years now, I’ve had the opportunity to do what I love. Most writers of fiction are unable to make a living from it. I teach writing at the University of Pittsburgh, and it’s the best job you could imagine. In my case, writing and teaching have been able to come together and nourish one another.”
When asked what her next novel would be about, Irina replied, “I was recently asked, ‘All your books have been about the immigrant experience, but you’ll write your fourth about something else, right?’ And I don’t understand: is immigration not a deep enough topic to analyze all my life? What should I write about, the climate crisis? Philip Roth wrote about his penis for decades — and nothing, no one, told him that it was time to stop.”
Translation by Carol Matlack