I just read an interview with Jess Row on the ploughshares blog, and here was his answer to the following question:
“Who are some of your all-time favorite writers? Some emerging writers that are catching your attention?
My all-time favorites list: John Banville, Nadine Gordimer, John Berger, Michael Ondaatje, Gina Berriault, Charles Baxter, John Edgar Wideman, Robert Stone, J.M. Coetzee, Paul West. As far as young writers go in this country, I think there’s a real impatience, across the board, with strict distinctions between “realism” and “avant-garde”; you see that in the new fabulists, like Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and Judy Budnitz, for example. There’s also a lot of new interest in regional particularity and in rural or at least non-urban life, sometimes with a gothic or fantastic edge: David Means, Ander Monson, Peter Markus, Jason Brown, Lewis Robinson, Charles D’Ambrosio. And then there’s the enormous ongoing globalization of American fiction, as the definition of who is American and what constitutes “American experience” changes. A novel like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao would not have been possible ten years ago, and yet now to many of my undergraduate students it has defined the possibilities of fiction for the future. The distinction between “immigrant” fiction or “multicultural” fiction and the normative, white-male, canonical tradition is beginning to disappear. There’s a huge amount of vitality in contemporary fiction, and I think mainstream publishing is just barely keeping up with it.”
I’m particularly interested in Row’s statement that a globalization of fiction has been taking place in the US. I think that’s been going on for almost a decade, if not longer. He takes the words out of my mouth: “as the definition of who is American and what constitutes “American experiences” changes.” We really need more of this.
That’s pretty much what I have been dealing with in my work, from the very beginning, although I didn’t realize it for a while. Here’s why: I am Russian, though I live in the US, because I was born in Russia, but the question is, if I’ve lived here for more than half of my life, am I now American? If I speak perfect English with a Californian accent and no one can tell I’m Russian, am I Russian? I am not a US citizen, not even a permanent resident, so am I Russian? I speak Russian, I read Russian, I can write Russian, am I Russian?
Most people don’t think so. When I tell them I’m Russian, it’s like an additional layer that they must put over their idea of my Americanism. I want to be seen as Russian more than being seen as an American, instead of the other way around.
I’m hoping this globalization helps me and other people out in terms of creating some sort of niche in the readership, in which the specificity of our topic creates interest. This means nothing in the way of publishing in literary magazines, but as a good example, Paul Yoon’s recently published short story collection “Once the Shore,” is set on a South Korean island. Coincidence?
Jess Row mentioned Junot Diaz’ “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” but I’d like to throw out some others: Lahiri’s “The Namesake” and “Interpreter of Maladies,” Smith’s “White Teeth,” Shteyngart’s “Absurdistan.” In fact, Granta’s list of Best Young Novelists Under 35 has five people (six if we include a guy who was born in Chicago but raised in Bangkok) who were born in other countries but moved to the US. That’s almost a third. Of those five (or six again), two are Russian, including Shteyngart. Coincidentally, or not, Jess Row is also on Granta’s list.
I’ve probably said this before, but since when is English the preferred language for communication? Aleksandar Hemon is being compared to Conrad and Nabokov, which is kind of ridiculous. If you’re going to be a great writer, you’ll be a great writer no matter what language you write in. My argument is easily proven: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Nabokov himself (who successfully wrote works of genius in Russian long before he translated them into English, and before he started writing later works of genius in English). I don’t understand this fascination with people who learned English and then wrote great works in it. Ok, cool, that means I’ll eventually be famous too, because I learned Russian first (kind of cheating here, I learned the Russian alphabet first in all my learning sessions with my dad, who then immediately followed with the English alphabet), and then wrote in English. Of course, I’m assuming I’ll write some amazing stuff. Whatever.
In summary: I’m not American. This is a good thing for my future. The preferential treatment of works in English annoys me. I should write in Russian and then translate if necessary.