Dear Mr. Shteyngart,
I laughed out loud until my stomach ached. I cried like a baby. As both a writer and a Jewish immigrant from the former Soviet Union, I spent my entire journey through your memoir, Little Failure, feeling both grateful and affirmed. Finally, someone else out there understands what it’s like to always be—as you so accurately put it—“at the margins of places.” The old world is still in the rear view, and the new is not entirely within reach.
As “a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” enemies were a birthright and all other countries were “the enemy.” It’s no wonder a child immigrant became hopelessly confused. Why were they ripping us so cruelly from the plump bosoms of our delightfully fat babushki, whose doting and bottomless bowls of mannaya kasha knew no end, only to take us “to the enemy”?
Based on my family’s experience, I believe immigration to be one of the most difficult trials a person can go through in life, especially when fleeing oppression and persecution. The only thing that might make the ordeal grizzlier is being a child. Children in Soviet Russia were too busy being both parented and politically indoctrinated to feel the ramifications of living without free will. We didn’t understand why our parents were forcing us to leave behind beloved friends, relatives, and the only home we’d ever known. We didn’t understand because if our parents explained it to us, an apparatchik would have dragged them to jail.
Being a Russian-Jew comes with its own unique set of psychoses that usually remain undiagnosed and untreated, because, as you truthfully point out, “crying is not allowed.” Upon discovering that you have been seeing a therapist, your father tells you “It would have been better if you had told me you were a homosexual.” Because stubborn individualism (and homophobia) is a Soviet cultural imperative, my parents would agree.
As you know, Mr. Shteyngart, Russian-Jewish psychosis is too complex to cover in its entirety in one letter. A book might not even be enough. Suffice it to say that being raised on the same soil that had literally been covered in the blood of our forebears, pogrom after pogrom, does something to our psyche at the genetic level. That, combined with a government regime that terrorized its subjects, an inhospitable climate, and the depravation of every possible pleasure except animal fat and vodka, and you’ve got a nation of walking, talking emotional shit-storms. Who can blame them?
What I admire so much about Little Failure is your ingenious use of humor as a way of making our complex and nuanced culture more comprehensible for your readers. Because your immigration story and mine are so similar, I spent the first hundred pages or so, frankly, expecting to be more depressed. Where was the abject poverty? The casual racism? The misogyny? The alcohol abuse? The child abuse?
Where was all the misery?
It took me a while to realize that it had been there all along, all of it, woven in and among your many satirical interludes. I love that your use of humor ebbs and flows with the arc of your life story—it is front and center at the beginning, when you are still an awkward “Lenin-loving child,” too green to fully understand the magnitude of culture shock you are about to endure. When your father was still your best friend—“the big one”—before he started using that phrase, embarrassingly, to introduce himself while handing your girlfriends his extra long garden cucumbers. When he was playing hide and seek with you among the pine trees in Moscow Square, and sending you handwritten letters that began with “Dear Little Son” while you and Mama were away at the dacha.
One of the vignettes that left me doubled over in painful laughter was the “can’t make kaka” scene, in which you describe your seven-year-old constipated self sitting on a toddler potty because you are too scared of the adult one. “‘Napryagis’. Strain yourself,” your parents demand. I’m cracking up because, well, isn’t “strain yourself” a perfect metaphor for my own “crappy Cold War existence?”
Like you, I brought my strange ethnic idiosyncrasies—beet salad and soft boiled eggs—with me to school for all to see. I struggled to excel academically while the American kids—the power majority—called me commie, pinko, Russki, and drew Bazookas (Is that even a Soviet gun?) on my book covers while my head was turned. I struggled to become proficient in not one, but two new languages, English and Hebrew. Why? Because my parents, like yours, sent me to a conservative Jewish school to avoid the public schools, which were rumored to overflow with gangs and “the Spanish, with their transistor radios … and switchblades.” Then, after straining myself all day at school, I strained some more at home to prove, time and again, with exemplary grades and “pliant equanimity,” that I was not a “little failure.”
Strain yourself. “Napryagis’!” pretty much summarizes the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience. It’s hilarious, and so is our culture—mostly. I’m inspired that you found the chutzpah to write about it, braving the certain criticism of your family. I’m impressed that, by not taking your own journey so seriously, you still succeeded in portraying an immigrant childhood that was full of heartbreak.
The irony of our childhood immigrant experience is that a child’s life in Russia was relatively stable, even if her future wasn’t. The social and emotional upheaval created by uprooting our families—even for a future in a land where the streets are paved with gold—is a recipe for childhood trauma. I understood too well when you wrote about the problems of sending a sensitive child “too finely set to the human condition” across national borders, or in our case, what might as well have been “interplanetary ones.”
My family came to America when you did, in 1979. Like you, we were swapped for grain in the Carter administration. At seven, you suspect you might have been worth “300 loaves of bread or something,” while at three I was probably worth more like 125 loaves. I don’t remember living in Russia at all. But I remember, with reluctant accuracy, that as a Russian immigrant in America, I never had even a moment’s respite from feelings of perpetual panic. We were always in fight or flight, even while asleep in our roach-infested subsidized housing, waking up to news of robberies and even murders in adjacent apartments. Your parents quickly discovered that “streets paved with gold” really meant permission to sell leather jackets at a flea market. Mine discovered that it meant working four jobs between them and still having to collect food stamps and subsidies. Still having to leave their four-year-old daughter home alone sometimes because they couldn’t afford a sitter.
As you point out, “He hits, therefore he loves” is a common “joke” about spousal abuse in Russia. This adage has crossed the Atlantic with us. All forms of abuse become a fact of life for us in America, when the stress of acculturation reaches a boiling point. As you say, “love mostly means fighting,” in Russia, but even more so here. Somehow I became desensitized to, and even amused by, the ever-present cursing. It is true that “Yob tvoyu mat” and “Poshyol ti na khui” Fuck your mother’s and go to the dick, are phrases so ubiquitous in Russian culture that we hardly give them a second thought. But when overworked and undervalued parents come home to their cockroaches and underachieving children, the decibel level and tension really do make it feel like “everyone is going to the dick tonight.”
The cursing I didn’t mind so much. Like you, it was the physical and psychological trauma that stayed with me. Like you, it is difficult for me to hold my parents accountable for it, especially during a time in their lives when survival was literally always at stake. Especially when children in Russian culture are not really even considered people. Especially when living in America has softened our parents—made them evolve.
Whatever damage they did can’t define them—can it?
But it does define us … at least a little bit. Doesn’t it?
Until we can do something with it—that is, use it, somehow, to our advantage.
That’s what you do brilliantly in your memoir, Mr. Shteyngart. By satirizing what is decidedly an unfunny childhood, you allow us all—immigrant or not—to navigate it more easily. By emphasizing the superhuman strength of your immigrant parents, you avoid wagging your finger at their mistakes, which layers their imperfections with humanity. By satirizing your own lack of empathy for others while growing up—“my head so far up my family’s ass that I could smell today’s borscht”—you make your transformation into an empathetic adult, writer, and husband all the more vivid for us all.
You write that it was your hope in this book to avoid using laughter as a way of approaching the truth only to “scurry back to safety.” I think that Little Failure achieves brutal honesty in the best way possible—with a healthy dose of humor in all the right places, the places that would have scared us away without it.
With respect and admiration,