Bwog Interviews: Gary Shteyngart

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Gary Shteyngart wrote his first successful novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, during his senior year at Oberlin, and again embraced his Russian immigrant status with a second, Absurdistan. Only in his thirties, he’s now an adjunct professor in the MFA Writing Program. Dena Yago tracked him down to chat.

So how has your class been this semester?

Its great, I mean…I’ve never seen such a wonderful range of stories. One’s written from the perspective of a mental patient, another is tracing back the history of his family for several generations, there are stories about a woman obsessed with Indian religion…the kind of things you’ll find only at Columbia. These guys are very committed and already have very grand schemes for themselves. When I started writing I thought “man, [I’m] 23, what do I have to say”, my students seem to have a very good grasp of what they have to say despite being very young.

Russian Debutante’s Handbook came out when you were very young though, and you seemed to have something to say then…

When I was in college, I was in Oberlin in Ohio, and I started writing in, I guess during my senior year, and I wrote a great deal then and thought “oh man this really is not good.” I started to realize there weren’t many novels written by Russian immigrants – Russian Jewish or Soviet Jewish immigrants. There were a lot of novels written by Korean, Chinese, Indian, Dominican, all down the line, but nobody from my generation had written anything by that point. And so when I was writing Russian Debutante’s Handbook, I wrote it in my early twenties and then I put it away for five years did some revisions. Chang-Rae Lee, a Korean American writer, friend and mentor, really saw the potential for this, told me that it could get published – and it did.

Do you think now, with your second novel, Absurdistan, you have something to say?

I hope so. I mean they are very different books I wrote them for different audiences. Russian Debutante’s Handbook was much more about the immigrant experience and Absurdistan is a much more political novel about oil politics and the way certain eastern elites deal with the United States – the way the United States is perceived, the way Russia is perceived, Israel, etc. The main character, Misha, is a big human being. There is defiantly satire in both of them. The first is more of a young man novel, a coming of age novel in a way, where the second one is not a coming of age novel, but rather about a large man sort of rolling his way through the world.

You defiantly went from the sick white Jewish boy character to a three hundred pound monstrous man.

I think a lot of it is – I mean, I am obviously much closer in appearances to the first character – I really wanted to explore the gigantic guy because I wanted to explore the idea of consumerism. I go back to Russia every year and that is something that I see a lot of. I see this incredible appetite for anything Western, and at the same time there is also a hatred for all things Western so there is kind of – and this goes back centuries to this Slavophile versus Westernizers dynamic that has existed in Russia for a very long time. But it also exists in other parts of the world Middle Eastern societies and Asian societies have this concept of America as both a savior and as the devil. There’s things about it that they love and things about it that they want to destroy.

Where do you place yourself in that dynamic?

Well I think that I am a Westernizer in Russia, I would like to see Russia become a European country.

So you have fully embraced you pigeonholing as a Russian/Jewish/American writer?

Yeah you are always asked “are you Russian,” or “are you Jewish?” Well, in Russia I am a Jew – sometimes said not so nicely – when I am in America I’m Russian, I lived in Italy for a while and there I was American. So it is that wherever you go people create an identity for you, but I am secure enough with you I am that you can decide whoever you want me to be, I’ll be fine with that.

This new book I’m working on is set in New York in the future and its more about where we are headed as a country.

Are there still elements of the Russian immigrant story within it?

One of the characters is born here to Russian parents so for me this is almost a kind of stepping back because for I grew up in a very Russianized household and in many ways took me a long time to assimilate – wondering if I have succeeded at all. This guy has a much greater sense of distance because he was born in Elmhurst to be exact. So I was always wondering about, and always impressed with that experience.

Are you the only one in your family that has truly assimilated?

Well I am the only one in my family. I am the last Shteyngart. Russian families mostly have only one kid. My parents on the other hand came in their thirties, so defiantly not. That’s how is goes.

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  1. Good interview

    Though I find his [Senor Shteygryarts] crack about his MFA students having a lot to say despite being so young rather insulting.

  2. Absurdistan  

    I found Absurdistan difficult to stomach. So much time is spent describing the protaganist's deformed penis and the bizarre sex he had with his fat girlfriend that I found it almost (almost) impossible to direct any of my attention toward the economic/social/political aspects of the novel (which, for the record, were trite and obvious). Stick to Christopher Buckley (or Tom Wolfe, if you're like that) for humorous social commentary.

  3. I LOVE  

    Gary Shteyngart! STUY PRIDE!!!!

    On a more serious note, The Russian Debutante's Handbook was absolutely amazing, especially for a fellow Russian Jew.

  4. um>  

    was I the only one that clicked the link in the first comment? That's a lot of penis for one post...

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