Hammer and Tickle
By STEPHEN HEYMAN
Alina Simone is a folk-pop singer who lives in Brooklyn. Alina Bronsky is a fast-rising European novelist who lives near Frankfurt, Germany. Both are young, both are of Soviet extraction, and both have books coming out this spring. As far as coincidences go, that’s not a stunning one, but it further underscores recent artistic contributions from Soviet diaspora children, a whip-smart group now in their 20s and 30s that includes Regina Spektor, Mila Kunis, Anton Yelchin, the comedian Eugene Mirman (a childhood friend of Simone’s), and the writers Gary Shteyngart, Keith Gessen and Sana Krasikov.
Simone, whose family left the Soviet Union in 1976, when she was 1, says she can’t always identify with this bunch. “I kind of have this insecurity — I’m not Russian enough,” she says. “ My friends are pretty much all Americanized. We like to go to Brighton Beach and buy the vodka bottles shaped like Kalashnikovs and get all the food that our grandmothers cooked.”
Her book of personal essays, “You Must Go and Win” (Faber & Faber, $14), begins in the New York indie music scene — “I was in Williamsburg, on this futon, I got fleas, my label dropped me,” she says — and leads to Siberia, where she finds herself fighting off male strippers. She says parts of her book — like a chapter about her unusual obsession with the Skopsy, a Russian castrati sect — channel the absurdist sensibility of the Soviet writer Daniil Kharms: “There’s this undercurrent of dark irony underneath everything.”
“The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine” (Europa Editions, $15), the second novel by Alina Bronsky, also has a darkly funny edge. It stars Rosalinda, the irrepressible tyrant babushka who’ll stop at nothing to keep her family from emigrating without her as the Soviet Union falls apart. She’s brutal and cunning but also induces sympathy and amusement. “Sometimes I do readings and people can’t stop laughing, but I’m reading about pretty tragic things,” Bronsky says. “I think Soviet humor is a desperate humor, rather typical of very different nations, of Jewish people, Ukrainians, and of course Russians. It’s despair — just keep laughing, until you are dead.”
ALINA TIMES TWO: The Interview
Last month, T moderated the following discussion between Alina Bronsky and Alina Simone.
I think we should start off by discussing the ways in which your own stories of immigration informed your books. And perhaps the best way to do that would be to just describe the circumstances that led to both of your families leaving Russia — or in your case, Alina Simone, Soviet Ukraine. When was it? How old were you when you left? And how significant a role did your heritage play in your new lives in Germany and the United States?
BRONSKY: I was born in Russia, in a city based on the Ural mountains. It was called Sverdlovsk. It’s now called Yekaterinburg. And I was 12 when my family moved to Germany. My father is a scientist and he was invited to work there, and it was very difficult in the Soviet Union — it was falling apart at this time — to work. So it was sort of a chance. My small family – my parents and me – we moved together. Well, it was quite a striking experience. At 12 years, you’re not really a child anymore. It was in the early ’90s. I hardly knew any Russians or Ukrainians. I felt a bit lonely. I didn’t speak any German at all.
Now, Alina Simone, you’re from Kharkov, Ukraine. I know you write about this in the book — how your physicist father was forced to work as a guard at the zoo and how the K.G.B. exacted professional reprisals on your extended family when you and your parents left. When was that?
SIMONE: My situation is very different from the other Alina. I actually am Russian even though I was born in what is now Ukraine. Kharkov is very close to the Russian border. Everyone in my family speaks Russian so I’m not claiming to be Ukrainian. I was only a year-and-a-half when I left, so I think my book reflects that in terms of my relationship with my parents. I was really an American kid, raised by parents I didn’t understand at all. My grandparents came over, too, when I was 5. We were political refugees. My father was a scientist. He was blacklisted. He was literally working at the zoo, working these really menial jobs. And my mother wasn’t allowed to work at all. And then the grandparents who came over after us, they lost their jobs in Russia because we left. They were scientists as well. We left in 1976. We also moved to a town in Massachusetts where there were very very few Russians. It was just me and Eugene Mirman, who’s a comedian and a very good friend of mine now because we lived through the Cold War. It was the Reagan ’80s. We lived in Lexington, Mass., the home of American independence. It was a very American town. It’s not that people weren’t nice to us. They were. But there was no Russian community there at the time. At home I was forced to speak Russian with my parents. But I didn’t really want to.
BRONSKY: My kids tell me they hate it when I speak Russian to them. I speak German as well. And they say, “Why can’t you speak normally? Like other people do.” You were feeling the same?
SIMONE: Yes. We’re actually about to have a baby. My mom was already like, “O.K., how are you going to force your daughter to learn Russian?” And I’m just like, My husband’s American and I fear it’s just not going to happen. Because I lived through that battle and it was a pretty unsuccessful battle with me.
Alina Simone, did you have a period of your life when you wanted to reconnect with this heritage?
SIMONE: Sure. I was much older, though. When I was growing up, I was very – I just wanted to fit in. I had an American nickname. Everyone called me Ally. I didn’t want to speak Russian at home. We had huge fights about it. I was very sensitive about my Russian heritage. I didn’t think it was cool. I didn’t want to chat about it. I just wanted to be like all the other kids. It was only really after college that I really started to realize — first of all, I was completely losing my Russian — if I don’t do something I’m not going to remember the language at all. Then when the wall came down and there was actually an opportunity to go back and visit. And I really I have all this family there. And I know nothing about this country that shaped my parents and my grandparents and these people who raised me. I actually applied for a job that would send me back. It was this really weird job running an alternative to the Peace Corps program in Chita, which is in Siberia. Which is a rather remote and isolated part of Siberia where the Peace Corps didn’t operate. There’s a reason for that.
BRONSKY: When you’re a teenager and you’re coming to a new country and you’re emigrating and you’re motivated to settle down. You start to deny your past and your roots. It’s a bit similar with Alina. I didn’t like to be Russian. Being asked about it, being asked to say something in Russian. All these things really got on my nerves and I really denied it very heavily for some years. Like Alina, I started to rediscover it later. Having my own children and raising them was quite an important point in regaining interest in my roots, which are Russian and Ukrainian and Jewish. It’s a pretty fascinating mixture. I don’t really have any Tartar roots and sometimes I think I chose my heroine to be Tartar to escape the criticism of my family. Rosalinda (the main character) is typical of that generation. She’s not a typical Tartar woman. She’s a Soviet woman. She was an orphan and she was raised in orphanage she lost her parents very early. It’s the same as so many people — she tries to find the things she’s missing and she’s filling the missing link with her fantasies.
SIMONE: My book is nonfiction. But a lot of people don’t believe the portrayal of my mom. “Oh, come on. She’s not really like that.” But those are her e-mails. She talks like that. How do Americans interpret these Russian women? They must seem so cartoonish. But I really feel like that protagonist in your book, Alina, is not far off the mark. That could be a real person. The other interesting thing about it is she is a grandmother. Maybe it’s a particularly Russian thing but there seems to be these really strong relationships between Russian grandmothers and their grandchildren, and maybe the relationships between the mothers and daughters are more fraught. That really resonated with me. My grandmother mostly raised me.
Alina Bronsky, was this Rosalinda informed by anyone you know?
BRONSKY: It’s not just one person. It’s not my grandmother, I hurry to say. She has some of Rosalinda’s features. She’s really pretty typical. I meet lots of people at my events here in Germany who tell me she’s very similar to their grandmothers. Even if they are not Eastern European. I was very surprised about this fact. Maybe it’s a sort of generation thing. All these women who had to live during the War. Who had to survive, to struggle. They develop this character. There is strength, they do not compromise, there is devotion to the the children and the grandchildren. But also there is this pressure — this suffocating thing, and sometimes it’s very abusive.
Alina Simone, your book deals with your Russian heritage but it’s also a very kind of knowing portrayal of being a member of the underclass of striving creative types in New York and elsewhere in this country — you’ve also lived in Austin and the Research Triangle.
SIMONE: The book wasn’t really striving for this uniformity. It’s not a memoir. It’s just a collection of essays about what I hoped were really just the most funny and unusual things I had to say. But I do think there’s a connection between really wanting to carve out your identity here and being raised as an immigrant. Pursuing a path that is — I always fear it sounding really cheesy but – that is just trying to be authentic, because you can. Because you were raised by people who couldn’t. Because growing up with people you’re constantly reminded that they didn’t have these freedoms … Russian families and the ones of my generation who came over in the ’70s they really wanted stability for their children. They really wanted their children to have a good job so they could have a nice life here in America. I sort have got this guilt that threads through the book. This (becoming a musician) isn’t a real path and I’m not a real person.
Yet you struggled quite mightily to be a musician?
SIMONE: I did. To be a musician and to be weird. And I succeeded! And I succeeded and I eventually won my parents over and they accepted that I’m weird and that’s what I do.
Why do you think that immigrant stories are compelling to natives?
BRONSKY: I was wondering about this fact after my first book came out. I had about 150 events in Germany. And 90 or 95 percent of them were Germans, just Germans with no immigrant experience. And why are they interested? It’s not only curiosity to look into a foreign world. I’m writing about people who have a crisis, a very typical crisis … leaving their secure home and going somewhere else it’s a very typical human experience. The same feelings which everybody knows — growing up, leaving your home, being alone, settling down, question of identity and love — they’re all concentrated in immigration experience. And that’s how I explain this phenomenon of interest.
SIMONE: To my mind, what makes it interesting to people who aren’t immigrants is because it’s an outsider narrative. I was an outsider here whether I liked it or not. My family was Russian, everyone on my block knew it, and we were weird, we spoke a weird language at home. When I went to Russia, I had no idea of what was going on. I describe some of my time there with these people that I meet. I was from a completely different culture. It was almost an anthropological exercise for me to understand what was happening on a day-to-day level. In indie rock, here I was riding pretty much the most bottom rung of the ladder. You’re clearly an outsider there. When I fist started to write these personal essays, it’s difficult because you don’t want to reveal so many of your insecurities. Oh my God, what’s going to happen when my family reads this? But I realized it was not interesting to read about a winner winning, a happy person becoming even more happy. There’s nothing in it for the reader there’s no journey. The best parts of the book, the parts that I’m most proud of, are where I’m at my weakest. I was in Williamsburg, on this futon, I got fleas, my label dropped me, that was my life. Welcome. I found out my cat had cancer. These crises. I have fleas and I got rear-ended. That was part of the joy of writing a book like this. Turning things that were really dreary and turning all that drear into something funny was really rewarding.
BRONSKY: Sometimes I do readings and people can’t stop laughing, but I’m reading about pretty tragic things. I think Soviet humor is a desperate humor, rather typical of very different nations, of Jewish people, Ukrainians, and of course, Russians. It’s despair — just keep laughing, until you are dead.