Sunday, October 11, 2015

Q&A with Boris Fishman

Boris Fishman, photo by Rob Liguori
Boris Fishman is the author of the novel A Replacement Life, which features a family of Russian Jewish emigres in New York. He is the editor of the anthology Wild East, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. Born in Belarus, he lives in New York.

Q: Truth is a big theme in your book. Why does your main character, Slava, struggle so much with this issue?

A: I think a very flexible relationship to the truth is built into him culturally. Slava and I are not a one-to one [correspondence], but we do share some characteristics. I grew up primarily in the States from the age of 9 forward, and my moral sense was shaped by life here. I was surprised to find in myself a very buried receptiveness to the wrong side of the line.

The same was true of Slava. He wants to leave his old neighborhood because he hates the way they bend the rules, but it’s also built into him, so it’s possible to do what he does.

Why is [this attitude] so widespread culturally? Speaking somewhat simplistically, there often wasn’t enough to go around [in the Soviet Union]; 18 families sharing one kitchen. It extended to everyone.

The vast majority of things in the Soviet Union were produced in the Eastern Bloc, and the quality of the products was very low. But even the crappy stuff, there often wasn’t enough. If you’re the kind of person [who bends the rules], you’re often dependent on connections, who you could bribe.

People who did engage in this behavior didn’t feel particularly sinful; the government bullshitted them. They were constantly lied to. Every government engages in truth-spinning, but [the Soviet Union] was a whole new level.

Q: You’ve talked about your characters being immigrants from the Soviet Union. What is specific to their immigrant experience as Russian Jews, and what is more universal?

A: The book was reviewed by a Greek-American writer in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. My dad is a doorman on the Upper East Side, and his boss is Albanian, and he saw parallels with his own experience.

I had an essay in The New York Times Magazine [that discussed] when you come to the United States as a kid, you become the parent to your parent. You’re freighted with a [large] amount of responsibility. You’re feeling like a freak and an outsider, and you’re suppressing your heritage to fit in. This is universal.

Particular to Russian Jews is the sense of persecution they are coming from…there are decades if not centuries of hostile persecution and the sense of having been second-class citizens.

I wish there were more psychological studies of Russian Jewish emigres. To me, they are trauma victims. In the United States, they see abuse everywhere, and they see people cheating them. It’s very sad for me; they are lifelong sufferers.

Q: You’ve mentioned the sadness you’ve seen. A Replacement Life is very funny, although it incorporates some extremely serious subjects. What did you see as the right balance between humor and tragedy?

A: The community’s humorousness is best known because of other works produced about it, but to me that’s only a small part. They are heroic in some ways, and shameful in others. They are sentimental. They are vain, but generous. The true portrait of the community is very complex.

For me, the humor is visible disproportionately because that’s what readers expect. But it’s less than it seems. My lodestar is Bernard Malamud. There’s a tendency to group Malamud with Roth and Bellow. But the exuberance and optimism in Roth and Bellow doesn’t exist in Malamud.

Malamud’s idea is that life is suffering, with an occasional great blast of light. I think that way; my forebears thought that way. That kind of thinking and feeling infuses the novel.

Having to leave the place you’re born, no matter how welcoming [the new place is], is a tragedy. Some people recover from that right away…[but] for people above a certain age, there’s a wealth of loss and discomfort if you care to tap into it.

Q: Which other authors, in addition to Malamud, have influenced you?

A: People keep asking me, Who’s your favorite author? I always had a hard time answering that because I thought there was an assumption that you connect to every book by the author. Until Malamud, that was never my experience of an author.

William Styron—he’s so articulate…as with Graham Greene, there’s a deep moral seriousness to his work that resonates with me. Moral inquiry has gone out of fashion in literature, but for me there’s no point unless it has a serious moral dilemma.

That’s why people connect to 19th century Russian literature—the deep moral questioning. Fathers and Sons by Turgenev is such a serious book, and I was a very serious young man. It was about the inquiry into the path Russia must take to the future…it’s beautifully serious, and so truthful to the situation.

There’s a lot of nonfiction I read—This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. It’s really a novel in everything but the facts. All of its dance moves are novelistic. That taught me a lot—a lot of the inspiration for my novel is factual as well.

Also, J.M. Coetzee—Disgrace was incredibly important to me. It’s a family novel, a political novel, a moral novel. I could see some of the questions I struggled with, transported to a different environment.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a new novel coming out in March, also with Harper Collins. It’s called Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo. The main thing about it is that in my first novel, I kept so much of the Russian-Jewish young male gaze. With this novel, the perspective is from an adoptive mother in her early 40s. I was challenging myself to look at life from another perspective.

I’m teaching at Princeton this fall, creative writing. I’m doing a Ukrainian cookbook. I’m also working on a nonfiction project. I have a lot of irons in the fire!

Q: What more can you say about the nonfiction project?

A: There’s an author—because of his work, I fell in love with writing. His name is Jim Harrison, and he wrote Legends of the Fall, which was turned into a movie with Brad Pitt. It introduced me, at 15, to the West.

For an immigrant kid, this was the model of American confidence I aspired to. I was always too shy to aspire to something like that. I was pushed by my girlfriend in 2008, and ended up finding him in Montana, and we became friends. It’s a book about masculinity, the American West, and being an immigrant.

Q: And the cookbook?

A: It’s based on the recipes of a woman who looks after my grandfather. I got a grant to go back with her to Ukraine, with a photographer. We’re doing the American piece in New York. There will be rich, beautiful photographs. Eastern European cooking is less heavy than people assume.

Also, there will be memoir-like nonfiction text about what this woman has come to mean in the life of my family. She’s kept my grandfather alive for the last 10 years. It’s one of the wonders of America; it brings people together. She taught him Ukrainian, he taught her Yiddish. I want to chronicle all these angles.

Q: Getting back to the novel, you've said that the boy, one of your characters, turns semi-feral?

A: The boy is feral, and the parents have to figure out what’s wrong. They find the birth parents—they hadn’t before; Russians are ashamed of adoption. The mother wanted a relationship, but she was forbidden by her husband.

There’s something about the landscape that has an intense effect on her. The story is not about the boy, but about the mother. She used to be wild, in the sense of doing her own thing. She has given that away over 20 years and she has to get her groove back.

The landscape makes it impossible to continue [as she has been], but if you’ve been living one way for [many] years, undoing it does damage to the family.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That I started [A Replacement Life] in 2009, and completed the draft in 2010 when there was a big expose of exactly this [type of scam] in Brooklyn. It had been going on since the 1990s; they were doing it exactly as I had imagined it….

I remember writing an essay in Tablet magazine after it was exposed; I said that legally the people were guilty, but morally it was more complicated, and has a lot to do with where they come from. The comments eviscerated me.

I was anxious when the novel came out about how it would be received [and] I was very relieved to have not had that reaction from the American Jewish community…

The novel is about asking questions rather than answering them; that’s the purpose of fiction.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For an earlier version of this Q&A, please click here. Boris Fishman will be participating in the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival at the Washington DCJCC, which runs from October 18-28, 2015.

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