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Debut Novelist Yelena Akhtiorskaya on Misery, Writing, and Brighton Beach

Yelena Akhtiorskaya, 28, is the author of Panic in a Suitcase, a novel spanning 15 years in the life of a family of Ukrainian emigres struggling to adjust to life in the United States. The Nasmertovs live in the Soviet immigrant community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where the tension between the past and future is acutely felt by all—and exemplified by a visit from Pasha, the famous poet uncle who remained in Ukraine. In 2008, 15 years after Pasha’s visit, his niece Frida—now a medical student—travels from New York to Odessa for her cousin’s wedding, a journey rich in wry observations about displacement, homesickness, and culture shock.

Panic in a Suitcase has received rave reviews from The New York Times (“crisp and gorgeous”), the Washington Post (“genius”), Vogue (“a virtuosic debut”), and many others. (And this morning Akhtiorskaya was named by the National Book Foundation as one of their “5 under 35” for 2014.) Earlier this summer, Michael Orbach talked with her about writing, misery, Brighton Beach, and Russian literature in translation.

What’s the story behind Panic in a Suitcase?

A lot is based on my life. It’s kind of a composite of a few things: one is being totally fascinated by Brighton Beach—loving it and at the same time realizing that it’s a very absurd and sad place. The second is the dynamics of a claustrophobic, suffocating, chaotic family, which functions as a unified monstrous being. And the third idea was about a character who chooses not to emigrate. I love Russian-Jewish immigrant novels and that whole tradition, but they don’t entirely speak to the way it is now, or not the way it was with my experience. I wanted to explore the way we romanticize the old country and the authenticity of it.

When did you move to America?

I came in 1992. I feel like I can’t say I grew up in America; I meet Russians who moved to California or Ohio and they’re so Americanized. I grew up in Brighton Beach where I spoke Russian wherever I went.

I think that’s why everyone says they hear an accent. I shouldn’t have one, but I do, because I stayed in Russia. Growing up in Brighton Beach was kind of like growing up in the 1950s. It’s like Brighton Beach Memoirs mixed with Requiem for a Dream. Wholesome and Jewish, but at the same time lots of wandering the streets and drugs and all this desperation. The parents are working really hard to rebuild their lives and the grandparents are watching over you, but it’s easy to fool the grandparents.

Did you disappoint your parents by not becoming a doctor?

My mom used to say every day, “Please just reconsider, it’s not too late to go to medical school.” I think the fact that she no longer says that, or not as regularly, means she must be proud. It is hard to tell. Ideally, you become part of the tradition of Russian writer-doctors—Chekhov, Bulgakov, Tsypkin. I’m considering becoming a clinical psychologist. This summer I took an intensive statistics course… I can’t tell how much of it is for me and how much for my parents.

I know you went to Columbia for your MFA, what happened afterwards?

I really needed to make money, but I didn’t want to work. There were some dark times. First, I worked at The Strand.

Like every other novelist.

It was the only place I could get a job, but it didn’t last long, then I moved to New Orleans. My friends from high school were there and I thought it would be a good break from New York, but it was too joyful. Then I moved back here and I got a job at Columbia University Medical Center on 168th Street.

Uh, shouldn’t you be happier?

Do you know how to do that?

No, but I haven’t written a novel that’s gotten great reviews.

If you know how to be pleased with yourself, you will be, but if you don’t, you won’t.

You are so Russian.

My friend says that my capacity for misery is greater than anyone he’s ever met.

You should drink more. I think you need a hug.

Maybe that’s true. People usually say that on the phone but people are scared of giving me a hug.

Do you prefer to read in Russian?

It’s much harder for me to read in Russian. I read poetry in the original but for the fat novels there’s [translators] Pevear and Volokhonsky. It’s necessary to take Babel in Russian, but luckily he spawned two of my favorite American short story writers: Grace Paley and Leonard Michaels.

What do you like about the Russians?

Russian writers are like Russian people: there’s not a lot of bullshit. I can relate to the inherent darkness, the pessimism, and all that misery. They get to the essential stuff pretty much right away.

What is the essential stuff?

Life, death, love, time. Russian poetry in particular cuts through to the heart of you in a way that is very not-American. I have to make a distinction: it’s a Russian quality, not a Jewish quality, and I don’t have it. I can’t help but make the joke. I don’t have the Russian thing where it’s really pure, dark tragedy. I can’t help but write in a funny or crooked way, even though at core there’s the darkness.

It’s very dark for you?

Being a writer you spend most of your time holed up in a room by yourself trying to get to the bottom of stuff. It’s not a very positive occupation. It doesn’t correlate to optimistic fun-in-the-sun-Frisbee time.

I noticed that you have some lovely passages about the sea.

I go back to Brighton Beach every weekend to swim in the ocean. That’s when I’m not in the miserable mode. I have a very good relationship with the sea. It’s like my home.

Read an excerpt from Panic in a Suitcase over at N+1.

 (Image: Riverhead Books)

Related: Anya Ulinich on Autobiography in Fiction, Drawing, and the Perverse Pleasures of OkCupid
Boris Fishman on Grandfathers, Russian Hirsuteness, and the Immigrant Experience

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