Q&A with Lara Vapnyar: Divide Me by Zero (Tin House Books, 2019)

Punctured Lines is thrilled to present a Q&A with Lara Vapnyar, Russian-American writer and author of six works, including her latest novel, Divide Me by Zero. This is also personally meaningful, as I have been reading and writing on Russian-American fiction, very much including her work, for several years. Many thanks to Masha Rumer, whose Q&A we featured previously, for helping facilitate this exchange. Lara answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: Divide Me by Zero is your sixth book. In an interview with Svetlana Satchkova forThe Rumpus, you’ve called it your most intimate and biographical. Has your writing process changed during your work on this novel?

Lara Vapnyar: There is a scene in a Nancy Meyers’ film Something Gotta Give, where the main character played by Diane Keaton is working on play, typing and sobbing, typing and sobbing… That’s how it went for me, except that I had long periods of just sobbing, and longer periods of paralyzing self-doubt – Is this even a novel? What if this is just a self-indulgent mess?

PL: English, the language of your stories and novels, is your second language, acquired later in life. In her essay for the New Yorker, “To Speak is to Blunder,” Yiyun Li, a writer whose first language is Chinese, talked about how “language is capable of sinking a mind.” “One’s thoughts are slavishly bound to language,” she wrote, and went on to talk about the difficulties she has articulating her feelings. “It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible in my native language,” Li says. In your essay, “The Writer as Tour Guide” in an anthology of contemporary Jewish exile literature, The Writer Uprooted, you said, “By the time I approached writing, I had been reading in English a lot, and whenever I thought about creating something of my own, I caught myself putting my images into words of the English language. I felt most comfortable when writing in English, even though I had to struggle with grammar and vocabulary […] I would even say that I wrote in American, which for me was the language of immigrants.” What opportunities has English provided you with that wouldn’t have existed in Russian?  Alternatively, do you ever find English limiting?  Do you negotiate the space between Russian and English when you write?

LV: English is my first “writing” language. Even though I only started to learn English as an adult, my first attempts to write fiction were in English (I’ve never written anything in Russian), so it feels completely natural. The only situation, when I feel frustrated, is when I have to translate speech from Russian into English. For example, I remember a specific joke my mother made in Russian, and I want to translate it and give it to my character, but it’s just not that funny in English!

PL: The relationship between mother and daughter that you describe in this novel is very touching yet clearly a very demanding one. The cultural conflict is not obviously stated, but it seems to define Katya’s judgment of her ability to mother her children. In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children—and Katya herself grew up in a household presided over by her grandparents. Do you feel that life in the United States has affected Katya’s and her mother’s expectations of each other?

LV: In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children –Absolutely! Katya would’ve probably felt less conflicted, if she was raising her children while relying so much on her mother’s help in Russia.

PL: Unlike works by many other Russian-American writers, male or female, your work directly engages with ideas of gender and feminism. Your novel Memoirs of a Muse charts the transformation of its female protagonist from subservient muse to her writer boyfriend to an independent woman engaged in artistic production; and while Dostoevsky is a key fictional figure in this work, the focus is on his lover, Apollinaria Suslova, herself a writer. Ružena in “Slicing Sautéed Spinach” in your short story collection Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love is a doctoral student in Women’s Studies. Your essay “Hillary’s Underpants: The Sad Tale of ‘Clintonsha,’ or She-Clinton” in Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary directly calls out traditional Russian gender assumptions. How do you relate to feminist ideas and navigate the gap between the different gender expectations in American vs. Russian cultures? Do you see any shift of Russian gender norms in the diaspora?

LV: I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where accepted gender roles differed greatly from what we see in the US and contemporary Russia. Soviet Union was both a feminist and a deeply patriarchal society, where men had all the power, but women did all the work, but still longed for a man in the family like this prized object. My mother, a strong independent woman who made her career and brought me up all on her own, kept telling me that ANY husband is better than no husband.

I think there is a shift of gender norms [in the diaspora] toward the ideal situation, where men and women in the family are equal partners who depend on each other for support and understanding.

PL: As a writer one of whose major topics is immigration, do you find yourself working against Russian cultural stereotypes?

LV: Probably… But in this novel, I feel like I’m working with a Russian cultural stereotype – that you absolutely need true romantic love, that you can’t live without it – against a more pragmatic American view that romantic love is far from being the most important thing in life, and chasing after love is selfish and childish.

PL: Who are some of the writers that inspire you? Do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?

LV: There are so many writers I deeply admire within the diaspora and beyond. But for this novel, the most influential was Elena Ferrante. She taught me how to turn yourself inside out for the sake of larger truth.

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