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.

Q&A with Masha Rumer: Parenting with an Accent (forthcoming from Beacon Press)

Today on Punctured Lines, we have a Q&A with Masha Rumer, author of Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting, whose arrival we previously announced here and are very excited about. Masha answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: Describe, briefly, your process in writing this book.

Masha Rumer: My decision to write the book was pretty simple: I wished there was something like that when I became a parent, and since there wasn’t, I figured I’d write it. I was born in Russia and my partner was born in the U.S., so in addition to navigating differences common to a multicultural relationship, having a baby brought up questions, nostalgia and my awareness of straddling multiple cultural identities. How do I teach my kids Russian, without forcing it?  How do I connect with other parents, even if I lack certain shared childhood experiences? Is a peanut butter sandwich an acceptable meal? How much borscht is too much? The more I spoke to others, parents or not, the more I realized that these concerns are very much shared, but people don’t always feel comfortable discussing it.

Surprisingly, I found no nonfiction book about the contemporary immigrant parenting experience, even though there is a record high of 43 million immigrants in America today and over 18 million kids with at least one foreign-born parent.

I realized there needs to be a research-driven, accessible look at what it’s like for immigrants to raise kids in the U.S., not a “how-to” parenting manual, but a realistic portrait of sorts. The book will have a bit of everything: candid conversations with families across the U.S., personal narrative and interviews with experts in psychology, language development and sociology. And beets. Lots of beets.

PL: What is your relationship with contemporary Russian literature? Who are some of the writers that inspire you?

MR: I really wish I’d read more contemporary Russian literature, but a significant chunk of my reading is in English (unless we’re talking news or kid lit – I try to read Russian books with my children daily). That said, I’ve recently been enjoying the work of Dina Rubina and of the investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich, and have been getting into translation more (just finished a delightful Russian translation of A Man Called Ove [PL: This Swedish title by Fredrik Backman has also been translated into English]).

PL: Do you find yourself working against some Russian cultural stereotypes?

MR: Sometimes I find myself dodging jokes about being a spy, especially in the wake of the 2016 presidential election (I’m not a spy). I’ve also been questioned whether I came to the U.S. “on my own” and “with papers” or if my husband ordered me via a catalog. The people who ask are demure and almost apologetic, but they want to know. Recently, though, a job recruiter was pretty explicit about questioning my immigration status and any political connections. And something many female-identifying Russian speakers have probably experienced – there’s often an assumption that our closets have this secret compartment where we stash sable fur coats and leather outfits from a James Bond movie.

PL: As a writer who addresses stories of immigrant families, do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?

MR: I definitely find myself connecting with other diaspora writers. It’s probably due to the shared immigrant experiences of reinventing and translating yourself and the trauma of having been uprooted. I love the work of Lara Vapnyar and Dinaw Mengestu; they both write so incisively and honestly about diaspora realities. Eva Hoffman and Jhumpa Lahiri were among the first contemporary immigrant authors I read, and it felt so validating. Then there’s the work of Edwidge Danticat, Anya Ulinich and Natalia Sylvester, particularly her recent essay on being bilingual, and the Foreignish blog, run by Yaldaz Sadakova. I’m also excited to read the new collection Like Water by Olga Zilberbourg. It’s thrilling to see that the contemporary immigrant narratives are no longer othered as “niche,” but are becoming a part of the “mainstream” literary canon. 

Looking Back on Our First Event: Participatory Reading in Post-Soviet Literatures, in Pictures

On November 25th, Punctured Lines hosted our first literary event in San Francisco. Thanks to a conference that brought to San Francisco scholars, translators, and writers in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, we were able to gather a star list of participants. A few of the readers have appeared in Punctured Lines, and we certainly hope to feature more of their work. Following the scheduled portion of the event, we hosted an open mic that turned out to be a great crowd-pleaser. Below are the pictures we captured that night and brief descriptions of everyone’s contributions.

Shelley Fairthweather-Vega opened with an excerpt from her recently published translation of Talasbek Asemkulov’s novel A Life at Noonavailable for purchase here. A story about a musician growing up in Soviet Kazakhastan and learning his art form from his father.

Yelena Furman read the opening from her short story “Naming,” recently published in Narrative Magazine, and available in full online (free, with free registration required).

Wayne Goodman read a few brief excerpts from his historical novel Borimir: Serving the Tsars that re-imagines gay romance in Imperial Russia. There’s lots of awkward flirting! This book is available for purchase on Amazon.

Maggie Levantovskaya read from her essay about a trip to Auschwitz concentration camp “To Conjure Up the Dead,” published in Michigan Quarterly Review. The bizarreness of Holocaust tourism with the post-Soviet twist. An excerpt from this essay appears online.

Dmitri Manin wore the T-shirt with Genrikh Sapgir’s poem on the back, and read to us his translations from Sapgir’s “Poems on Shirts” book. We have published three of these translations in an earlier post.

Masha Rumer shared an essay about exposing an unsuspecting date to the delights of pickled herring-and-boiled beet salad, aka “Seledka pod shuboj.” He lived long enough to propose. We’re hoping to read the follow up on this story in her upcoming book, Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting. More about Masha and her book in the Q&A she gave Punctured Lines.

Sasha Vasilyuk followed with an excerpt from her novel-in-progress about a Soviet prisoner of war. We will be following the development of this project closely.

Mary Jane White delighted us with her translations from Marina Tsvetaeva — her delivery of the “Ode to the Rich” landed particularly well with our audience. Mary Jane’s book of her own poetry and translations from Tsvetaeva Starry Sky to Starry Sky is available online. We will be following up with news of her upcoming book of translations from Tsvetaeva’s Berlin and Prague years, Poems of an Emigrant: After Russia, Poem of the Hill, Poem of the End, and New Year’s.

I read the opening of “Rubicon,” a short story from my collection Like Water and Other Stories.

Josie von Zitzewitz followed up on the thread of discussion about the lack of visibility of contemporary Russian literature in the United States, and introduced a project that she’s developing with Marian Schwartz and Hilah Cohen, soliciting work from young Russophone writers to create a feature publication in an American magazine (possibly more than one).

Joining us for the open mic portion of the show, we had Maxim Matusevich, a writer and a historian of USSR intersections with African countries. He delivered an excerpt from his hilarious short story about cultural encounters between American students going to study abroad in St. Petersburg.

Christopher Fort closed the evening with a poem that he read in both Uzbek and English, bringing our attention to a particular rhyming pattern of Turkic languages. We have previously linked to Christopher’s interview about translating Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li Cho’lpon novel Night and Day. This novel is now available for purchase online.



Event Announcement: Participatory Reading for Projects in Post-Soviet Literature

When: Monday, November 25, 2019 at 6:30 PM – 9 PM
Where: Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St, San Francisco, California 94110

This reading gathers together translators, writers, and scholars whose writing is connected, in various ways, with the literatures of the former Soviet Union.

We’re grateful to the Association for Slavic, East European, & Eurasian Studies that’s hosting its annual conference in San Francisco this year, which has allowed us to put this reading together with participants from across the United States.

A participatory reading means that, in addition to the announced readers, we’ll have a first come first served sign-up sheet for people who want to speak up and introduce their projects. We ask that each participant limits their reading or presentation to five minutes.

We’re delighted to have:
Olga Breininger with her book There Was No Adderall in the Soviet Union
Shelley Fairweather-Vega with A Life At Noon by Talasbek Asemkulov
Yelena Furman with her story “Naming” from Narrative Magazine
Wayne Goodman with an excerpt of his novel-in-progress Borimir: Serving the Tsars
James Kates with Aigerim Tazhi‘s poetry collection Paper-thin Skin
Maggie Levantovskaya with her essay “To Conjure Up the Dead” from Michigan Quarterly Review
Dmitri Manin with translations of Nikolay Zabolotsky‘s Stolbtsy
Masha Rumer with her book Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting
Sasha Vasilyuk, with her novel in progress about a Soviet prisoner of war
Mary Jane White with Marina Tsvetaeva translations
Olga Zilberbourg with stories from her collection Like Water and Other Stories
Josie von Zitzewitz introducing Russophone Literature by Young Writers


and more! Please reach out to puncturedlines [at] gmail.com if you want to be a part of this.

Forthcoming Book Announcement: Masha Rumer, Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting

From Masha Rumer comes the following announcement:

“Very excited to share that my nonfiction book, Parenting with an Accent, will be published by Beacon Press and distributed by Penguin Random House. There’s no better time for this book, which will explore the everyday stories and challenges of immigrant families as they raise kids in their adopted American home. (And yes, there will be beets.)”

Agent Katelyn Hales, Robin Straus Agency

We’re very excited too. Having read Masha’s work before, we know this will be an insightful and engagingly written book. If you haven’t read her yet, you can do so here:

https://www.kveller.com/what-do-you-do-when-your-beloved-childhood-books-scare-the-crap-out-of-your-kids/