Novelist Vladimir Nabokov fled the Russian Revolution and won acclaim writing in English. The exiled Joseph Brodsky, persecuted in the Soviet Union for his poems and Jewish religion, won a Nobel Prize and became U.S. poet laureate.
Now a new generation of Soviet émigrés has burst onto the American literary scene. One of the brightest stars is Boris Fishman, who moved with his family at age 8 from Minsk to a Brooklyn neighborhood in New York.
He acquired English in the blink of an eye, helped his parents navigate an unfamiliar culture, and pursued journalism and writing after graduating from Princeton University.
But Fishman never quite left Russia behind. His own Russian relatives’ colorful personalities spin comic tales central to his books.
“Is there room in American fiction for another brilliant young émigré writer? There had better be, because here he is,” the New York Times raved in 2014 about Fishman’s first novel, A Replacement Life.
We caught up with Fishman before a trip to Latvia and Estonia. Here’s what he told us, edited for length:
Soviet influence doesn’t end when you come here. I lived with parents who remained Soviet people for years. It was my job to explain America to them.
I had a real love affair with English. I was amazed by things you could do with it that you couldn’t with Russian and vice versa. They felt like two family members with very different personalities.
For the first 10 years in America, I was desperate to fit in and tried to minimize my Russian side. But in 12th grade, when we read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, it moved something in me that had been pressed down for a long time.
The summer after junior year at Princeton I got an internship at the American Embassy in Moscow. I met with Duma members and wrote eight cables back to Washington. I felt certain Proustian things I had not felt and didn’t realize I was missing since I had left 12 years before.
But I also understood very quickly why my parents had left. I experienced xenophobia and anti-Semitism and a lack of civility.
I feel like I feel in Russian as much as in English. I don’t write in Russian, but I remain a Russian person in terms of personality.