Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Postsocialist Fiction and Frameworks: Miroslav Penkov, Lara Vapnyar, and Aleksandar Hemon

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Postsocialist Fiction and Frameworks: Miroslav Penkov, Lara Vapnyar, and Aleksandar Hemon

Article excerpt

It is becoming increasingly clear that new "critical contexts" (Goldsworthy 2014: 3) and methodologies are needed to engage with work from the former Eastern Bloc (Godzich 2014; Starosta 2013,2015). Recent fruitful debates about convergences and disjunctions between postcolonial and the newer postcommunist/postsocialist studies have offered some possible solutions to this crisis in methodology, although the limitations of applying a postcolonial lens to the former Eastern Bloc have also become apparent (Imre 2014; Hrytsak 2015). The focus on the global (Gille 2010; Suchland 2011; Tulbure 2007) and transnational (Rogers 2010; Marciniak, Imre, and O'Healy 2007) dimensions of studying postsocialism has opened up another promising line of research. Such approaches demand critical relationality and comparative frameworks that highlight the connections between the "Second World" and global processes, past and present, outside of the old Cold War binaries. They also make clear the need for appropriate analytical frameworks that neither erase the unique socialist and postsocialist experiences through homogenization nor simply subsume them into other academic discourses representing alterity.

My article broadens the theoretical and methodological scope of this ongoing discussion by considering the work of writers of Eastern European and Soviet background residing in the United States who write primarily in English and publish with major international publishing houses. The current boom in postsocialist diasporic voices, with Gary Shteyngart and Aleksandar Hemon as groundbreakers--multiple publications in the New Yorker by Hemon and Lara Vapnyar, impressive awards and book reviews for Vapnyar, Anya Ulinich, Sana Krasikov, Ellen Litman, David Bezmozgis, and the younger Miroslav Penkov, Tea Obreht, Yelena Akhtiorskaya, and Boris Fishman, as well as worldwide translations of their work--has brought writers from the former Eastern Bloc into the spotlight of literary studies. (1) The authors whose work I discuss in this article--Penkov, Vapnyar, and Hemon--are part of what I consider the postsocialist diasporic generation. Their texts, while produced in the United States, circulate worldwide, in English and in translation. Vapnyar s and Hemon's books have been published in numerous languages, and some of Penkov's short stories have gone fully global, having been translated into Hindi, Tamil, and Japanese. These US-based authors are part of a larger literary diaspora that produces work in multiple languages, which circulates widely and thus raises questions about the way the geography of the former Eastern Bloc is represented culturally and historically, or imagined fictionally for the benefit of global audiences.

Penkov, Vapnyar, and Hemon all create communities of reading about the former Eastern European/Soviet spaces as well as point to publics and counterpublics (in Michael Warner's understanding) of the former socialist space. Warner's work is particularly central to the discussion of literary circulation, as a "public comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation" (2002:49). Counterpublics supply "different ways of imagining stranger sociability and its reflexivity"; they are "spaces of circulation in which it is hoped that the poetics of scene making will be transformative, not replicative merely" (88; emphasis mine). Questions of circulation and mediation aside, Warner's comment that a public is a "poetic world-making" (82) is valuable for examining the encounters between the (former) Eastern Bloc and the United States that Penkov, Vapnyar, and Hemon present in their work. Their texts portray a fictional space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse about the postsocialist East in Europe and its connections with the United States. The texts I examine here illustrate how authors and narrators self-reflexively engage with the circulation of discourses and narratives about former socialist countries in ways that then become the basis for further representations and the creation of new publics engaged with this space. …

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