Forging a Transcultural Identity as a Russian-American Writer: Lara Vapnyar and Cultural Adaptation

By Ryan, Karen L. | Cross / Cultures, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Forging a Transcultural Identity as a Russian-American Writer: Lara Vapnyar and Cultural Adaptation


Ryan, Karen L., Cross / Cultures


Introduction

LARA VAPNYAR is one of a loosely delimited group of Russian-American writers who have come to prominence on the North American literary scene in the last ten to fifteen years, as part of the so-called Fourth Wave of Russian émigrés. Most of these relatively young writers came to the US A or Canada as children or adolescents. In a few cases, they are the children of Third-Wave émigrés, who left the Soviet Union in the 1970s and early 1980s. Although their work is stylistically and generically diverse, they share a predilection for quasi-autobiographical prose and a preoccupation with questions of cultural identity, adaptation and assimilation, and nostalgia. In addition to Vapnyar, this group includes David Bezmozgis (b. 1973), Olga Grushin (b. 1971), Irina Reyn (b. 1974), Gary Shteyngart (b. 1972), and Anya Ulinich (b. 1973). A more extensive roster of Russian anglophone writers would include Mark Budman (b. 1950), Sana Krasikov (b. 1979), and Ellen Litman (b. 1973).

Although their originary language1 is Russian, all of these writers have opted to write in English in the North American diaspora.2 Most have acquired their fluency in English in the West and are functionally bilingual. The perceptible effects of bilingualism are in fact a stylistic feature of their prose. Russian underlies the English surface and can be apprehended in literal translations of words and phrases, instances of code-switching, definitions of Russian terms, and other techniques of creative interference. More importantly for their broader anglophone readership, these writers self-identify as Russian. Indeed, Russianness is a central aspect of the authorial personae in their works; their experiences as first-generation Russian immigrants shape and colour their worldview.

This group of Russian-American writers has for the most part been educated in the West. They have learned the craft of literature in Master of Fine Arts programmes in North America and have published prolifically in highprofile venues such as Harper's Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and Slate. Under the editorship of David Remnick, a former Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, the New Yorker magazine has played a particularly important role in introducing some of these writers, including Vapnyar, to an anglophone audience. The Internet has also been a significant platform for publication and critical discussion of their work. Almost all of them have personal webpages, some quite extensive and sophisticated. Ulinich, for example, began her career in the West as a visual artist, and her webpage combines the visual and textual aspects of her work. Budman is deeply involved in the 'flash fiction' phenomenon - the print and Internet publication of extremely short stories, three hundred to one thousand words maximum. He is also a practising engineer and his webpage reflects the broad scope of his interests.

The literature of the Fourth Wave is distinct from that of both the First and the Third Wave of emigration. The First Wave, which took place after the 1917 Revolution and the Civil War, included members of the Russian aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, and also many representatives of the creative intelligentsia. Writers such as Nina Berberova, Ivan Bunin, Zinaida Gippius, and many others formed émigré communities in Berlin, Paris, and Prague and continued to write and publish, for the most part, exclusively in Russian.3 The Third Wave of the 1970s and early 1980s resulted from Brezhnev's policy of allowing Jews to leave the Soviet Union. Dissident writers and artists - regardless of their religious identity - were also allowed, and sometimes strongly encouraged, to leave the Soviet Union. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Voinovich, Vasily Aksenov, and others constituted this Third Wave.4 Whereas earlier émigrés could not return, contemporary RussianAmerican writers living in the diaspora often remain connected to Russia and travel back and forth freely. …

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