Novelist Gary Shteyngart was a wheezing, asthmatic and fearful 7-year-old when he and his parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York, in 1979. (This was soon after America negotiated a trade deal with the Soviets that included allowing Jews to immigrate to Israel, Canada or the U. S.) He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that his health was a deciding factor in his parents' decision to move.
"When I was growing up, the ambulance would come almost every week to take me to the hospital because there were no other treatments for asthma," he says. "[My mother] really made this calculation of whether to leave her family behind and have me grow up fairly healthy, or stay with them and have me grow up an invalid, and ... she decided to go to America."
Still, the relocation meant little Shteyngart was suddenly living in the country he had been taught was the enemy. His parents, who had been prevented from practicing Judaism in the Soviet Union, sent Shteyngart to a Hebrew school in Queens, where he felt lost and despised. As he slowly became more American, the distance between him and his parents seemed to grow. Eventually, girls, booze and 12 years of four-times-a-week psychoanalysis also entered the picture. But writing was always a constant, dating back to when he was 5 and wrote a 100-page comic novel.
On adjusting to life and school in America
I think my father ... was the one that believed in Judaism to a large extent, and he joined a synagogue immediately, and that was the one community that he felt really close to, these Orthodox Jews. I, on the other hand, was sentenced to eight years of Hebrew school for a crime that I didn't commit — a conservative school in Queens. To him, being Jewish was this amazing thing that he had fought for all his life and he was denied in Leningrad, but for me, it was a different experience.
Those were the years when being a Russian was how you were labeled. You were labeled "The Russian." It wasn't just this confederacy of Jews; it was American Jews and Israeli Jews, and then there was me and a couple other Ruskis, and we were despised pretty roundly. ...
And also I had fur coats and fur hats, and [they] smelled of various woodland animal-type smells. The teachers would take me aside and say, "Look, you can't be this furry. You can't dress in these furs. Children won't play with you if you have that much fur on." ... Basically what I was told in school every day was where we came from was wrong and where we were now was right. ... It's a lot for a sensitive 7-year-old to be told that everything he loved and believed in has to be replaced with something else.
On his struggle to learn English
My problem was that I didn't know any English. So on top of not knowing any English, there was another language, Hebrew, which was even harder, that they were trying to teach me. It was too much. ...
And at home we had no television so I couldn't learn English from TV, so for the first years in Hebrew school I would sit apart from everyone at the cafeteria ... and I would just have long conversations in Russian with myself ... in this gigantic fur hat and fur coat, speaking in a language that nobody understood. And all the kids would run up to me and do the crazy sign and laugh and laugh and laugh, but I wouldn't stop because that was the only language that would make me comfortable. ... In speaking it, I could pretend that the people I loved were around me.
On his circumcision
I think I was 8. I'll have to ask my mohel, my circumciser. ... I think my father's belief was that without this I would not be fully a Jewish boy, and in his mind there was nothing more important than making sure that I was a Jewish boy. I think my mother probably had her doubts; I'm pretty sure she did, because she's very against these kinds of medical interventions. But I think ... it meant the world to him.
It was awful for me, but some kind of bond did survive. I did become what he always wanted to be, which was a person growing up in a country where being Jewish wasn't a mark against you. In some parts of New York, it was a mark for you. So I'm not super happy that it happened, but I've certainly made peace with my mohel.
On the traumatic deaths in his family
My mother is a wonderful cataloger of everything that has happened to our family, so thanks to her and thanks to my father, discussions with him, I was able to do a pretty fair portrait of how my family became who they are — and that means death.
They died in the most horrific ways imaginable. ... There's an entire photo album my mother keeps, which is Uncle so-and-so, his wife and children all buried alive. When the Nazis invaded Belorussia, where my grandparents are from, that entire branch of the family was just buried alive by the Germans.
Then there's Uncle Aaron, who ended up mutilated in Stalin's labor camps. Then there's my father's father, who was a Red Army soldier, one of the millions who died right outside of Leningrad. He was in artillery, and Stalin had not prepared for the war — they were fighting with sticks at some point. The Germans just mowed them down. The book includes a scene where I go to the place where my grandfather died.
On processing his family's difficult history
To me that's one of the most important parts of the book because of the fact that my father wasn't raised by his actual father, but was raised by a horrific stepfather who my grandmother remarried. ... That [caused] irreparable damage to my father, growing up with that man, the violence of that relationship.
As I wrote this book, I began to think of my own relationship with my father, which had its ups and downs, certainly more ups than his relationship with his [stepfather]. I began to realize how one little trick of history could've created a very different world for both of us. Especially for him, because there is a loving man, who is my father, but the circumstances in which he grew up, I kept thinking, "What chance did he have?" ... Oddly enough, in writing this book, there are scenes of cruelty between all of us, but it made me love my parents much more because I thought, "My God. Where did you come from? What a place you came from with Hitler and Stalin and the lies. I can't believe you did as well as you did."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After drawing on his life and his satirical novels, like "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," "Absurdistan" and "Super Sad True Love Story," my guest Gary Shteyngart has written a memoir called "Little Failure." As Andy Borowitz wrote in his New York Times review, the book is both hilarious and moving.
Shteyngart was a wheezing, asthmatic and fearful seven-year-old when he and his parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York in 1979. This was soon after America negotiated a trade deal with the Soviets that included allowing Jews to emigrate to Israel, Canada or the U.S. Suddenly little Gary was living in the country he had been taught was the enemy.
His parents, who had been prevented from practicing Judaism in the Soviet Union, sent Gary to a Hebrew school in Queens, where he felt lost and despised. And as he slowly became more American, the distance between him and his parents seemed to grow. As he got older, girls, booze and four-times-a-week psychoanalysis entered the picture.
Throughout, writing was a constant, dating back to when he was five and wrote a comic novel that was 100 pages long. Gary Shteyngart, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
GARY SHTEYNGART: Thank you, great to be here.
GROSS: You know, part of your book is about when you were growing up. You had such severe asthma. And that was part of the reason your family left Russia. And I'd like to start by having you read a paragraph from the beginning of your memoir, and it has to do with one of the reasons why your family left.
SHTEYNGART: Yes. And by the way, anyone who wants to be a writer out there, the first thing you have to have growing up is asthma.
SHTEYNGART: So I recommend growing up in a place like Leningrad, which was built over a swamp, which will be very conducive to your not breathing. So here is what happens and one of the main reasons we did leave Russia.
Unbeknownst to me, my mother was in the middle of a crisis herself, wondering whether to stay behind with my sick grandmother in Russia or leave her behind forever and emigrate to America. The decision was made for her in a greasy Crimean cafeteria. Over a bowl of tomato soup, a stout Siberian woman told my mother of the senseless beating her 18-year-old son had endured after his conscription by the Red Army, a beating that had cost him a kidney.
The woman took out a photo of her boy. He resembled a moose of great stature, crossbred with an equally colossal ox. My mother took one look at the fallen giant and then at her tiny, wheezing son, and soon enough we were on a plane bound for Queens.
GROSS: Do you think your parents would have left Russia if it wasn't for your asthma?
SHTEYNGART: I think the asthma played a big part in it. I think - look, it was such a tragedy for my mother because her mother was dying, and this was one of my beloved grandmothers. She also had a sister who was going to die shortly from cancer, and her whole family was being decimated. And she wanted to stay behind and help them. And the only reason she could leave her culture, her language and of course her family was that she had this little - tiny little, barely alive asthmatic son.
And we found out very quickly that in the West they had things called steroid inhalers, which would, you know, get rid of the asthma attack. And when I was growing up, we - the ambulance would come almost every week to take me to the hospital because there were no other treatments for asthma.
So she really made this calculation of whether to leave her family behind and have me grow up, you know, fairly healthy, or stay with them and have me grow up an invalid. And to her wonderful decision that I'm always thankful for, she decided to go to America.
GROSS: Did you grow up with a sense of guilt or responsibility for having uprooted your parents?
SHTEYNGART: In a sense. I mean we realized when we got to America that, good lord, leaving the Soviet Union was going to be great for everyone involved. I mean, it was a disaster. I remember seeing my first Chevrolet Corvette, thinking this is science fiction. Things like this aren't supposed to exist.
You know, in Russia we had these sort of nerdy science fiction films where a man in a space helmet walked around the soundstage and, you know, there were little twinkling stars behind him. But this was the 21st century right there. I was - I fell in love with it so ridiculously and immediately that there really wasn't, in my - we realized that this was where we belonged.
And the Soviet Union was also falling apart at that point. It was the beginning of the end, the Brezhnev years, 1979, which I guess is funny because, you know, once I settled in America, this country also began to unravel. So I am the destroyer of superpowers.
SHTEYNGART: Everywhere I go, things fall apart. They won't even let me land in China anymore because they're so afraid of destroying their...
GROSS: Were your parents as taken with America as you were?
SHTEYNGART: I think even more so. I mean, I think my father loved the idea that he - I mean, he was the one that really believed in Judaism, to a large extent, and he wanted me to join - he joined a synagogue immediately, and that was the one community that he felt really close to, were these Orthodox Jews.
I, on the other hand, was sentenced to eight years of Hebrew school for a crime I did not commit.
SHTEYNGART: But it was - you know, and it was a conservative school in Queens. And to me - to him, being Jewish was this amazing thing that he had fought for all his life and he was denied in Leningrad. But for me it was a different experience. Those were the years when, you know, being a Russian was how you were labeled. You were labeled a Russian, not - it wasn't just a confederacy of Jews, it was American Jews and Israeli Jews, and then there was me and a couple of other Russkies.
And we were despised pretty readily. You know, all those movies, "Red Dawn," "Red Gerbil," "Red Hamster," and it was - and also I had this fur coat and a fur hat, and it smelled of various, you know, woodland animal-type smells. And the teachers would take me aside and say, look, you can't be this furry. You can't dress in all these furs. Children won't play with you if you have that much fur on.
And basically what I was told every day in school, that where we came from was wrong, and where we were now was right. I'm not even going to dispute that, but it's just - it's a - it's a lot for a seven-year-old, for a sensitive seven-year-old boy to be told, that everything he loved and believed in has to be replaced with something else.
GROSS: So you actually believed in Lenin. You wanted to join the Red Army.
SHTEYNGART: Yes. I mean I would've been killed in the Red Army within the first day of hazing, but when I was a kid, there was a huge statue of Lenin outside our apartment, and every morning, if I was allowed to leave the house, if my asthma wasn't bad enough, I would hug the pedestal of Lenin. And he just felt like a relative. He felt like just another bald, goateed relative that I had.
And I wrote a little book called "Lenin and his Magical Goose." I wrote it for my grandma, in which Lenin meets a magical goose, and they invade Finland and create a socialist revolution. But the goose turns out to be Menshevik, and Lenin is Bolshevik. So Lenin eats the goose for political reasons. But then at the end of the book we find out that Lenin also suffers from asthma.
GROSS: You were a child when you wrote that, in case it's not clear, yeah.
SHTEYNGART: Yes, I was five years old, and my grandmother paid me in little slices of cheese for each page. So it was 100 slices of cheese for 100 pages. Even today Random House pays me in cheese, so the tradition continues.
GROSS: And when you got to the United States - you know, in Russia you were told the United States was the enemy, and then you get here and it's kind of like now you are the enemy, very confusing.
SHTEYNGART: Very confusing. And my father took me aside and said, look, everything you loved, the Red Army, Lenin, the Communist Party, the space program, and he just went down the line, he said everything was a lie. You know, I'm six or seven years old, and everything you believed in, everything you loved was a lie, and now you have to forget Lenin, and now you have to love Ronald Reagan.
GROSS: Did you?
SHTEYNGART: Can you do that? And I said yes, I'll love Ronald Reagan now. And yes, I fell in love with Reagan pretty hard, the way many ex-Soviet Jewish refugees did. By age 11 I had a subscription to William F. Buckley's National Review, with a picture of Margaret Thatcher on every single cover. And a few months later I got a letter in the mail addressed to me.
I was 11 years old. I open it up, there are two rifles above an eagle, and it's the National Rifle Association has welcomed me, 11-year-old Gary Shteyngart is being welcomed as a full member of the NRA.
GROSS: My impression is that your father kept the conservative Republican politics and you didn't.
SHTEYNGART: Yes, yes. No, my parents are - they do not watch very much Rachel Maddow, or NPR for that matter, I gather. They, you know, they watch Fox News and an even scarier version of sort of these Fox News-type programs on the Russian cable channel.
So they spend their days, you know, watching people who get paid millions of dollars exploit the anxieties of people like themselves about the coming apocalypse in Obamacare and this and that and the other thing, so it's a little - it's a little sad for me. But, you know, I don't dispute that that's who they are and that those are their politics, and it's - I think they're very upset that I don't share their politics because in many ways children in our culture are supposed to be an extension of their parents.
They're supposed to believe the same things as their parents, and the fact that I turned out different I think is something that hurts them.
GROSS: My guest is Gary Shteyngart. His new memoir is called "Little Failure." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is novelist and satirist Gary Shteyngart. His new memoir is called "Little Failure." His family emigrated from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York, when he was seven, in 1979. You write that you're from a family where there was a lot to worry about. And you write - as you're writing about your family tree, you write: As I march my relatives onto the pages of this book, please remember that I am also marching them toward their graves and that they will most likely meet their ends in some of the worst ways imaginable.
Can you just do a brief roll call of some of the horrible ways that people in your family died in Russia?
SHTEYNGART: Sure. I mean my mother has - my mother is a wonderful cataloguer of everything that has happened to our family. So thanks to her and thanks to my father's - discussions with him, I was able to do a pretty, I think, fair portrait of how my family became who they are. And that means death.
You know, they died in the most horrific ways imaginable. There's an entire photo album my mother keeps, which is Uncle So-and-So, his wife and children, all buried alive, you know, when the Nazis invaded Belorussia, where my grandparents were from. The entire - that entire branch of the family was just buried alive by the Germans.
Then there's Uncle Aaron(ph), who ended up in - you know, mutilated in Stalin's labor camps. Then there's my father's father, you know, who was a Red Army soldier, one of the millions who died right outside of Leningrad. He was in artillery, and Stalin had not prepared for the war. They were fighting with sticks at some point, you know, and the Germans just mowed them down.
And the book includes a scene where I go to the place where my grandfather died. To me that's the most - one of the most important parts of the book because my grandfather - the fact that my father wasn't raised by his actual father but was raised by a horrific stepfather who my grandmother remarried, whose - even his best friends, his nickname among his best friends was Goebbels, you know.
So when that's your nickname, you can imagine what kind of a stepfather you are. That did irreparable damage to my father, growing up with that man, the violence of that relationship. And as I wrote this book, I began to think of my own relationship with my father, which had its ups and downs, certainly more ups than his relationship with Goebbels.
But I began to realize how one little trick of history, one little switch of history could've created a very different world for both of us, especially for him, you know, because there is a loving man who is my father, but the circumstances in which he grew up, I just kept thinking what chance did he have, you know.
And it made me very sad, and oddly enough in writing this book, there are scenes of cruelty between all of us, but it made me love my parents much more because I thought, my God, you know, where did you come from? What a place you came from with Hitler and Stalin and the lies. I mean I can't believe you did as well as you did.
GROSS: In Russia, your family was discriminated against for being Jewish, even though they weren't practicing. Then you come to the United States, and you're sent to a Hebrew school instead of a public school, and so suddenly you're put in the middle of a - you know, of a pretty religious environment. What did - what sense did religion make to you at that point, and what was your understanding of Judaism, of God? That's a really big question, isn't it?
GROSS: You're welcome, yeah.
SHTEYNGART: Well, you know, thank you.
SHTEYNGART: My problem was I didn't know any English. You know, so on top of not knowing English, there was another language, Hebrew, which is even harder, that they were trying to teach me. And it was too much. It was too much overload, and at home we had no television, so I couldn't learn English from TV.
So for the first years in Hebrew school, I was sit apart from everyone at the cafeteria as they ate, and I would just have long conversations in Russian with myself. So here was this fruitcake wearing this gigantic fur hat and fur coat, speaking in a language nobody understood, and all the kids would run up to me and do the sort of, you know, the crazy sign and, you know, and laugh and laugh and laugh.
But I wouldn't stop because that was the only language that would make me comfortable. And my mother wasn't there, but in speaking it I could pretend that the people I loved were around me, and I could pretend - I would talk about all the things I had seen before we left Russia, you know, the beauties of Yalta and all the different - we did a tour of all the places where Chekhov used to hang out and, you know, again, things that are not going to endear you to a bunch of first-grade, second-grade kids, especially if you're not speaking it in their language.
And the prayers, the endless prayers - Baruch atah Adonai - over and over again. I mean, I realized that God was bigger than all of us. There was my father, who was big, and there was God, who was probably even bigger, and that was the, you know, the rankings in terms of parental figures.
And I remember reading the - we were taught very early on, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and then - and I really thought, OK, I could sort of see my father in this role. He sent me to Hebrew school. He's going to cut my throat because God says he should. And then God says - God is always the nice guy, and God says, hey, just kidding, you know, put that knife down you crazy guy, Abraham.
So that also reinforced this feeling that I had that life was very mercurial, that anything could happen, that there was absolutely - I was at the mercy of people higher than myself, which is I guess what a child can feel. But there wasn't a great feeling of safety. You know, I was in a school where I couldn't speak the language, where I walked around with my shoelaces untied, where the kids despised me, where - you know, it was a Hebrew school, but Russians were hated so much at that point that I started convincing everyone that I hadn't been born in Leningrad, I was born in East Berlin.
So I was trying to convince Jewish kids that I was actually a German because...
GROSS: To be better liked.
SHTEYNGART: To be better liked and not, you know, beaten as much. I was trying to turn myself into a Nazi rather than a commie.
GROSS: So at some point you wrote your - this was perhaps your first work of satire. You wrote a satirical version of the Torah that you called the Gnorah because - why was it titled that?
SHTEYNGART: Well, because the kids started calling me - there was a television show that I couldn't watch because we didn't have a TV show, but it was called...
GROSS: You mean you didn't have a TV, yeah.
SHTEYNGART: We didn't have a TV, but it was called "The Great Space Coaster." People of my generation may remember it. It was a show that featured a cartoon - not a cartoon, a puppet antelope called Gary Gnu, and his shtick was no gnews is good gnews. With Gnu, there is no gnews guaranteed - or something like that.
And he wore a turtleneck, and he was this pretentious newscaster, and I didn't know who he was because I couldn't watch him so much, but I started to appropriate his lingo. And then so the Torah, because it was now the story of the gnews instead of the Jews, it became the Gnorah, and you know, Exodus became Sexodus.
And, you know, I was about 11 or 12, so it was already getting pretty raunchy there, some - ehhhhh.
GROSS: I want you to read - you reprint a little bit of it in your memoir "Little Failure." I want you to read a short except of your Gnorah.
SHTEYNGART: Sure. And God spoke. Don't worry about ethics. This does not, however, mean you can act like John McEnroe. Do not pray to statues of Michael Jackson or Tom Selleck. I am your god. If you see a blind man, do not cheat him. For example, do not sell him cocaine when it is really angel dust. Don't swear in the name of Brooke Shields. By doing so, you are insulting my name.
We all loved Brooke Shields. Oh my God, there was a centerfold of Brooke Shields in People magazine that the boys of Hebrew school passed around until it was - it was more shredded than the Talmud by the time we were through with it.
GROSS: So in this Gnorah that you wrote, actually was a real turning point for you because it established you as kind of a satirist in your school. People - it got passed around. It was popular. And also it was the first time you felt really comfortable using the English language and being able to do things, to make it really work for you.
SHTEYNGART: Right, it was this - you know, here I was for years trying to make sense of this hostile environment, and all of a sudden it kind of clicked, and I thought, oh- I mean, maybe I didn't put it in these terms - but what do Jews like, you know, other than not eating pork and praying quite a bit and wearing the tefillin and getting circumcised all the time. What do Jews like? And I thought: humor.
This is our main thing. This is what we do better than, you know, than anyone. So - and satire, especially. And so here we were at Hebrew school getting bombarded with Talmud and Torah and saying things that made really very little sense, reading aloud. It was all about rote memorization. And I thought let's have some fun with this. Let's - let me really get to the bottom of what this sounds like to us, you know.
And I did - I had a very tenuous connection to popular culture, but I knew some things. I knew that John McEnroe was acting out. I knew that Brooke Shields was the most beautiful woman that ever lived. And in fact I think we were - a lot of debates about whether she was Jewish or not, you know, whether she was Brooke Shieldowitz.
SHTEYNGART: That was sort of big dream, was that she could be part of our tribe. If she was part of our tribe, then we wouldn't need all those Nobel Prize winners. We could just have Brooke Shields. So all those different things, and then also making fun of some of the kids in school that weren't so nice to me.
And you know, it was - it was written on an actual scroll, which I typed sideways so that it looked like a real Torah. And I put the two - I can't remember what they're called, the two sort of sticks that hold the Torah, with which you can unroll the scroll. So it was a really professional job.
And I would pass it around, and kids who never - you know, what happened was that the kids who just thought, oh, here's that Russian kid, all of a sudden I wasn't just that Russian kid. I was, you know, that crazy kid who wrote the Gnorah.
GROSS: Did you get in trouble for it in school?
SHTEYNGART: No. I mean I don't think the rabbis were especially happy, but I think they also were - they were on a different planet. They were - they were not able, I think, to comprehend the full, you know, absurdity of the Gnorah. So I think I got - I would get in trouble all the time for speaking out in class and singing in class and singing songs in class, and I would be sent to the principal's office quite a bit. I was always acting out, you know.
But I think the Gnorah, the censors didn't get the Gnorah.
GROSS: Gary Shteyngart will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "Little Failure." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Gary Shteyngart. After writing satirical novels like "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," "Absurdistan" and "Super Sad Love Story," he's written a memoir called "Little Failure." Shteyngart was a sickly asthmatic boy of seven when he and his parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York in 1979, after Jews were allowed to leave.
Because you couldn't practice - your parents couldn't practice Judaism in the Soviet Union when they lived there, when you got to the United States, your family wanted you to be circumcised and brought into the, you know, the Jewish tribe. How old were you when you were circumcised?
SHTEYNGART: I think I was around eight or nine - maybe eight. I'm a little fuzzy on the details since I've been trying to repress them for so long. Yeah.
GROSS: Well, but you uncorked those memories for your memoir. And it's both a really painful but also really funny chapter. And I want...
SHTEYNGART: Oh, thanks.
GROSS: I want you to read just a little bit of that. And I should mention, because this will be referred to in the reading, there's a reference to Emmanuelle - which was a series of soft core porn movies that you father mistakenly took you to when you were...
SHTEYNGART: It was, I would...
SHTEYNGART: It was - yeah, it was called "Emmanuelle: The Love Of a Woman," I believe, or "Emmanuelle: The Wants of A Woman," and it was, it wasn't - I don't know if was softcore. I think it was medium core porn.
SHTEYNGART: And my father was a big aficionado of French culture and he thought this would be a wonderful way to get his son involved with, you know, Balzac and Voltaire. And so, you know, and then we went in there and there was a theater on Main Street and Flushing, and it was one vagina after another.
SHTEYNGART: And he just put his hand around my eyes and I kept trying to pry his hands off because I desperately wanted to see what was on the screen. And I did see; I counted about seven genitals that I saw - which was seven more than I would see for a very long time.
GROSS: So, because there's a reference to that; now everyone will know what you're referring to.
SHTEYNGART: OK. OK.
GROSS: So if you could read a brief section of your chapter about being circumcised at the age of - did you say you were eight?
SHTEYNGART: I think eight. I should - I could be wrong on that. I'll have to ask my mohel, my circumciser. OK.
The next year, I get the present every boy wants: a circumcision. At Solomon Schechter School of Queens, I have been given an appropriately sacrificial Hebrew name, Yitzhak(ph) or Isaac. And so the knife is drawn at Coney Island Hospital, Orthodox men davening out a blessing in the adjoining room, a sedation mask placed over my mouth. Perfect for an asthmatic boy with an anxiety disorder. And then the public hospital walls: green on green on green on green, disappeared to be replaced by a dream, where the horrible things lovingly perpetrated upon Emmanuelle in a Hong Kong brothel are done to me by the men in black hats. And then the pain. Mama, Papa, where are you? And then the layers of pain. Mama, Papa, help. And then the layers of pain - and humiliation.
GROSS: OK. And it goes on in the book.
GROSS: It sounds like a really horrible chapter of your life that lasted - the pain and humiliation - lasted a lot longer than you would've liked.
GROSS: So the...
SHTEYNGART: Don't try this at home.
GROSS: Yeah. In retrospect, do you think your parents did the right thing in having you circumcised at the age of eight-ish?
SHTEYNGART: My father's belief was that without this I would not be fully a Jewish boy. And in his mind there was nothing more important than making sure that I was a Jewish boy. I think mother probably had her doubts. I'm pretty sure she did because she's very against these kind of medical interventions. But I think for him it meant the world to him. It was awful for me, but some kind of bond did survive, you know, I did become what he always wanted to be, which was a person growing up in a country where being Jewish wasn't a mark against you. In some parts of New York it was a mark for you, you know, and I'm not super happy that it happened but I've certainly made peace with my mohel.
GROSS: So, this is probably way too personal, but did it affect - it wasn't long after that, you know, that you start going through puberty. Did it affect your comfort level with the whole idea of sexuality?
SHTEYNGART: It did. It really did. I felt I was not at one with my penis at all. It was, it felt like there was a part of me that was just different from the rest of me, you know, that used to be a part of me but now was not what I remembered it to be. So it was a, my parents did not read "Our Bodies, Ourselves," I guess, growing up in Leningrad.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist, essayist, satirist Gary Shteyngart. And his new book is a memoir called "Little Failure." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist, essayist and satirist Gary Shteyngart. His new book is a memoir called "Little Failure."
So we talked about how when you wrote your satirical version of the Torah, The Gnorah, it kind of helped establish you as a writer in the school and is somebody who was funny. You went to Oberlin College and there you started writing more seriously. And you wrote a story called "Three Views from the Avenue of Karl Marx" that you describe as an earnest homage to your uncle who was in the labor camps. Did he die in the labor camps?
SHTEYNGART: No, he didn't. I believe he actually ended up in Boston, which is much better than the labor camps.
GROSS: Yes. So your professor loves this article. Tells you to send it to The New Yorker.
GROSS: And then your mother reads it and sighs and tells you, that's not how it happened, you got the details wrong. So what was your reaction to hearing that from your mother? And then what was the outcome of this essay?
SHTEYNGART: I mean it was a story and I thought - first of all, you know, your professor sends you into his office and says, you're good enough to submit to The New Yorker and I'm, you know, a freshman at Oberlin, waves of euphoria wash over me. I can't believe it. And then I immediately, full of wanting my parents' love and pride so much, I said, look, this is - this is what my professor thinks of me. And my mother reads it and says, well, none of this could have happened, it was all wrong. Now, she was probably right about many of that. I didn't live through the Soviet Union circa, you know, 1951 or whenever it was set under Stalin. I was drawing details as much as I can from reading books about the Stalin era, from using reminiscence that my own parents had. So no, it wasn't accurate. But what I wanted her to say was this is beautifully written, you know, the American way of encouraging kids, this is beautifully written, there's so much wonderful stuff in here, let's talk about some of these details.
But, you know, as parents of immigrant families know quite well, it's, this is wrong, it's incorrect. So I was crushed, but something good came of that, something very good came of that. I thought, my god, I really don't know enough about Russia, and if I'm going to write about it, I have to start going back there. And I did. I started going back in my 20s, almost every year I returned to Russia, so I've spent, you know, probably a dozen trips there. And I wanted to go back - and informed all the books I've written so far - and I've wanted to go back and discover who I was, but only through the prism of whom my parents were. I wanted to know why people walking down the street looked like they just ate a really bad sturgeon, you know, why is everyone so sad looking.
SHTEYNGART: Where does this depression and anger, where does all that stuff come from? Where does the anxiety come from? So Russia became a part of my life. And a lot of that is because I think I realized in talking to my mother I need these details. I need to know almost as much as they know. I mean that's impossible because they spent 40 years of their lives there, but this needs to be the subject of my life and of my fiction for at least a couple of books.
GROSS: There was a lot of conflict in your relationship with your father. And you found a kind of father figure when you were in college in a man who was - I'm not sure how old he was - but he was older than you, old enough to be a father figure.
GROSS: And he was making a documentary about, you know, college life, college kids, and you are part of that. You became very close. He was a writer for soap operas so he was like the accomplished writer in your life.
GROSS: He would give you advice. But then you started to take advantage of him. I mean it sounded like at that point in your life that you, you were just kind of mean-spirited.
SHTEYNGART: I was very mean-spirited. I was full of anger that I didn't know why - I didn't know who to project it towards. I was, had my very first relationship with a very loving woman from North Carolina, my first girlfriend from college, and the relationship was breaking up. Not her fault, not my fault, it was just ending. And I felt incredibly hurt by the fact that I couldn't sustain a relationship. I was angry at my parents who kept trying to shunt me into law school and I so desperately wanted to be a writer at that point, and I had finished the first and second draft of my very first book "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," but I was too scared to send it out. I was drinking prodigiously and angry at and scared by my parents.
And so the only person that I could take it all out on was the person who was giving me the most love and guidance of anyone I knew. And this was my friend John, who was...
GROSS: Plus loaning you a lot of money.
SHTEYNGART: Plus loaning me tons of money, keeping me, you know, just keeping my life going, basically. Trying to steer me in the right direction, going through - he would go over draft after draft of my novels. And each time he would do that I would get angry at his criticisms. I would say: What do you know, you're just a soap opera writer, I'm a real literary fiction writer, you're nothing, you know. And he just, you know, he put up with it for years until finally he didn't. And you know, I mean I guess one thing I should say about this memoir that I hope comes across is that I never want to glorify who I was. I was not, I mean for such long periods of my life I wasn't a great person. Maybe I'm still not, but there was a lot of the hurt that was my inheritance became the inheritance of other people - especially other people who wanted to help me, and John was probably the prime example of that.
GROSS: You reprint a letter that he sent you...
GROSS: ...almost as an intervention.
GROSS: You know, he was really trying to straighten you out. And I'd like you to read an excerpt of that letter.
SHTEYNGART: Sure. You are not a child and I am not your parent. There is practically nothing writerly about your process. You're acute and omnipresent anxiety causes you to function much more as an accountant or a producer with his eyes on the bottom line and no understanding about how artists function, rather than as a young writer trying to develop a first novel - a new career. In short, you are as mean and ungenerous to yourself as your parents are. They taught you well. You are no longer 20 as you were when we met. You are pushing 30. The wounded child in a defensive rage has become an adult man, hurting himself and inflicting pain on others. Your inability to empathize makes it difficult for you to put yourself in the skin of the characters you write. You have to decide to take yourself seriously - not in a phoney, self-pitying way - but in a serious, dignified way.
GROSS: And the letter goes on. What was your reaction when you got that letter?
SHTEYNGART: I don't think I can say it on NPR - the words, but yes, that very familiar epithet and then the word you. I was, of course, furious. What, you rich American, what do you know of what my childhood was like? What do you know what it's like to be me? Just go and write your soap operas.
GROSS: What hit hardest from this letter, once you were able to actually stop being so defensive and digest some of it?
SHTEYNGART: That I was inflicting pain on others, that I was capable of doing - I mean I didn't have the sort of global view that I have now that things begin sort of with my father's father dying in the fields outside of Leningrad, and then his horrifying stepfather takes over and then all of that rolls downhill and ends up, you know, partly the relationship I had with him. And, but then whoever loves me will get a piece of that action, will get a piece of that hurt. You know, one of the reasons I think I started writing this memoir is because I realized that we were going to have a child and I wanted to know as much as I could about what my life was like so that none of, or hopefully none of that history - the weight of history that we carry on our shoulders - that the most minimal amount of that would end up on his shoulders.
GROSS: So your friend, John, loans you some money - some more money, because he's already loaned you a lot, and insists that you use some of it for psychotherapy. And you do. You go into analysis.
GROSS: When you went into therapy...
GROSS: ...your father's reaction was, it would have been better if you had told me you were a homosexual.
GROSS: Which, I guess, is...
SHTEYNGART: I love that line. In fact, I love all of my...
GROSS: Whatever, right?
SHTEYNGART: I love all of my parents' lines because they're so - I mean what luck it is to have parents who say things like that. You know, it's, the editing is so minimal it goes straight from their mouth and into the book. Yes, that's the fear. And I guess because, you know, when a son says I'm gay, well, you can fight with that and you can say, you know, you're a disgrace and try to show the light of, the wonders of heterosexuality and you're destroying me and your mom and etcetera, etcetera. When a child goes into psychoanalysis, you really are losing him because the child is now developing the skills in which to reevaluate the relationship with you, and that's much more dangerous.
GROSS: You go through this period of like so much not wanting to become your father. And you have to keep telling yourself to keep the rage in check, that you are not your parents, your father is not you. But you have a great deal of difficulty actually believing that. What was your fear when you worried about becoming your father?
SHTEYNGART: Well, my fear was, for example, that if I had a child, that I would want that child to be a replica of myself - to be an extension of myself, that I would be very controlling, that I would think that I knew best in every single aspect of what the child's life should be. I mean you do want, look, I mean there's something wonderful when parents and children do share common outlooks on life. But that's - every child has his own journey, you know, and my kid becomes a Tea Party Hassid, that's who he's going to become. You know, you can't impose your own values upon them. You can introduce them to the values but then they have to make the ultimate choice.
That's what happened. You know, my parents always talked about what a lovely kid I was when I was tiny and I didn't - you know, and I was just this kid, this nerdy kid, who was reading Chekov at an early age and, you know, loving Renaissance art and all this different stuff. And all of it is great but then the child becomes an adult, or a young adult, and starts to develop his own opinions about things.
And those opinions may be different from what the parents expect of him or her. And that's what I learned the most in terms of the parenting that I received, is that you can't really manipulate a child into becoming a replica of yourself.
GROSS: You quote the writer Czeslaw Milosz as saying when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished. And your parents were very worried about this memoir because so much of it is about them, so much of it is about the tension in your relationship with them. I don't blame them for being worried. I mean, they didn't ask to have their lives in the way you're exposing it. What makes you willing to do that as a writer?
SHTEYNGART: It's scary. It is scary. Because I love them so very, very much. The last thing I would ever want to do is hurt them. When I was writing this memoir I thought at first could this just be a collection of essays I had published previously that, you know, deal a little bit with our family relations don't really - lack the sort of connective tissue to really give the reader a full picture of what I think our life was like together.
It was a very difficult decision to make, and what I wanted to make sure was that the love that I felt for them - and as I said, that love grew as I wrote this book - that that would be visible to the reader; that the reader didn't come away thinking OK, this is a "Mommie Dearest" hatchet job. Because it's not at all.
It's - I tried to nuance what happened. I tried to really draw out the complexities of people who meant well, who continue to mean well, but in so many ways were sabotaged by their history, by the way they were raised, by the horrifying country in which they were raised, by the difficulties of immigration, by the difficulties of assimilation, by the fears that haunted them from the, you know, killing fields of Belorussia during World War II to the Stalinist labor camps in Siberia.
I mean, just - I wanted to give the reader as full a portrait as I can of them to try to explain who they are, and then to try to explain as best I can who I am.
GROSS: Do you feel like they learned more about who you are from reading the book?
SHTEYNGART: Oh, they haven't read the book yet. I just sent them a copy, so.
GROSS: Oh, I've read it and they haven't?
SHTEYNGART: Yes, exactly.
GROSS: You didn't send them the galleys or the page proofs?
SHTEYNGART: I didn't send them the galleys. I wanted them to get the finished product. So I sent it to them when I got copies of the book, the finished book. Because I also wanted this to be as accurate as I remembered it, you know, and there were some changes, I think, between the galleys and the final product.
And this involved - this book involved terrible amounts of research. I mean I would interview kids I went to high school with and Hebrew school with and hours and hours sitting down with my parents. A lot of the dialogue is basically just stuff that I videotaped them walking around St. Petersburg or sitting at my dining table in Manhattan and just interviewing them there.
I wanted this - you know, it's important for me - this is sort of the important thing. Is I wanted there to be a record of what it was like for this bizarre generation that was born in one superpower and emigrated to another. I mean, this is a very 20th century story that I think needs to be told. I'm not the only one who's telling it. There are wonderful writers like David Bezmozgis out there who are also writing about this experience.
But I haven't seen a memoir from my generation dealing with this, and I want it to be - I mean, I want this to be almost a matter of kind of historical record. I mean, that makes it sound very boring and hopefully there's a lot of humor in this book that keeps the reader turning the pages, but I want people to know what it was like. Because this was a very, very unusual story.
Two countries competing for the world. You know, the capitalist system of America and the turbo capitalist system of America and the languishing quasi-socialist system of the Soviet Union were going head to head. And you were born in one country and then you move to the next and you grew up in lies. You move to a place where the lies were different.
You know, they were less obscene as in Soviet lies where, you know, the grain harvest was always going up and everyone in the world loved us. But, you know, there's a scene where we land in America and we get an envelope from the Publisher's Clearing House and it says Dear Mr. (bleep)-gart - they didn't quite get our name right - you have already won $10 million. And we opened it up and there was a check for $10 million.
And we thought oh, my god. (foreign language spoken) We are millionaires. And I remember screaming to my father (foreign language spoken). We are millionaires now. And we are going to - and there was a picture on the envelope of a Mercedes flying off a yacht and into a mansion and I remember thinking now our lives will change. Nobody's going to make fun of me or hit me in Hebrew school because I'm going to have money now.
And, hell, maybe I won't even go to Hebrew school after having $10 million. And maybe we'll move to Florida. And all these fantasies. I was just - it was the happiest night of my life. I couldn't go to sleep, I was just so excited. Maybe a girl will kiss me now that I have $10 million. But then we were talking about, oh, but those welfare queens will steal $5 million. That's what Ronald Reagan said.
So we'll only have $5 million. OK, fine, we'll have $5 million.
SHTEYNGART: And on and on and on it went. And we were just so full of just joy at winning it. And then of course the next day at work they told my parents, look, you know, everybody gets these envelopes and you didn't win $10 million. And we were hurt for a while but then, like all immigrants, we just got back to work and worked even harder and harder to make sure that we could buy that first garden apartment which would then turn into a nice house.
And then, you know, pay for my Oberlin education, etc., etc., etc. So as outlandish as my story is in some ways, it is, I think - there is a universality to it that will remind a lot of people, I think, of their childhoods in America.
GROSS: My guest is Gary Shteyngart. His new memoir is called "Little Failure." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is novelist and satirist Gary Shteyngart. His new memoir is called "Little Failure." His family emigrated from the Soviet Union to Queens, New York, when he was 7 in 1979. Your fear used to be - your greatest fear used to be that your parents would die before you and there'd be nobody to protect you. But you say now your greatest fear is that you're going to die before your parents. Why is that your greatest fear?
SHTEYNGART: I think for everything that we've gone through, that their love for me remains undiminished. In the sense that they need me to be there, to be - not just to take care of them, because they're actually very good at taking care of themselves, but to remind them of what they gave their life toward. Because they left Russia. They left their culture, their language, and these were very cultured people.
I mean, they could recite Pushkin back and forth and play Tchaikovsky on the piano and sing operas and they left all that and then they came here. And there was a sense of guilt, obviously, that immigrant parents do as well - oh, we did it all for you - but in a sense they did. You know, this was - these are not people who enjoy life to the fullest the way retirees do.
You know, there's no country clubs and, you know, jetting off here and there. There's maybe a trip to Europe once in a while and something like that. And they raise their own vegetables. And it's a very simple, quiet life. So needing me to be there, to succeed, to be the voice, even though sometimes they may not agree with that voice, is very important for them.
And I think I want to be there fully. I mean, hopefully I won't die before them, but I want to be there fully for them as they age.
GROSS: How old are you now?
GROSS: And so you just became a parent. Your child is 3 months old. Did it take you a long time before you felt like you wanted to or were capable of being a parent?
SHTEYNGART: Yeah. No, that's exactly what it was. And I think this is the confluence of three sort of things happening. One, well, the baby. And the second being the publication of this memoir which puts me, I think, in a better place to be a parent. And the third is that psychoanalysis is finally coming to an end. You know, free at last.
SHTEYNGART: Only 12 years. Only 12 years four times a week. So I don't think I overdid it but, you know, it's time to walk out into the sunlight. So all these different things happened together and I'm very happy. I'm actually as happy as I've ever been.
GROSS: So your book kind of opens with a panic attack. Do you still get them?
SHTEYNGART: Yeah. I carry enough Ativan, you know, to tranquilize a moose.
SHTEYNGART: It's very interesting. My mother talked about how she - her fear growing up was a fear of being buried alive, which made a lot of sense since a huge part of her family was buried alive by the Germans. She was always worried about buried alive. And lately, I've begun to experience a few of being in enclosed spaces, like airplanes and trains and places where I can't readily escape from, you know.
So it's very interesting how all these genetically and I guess conditionally - but, no, I had - I didn't know that so many of my relatives were buried alive until recently but the panic attacks about enclosed spaces had begun before that. The mind is a fascinating and absolutely horrifying thing. It just, it does these things to you that you don't even know where they come from. But they come from somewhere.
GROSS: How's the book tour going to be when you're in enclosed spaces on trains and planes?
SHTEYNGART: It's going to be terrible. I mean, I just wish there was - I wish a publicity person would come from Random House with a tranquilizer gun and just shoot me as I board every airplane and train.
SHTEYNGART: Is there a budget for that? I would love to find out. Because - yeah, some kind of team from the zoo to just, you know, OK, he's going down. Poow. Ah.
GROSS: Well, Gary Shteyngart, thank you so much for talking with us.
SHTEYNGART: Thank you so much. It was great.
GROSS: Gary Shteyngart's new memoir is called "Little Failure." You can read the first chapter on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.