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Best known for his knife-sharp satire in novels like “A Super Sad True Love Story” and “Absurdistan,” Gary Shteyngart’s latest work is a memoir of life as the child of Russian immigrants struggling to make it in Queens, N.Y. It’s a scathingly funny yet loving portrait of parents whose affection is expressed through regular put-downs (his mother’s nickname for him inspired the book’s title), but also a powerful love. We speak with the author about how his life has influenced his work.
- Gary Shteyngart Author, "Little Failure"
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“Little Failure” Book Trailer
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Excerpted from “Little Failure: A Memoir” by Gary Shteyngart. Copyright 2014 by Gary Shteyngart. Reprinted here by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. If you think school is tough for a small kid who is afraid of heights and not great at sports, try adding to that funny clothes and a heavy Russian accent at a time when Russians were the enemy in both politics and popular culture.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBest known for his knife-sharp satire and novels like "Super Sad True Love Story" and "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," Gary Shteyngart's latest work is a memoir of life in a Russian immigrant family struggling to make it in Queens, N.Y. in the 1980s. It's also a scathingly funny portrait of parents whose affection is expressed through nicknames like the one the author's mother gave him, Little Failure. Ultimately though, it's a story of deep love and affection.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about it is Gary Shteyngart. He is the author of three novels including "The Russian's Debutante's Handbook" and "The Super Sad True Love Story." His latest work, as we mentioned earlier, "Little Failure: A Memoir." Gary, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. GARY SHTEYNGARTThank you. It's great to be here.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Gary Shteyngart, give us a call, 800-433-8850 or you can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow. You were born in Leningrad and what was then the Soviet Union. How'd you end up in Queens, N.Y. at age seven?
SHTEYNGARTWell, in 1979 Russia needed grain. It was a bad grain harvest. America wanted Jews. It was a good Jewish harvest I guess. And there was a deal reached between Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party. And grain came sailing from America into Russia. And Jews came flying over from Russia to the United States. And at age seven I found myself in Queens, N.Y.
NNAMDIYour health was part of the reason your parents wanted to come to the U.S. Talk about that.
NNAMDII was very sick as a child. I think if you want to become a novelist, the writer having asthma as a child is very good because you're always stuck at home trying to breathe and reading books because there's nothing else to do. And Leningrad, or St. Petersburg now, is build over a swamp which is not a great condition for an asthmatic boy. And there wasn't simple things in the Soviet Union like steroid inhalers for asthma. So whenever I had an asthma attack, the ambulance had to come and take me away, you know.
SHTEYNGARTAnd then we landed in -- first in Vienna, that was the first stop, and we saw a doctor and he gave me an asthma inhaler. And we thought, oh, my god what a world.
SHTEYNGARTFirst asthma inhaler.
NNAMDIIt was first a lot of things. Your first experiences outside the Soviet Union were overwhelming and an eye-opening for you and your family in Vienna because that was not only the first inhaler you came into contact with, toilet paper, bananas were a surprise.
SHTEYNGARTBananas during the winter. No Soviet citizens could quite comprehend that bananas could exist outside of summer when our Cuban friends would ship them over to us. And we were in a hotel where there were two -- not one but two rolls of toilet paper. And my parents quickly grabbed one -- everyone did, they grabbed it and they put it in the luggage next to their mechanical engineering degrees and whatnot.
NNAMDIBecause they had come from a place where toilet paper was not in very widespread supply.
SHTEYNGARTEven today in a hotel when I see that toilet paper, I think, you know, life is really good.
NNAMDII'd like you to read a little bit about this from the beginning of chapter 7 when you actually land in New York. We're talking with Gary Shteyngart. He's about to read from his latest work. It's a memoir called "Little Failure."
SHTEYNGART"1979, coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union, is equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor. I am pressing my nose to the window of the taxiing jetliner watching the first hints of my new homeland passing by. Oh, that immense solidity, the sweep of what used to be the JFK's PanAm terminal with its flying saucer roof. And above, the expanse of sky that doesn't press down on Queens as the Russian sky tramples Leningrad, but flows past in waves allotting a bit of itself to each red bricked or aluminum sided house into each of the lucky families that dwells within.
SHTEYNGARTThe airliners and their bright liveries are clustering around a sea of gates like hungry immigrants trying to get in, Sabina, Lovtanza, Erlingus, Avianka. The intensity of arrival will not abate. Everything is revelation. On the ride from the airport I am shocked by my first highway overpass, the way the car -- a private car, bigger than three Soviet ladas, leans into the curve hundreds of feet above the greenery of Queens. Here we are floating through the air but in a car.
SHTEYNGARTAnd buckled into the backseat with my parents and leaning into the airborne curve I feel the same emotions I will experience when choking upon my first cheesy American pizza slice months later. Elation, visceral excitement that also fear, how will I ever measure up to the gentle smiling giants strolling this land who launch their cars like cosmonauts into the infinite American sky and who live like lords in their little castles on 40 by 100 foot lots in Kew Gardens Queens. How will I ever learn to speak English the way they do in a way so informal and direct but with the words circling the air like homing pigeons?"
NNAMDIThat's Gary Shteyngart reading from "Little Failure." You know what struck me about this part when you said buckled into the backseat? Was it only kids who were buckled in those days? I don't seem to remember adults being buckled in.
SHTEYNGARTI think we were so scared that we probably used our belt to tie ourselves to the ground of this car sailing through the overpass.
NNAMDIYou were very young of course when you left the Soviet Union but you had already been inculcated in the world view of that time and place. How did you see and understand America at that time?
SHTEYNGARTWell, I grew up a nice Soviet child, a very Leninist child if you will, because outside of our apartment building was the biggest statue of Lenin in Leningrad. And that's a pretty big Lenin, if you will. And so I spent every morning -- I loved him so much that when I didn't have asthma, I'd get up and I would hug his pedestal. And when I was five years old, my grandma who was a journalist for Evening Leningrad, which is much better than Morning Leningrad, the newspaper, said, can you write me a novel? I'll pay you a piece of cheese for each page you write.
SHTEYNGARTAnd so I wrote a 100-page novel called "Lenin and His Magical Goose" about Lenin meeting a talking goose, invading Finland and creating a socialist revolution there. In the end it turns out Lenin is of course Bolshevik, the goose is Menshevik and Lenin eats the goose. And I remember my grandma saying, maybe he shouldn't eat the goose. Maybe you should just exile the goose to Mexico and, you know, maybe he'll get stabbed there with an ice pick.
NNAMDIBut that love for Lenin invariably meant a certain disdain, dislike for the United States. You only knew America as the enemy.
NNAMDIWhat was the kind of emotional process you had to go through to realize that much of what you believe about your new home country was not true?
SHTEYNGARTIt happened in Italy. So most Soviet Jews who left Russia spent about half a year or less in Italy before being processed and allowed to live in the United States. And my father, he knew that I had a great love for Lenin and the Soviet Union and the Red Army and all that. He took me aside and he said, look, you're not going to believe this but everything you were taught was a lie. Socialists, Russian -- Communism, Soviet Communism, Lenin, the Red Army, all of it is a terrible, terrible thing. And you have to stop believing things.
SHTEYNGARTAnd I remember that back then I would have a two -- my toys were two little clothespins in which we would put up our clothes. And one I pretended was an American Boeing plane and the other was a Russian Tupolev plane. And I would always race them. And the Tupolev would always win because I was a good Soviet kid. And I remember my father saying, you know, it's time for the Boeing to win. And that's what I did.
NNAMDIIn case you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Did you grow up in the '80s? What was your understanding of the Soviet Union at the time, 800-433-8850. We're talking with Gary Shteyngart. His latest work is "Little Failure: A Memoir. You can also sent us email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a Tweet @kojoshow. This book is titled "Little Failure, your mother's nickname for you. But before that you were little sun, as in shining brightly in the sky.
SHTEYNGARTThe transition from the two words -- the first word is (word?) which means Little Sun. The second word is (word?) which is a combination of English, the word failure and then the diminutive added to make it little failure. So I started out as little sun because I was the sunshine in my mother's eyes, as I think all little kids are. And then we came to America and I began to develop, you know, American rebellious traits that immigrant parents don't always approve of. And the main trait I guess I developed was the idea that I was going to become a writer instead of what they wanted me to be, a lawyer.
SHTEYNGARTThis is true of so many of my friends. My Indian, Korean, Chinese, you name it, friends who are facing similar problems with their parents. So when I graduated from college and I sort of came out to my parents and said, look I'm not going to go to law school. I'm just going to live in this, you know, garrote five-floor walkup in the lower eastside before it was gentrified. It wasn't gentrified yet.
SHTEYNGARTAnd my mother came and she saw my apartment and she saw the 100 square foot sloping floor and the fact that I, you know, was living almost entirely off of Chicken McNuggets. And she said, ah, (word?).
NNAMDIYou know, as some people listen to that, they're in shock and awe. How could your parents do that? Was that as harsh as it sounds in this era of all-praise-all-the-time-attachment parenting that we live in?
SHTEYNGARTIt is a funny contrast. I mean, there's two ways to look at it. On the one hand, yes, it would've been nice if my mother had said, we love you no matter what you do, you know. Be who you are, son. But that's not the culture they came from. They immigrated here with the idea that we weren't supposed to fail and that I was supposed to be wealthier than they were because that's what you came to America for. And in that way if I don't become a lawyer, if I become a writer, which is not known as a career where anyone makes over $3 an hour, you know, then I was going to fail in her eyes. So by saying that she thought she was helping me.
SHTEYNGARTI have friends -- I have an Indian friend whose mother once spit on the ground and said, you -- I can't do the accent -- she said, you are not worth the spit on this ground, you know. And he said, and that really encouraged me. And this is, you know, a Princeton graduate and successful human being.
NNAMDIAs an immigrant myself, people always say to me, how come you immigrants from the Caribbean always seem to do so much better than people here? And I said, people don't travel thousands of miles to fail, okay.
NNAMDIWhich was exactly how your parents thought. But your parents' love comes through in this book. Also a harsh kind of parenting, what was your relationship with your father like growing up?
SHTEYNGARTHe was both the source of intense love and later kind of fear for me as well. Love because he was my best friend at a time when I didn't have any best friends. Love because he loved to tell stories. He would tell me these crazy science fiction stories all the time that I would repeat all the time. And my favorite part of the day was just walking around with him for an hour or two listening to him tell these crazy stories about a planet where Jews are being bombed by volleys of pork. You know, that was -- I don't know if I can say the name of it on the air but it was a planet in a certain derogatory term for Jews. And that was what he called it and of course we were Jewish so...
SHTEYNGARTAnd that was the beginning of my desire to really begin to write long form, you know, because he was so...
NNAMDIBut on the other hand, how did he treat your fear of heights?
SHTEYNGARTWell, this was interesting. You know, he built a -- I had a fear of heights, as I had a fear of everything. Growing up I was a pretty scared kid. And he built -- in Leningrad he built this ladder for me to climb. And it was a very audacious thing for him to build this ladder in the middle of our apartment. And I always had this memory that I would climb it and try to conquer my fear of heights. But I was back in St. Petersburg with my parents and my mother said, remember he built you that ladder? We were passing by our apartment building. I said, yes, yes. I climbed it. She said, yes, you climbed it and he encourage you. But when you got to the very top, he'd knock you down.
SHTEYNGARTTough love, you know.
NNAMDIHe would knock you down but nevertheless your father was your god, your hero.
SHTEYNGARTYeah, of course. Of course. I mean, growing up, you know, my mother was the one that took care of everything. She made life better but my father was the person that you looked up to. He was this man, and this is a very macho masculine society to begin with. And he was unlike me, you know, who was always sick and always in bed and sneezing and coughing and asthma. He was incredibly athletic. He would play basketball and soccer and fish and climb mountains and do all the things I only wish I could.
NNAMDILet's go to the phones because Douglas in Fairfax, Va. has a question about your parents. Douglas, you are now on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGLASYeah, I guess I just got a little part of the answer to my question, and that is, how did his parents altogether make the adjustment? I mean, how did they come out of it or how are they coming out of it?
SHTEYNGARTThey came out pretty well. I mean, I think at first -- well, my father first of all got a job as an engineer, which is very rare for immigrants of his generation who don't speak English well to get, you know. I mean, he -- so many other Soviet immigrants ended up driving taxis or doing other -- or doing, you know, manual labor. But he got a job for what he was qualified to do, which was pretty exceptional. And my mother who was a pianist in Russia somehow readjusted and became a financial administrator for a nonprofit in New York.
SHTEYNGARTSo they both -- they were what I would like to call alpha immigrants. They scrambled, they did whatever they could, you know. And, in fact, in some ways I felt like I was adjusting to the country poorer than they were in a less successful fashion, you know. And then I got to Oberlin College where most of the kids were, you know, fairly high off of drugs and fairly Marxist. And I couldn't believe the transition I had made. You know, in some ways I felt like I was the unsuccessful immigrant and my parents were the ones that were doing so well.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Thank you very much for your call, Douglas. But you too can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you have an immigrant story in your family background? You can send email to email@example.com or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Gary Shteyngart. He is the author of three novels including "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" and "Super Sad True Love Story." We're talking mostly about his latest work. It's called "Little Failure: A Memoir." Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Got an email from John in Alexandria. "I love Gary Shteyngart's novels. Can't wait to read this new book. Wondering whether the process for writing this book was different from his past works of fiction."
SHTEYNGARTWell, the past works of fiction were satire. And what you can do with satire is that when you get too close to something very painful, you can run away from it by throwing volleys of humor and jokes and things like that. And in a memoir -- and, I mean, I don't -- I'm not trying to make this out to be a depressing read, but it's harder to do that. It's harder to shy away from the truth. And the process was different in the sense that I knew the plot. I knew how my life was going to end up.
SHTEYNGARTAnd I would wake up every morning and I would sort of say, okay I'm nine years old today. What are the difficulties in my life? You know, what's happening in Hebrew school? How do I -- you know, I don't have the 60 cents to buy the Carvel cookie puss ice cream so I'm going to sneak into the bathroom and eat my Russian salami sandwich before the kids can see me, you know, stuff like that. And reliving that day by day for about a year-and-a-half was pretty painful.
NNAMDIYou also had made the observation, I think I read in a previous interview, that in your novels you saw quite a bit of memoir in your novels. So you decided to just go and write a memoir.
SHTEYNGARTYeah, it was shocking when I reread the books as I was -- after writing the memoir I thought, my god, I've been sort of -- it's been a fire sale. I've been giving away all of my personal details for so long. And I think after finishing this memoir I'd like to write something that's not from a Russian Jewish immigrant point of view because I think I'm ready for it now.
NNAMDIYou were sent to Hebrew school in the U.S. to embrace a religion your family was forbidden to practice in the Soviet Union. What was your and your parents' relationship to Judaism?
SHTEYNGARTMy father was -- even in Russia he would march in front of the synagogue saying, we are Jews. And that was a terrifying thing to do. You know, the police -- the KGB, etcetera, everybody was watching him. So he was very fervent about Judaism. When I came to America, I didn't know any English. I was deeply into speaking in Russian, reading (unintelligible) Chekov and things like that. And for me learning English, and a Hebrew on top of that, was a little too much for my little brain. So I had a lot more difficulty in Hebrew school.
SHTEYNGARTAlso, as we mentioned before, it was the evil empire era of Ronald Reagan. So the kids, instead of, you know, bonding over our common Jewishness, it was more commie this and commie that. And they called me, you know, all those movies, Red Dawn, Red Gerbil, Red Hamster and stuff like that. And it got so bad that I started to tell the kids that I wasn't born in Russia at all. I was born in East Berlin. So here I was telling Jewish kids that I was a German, which was better than being a Russian. It was this complete insanity.
NNAMDIWell, Igor, your parents changed your first name when you came to the U.S. Why and how did they come up with Gary?
SHTEYNGARTWell, we realized that I already had enough problems wearing a giant fur hat in the middle of kids wearing their cool little ski masks and whatever. So we realized Igor was Frankenstein's assistant, so it's probably not the best way to go there. So we just rearranged all the letters. We came up with Gori. That didn't sound so hot either. And then the O became an A, Gary and we all loved Gary Cooper in Russia, so there it was.
NNAMDISo you're a part of the evil empire. For some kids you tried to say that you were born in East Germany. But the name also suggests Frankenstein. What a life. You also know that your last name is also not actually your family's name.
SHTEYNGARTIt turns out, according to my father, that it's Shteynhorn not Shteyngart, which means stone horn, this, you know, quasi erotic name. So my full name is Igor Stone Horn. It sounds like a Bavarian porn star or something.
NNAMDIYes. We got an email from Beth in D.C. So burning question, "In your view was the Soviet Union a strong economic powerhouse that needed to be spent into oblivion by Ronald Reagan, or more likely was it an economic basket case already on its way to collapse under the weight of its own failed system in the late 1970s?"
SHTEYNGARTDefinitely economic basket case by that point. (unintelligible) Khrushchev under the era of the thaw, the economy was expanding at a very brisk clip. Some people almost compared it to Japan later on or more to the point probably China in the last decade. Things were growing very quickly. I think by the time we left, things were bad enough that the average Soviet per capita -- and economists can call in and correct me -- but I think it was about a quarter of what the U.S. per capita income was, which is really pathetic.
SHTEYNGARTBut remember that all the money -- that most of the money was being diverted toward military use. That's why the whole thing relied almost entirely on military might and the U.S. projected that military might. And -- but at the other hand, you know, living in the Soviet Union meant constant shortages, constant lack of consumer goods and constant envy of the west.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. This time to Kathy in Silver Spring, Md. Kathy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHYHi, Gary. Congratulations on your success.
KATHYThis is Kathy. I used to work with you in New York at a very grim depressing place.
SHTEYNGARTYes, I remember that, Kathy.
KATHYOkay. All right. So what I wanted to ask you about is, the moment that you decided to write -- because I have a memory of walking into your office -- we all -- you know, nothing -- we didn't have real work to do. It was very depressing. We all wanted to do work. We were all very bright and talented.
NNAMDIHe talks about that, yes.
KATHYAnd one day I came into your office and you said, I'm busy. I said, you're busy? You have some work? And you said, I'm writing my novel. And I thought, no problem. Surely he's joking. And then, you know, years later I hear that you have written your novel, it's a big success. And what I wanted to ask you about, Gary, is like, what was that moment that -- I mean, was there like a moment when you said, okay, now I'm going to do it?
SHTEYNGARTWell, thanks, Kathy. I remember our time quite well. It was a resettlement agency and my title was staff writer, although everyone called me shtaff writer because of the name Shteyngart. And my job, I think out of the year I worked there, consisted of writing one brochure for Russian immigrants on how not to get drunk at a party. That was -- that's all I remember doing. So the rest of the time I worked on my novel.
SHTEYNGARTI've always wanted to write. As I've said before, I wrote my first novel when my grandma asked me to do it for slices of cheese back in Russia. And in Hebrew school I wrote a satire of the Torah called "The Ganora," which won me my first friends and a bunch of science fiction little novelettes. But it was at Oberlin College where I seriously began to think of writing the book that would later become "The Russian Debutante's Handbook." Because all of a sudden, you know, I spent so much of my life hiding the fact that I was Russian because of, you know, that whole Red Gerbil, Red Dawn status.
SHTEYNGARTBut all of a sudden you get to Oberlin and having a different background was so hip and hot, you know.
SHTEYNGARTYeah, everyone wanted to be from somewhere else. I mean, I could've dawned the whole Kazak outfit and, you know, and wore a fur hat to class and people would've loved it. So that kind of discrepancy between being hated as a child and then being all of a sudden accepted for being an immigrant, that was sort of the genesis, the nucleus for "The Russian Debutante's Handbook." And so I began to write it senior year in college. And that was one of the -- when you met me, that was one of the first jobs I had at the resettlement agency. And I mostly spent it locked inside my office writing the novel instead of writing that one brochure about not getting drunk at a party.
NNAMDIBut Kathy, if you had been listening earlier, he talked about when he first put pen to paper he wrote a novel "Lenin and His Magical Goose" with his grandmother's encouragement. So your grandmother did seem to embody unquestioning, uncritical love. Can you talk a little bit about her role in your life?
SHTEYNGARTThere were two grandmothers. The one that encouraged me to write was left behind in Russia. Her name was Grandma Gaya (sp?) . She was an exceptional person. And the saddest part of our journey to America was that my mother had to choose whether to abandon her dying mother and her sisters or -- and come here or to make sure that I would have a decent life. And she chose my life over her mother's life. And that's an incredibly tragic "Sophie's Choice" kind of situation.
SHTEYNGARTSo that was one grandmother. The other one was Grandma Poyta (sp?) who is my father's mother, my grandmother. And she was a dynamo. She grew up under Stalin. She came out of a small village not even speaking Russian. Yiddish was their (word?) she learned. She became the head of -- or the vice deputy of a huge kindergarten. She was a very important person. And she loved me so unconditionally. Parents, of course, you know, they will call you little failure. They want you to succeed. They'll slap you around a little if you're from our culture if you don't get, you know, 100 on your math test.
SHTEYNGARTBut this woman loved me unconditionally. She had very little money. She was getting food stamps. She was on Social Security income. And we were getting government cheese. But whenever she could she would run off and get me the food that my parents would never get me like a slice of pizza or a hamburger, real American food. And I would lie there on her couch gorging myself, you know, just enjoying every little drop of it.
NNAMDIYou remind me of a time when my father looked at my report card and he said, son, and I jumped up in anticipation. And he said, come fool, come. When you were ten you wrote a book you called "The Challenge" and that story would change your life. Can you tell us a little bit about the teacher you had at the time and then read from that section of the book?
SHTEYNGARTSure. There was a teacher who was a substitute teacher at the Hebrew school. And she -- one day she heard that I -- well, maybe I said it myself, I said, you know, hey I'm writing this 100-page novel called "The Challenge" and it's science fiction. And one day she said, may I read it? And I said, you may read it. I will brink (sic) it. And I did brink (sic) it and I said, please don't lose, Miss. S. And that's when it happened. And I guess I'll read from that part of the novel.
SHTEYNGART"At the end of the English period when a book about a mouse who has learned how to fly in an airplane has been thoroughly dissected, Miss S announces, and now Gary will read from his novel. His what? Oh, but it doesn't matter because I'm standing there holding my composition notebook straight from the square deal notebook people of Dayton, Ohio zip code 45463. And looking out at me are the boys beneath their little flying saucer yarmulkes and the girls with their sweet aromatic bangs, their blouses studded with stars.
SHTEYNGARTAnd there's Miss S who I'm already terribly in love with but who I recently learned has a fiancé. Not sure what that means. Probably can't be good, but whose bright American face is not just encouraging me but priding me on. Am I scared? No, I am eager. Eager to begin my life. Introduction, I say. the mysterious race. Before the age of dinosaurs there was human life on earth. They looked just like the man of today but they were a lot more intelligent than the man of today.
SHTEYNGARTSlowly, Miss S says. Read slowly, Gary. Let us enjoy the words. I breathe that in. Miss S wants to enjoy the words. And then slower, they built all kinds of spaceships and other wonders. But at that time the earth circuled (sic) the moon because the moon was bigger than the earth. One day a gigantic comet came and blew out the moon to the size it is today. As I'm reading it, despite the misspellings, I am hearing a different language coming out of my mouth. I do full justice to the many misspellings. The earth circuled (sic) the moon. And the Russian accent is still thick.
SHTEYNGARTBut I'm speaking in what is more or less comprehensible English. And as I am speaking, along with my strange new English voice, I am also hearing something entirely foreign to the squealing and shouting that constitutes the background noise of my Hebrew school. Silence. The children are silent. They are listening to my every word and they will listen to the story for the next five weeks as well, because Miss S will designate the end of every English period as Challenge time. And they will shout out throughout the English period, when will Gary read already?
SHTEYNGARTAnd I will sit there in my chair oblivious to all but Miss S's smile, excused from following the discussion of the Mouse Who Learned How to Fly so that I may go over the words I will soon read to my adoring audience. And God bless these kids for giving me a chance. May their god bless them everyone."
NNAMDIReading from "Little Failure: A Memoir" is the author Gary Shteyngart. He's the author of three novels, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" and "Super Sad True Love Story." You can call us and talk with Gary by calling 800-433-8850 or send an email to email@example.com. I should mention we are also live streaming this conversation on our website kojoshow.org, so you can watch it there.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Karen in Chevy Chase who says, "I'm listening to Gary's book in audidble.com. Why didn't he record his book? His voice is so much more fun to hear on today's show than that of the audible narrator."
SHTEYNGARTOkay. Look, what you should do now that you've heard how I sound is buy the book in paperback or Kindle and read it while picturing me doing all the accents. So...
NNAMDIMakes sense to me. But after that point is when you knew you wanted to be a writer.
SHTEYNGARTYes, that's true.
NNAMDIYour parents were like many immigrants in the eastern blocs, more pro-American than most native born Americans. And they fully embraced the anti-Soviet politics of the Reich. Can you talk about that?
SHTEYNGARTIt's not that surprising. I think a lot of immigrants from post-communist countries go completely over to the other side. I don't want to speak for all Cuban Americans, but there's certainly that tendency there. People from Romania, Hungary, people who grew up under socialism. You come to America and you want to embrace who you think is the strongest force against communism. And that would obviously be the Republican Party. So as a child I was a diehard Republican. I subscribed at age 11 to the National Review, Christopher Buckley's magazine -- I'm sorry, William F. Buckley...
NNAMDIWilliam F. Buckley.
SHTEYNGARTSorry, no -- yeah, right.
SHTEYNGARTSorry, Chris. No offense. William F. Buckley, Jr.'s magazine. And at age 11 I remember getting a certain card in the mail that said Gary Shteyngart's. And there was a picture of two rifles and an eagle above them. And as an 11-year-old I was welcomed into the NRA. So those were -- from Lenin to the NRA in the space of a couple years.
NNAMDIYour passionate adoption of Republicanism is not unusual for an immigrant from the eastern bloc, but you also went -- or had your own political evolution. Can you talk about that?
SHTEYNGARTYou mean the Holy Gnuish (sp?) Empire?
SHTEYNGARTWell, I decided after a while that I wanted to start my own country called -- everyone called me Gary Gnu because that was a character on the TV show called The Great Space Coaster. Those of you from my generation remember that. So I decided that instead of just being, you know, Igor, Little Failure, snotty, as my father called me, I decided to become Gary Gnu III. And I called -- and I formed the Holy Gnuish Empire and I wrote "The Ganora" which was a version of the Jewish Torah, except Exodus became Sexodust and it became very sexy. And that was -- my first American friends I think followed me because they joined my empire, the Holy Gnuish Empire and beautiful stuff.
NNAMDIYour family, who had themselves been raised on scary stories about New York and America in general, were afraid of pretty much everyone around them in Queens. And later when you went to high school in Manhattan, can you talk about the stereotypes they had in their mind?
SHTEYNGARTIn many immigrant communities, including the Soviet community, there were a lot of stereotypes. There was a fear of blacks, of Hispanics, of anyone that was deemed different. I'm not going to say it's universal and I'm not going to say that every person had that kind of feeling, but it is there and was there. I mean, I remember a Thanksgiving ceremony very -- a Thanksgiving dinner quite recently when someone, a Russian I know said, I think Obama should be president but of African country. This is white country. Which is a frightening thing to hear in, you know, 2008, 2009. But sadly that's the kind of feeling that still persists in many communities, both immigrant and nonimmigrant. But that's something I certainly knew growing up.
NNAMDIYou had a transformative moment during George Bush, Sr.'s campaign for president. Can you again read for us from that section of the book?
SHTEYNGARTI can. It's a little sad to read, but read it I will. This is during my -- I think my sophomore year in high school. And I am still a diehard Republican but something is about to happen. "On Election Day 1988 I come to the Marriott Marquis ballroom thinking that this is the day, the day I will finally get laid. I have volunteered for George Bush, Sr.'s scorched earth election president campaign against the hapless Michael Dukakis, laughing along with Bush's racist hysterical Willie Horton commercials and all they imply about the liberal Massachusetts Greek. Compassion, after all, is a virtue only rich Americans can afford. Tolerance, the prevue of slick Manhattanites who already have everything I want.
SHTEYNGARTI'm invited to attend what is sure to be a Republican victory party at the Marriott Marquis, the ugly slab of a building near Time Square. The invitation to the party features a scornful cartoon of the big-eared Dukakis sticking his head out of an M1 Abrams tank, the most unfortunate Photoshop photo op of his campaign, and I expect an evening of arrogant crowing, of being pressed to the bosom of fellow conservatives, while dancing a Protestant Hora over the grave of American liberalism.
SHTEYNGARTYes. Tonight is a special night. It is the night I am to meet a Republican girl from a clean, white home. Her name will be Jane, Jane Carothers let's say. Hi Jane, I'm Gary Shteyngart from Little Neck. My family owns a Colonial worth $280,000. I'm the brains behind the Commodore 64 program called The Family Real Estate Transaction Calculator. I go to Stuyvesant High School where my grades aren't so great, but I hope to get into the Honors College at the University of Michigan. I guess tonight it's going to be curtains for the governor of taxachussets, he he he he.
SHTEYNGARTI enter the ballroom a dark, gap-toothed immigrant wearing sweat socks and brown penny loafers in my special, and only, suit, a highly flammable polyester number. I navigate the room filled with sparkling Anglo-Americans clutching single malts without a world said in my direction, without a pair of happy, blue eyes reflecting the gray sheen of my crisp nylon tie, the one I had picked up for $2 from a Broadway vendor, as George Herbert Walker Bush racks up state after state on the big screen above us, as cheers and laughter circulate around the massively hideous ballroom.
SHTEYNGARTI stand alone in a corner biting down on my plastic cup filled with ginger ale and swatting the colorful balloons that seem to have an affinity for my static-inducing polyester, until a pair of teenage blonde lovelies, the girls I had been waiting for all my life, finally approach with needy smiles on their faces. One of them beckoning me to come hither with her hand. I'm so excited I somehow fail to see myself for what I am. A short, teenaged boy born to a failing country, trapped inside a shiny gunmetal jacket, carrying about a mop of the darkest hair in the room.
SHTEYNGARTDarker even than Michael Dukakis's Hellenic do. Which one will be my Jane? Which one will trace the W of my weak chin with her pewter fingers? Which one will take me on her boat and introduce me to the millionaire and his wife? You know something, daddy? Gary survived communist Russia just so he could join the GOP. I think that's very courageous son. Would you like to throw the old pigskin around with me and Jack Kemp after cocktails? Just leave your Topsiders in the mud room.
SHTEYNGARTHey, one of the lovelies says. Me, debonair, unconcerned, hey. So, I'll have a rum and coke, just a splash of ice and a lime. Mandy, you said no ice, right? She'll have a Diet Coke Lime, no ice. I have been mistaken for the waiter." And the next day, I was a Democrat.
NNAMDIRussia was the new black. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Gary Shteyngart. His latest work is "Little Failure: A Memoir." If you have called, stay on the line, we'll get to your calls. If you haven't yet, the number is 800-433-8850. If you have any questions for Gary Shteyngart, you can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Gary Shteyngart. He's the author of three novels including "The Russian Debutantes' Handbook" and "Super Sad True Love Story." His latest work is "Little Failure: A Memoir." We have been inviting your phone calls, so I guess I'd better go the phones. The number, by the way, is 800-433-8850. Here is Ara (sp?) in Fairfax, Va. Ara, your turn.
ARAHi, how are you?
ARAThat's just great writing. That's the first time I'm hearing it. It's pretty awesome. But I grew up as an Armenian immigrant in Brooklyn, and we were always told to see how the Orthodox Jews in our neighborhood, they're so organized, and they're so dedicated to their culture and religion, and, you know, why can't we be that way. And they were able to get reparations from Germany, why can't, you know, Armenians get reparations from Turkey for the genocide? Two million Armenians died. Armenians can't do it as well as the, you know, the Jewish lobby.
ARAEven Bill Maher recently mentioned about how much stronger the Jewish lobby is. But it's pretty hilarious that we are compared or strive to be like the Jewish culture, and then if anything goes wrong in the world, Israel is blamed. And so I grew up with this paradox. And then we went to visit Soviet Union because Armenia at that time was Soviet Union and we went through Moscow, and this is how the Iron Curtain was.
ARAWe were a group of 30 children from the local Christian Armenian church, and instead of going through all the bags and being held up at customs in Moscow, there were some people greeting us there from Armenia, and they just put some digital watches in the passports and gave it to the guards, and the guards just let us through. That's how thick the Iron Curtain was.
SHTEYNGARTThat's very funny.
NNAMDIWell, in your growing up, did you, in fact, strive and succeed in being like Jewish immigrants from Russia?
ARAWell, my mom's been an Armenian teacher and principal all her life, so we had no choice. So that was definitely a motivation.
SHTEYNGARTI will add to all that that my first girlfriend was half Armenian, and we really bonded over the, you know, the shared Jewish and Armenian similarities, and whenever I spend a lot of time in Boston, and whenever I go there, I love to have a good Armenian meal.
NNAMDIAra, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Sue who writes, "Very interesting show. Congratulations to the author. My grandparents came from Russia near Ukraine in approximately 1917 or so, and were adamant my mom and aunt not learn Russian, but assimilate completely. Did the author have that kind of input from his parents re: his native language? His English is terrific. I'm enjoying listening, and will probably read his book."
NNAMDII was -- let's make it...
SHTEYNGARTLet's make that a...
SHTEYNGART...sale right now. Well, thank you for the question. What happened was, and it was very interesting, it was kind of a sacrifice on my parents' part because often people say -- parents say, okay, we're only going to speak English. And then that way the parents learn a lot of English, but the child loses the mother tongue. In my case, my parents really wanted me to read Chekhov, and Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky in the original and so they, actually at the dinner table, spoke only Russian. And as a result, their English suffered quite a bit and they actually needed Russian to -- I mean, sorry, needed English to make a living.
SHTEYNGARTAnd so it was quite a tradeoff on their part. But I'm so glad because I still speak in Russian, I got to Russia almost every year, I read in the Russian language, and I still think that the Russian language is the great cultural -- Russian literature is the greatest cultural gift that we've given to the world.
NNAMDIYou're pretty much an overnight success with your first novel, "The Russian Debutantes' Handbook." Can you talk about that? The pressure it puts on you?
SHTEYNGARTIt was a lot of pressure, you know. For me, any form of success is just the prelude to another failure. You know, that's how you grow up as a child. Because, you know, growing up in America, it's a very stressful experience. It's a constant series of tests that are put to you by your school, your -- you have to hop through all these different pressure cookers, and at any stage that you fail, you're sort of taken out of the system in a way and you can't succeed.
SHTEYNGARTAnd, you know, I remember the scene in "The Sopranos" when one of Tony Soprano's gangsters talks to another gangster, and the gangster says, you know, Pauly, you're only as good as your last envelope, and that's sort of how I feel about books too, you know. You fail once and no one will read you again.
NNAMDIBut success did not necessarily change you dynamic with your parents. One of the more painful and funny moments in the book is a dinner with your parents you describe that takes place in the revolving Marriot Marquis restaurant in Times Square. Tell us a little bit about that evening.
SHTEYNGARTIt's one of the evenings when I think my father was in good shape. He was in top form. Immigrant children may recognize the tone of his voice. He said, well, you know, I can remember what -- I mean, I had some good reviews or something, and he said, well, but I read in the Russian Internet that you and your novels will soon be forgotten. And then he said, and then there was a ranking of authors, and you came in at, I think, 25, but David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker was 24. Just, you know, putting it out there for me to...
NNAMDIJust mentioning it.
SHTEYNGARTJust, you know, off the top of his head. And I think...
SHTEYNGARTLittle failure, little failure. But they are -- I have to add that they are very proud of everything I've done, and...
NNAMDIAnd they themselves grew up in pretty tough circumstances.
NNAMDIWhat were your parents' lives like growing up?
SHTEYNGARTWell, my father's first memories was being evacuated from Leningrad as the German troops advanced. This is was 1943 I want to say, and began -- or no, 1941 probably. And German troops were bombing the train convey and he was on, and they had to jump under the train. His father was killed when he was three years old. His best friend died, I think of starvation. He died in -- when they were already taken out of Leningrad toward the Euro Mountains. He saw his -- one of his cousins jump out of a window as she was pursued by rats.
SHTEYNGARTEven rats needed something to eat during the starving period, and they wanted to eat children. So those are the memories that shaped his life, and he would hide -- when he realized that his father was dead, he would hide under his table -- the kitchen table, and he would cry, and he would also -- he loved opera and classical music, and he would hum these melodies, and he would sing, you know, sing from "Eugene Onepin," the opera, and in his little mind, his child mind, he would plot revenge, create these fantasies about killing Hitler himself with his own bare hands because Hitler had taken the life of his father in an indirect way.
NNAMDITalk a little bit about how you went about researching your family's history.
SHTEYNGARTMy parents were very kind enough to sit down with me and to talk about all the different things that have happened, and they were very forthright and very forthcoming. And then I talked with all of my friends from Hebrew school, from high school, from college. We sat down and I took meticulous notes, pages, and hours of audio tape. And then the final part was going back to Russia with my parents. And, as I've said before, I go back almost every year. My parents haven't been back in about 30 years and don't really -- didn't really want to go back, you know.
SHTEYNGARTWhenever I go back, they say why don't you just go to Spain or France, enjoy yourself. You know, why do you want to go there? But I took them back, and it was painful in many ways because it was exciting for them to see where they grew up, but there was a bad memory for them on almost every corner. It was such a difficult...
NNAMDIBut did that help you to understand the kind of parents that they became?
SHTEYNGARTIt did. It did. It did. I mean, if anything that this book is about, it's about the way the 20th century worked out for family, both the good of it, and the bad of it. The good part of it, of course, was that we ended up here. We ended up a safe, loving family, working hard, but the bad part of it was what preceded it, which was genocide, the Stalinist system, growing up not knowing what would happen next. The sense of insecurity, I think, is the most important thing that many immigrants bring to this country.
SHTEYNGARTIt's a fear and anxiety of living in a county without the rule of law, without knowing what's going to happen next. And that fear and anxiety, I've been working to, you know, quell it within myself all my life, but for people who have come here -- come here at age 40 or so, it's difficult to outgrow that, you know? It's difficult to just say, oh, my God, all of a sudden I'm in a country where I can relax a little more, I can sort of soften up a little bit. A lot of those instincts, a lot of that mentality continued with them.
NNAMDIOn to Jerry in Vienna, Va. Jerry, your turn.
JERRYHi, Kojo. Thanks so much for taking my call. Gary, I love your books, and I look forward to reading "Little Failure."
JERRYI want to share a little bit of an Austria-Hungarian empire immigrant story. My paternal grandmother, much beloved like yours, came to the Lower East Side through Ellis Island, and one of her favorite stories was being an immigrant meeting an Italian immigrant fruit peddler on the street, and purchasing her first banana ever. She never saw a banana in her portion of the empire. And she purchased it for a penny, and when she started to eat it whole, never having known what a banana was, he tried to take it back from her. She thought he was stealing it back.
SHTEYNGARTThat's a hilarious...
JERRYIt's an apocryphal story.
SHTEYNGARTOh, my God.
JERRYThat adds to a future (unintelligible). But I also want to challenge you.
SHTEYNGARTThank you. Yeah?
JERRYBecause a very favorite memoir of mine is Frank McCourt.
JERRYAnd you know that comes from his experiences in New York City high school system, including a stint at Stuyvesant.
JERRYAnd even in his sixties he was working hard enough as an immigrant to do his own vocalization of his story.
SHTEYNGARTWow. Are you my father, by accident? Because that sounds like what my father -- and he did -- you don't even do your own audiozation? My God.
JERRYI just want to say, this could be the prelude to the screen play and the future memoir calling littlest failure.
SHTEYNGARTAs the smallest failure.
NNAMDIOf course, Gary's a Stuyvesant graduate himself.
SHTEYNGARTWell, I wanted to add that, by the way, "Angela's Ashes" was a huge inspiration when I was writing this memoir, and I missed him by a year at Stuyvesant, just my luck. But currently I live in the building where he spent most of his life in America. I live on, I think, a floor above him. Not that I'm saying I'm above him. I'm just saying geographically that's what happened.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call. A trailer to promote this book has gotten a lot of attention. Can you tell us about that, how it came about?
SHTEYNGARTWell, you know, people don't really love to read books anymore, so before you write a book, you publish a book, you have to make a little trailer, a little movie to whet their appetite. So this is a trailer featuring an all-star cast. It includes the beautiful and smart Rashida Jones as a publishing executive who comes up with the title "Little Failure" for my memoir in this trailer. Then it segues to James Franco as my husband, and it starts in with a very steamy kiss. I know James Franco kisses a lot of guys, but I think this one meant something to him.
SHTEYNGARTHe was also a former student of mine at Columbia, and one of the best students I've ever had. And then it segues into Jonathan Franzen as my psychiatrist who picks up the copy of "Little Failure" and says, "Little Failure"? Little Narcissist is more like it. So it's on YouTube, just if you can type in Shteyngart somehow, I'm sure it will come up.
NNAMDIAnd you can find a link at our website, kojoshow.org if you'd like to access it there. Here is Richard in Upper Marlboro, Md. Richard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHARDHey, Kojo. Hey, Gary.
RICHARDI have not read any of your books, but I'm going to pick up the latest one now. It sounds very interesting.
RICHARDMy grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1904 on my father's side, and moved into...
NNAMDIYou only have about a minute left, Richard.
RICHARDOh, okay. Anyway, they ended up in a little town in New Jersey where they lived in a place called the Russian Alley, and no one needed to speak any English.
RICHARDAnd it was terrific for them. My parents -- my father spoke no English until he got to school. But the short of it was that it -- their courage to come to the United States with nothing, literally nothing but a small bag, made a great life for my parents, for my -- especially for my father, and later on for me. And I'm going to New Jersey this weekend, and I'm going right to the best mom and pop store for kielbasa and pierogies.
SHTEYNGARTI love kielbasa.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. It's ironic that they did it because they wanted a better life. In your case, your mother did it, mostly because she wanted a better life for you.
SHTEYNGARTYeah. I mean, obviously, she had a much better life than she would have had she stayed behind, but everything was done to make sure that I didn't end up in the Red Army with the hazing and the killing and that I ended up, you know, in Queens, beautiful Queens.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Gary Shteyngart, thank you so much for joining us.
SHTEYNGARTThank you so much. Great to be here.
NNAMDIGary Shteyngart is the author of three novels including "The Russian Debutantes' Handbook" and "Super Sad True Love Story." His latest work is "Little Failure: A Memoir." And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Gary Shteyngart will be at Politics and Prose tonight at 7:30 p.m. This is, of course, Thursday, January 9, 2014.
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