Wild East editor BORIS FISHMAN on the current state of literature in Eastern Europe, traits of the Russian soul, and the literary cash-currency in hookers, guns, and drugs.
Occupation title(s), both real and desired-in-another-lifetime: Editor of Wild East, New Yorker fact-checker, freelance journalist, occasional translator. In another life, I would happily have been an actor.
Gun to your head: Why this story collection right now? Why are so many good authors either showing up from Eastern Europe/former-U.S.S.R. or writing about the area (e.g., The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Leaving Katya, Prague), and why are Americans, notoriously entrenched against reading foreign works, gobbling up the pages?
First of all, a tremendous number of Americans have roots in Eastern Europe. The other part of it is that Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were prohibited for so long. By virtue of being shut off to outsiders and appearing to operate according to such non-American principles, these places generated such mystique that Americans are still getting their fill of what it’s like to walk down those streets, and drink in those kitchens, and ogle those women.
Maybe there is also the suspicion that Eastern Europeans, on account of the moral challenges they have faced, have somehow lived a more character-forming life than Americans have.
Many characters in Wild East have a very clear-eyed sense of desperation but a strong, almost resigned will to surviveShteyngart’s banker, Steavenson’s Gika, all of Sorokin’s wonderful chokersprompting great comedy, i.e., laughter when life’s gone to shit. Is there a case for broadly generalizing this as an essential characteristic of the Eastern European?
One reason is that the corruption, moral and otherwise, in these places was so pervasive and the consequent cynicism among the people so profound that Eastern Europeans remain very skeptical of earnestness. Also, life under communism was so absurdthe place was such a junkyard of truncated aspirations, moral degradation, despair, and inexplicable resilience, so labyrinthine and unpredictable, so inscrutable and unreliable, so dysfunctional and yet determined to persistthat you could begin to figure it out only through laughter. Reason was powerless against it. (And the system was powerless against laughter.)
Heroes: Jim Harrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Any merit in Vijai Maheshwari’s recent point that contemporary Russian literature is obsessed with hookers, guns, and drugs? Or, from one perspective, that salacious topics are used to sell books, but maybe not make them great? All three seem to pop up frequently in your book’s stories, though in most cases as (or as part of) credible characters we can identify with, nothing exotic to gawk at and forget.
There was a review recently that panned Wild East because it failed to overturn the prevailing stereotypes about Eastern Europe as havens of lawlessness and depravity. But I think it’s possible to creatively inhabit a cliché. And it is a fact that in the early 1990s Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were obsessed with what had previously been taboo. Consequently the focus [in literature] was on newly permissible content, not execution. Hookers, guns, and drugs in and of themselves, in my view, don’t doom a book’s literary potential. (It was the attention to subject at the expense of technique that did [it].) It was the anthology’s intention to prove this. In any case, it seems Eastern Europe and Russia no longer resemble themselves 10 years ago, and the arts have followed suit. There are increasingly nuanced, skilled books and films coming out of these places these days.
What makes you laugh: Believe it or not, my grandma. A riot, she is.
Books that changed your heart: Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Are Americans capable of the same depths of experiencing life as Eastern Europeans? To play with wide characterizations, how do you see the two souls (America’s and Eastern Europe’s) as different?
Well, if I have license to generalize, a decade ago, a trip to Eastern Europe was a lesson in life, life that was unavailable at home. America had largely been exempted from total war and genocide thanks to, in part, its geography, and also, perhaps, the can-do ethic of democratic capitalism, but this also meant never really having your scruples testednever having been forced to determine what your scruples were, evennever being asked to choose between indistinguishable shades of gray. As in, ‘Show me where the Jews are or your kids are dead.’ So there was this chronic insecurity among some young Americans, this feeling that life was elsewhere, this yearning for a knowledge of self imparted by a life of moral challenge. And for a hundred years, Eastern Europe had faced nothing else.
Five words that sound great: You were amazing last night. Just kidding: We will publish your piece.
Charity worth giving to: Not sure it’s a charity, but they’ll take your money: Unseen America, a project run by Bread and Roses, the cultural arm of the 1199 health-care employees union, which puts cameras in the hands of people who typically don’t have their views represented in the mediamigrant workers, retireesand then exhibits their work. Some of the results are astounding.