Photo by Sam Sweeney, Georgetown Voice
My goal as an interviewer is always to engage my guests in a natural conversation. True, it’s a little hard to be natural when you are having your conversation in front of a hundred and fifty people with microphones dangling in your face. But, we try nonetheless. This interview with Gary Shteyngart, bestselling author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absuridstan, was almost preternaturally natural. Mr. Shteyngart speaks candidly about his childhood in New York City, “Immigrant Lit,” and what we jointly described as “Hebrew School and the Damage it Wrought.” It’s all good clean fun and Shteyngart scholars, I think, are going to make some discoveries about one of America’s most talented satirists.
BERLINERBLAU: It strikes me though, that your central characters are not so much immigrants as they are hyper-estranged aliens, especially the freaky Misha Vainberg in Absurdistan.
SHTEYNGART: Freaky? That’s my best friend!
BERLINERBLAU: Yeah, he’s weird. Maybe that’s because he and Vladimir, in Russian Debutante’s Handbook, are both triply exiled, right? They’re exiled from Russian society because of their Judaism. They’re exiled from American society because of their immigrant status. And they’re exiled from Judaism because...because they don’t seem to get on well with Jews, for whatever reasons. So what say you?
SHTEYNGART: In terms of me?
BERLINERBLAU: In terms of--I’m wondering if the problematic is really immigrant literature, or if it’s actually about something a little bit different, perhaps a kind of a fiction of joyful alienation and estrangement, perhaps?
SHTEYNGART (Chuckles): Joyful alienation is a great way to describe it. On happier days that’s how I think of it. On less happy days it’s just alienation. I think many writers grow up not being terribly happy. I don’t want to say every writer but many writers do. Also, I think many grow up being separated from society by one thing or another, for example, disease. Being brought up like most Russian writers I suffered from terrible asthma, and could barely get out of bed, much like my hero. So I would write because that was the only thing that was available to me. So I think the theme of alienation and also growing up and finding something good about that alienation, being happy to be different from others. Especially in today’s kind of world, where everybody wants to rush out and express themselves on the internet, on YouTube, everyone has a niche that they’re trying to fill, I think that the writer’s job becomes even harder. One has to really stand out somehow. So, I think joyful alienation hits it on the mark.
Read full interview here