The ProsenPeople

Who Got an American Any Longer?

Thursday, March 03, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpt from Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman.

Maya had been early to pick up Max the day he didn’t come home with the school bus. Usually she was still powering up Sylvan Gate Drive when the old yellow bus sputtered to its crown, the doors exhaled, and Max tumbled out, always before the Kroon girl because Max always took the front seat. Even in the family Corolla, it was Alex at the wheel, Max in the passenger seat, and Maya in the back. Maya had gathered that the popular children sat back of the bus. She had asked Max once why he wasn’t among them. “There’s too much noise in the back,” he had said, and she had felt a hidden satisfaction at his indifference.

That day, after a week of disabling warmth premature even for New Jersey in June, a note of unhumid reprieve had snuck into the air—Maya had caught it on her drive home from the hospital and so she had walked out of the town house early. On the rare occasions Alex was home early enough to collect Max, he drove the thousand yards to the head of the drive—Alex enjoyed the very American possibility of this convenience. But Maya walked. She was on her feet all day at the hospital, but she shuttled between three rooms and it was all indoors.

In Kiev, Maya’s mother had always awaited her by the school doors, painted and repainted until they looked like lumpy old women. The walk home was time alone for mother and daughter; by the time they reached their apartment, Maya’s father would already be at the kitchen table slouched over the sports section, the only part of the newspaper where things didn’t have to be perfect. Maya’s mother would begin their walk by asking all the questions a mother was required to ask of a daughter’s school day—even as an eight-year-old, Max’s age, Maya understood this as a formality—but then, after a discreet pause, Galina Shulman would bring her daughter up to date on the indiscreet doings of “the great circus” of their thousand-apartment apartment building.

Maya was exhilarated by these walks for she felt her mother spoke as if Maya was not present, or if she were, then as an equal, a friend, not a daughter to whom convention described responsibilities. So—a silent hello to a woman now five thousand miles away—Maya picked up Max from the school bus. It wasn’t particularly necessary—the danger was not in the distance Max would have to cover down to their town house, but in his time out in the world. But it was Maya’s only time alone with her son. She used it to try to understand why she couldn’t always speak with Max in the same easy, unspooling way her mother had spoken with her. Maya did not have her mother’s imagination; that was part of it, certainly. Nor did she have her mother’s curiosity about her neighbors, though Maya knew that this was a failure of her looking, not their living. But none of that seemed the answer. Maya asked her son about school, questions he answered politely and briefly—she never failed to marvel at the unkinked Russian speech of her not-Russian son—and then both fell silent. All she could think was to take his hand, and he let her hold it. She felt she was failing him in some way. Failing him, and couldn’t say how; she felt thick and graceless.

They had been lucky, the adoption supervisor had kept reminding them, as if he worked on commission. American parents often had to go abroad to find children: Malaysia, Korea, Romania. Bribes, endless waiting, no medical records. Whereas the Rubins got an outright American. Who got an American any longer, and a brand-new baby instead of a child old enough to have been terrorized by somebody else? Maya had the ungrateful thought that she did not want an American: She felt that she would have more to say to a Romanian child. In the sleepless hold of another interminable night, she had shaken awake Alex and said so. He closed his fingertips around the knob of her shoulder, as if she were a loose lightbulb: “He’s a newborn. Was New Jersey familiar to you when you moved here? This house? But now it’s all home.” He turned onto his side, cupped one of her breasts from behind, and said: “Sleep, Maya—please.”

She had picked out the weary magnanimousness in his voice—he had to indulge not only her willingness to adopt, but her anxieties over it. Only who wanted a child more than he did? However, a biological solution being impossible, Alex’s desire had just one condition—that he not be made to confess it. And so she carried on as the secret advocate for them both. His contribution was to disparage the woe conjured up by her railroad mind at two in the morning. “Railroad mind”—that was Alex’s term for the hive of Maya’s brain. Railroads made him think of motion, steam, frantic activity. What he really meant was that she was like some Anna Karenina—superfluously melodramatic. And Maya understood what he really meant only because she had a railroad mind.

Alex had been ten years younger than Maya’s eighteen when his family had come to America; the Rubins had come for good, whereas Maya had come on an exchange program in 1988, the first year such things were possible. After college, Maya was supposed to return to the USSR—a plan altered by her love affair with Alex and the end of the USSR. Alex had taken to America—he spoke with confidence about Wall Street, the structure of Congress, technology. Maya conceded his authority. Only once had she exclaimed that in twenty years he had almost never left New Jersey, so what did he know? Alex had looked at her as if at a child who doesn’t understand what it means to say things one will later regret, and retreated upstairs. He did not speak to her for three days, their sullen meals spent communicating through Max and his grandparents, and Maya never said that again.

Continue Reading »

Copyright © 2016 by Boris Fishman. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Boris Fishman

Monday, February 16, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

If you're a loyal follower of the Jewish Book Council (and you obviously are), then you're definitely already aware of Boris Fishman, one of our 2015 Sami Rohr Prize finalists. The author of the debut novel A Replacement Life, Boris wrote about family history and victimhood for JBC's Visiting Scribe series, and the paperback edition of his book was featured as a "Book Cover of the Week" in January. He also wrote an article for the JBC to commemorate what would have been Bernard Malamud's 100th birthday last year: Bernard Malamud at 100: The Wrong Writer for Our Age. And to top it off, Boris was a finalist for a 2014 National Jewish Book Award in fiction and will also appear at the final program in JBC's literary series Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation. Suffice it to say, we're fans of both Boris and his work! But in case you're not familiar with him, we have a short Q&A below to help you get to know one of our five finalists a little better. 

If you're just tuning in, be sure to visit our profiles of Ayelet Tsabari, Kenneth Bonert, and Yelena Akhtiorskaya as well, and check back later in the week to learn more about our fifth, and final, 2015 SRP finalist, Molly Antopol.

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

A paradox: To write a good, true story, you have to fall deeper and deeper into it, into the characters, the setting, the storyline. But to write a good, true story, you also have to remain outside of it, to see its dramatic requirements with clarity and detachment, even coldness and impersonality. You have to connect, but not enmesh. It’s like love.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Some people change spouses. I change literary idols. In my teens, it was Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the patron saint of the lovelorn and literary. My debut novel A Replacement Life came into life under the spiritual mentorship of Bernard Malamud. I am on to Graham Greene now. This makes sense to me — much as every generation needs a new translation of foreign classics, different stations in a writing career would seem to call for different guides.

Who is your intended audience?

Everyone. Is there an author who would answer differently?

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’ve just finished revising my second novel Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, which HarperCollins will publish in early 2016. It’s about an immigrant couple in New Jersey that adopts a boy from Montana who turns out to be feral.

What are you reading now?

I had a lull between hardcover and paperback publicity in January, and finally made up for lost reading time. I tore through about six books by Graham Greene; are there finer novels than The Heart of the Matter and The Comedians? Now, I am reading Alexandra Styron’s memoir of the great William Styron, who was a lot less great as a father than he was as a writer; James Agee’s A Death in the Family; several books about the Tohono O’odham Indians (I am teaching a workshop at their tribal college outside of Tucson in April); and Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession.

Top 5 favorite books

  • The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
  • Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
  • The Heart of the Matter and The Comedians by Graham Greene
  • Patrimony by Philip Roth

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I was running to catch the crosstown one day… I’m kidding. It’s not very possible to answer this question concisely. It decided me. I had tried my best to avoid it.

What is the mountaintop for you? How do you define success?

To make a living from writing fiction and creative nonfiction, and related endeavors (teaching, speaking, etc.). To combine it robustly with family life. Most importantly, to encounter novelty, challenge, and surprise with regularity in my work and personal life. To always have things to learn — even as it’s often so painful to go through the learning.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

There should be more. Because you are doing a highly unsocialized and also highly unpredictable thing. While the rest of the world goes off to work, you sit down in a chair wearing God knows what and start trying to make it rain. This would seem to call for superstition as urgently as a living room full of Soviet Jews. But I don’t really have any. (Superstitions, that is. I got plenty of Soviet Jews.) I wake up, make coffee, and sit down to read for two hours — to get hopped up on what words can do via what someone else has done with them. Ideally, I’m throwing down the book before having reached my daily quota because I am too impatient to work my own hand at the same. I write for 3-4 hours, longer if I am revising. All this has to happen before anything else, with minimal interruption. Everything the day brings afterward is easy.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

That Russian Jews are much more than merely funny. That Jews aren’t saints, and this hardly makes them less admirable — only more human. That good, page-turning stories can (I hope) co-exist with big ideas and high artistry. That labored-over writing is better and more important than writing that isn’t. That books say something no other medium can.

Boris Fishman immigrated from the USSR at age nine. He studied Russian literature at Princeton, was on staff at The New Yorker, co-wrote the US Senate’s Hurricane Katrina report, and has received a Fulbright to Turkey. He’s written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tablet, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and many others. A Replacement Life (Harper) is his debut novel. He lives in New York.

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Remaining Russian Through Food

Tuesday, January 27, 2015 | Permalink
This week, Boris Fishman—the author of A Replacement Life, just released in paperback from HarperCollins
blogs for The Postscript on one of his favorite paragraphs in his book and the importance of food. 

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Boris at your next book club meeting, request him through JBC Live Chat

One of my favorite passages in my debut novel, A Replacement Life— the story of a failed young writer who starts forging Holocaust- restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn who have suffered, “but not in the exact way [they] need to have suffered in order to qualify” — appears on page 20 and has no verbs or adjectives; there isn’t even a complete sentence in it. It’s a list. I reproduce it here, along with the preceding paragraph for context. The young writer’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, has just passed away, and he makes his first return to south Brooklyn, where so many Russian-Americans live, in over a year — he has been trying to force his past out of his life — for her funeral and commemoration. (The first names in the first paragraph refer to the home aides that looked after his grandmother when she was ill.) 

Slava used to sit at one of these tables once a week, the cooking by a Berta or a Marina or a Tatiana, uniformly ambrosial, as if they all attended the same Soviet Culinary School No. 1. Stout women, preparing to grow outward even if they hadn’t reached thirty, in tights decorated with polka dots or rainbow splotches, the breasts falling from their sailor shirts, their shirts studded with rhinestones, their shirts that said Gabbana & Dulce.

Stewed eggplant; chicken steaks in egg batter; marinated peppers with buckwheat honey; herring under potatoes, beets, carrots, and mayonnaise; bow-tie pasta with kasha, caramelized onions, and garlic; ponchiki with mixed-fruit preserves; pickled cabbage; pickled eggplant; meat in aspic; beet salad with garlic and mayonnaise; kidney beans with walnuts; kharcho and solyanka; fried cauliflower; whitefish under stewed carrots; salmon soup; kidney beans with the walnuts swapped out for caramelized onions; sour cabbage with beef; pea soup with corn; vermicelli and fried onions.

I am often asked in what way I remain Russian more than a quarter of a century after my family left the Soviet Union, when I was nine. I feel no political kinship with the Soviet Union’s fallout republics (I was born in Belarus), and the one return visit I made, in 2000, excavated powerful sensory memories but left me with an equally powerful distaste for the lack of civility, paranoia, and xenophobia that continues to thrive there. So my answer tends to refer to the Russian literature that was my path back to my home culture after I’d spent a decade in America trying to forget it; the language, earthy and comic and supple and brusque; and the food. Is it because professional opportunity — not to mention other forms of personal expression, such as religious identity — was so much more circumscribed in the Soviet Union that so much more ceremony and ritual significance was given to meals and community? All I can say is that to this day, my family — its opportunities and self-expression circumscribed in America all the same, due to imperfect English, advanced age, and plain shyness — sits down to meals as to a great respite from the ordeals of the day. Great care is taken to prepare the meal, almost always at home, from scratch; it is pounced upon with an equally great hunger that sometimes feels spiritual more than alimentary. The food is gone in a third of the time it took to prepare. It’s not the French or Italian model. 

There may be another reason. Looking from America, Russian food feels like a paradox. (I am calling it “Russian” only as an economical shorthand; there is as much French as Central Asian influence in it, and Jewish, too, if buried — a Ukrainian Orthodox woman I know had been making kasha varnishkes for decades before she realized its provenance.) Industrial agriculture, with its reliance on chemicals and preservatives, was never practiced in the Soviet Union to the degree that it is in America; strawberries used to taste like strawberries there, and you could count on finding them for sale only in late summer. (Things have changed somewhat now, but in today’s Ukraine, for instance, Belarussian food products sell at a premium because Belarus avoids GMOs; products advertise this prominently. Isn’t that something? The Soviets were local and organic — and progressive on GMO usage and labeling — long before all this caught on in America.) But neither was health-consciousness a priority in the same way; when it wasn’t butter in the pan, it was sunflower oil, and lots of it. So, well-raised products cooked in the good stuff: Perhaps it’s no mystery why Russians love to eat. 

Because food is so important both to the novel and its author — so much so that, having finished my second novel, out from HarperCollins next year, I am contemplating a Ukrainian cookbook as my third project — I invite you to make it a part of your book club discussion of A Replacement Life. Cross-pollination is welcome: One club, in Knoxville, TN, fortified its discussion with vodka and lox. If there’s a Russian grocery store nearby, raid the shelves. And if you’re willing to try your own hand at a staple of the Russian table, I include a recipe for borshch from the woman whose cooking I want to highlight in the Ukrainian cookbook. I went down to south Brooklyn, where she looks after my grandfather, just last night, and made it together with her. You won’t regret the (not very taxing) effort. And in case it’s your discussion that needs fortification, I am also including a handful of discussion questions. Finally, I am available through the JBC Live Chat program to call or Skype into your book club if that would be of interest; you can reach me at contact@borisfishman.com. 

Happy eating, reading, and talking: The Jewish national pastimes. 


Oksana’s Borshch 

The night before, boil three medium-size beets (anywhere from forty minutes to an hour and change depending on their size and age). Leave the skin on and refrigerate. This helps the beet keep its color and not blanch when it’s cooking the next day. 

You can make the soup with plain water, or ready-made stock, but you can also make your own — with chicken bones, meat on, or pork bones, ditto, or beef bones. In a 3L pot, cover the bones with 2L of water and bring to a boil. Once the stock is boiling and the surface has covered with fat skimmings from the meat, remove the bones, empty the pot of the liquid, and wash it out get rid of the film on the sides. Refill with 2L of water and return to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat and slide the lid slightly off to prevent it from boiling too hard.

Day of: 
- Bring the stock to a boil, then lower to medium heat and slide the lid slightly off. 
- Peel three medium-size potatoes, and cube. 
- Peel one medium-size parsnip and dice into disks, halving the larger slices. 
- Wash and de-seed one jalapeno, and dice into tiny pieces. 
- Shred a quarter of a medium-size cabbage head. 
- Add all of it — they require the same cooking time — into the boiling pot, along with one nearly full tablespoon of salt. The soup stays at medium heat, lid slightly off. 

While vegetables are cooking (one hour): 
- Peel and grate two big carrots. 
- Peel and cube one medium-to-large onion. 
- Cover the bottom of a saute pan generously with oil (Oksana uses corn oil) 
- Add the onions and saute until they are golden-brown. 
- Add carrots and keep sauteing until they are cooked all the way. If you throw in carrot sooner, it will give off a lot of juice and the mixture will braise rather than saute. 
- Add a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste using a dry spoon. (Wet spoon will cause mold in the paste. To preserve tomato paste after opening a can, cover with oil.) 
- Press or grate two large garlic cloves into the soup 

Separately: 
- Skin the beets — if you run them under water, the skin should come off in your fingers. 
- Dice into relatively small pieces 

After the soup has been going for an hour: 
- A dusting of coriander and curry into the soup (Spices get tossed in with about 20% cooking time left. Otherwise, the flavor isn’t sharp.) - Slide the onion/carrot/tomato paste/garlic mixture into soup 
- Deglaze pan with water and add to soup 
- Add 1/2 tbsp. of Vegeta or salt to taste 
- Add the beets and turn heat to low. Add salt to taste. Does it need acidity? Options: Lemon, vinegar, the brine of pickled cabbage. (Oksana added 2 tbsp 4% vinegar.) 
- Add one teaspoon of white sugar. - Add a generous helping of dill. (Oksana’s was from the freezer.) 
- Press or grate two large heads of garlic into the soup. 
- Add a little bit more salt to taste — borshch always tastes like it needs salt the next day. 
- Turn the heat to high; at the first signs of boiling, shut it off or the beets will start to lose color. (When reheating, reheat only serving portions — not the entire pot.) 

Leave for the next day.

Boris Fishman was born in Belarus and immigrated to the United States at the age of nine. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, The London Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in New York. Just out in paperback, A Replacement Life is his first novel. It received a rave on the cover of The New York Times Book Review — “Is there room in American fiction for another brilliant young émigré writer? There had better be, because here he is. Boris Fishman’s first novel, ‘A Replacement Life,’ is bold, ambitious and wickedly smart... The only problem with this novel is that its covers are too close together... Undoubtedly, comparisons will be made — to Bellow and the Roths (Henry and Philip).” — and was selected by The New York Times as one of its 100 Notable Books of 2014, by Barnes & Noble for its Discover Great New Writers program and as a finalist for Jewish Book Council's Sami Rohr Prize.

Book Cover of the Week: A Replacement Life, in Paperback

Friday, January 23, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

JBC Network author and National Jewish Book Award finalist Boris Fishman recently announced the release of a paperback edition of his acclaimed debut novel, A Replacement Life. HarperCollins decided to go with drastically different design for the new book cover:

If you find Boris's writing as intriguing as we do, you should definitely hear him speak about his process in crafting and publishing a book—and about his identity as a Jewish Russian author. And we have the perfect opportunity to do so: come here Boris in conversation with Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase, and Gal Beckerman, winner of the 2012 Samir Rohr Prize for When They Come for Us We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, on the literary Russian Jewish American experience as part of Unpacking the Book, a new Jewish Book Council author discussion series at the Jewish Museum, moderated by Wall Street Journal associate books editor Bari Weiss. Not to be missed!

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Non-Standardized Testing

Friday, June 06, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Boris Fishman wrote about suffering, victimhood, evil, and the space in between as well as the importance of documenting your family history. His debut novel A Replacement Life was published this week by HarperCollins. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I subjected you to quite a bit of fire and brimstone on Wednesday, so let’s end the week on a lighter note. That’s right, a pop quiz. Don’t worry, it’s only five questions and they’re all True or False. And there’s a carrot: The first reader to answer all five accurately in an e-mail to contact@borisfishman.com will receive a free autographed copy of my novel A Replacement Life, out this week.

The subject of the quiz: Grandfather’s Shenanigans. A Replacement Life tells the story of a young man who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn on the instigation of his grandfather. My real-life grandfather didn’t ask me to do that, but he shares quite a bit temperamentally with his avatar in the novel. What kind of men are they? Men who get things done, in the old-fashioned sense: Resourceful, swashbuckling, unbothered by niceties. But I am no schlub – I know how to lie, too; I am my grandfather’s grandson, after all. So: Below find five stories about things that supposedly happened to my real-life grandfather. Did they happen? Or did I make them up? You be the judge.

1. State-sponsored anti-Semitism decreased during World War II; all Soviets had a common enemy in the Germans. But it was revived after the war; in the 1960s, all Minsk Jews with Russified names – say, Mikhail in place of Mordukh – were ordered to appear at police precincts to have their passports “restored” for easier “identification.” Grandfather went around the homes of family and close friends, collecting passports in a sack. Then he went to the police precinct. There he found a Captain Grishelev. “I brought you a sack of passports, Captain Grishelev,” Grandfather said. Only that on the way, Grandfather had added to the sack three bottles of vodka. Captain Grishelev decided to leave the passport-altering until the vodka was done. He and Grandfather went through the first bottle, the second, the third. By then, Captain Grishelev would have kissed my grandfather sooner than touch one of those passports. He sent Grandfather home and all the Mikhails stayed Mikhails.

2. While we’re on the subject of drinking: Grandmother needed her gallbladder removed. Grandfather didn’t like leaving things to chance. He found the best surgeon in Minsk and showed up on his doorstep the night before the operation with three bottles of Armenian cognac. There was no way the surgeon would work cavalierly on someone whose husband had made him such a gift. They drank and drank, into the wee hours, becoming friends and easing Grandfather’s heart. The next morning, however, Grandfather saw what all this new camaraderie cost: The surgeon was still drunk. In which condition he operated on my grandmother. And they doubt the miracles of Soviet medicine.

3. Grandfather was part of a gold-smuggling ring. (Possession of gold, as a foreign currency, was illegal in the USSR.) There were five members; the four others were caught. They were not especially close with Grandfather; the five were associates of convenience. When the four were asked who else was part of the ring, they said: No one. If they didn’t pony up their confederates, they were told, they would be executed. No one, they repeated. They were executed. Grandfather lived.

4. Grandfather was on a business trip to Moscow when he heard they were offering bras at the department store. You might find nothing odd in this, American reader – that is, after all, what department stores are supposed to do. Not Soviet department stores, which offered great variety in Shortages and Empty Shelves, but not as much in actual products. By the time Grandfather got to the department store, the line was out the door and down the block. He didn’t have that kind of time. With a friend, he climbed to the second-floor gallery, right above the spot on the ground floor where the bras were being dispensed. “Now you take me by the ankles and hang me over the banister,” he instructed his friend. His friend complied. This put Grandfather, upside down, at eye level with the bra saleswoman. “A bra for my wife, quick!” he yelled. “But what size?!” the poor saleswoman demanded. What size! A man is hanging off the second-floor landing by his ankles and still it isn’t enough! “I don’t know what size!” he yelled. “Like this!” He fit his hand around an imaginary grapefruit. That told the saleswoman what she needed to know. She gave him two bras and a compliment for being a devoted husband.

5. Grandfather was on his way home from the market with a fresh chicken. On the way home, he saw an old friend of the family standing in her doorway. “Avremele!” she called out to him. “How much did you get that chicken for?” Avremele liked to brag once in a while so he said half of what he had actually paid. “Avremele…” the old lady drawled. “I’m an old lady, weak… Sell it to me. And then run on back to the market with your young legs and get yourself another.” How can an upstanding boy say no to a plea of that kind? Only that on that day, Avremele paid price and a half for his chicken.

A winner was selected on Monday, June 9th. The winning answer is that all five stories are true!

Boris Fishman immigrated from the USSR at nine. He studied Russian literature at Princeton, was on staff at The New Yorker, co-wrote the US Senate’s Hurricane Katrina report, and has received a Fulbright to Turkey. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tablet, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and many others. He lives in New York. Read more about him here.

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Understanding the Villains; or, Stranger than Fiction

Tuesday, June 03, 2014 | Permalink

Yesterday, Boris Fishman wrote about the importance of documenting your family history. His debut novel A Replacement Life was published today by HarperCollins. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Donna Tartt, the author of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch, was once told by Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, never to read her press: “I'll tell you why, kid. The good things don't help and the bad things still hurt.” A modified version of this guidance appears in virtually every testimonial by a fabled writer: You can’t worry about your audience; you must write for yourself.

Read without nuance, sentiments like these surely encourage the view that writers are elitist, self-serving navel-gazers. The truth feels more complex. As a writer, I am deeply engaged with my imaginary audience. I write because I have things I want to say, and a way I want to say them, but I want them to be heard. I write to connect. I write to have a conversation. At the same time, bad things happen on the page when you start writing with an overly concrete audience in mind. Instead of looking for new expression, you start saying things you think your audience will like. Entertainment is a perfectly honorable reason to write and read. But I believe writers have an obligation to push their readers – and themselves – to think about things they may not be overly eager to think about. It’s how literature, and, in some ways, the world moves forward.

I bring all this up because my debut novel, A Replacement Life, out this week, is on a subject that gets readers going: A young man starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn. I began writing the novel in the fall of 2009, inspired by my experience filling out my grandmother’s restitution paperwork in the 1990s (she was an inmate of the Minsk ghetto). My family had emigrated from the former Soviet Union only a decade before; I was just a teenager, but had the best English, so the paperwork was handed to me.

Two things about the application struck me – first, the burden of proof seemed remarkably low. Understandably – ghetto inmates didn’t get confirmation vouchers on being incarcerated. So a matter of the historical record became a mater of storytelling – if you could tell the story persuasively, you were in. This was catnip for a young writer. The other thought was less pretty – it felt like only a matter of time before someone decided to take advantage of that low burden of proof and collect money for invented, but well-relayed, suffering. And so I decided to write a novel imagining exactly that.

Was this sacrilegious? Is it sacrilegious to imagine Jews abusing the memory of the Holocaust for profit? The answer is complicated by the fact that in the novel, the antagonists are ex-Soviet Jewish émigrés, exploiting the system just as they had in the Soviet Union. In the USSR, this behavior was far more justified, if not honorable: They lived in a vicious, abusive state that neither provided enough for, nor trusted, its citizens; discriminated terribly against Jews; and punished innovation, destroyed opportunity, and fostered paranoia. America is far, far more generous, but it’s hard to shift habits formed over decades, especially as this country, too, provides too many examples of people in power exploiting it. If you are middle-aged or older, think of yourself moving to China, or, better yet, North Korea, because that is how alien the USSR was to America. Do you think it would be easy to adopt your new legal and cultural norms?

Add to this the fact that the “sufferers” forging claims in my novel did not need those quotation marks – they had suffered unimaginably during the war; as Jews in the Soviet Union; and as immigrants. Only they hadn’t suffered in the exact way they needed to have suffered in order to qualify for reparations legally. The people who truly owed them – the Soviets, the Russians, though the Germans, too – weren’t offering, not for what they went through. How would God – as opposed to the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany – adjudicate the false claim of someone who had three limbs blown off defending against the German invasion, but did not qualify for reparations legally because Red Army soldiers were ineligible? The false claim of the sole survivor of a family that lost six, eight, twelve, seventeen members – six, eight, twelve, seventeen people forever too dead to apply for restitution legally? And yet: They were breaking the law. I wanted to present my readers with characters, and a situation, that refused to dissolve into easy classification.

What I didn’t count on was how prescient my imagining was. A year after I started writing, the FBI and the District Attorney’s Office in New York exposed a massive Holocaust-restitution-claim fraud ring, consisting largely of ex-Soviet Jews, defrauding restitution funds largely in the ways I imagined. (The fraud had been going on since the 1990s, but was not exposed till 2010.) I wrote an article in Tablet Magazine making some of the points above – prosecute the indicted to the fullest extent of the law, I wrote, but let’s not dismiss them as evil.

The comments that rained down on the article were unsparing. I was eviscerated for defending “gonefs,” for moral relativism regarding the Holocaust, for exploiting the occasion to promote my book, for celebrating restitution-claim fraud. Perhaps I failed in achieving, in the article, the nuance I hoped for, but I was also disappointed in the reaction. I wish I could have been like Ken Kesey and looked away; I couldn’t; I wanted to have the conversation. It was a hard one.

In that article, I was describing the book. Nearly four years (and eleven drafts) later, the “finished” version of that manuscript is seeing the light of day. I know I shouldn’t pay attention to what my readers will say. Only I don’t think I will manage it.

Check back on Friday for more from Boris, including a special treat for our readers!

Boris Fishman immigrated from the USSR at nine. He studied Russian literature at Princeton, was on staff at The New Yorker, co-wrote the US Senate’s Hurricane Katrina report, and has received a Fulbright to Turkey. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tablet, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and many others. He lives in New York. Read more about him here.

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It’s the First Week of June. Do You Know Where Your Family History Is?

Monday, June 02, 2014 | Permalink

Boris Fishman immigrated from the USSR at nine. He studied Russian literature at Princeton, was on staff at The New Yorker, co-wrote the US Senate’s Hurricane Katrina report, and has received a Fulbright to Turkey. His debut novel A Replacement Life will be published tomorrow by HarperCollins. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’ve daydreamt for more than a decade about what a day like tomorrow – publication date for my debut novel A Replacement Life – might feel like. But there’s a sorrowful undertow to this week’s joy – it marks a decade since the passing of my maternal grandmother, a version of whom plays a central role in the novel. That’s no accident. In the novel – the story of a young man who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn – the narrator, Slava Gelman, agrees to break the law in part because it’s an opportunity to recreate on the page a grandmother he never got to know in real life. Wanting to “dialyze” Soviet Brooklyn out of himself, Slava runs off to Manhattan (thinking that’ll do it), and misses the last year of her life (she has a slow-moving, terminal illness). Filled with regret, he begins inventing her personal history in the false claim letters – now his only way to ask her the things he didn’t get to ask her when she was alive.

I’m often asked how much my apparently autobiographical novel – like Slava, I emigrated from the former Soviet Union as a kid; I also grew up in south Brooklyn – shares with real life, and the story of Slava’s relationship with his grandmother, as compared to my with mine, is a good illustration of the way fact and invention blend in this kind of story. Like Slava’s grandmother, mine was a survivor of the Minsk ghetto. Like his, she wasn’t eager to recall the details of that experience when I pressed her. Unlike Slava, however, I declined to respect my grandmother’s reticence. (Why did I press her? I’m not sure. Could I, as a teenager, understand that it was valuable to know, for one reason or another? I didn’t begin to articulate the answer until I came up with one for Slava in the novel: “Already, by then, he was visited by the American understanding that it was better to know than not to know.” In this way, fiction proposes answers that life fails to find.)

The official reason my grandmother didn’t want to talk was that she “didn’t want to upset [me].” But in a Soviet-Jewish family, where forthrightness is often taken as rudeness and asking for what you need as a kind of selfishness, this kind of “considerateness” is often cover for personal motive. I never asked, but hers must have been: She didn’t want to remember. So I tricked her into it. I told her I had an assignment to create a family-history narrative for history class. Grandmother wouldn’t dare cost me a good grade, and the stories came – imagination-boggling stories that profoundly deepened our connection, my conscience, and also my consciousness.

In transmuted form, her stories – her history – are now enshrined in a novel that will live longer than she could. But when I interviewed her, the novel was less than a glimmer in my eye. I pressed her because she had gone through something extraordinary, and her descendants, this one included, deserved to know what, even if it meant subjecting her to duress. Selfishly, I had decided that price worth it. Sixty years later, I wanted to be able to hand my own grandson a stack of interview notes and say: “Here. This is who your great-great-grandmother was.” And why is that valuable? Again, the novel answered: “Tell me because I’d like to tell my grandchildren one day. Tell me because it happened to you, and so I should know. Tell me because it will bring me closer to you, and I want to be close to you.”

I believe there is a dignity to being able to trace yourself back through history – via genes, via stories, via whatever you’ve got. That mandate has special meaning for Jews – because there is so much suffering for us to remember, so many calamities that remembrance must forestall from occurring ever again. For immigrants also – in emigrating to the United States, my family traded generations of life in Eastern Europe to start from zero in America. We gave up the soil, and many other, less tangible, things. Until my great-great-great-great grandchildren, born Americans six times over, read my interviews with my grandmother 150 years from now, all we’ve got is stories.

So, sit down your elders. Better yet, make your children do it. Ask your old ones to talk. And – gently, lovingly, apologetically – ignore them when they try to demur. Your children’s descendants are counting on you for their patrimony.

Stay tuned for more from Boris all week, including a special treat for our readers on Friday!

Boris Fishman has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tablet, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and many others. He lives in New York. Read more about him here.

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Bernard Malamud at 100: The Wrong Writer for Our Age

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | Permalink

by Boris Fishman

This essay appeared in somewhat different form on the website of The Center for Fiction.

Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) is the wrong writer for our age. Today’s young fiction writers live in an Age of Me: Memoirists in novelist clothing, we understand the world by understanding ourselves. Malamud was the son of a Brooklyn grocer who fled tsarist Russia. Having come of age during the Depression, the same era that shaped his contemporary Saul Bellow, Malamud wrote about Them: The unadjustable Old World elders who were his milk at home and his giveaway when Malamud was trying to make himself an American out of it; the Christians who seemed as general in America as they had been in the Pale (The Assistant); the inexplicable blacks, who seemed to suffer just as the Jews did but saw in it competition rather than kinship (The Tenants).

Malamud’s concerns were as broad as God’s world would allow: God’s Grace was about thermonuclear war. They were just as grave when he looked in a man’s heart: The Fixer, which, in 1967, won a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize both (one of only seven books in history to have done that), stands with William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner as the great American testament of a sufferer’s discovery of himself.

It is these qualities that give the lie to the usual grouping Malamud receives, alongside Bellow and Philip Roth. (Invariably, Malamud gets the bronze.) Malamud’s concerns sat poorly on Bellow; the latter broke through as a novelist only after he sang the hymn of the American Me in Augie March. Philip Roth, the son of entirely different times, has done his most conscientious work in nonfiction. Until the end, Malamud’s concern was morality; he wrote as if from a deathbed.

As the literary critic Philip Rahv put it: “[A] ‘Jewish’ trait in Malamud… is his feeling for human suffering on the one hand and for a life of value, order, and dignity on the other. Thus he is one of the very few contemporary writers who seems to have escaped the clutch of historical circumstance that has turned nihilism into so powerful a temptation; nihilistic attitudes, whether of the hedonistic or absurdist variety, can never be squared with Malamud’s essentially humanistic inspiration.” Rahv points out, in comparing Malamud with a fabled predecessor, “The feeling for human suffering is of course far from being an exclusively ‘Jewish’ quality. It figures even more prominently in Dostoevsky. The Russian novelist, however, understands suffering primarily as a means of purification and of eternal salvation, whereas in Malamud suffering is not idealized: suffering is not what you are looking for but what you are likely to get… Dostoevsky ’s correlative idea that ‘we’re all cruel, we’re all monsters’… is quite alien to Malamud.”

The writer Aleksandar Hemon, an admirer of Malamud, wondered, during a 2008 New Yorker podcast about the older author, whether it is this that accounts for Malamud’s downsized position in our times, which seem more devoted to dazzle and irony. I am far more devoted to Malamud than the times, then. For Rahv, Malamud is an heir to “Kafka’s moral earnestness in his approach to the making of literature, of which he conceived as a sacred expenditure of energy, an effort at communion with his fellow men, the reflected splendor of religious perception.” That is the kind of literature that I, as a starting novelist, wish to inherit.

Unlike Bellow and Roth, Malamud did not feel parochialized by the label of Jewish-American writer. “I’m an American, I’m a Jew, and I write for all men,” he told The Paris Review in 1974. “A novelist has to, or he’s built himself a cage. I write about Jews, when I write about Jews, because they set my imagination going… I was born in America and respond, in American life, to more than Jewish experience. I wr[i]te for those who read.” In other words, if you write stories of universal predicaments, that the characters are Jewish rather than Zulu is, in some ways, a technicality.

No one has written of those universal predicaments as movingly as Malamud. His work epitomizes the writer’s first lesson: Only the specific can hope to speak universally. Malamud’s heroes – Dubin, Lesser, Levin, Fidelman – usually wear only last names, for they are Everymen grappling with existential quandaries (what is love? how to make sense of one’s obligations to family?) that would hardly surprise that hypothetical Zulu. Importantly, though, they are not Everymen, that is, types or symbols – they are Dubin, Lesser, Levin, and Fidelman, with all the stubborn particularities of those individual lives. And their preoccupations are submerged in richly detailed, realist narratives. But their quandaries are so basic and essential that one might as well be reading a myth. Malamud’s style contributes to the feeling: Through endless rewriting Malamud removed every extraneous word – and then another. Philip Roth poked fun at this in The Ghostwriter, where an alter ego of Malamud’s says: “I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again.” However, the result is stories that have been reduced to essentials, like liquid in a pan, with such force that the bedrock that remains feels like parable. Malamud wrote fairy tales for grown-ups.

And so, arguably no age has needed him more, for it is brains, technique, and self-interest that we young novelists, and our generation, own in excess; and heart, vision, conscience, and discipline where we lack. We must lift our heads from our navels and try to measure the world; we will find Bernard Malamud holding out a ruler to help us. I owe the publication of my first novel in no small measure to Malamud’s extended hand. In the late fall of 2012, I was at an artist colony in southeastern Wyoming working through the umpteenth draft of the novel, about a failed young journalist in Malamud’s Brooklyn (that is, the unfashionable part) who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for those very same elders with whom the author had tried to reconcile himself.

I had read most of the author’s oeuvre by then, leaving only The Tenants and Dubin’s Lives, two books, one about Brooklyn and the other about rural Connecticut, that couldn’t have had less to do with my setting at the time. But Malamud built the bridge. Every morning, I would trudge in the piney, astringent cold to my writing studio and take an hourlong hit of Malamud before sitting down to my own work. I had to ration: the books had to last the month. The draft that I, an Old World Jew in the New West (which also hosted Malamud when he taught at Oregon State from 1949-61, the basis for his novel A New Life), finished under Malamud’s tutelage was the one that got me a contract with HarperCollins.

I couldn’t have been happier to learn recently that I am wrong at least in some of my concerns about Malamud’s decline. This year, the Library of America is commemorating his centennial with the publication of a compendium of his work. (On May 1, I am hosting a kind of 100th birthday party for “Bernie” at The Center for Fiction in Midtown Manhattan, featuring a diverse set of admirers, such as the novelists Tea Obreht, Bharati Mukherjee, Kevin Baker, and Alan Cheuse, as well as members of Malamud’s family.) The two volumes offer a rare opportunity to re-acquaint oneself with the work of a true master.

If you are looking for a place to begin, open to The Assistant, for me Malamud’s finest novel. The story of Morris Bober, a poor Brooklyn grocer, and his wife Ida; their oppressed but obliging daughter Helen; and Frank Alpine, the local thug who upends their lives and is transformed by the Bobers in turn, it is as concentrated an evocation of the mysterious work of the heart as any you’ll come across. Then go on to The Fixer. More than anything, however, I envy you the discovery of Malamud’s short stories, part of both volumes. Just about each of the strange, gleaming jewels included in the Library of America tribute is like a knife past the heart down deep into the very skin of the soul.

Boris Fishman’s debut novel A Replacement Life, about a failed young journalist who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, is out from HarperCollins June 3. Read more about Boris Fishman and A Replacement Life here.

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