Non­fic­tion

I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Oth­er Immi­grant Tales): Notes From a Sovi­et Girl on Becom­ing an Amer­i­can Woman

Mar­gari­ta Gokun Silver

  • Review
By – September 1, 2021

On the sur­face, Mar­gari­ta Gokun Silver’s I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Oth­er Immi­grant Tales): Notes from a Sovi­et girl on Becom­ing an Amer­i­can Woman is about the author’s expe­ri­ence of emi­grat­ing from the Sovi­et Union as a young woman in the late 1980s, and the burn­ing desire her younger self felt to exor­cise every trace of Rus­sia from her iden­ti­ty and become Amer­i­can. As the essays unfold, how­ev­er, it is clear that I Named My Dog Pushkin, like the author’s desire to be Amer­i­can, is much more com­plex, touch­ing on issues like anti­semitism, self-esteem, chal­leng­ing par­ent rela­tion­ships, and liv­ing authentically. 

Gokun Sil­ver writes in a casu­al, con­ver­sa­tion­al style that may be a hit or miss with read­ers; the memoir’s dry humor and stream-of-con­scious­ness-like prose has echoes of David Sedaris’ writ­ing, but it some­times toes the line between wit­ty and ram­bling. For instance, the collection’s first essay, Immi­gra­tion Part 1 or Rules, What Rules,” has an almost fran­tic feel­ing as the author recounts the many mis­ad­ven­tures that her par­ents, grand­fa­ther, and she expe­ri­enced on the day they left the USSR, includ­ing the guilt her moth­er imposed on young Mar­gari­ta for going back inside their apart­ment after every­one left (vio­lat­ing the laws of super­sti­tion and thus bring­ing them bad luck) and the tense moments at the air­port as she smug­gled her grandmother’s jew­el­ry out of the coun­try. The prose is suf­fused with excla­ma­tion points, par­en­thet­i­cals, asides, all-caps, and bul­let points; these make for an inter­est­ing style.

The book is filled with many poignant moments. For instance, the essay How to do Jew­ish Right” details the seri­ous anti­semitism the author faced as a Sovi­et child, her attempts to hide her Jew­ish­ness, and the dis­con­nect she felt with Amer­i­can Judaism upon her immi­gra­tion. This essay rais­es impor­tant ques­tions about the judg­ment Jews face from non-Jews and — impor­tant­ly — from each oth­er, work­ing through what it means to be Jew­ish in today’s Amer­i­ca, espe­cial­ly for those who won­der if they are Jew­ish enough. The author’s anti­semitism-infused youth and thir­ty years in Amer­i­ca help her come to impor­tant con­clu­sions that are rel­e­vant to any Jew today. 

These moments remind read­ers that this is the sto­ry of an immi­grant with her own jour­ney from Sovi­et Russ­ian to an assim­i­lat­ed Amer­i­can. The nature of that assim­i­la­tion is cov­ered beau­ti­ful­ly in the book’s last chap­ter, in which Gokun Sil­ver reflects on the ways in which she has failed to become the true, blue Amer­i­can her younger self dreamed of, but that this fail­ure” has led her to a more com­fort­able sense of iden­ti­ty. The clar­i­ty and sophis­ti­ca­tion of the prose shifts as the col­lec­tion pro­gress­es, per­haps mir­ror­ing the matu­ri­ty of the author through time, as she moves from Sovi­et teen des­per­ate to shirk every aspect of her Russ­ian iden­ti­ty to a mid­dle-aged immi­grant who has been in the Unit­ed States for thir­ty years. Both ver­sions of the author — and every­thing in between — are deeply relat­able. Whether you are an immi­grant, the descen­dant of immi­grants, Russ­ian-Amer­i­can, Jew­ish, a moth­er, a wife, or any of the oth­er many iden­ti­ties that Gokun Sil­ver tack­les, this book is a quick, easy sum­mer read that is sure to delight while tug­ging at your heartstrings. 

Jus­tine Orlovsky-Schnit­zler is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the Jew­ish Women’s Archive and Lilith mag­a­zine, liv­ing and work­ing at home in the South. 

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