By – January 27, 2014

Read­ing through the engag­ing sto­ries in Mol­ly Antopol’s debut col­lec­tion, The UnAmer­i­cans, feels a lit­tle like flip­ping through a pile of assort­ed fam­i­ly snap­shots found in a thrift store. Some of the pho­tos might be wilt­ed; some might have creased edges; some might be black-and-white Polaroids; some might be full-col­ored and grainy. The set­tings and fig­ures and back­grounds might all, for the most part, be dif­fer­ent too. But an under­ly­ing con­nec­tion bridges them, link­ing the images togeth­er into a beau­ti­ful and hap­haz­ard assem­blage, a nar­ra­tive with no clear begin­ning, mid­dle, or end.

The locales tra­versed in Antopol’s sto­ries range from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to San Fran­cis­co and Prague and Dit­mas Park, and the times vary from the McCarthy era to World War II to not too long ago. In one, we meet a dis­il­lu­sioned aca­d­e­m­ic (for­mer­ly a skin­ny kid from a fam­i­ly of une­d­u­cat­ed dairy farm­ers in Moravia”), who begrudg­ing­ly faces his daughter’s first cre­ative suc­cess — an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal play. In anoth­er, we wit­ness a set of Israeli Moshavnik broth­ers deal­ing with tragedy and love in the pome­lo groves. A Ukrain­ian woman mourns the loss of her hus­band with the help of her sec­ond hus­band, a Brook­lyn native who owns five clean­ers in the New York area because, as he explains, his grand­fa­ther was a tai­lor in Kiev. If my grand­fa­ther had been a brain sur­geon, I’d be a brain sur­geon now, too.”

These sto­ries all echo a ques­tion that Grace Paley once posed in her own unfor­get­table trea­tise on immi­grant lives (her short sto­ry, The Immi­grant Sto­ry”): Isn’t it a ter­ri­ble thing to grow up in the shad­ow of anoth­er person’s sor­row?” The char­ac­ters in Antopol’s col­lec­tion are haunt­ed in one way or anoth­er by the worlds that they, or those close to them, left behind, by choice or neces­si­ty. They can­not or do not want to escape the past, or, as one character’s grand­moth­er describes it, These hor­ri­ble things that hap­pened before you were born.”

For all of this melan­choly, there is some­thing insis­tent­ly com­fort­ing and hon­est about the ways these char­ac­ters accept their com­pli­cat­ed entan­gle­ments. Remem­ber the Bronx?” one girl’s father loves to say to any­one who will lis­ten.” These sto­ries are filled with lis­ten­ers — from the grand­daugh­ter who is always ask­ing ques­tions (“pulling some­one into a cor­ner at every fam­i­ly par­ty”) to the jour­nal­ist hold­ing court with her suitor’s teenage daugh­ter high up in a tree over­look­ing a field of palm groves. Antopol’s care­ful­ly craft­ed sto­ries demand our atten­tion, as they remind us to stop, look, and listen.

Tah­neer Oks­man is assis­tant pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of the Writ­ing Pro­gram at Mary­mount Man­hat­tan Col­lege. She has pub­lished arti­cles in a/​b: Auto/​Biography Stud­ies, Stud­ies in Comics, and Stud­ies in Amer­i­can Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture, as well as the For­ward, the Los Ange­les Review of Books, and Cleaver Mag­a­zine, where she is the graph­ic nar­ra­tives reviews editor.

Discussion Questions

    • What do you think of the title of the book? What does UnAmer­i­can mean to you? In which ways are these sto­ries and char­ac­ters unAmer­i­can”? Is there a sin­gle mean­ing of unAmer­i­can” or does it shift? Does it mean some­thing dif­fer­ent in the sto­ries that are set in oth­er countries?
    • Are there themes that unite this sto­ry col­lec­tion, aside from the title?
    • What do you think the title of the first sto­ry, The Old World,” refers to?
    • In the sto­ry The Unknown Sol­dier”, Kather­ine tells Alexi that the most hurt­ful of his offences is that he kept a life from me” (p. 199). Which oth­er char­ac­ters are guilty of this? Do you agree that, of all their trans­gres­sions, it is the most grave?
    • Some of the char­ac­ters rely on an orga­nized sup­port sys­tem, such as the Com­mu­ni­ty Par­ty or Ortho­dox Judaism. Are these sys­tems redeem­ing or harm­ful in each case?
    • At the end of A Dif­fi­cult Phase”, Talia says that the only thing she knows for cer­tain is that soon, poi­son would numb the places that hurt the most. Is this com­fort­ing? Is it pos­i­tive or destructive?
    • In The Qui­etest Man” and My Grand­moth­er Tells Me This Sto­ry”, an old­er gen­er­a­tion recounts a sto­ry from their past at the bequest of a younger gen­er­a­tion. What are the dif­fer­ent approach­es of the two sto­ry­tellers? Which do you think is more damaging?
    • Does the order of the sto­ries cre­ate a nar­ra­tive arc for the col­lec­tion? What do you think about the last sen­tence in the book? Is it the end­ing of that sto­ry or the book as a whole?

    Dis­cus­sion Ques­tions From the Pub­lish­er, Cour­tesy of W. W. Norton

    • Many of the char­ac­ters in The UnAmer­i­cans trav­el or change loca­tions dur­ing the course of their sto­ry. How does this seem to affect who they are?
    • What beliefs do these char­ac­ters cling to, and how do they strug­gle with let­ting go?
    • The age-old themes of East ver­sus West and Old World ver­sus New World are big ones in The UnAmer­i­cans. How do these themes relate to the char­ac­ters’ ideas about reli­gion, or about fam­i­ly, or about grow­ing old?
    • How does the his­to­ry of a giv­en character’s home coun­try agree with or depart from his or her own his­to­ry or destiny?
    • Think about the idea of home. What does the word mean to these characters?
    • Why might the author have titled her col­lec­tion of sto­ries The UnAmer­i­cans? Con­sid­er the set­tings, reli­gious affil­i­a­tions, polit­i­cal beliefs, and oth­er sim­i­lar fac­tors when com­ing up with your answer.
    • Con­sid­er­ing the rich inte­ri­or lives of these char­ac­ters, think about how our beliefs about oth­ers con­flict with real­i­ty. How do we cre­ate oth­er peo­ple in our minds?
    • What do these sto­ries have to say about the place of reli­gion — and espe­cial­ly Judaism — in the con­tem­po­rary world?
    • Many of these char­ac­ters are try­ing to get away from some­thing. Talk about the theme of escape in these stories
    • How do these char­ac­ters lie to each oth­er, and to them­selves, in order to con­struct alter­nate truths” that they find more comforting?
    • Com­mu­nism plays a big part in this col­lec­tion. How has the fall of the Iron Cur­tain affect­ed the emo­tion­al lives of these characters?
    • What is the place of author­i­ty, whether parental or gov­ern­men­tal, in the lives of these characters?
    • Art of var­i­ous forms — paint­ing, film, writ­ing — plays a big part these sto­ries. What do these sto­ries have to say about the role of art in the immi­grant experience?
    • In the sto­ries, old­er gen­er­a­tions look for­ward and not back, while younger gen­er­a­tions look back in order to under­stand the present. Do you think these two out­looks can be reconciled?