Writing Your Way Back Home
Mia Alvar, Boris Fishman, and Sara Nović, in Conversation
Exile. Immigrant. Refugee. Outsider. Invader. Thief. Second Gen. American. Loaded words, synonyms for often unprintable-in-a-family-publication phrases; the slang evolves, the intonation doesn’t, growling, hissing: Get back on the boat that brought you here.
But what if there belongs to your parents and grandparents and here is home? What happens when the second gen tries to slingshot back there, only to find themselves on a boomerang back to the ‘burbs?
What happens? What happens is art—unclassifiable narrative populated by indelible characters, stories that resonate with readers who have perhaps never thought twice about their authors’ backgrounds. We brought together three of our favorite new authors to talk what happens to the truth of story when a writer cuts out “the boring bits,” and why so many readers assume all fiction is autobiographical—and more, in this far-ranging conversation.
Mia Alvar is the author of the sublime story collection, In the Country, which features characters shaped by a profound dislocation from the places, things and people they love most; Sara Nović is the author of the novel Girl at War, an unforgettable portrait of a young girl’s coming of age—and the profound impact of war on her life; and Boris Fishman is the author of A Replacement Life, a soulful, thought-provoking, and sometimes hilarious debut novel that turns the classic coming-of-age-in-America saga sideways
Mia, Boris, and Sara came together at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble for an event called Writing Diasporas last week. The following is an edited transcript.
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Boris Fishman: I was born in the former Soviet Union and came here at nine. It won’t surprise you to learn that for about the first ten years I was here, I wanted nothing to do with that heritage. I told people that my name was Bobby, I tried to dress like the kids in school—so on and so forth; you know the story. And then, about ten years later, I had an encounter with a book in a high school English class—Fathers and Sons by Turgenev—that undammed something that had been held back for a long time. And I went on major in Russian Literature in college. My work in journalism has had to do with Russia or Russians almost exclusively. But when someone asked, “What is your relationship to your background?” I always took care to distinguish between sort of the high-minded stuff, which I agreed to connect to, the literature, the culture, the humor, even the food… But I declined to have anything to do with the psychology of the people from whom I come. In fact, I have paid a tremendous amount of money to various therapists around the city to get away from that legacy.
And then, for whatever reason (perhaps I finally found an effective therapist), I find myself within the last year or so returning even to the psychology of the community.
So the thing that I wanted to ask both of you is: Where are you on the spectrum of ambivalence about your respective identities? (Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe there’s no ambivalence?)
Sara Nović: I guess the pause means I’m ambivalent…?
Boris Fishman: Yeah. Without a doubt.
Sara Nović: I’m from the States, so I’m kind of like very, in a certain way, careful to say, “Oh, I’m American,” particularly with this book, because I don’t want people to think… And they do anyway. They kind of tie me and Anna [the narrator of Girl at War] together in certain ways. And I don’t want to give the impression that I’m appropriating somebody’s experience or anything. But there are certain ways in which I feel more connected to Croatia, which is a place that I have spent way less time in than the States, and I think it comes through, particularly with the black humor, the kinds of jokes, the way that people talk about things.
What do you think, Mia?
Mia Alvar: I am not ambivalent. I am just perfectly well-adjusted, and I have little to give out. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
I think growing up, I had the same sort of difficulty answering the whole, “Where are you from? What culture do you identify with?” question. I was born in Manila, and lived there until I was six years old. My family moved to Bahrain in the Middle East for about four years, and then finally immigrated to New York, and more or less settled here since then. I always kind of sensed people’s boredom (not discomfort) when I would take longer than a sentence or two to answer that question.
Boris Fishman: The question of where you’re from?
Mia Alvar: Yeah, and kind of get into how complicated it was. But at the same time I think there is an aspect of being Filipino that, because of the nature of the colonial history there, there already is an ambivalence in that one identity, and so it sort of seemed ok in that way.
Boris Fishman: How many of your friends are Croatian and Filipino? A rough percentage? Because I’ve gone from zero to like 40 percent in just the last year. For whatever reason, I cook in a restaurant kitchen two nights a week, and somehow have ended up in a Russian restaurant cooking with three Russian guys, which was not at all by design, but how it’s ended up. So I spend a large part of the week speaking really dirty Russian to a bunch of guys from the Urals, which is not what I saw happening with myself even a year ago.
Mia Alvar: I don’t know what the percentage is. Maybe 20 percent. I am married to a Filipino-American who was born here in the States, so in that way it feels like a big part of my consciousness, and people really like Filipino food now, so I feel like in that way it’s just a bigger part of the daily experience. But yeah, growing up, I definitely feel like there was that separation between family life and the way you commune with the people who speak your language and share a particular brand of humor and storytelling and American friend-life.
Sara Nović: I don’t know. Maybe I’d go with between 10 and 20 percent. But I also have, like, a Category-3, confusing option, which is deaf-stuff. So I’d say a lot of my really closest friends are communicating in ASL, which is its own language, separate from English, and different everywhere in the world, so the different-sounding is everywhere.
Do you find a similar difference between an urban place or a not-urban place, and how it affects you?
Mia Alvar: I don’t spend a lot of time in non-urban places. [LAUGHS] So I don’t know if I could…
Sara Nović: Where have you lived, Boris?
Boris Fishman: I never lived out there, but the fertile encounter was with Montana, where I go every summer now. I’ve decided on this as home for a whole variety of reasons. In the same that my Russian side is divided from my American side, and they interact only so much, my Eastern side, meaning New York, is divided from my Western side, meaning Montana, and they interact only so much. And it feels appropriate to be divided up in that way. There was a very long time when I had this fantasy that it was possible to feel completely American, or completely Russian, and it never even occurred to me that it might be productive to just take the best from both. It’s a very obvious, simple, and yet nonetheless startling thing to realize when it appears to you.
Something that you said, Mia, was surprising to me. You said people got impatient if you took longer than a minute to explain where you’re from. I find that if a dinner party is flagging, there is nothing more reliable than to get into that—I mean, if I am going to trot out a Russian accent on top, we’re good for the rest of the night. But even if not (because that stuff is kind of awful), I find that part of some of my background—and if not mine, then my parents or grandparents—is so foreign and exotic and dramatic and traumatic, that people tend to want to hear more rather than less. I almost sleepwalk through these stories, because I’ve told them so many times. I just have to make sure I’m not telling them to the same people.
I feel like American literature nowadays is getting the most energy from immigrant fiction. How do you guys feel about that? In your next books, will you keep to the same subject? Will you explore something new?
Mia Alvar: I’ll be keeping very close to the same subject. I’m working on a novel next that takes the main character in the title story of this collection, and sort of follows her life after the events in the book.
I always struggle to find a more interesting answer to that question of whether I would ever write about non-Filipino and non-immigrant issues. For me, the answer is: I wouldn’t ever say never, but this happens to be what I find interesting now.
It’s funny that you say that about storytelling, though. That’s something that I always felt both reliable and treacherous to me, that you could really lead into the stories about, you know, how fanatic your family is about karaoke, or your crazy Filipino grandmother. I always feel like in any storytelling something gets kind of lost or elided in a way that feels really uncomfortable, but also necessary for something to be a story that people want to hear or listen to.
Sara Nović: The thing that I have been writing right now, (it’s quite new and small…) is about a deaf school and kids that live at this school. It’s been interesting actually, because I think it does tackle, in certain ways, a lot of the same questions about language and identity, and how do you communicate, how do you fit in. So this question of, passing; if you have good enough speech, you can get by and no one will notice. Or a question of, say, technology with cochlear implants, and can you fix it?
Boris Fishman: It’s a real conundrum. Because for me, it’s just an ego thing. I want to know whether I am good enough to write about people I know nothing about. But it’s a complicated thing, because there’s so much ready vibrancy at your fingertips delivered on a daily basis, like a newsletter, by your family and such, that you can exploit it for your work. And it takes some amount of discipline and masochism to decline that opportunity and sort of write about Montanans and the like, which I do for my second novel.
Speaking of rehearsed stories: One of the first things that at least I learned as an immigrant kid, where you’re sent out into the world by your family to read everyone’s signals, figure out what they need, and give it to them so you are liked and admitted to whatever the experience at hand is… When you tell stories and when you do your tap-dance, you watch people’s faces to see what details they respond to and which details fall flat, and the details they respond to, you recycle, and the details that fall flat, you get rid of. The problem is that the details that fall flat never reappear, and become forgotten, and the story of what really happened changes. It changes from the facts to the story. Those are two very different things. It’s actually a corollary to what happens in fiction writing—fiction writing that has some basis in autobiography. When people ask, “Is it autobiographical?” they assume there’s a kind of one-to-one transcription, but there never is. Am I right?
Sara Nović: It’s funny that you said that, because I was just thinking, like, that’s how you write. You just cut out the boring bits, but that does change the actual thing that you were trying to say in the first place. When I was writing this book, a lot of the little stories were stories that were given to me by friends and family. Certain kinds of anecdotes do well with an audience, and certain ones are just a little bit too much and they don’t want to go there. That’s interesting, to see what kind of war Americans want to hear about and what they don’t.
Mia Alvar: Along those lines, I wanted to ask both of you about your relationship with some of the pretty heavy political and historical material in all three of these books, and how important factual accuracy is to you? Obviously, none of us renamed places or countries in the books. Sara’s book has maps on the first page. So that’s a very deliberate choice, and that definitely invites the reader to imagine this as something that did or could have happened at a particular place or time.
I, for one, struggle with it. I definitely feel like the Manila, the Bahrain and the New York City in the stories is kind of… they have their real-world counterparts, but I couldn’t write about them without taking them apart and reconstituting them and feeling like I was in a trance, and imagining them over again—and that always involves distortions and exaggerations and erasures.
Boris Fishman: I was very impressed with both of your books. So, the wars took place in 1991-92, right? And Ana is ten years old? Right? So there’s no direct comparison to you because you were born in ’87.
Sara Nović: Right.
Boris Fishman: You were born in America.
Sara Nović: Yes.
Boris Fishman: So all of that had to be imagined.
Sara Nović: Yes.
Boris Fishman: And in your story collection, Mia, it’s somebody different in every story—younger women, older women, men and women. There’s a kind of shape-shifting that, if anyone knows anything about your books, should preemptively answer the question of how autobiographical is it. That question is asked all the time anyway. And what do you say?
Mia Alvar: I just say that I borrow from real life in big and small ways, but that, again, I can’t… It’s never a transcription of what happened. It just wouldn’t work. Real life is so much bigger and weirder than what would function as a book, that there’s just too much that doesn’t fit.
Sara Nović: Well, I was writing this book for a little bit in grad school, and I always found that the things that were factual were the things the workshop would be like, “that’s not believable,” and then the things that I had made up they just accepted with no trouble. So that’s weird. Does that happen to you guys?
Boris Fishman: Yeah. I invented a whole bunch of Soviet slogans and Soviet proverbs for A Replacement Life, and everybody thought they were taken from real life. But I just knew that the thing would be read autobiographically, so I decided to make fun of them instead of fighting them. My novel is about a guy who starts forging Holocaust restitution claims for old Russians in Brooklyn. If this really happened, I promise you, I wouldn’t be writing a novel about it, but nonetheless, everyone wants to know if it’s autobiographical
I’m just curious, what kind of Croatian war do Americans want? Because, see, to the extent that everyone knows that conflict, they know about Serbs, they know about Bosnians. Right?
Sara Nović: Right. Part of the answer is they don’t want to know about that part, because that happened before they got there and cleaned it up. But they prefer the stories that are funny or weird, quirky war things that happen. They dislike any kind of suggestion that the U.N. is not the greatest. But it’s funny with this war in particular. To the question of how important historical accuracy is: I wrote this book as fiction, but I wanted it to slide properly into the timeline of the war. It was harder than I thought it would be. I did a lot of research, talked to a lot of people, but it’s kind of badly documented still, and it only happened recently. [It’s only been 20 years] since the Dayton accords.
Boris Fishman: Is it true that people are in Croatia are not particularly eager to talk about it?
Sara Nović: It depends. I speak Croatian, and the people who I was talking to were close to me, so they were cool with it. But people deal with trauma in different ways, and it’s kind of the whole country traumatized, that really had a stressful couple of years. So the memory gets wonky, too. People disagree about things. There’s one part that I had written in the book that, after the first air raid, the McDonald’s on the corner shut down. It didn’t reopen until after the war, which was something that a friend had told me. And then another friend read it and was like, “No, there wasn’t any McDonald’s there until after the war, and that was the start of capitalism.” They couldn’t work it out in the end whether or not there had been a McDonald’s. No one could figure it out. So I took it out of the book.
Boris Fishman: Yeah, there’re people who don’t remember, but people who don’t want to talk about it, and then you finally stumble on someone who does remember and does want to talk about it, and you think, ‘Yes!’ The problem is, they’re even worse than the other two…
How have your home communities responded to your books?
Sara Nović: Good question. For me, I was really conscious of the American audience—part of the impetus for the book was because I was pissed that people didn’t know about the war. I thought of making it clear why the war happened—or more clear; that’s kind of impossible, it turns out…
But I was really happy that the Croatian community responded positively. I was at the Embassy in D.C. for one of my first events, and the Ambassador had read the book and his daughter had read the book, and they were really happy. I talked to some people who had been in the war. There was this one guy who was the Ambassador’s assistant, and he said, “While I was reading the book, it felt like there was black spot in my chest, and it kind of expanded and contracted by the time that I finished the book.” I was like, “Yes!”
Boris Fishman: That was a totally Balkan thing to say.
Sara Nović: I know. It really was! But it made me really happy.
Mia Alvar: I was very conscious of writing to a mostly American or Western audience. But that awareness, I think, didn’t always yield the answer I thought it would. I felt like I should explain more, and define things more explicitly. I think that even readers coming to a world they are not that familiar with don’t really want that experience all the way through, necessarily. People want to be able to enter the way they would enter a world that is physically unfamiliar to them, and be able to put clues together for themselves. That was a happy discovery for me. I thought being mindful of a Western audience would mean dumbing things down, but that was almost never the answer.
Boris Fishman: Yeah, it’s never watered-down, but it is, I think, kind of curated. Because certain things travel and certain things don’t. Explanation is deadly. Right? So you have to figure out ways to tuck it in naturally, into the conversation, without it sticking out. The great question of italicized words… it gives flavor, but also can be gimmicky or really remove you from the experience, in a way. I was making these decisions on a sentence-by-sentence basis.
I very much had my American audience in mind. I had a Russian audience in mind as well, because… like any general interest magazine,you have to write an article that passes muster with the experts but doesn’t lose the civilians. And writing a novel like this is kind of similar, where your own people won’t cringe, but you won’t lose the natives. My community has exhibited less than zero interest in this novel. All the attention has come from non-Russians. Maybe because it makes them look bad. But it doesn’t make them look bad. I mean, it tells the truth, but at least to me, it’s a very tender, loving portrait. Anyway, that was on my mind all the time.
QUESTION from the audience: Were you all influenced, either negatively or positively, by literatures from your respective [countries]… either, say, Filipino-American or Croatian-American or Russian-American, or…
Boris Fishman: …the home countries.
Audience-member: …or the home countries. Did you look at those?
Mia Alvar: I definitely was, and mostly positively, because I think one thing that almost every Filipino-American writer has contended with and done really well for the most part is just a respect for the High and the Low aspects of their existence and cultural influences. I think that was very comforting and a joyful thing for me to keep going back to while I was writing this book. You can sort of tell what a writer is insecure about by the number of times they go back to it and repeat it, and in my book you’ll see a lot of soap operas playing in the background. I know that that register of melodrama is in me, and probably won’t ever leave me… But I liked reading work in that tradition that didn’t reject [melodrama] for purely literary things.
Sara Nović: I read a lot of Croatian and Bosnian and Serbian writers, just because I wanted to, but also while I was writing this book. I was translating this one poet, a Bosnian guy, called Izet Sarajlic, and he wrote this poem called “Luck, Sarajevo Style.” It says, “In Sarajevo, in the spring of 1992, anything is possible. You go and stand in a bread line and end up in the trauma ward with an amputated leg. Afterwards you still say that you were very lucky.” That was something… A lot of his poems are funny in this messed-up way, and really stark, kind of plain writing. That’s something I thought was so powerful and I tried to imbue my writing with in a certain way.
Boris Fishman: Russians share with ex-Yugoslavs this kind of dark, loamy, gallows humor. Actually, your former compatriot, Aleksandar Hemon, who is Bosnian, I read a great deal of while I was working on the book.
Sara Nović: He’s so great.
QUESTION from the Audience: Who do you like to read?
Mia Alvar: Recently I’ve been reading these two.
Boris Fishman: We’ve been reading each for the past several weeks. I am very proud, because there was a period when I only read dead white males, or living white males. And now I’ve been reading so much Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor, who are so very different from each other. What a dark, dark world Flannery O’Connor lives in. Wow. And it leaves an imprint on your work. It really does. Things become darker for the month or two that you’re reading that particular person. Their diction melds with yours. It’s interesting to observe.
But my tastes run Graham Greene; J.M. Coetzee, the South African author, who I think is magnificent; Bernard Malamud, who is a real inspiration stylistically.
Sara Nović: I also Coetzee. I really love Zadie Smith, although I don’t write like Zadie Smith at all, who writes like this third-person-omniscient, amazing. I love her stuff.
Mia Alvar: I like a lot of short story writers. I definitely revere Alice Munro, and she would probably be my… if ever faced with a tragic desert island question, she would probably be the one that I took with me if I could take no others. In the time that it took me to write this book I was definitely a sucker for short story collections that painted a portrait of a community through individual vignettes. So, Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri are favorites…
Boris Fishman: Then it leads into the question I wanted to ask you. These guys, they’re not all from the Urals, but the chef… The executive chef is from Russia, but the two sous-chefs are Ukrainian. But it’s as if there’s no war anywhere. What I mean to say is all these people who hated each other back there, Jews and non-Jews, Ukrainians and Russians, Armenians and Azeris… it all falls away when they come here. Because it’s far more profitable to try to make money than to beat up on people you hate.
I am wondering what is it like between Croat Serbs and Bosnians in America?
Sara Nović: Kind of the same, and also specifically the same in the kind of Slav way of, like, maybe we can make a business… [LAUGHS] Well, it’s close enough, and this is the closest I can get to someone understanding me and actually feel we were all one country not so long ago. Once you’re here, that’s what you have again. It’s kind of funny.
Mia Alvar: I think I write a little bit in the book about how it happens with class divisions a little bit, so, Filipinos who would be working for each other and not socializing much with each other in Manila might suddenly be seeing each other every weekend in Bahrain or in New York, just because they eat the same food and really like karaoke.
Boris Fishman: And soap operas.
Mia Alvar: And soap operas.