An Interview with Yelena Akhtiorskaya

By Diana Filar
May 1st, 2015

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As a literature student and immigrant who hopes to write her dissertation on the contemporary immigrant novel, I was thrilled to find a book like Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase. I felt like I had been unconsciously searching for a novel like this for a long time. In our discussion, I garnered a personal—and yet deeply relatable—knowledge of another young female writer’s perspective on the immigration experience and the universal notion of collecting family stories.

Panic in a Suitcase was published in July 2014, and Akhtiorskaya has since been named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35.” The book has received much critical acclaim, and I love it on multiple levels. There are the sentences—declarations like, “But the trouble with cherry pits was their clotted bloodiness and that they carried the ugly secret of mouths.” Or: “Several times in one’s life, a good sobering was required, and that’s what this trip was—a blatant disappointment that would serve as the electric charge to zap the elements back into motion, realigning the facets of her life that had been allowed to slacken into disrepair and stagnation.”

There is also the book’s unforgettable cast of characters, both minor and major: the Russian poet uncle; the long-lost, newly rediscovered friends; and the entirety of the supportive but pushy family unit. Also, I love its humor and its distinct setting, which juxtaposes the old country of Russia/Ukraine and the old city of Odessa with a new country and city—Brighton Beach, New York City, United States—and the psychological space in between.

The book is split in two temporally and geographically, but it is united by the family whose dramas it follows. The first portion takes place in Brighton Beach but briefly brings the Russian uncle to America. The second half sends the youngest, most Americanized family member on a return journey, where she explores what reverse immigration might be like.

It was more than a pleasure to talk to Yelena about her novel, her family, the immigrant experience, and sun lamps for Blue Mesa Review.

Blue Mesa Review: I was drawn to your book in the way we’re not supposed to be: judging by its cover—mainly the title, but also the art. Why did you choose this title? How did it come to you and fit into the narrative? And was there any involvement on your part with the cover art?

Yelena Akhtiorskaya: First, the title—Panic in a Suitcase—came to me more like a song. At the time I was in Kansas, and I have basically spent my whole life in New York and I hadn’t really explored the States. So for half a year I lived in Kansas. I was working on the novel while I was there and that’s when the title came to me. I think it’s Panic in a Suitcase because for my family and the people I know, going back and forth, getting on a plane, going somewhere, it always comes with so much anxiety and panic. That’s the reason for the title: lots, lots, and lots of anxiety in dealing with having to leave your place and go somewhere else, whether to immigrate or even to vacation.

As for the cover, I did not have any involvement with it. There’s a really great artist who works for Riverhead Books, and she chose that photograph, and that photograph was taken in Brighton Beach, where I grew up. I love the cover too because I love the ocean and that lady—she’s just the emblematic Brighton Beach older lady with her orange swimming cap.


BMR: I’ve read a lot about—and noticed—how female authors get stuck with these women-walking-away images [Yelena laughs], and this one has such a force. The title and your name are so large, and she is turned away, but it’s not in the same way.

The second reason I was so interested in reading this book is that I am studying the contemporary immigrant novel. Were you aware of writing in this tradition? Why did you feel like this story had to be told?

YA: I was aware that I was writing in the tradition of the immigrant novel. I wasn’t so much thinking about exactly my contemporaries—the Russian immigrant writers that are writing right now, in the moment—but more like in the older tradition, like Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep or Charles Reznikoff’s By the Waters of Manhattan, the immigrant novel from the early twentieth century, middle twentieth century. Those are the novels that I really love to read, so I think I was definitely aware that I was writing in that tradition, but at the same time I knew that the story had to be told because the books that I love—while I love them so much—they didn’t at all reflect my experience, my immigrant experience, and my family’s, which is very different because you are allowed to go back to the old country. All your days you’re Skyping with the people back there. There’s no clean break. You don’t leave and then that’s it. The old country continues to be very much a part of your life. That was the story that I wanted to tell.


BMR: Did you see that as shaking things up in terms of what we conceive of as the immigrant novel?

YA: Actually, I didn’t. I was kind of surprised after I had written it that it was taken as a “shake-up” of the classic immigrant novel. I thought that I was just explaining my experience. I wanted to be funny. I wanted to tell my funny stories, but I wasn’t trying to shake it up.


BMR: Based on that notion of being able to go back, and given my identification with your experience and that of some of the characters, have you gone back to Odessa? I feel like I’ve had this experience of this romantic notion of moving back even though I’ve definitely lived in America my whole life, and in a conflicted way come to terms with the fact that I’m maybe more American than Polish, similar to [the character] Frieda. Do you ever think about returning more permanently—not just for a vacation?

YA: Yeah! That’s exactly the storyline of the Frieda character because she left when she was a child, just like I left when I was a child. You hear all these stories about how it used to be. Even though, technically, it seems like it was all this oppression, it was hunger, it was hard, but the stories are so amazing. The place seems so alive and so much more exciting than Frieda’s own life in New York. I felt the same way. I completely romanticized Odessa, and I felt incredible, incredible nostalgia for it even though I barely remembered my life there. I have some memories, but there is a desire to go back not on vacation, but to try to see if I could live there. And I have—I’ve gone back a number of times, and one time I stayed for the summer and I lived on the dacha that my uncle still has. I was kind of “make-believe” pretending that I had never moved away or that I could belong there, even though when I’m there, I feel much more American than Russian. I definitely have the fantasy.

After that, I went a couple more times, and somehow, it feels less and less mine, which is very, very sad. I think that I no longer am even able to have the fantasy of going and moving back there, but at some point it was very strong.


BMR: You said you feel more American there than Russian. Do you have the opposite feeling in New York?

YA: Yes, that’s the ironic thing. Here, it’s like, “Oh, you have a Russian accent, you’re Russian, you’re a foreigner.” And I totally am a foreigner, and then there I’m a foreigner, even more than here. There, I’m the most American person. They can spot across the street that I’m an American; I don’t have to say anything. And there’s no language that I speak with no accent.

BMR: Can you talk a bit about your decision to make your book span both spaces [America and Russia] and also time? Because it jumps in years, significantly.

YA: Neither of those [decisions] was entirely premeditated. The two-part structure, the jump in time and spanning locations, took a lot of groping in the dark to figure out that that’s how it had to be. Originally, I conceived of it as this whole novel spanning and encompassing all those years, and then I realized that I didn’t need all of that. I wanted to show right around that time in the beginning and then I wanted to show later. I think jumping all those years was a way to pivot perspectives. That was the best shortcut and the easiest way to do it. And also to show the way that all the characters have changed and the way the cities [New York and Odessa] have changed.

I think that the first part is in the voice of the family, and that was just me spewing my family stories. I knew that Frieda had to take control of the book, and that was the way I ended up doing it. For some reason, I really did not want to write Odessa, but then I realized that I would have to in some kind of symmetry. I think of writing sort of as sculpting. Both with the time, the years, and with the geography, it was sculpting. I am finding what has to be there and what has to be chipped away. Frieda had to go to Odessa; that was absolutely what she had to do. She had this romantic notion and she had to go there to see the dacha—which when she finds it, is a heap of rubble. It’s a complete disappointment, but at the same time she kind of wants to stay.


BMR: While I was reading, I couldn’t fully tell whose story it was, but I loved feeling this way. I thought Pasha was really haunting the novel throughout and was this looming presence. At first, I thought, this is his story, and everything is revolving around this weird poet character. Then I thought the voices really shifted in and out—like you said, it was the family. And then it ended with Frieda. So I was left thinking, if we end with Frieda, is it then Frieda’s story? Whose story is it—or were you even trying to answer that question?

YA: That’s the immigrant dilemma. Being an immigrant is being in this family cesspool of these forces that it’s very hard to untangle. In everybody’s head inside an immigrant family, you can’t untangle the voices and even say who the person is. It’s just this knot that gets tied tighter and tighter. Particularly Eastern European, maybe Jewish. I definitely wanted to show that, and I also wanted to ask, Can you be an individual inside such a family? Is it possible? Definitely, in the start, I wanted it to be Pasha’s story, more Pasha’s, Pasha’s struggle to be an individual, showing Pasha’s thread. But then, toward the end, it ended up that it had to become Frieda’s story, and I kind of wanted for you to think that maybe the whole thing was Frieda’s telling of the story. I hoped that she would have taken over by the end.


BMR: About Pasha… I feel like male writers are always being lauded for writing their believable female characters—

YA: [laughs] That’s true!


BMR: Pasha was so well done and such an interesting character, and so I wanted to know how you decided to focus on him and write him as male. There are female characters in the novel, too, but before we get to Frieda’s section, they’re mostly minor.

YA: To be honest, he is very much based on my uncle. But it’s several things: the fact that the story of my uncle weighs over my family because my uncle—who is a poet—did stay behind in Odessa. It was thinking about his story that made me really want to write this book. That’s one answer. But also, Russia is a very patriarchal place. If there’s going to be a major artist figure, it has to be male.


BMR: The immigrant novel usually talks about assimilation (becoming American) versus alienation (wanting to go back home or feeling isolated for your whole life). It felt like Panic in a Suitcase and its characters were fighting against that binary that those are the only options. Did you see those options as limiting for the characters you were crafting?

YA: I guess I didn’t really think about those options. I was just thinking about what I see in the community around me. You could, technically, classify it all in that binary. You could say these immigrant neighborhoods [like Brighton Beach] are alienation, and the people who decide to leave them are trying for assimilation. It just seems that nobody thinks that way when you actually look at the way that immigrants do live. They do both! You can learn the language and you can get a job and you can completely live as an American, and at the same time—like you said—have all your friends be from Poland or from Russia and speak those languages on the weekends. It doesn’t seem like you have to choose. It doesn’t seem like that binary really exists.


BMR: You’ve talked a bit before about writing out of your own experience and how writing about your family is complicated because then they read it. Have they accepted it? Do you plan on continuing to write about this experience—and their experience, I guess they might argue—as well?

YA: They definitely were not happy about it originally. Slowly, they’ve accepted it. The amazing thing that I’ve learned is that if you just do something without asking people, then they have no choice. I mean, they’re not going to disown me. I’m their only daughter. For a long time, I thought, I can’t do it; I just can’t do it. I was planning on never publishing, or never showing this. And then, I just realized, no! They’ll be angry, they’ll be upset, and then what? They’ll have to get over it—they have no choice. We’re a family.

It’s been gradual stages. First, it was a story where I sort of alluded to them. Then it was a little more explicit. Then it was the book. Then I promised them, I made them a vow that in the next book, I would never write about them again. That would be it. I got it out of my system, and I would never do it again. And now, I find that what I’m doing is even more—I’m totally still writing about them. I have broken the vow. And what are they going to do about it?


BMR: Were there stages in you telling them that it was happening, that you sold the book?

YA: Yes, it was total baby steps. Is it a lobster that you kill by just gradually turning up the heat until they don’t realize that they’re being boiled alive?


BMR: I think you’re supposed to throw them in when it’s already boiling.

YA: Okay, well there’s some animal that you kill that you just put in water and you gradually make the water warmer and they only realize that they’re dying when they’re boiled. I don’t remember what animal it is, or what sea creature*. It was exactly like that. Little step by step—just turning up the heat.

*After looking into this, I discovered that the frog is commonly thought of in this way. The story goes that if you place a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. But if you place it in cold water and heat the water slowly, the frog will stay, not realizing the danger until it is too late. This is not, in fact, scientifically accurate, but it is often used as a metaphor in reference to people who adjust slowly to change.


BMR: This a discussion more common to nonfiction, but I don’t think that necessarily needs to be the case—where people you know, like family members, might see themselves in a character and say, “That’s not how I remember it.”

YA: I’ve definitely experienced that. What made me feel a lot better is the books that I’ve read—like Saul Bellow, where people would get so upset because he would steal their personalities for his books. And Philip Roth, exactly that tradition that we’re talking about. I know that they were getting into some hot messes because they were writing the people around them. That always makes me feel better.


BMR: I noticed that you don’t italicize the Russian words in texts, or really even define them. They’re just used in context. Did you do that specifically as a stylistic choice? And why?

YA: Definitely, definitely stylistic. Originally, I did that, and it came back from the copy editor, and everything was italicized, of course. So then I had to un-italicize everything, again. It’s a stylistic choice because when I’m reading books, I never understand why those words are italicized. It’s as if I’m not going to realize that it’s not an English word unless it’s slanted? I’m going to know! That whole process of italicizing foreign words has always seemed super bizarre to me. I’m sure there’s a good analogy, but it’s just an eyesore—that’s number one. It’s a pompous thing, somehow, to italicize. It always irritates me, and so that was very conscious, and I had to sort of fight for it.


BMR: What do you mean by “pompous,” and how did you make your case to the editor?

YA: I mean that it seems so, “I am not the foreigner.” That’s the feeling I get when I read italicization: “I am more educated than these words.”

BMR: It seems like we should trust the reader more.

YA: Yes. There’s absolutely no reason to italicize. If you’re speaking with your family, there’s not going to be italics.


BMR: People have said that the novel is lacking in plot, whether that be good or bad. I did not think that, because I view plot a little differently, as what characters are going through, even if it’s just mentally. Did you see it forming or not forming as you were writing, and how can you respond to that analysis?

YA: I did see that people were saying that, but I have to say that I anticipated that. I don’t think about it in that way. It’s even hard for me to respond, because I don’t read books for plot. I’m not even sure what that means. I think I know what people mean by plot—page turning. You’re reading in order to find out what happens. I never read page-turners. I don’t know how to read to find out what happens. That’s not the way I read, that’s not why I read, I don’t get any joy from finding out what happens. I like language, I like psychology, I like character. Foremost is language and novelty and a person’s mind. I knew that I wasn’t writing a page-turner, and it didn’t really bother me.

One of my favorite books is Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his one novel—talk about no plot. You can’t think of a book that has less plot than that.


BMR: What are you working on now?

YA: I’m working on a novel right now, and it’s not a direct continuation, but it involves the same characters, the same family.


BMR: This last question, I have to preface by saying that it’s not original. It’s from a podcast called Dinner Party Download, where they always ask the same two questions at the end of their interviews: What are you tired of being asked and you don’t want to answer ever again? And then, just tell us something new, about you or about the world.

YA: This one is obvious, but how I fit into the Russian immigrant writer community or group. How I see myself fitting into that tradition—not tradition, but more like the group that’s writing now. I always think [in response to that question], “I don’t know… I’m just writing my thing.” We’re all obviously grouped together because we’re all Russian immigrants, and you’re going to group us in that way because that’s what we look like to you, but why do I have to, then, tell you why I’m one of this group? I did not put myself in the group. This is just what I am, and I’m writing my stuff. So if you want to group me with it, then group me with it, but don’t make me talk about it. That’s the question—the Russian immigrant writer question. It can be phrased in different ways, but that’s what it boils down to.

And something new… Well, it’s very cold here, and I sit under my sun lamp for longer than ever lately. I just spend half my day under my sun lamp. I have the most raging seasonal affective disorder, and also I generally stay up—when I’m not working—until dawn. In the winter, I never see the light, so I have to sit under my sun lamp all day. It’s a real big, expensive thing, too. It’s the biggest splurge I have in my life.


BMR: Did you buy it after you got your advance?

YA: I got a new bulb after my advance because the bulbs themselves cost a lot of money.


BMR: I don’t love living in New Mexico, and everyone who knows me here knows that, but I miss the cold and the grayness. The one upside, though, is that it’s sunny all the time.

YA: I would switch with you in a second.


BMR: The dreariness of the winter in New England would get me down; I can’t lie. But wherever you are, you start thinking the other place is better.

YA: I can imagine that. Right now, I desperately would love to be in New Mexico and have sunlight. It just seems incredible. But if I lived there, I would feel the nostalgia. I was just watching, for the millionth time, Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia—it’s this movie where the guy is in Italy and it’s so beautiful but he ignores it, and he can’t return to Russia, but he misses it so badly.

Yelena Akhtiorskaya was born in Odessa in 1985 and came to America—more specifically, to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn—when she was seven years old. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. She is the recipient of a Posen Fellowship in Fiction, and her writing has appeared in n+1, The New Republic, Triple Canopy, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City