Author Boris Fishman On Immigration and Identity in Fiction

Boris Fishman (Photo credit: Stephanie Kaltmas)

Boris Fishman (Photo credit: Stephanie Kaltmas)

By Adam Vitcavage

Boris Fishman’s latest novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, is about a young Jewish-American couple that immigrates to the United States from Eastern Europe. (You can read my full review in March’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar.”)

While traveling abroad to participate in panels for the London Jewish Book Fair, Fishman was kind enough to answer some questions via email about his perspective on immigration, global affairs, and his new writing project about food.

Adam Vitcavage: You immigrated to America at a young age. You’ve also been in American longer than I have—I was born a year after you came to the country as a boy. Now, I’d say you’re probably more “American” than I am because, technically, you lived here longer than I. Whatever that means. What has it been like being an immigrant in America in 2017?

Boris Fishman: I’m more curious about your question than my answer. In what way do you feel less American than you imagine I do? My own condition on this is all over the place. Despite having very strong sympathies with their side, I don’t feel like one of the immigrants who are centrally affected by what’s going on in this country right now. But I couldn’t feel less “American” than you imagine me to. (Equally curious why you do.) Perhaps because I was born in another country—and continued to live in it, so to speak, emotionally and psychologically as I grew up in my family home here in the States; the immigration shouldn’t be dated to 9 years old but my post-college twenties, if that—I have very different values when it comes to certain things. More Russian values, more European values. The two areas in which I am proudest to be an American—now under attack—are its rule of law and civil liberties. There are many other issues where that’s less the case. But that doesn’t make me feel like an immigrant. It makes me feel like a foreigner.

AV: In a recent interview you said, “The problem with Russia reporting—just like, say, Iran reporting—is that the political tension makes non-political stories rare.” I’ve noticed a trend since the election that a lot of topics have become politicized in America. Do you feel American rhetoric is shifting in tat direction? Or are we just in a wave of tension right now?

BF: In the Soviet Union, we used to have three television channels. At American airports—I’m writing this at JFK—it feels like there’s only one: CNN. I travel a lot, and there’s no airport gate that isn’t besieged by poor Wolf Blitzer droning on about the same things over and over. (I have to imagine that the airport people are trying to split the difference between Fox and MSNBC.) Meanwhile, serious newspaper journalism—an indispensable safeguard, a civic necessity—is dying. And social media makes it too easy to gaze at no navel other than one’s own, and heap scorn on the other side that one would never dare heap were one doing it to someone’s face. So I’d say not so much that we’re becoming more politicized, but that the loudest among us seem to be eagerly, rapidly becoming stupider and lazier. Less interested in nuance. Less tolerant of dissenting opinion. Less thoughtful before we speak. More gratuitously provocative. More indulgent of our baser instincts. The dominion of social media is one of the reasons it’s so hard for me to feel at home here right now. This country is full of thoughtful, moderate people. But they’re not the ones shouting at us everyday. I’m not on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. I don’t have a television. But I still can’t escape it.

AV: You recently traveled to Estonia and Latvia to discuss creative life in America. What can you share about the arts and literature in Eastern European countries like those?

BF: There are lots of fascinating things going on there. Estonia, a country the size of your fingertip, is so much more technologically advanced than America is, it’s embarrassing. Riga, in Latvia, is an enchanted place—the best of Europe at a third of the price. Latvia is in a real nationalist mood, which leads them to cut off their noses to spite their faces politically, but on the other hand, it’s so nice to see a capital city untouched by the globalized sameness you see in so many places around the world, from Brooklyn to Moscow and even Tallinn, whose proximity to Finland is curse and blessing both. Latvian food, Latvian fashion designers, Latvian jewelry designers—you get a very strong sense of place. But there’s no way to be in either country without feeling the political shadow cast by Russia next door, and Trump’s abdication of NATO guarantees to the Baltic states. It takes real effort to see past, indeed, the swarming political questions.

AV: This novel explores themes of immigration, acculturation, assimilation, and more. Your first novel touched on similar themes What entices you to explore these topics?

BF: They’ve affected every moment of my life.

AV: When you’re crafting a story to tell, do you write for a particular audience? For Americans? For Jewish immigrants?

BF: I want to write the smartest possible book for the broadest possible audience. What this means is that in my books there are no sinners or saints; no easy feelings; no straightforward answers. Because those things exist in real life very rarely. But that ambiguity, ambivalence, and complexity can never be an excuse for vagueness, diaristic philosophizing, or gratuitous difficulty in the writing. I am fanatical about giving my reader as many tools as I can to help him or her make sense of the human mess I’m describing. So to the extent I imagine an audience, I imagine smart people reading carefully, and I thank them by making it as easy on them as I can. But I’m incapable of doing that by simplifying the story, by making the ideas simpler, the language homelier. And that isn’t for everyone. Someone told me recently, “I was really affected by your book, but I really couldn’t do anything else while I read it.” As far as compliments go, it was a begrudging one. For my part, I don’t want to write a book that would be simplistic enough to make full sense of while watching television or doing the laundry. That book would be a lie, as I see it. But some people read to escape into a better, or easier, world. And that’s okay. We all worship different things.

AV: Writers often embed truths about themselves in their own writing. Did you do that with your last novel? Did you discover anything surprising about yourself?

BF: Yes. I thought I was writing a novel about the many women of my mother’s generation who have given their lives to taking care of the men around them, and then I realized that in writing about an adopted child I was writing about myself. Immigration renders you so foreign to your elders that you might as well be adopted.

AV: Your first novel came out in 2014. This came out in 2016. Can we expect the next book like clockwork for early 2018? If so, can you share a little bit about the project?

BF: I’m in the last third of the first draft, so very possibly! It’s a food memoir. The first part is the story of our Soviet lives, and immigration, told through food—Soviet food was way better than its reputation suggests because it was, by necessity, local, seasonal, and organic, at a cost of next to nothing. Refrigeration technology came late; supply chains were inefficient; agriculture didn’t make industrial use of pesticides in the same way; and so on.

The second part is the story of a woman who came into my family’s life after my grandmother passed away in 2004—a home aide from Ukraine who took care of my grandfather. She was a phenomenal cook, and her tables, not to put too fine a point on it, ended up bringing me back to a family and culture I was trying very hard to abandon. I followed her to Ukraine, and learned to cook from her, and then ran with it on my own: I worked in a restaurant on the Lower East Side for five months.

So Part 3 is all the ways my own time in the kitchen has saved me. I had a very difficult personal experience several years ago; cooking brought me out of it. It was also how I met the woman with whom I now live. And it was our proving ground. We spent the first week of our courtship using some very inadequate tools to cook for 40 screaming Lakota Sioux kids on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, part of a traveling summer camp for which she was a counselor and I, somehow, a chef.

To learn more about Boris Fishman, visit his official website.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archives