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Creative writing program sponsors Judeo-Russian author

Published: November 9, 2012
Section: Features, Top Stories


Gary Shteyngar’s book reading at Brandeis Nov. 5 was not only an important literary experience for students but also an accomplishment for the creative writing department.

Associate Director of Creative Writing Steven McCauley assures, “We’ve been trying to bring Gary Shteyngar to Brandeis for several years.” A prolific writer, Shteyngar’s arrival was made possible by multiple factors. “He’s doing a reading elsewhere in Boston,” says McCauley, “and the Russian studies department was contacted by his booking agent.” Also sponsored by the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry and steadfastly encouraged by Irina Dubinina, director of the Russian Language Program, Shteyngar’s book reading was available only through the communication and cooperation of departments.

McCauley describes how Shteyngar “has a big following among college students, is a major contemporary writer and a greater performer and some of his novels have been taught in courses in the English department.” Born in Leningrad, USSR, to Jewish parents, Shteyngar rose to fame with only three novels. His works have won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, become New York Times Notable Books and won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic literature. With a talent for satire, Shteyngar is famous for making fun of everything and everyone.

While McCauley admits that for book readings, “audience size varies greatly from event to event,” the Shteyngar reading was extremely well-attended. Extra chairs had to be added to accommodate the swelling audience. McCauley explains that the large audience could be due to a partnering with different departments, for it “builds audiences for the reading series and [attracts] students outside of English and creative writing who might not ordinarily consider attending a reading.” Indeed, as Kathy Lawrence announced Shteyngar’s reading, she proclaimed he should feel at home due to the large number of Russian-speaking Jews in the audience.

Shteyngar chose to read from two of his novels, his newest, “Super Sad True Love Story,” followed by his first, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.” Both scenes chosen illustrated dating scenes and Russian culture. While “Super Sad True Love Story” is set in the future, the scene Shteyngar read was immensely relatable. He wrote of the relationship between child and parents, whose main hobby is a “painful scrutiny of their only child.” The scene fondly mocked traditional Russian parents, their dining room with “fish-smelling air,” floors “immigrant clean” and loud, noisy personalities. The second novel’s scene focused less on parents but still concerned itself with Russian culture. It described what its relationship in a “Russian soul” and entailed an uproarious first-date story.

Shteyngar is all that his books make him out to be: he is a funny man and a comic reader. While he reads quickly, all in one breath, he pauses to add different voices to his characters. He would give his Russian voices heavy accents, while American characters’ voices were higher-pitched, their dialogue filled with “likes” and “totallys.” Even before the reading, Shteyngar illustrated his sense of humor. He mentioned the modern looking cover of “Super Sad True Love Story,” which is adorned with different colored buttons. He describes how it took a focus group to pick the cover. Yet, the end result only serves readers minimally, for, “if you have a small dog like a dachshund, it can play twister on this.”

In the question and answer session after the reading, Shteyngar admits his satire is at the ready for everyone. While he mentions the bad reviews he received from Russian critics, he also states that “nothing gets a free pass, everything sucks in my books.” His admiration for the United States is nothing extreme, he describes it as “a decent country,” but mentions how “nothing lasts forever” and “every empire comes to an end.” In making fun of the U.S., Russians and Jewish people, audiences can at least proclaim that Shteyngar is certainly fair.

Shteyngar does seem to hold a special place in his heart for Russia. At one point, admitting that he struggles with anxiety and depression, he made it clear he believes returning to Russia is helpful. He proclaims he is trying to find out “who [his] parents really are, and how did they become the people they are,” admitting that that has a direct correlation to himself. Shteyngar seems to struggle with finding himself and finding the true spirit of Russia, for he believes “nothing ever changes in Russia.” While he describes the political turmoil and poverty in the country, it nevertheless has an irreplaceable hold on Shteyngar. Currently penning a memoir, Russia is extremely essential to Shteyngar’s person.

McCauley describes the impact that readings like Shteyngar’s can have on students. “It exposes students to a variety of voices and writing styles,” McCauley says. “Meeting a writer face-to-face gives you an instant connection to their work and emphasizes the point that the creation of literature is an ongoing process,” he says. Students were interested in Shteyngar’s history as a writer, asking questions about his creative process. Shteyngar mentioned how it was his grandmother who got him to write, promising him, “I’ll pay you a piece of cheese for each page you write.” His first story circled around Lennon and a magical goose and ended with Lennon consuming his comrade. More seriously, Shteyngar admits that writing “was a way I could be appreciated” and mentions it as a key to making his first friends.

Discriminated against due to his heritage, Shteyngar found writing as a way to connect.

McCauley vouches for creative-writing-sponsored readings, even when they have very few attendees. He believes these programs hold true value. “Even if you don’t love an author’s work, there’s always a line or a sentence or an observation in a reading that is inspiring,” he said.