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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Russian-American author discusses ‘Jews in her house’

Published: November 5, 2010
Section: News

PHOTO BY Nate Rosenbloom/The Hoot

Russian-American author Lara Vapnyar read from and spoke about her book, “There are Jews in My House,” Wednesday in an atmosphere of Russian conversation and light refreshments.

Hosted by the Brandeis Genesis Institute, Vapnyar’s event was intended to build cultural connections between Russian Jews and other members of the Jewish community.

The event was co-sponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Russian Studies, Judaic Studies and Creative Writing.

Of Vapnyar’s three books, “Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love,” “There Are Jews in My House” and “Memoirs of a Muse,” there is a common theme of food because “food is much easier to get than love,” Vapnyar said.

“There Are Jews in My House” was published in 2004, and won the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers.

Vapnyar began by reading a selection from her book and describing the feet of each member of her family from her perspective as a child, sitting under the kitchen table.

She continued by describing the importance of her family ritual of making Salad Olivier, a salad composed of diced potatoes, vegetables and meats bound in mayonnaise. “The process of making Salad Olivier brought the whole family together, I don’t remember anything else we did together as a family,” Vapnyar said.

In a question and answer discussion with Director of the Russian Language Program, Professor Irina Dubinina, Vapnyar discussed the difference between writing in the “we” language, Russian, and the “they” language, English.

According to Vapnyar, “it is liberating to write in English versus in Russian, because I am not aware of my mistakes, so my writing flows more easily.”

Vapnyar continued to talk not only about how she became an author, but how she became an author in English, her second language.

When she came to the United States in 1994, Vapnyar was a “good Russian girl” and tried to become a computer programmer, but was miserable.

She found herself turning to writing as her only outlet for expression, because she “didn’t have enough friends to discuss important things with, like love and literature.”

After conveying how deeply she identifies as a Russian and Soviet person because she was brought up reading Russian classics, Vapnyar then explained how she loves American literature because it is literature “from people who come from somewhere else.

“I am happy to call myself an American writer,” she said.

When asked if she felt nostalgia for living in Russia, Vapnyar replied, “I feel nostalgia for the country of my childhood, but it is like having nostalgia for a country that is like Atlantis: it isn’t there anymore.”

Vapnyar’s books reflect pleasures and frustrations experienced by Russian and American characters in daily life, while focusing on different foods as the objects that distinguish characters from one another and, like Salad Olivier, bring them together as well.

At one point Vapnyar expressed how her Russian characters happen to be better, and more real than her American characters.

She compared her Russian characters to mother’s milk, and her American characters to baby formula, saying, “You can’t quite know what’s in it. Its soul is missing.”

Vapnyar concluded by explaining how she started writing about a safe and easy topic, Russians versus Americans.

Now, however, she is trying to transcend the “we” and “they” labels to write about people in general.