Like Water and Other Stories
A podcast for The New Books Network
The Emigre Story Revisited
The phenomenon of the Russian emigre writer is nothing new. Exile seems almost as necessary a commodity as ink to many of Russia’s most celebrated writers, including Alexander Herzen, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivan Bunin, Josef Brodsky, and Sergei Dovlatov. For these titans of Russian literature, leaving was a binary choice, for some imposed upon them, for others a wrenching decision. For each, the idea of being “other” and “apart” was a rich lode of material, endlessly mined.
A new generation of Russian emigres is blessed — or cursed — with the ease of long-haul flights and frequent flyer miles, Skype and FaceTime, Google translate, and regulations that seem anyway to be more forgiving about former citizens traveling to and fro. For them, the border has become far more porous than it ever was, and the choices are now more nuanced. However, there are still plenty of cultural minefields to navigate. To this generation that includes writers as disparate as Gary Shteyngart and Irina Reyn comes Olga Zilberbourg with a new collection of short stories, “Like Water and Other Stories.”
Zilberbourg is a native of St. Petersburg and came of age in that cultural well-spring of literary genius. When perestroika offered the option to emigrate, Zilberbourg’s Jewish family considered it long and hard, ultimately choosing to remain in place. Zilberbourg decided to go to school in the United States and ended up staying in the country. She currently teaches comparative literature in San Francisco, and somehow finds time to craft her unique and very compelling short stories.
Perhaps it is the paucity of time that has turned Zilberbourg into a master of the craft of “flash fiction” honed and made famous by the likes of Lydia Davis and Barbara Henning. Some stories are mere paragraphs or even sentences. One distills the entire work-life balance for women into one cogent — and heartbreaking — sentence. The stories deal with the same kind of issues that Zilberbourg’s Russian predecessors grappled with for centuries: the sense of disconnect at the heart of the emigre experience. But she also explores more universal themes such as the challenges of motherhood, the double-edged sword that is the mother-daughter relationship, the pathos of a missed opportunity, and the perennial hit and miss of trying to meld two cultures into a single whole.
Zilberbourg’s great talent lies in her ability to see the story around her, but not take it so seriously. Though many of the stories hinge on poignant moments and vignettes, so too do they make us laugh out loud. In “Like Water,” Zilberbourg has let the air out of the tires of Russian emigre literature just enough to allow a much wider audience to engage in the experience, as well as with these beautiful short stories — a genre Zilberbourg has thoroughly harnessed and made her own.
Enjoy my conversation with Olga Zilberbourg
Recommended Related Reading
Some of the many books Gill mentioned in our discussion, which she found excellent source material for The Lost Daughter.
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Exploring food markets, developing recipes, and just eating was once my hobby, but now it is a full-time job. I write about food markets around the world, develop recipes, and study culinary history and emerging trends. I have a particular interest in Russian and Eastern European cuisine and culinary history.
I believe that great books are part of a life well lived and this extends to audio entertainment. Under the Lifestyle umbrella, I review books, podcasts, and audiobooks, I discuss writing and reading and am constantly on the lookout for new ways to be productive and clear all manner of clutter from my life.
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