Interview: Author Boris Fishman discusses émigré novel ‘A Replacement Life’

Boris Fishman reads from A Replacement Life at Prairie Lights on Feb 23 -- Photo by Stephanie Kaltsas
Boris Fishman reads from his novel A Replacement Life at Prairie Lights on Feb 23 — Photo by Stephanie Kaltsas

Boris Fishman

Prairie Lights — February 23 at 7 p.m.

Author Boris Fishman visits Prairie Lights Thursday to read from A Replacement Life, his highly acclaimed debut novel. The New York Times selected it for their 100 Notable Books of 2014, and Buzzfeed included Fishman in its list of 20-Under-40 Debut Writers. Little Village recently spoke with Fishman about the ideals and life experience that inspired the captivating émigré story at the center of A Replacement Life.

Little Village: Your novel is about a Russian-Jewish immigrant trying to find his identity as both a writer and a first-generation American. How does Slava’s story relate to your own?

Boris Fishman: The questions Slava has are definitely the questions I had as both a human being and a writer in my twenties: What parts of the old culture do I want to keep and what do I want to get rid of? What parts of my new culture do I want to adopt?

You feel like an outsider so you have a fantasy of fitting into one or the other category–only then you’ll be whole. The Soviet Passport carried a line — line number five — that declares your ethnicity. Jewish is what mine said and that’s what I was.

The beauty of this country is that you can decide who you are and of what you are made. This is what America is. I’m free to choose what parts of my culture become my identity.

The relationship between Slava and his parents is complex, yet also telling of immigrant families. Is there a question Slava is also searching for within?

They are wonderful and generous people but they are increasingly out of tune with who he is becoming because he is growing up in America, and they are staying in the old country. His question is always how to continue to maintain a bridge between them. They’ve made this great sacrifice for him, but the price tag attached to it is that every day they feel more and more foreign to him.

Part of that debt is repaid as Slava helps his grandfather, Yevgency, knowingly ‘fabricate’ a story detailing his wartime experience in order to qualify for restitution. The reader is faced with a true sense of gray between right and wrong.

Slava begins the novel as an emotional fundamentalist. Am I Russian or I am American? Is this right or is this wrong? It’s this fantasy of the world that works in neat, mappable ways. When you were a child, you were trying to map the world in one way. It’s a fantasy of security.

The thing about fundamentalists is that they can’t handle nuance. Slava is rudely introduced to this world where no amount of work earns him success. His ego is pulling him one way; his morality is pulling him another. This is a character at sea. Things are rapidly losing their color and swimming into a gray mass. Life never works in the way he hoped, but it’s survivable and beautiful anyway.

A common theme in your work is how children of immigrants often become parents to their own parents. Where has your life and your writing brought you to on this subject?

That is the dark underside of that experience. When a family immigrates to America from a very different place, the culture shock cannot be under-estimated. Not only do they have to get on their feet economically — we were not allowed to leave the Soviet Union with any possessions or any money — but they are confronted with all of these choices.

All the institutions that exist here didn’t exist there or were determined for you by the government: credit cards, home insurance, auto insurance, life insurance. So there is a tremendous amount of anxiety and now there is a little person who can help parents navigate this. As a kid you look around and see these people that you love are full of terror and anxiety.

You want to restore the joy and calm to them. They are very grateful, you are addicted to that praise and on it goes. The problem is that it is psychologically traumatizing to a child. You walk around the world with an unjustified sense of responsibility of the people around you. There is no child that should be shouldering those things.

Do you see this pattern present in your own life?

I know how to work hard, hustle and get things done, of which I’m very proud. But I have also struggled with the consequences of feeling an excessive amount of responsibility for the fates of others. My personal legacy is the legacy of both of those things. It’s very present in my work.

How is the America today different from the America your parents immigrated into?

We now live in a country where immigrants can come here and live in an insular culture. America is no longer demanding that they assimilate. People are eager to take advantage of the culture economically and take advantage of those opportunities. However, one of the downsides of this new America where you don’t have to assimilate is (at least in the case of my people) that they have the liberty to remain Soviet in their thinking: averse to risk, cynical towards government structures, clannish and averse to entrepreneurialism in every sense of the word.

Your manuscript, rejected 11 times, is now a ‘New York Times Top 100 Notable Book,’ amongst other accolades. What advice do you have for writers on the subject of perseverance?

There is no way to achieve anything of distinction in this culture, which is so competitive, without failure. I want people to know that it takes ten years of closed doors to find one that is open. It’s normal. Our sense of fairness has to be adjusted if we want to succeed in this world.

People are conditioned to believe that twenty-five closed doors is a signal to give up. For me, it’s a signal to keep going. This novel was promising, but not good for a very long time. A lot of people let me know that. It put me in the fetal position on the couch, but I uncurled myself and kept going.

Keep calm and carry on?

I’ve found that half the problem is that constant worry if you are good or not. When you are stressed about whether it is going to work, you are rigid and overthinking. The world will gladly seize all chances to tell you if you are good or not. So leave that to them. Liberate yourself from self-worry. It leaves you with more comfort to play.

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