The September Issue! Now available to read on believermag.com and in a store near you. Featuring: Chris Kraus on Kathy Acker, Joe Kloc on thoroughbred turtle racing, Eula Biss on giving (and losing) blood, interviews with Neil LaBute and Meshell Ndegeocello, Wayne Koestenbaum on his new…
This is happening and I’m so excited.
Los Angeles! This Thursday, July 17th at 7:30pm, join Believer editor Karolina Waclawiak as she presents the 1945 film I Know Where I’m Going! as part of Clockshop’s My Atlas summer event series. The series “pairs films with live travelogues to explore the varied experiences of women travelers.”
Curated by Believer contributor Sasha Archibald along with Julia Metzler and Courtney Stephens, the series will feature Vanessa Veselka, Andrea Richards, Dolores Dorantes, and more. Check out the full schedule here.
Tickets: $10, $7 for students
The outdoor film series will be held at Elysian courtyard at 2806 Clearwater St., Los Angeles, CA 90039 unless otherwise specified.
I’ll be talking about my travel back to Poland at Clockshop’s My Atlas Series this Thursday! Stop by and stay to see I Know Where I’m Going!
“Our better life started in a small cockroach-infested apartment on the side of a highway in San Antonio, Texas. My mother’s homesickness was unbearable, and we almost went back to Poland. What some may not understand is that this pursuit of a better life breaks you. My mother sometimes says,…
This new forward to my book by Anya Ulinich is just pure kick-ass goodness.
An Introduction to How To Get into the Twin Palms by Anya Ulinich
This essay is excerpted from this month’s issue of the Emily Books Reader, our iOS app that includes each of our books plus interviews, essays and other extras. It’s free to download, $9.99/month or $99.99/year. (You can still subscribe and buy the books online and receive the books via email, too.)
A Facebook friend who’d moved to the U.S. from St. Petersburg in his thirties recently posted a frustrated status update in which he complained about a younger writer. This writer had immigrated from Russia as a child, and now wrote an overwrought (in my friend’s opinion) essay about her conflicted identity. His basic point was that since she’d grown up in America, she was essentially American. Her memories of the old country were childish and vague or, perhaps, even second-hand, based on photographs and stories. Not only did she speak English without an accent, she was more comfortable expressing herself in English than in her first language. The only experience of adulthood she’d had was an American experience. Most importantly, Americans didn’t perceive her as “other.” Because of this, my friend said, her identity issues, if not entirely made up for the sake of her readers, were greatly exaggerated. She didn’t face the daily oppression of being treated like a foreigner, of having to distinguish herself from a stereotype that rose like a wall in people’s minds whenever they heard accented speech. She didn’t experience the difficulty of navigating around cultural knowledge gaps that persisted in older immigrants long after they mastered the vernacular of everyday life. So why, my friend wondered, why was she being such drama queen about the difficulty of her bifurcated identity? My friend found it unseemly. Nabokov, he argued, had never made a peep about his identity troubles.
I’m not saying that Nabokov had it easy in general, but he had it easy in a certain way. He was so very clearly a Russian exile. He did not need to defend the notion that his outsiderness defined him. But assimilated immigrants, members of the 1.5th generation, carry their foreignness like a secret. It’s a very real part of them, yet somehow illegitimate. (I want to argue with myself here: “America, the country of immigrants, is made up of outsiders! There is no such thing as an ‘American’!” So, let’s forget the national specifics and talk generally about people who carry a phantom reality with them—not just a set of memories, but an alternate self. Let’s use the word “American” to mean someone who belongs and the word “foreigner” to mean, more generally, an outsider.) The alternate, foreign self of an assimilated immigrant is woefully incomplete, vague, half-alive. So when such a person travels to their country of origin, they feel like foreigners there, too. It’s often culturally, morally, and politically unappealing (there was a good reason for leaving the old country!) Yet it’s undeniably present. It’s not as finite as “baggage,” and it’s not as tangible as a “skeleton in the closet.” It’s more like a sinkhole that shrinks and expands unpredictably, triggered by emotion or circumstance—by a bout of insecurity or a period of loneliness, by a failure to communicate.
I have to switch into first person here, because I’m a member of the 1.5th generation myself. Or, more precisely, of the 1.3rd generation—I was almost an adult, but not quite, when I moved to the U.S. So anyway, occasionally the sinkhole gets big enough that it threatens to swallow our tangible, American selves. In those times, our residual selves seem like our most authentic ones. The sinkhole devalues our reality, undermines us, from the inside. We fear those moments, and we take appropriate measures.
We may try to brightly label the sinkhole, playing up our origins, placing ourselves inside the traditional immigrant narrative. But ethnic and cultural self-labeling makes us cringe, because these labels don’t really describe what’s going on with us. We are not the same as our parents. We don’t have a right to the classic immigrant story. Our nostalgia is for American high schools we attended, for the American TV of our childhoods. Sometimes, we try to pave the sinkhole with self-hatred. For example, Russian immigrants in New York love to talk about how much they hate Brighton Beach. But we can’t help coming back to Brighton Beach Avenue, to eat borscht under the train tracks and to just make sure we really hate it, just one more time. Waclawiak’s heroine, Anya/Zosia, is repulsed by the Polish restaurant, which reminds her of a roadside brothel. She looks at the proprietor and his young wife and speculates about their sordid pasts. Waclawiak’s writing harshly amplifies sour tastes and smells, tacky décor and painful history. It’s a stressful scene to read, and it’s my favorite one. At the end, Anya/Zosia looks around at the non-Polish patrons of the restaurant and thinks: “I’m sure they were laughing at this version of us, with all its kitsch and old-world charm. I was embarrassed that the owner pushed it this far. I felt a sense of pride and shame all at once. I felt like I had to tell them how it really was, but then, I didn’t really know at all.” This last sentence describes, very precisely in my opinion, the existential state of the 1.5th generation. Anya/Zosia doesn’t enjoy the food at the restaurant and can’t wait to get out of there. Yet later, she makes one of the dishes for her boyfriend. She makes it wrong, and it’s inedible.
Anya/Zosia isn’t a heroine in a traditional sense, and How to Get Into the Twin Palms isn’t really a book about a girl’s life. Anya/Zosia doesn’t make any sense as a character moving through plot. Why does she pretend to be Russian, why does she swim in an ash-littered pool, why does she hurt her hands, why does she drive around aimlessly? Eventually, you give up trying to make sense of all this, and just listen to Anya/Zosia’s voice. It’s the voice of a homeless soul, unmoored and increasingly panicked. The real plot arc of How To Get Into the Twin Palms is that of an existential crisis, and the book is set in Los Angeles, a classic setting for stories of alienation. Zosia passes for an American, to everyone but herself. While LA remains quite abstract and conceptual (the fires, the grid), the writing in the parts set in Poland is visceral and concrete—Zosia has best emotional and sensory access to it, yet she can’t even pass for Polish. So the homeless soul looks of a bit of neutral ground by pretending to be a third thing—a Russian, and changing her name to Anya. (I tried not to read this as political or historical allegory— what does it mean for a Pole to pretend to be Russian?—as a reader, I wanted to remain focused on the existential message of the novel.) But Anya/Zosia’s Russianness is a flimsy, temporary landing pad. As she crashes through it, she grasps at tangible things, spending a lot of time in near-forensic contemplation of body and skin, tub drains and soap scum, hair and blood, shit and chemicals. Alone, in an empty apartment, having literally lost everything, she searches for some firm ground to stand on. She doesn’t find it, but perhaps she doesn’t have to. The end of the book feels like a sudden burst of sunlight on a gray day. It describes a state of transition as the most hopeful, happiest one. It’s the only authentic state for the likes of Anya/Zosia—and, in an increasingly mobile world, more and more of us are like her. We’re escape addicts, compartmentalizers, chameleons. Living on a sinkhole, we pack light.
Anya Ulinich is the author of Petropolis and the forthcoming Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a graphic novel. She lives in Brooklyn.
The May Issue! Now available to read on believermag.com and in a store near you. Featuring: Anne Helen Petersen on the celebrity gossip industry; Lauren Quinn on how the Khmer Rouge’s legacy begets tourism; interviews with Chuck Palanihuk, Kenneth Lonergan; the Believer book awards, and…
The Believer is proud to announce the recipients of our 2013 Book and Poetry awards! So proud, in fact, that we’ve decided to share the winners here on the Believer Logger ahead of our May issue’s official release.
THE 2013 BELIEVER BOOK AWARD
For the past ten years, the editors of the …