Swapping stories 

A discussion with author Boris Fishman

Writers & Books this week will present a series of events with debut novelist Boris Fishman, whose critically-acclaimed, witty and moving novel, "A Replacement Life" draws on his own life experiences as an immigrant from the former USSR, and a grandchild of a Holocaust survivor.

The grandmother of Fishman's young protagonist, Slava Gelman, has just died, taking her secreted stories of surviving the Minsk Ghetto with her. When Slava is persuaded by his grandfather into falsifying Holocaust restitution letters for himself and his Russian friends, he's drawn back into the immigrant community he's fought to leave behind him.

City Newspaper spoke with Fishman regarding the themes of immigrant experience, moral ambiguity, and the progression of shifting identity. Following is an edited version of that conversation.

City: Some of this story is based on autobiographical experience — you were born in Belarus, and helped your grandmother fill out restitution paperwork. How did you develop the idea for the forgeries of experience?

Boris Fishman: When I was filling out my grandmother's paperwork in real life, I was kind of struck by the fact that the application didn't require any proof, because so many people don't have any kind of confirmation that they went through what they went through. A matter of historical record became a matter of storytelling — if you could just tell a good story, you were in. And I just started thinking about whether somebody would have a reason to do this that wasn't evil. Because I wanted to present a sort of morally complex portrait — like somebody who is using a sort of sacred experience toward dubious ends. And yet, how dubious are they? Legally, no question, but morally, maybe it's a complex picture.

After his grandmother dies and Slava loses the option of learning about her Holocaust stories, he begins imagining her experiences as a means of feeling closer to her. Though it's understandable that he wants to feel connected to his family history, she didn't seem to want her life to be defined by that part of her past. Why do you think Slava places — and why do we place — so much emphasis on the most traumatic parts of a life?

Because Slava's life is larger than being his grandmother's grandson. He has his own desires and needs for information, and the substance and history and legacy and heritage that helps him to feel like a whole human being. Some of that depends on a disclosure of things that she went through.

The irony here is that he wants to feel closer to her, but in order to feel closer to her, which is what she wants, he has to hurt her, in a way, by forcing her to talk about something she doesn't want to talk about. That all goes back to this tragedy that is particular to immigrants. There's so much distance between the parents and the children, because they're having such different experiences.

But the ultimate answer is Slava does not define himself entirely by his grandmother's needs. As respectful as he wants to be, he's his own human being, with his own needs to fulfill. They're reverent needs, they come out of respect, not abuse. That subject is important to me because, in a family like mine, or the one described in the novel, you show love by doing what your elders want. But the American way is something different. And so that's what's getting reconciled in the novel.

Do you think it's common for those who didn't experience such trauma firsthand to want to relive the stories more than the survivors themselves?

Absolutely, because there's a hunger for experience, a hunger for substance, and you exoticize that experience. I don't want to romanticize it, but what makes for good stories, whether orally, or between the covers of a book? It's drama, and trauma, and conflict, and how people survive trying circumstances. Well, World War II and the Holocaust are ripe for storytelling because they're full of drama and conflict and suspense and danger, but partly because it's inconceivable that that could have happened. And 70 years later, it remains inconceivable.

And there's a big push to record the stories before we lose all of the survivors.

That's exactly right. There's plenty of history and plenty of testimony, but we do lose something when the last survivor goes. And they're about to go. One of the questions I wanted to raise in the novel is how do we make this relevant for a generation that will grow up without first-hand testimony?

Did your own grandmother speak openly and frankly with you about her experiences before you helped with her paperwork?

No, she did not. She had the same reaction to it that Slava's grandmother did. But unlike Slava, I managed to get her to talk, basically by tricking her into it. I just told her once that I had a school assignment to do on three generations of family history. And if I didn't come up with something detailed, I'd get a bad grade. And she fell for it, because she wouldn't have dared to cost me a good grade!

Do you think Sofia would have applied for restitution funds if the application letter had come in her lifetime?

Oh yes! That's a question no one has asked, because the focus is always on grandfather and his moral compass, but grandmother was not some kind of saint. She wouldn't have been above getting paid for what she went through. I think her attitude would have been, "Nothing can compensate for what I went through, but having to choose between zero and $400 a month, I'll choose $400 a month."

How would she have felt about the forgeries?

She would have been all for it. She was morally upright not in the legalistic way, but in a spiritual way. She would rather have killed herself than have seen any harm come to her grandson, for example. But cheating the German government? Cheat away.

You give your readers a very intimate look into a complex community of immigrants. What do you think Americans don't understand about the experience of immigrants, and that of the children of immigrants?

That's really important too. Because I do find, as I get older, that no matter how well-meaning someone's curiosity or goodwill is, it's simply impossible to come inside another person's grief or trauma.

There's a tremendous amount of interest in immigrant culture and immigrant literature, but no matter how much Americans read about it, I don't think it's possible to understand the sense of discomfort, stranded-ness, and inadequacy that accompanies the experience. Maybe the literature's failing to convey it viscerally enough. I think Americans are reading these books because they explore experiences that are far more traumatic than what they themselves have gone through, but also more vibrant.

A lot of American readers, who don't have these first-hand experiences with immigrant parents or being immigrants themselves, crave some sort of authentic feeling of a culture that they feel separated from, being so many generations removed from immigrant ancestry.

Exactly. I think the predominant feeling among young, educated, liberal Americans today is guilt. By guilt I mean, they're killing the planet, they need to be politically correct, they don't know what kind of authority they're allowed to have. These immigrant cultures are full of people who are dealing with survival issues. Depression, and hand-wringing are the luxury of people whose material needs are taken care of. A lot of these immigrant stories are about abuse, and survival, and elemental challenges, and it's actually liberating, to have those problems, rather than the ones that modern Americans have. There's something toxic about the sort of modern malaise that we've got in America today. It's that absence of authenticity.

Slava is trying to form an individual identity amid the tension of two worlds that he can't completely access, which shows in Arianna's instruction on American Jewishness, his grandfather's generation's cunning survival skills, and Slava's failed attempts with that lavender suit. How does his struggle with those two worlds compare with your own experience?

It's identical. Slava wants to work at Century because it's WASP-y. There's a kind of self-loathing that immigrants have, which is especially true sometimes for Jews who were made to feel very bad about being Jewish in the Soviet Union. So you come here, and you want to be like the clean, nice-smelling people, to put it crudely. But what Slava learns is that he does his best work when he's around 'barbarians' like himself. Time does its thing, regardless, and in three generations, Slava will be Arianna. But you can only rush that so much. For now, his best work will come from being with grandfather.

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