Boris Fishman, author of the acclaimed A Replacement Life, is back with Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo, an unmissable tale of self-discovery, family and identity.
ONE Editor Elena Lappin sat down with Boris to discuss immigration, Moscow culture and the lure of Montana.
Is the adopted American child in Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo your Russian immigrant couple’s direct route to connecting with America?
If so, it’s a forced route. Like many immigrants — but also like very many American-born people; frankly, like most people, period, and doesn’t that feel more true today than in recent decades, especially in Britain and in the US — their curiosity about different ways of life is modest, to put it charitably. I should clarify that this is true only for Alex. Maya craves contact with whatever is out there. She’s one of that small tribe of people who either are born or have been converted by some intense personal experience to wonder about lives lived differently. Not in a volunteering-in-Africa-for-the-resume kind of way. They want to know what moves people who are different than they are. All this said, Maya’s curiosity has been sleeping — she starts the novel as a firecracker, but then the great euthanizing effect of Soviet family values quicksands her into a service role. It’s no mystery that my heart is with Maya many times in the novel, but she’s less than admirable many times, too. As the novel starts, she has succumbed. And the encounter with America that occurs through Max is an accident, an accident that sets her free, but an accident nonetheless; it all started only because the Rubins couldn’t get pregnant.
Why did you choose Montana as the American counterpoint to your main characters’ life in New York and New Jersey?
The story of how I fell in love with this place is long but good. Perhaps the most efficient way to tell it would be to send you here.
Maya is so convincingly written that one has to ask: who was the inspiration behind this very vibrant character?
This is very, very gratifying to hear. That was one of the ways I wanted to stretch with this novel after a debut heavily informed by my personal experiences, and so to hear I succeeded is enormously satisfying. The woman herself is an amalgam of women I’ve known — my mother; an older woman with children I was involved with; the Soviet-American women I know who always place themselves last. But the real answer has to do with the way I grew up. I was loved very well by my family. What this means in practice is that I was allowed to connect to my feelings, to let them rise to the surface. The sensitivity you feel in the novel comes from that. (Though perhaps my family has come to regret just how much they supported my saying whatever I felt!) The other piece comes from having grown up around Russian women who were members of this Soviet-Jewish self-abnegating cult of love. Everything for the child, nothing for them. But this is a pose. They continued to need plenty, only that it was my job to read between the lines to understand it. A frustrating, confusing way to grow up — you have to give what the asker herself doesn’t consciously understand herself to be asking — but it sharpens the hell out of your observational skills.
Your writing about the immigrant experience embraces all generations – parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren… Do you think migration affects a family as a whole?
I think the reason that all the generations come into it is because a Soviet-Jewish family is generationally enmeshed to a degree that no American family is. I don’t mean materially, though that, too. Emotionally. The nuclear family has seven members, like that USDA food pyramid: Two sets of grandparents at the bottom, two parents in the middle, one child at the top. Part of that was due to how scarce Soviet life was — you had to save by living together. And partly to the general clustering of Jews, always under threat, in the former Soviet Union. But everything happened together.
Have your recent trips to Russia surprised you in any way? Is your perception of it as an adult very different from your childhood memories?
Again, I’d like to send you to a story that answers this better than I can here. I returned for the first time in 15 years last fall — not to Minsk, where I was born; to Moscow — and fell in love with what I found, a very different reaction than the one I had on my last trip, in 2000, when I interned at the US Embassy in Moscow.
The problem with Russia reporting — just like, say, Iran reporting — is that the political tension makes non-political stories rare. But there are incredibly exciting things going on in Moscow outside politics (which is corrupt and deadly, no argument). What’s fascinating to me is that both seem to thrive — the corruption and authoritarianism, but also the non-political realm: the culture, the food, the architecture, the fashion. I stayed inside the Ring Road because I was reporting a travel piece for a mainstream publication, but I got the sense that it wasn’t a Potemkin village — there are spots of significant material and creative evolution elsewhere in the country, a real growing middle class. And things work — often better than in New York.
The one thing that disappointed me is how aping of American culture “cutting-edge” Moscow culture is. (This is all while America bashing, natch.) Many times, I felt like I could have been anywhere: Brooklyn, Berlin, etc. This global sameness is lethal and depressing, even as I was thrilled by Moscow’s transformation. My next project is a Ukrainian cookbook, for which I spent some time in regional Ukraine. It was less polished, but it was so raw and real. It still had that otherness that made me want to travel the world 20 years ago in the first place. It’s sad to think that this may be disappearing in many parts of the world as they become connected to the mothership of globalized commerce and culture.
Do you feel a stronger affinity with European or with American literature – or somewhere in between?
I feel a stronger affinity with European values. America’s unfettered worship of money and profit; the frequent suspicion toward the arts, elites, and intellectualism; its very self-regarding sense of itself; the geographic incuriosity of so many of its people — these are not my values. At the same time, America is a far more tolerant society than what I’ve encountered in Europe. I know of no place where the rights of minorities are protected as scrupulously, no small matter for someone who grew up as a Jew in the Soviet Union.
It’s odd then that my literary preferences are with America. But this is not a very useful statement because I don’t read much contemporary literature. There is so much to catch up with from the past, and there I love Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, J. M. Coetzee, Peter Godwin, Aleksandar Hemon, Jeanette Winterson as much as William Styron, Tobias Wolff, Richard Yates, Russell Banks, and so on.
This novel has a very ‘musical’ title – it sounds almost like a song. At what stage in the process of writing did you think of calling your novel ‘Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo’?
The one thing I don’t remember. If I had to guess, it was during washing the dishes, driving, or taking a shower — the three meditative activities of my life.
Max is an only child dealing with parents who don’t really understand his world. Is this theme perhaps even closer to your heart than the book’s more obvious ones – adoption and marriage?
Very astute observation. It’s a great moment when, midway, you realize you’re writing a book about something other than you thought. I am not adopted, but the ironic cost of the great sacrifice performed by immigrant parents is that by releasing their child into America’s hands, they ensure his transformation into an incomprehensible foreigner. For the last 20 years, they and I have been trying to create a new language of mutual understanding. (A divorce between the generations isn’t an option.) We’ve mostly succeeded, but it took a very long time, and very much heartache. I can’t imagine it’s very different from what happens in an adoptive family.
That may seem presumptuous to say, never having been part of one — we live in a time of suffocating correctness about story “ownership” — but if one submits to that, one might as well stop writing fiction altogether.
Love is the main connecting thread running through all your plot lines. You give your characters a lot of time to figure out who they are and how they feel. Do you think fiction is the best way of understanding ourselves and others?
Another great question. There’s the common (in my view) misconception that fiction is cathartic, that you work through things while writing. And it may seem so from my answer to your previous question. But I would put it differently: I already knew that the book was about me in this way; it just hadn’t risen up from my subconscious yet. And so I feel like the work of understanding happens largely off the written page. And the written page is the beneficiary of that work, even if you know only the broad strokes of what will happen in the novel when you start it. (As is my preference.)
I love reading because books are where I find people being more honest about themselves, and what life is really like, than anywhere else.
Who is Boris Fishman?
Boris Fishman is the descendant of several generations of people deeply traumatized by Russian and Soviet abuse of Jews; World War II and the Holocaust; and immigration to a country that couldn’t be more different than the Soviet Union.
Boris Fishman has more female friends than male.
Boris Fishman is most comfortable among people willing to be open about themselves. The desire to be this way has nothing to do with booksmarts.
Boris Fishman milked goats just this morning.
Boris Fishman is learning to let go.
Boris Fishman loves children, animals, and old people. Everything in-between is harder.
Boris Fishman is too blunt toward the people he’s closest to, and too diplomatic toward everyone else. This is changing, though.
Boris Fishman once worked as a cook for a roving summer camp of Lakota Sioux kids. Very many, very hungry Lakota Sioux kids.
Boris Fishman reads travel guidebooks for fun.
Boris Fishman has made peace with who he is, and isn’t. For the most part.