25 May 2005

Mazel tov, tovarisch Emil!

Three years back, during a too-short residency at the Vermont Studio Center, I became friends with Emil Draitser, a writer and professor of Russian literature at Hunter College. In 1974 (the year I started teaching) Emil was "blacklisted by the Soviet literary establishment for a satirical attack on one of its members, [and] immigrated to the U.S. where he continued his writing career," according to the bio on his website.

Last night I attended a talk and reading Emil gave at the Bowery Poetry Club, "Searching for Jewish Roots: An Evening of Russian-American Literature," sponsored by the Russian American Cultural Center. The occasion is the publication of Emil's new book, Kto ty takoi (Who Are You?), "a memoir of his childhood during the most perilous time of post-WWII Soviet history, and of the pressure of growing up Jewish in an anti-Semitic and totalitarian society." Here's the press release for the reading (Emil doesn't look quite so out of focus in person).

The talk was conducted in English, the reading in Russian. Emil told of coming to realize that a whole dimension of his childhood had somehow become lost to him: he was being interviewed about growing up Jewish in post-war Stalinist Russia, when his voice started to break, even though he wasn't particularly upset at that moment, but it felt, he said, "as if I was swallowing tears." His interlocutor recognized what was happening, saying that many of the people interviewed simply broke down sobbing, unexpectedly, once they started talking about their lives.

Arthur Miller describes a moment in the Witch Museum of Salem MA in 1951 or so, where he'd gone to do some research (for a new play that would become The Crucible), when a family of tourists came in, asking to see the nails -- i.e., those reportedly found in the flesh of the little girls who said they had been "witched" by one of their elders. He said, "I have an overwhelming urge to tell these people what the nails mean. It is the urge to write." (My paraphrase.)

Emil felt the same urge, only it was himself he needed to tell this story to -- and he was afraid he couldn't remember what happened, after so much time. But he found, he said, that we remember everything: memories are like index cards -- they might get pushed back into corners or buried under others, but all you have to do is take one away and then another, and eventually it all comes back.

The novel-in-progress is about Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, and the part Emil read is set in Rome, where he spent a month and a half in the Russian community there while his papers were being processed for his eventual "repatriation" to America. Unfortunately, he told us before starting to read, "I write my academic books in English, because they come from the head. But my fiction comes from the heart, and so I write in Russian." He apologized to those of us who wouldn't know what he was saying, but I loved watching my friend work the audience -- who found the story hilarious -- without being encumbered by the meaning of his words.

I left much edified -- about memory, about writing, about life.


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