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"I think we have a fascinating
story to tell — if I may so say so
myself — one of the strangest tales,
from one collapsing empire to the
world's last remaining empire," he
"It's a s t ory I'm glad I'm telling.
Others will follow. Hopefully, it will
open up the world of Russian Jews to
American Jews." The feelings of
Russian Jews toward American Jews
are complex, Shteyngart says —
sometimes great gratitude, some-
times confusion, sometimes derision."
"Religion binds us together to some
extent but we're as different as Jews
can be, with different cultural barome-
ters, except for the fact that in 1903
our relatives lived in the same shtetl."
Shteyngart writes in English, and,
reading his prose, it's hard to believe
English isn't his first language. His
spoken English is unaccented; he
explains that he lost his Russian accent
when he was 12 or 13. "I really want-
ed to assimilate," he says.
But he still hears Russian cadences
in his sentences, and some of his
thinking is in Russian. "It's like having
a portable Russian in me."
He claims he never has writer's
"I have a backlog of material; I can't
process it all."
As a child in Leningrad, Shteyngart
loved playing with his grandfather's
war medals. His grandmother, who
cared for him, encouraged his talents.
When he was 3 years old, he began
dictating stories to her, and she taught
him to read soon after.
In 1979, at the age of 7, Shteyngart
left Leningrad with his parents. After
about six months living near Rome,
they came to the United States and
settled in Queens. His father, an engi-
neer, promptly got a job at
As he remembers, they ascended to
the middle class quickly.
Shteyngart attended a Solomon
Schechter school, a Jewish day school
run by the Conservative movement,
and had a rough time there. With only
three shirts, he was ridiculed by his
classmates. He recalls visiting a class-
mate's home, where he was shocked to
see that "several villages and a com-
mune could fit inside."
He graduated from New York's
Stuyvesant High School and attended
Oberlin College in Ohio, where he
began this novel.
In the late 1990s, Shteyngart
worked at the New York Association
for New Americans, the resettlement
agency that helped his family. He has
Fri., July 26th
fond memories of the agency, which
comes in for gentle satire in The
Russian Debutante's Handbook as the
Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption
"If I ever have money to give, I'll
give it to NYANA," he says. "They've
been very nice to me."
Boosters, Mentors, Mom And Pop
An early booster of Shteyngart's fic-
tion was novelist Chang-Rae Lee.
After the young author showed him
the manuscript of The Russian
Debutante's Handbook for admission
to the graduate writing program at
New York's Hunter College, Lee sent
it to his editor at Riverhead Books.—
who promptly bought it.
Shteyngart plans to go to Rome
next year to work on third novel; he's
now working on the second, set in
the fictional state of Absurdistan. His
protagonist is a 300-pound Jewish
guy, the son of one of the richest men
in Russia, who wants nothing more
than to come to America but can't
because of his father's criminal activi-
"Being a Jewish writer is wonderful,
in a word," Shteyngart says, listing as
his inspiration Isaac Babel, Saul
Bellow, Philip Roth and Michael
Chabon — all unequaled, daunting
and almost humbling.
He speaks of himself as a Russian
American Jewish writer, a complicat-
ed identity. "People are dealt one
card. I've been dealt three."
Shteyngart dedicated his novel to
his parents, Semyon and Nina
Shteyngart, who live in Little Neck,
"Who even imagined that we
would bring up this little boy and he
would become — I can say it already
— an American writer, and maybe
famous," Nina Shteyngart says. "We
are very, very proud."
"We are a very lucky family,"
Semyon Shteyngart says. "I hope his
dreams become reality and he can
really be a tall man, not.a boychik
like when we brought him here."
The author's father says that, when
he was young, he wanted to become a
writer or an opera singer, but became
an engineer instead. Now that he is
retired, he has begun writing a mem-
oir, encouraged by a colleague.
Semyon Shteyngart says his son
read the manuscript, said "not bad"
and suggested that he keep going.
And, if a rising literary star gives
you that advice, chances are, you'll
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