The Powerful Way Writing About Your Past Can Help You Understand the Present
I'm often asked. As in, "Why not wait until you're completely gray?" They're talking about my relatively young age—my memoir, Little Failure, was published when I was 41; I always respond that 41 is actually 74 in Russian years, a joke I make while clutching my beleaguered, butter-slathered heart.
But there are other reasons I decided to write Little Failure right after hopping onto the daisy path of middle age. My alcohol- and drug-related hijinks at Oberlin College notwithstanding, I can still recall in shocking high definition my strange Lenin-loving childhood in the Soviet Union—we left that country before I turned 7—and my early Reagan-loving years in the United States. The facts of my crappy Cold War existence—my parents' doting but harsh child-rearing, the cries of "Commie!" from Queens yeshiva kids—are still potent enough to quash the sentimentality I might indulge in as an older memoirist. Sure, I hunger for youth, but not for that youth.
It is no coincidence that I began Little Failure just as my wife and I first considered having a child. That sweet American boy—we named him Johnny to be sure—was born just before my book's publication. In writing it, I wanted to remember the best of my parents, but also remind myself that my past did not have to be my son's. Still, the truth is, my parents made me who I am. By the time I was 9, my father had already taught me the meaning of satire. And the Amy Chua–approved work ethic I inherited from my mother kept me typing away on my first novel (That would be The Russian Debutante's Handbook, a blisteringly funny send-up of immigrant life in America, published in 2002.) even through the pot haze of college, when I could have been spending my time enjoying the rather frightening coed showers.
Through my teens and 20s and early 30s, I bore my parents a small but ever-percolating grudge. Like many immigrant children, I had wished them to be American parents: supportive of my writing, light on criticism of my life choices, and open walleted. The term "little failure" was first spoken by my mother in my 100-square-foot, water-bug-friendly Lower East Side hovel, after I informed her that I was not going to law school but would instead try to be a writer. She took one look around my apartment, which would have been considered pathetic even in the lousiest quarter of Minsk, and proclaimed: "Failurchka."
Failurchka is how I always felt before them. "Ne kritikuete menya!" I would scream, an incorrect Russian version of "Stop criticizing me!" But how could they? It was what they knew. In writing Little Failure, (On page 7, Shteyngart explains that "unless I'm telling you otherwise, I am completely in love with everyone around me for the rest of this book.") though, something unexpected happened: My anger and incomprehension toward my parents turned to sadness—for them, for what their lives had been and hadn't had the chance to be. My father's first memories: hiding under the carriage of an evacuee train being bombed by the Luftwaffe; his cousin, pursued by hungry rats, jumping out of a window; and, worst of all, at age 5, being told that his father had been killed during the Siege of Leningrad. When the war is over, there's my father hiding beneath the kitchen table, singing opera while daydreaming of going back in time to kill Hitler, thereby saving his own father's life. And there's my mother in the present day, constrained by fears and anxieties I could never understand, with her photo album labeled "uncle so-and-so and his family, buried alive, Belorussia, 1941". No Cape Cod vacation Polaroids for her.
So what could my parents make of my all-American fantasies of becoming a writer? ("Writer—what kind of profession is this?") And until I began writing my memoir, how could I truly understand them?
Which leads to the first question a memoirist must ask: What should I hold back? Whatever one writes, and however crackerjack one's memory, memoir is by definition an intrusion into the privacy of others. In my book I quote the poet Czeslaw Milosz: "When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished," perhaps overstating the case in a typically Eastern European way. Or not. My two favorite memoirs— Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory (Speak, Memory, published in 1951, bore that title initially only in the United Kingdom. It was titled Conclusive Evidence in the United States and Drugie Berega (Other Shores) in Nabokov's native Russian.) and Mary Karr's The Liars' Club —are as different as can be. The first is a celebration of a family whose world falls apart; the second, the story of a family that itself falls apart.
In the end, I held back almost nothing. I wanted to write with all the sickening honesty that could be brought to bear upon the subject. My parents raised me Russian in America, in the tried and true immigrant way, and I realized that to American eyes and ears, the belittlement, the thwacks on the head I endured would come across as injustices. But to most readers from my background, they would be just the familiar artifacts of our cross-cultural reality.
Eventually, my parents reconciled themselves to my career and now are proud of me. The actor Oliver Platt, introducing me at a reading in New York, called my memoir "a difficult love letter to your parents," and that is exactly how I hoped it would be read. Because without the difficult part there can be no love, only blind adoration and obedience, a commandment instructing one to "love thy parents." The real, uncoerced love is bumpy, painful, and often unwieldy. It is too big for this essay. It is too big even for a book titled Little Failure.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of the memoir Little Failure and three novels, most recently Super Sad True Love Story.