Strictly speaking, if we all stuck to specifically what we know, we'd wind up with pretty limited fiction. If female authors couldn't write male characters and vice versa, if straying from your decade was frowned upon etc, there'd be no historical fiction, no thrillers, and certainly no sci-fi. But what do I know? I'm an immigrant who came here at the tender age of eleven, peaked in college, and graduated from law school to become a suburban mom. Should I stick to writing about the frustrations of learning another language while tweening? Or sticking out law school because frankly it is just too darn expensive to quit? Or maybe I should focus on wearing leggings and driving an SUV to PTA meetings? Maybe. But that would predictable, if not boring. I like to research, I like to put my sense of empathy to good use, I apparently like to take risks. Based on my life choices, who would've thought?!
And yet, sometimes I am drawn to writing exactly what I know. I was invited to be a guest blogger on a wonderful literary blog this month but, unfortunately, the head admin of the blog had to shut down the site temporarily due to personal issues. I was bummed. I already had a decent seven page draft of an essay on how my immigrant experience colors my writing. I abandoned the aforementioned draft when the gig was cancelled, but I will return to it. Eventually. The reason being is that my first year in America sucked. In no way am I claiming to be alone in the shitty immigrant experience, but my family's unique set of circumstances does set us apart. That year was a formative one and I desperately want to write about it. In this era of fear of immigrants, one would hope this work of non-fiction would find its reader. The reason why I've been putting it off (I have about three chapters, written roughly a decade ago, stored on my computer and backed up G-d knows where) is because I am afraid that my honesty would hurt (or at the very least upset) certain members of my family. I think we need some more distance between 1994 and the present. In the meantime, perhaps the middle ground lives in the form of fictionalized experiences. Which I suppose what all fiction is to begin with, but I digress.
This brings me to Keith Gessen's A Terrible Country. Which I loved, by the way! It's clearly a work of fiction but it's also very clearly a lived work of fiction. The author is obviously familiar with what became of my old country (or rather, its neighbor); the intimacy is apparent in the writing. Keith Gessen is a journalist and a writer who's been to the former Soviet Union countless times and he conveys the nuances of what it must be like to grow up in America to then suddenly find yourself in your birth country that has undergone tremendous transformation since you've last seen it. The loneliness, the isolation is written with such care, such precision. The gap in his Russian vocabulary, lack of that instinctive grasp of the current culture and politics. It's all highly relatable, even though the last time I visited the city that was my home between the ages of four and eleven was in 1995. Is it the author's experience, research, or imagination that produced such a delicate product? Perhaps a bit of each. On the other hand, the second theme of the book is the protagonist's relationship with his aging grandmother, who is slowly but undeniably falling into the abyss of Dementia. Does Mr. Gessen have personal experience with this too? I don't know. Whether he does or not, clearly his life experience and talent were enough to help him write one gut-wrenching account of what it must be like to be losing your loved one despite their physical presence and agility.
So what's the verdict? Write what you know?