Photo Credit: PEN World Voices Festival/PEN American Center
From the very beginning, Nadia Kalman’s The Cosmopolitans had me thinking about divides—generational and cultural—that occur in immigrant families. As may often happen within these families, a shared past binds the present and the future too loosely, creating awkward and sometimes comical moments between parents and their children. For Kalman, whose family emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States when she was a child, such moments were plentiful, it seems—and she skillfully draws upon them to deliver a novel that is equal parts hilarious and bold in its portrayal of the Molochniks, a Russian-Jewish family living in Stamford, Connecticut.
In the novel, the relationships between the parents, Osip and Stalina, and their three daughters, Yana, Milla, and Katia, reveal particular anxieties over future husbands, current boyfriends, in-laws, and a myriad of other issues that inevitably arise when one generation tries to understand or influence the other. Everything is complicated by a divide that can’t possibly be bridged. And the past, with its dark beginnings in the former Soviet Union, haunts a few of the characters, resulting in even more complications. Or, put another way, more comedy. For instance, a handkerchief “speaks” to the mother, Stalina, in Russian, and daughter Katia suddenly breaks out in the authoritative voice of Leonid Brezhnev during her happier moments.
Recently, I spoke with Kalman about her homeland, immigration, and the portrayal of the female characters in the novel, some of whom I found to be delightfully heady and poised yet filled with humor and wit. My quick impression of Kalman herself reveals that it’s not difficult to see glimpses of her in some of her characters.
WRR: As a child, you left the former Soviet Union with your parents and moved to the US. How old were you?
Kalman: I was four and a couple months.
WRR: Were you old enough to form any lasting impressions or memories of the former Soviet Union?
Kalman: I have a couple memories. We had to go out on our balcony when there was a state-sponsored parade. I also remember going to the park with my nanny and hoping that some hooligans would attack us so that I could defend her honor. Sometimes we wouldn’t have particular foods and my mother would say the princes and princesses had eaten all of them.
WRR: I wanted to talk about your novel, The Cosmopolitans. I realized that the Soviet past haunts a few of your characters regularly and - in some cases - quite absurdly. In the case of Stalina, it is through a handkerchief. I think of that as a haunting because it keeps coming up and you can almost think of it, too, as the handkerchief being white and kind of ghostly. Then, you have Katia, who has the Brezhnev’s voice coming through in times of happiness. Then you have Lev who is constantly thinking of his time in the Soviet Union. It seems as if he lives in the past. So, my question is: do you think the Soviet past sort of lends itself to this kind of haunting?
Kalman: I think that totalitarian regimes stamp themselves on people’s consciousnesses. With Katia, I was trying to show how our parents’ pasts can affect us; even those of us who are children of immigrants are affected by the Soviet past. I think Lev is someone who can’t really escape his past, and he represents a kind of immigrant who doesn’t really come up very often in immigrant fiction. Immigrant fiction is written by those of us who are lucky immigrants, who got out relatively intact, and who now have the leisure to be able to write about our experiences. Lev escaped it for a while when he was released from the labor camp and came to the US. He became a model Soviet immigrant who could be invited to speak at different events. Eventually he had a break down because he hadn’t gotten over what had happened to him. Sometimes people can’t really get over it. He is the narrator of this book because he would rather talk about the mostly comedic, and when not comedic, non-tragic experiences of the luckier members of his family than to talk about his own past.
WRR: So in some ways he’s living in the past but also trying to escape it?
Kalman: He hasn’t learned how to talk in a truthful way about the things that happened to him. Almost as soon as they had ended, he was meant to talk about them in the US as a means to an end, as a type of agitation. Not that his sponsors in the US had any intentions that were not honorable, but he was meant to shock them into a narrative that would cause people to act and to donate money. He never had a chance to really think about what happened to him in any kind of personal way.
WRR: In the early 1970s when my Ukrainian mother decided to marry my Nigerian father in the former Soviet Union, her parents were adamantly against the marriage. She was marrying outside of her race; she, too, was planning to join my father in Nigeria, to leave the country and her family behind. Osip and Stalina’s reactions to Yana deciding to marry Pratik, who’s a Bangladeshi, reminded me of what happened to my parents. Now that was in the 1970s, your story is set in modern times--2005? It seems like not much has changed in that sense.
Kalman: I don’t really have any sweeping statements about Soviet immigrants as a group because I think there are too many differences between us in terms of our racial attitudes. For Stalina and Osip, it was a religious issue possibly more than a racial issue. But it was also that they were really shocked by the fact that this romance had been going on inside their house and they hadn’t known about it. They do adapt and learn to appreciate Yana’s marriage by the end of the book. But in the Soviet Union—do you know the movie Circus?
WRR: No, I don’t.
Kalman: The movie Circus, which I also haven’t seen but I’ve just heard a lot about it, is about an African-Russian baby born inside a circus. The point of the movie is about how much more enlightened Soviet racial attitudes are than American ones. In the Soviet Union, there was always this retort, “Well, America might be fine, but you lynch people in America.” It was this theory that Soviet people have no racism in them which I don’t think was borne out by reality. I mean, right now in St. Petersburg, in front of the museum of chocolate, they post African Russian, or possibly African American, men dressed in footmen outfits. They think that’s a funny joke.
WRR: Many of your female characters in the novel exhibit paradoxical behaviors—or should I say, more specifically, they embody these dual characteristics—they’re kind of weak and strong at the same time, they’re rational and irrational. There’s the male and female embodied in, say, Katia, who has Brezhnev’s voice, but is quite feminine in many ways, and then you have bisexual Milla. Do you think that you consciously created these kinds characters, and if so, why? Do you think their behaviors have anything to do with being immigrants?
Kalman: You know, they began almost as caricatures. I saw that in an early draft of my novel, and so I tried to do what Anthony Trollope tells us to do--to live with my characters and to see where they develop. It’s hard for me to distinguish which parts of their personalities come from their being immigrants or children of immigrants and which parts don’t because to me - by now - they feel very real. So, in terms of their contradictions, I think all of us have contradictions and times when we’re strong and weak. With Katia, as I said, the influence of the immigrant past is made concrete in that she has the voice of Brezhnev coming out of her when she’s in moments of great happiness. But with the others I would say that among immigrants we feel a little bit more self-conscious because we knew we were different when we were young in obvious ways, and so that has made us maybe wonder about ourselves more. But I think that in terms of being women, I don’t think that there are many real ingrained differences between men and women. What I was mostly trying to do was just create a lot of interesting, self-directed characters.
WRR: There is definitely a divide between the first- and second-generation immigrants within the novel, and in the case of the Molochniks this divide seems like it cannot possibly be bridged. I would say in most cases there’s this constant attempt to do so. Why do you think this happens?
Kalman: Soviet Jewish people don’t have a firm set of traditions that we’re proud of or that the older generation is trying to preserve or the younger generation is trying to get rid of in an effort to assimilate. A lot of our traditions are the ones that the Soviet state sought to eradicate, sometimes with the help of our great-grandparents and grandparents who wanted nothing more than to become international people rather than a specific minority within Russia. There isn’t the sense that the mother wants them to be traditional Russian women because there’s not really such a thing that the mother can draw upon. One issue that I noticed, especially between Osip and his daughters, is that he is always trying to understand them and thinking that he understands them, but he hardly ever understands them even though he loves them a lot. I think that that just speaks to the way that families work--that we can approach each other earnestly and with a lot of affection, but may still not be able to stretch our empathy far enough to really understand each other.
WRR: So it’s a generational thing. It’s also perhaps a character thing to some extent.
Kalman: The characters try to understand each other through their own contexts, which are probably more divergent for immigrant parents and children than for other parents and children.
WRR: In your writing, I find that generally your treatment of quite a few of the characters, however incompetent they might be, or foolish or boorish or uneducated, remains humane and quite sympathetic. Then I also realize that you use a lot of humor throughout your narrative passages and your dialogue, too, and as a result it seems that hardly any of the characters really take themselves too seriously—which I think is a good thing. So I wondered if, by employing humor, that helped you create these kinds of characters that were more sympathetic and lovable?
Kalman: It’s a good question, but I’ve never thought about humor that way. I worked hard to like all of my characters, and I would say even to love all of my characters. Sometimes the fact that I used humor confused people—for instance, someone in Cleveland asked me if I liked any of them, and I like all of them. Some of these characters are based on people who I’ve had troubles with in real life, and by making them into characters I was able to write from their perspective and to understand their real-life models. In terms of the humor, I grew up in a family that used humor as a way of telling sad stories and dealing with events that otherwise I’m not sure how we would have handled. It’s an approach that informs my writing, too.
WRR: I felt that you had a really profound and expansive insight into the lives of Soviet Jewish immigrant families, and I couldn't help but wonder how much of the novel is your story. So how much of it is and how much of it isn’t?
Kalman: Thank you. I think that there are some details that are drawn directly from my family’s life: the story of Stalina’s father and what happens to him during the anti-cosmopolitan campaign is pretty much the story of my great-grandfather. The father in the novel has the same job that my father had. There are parts of me and parts of other family members in all the characters. Like Yana, I’ve been self-righteous at times; like Katia, there have been times that I’ve felt lost; and like Milla, I have tried to be more or less dutiful at different parts of my life.
WRR: Interesting. I hear that there’s a new novel in the works, can you tell me anything about it?
Kalman: Sure! It’s tentatively titled The Skeptical Alchemist. It’s about a chemistry teacher who is coming out of a nervous breakdown and develops some messianic delusions as a way of keeping himself going.
WRR: Sounds like more haunting is in the works.
Kalman: Yes, I do have one supernatural element that I think I’m going to keep within the novel. The head of the high school science department is telepathic and can read minds, but only the minds of the people within the science department. That ability is more of a curse than a blessing for him.