Never return to the places where you’ve been happy, my father always said.

Ever since I started writing fiction, I’ve crafted not-always-happy stories about the country of my overwhelmingly happy childhood. It was no Utopia, of course, especially in the economic scramble after the fall of Soviet Union. And divorce, that common domestic beast, snarled at our doorstep too. But my family remained close and mostly functional, my parents fiercely protective of my sister’s innocence and mine. Our little universe was blurred by the sleep of childhood, the all-blinding drama of school life; steeped in fairy tales, literature, music and dance classes; and buried in the long, glittery winters. By the time I began reconstructing it through narrative, the Russia of my memories was largely imaginary – a cauldron of nostalgia-tinted material, which I calibrated with scrupulous research. After all, I wanted to write about the real Russia – whatever that is.

Almost thirteen years after I’d emigrated as a teenager, I travelled back to Stavropol, my mother’s hometown in the South of Russia, to see my sick grandmother. I felt I was taking a creative risk: how would my writing change in the face of such a strong dose of reality?

After a three-day trip from Alaska and my initial awe at the transformation of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport (clean bathrooms! free wifi! flat-screen TVs!), we finally reached Stavropol. From then on, whether we were at the hospital, the pension fund, stores – you name it – we were assaulted by absurdities of Ilf-and-Petrovian caliber. The drunken operator of the only functioning elevator in the hospital, off for her fifteen-minute break. The only place to make copies of documents for the passport bureau – at a nearby parking attendant’s booth. No Internet at the Internet Café, and so on.

I was finally observing it all first hand. I would out-Shteyngart them all!

When, upon my return home, I was retelling some of the choice anecdotes to a friend over the phone, I caught myself sounding like a hack stand-up comedian. Our trip wasn’t hilarious. Most of the time my mother and I felt helpless, frustrated and humiliated, crying or sweating or freezing. My friend was getting the wrong picture.

Used to a relatively lawful and safe life in America, I’d been seduced by all the farce that is, to an outsider, Russia’s most eye-catching facet. In literature, this dimension is brilliantly illuminated by satirical, fabulist and mystical treatments. Other aspects that make up the country, any country – both tragic and ordinary – do not lend themselves easily to an effective punch line. Expressing these threads without melodrama or sensationalism requires a slower, more sceptical approach.

Thinking about that dreaded concept of authenticity reminded me of the unease I feel when reading some books set in Russia and written by non-Russians, and – currently in vogue – books by authors of Soviet extraction writing in English. In an article about the popularity of immigrant fiction, Kaviya Kushner extends the meaning of a quote by Charlemagne, who said that to have a second language is to possess a second soul, to writers who had given up their first language to write in English, as ‘selling their first soul’.

But I wonder if the reason for this unease, aside from differences in taste, relates to the degree to which the imaginary Russias of these authors and mine overlap. The Russian immigrants write through the warp of their immigration ordeals, the perception of their success in America. And the Russophile Westerners work through the legacy of stereotypes and preconceptions, Russian classics, Cold War, travel experiences. Of course, were I from Ethiopia or 15th-century England, I’d be similarly sensitive about books set in those places and times.

In Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov writes of Gogol’s masterpiece, ‘it is as useless to look in Dead Souls for an authentic Russian background, as it would be to try and form a conception of Denmark on the basis of that little affair in cloudy Elsinore’, referring to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the end, while we may not create in the ‘laboratory of Gogol’s peculiar genius’, we all write about imaginary countries, imaginary families and relationships, imaginary events, their ‘real life’ counterparts refracted through the prism of our personal histories, cooked in the cauldrons of our minds.

Russia is a giant, multi-faceted country in perpetual transition, and currently at its lowest point of literary censorship. If we are interested in the country, we’d benefit from listening, even if in translation, to the voices embedded so deeply into the Russian brand of everyday absurdity that it’s not the first or only thing that lands on their page.

As for me, I’m remodelling my imaginary Russia a little; fixing a few more spare parts on to my understanding of life. It makes me wonder what instruments in her toolkit the writer uses more for her work: pens and pencils, or hammers and saws.


Image by Maxim Trudolubov

In Shinjuku
Ben Okri | Interview