by this author
Boris Fishman was born in Minsk, Belarus in 1979, and moved
to the United States at the age of nine. He returned in 2000
to work in the political section of the US Embassy in Moscow.His
work has appeared in The American Scholar, Harper's,
the New York Times, and other publications. Wild
East is his first book-length project. He lives in New
York City, where he is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.
20 November 2003 - An interview with The
Morning News and Boris Fishman (The
People We Like: Boris Fishman
Wild East editor Boris Fishman on the current state of literature
in Eastern Europe, traits of the Russian soul, and the literary
cash-currency in hookers, guns, and drugs.
Name, date of birth, Web site if you have one:
Boris Fishman. Feb. 11, 1979. Technologically challenged,
sadly. I can barely access a Web site, let alone run one.
Also sad is that this isn’t attractive in the slightest,
even in a kind of culturally contrarian way.
Occupation title(s), both real and desired-in-another-lifetime:
Editor of Wild East, New Yorker fact-checker, freelance journalist,
occasional translator. In another life, I would happily have
been an actor.
Gun to your head: Why this story collection right
now? Why are so many good authors either showing up from Eastern
Europe/former-USSR or writing about the area (e.g., The Russian
Debutante’s Handbook, Leaving Katya, Prague), and why
are Americans, notoriously entrenched against reading foreign
works, gobbling up the pages?
First of all, a tremendous number of Americans have roots
in Eastern Europe. The other part of it is that Eastern Europe
and the former Soviet Union were prohibited for so long. By
virtue of being shut off to outsiders and appearing to operate
according to such non-American principles, these places generated
such mystique that Americans are still getting their fill
of what it’s like to walk down those streets, and drink
in those kitchens, and ogle those women.
Maybe there is also the suspicion that Eastern Europeans,
on account of the moral challenges they have faced, have somehow
lived a more character-forming life than Americans have.
Many characters in Wild East have a very clear-eyed
sense of desperation but a strong, almost resigned will to
survive – Shteyngart’s banker, Steavenson’s
Gika, all of Sorokin’s wonderful chokers – prompting
great comedy, i.e., laughter when life’s gone to shit.
Is there a case for broadly generalizing this as an essential
characteristic of the Eastern European?
One reason is that the corruption, moral and otherwise,
in these places was so pervasive and the consequent cynicism
among the people so profound that Eastern Europeans remain
very skeptical of earnestness. Also, life under communism
was so absurd – the place was such a junkyard of truncated
aspirations, moral degradation, despair, and inexplicable
resilience, so labyrinthine and unpredictable, so inscrutable
and unreliable, so dysfunctional and yet determined to persist
– that you could begin to figure it out only through
laughter. Reason was powerless against it. (And the system
was powerless against laughter.)
Heroes: Jim Harrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Any merit in Vijai Maheshwari’s recent point
that contemporary Russian literature is obsessed with hookers,
guns, and drugs? Or, from one perspective, that salacious
topics are used to sell books, but maybe not make them great?
All three seem to pop up frequently in your book’s stories,
though in most cases as (or as part of) credible characters
we can identify with, nothing exotic to gawk at and forget.
There was a review recently that panned Wild East because
it failed to overturn the prevailing stereotypes about Eastern
Europe as havens of lawlessness and depravity. But I think
it’s possible to creatively inhabit a cliché.
And it is a fact that in the early 1990s Eastern Europe and
the former Soviet Union were obsessed with what had previously
been taboo. Consequently the focus [in literature] was on
newly permissible content, not execution. Hookers, guns, and
drugs in and of themselves, in my view, don’t doom a
book’s literary potential. (It was the attention to
subject at the expense of technique that did [it].) It was
the anthology’s intention to prove this. In any case,
it seems Eastern Europe and Russia no longer resemble themselves
10 years ago, and the arts have followed suit. There are increasingly
nuanced, skilled books and films coming out of these places
What makes you laugh: Believe it or not,
my grandma. A riot, she is.
Books that changed your heart: Legends
of the Fall by Jim Harrison and Love in the Time
of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Are Americans capable of the same depths of experiencing
life as Eastern Europeans? To play with wide characterizations,
how do you see the two souls (America’s and Eastern
Europe’s) as different?
Well, if I have license to generalize, a decade ago, a trip
to Eastern Europe was a lesson in life, life that was unavailable
at home. America had largely been exempted from total war
and genocide thanks to, in part, its geography, and also,
perhaps, the can-do ethic of democratic capitalism, but this
also meant never really having your scruples tested –
never having been forced to determine what your scruples were,
even – never being asked to choose between indistinguishable
shades of gray. As in, ‘Show me where the Jews are or
your kids are dead.’ So there was this chronic insecurity
among some young Americans, this feeling that life was elsewhere,
this yearning for a knowledge of self imparted by a life of
moral challenge. And for a hundred years, Eastern Europe had
faced nothing else.
Five words that sound great: You were amazing
last night. Just kidding: We will publish your piece.
Charity worth giving to: Not sure it’s
a charity, but they’ll take your money: Unseen America,
a project run by Bread and Roses, the cultural arm of the
1199 health-care employees union, which puts cameras in the
hands of people who typically don’t have their views
represented in the media – migrant workers, retirees
– and then exhibits their work. Some of the results