Interviews - Emil Draitser







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Interview With:Foreword Magazine

Emil Draitser, author of "Shush! Growing Up Jewish under Stalin"
(University of California Press)

  • "When did you start reading, and what did you like to read as a kid"?

I started reading quite early, at age five or six. I was enchanted with the printed word. I read everything I could lay my eyes on. Later, as a teenager, alone on the streets of my hometown Odessa, Ukraine, I couldn't help but dash immediately to the nearest newsstand. I knew where to find the pages of Pravda, Izvestiya, Sovetskii Sport, and Literaturnaya Gazeta posted under glass for everybody to read. I could tell them apart from afar. Each newspaper had its own typographical look. The letter 'A' in Pravda's title had two cross-strokes, the top one thicker and the lower one thinner. The heavy bars of Trud [Labor] newspaper looked as if they'd been flattened on an anvil. The swirls of Sovietskii Sport's title reminded me of a figure skater's pattern on the ice. Of course, the Soviet propaganda articles made for boring reading. But it didn't matter to me. The very smell of the typographic ink excited me. Soaking into the pores of the paper, turning from ink into printed words, these words now took on magical power. While a manuscript carried a sign of individuality and was automatically deprived of legitimacy in the world in which I lived, printed in a newspaper, text carried a sign of supreme approval. I was completely aware that, through a newspaper, a certain higher power, to which I and each and every other person was subordinate, expressed its will.

  • "When did you think about becoming a writer? Was there someone who got you interested in writing?"

Back in Russia, at about age twenty-two or twenty-three, I read a book on writing titled The Golden Rose by Konstantin Paustovsky, a writer little known in the West but revered by his countrymen for the classical clarity of his prose. The fable at the core of the book is about a young man, a janitor in a jewelry shop, who, cleaning the floor around the jewelers' desks day after day, in time collected enough shavings of gold to smelt a brooch in the shape of a beautiful rose. This is how Paustovsky saw a writer's labor. I read the book in one gulp. I was struck by the exquisite beauty of the prose and the idea that just by the power of the written word, which was close to wizardry, just by observing life around you and choosing the right word, you could make the world come alive on the page. Blood rushed to my head, and, right there and then, I decided to become a writer-nothing else in the world seemed to me worth the trouble. But even to dream of becoming a writer in a land where literature was held in the greatest esteem, the land that produced such giants as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, you had to have a lot of chutzpah. This Yiddish word, which has become part of the American vernacular, is quite appropriate here. Being Jewish, which in Russia is not a religion but an ethnicity, I felt myself an outsider and, for a long time, didn't even dare to think of becoming a Russian writer, although Russian was the only language I knew well. Who was I even to think about putting the soles of my feet on the same ground walked by those giants? Although I began to be published unexpectedly earlier than I ever dreamt possible (under a Russian-sounding penname, of course; see my blog to that effect at, many years passed before I felt qualified to be referred to as a writer. Since Russian is my first language, till today, when I'm stumped for the right word in English, I write it down in Russian and then translate. So far, this has worked out.

  • "How do you write? Do you have a daily routine? What's good about it? What do you hate about it?"

Any new writing idea, whether for a short story or a book, usually floats around in my mind for quite a long while. I restrain myself from beginning to write a story just on an initial impulse. If I don't feel the emotional urgency to write the story down, it means that, in fact, I'm not sufficiently motivated to devote my time and efforts to completing it. But then comes the time when I feel that I must write down whatever detail, episode, or, most important, choice of narrative strategy comes to me-c-otherwise, I might lose it. I write with whatever is handy at the moment-a pen, a pencil, or a computer. I start working in earnest only when I feel that I've accumulated enough to make the story move in some direction. The process of writing is a tedious one: I rewrite many times until I feel it's the best it can be. Although it uses up big chunks of my time, I don't hate rewriting; the work doesn't bore me at all. In fact, I see it as part and parcel of a normal process that gives me the opportunity to double check that whatever I wanted to tell has been worth the trouble. When rewriting, I'm always on guard, making sure that I'm still sufficiently interested in rereading whatever I've written. And I discard right away, without any hesitation, passages that I feel I'm forcing myself to read. The same goes for drafts of seemingly ready stories about which, on rereading, I no longer feel excited. I know that I'm right in doing this: if I've lost interest in my own work, there's no way I'll be able to entice the reader with it. I began my writing career composing short satirical and humorous pieces for the Soviet press, mostly newspapers. This taught me how to write tightly. To tell a story in a thousand words isn't easy but, through that experience, I learned to pay attention to what is superfluous in a text. Later, already in America, when writing my dissertation, I learned how to make a long-distance run. Perhaps, comparing the process to hiking is more appropriate. I noticed when hiking that, once I am on a trail, in order to make the whole route, it's better not to keep looking up to see how far I still have to walk. On the contrary, I try to limit my vision, looking down, in front of my feet, no more than a step or two ahead. I know that, this way, thinking about taking just one step at a time, I can walk a trail of any length.
Although Shush! is my twelfth book, writing doesn't get easier. And I think it should be that way. Every new idea has its own challenge, and without this, there's not enough incentive to be a writer. Ultimate satisfaction from writing comes only when I feel that I've done my very best. I write every day, usually in the morning. I believe in one writer's keen observation: contrary to the belief, the Muse is not so much a capricious creature as a proud one. She pays her visits to you always at the same time and in the same place. But if you aren't there, she flares up, turns around, and leaves, without waiting for you to show up.

  • "Any particular story to tell concerning the writing of this book?"

In the Prologue, I write about what prompted me to write Shush! One day, a few years ago, a colleague of mine noticed that, despite having lived in America for many years, I still lowered my voice when uttering the word "Jewish"---even in casual conversation. I was so struck by this discovery that I began asking myself when the whole thing had started. My memory gradually took me back to the time of my growing up in the anti-Semitic, post-Holocaust Soviet Union, when "Shush!" was the word I heard most frequently: "Don't use your Jewish name in public. Don't speak a word of Yiddish. And don't cry over your murdered relatives." Another impetus for writing Shush! was a literary one. About the time of my discovery described above, reading Frank McCourt's wonderful memoir, Angela's Ashes, I was bothered by one phrase on the opening page of the book: "People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version..." Oh yeah? I said to myself. Nothing? How about growing up as a Jewish child under Stalin? Because so little about that time is known in America, I felt that I had to tell the story of my formative years, no matter what.

  • "What's some good advice that you've received concerning writing? What's some advice that you could offer young writers?"

When I was a youngster, reading a book on ancient Greek mythology, I was especially fascinated by the myth of King Midas. Not with his ability to tum whatever he touched into gold, however. (perhaps, because the King's gift turned out to be a torment, when even the food he touched turned gold, I never developed much admiration for either gold or precious stones.) But another story about Midas more captured my imagination. As the myth goes, one day, when called to judge a competition in musical performance between two gods, Apollo and Pan, King Midas had the gall to vote against the popular and highly praised Apollo. The angry Apollo punished him by turning his ears into those of a jackass. The King was heartbroken. He couldn't get rid of those damned jackass ears no matter what, short of cutting them off. So, he covered up his shameful misfortune with a tall cap. But he couldn't hide it from his barber, of course. Under threat of death, the barber was told to keep his mouth shut. Holding on to the secret for so long proved to be too much for the barber. One day, he snuck out to a meadow, dug a small pit in the ground, whispered the secret into it, and filled the pit with soil. Come spring and summer, a thick bed of reeds shot up in the meadow right over the spot where the barber had buried the secret. With every gust of wind, the reeds whispered: "King Midas has jackass ears!" To me, the psychological truth captured in this story is the quintessential metaphor of a writer's main motivation. I long understood that you have to write about what is most important to you, what you can't help but tell the reader. And the desire to tell that story should be so strong that it is unbearable to hold it in for too long.

  • "How did you find the publisher for this book?"

Realizing that very little was known in America about the time I grew up in the Soviet Union, I thought my book had both informational and artistic value. So, when I searched for a university press publisher that was able to bring books into the stores, not just to the libraries, the University of California Press was a natural choice. It was also a homecoming of sorts: both of my advanced degrees (MA and Ph.D. in Russian literature) are from UCLA.

  • "What are you working on at the moment?"

I'm putting the finishing touches on a book-length manuscript in a genre I thought I'd never be interested in tackling. It's one of those cases when it's not-the writer who chooses his material but the material that chooses him. It's a biography of a Russian superspy little known in the West, though, in comparison with his real-life adventures, James Bond looks like a nincompoop. I had met the man many years ago as a young journalist back in my Soviet life, in September 1973, a year before I emigrated from the USSR. I met him on his request and wrote down as much as I could of his extraordinary life story. Many years later, when some material about him appeared in the Russian press, it re-sparked my interest in him to the extent that I became obsessed with the desire to put straight the record of his life-a life undoubtedly selfless and heroic but, at the same time, profoundly tragic. As soon as I complete this biography, I'll resume work on a sequel to Shush! The book ends a few months after Stalin's death, in the summer of 1953, on a note of hope and renewal. But the misery of being Jewish in Russia didn't stop immediately. Though no longer as menacing as the years of late Stalinism with their relentless waves of anti-Semitic campaigns, the next twenty years of my Russian life weren't overly happy either. Like many other Jews in Russia at the time, I was subjected to clandestine discrimination when it came to education and jobs. Desperate, I decided to take the risk of applying for an exit visa. I took advantage of a suddenly opened window of opportunity-the chance to leave the country legally as part of the early 1970s exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union. After immigrating to America, talking to American Jews, I have often heard them express regret about knowing next to nothing about their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who had come to this country some hundred years ago from Eastern Europe. I envision my sequel-in-progress as a history of the first wave of Jewish emigration from the USSR, interwoven with my personal memoir. In it, I hope to set the record straight for my children and grandchildren about what made us, Soviet Jews, forever leave the country where we were born and come to America.

  • "What are you reading?"

The World of Our Fathers by Irving Howe, a classic work covering territory similar to that of my book-in-progress- emigration from Russia, but a hundred years ago. It's interesting for me to compare and contrast these two waves of Jewish emigration. Also, Howe's book is so well written that it can't help but inspire me. The second book on my desk now is Nobel laureate Amos Oz's The Tale of Love and Darkness, a history of an immigrant family that fled from war-tom Europe and settled in Jerusalem, a wonderful book, quiet, filled with poetic reflections on space and time in history. The book clearly proves what I learned awhile ago: to keep the readers' attention, a good writer doesn't have to resort to the trickery of suspense or pack his book with action.

Interview With:Vicki K. Boykis Blog

  • "In your book, you write that you used to say “Jewish” at a whisper in the United States. Has writing this book helped clarify this issue for you? Or do you still subconsciously act this way?"

As many memoirs do, writing Shush! had its therapeutic effect on me, that is, it cured me of lowering my voice when saying “Jewish” in America.

  • "You have a lot of in-depth, extensive memories of your childhood in Shush! Did you write them down at an earlier date, or use artistic license when recreating your childhood in the book?"

Childhood memories are, by and large, the most vivid for most people. It’s natural considering how impressionable and inquisitive a child’s mind is. Some scenes in Shush! are obviously recreated, more accurately, arranged and structured. For example, I may have had dozens of conversations with my father on Jewish names or other topics. It’s only natural that, for the purpose of a narrative, to compose a scene, I had to select lines from a much larger pool. No matter how you slice it, writing a memoir is a literary undertaking complete with organizing material by its logical, dramatic or thematic unity. You can take stream of consciousness only that much.

  • "You write much about the evils of the Soviet system, the stifling environment, and the oppression, which was something my family dealt with as well when everyone in my mom’s family was fired from their jobs as they tried to make aliyah for the first time in 1980. Did you ever consider going to Israel? Why/why not?"

I considered going to Israel. A letter from my friend who had emigrated earlier stopped me. He wrote that, after getting a bank loan for a house, you couldn’t leave the country until it’s fully paid. True or not, it scared me. Getting out of the Soviet Union in 1974 was an overwhelming emotional experience. The very prospect of having hard time to leave from another country, even theoretically speaking, made me sick to my stomach. I thought that after settling down in the U.S., I would visit Israel and find things out for myself. But that never happened. I traveled to Israel later on, but my life in America had already taken an unexpected turn.

  • "Is being Jewish more of a cultural, ethnic, or religious designation for you? Do you think it is strictly one or the other?"

Well, for me it is primarily cultural and ethnic, but I think there’s a connection between Judaism as religion of inquisitive mind that somehow most of Jews inclined to split hair in any issue. Look at the great Boris Pasternak, who resented the very fact that he belong to Jewry genetically. Yet, he writes in one of his poems: “I want to get to the bottoms of things in everything.” It’s not an exclusively Jewish trait but it is most often present in Jewish mental make-up. I believe it’s a hereditary trait that had taken root in many centuries of scholastic studies to which Jewish children were exposed from as early as three years of age.

  • "What is the biggest difference you notice about Jews that have grown up in America and those that have grown up in Russia/USSR?"

A huge difference. Growing up in the USSR made you abhor any kind of social activity. Most of it was “voluntarily-compulsive,” that is, you can refuse to go to a Saturday volunteer cleaning of the courtyard of your government setting, but you better not. You’d be considered “politically inactive” and, therefore, suspect of having weak moral fiber. American Jews find it normal to be active in their community for such activism is based on the underlying Protestant culture of the country adopted by the Jews. Russian Jews grew up in a culture that embraced the precepts of Christian Orthodoxy, in which not immediate deeds, mere contemplation of God’s designs, is considered pleasing to God’s heart. Don’t take me wrong: such values give birth to such attractive human qualities, as kindness, naturalness, good disposition to others, etc. See Ilya Oblomov, the hero of Goncharov’s novel as a good example of such a man. But, for God’s sake, the guy spent most of his waking hours lying in bed…This hypothesis about the roots of the differences between American and Russian Jews belongs to Russian-trained sociologist Sam Kliger. I tend to concur with him.