Off the Cuff: Gary Shteyngart, OC ‘95, Author and Professor


Photo Courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe

Gary Shteyngart, OC ’95, who recently published his first memoir, Little Failure.

Kerensa Loadholt, News Editor

Gary Shteyngart, OC ’95, has written several novels and recently published his first memoir, Little Failure. His novels include works such as The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story. Shteyngart previously taught writing at Hunter College and now teaches at Columbia University. He is a Jewish Russian-American immigrant, an experience that often comes through in his novels, and was born in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia. Shteyngart has been awarded the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, the Book-of-the-Month Club First Fiction Award and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction.

Do you think your time at Oberlin affected your view on humor?

It introduced me to a whole different segment of society that I never knew existed. I grew up in a conservative immigrant household, and then I went to Hebrew school, which was its own level of insanity. I tend to make fun of Hebrew — I wrote a version of the Torah called the Ganorah, you know, Exodus became Sexodus. Then I went to Stuyvesant, which was a very serious place also. It was a math and science high school in New York. It was hard for me there because nobody had any edge, everyone just studied to please their immigrant parents and went home to cry.

That was the entirety of the experience, but so much of [Oberlin] was so new to me. The idea of liberal arts was kind of new to me, that people could study for the sake of studying and not see a monetary [gain] at the end. That kind of shocked me, and the whole idea of working in the culture of the arts was so new to me. You know my parents would tell me, you’re going to grow up to be a lawyer, and maybe as a hobby you can do arts. In fact, when I came in that was my idea. I was a Politics major, because that was [the most] pre-law major you could have; I loved studying politics here. I had a Creative Writing minor. I started doing that because I really wanted to write desperately. Before Oberlin, I had no idea one could do that as a full time [occupation]. At Oberlin, everyone was about the arts. Back in my time if someone admitted that they wanted to go to law school or, God forbid, business school, [it wasn’t interesting]. Medical school was OK, but only if you worked with turtles on the Oregon coast or something and helped them find their eggs.

When I graduated, I worked with two Obies who ran a civil rights law firm, but they knew I didn’t give a crap about the laws even though the cause was good. I would show up there with my plastic tie, but as soon as they looked away I would start working on my novel — that’s when [I began] my first novel. So maybe that’s what Oberlin did more than anything. It made me see that there was a way I could [write]. That’s when I started to look at culture as maybe not just a hobby but a way that I could spend my whole life.

Do you think your background as a Russian-American immigrant made you stronger in your adjustment to Oberlin, or did it prove to be more of a cultural shock?

I grew up in Reagan’s America in the 1980s, and being a Russian was the worst thing you could be. [Whether it was] the evil empire speech or Russians this Russians that, it was so bad that we would try to convince people we were German — imagine trying to convince a bunch of Jewish kids that you’re German. We were seen as the other. At Oberlin, being the other was seen as cool. All of a sudden, all of the stuff I had tried to [hide] — you know, I tried to lose my accent and tried to be as American as possible — all that was kind of turned on its head at Oberlin. These weren’t things that I needed to hide. They weren’t just OK but good, because I wasn’t just another suburban kid.

That’s when I really started to excavate my Russian roots; you know if I could’ve afforded a Khazhak outfit I would’ve just walked around throwing borscht at people, even though borscht is technically Ukranian. I could’ve done that with anything, because I could see that not fitting in [was OK]. I started taking Russian classes; I spoke Russian, but I took classes with Arlene Forman. She was great. I [was really interested in] what she did. One of her speeches was about the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

And then I started writing my first book, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, when I was here at Oberlin; it’s also based heavily on Russian themes. It was all connected, and it was all starting to come together. Partly because of the fact that that was what people wanted you to do. Instead of running away from this, I started building up material that would go into four books.

Did going back to your roots at Oberlin enable you to follow the different translations of your book through different cultures? How do people take your fiction and find ways to fit it into their own lives?

One of the nice things about being able to tour the world is that [you meet people from all over], and they can offer you their view on the situation. A Turkish immigrant in Germany will say, “This reminds me so much of my own immigrant experience.” You know, how is that possible? The immigrant story is one of the greatest stories of all time; it’s a very natural sense of crowd identification. You don’t know what side you are. [Am I] American, am I Russian? My parents wanted me to be both in a very serious way. To succeed like an American but still maintain my culture. It’s very difficult stuff, but it’s also beautiful in terms of gravity. I teach narrative writing, and nothing is more beautiful [than culture] and having those different perspectives. It adds a lot more credibility in a sense.

At Columbia, I try very hard, you know, I’m on the Admissions committee. We need to be as diverse as possible. [At Oberlin] it was interesting to see how everyone is very, very different. It seems like everyone is supposed to be different, and it made me feel even more different. It’s very inspirational, and I think it is to a lot of people. A lot of successful people who left Oberlin were ambivalent about the situation [on campus] to say the best. A lot of my friends were [like that]; happy to be here, but confused at the same time. And when they got out of here, they knew exactly how life should be lived. So to those who feel discouraged, [Oberlin prepares you for real life].