Monthly Archives: January 2011

Nabokov’s ‘Speak, Memory,’ ver. 2.0

Olga Khotiashova responded to my review of Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory by posting as a comment a lovely essay, which I have also featured as a guest post, below; it unites her personal history with her reading of the book and with literary and political analysis. A mathematician by education, she now lives in Houston.

Reflections on Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory

by a Russian native speaker recently immigrated to the USA

By Olga Khotiashova

I read the famous Lolita by V. Nabokov in mid-1980s. The book, a Russian translation copied from the original printed in the West and hand-bound, was secretly given to me by a friend with a comment, “If anybody asks you where you got it, answer that you found it in a dumpster.” I’m not sure if the original was smuggled through the Iron Curtain, probably the friend just wanted to heat my interest. Anyway, although it was mid-1980s, not mid-1930s, it was safer not to ask too many questions about the book: “The less you know, the better you sleep,” as the Russian saying says. I read Lolita quickly, liked it partially because of the romantic flavor of forbidden reading, and forgot about Nabokov for years.

The next encounter with the writer happened ten years later when the works by Nabokov were widely published in the former Soviet Union. I liked his novels especially those written in Russian a lot, and Drugie Berega (Other Shores) has become one of my favorite books. No wonder that having moved to the US, I was interested in the English version of the book—Speak, Memory.

Well, it appeared to be not an easy reading. Nabokov’s vocabulary is enormous and peculiar. I had to read sitting at my desk and checking up to 10 words per page in the dictionary, and some of the words needed even a deeper research. I even wrote down the new words first but gave up shortly as it became clear that I would unlikely ever use them. For me, with my freshly learned English, Nabokov’s prose seemed kind of staged: stylish and exquisite as his unique Russian but a little tied up in the limits of English grammar.

While reading Speak, Memory, I tried to answer two questions: 1) What may an American reader like about the book? 2) What does the book mean for me in comparison with its Russian vis-à-vis?

No doubt, Speak, Memory may be interesting to an American reader as an exotic butterfly for its unusual and mysterious beauty. But is there anything more? I borrowed the book in the library, and it had some notes and a library receipt which told me about the previous reader. The pencil notes on the margins affirmed that the reader looked for the connections with everything American, was interested in Russian cultural traditions, and was confused by Nabokov’s playing with words. It was funny that sometimes, when the American reader put a bold question mark having not found the word in the dictionary, I could easily guess the meaning based on the rules of word building in Russian. The receipt included two books: Nabokov’s memoir and the biography of Ernest Hemingway, and a DVD with the movie The Night of the Iguana based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Interesting! The choice itself may become the topic of a research. Anyway, I would join the same book club as that unknown reader and we would definitely find what to speak about despite obvious cultural difference.

I can imagine Speak, Memory in the reading list of a scholar specializing in 20th century literature. But it arguably may be interesting to a casual reader as well.
The book gives a private and subtle look at Russian life at the beginning of the 20th century. Nabokov shows the best part of Russian society: educated, broadminded, bearing rich cultural traditions. Most of these features were swept away by the October Revolution and were replaced by the fierce image of a hostile Russian which became a cliché. Nabokov reveals his vision of Russia and makes a reader avoid stereotypes and develop his or her own view.

Nature, landscapes have always been essential for both Russians and Americans. Russian landscapes, as Nabokov pictures them, give a key to the Russian spirituality. The book produces the strongest feeling of home and loving family—the values which cannot be overestimated. Viewed from the point of a boy raised by loving parents in close connection with nature and art, with great respect for the family history going through ages, and admiration of both native and foreign cultures, the picture of “perfect childhood” drawn by Nabokov may appeal to a reader as the source of first-hand information and particular spirituality.

As for my personal impression of the memoir, it hasn’t changed a lot after reading the English version. It just became more refined as I looked at Russia from the same shore the author did. Only looking from far away one may cherish the native language as the most valuable possession. Only living abroad one may feel the overwhelming beauty of the native land.

It was also a thrilling experience to observe Nabokov’s famous alliterations and decipher his allusions. “The spiral is a spiritualized circle” sounds like a poem in English. I wonder how Nabokov said it in Russian; no doubt he found some singing equivalent. Unfortunately, my Russian version of the book was left on the bookshelf in my St. Petersburg apartment. I know exactly where it is: on the right side, between Dostoevsky and Brodsky. The search for the adequate translation haunted me even in a night dream where I could easily reach the book, turn the pages quickly but still could not find the corresponding page. Alas, it was just a dream.

Writing in English, Nabokov preserved grace and magic epitomized in his Russian prose. Speak, Memory works as a magic lantern switching the reader from the narration to his or her own or even ancestral reminiscences. While reading the book, I caught myself several times feeling as if I was looking through the eyes of my great-grandmother whose namesake I am and whose youth coincided with the beginning of 20th century. I never met her. But due to Nabokov’s prose, the stories told me thousand times by my grandmother and stacked somewhere in the depth of the memory miraculously got alive and transformed into the vivid pictures of a sunlit apple orchard, Cossacks suppressing a students’ rally, train tours to the Crimea. I expect even more miracles.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote his memoir approximately the same time he was working on Lolita. He counted on the former to help him make living but it was the latter which turned out to be a great commercial success.  Well, the life is all about unexpected things. As for me, I’ll probably never return to Lolita and will definitely reread both Speak, Memory and Drugie Berega, which connect distant shores and times and serve as bookmarks in the memory pinpointing treasured places and images.


Filed under diction or vocabulary, memoir, politics, religion & spirituality, REVIEW

Dog days of winter

I took this picture last year from my bathroom window, in the midst of the snowiest winter in Ohio in 100 years. It's been snowy this year. In fact, the scene looks exactly the same.


Filed under MY LIFE

Edward Humes on structure

Edward Humes won a Pulitzer prize when he was a newspaper reporter and has gone on to write ten books, nonfiction narratives about crime and public issues. His website/blog is worth visiting. Today I stumbled across his helpful essay on structure and immersion, “A Brief Introduction to Narrative Nonfiction,” which used to be available on his site—I think that’s where I got it, anyway—and which I’d saved in my computer. Some excerpts:

I hated the fact that Bill Leasure, the corrupt LAPD traffic cop in my second book, Murderer with a Badge, chose murder as his first crime. Only later did he segue into stealing a few million dollars worth of yachts. Chronicling events in that order would have been anticlimactic. So I abandoned any pretense of a chronological structure, and started the first chapter with Leasure aboard a stolen boat. The murders unfolded later in the book, in a section that dealt with an earlier period in Leasure’s life. Then the narrative jumped forward again to a time after the yacht thefts, when those unsolved murders were finally linked to Leasure by the police. That kept the tension in the narrative building, though structurally it was kind of messy—like my main character’s life.

Finding the right structure for No Matter How Loud I Shout, my juvenile court book, was even more challenging, as I was weaving together an ensemble of characters with different story lines that only occasionally intersected—a kind of literary version of Hillstreet Blues or ER. Yet these varied threads had to build toward some sort of critical mass and shared climax in order to make sense. Finding those intersection points was not a matter of clever writing. It was a matter of being there, day after day, haunting the courtrooms, the juvenile hall, the offices of the prosecutors and public defenders and judges. In the end, I have found, even the most thorny sorts of questions about structure and character development end up being less about writing technique, and more about reporting technique. Narrative nonfiction requires authors to immerse themselves in their subjects, to painstakingly (and sometimes painfully) interview characters, research place (past, present and future), and reconstruct dialogue (spoken and interior).

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Filed under braids, threads, essay-narrative, immersion, journalism, NOTED, structure, working method

Q&A: Ira Sukrungruang

Following my review of Talk Thai: Adventures of Buddhist Boy, I emailed some questions to its author. Ira Sukrungruang responded with uncommonly helpful answers. He’s only thirty-four, but maybe that’s why: he’s been writing seriously since he was a senior in college and is still close enough to what he’s learned, his big breakthroughs, to help illuminate writing’s craft. Here are my questions and his answers:

On your blog you call your memoir The Book that Took Too Long to Write. Could you discuss its evolution? What did you learn about writing in the process?

You can say I started writing this book as soon as I began writing seriously. I was an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, discovering creative nonfiction for the first time because of an autobiography class taught by nature writer Lisa Knopp. I found my material. I began writing essay after essay about my childhood, about my confusions as an immigrant son. I originally thought about writing a collection of essays because I didn’t think I had a memoir in me. Not yet. Not when I was twenty-two. Not when I was in the midst of self-discovery and though that discovery was revelatory, it was also difficult to sift through at the time. I took a few years more to see my life as a memoir. I needed those years to mature, to process, to understand. Time also helped me back away and write the exposition that was needed in the memoir. I didn’t have that yet. Everything was still really close. Also, for the longest time I labored over the essays, trying to write the bridges to connect them. I was driving myself nuts. It wasn’t working. Finally, I thought, “Screw it. Write the whole thing over.” I felt liberated. I felt I could write the book I wanted to write.

One of the things that is awfully complicated about using the “I” pronoun in nonfiction is that it continually evolves. The writer I am now is not the writer I was then. What was frustrating in revising those old essays was that I was trying to revise an older version of me, instead of writing a new book entirely. That was the biggest lesson I learned when writing Talk Thai.

Talk Thai opens with your enrollment in first grade and proceeds to high school. The book appears to be a straight, narrative-driven chronology, but that impression may be misleading in the sense that, while it feels complete, it’s concise and much must be left out. How did you work out the memoir’s form?

I always go by Bill Roorbach’s example of creative nonfiction in his textbook Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth. Roorbach compares creative nonfiction to food styling. On the cover of cooking magazines, one sees the perfect turkey, perfectly brown, without the burnt parts. That perfect brown is motor oil. Real turkey doesn’t look appealing. Real turkey cooks unevenly, the skin pale in spots. Here, for example, is a picture of the turkey my wife and I had this Thanksgiving, cooked by a couple of friends while we were camping in Florida.

Ira Sukrungruang relates this, his Thanksgiving turkey, to creative nonfiction.

This turkey was delicious. That really dark spot was an explosion of flavor. Under the pale skin was the moistest turkey I have ever tasted. But by looking at it, you wouldn’t know. Real life is like this turkey; though good, showing it as it is doesn’t quite work.

When I began writing Talk Thai I needed to find the dramatic thrust of the book. The main questions that arose were how could I find myself in this Thai immigrant family, in America, in school, in temple, in anything? There are so many instances I wanted to put in the book, but some of them represented the same thing, and some of them slowed down the momentum of the book. Part of writing a chronological narrative is the art of sifting through all that is in a life, sifting through all the memories to get at what best represents what you want to illustrate. The book started off at five hundred pages, but a lot had to be cut and a lot had to be added until it finally found its final version. (Though, I must admit, I loved some of the cut sections, so on my website, I included a few omitted sections and a different ending. )

Speaking of endings, before I wrote the book I had to decide on a beginning and an ending of the book. I needed to have the ending point. I needed to know I was working toward something, shaping something. And the beginning—the natural beginning was my entry into the first grade. It’s when the world opened up to me. It’s when I was faced with America and all its confusion.

I enjoyed your narrative, an unfolding of events interwoven with reflection, because it conveys experience so well, but wonder if you were tempted to write more essayistic set-pieces about growing up Thai in America? The latter seems more popular in academic literary journals, while book publishers crave good stories.

A good story is good, but a memoir has to be more than a good story. It needs those thinking and reflective moments that you get in a good personal essay. I didn’t write Talk Thai because I had a good story. In fact, nothing truly traumatic happens in my life. I’m also not one to think being Thai or ethnic is reason enough to write a memoir. The story is secondary. A good memoir is about how one understands life, not the life itself. I turn to what Vivian Gornick says in The Situation and the Story: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

This is why I read memoir.

A note on book publishers: The best memoirs are coming out of independent and university presses. I love the memoirs that are coming out of University of Nebraska Press, the ones from University of Iowa Press, from Graywolf and Sarabande. These books are not only about the good story. A good story is forgettable if there isn’t anything else to cling to.

How and when did you end up getting an MFA after your undergraduate years? Since so many people of all ages are now pursuing MFAs, do you have any advice for prospective or current students about making the most of the experience?

I was student teaching at a high school in Illinois and I realized I wasn’t writing anymore, and at the time, that’s all I wanted to do. I decided to abandon my career path as a high school teacher and get an MFA. It was the best decision I ever made. And hardest. You don’t get an MFA because you want a job. I got an MFA because I wanted to learn more about the craft of writing and be around others who share the same passion. My advice: because you will be saturated in the writing world—reading, writing, teaching—you need to have an outlet. I needed to have one or two days out of the week where I did something else, like play tennis or work out. That was essential during my three years in the MFA program. My students who have gone on to MFA programs also played hockey or poker or something other than writing. It’s healthy sometimes to step away.


Filed under Author Interview, essay-personal, memoir, MFA, narrative, revision, working method

Review: ‘Talk Thai’ memoir

Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy by Ira Sukrungruang. University of Missouri Press, 169 pages

People have two desires that, however fervent, are contradictory. They want to stand out, and they want to fit in. I think memoirs of overt dual identity appeal because they crystallize this universal dilemma.

Growing up in the 1980s in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, Ira Sukrungruang was not only Asian but obese. He had that Hebrew first name—his parents had picked it out of a book of “American names”—and an unpronounceable surname. He wore thick glasses, an unfashionable crew cut, and lugged stinky Thai food to Harnew Elementary in his Muppets lunchbox. He dressed like his father, in brown slacks and pink button-down shirts. Little Ira, the Thai nerd, couldn’t help but attract attention from classmates Bob and Danny, Tanya and Tiffany, though not as the superhero celebrity he daydreamed about.

His family pronounced Ira “Ila” and eschewed linking verbs: “We Thai.” They confused words like civic and cervix. At least he could improve his own English by parroting zingers from TV sitcoms: “What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”

Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy tells the story of this American kid who, inside his home, was strictly Thai. His parents and their close Thai friend, Aunty Sue, really a second mother, spoke only Thai to him. They taught him their nation’s customs and the tenets of Buddhism. Much of the humor and poignancy of the memoir flow from this passionately Thai triumvirate trying to raise a good Thai boy under the onslaught of American culture. They’re endlessly puzzled by America’s “god people”—their encounter with a pushy Christian evangelist is both funny and discomfiting to read. They quietly consider Thais superior, and yearn for their native land, 8,000 miles away, where every day isn’t a confusing struggle.

Of course Sukrungruang (pronounced SUKE-RUNG-RUNG) was American-born and desperately desirous of being American—with problems as simple as American names. His gym teacher sang a Beach Boys tune to his last name. And while his mother tried to teach him to fear America, this boy’s life outside the home was utterly American. Here’s part of a scene:

One evening, I decided I wanted to become something that I could never be, not in a million and a half years. I pondered this predicament at the kitchen table, twirling a noodle around in my bowl with chopsticks. In our house, laundry was my mother’s business, like cooking was my aunt’s. Aunty Sue prepared a bowl of noodles for my mother, who was upstairs putting away clothes. She ladled some broth over the noodles and sprinkled scallions on top. She then placed the steaming bowl on the kitchen table and sat across from me, staring.

“What’s the matter?” she said in Thai.

I twirled the noodle round and round.

My aunt told me there should be no secrets between us. I could trust her with anything. I did trust my aunt, my second mother, more than anyone in the world.

I told my aunt I wanted to be white. I wanted to be a farang.

The bowl had gotten cold. My mother’s footsteps creaked upstairs. I didn’t want her to know this secret desire.

“Like Larry Bird?” Aunty Sue smiled.

As Sukrungruang struggles to fulfill family and cultural expectations, he makes two close friends in Southside Chicago and later a Thai boy he meets at the Buddhist temple. In vivid scenes, the boys experience bullies, comic book heroes and villains, wild sleepovers, Sunday school, and inevitably the mysterious allure of girls. The story darkens as Sukrungruang’s parents’ marriage unravels, underscoring their plight as a family “lost and alone in a foreign land.” At last, in pain, and angry at his odd, golf-obsessed, unfaithful, beloved father, Ira acts out—the family’s living room furniture and their drywall pay the price—but, as always, his mother and Aunty Sue are there to comfort and console him.

A yellow legal sheet, his mother’s handwritten eight rules for being Thai, would hang on the refrigerator for twenty years with Ira’s signature at the bottom. The last rule: “Remember, you are Thai.” When he was little, playing with his father one day on the bed, his mother had chastised him for breaking Rule 3—never touch an adult’s head—and Rule 6: Always speak Thai in the house.

Rule 6 was the hardest not to break. English was everywhere. It even began infecting my dreams—frogs croaking: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Ribbbittt!”

“I like talking that way,” I said. “I’m good at it. I hate speaking Thai.

My mother’s lips thinned. She punished in two ways: an intense verbal barrage or silence.

My father slid toward the back of the bed. He, too, feared her anger.

“You hate speaking the language of your ancestors?” my mother said, her voice even and curt. “Then you hate me.” She turned away, her eyes aimed at the dresser.

My father made his eyes bulge. He nodded toward my mother, a gesture that told me to apologize, to lay my hands on her lap and bow my head.

I couldn’t stand her silence. It made my chest hurt and my fingers feel numb. I inched toward her.

The story, moving from his enrollment in first grade to his entering high school, flashes forward to mention his exodus for Southern Illinois University. Sukrungruang’s blog, The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, mentions that he later earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Ohio State. Today, at thirty-four, he’s an English professor at the University of South Florida and has co-edited two anthologies, What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. On his website he has published three cut chapters of Talk Thai, including an alternate ending that takes his mother and Aunty Sue to the brink of their return to Thailand.

Talk Thai is disarmingly deft in execution, a nice blend of scenes and exposition. And this coming-of-age story is concise—always impressive to long-winded me. I also find the book is very teachable, and right now my freshmen in a class on “memoirs of childhood and dangerous youth” are enjoying it. They identify with Ira Sukrungruang, feeling new and different themselves, and appear charmed by the humorous spirit that hovers over this gentle, generous memoir.

Next: An interview with Ira Sukrungruang.

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Filed under humor, memoir, REVIEW, teaching, education

A Kindle tragedy

Oh no.

Setting my new Christmas Kindle atop the mound of books on the nightstand beside my bed last night precipitated an avalanche. Books and Kindle took a tumble onto the hardwood floor.

The books, of course, were fine. None the worse for wear. But this morning when I launched my Kindle, something was very wrong indeed. The screensaver image—a bird, some warbler or meadowlark gripping a reed—stayed pasted over half the screen.

I’d been deeply engrossed in Jonathan Franzen’s amazing blockbuster novel Freedom, careening through the book’s last act like an overloaded West Virginia coal truck with cooked brakes. And thanks to my Kindle’s Progress Bar, or whatever it’s called, I knew last night when I paused for sleep that I ‘d reached “89 %.”

Not anymore. The coal truck crashed. I called Amazon, and for a small fee (not so small, actually, but Kathy’s reading my blog so I’m gonna be vague) they’re rushing me a new device and I’m sending mine back to the Kindle mothership.

I’m going to refrain from pointing out, again, that a thirty-inch drop left real books unfazed but left me holding my Kindle in a painful state of reading interruptus. After all, I’m lovin’ my ereader, especially while riding an exercise bike, and feeling so thoroughly modern at last.

Oh, Kindle, I hardly knew you!

This reminds me of my Computer Incident two summers ago just after I’d finally, proudly, migrated to a laptop. In that case it was the dog’s fault for knocking my Mac off my bed onto the hardwood and breaking the motherboard. Though, as with any disaster worth the dignity of that name, multiple factors were involved. As one of the great characters in Freedom says in her memoir, Mistakes Were Made. (What happened in the case of Jack vs. the Mac is fascinating only to me and my family, but too tedious to relate here, even for me.)

This time it was a pile of books, destabilized by a slender paperback, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy—really—that was the proximate cause. And my latest new Kindle is going to take care of that problem. Right.


Filed under MY LIFE, reading