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Out Of Ukraine, This 'Suitcase' Packs An Immigrant's Story With Humor


You may feel you've heard enough stories about Ukraine to last the rest of the summer. Today, we've got one more, but hang on. This story is not about pro-Russian separatists or airplane disasters. In fact, this Ukraine story is not a tragedy at all. It's sort of a comedy.

YELENA AKHTIORSKAYA: For those who have only imagined the scene inside a ladies locker room, the actuality was a handful of half-squatting women struggling with their locks. The floor was wet and contaminated cement. A woman came in with hair piled on her crown like a scoop of ice cream about to tip. One side of her bathing suit had ridden up a dimpled buttock, exposing skin that was soaked, shapeless, pinkish - like whale blubber.

SHAPIRO: That's Yelena Akhtiorskaya reading from her debut novel "Panic in a Suitcase." The book is divided between the Ukrainian city of Odessa and the dingy ocean-side neighborhood of Brighton Beach, New York. It centers around a family of immigrants to the United States, much like Akhtiorskaya's own family, who settled in Brighton Beach and brought their culture with them from Odessa.

AKHTIORSKAYA: Basically, it's all the same Russian-Jews from Odessa. It's the same stores - lots of stores called Odessa. The stores sell the same strange squirrel candies.

SHAPIRO: Squirrel candies?

AKHTIORSKAYA: They're called bilecka (ph), which means squirrel. And they have a little picture of the squirrel on them. And I guess they're full of nuts and chocolate.

SHAPIRO: And within the novel, you have this family that hasn't even managed to immigrate in full. They are trying to get Pasha to come over. He comes over for a visit. He won't stay. Even the act of immigration seems to be an incomplete act.

AKHTIORSKAYA: Yeah. When the family leaves, it's still the Soviet Union. And they think, you know, they're going past the Iron Curtain and that's it. There's really going to be no going back. And then very very soon afterwards, the Soviet Union dissolves. And they can get their son or their uncle Pasha to come and visit them. And it's a completely different thing. He can go and scope out the premises and see. Do I want to come here? Do I not want to come here?

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the character Pasha. I understand he is based on an uncle of yours in real life.

AKHTIORSKAYA: Yes, that's hard to admit.

SHAPIRO: (Laughing) Nobody is listening. You just confide in me. It's OK.

AKHTIORSKAYA: (Laughing) Well, Pasha, he is head-in-the-clouds intellectual. He is a poet. And he has disappointed his family in many ways. He's converted to Christianity. He has become a poet as opposed to a doctor. You know, it's a family of doctors. He hasn't married the Jewish girl. And he stays in Odessa. And he's the kind of person who can recite the whole canon of Russian poetry, but he can't tie his shoelaces.

SHAPIRO: Even beyond Pasha, so many of the characters in this novel - from the central family to the people they run into on the street - are hilarious and also seem like people I would not want to spend any time with. Was it difficult to write about characters that to some extent reflect your family in ways that were so unflinching?

AKHTIORSKAYA: Yes. And I had to do it thinking that there was no chance in the world that anybody was ever going to read this.

SHAPIRO: (Laughing) So what happened when they did?

AKHTIORSKAYA: My mother said that when she was reading parts of it, she was just sort of sweating this cold sweat.


AKHTIORSKAYA: But I think that after all, she's proud. And I think slowly after reading it, she sees it as an accomplishment in the way that immigrant parents are one to do.

SHAPIRO: The Washington Post called this book the great immigrant story drained of its inspirational hype. Does that describe the way you see this book?

AKHTIORSKAYA: Yeah. I mean, I kind of see it as an anti-immigrant immigrant novel. I don't see immigration as something where you come to the new country and, you know, you have all these incredible opportunities and it's so much better than the old place and you just forge ahead. My question is maybe it's better to stay behind than come to the new country - or maybe not that it's better, but it has its own rewards.

SHAPIRO: Is it difficult to reconcile the Ukraine you see on the news with the Ukraine of your writing and your life experience?

AKHTIORSKAYA: It's practically impossible. That's why I feel so conflicted whenever I go back to visit. One moment it seems to me like the most beautiful city in the world and exactly, you know, where my soul belongs and where I naturally just came from. And the next moment it seems completely foreign and strange and also maybe paltry and a bit crumbling. So it's very hard to reconcile. And when I write about it, I feel - I feel like I have to try to stave off the completely romanticized idea that I have of it.

SHAPIRO: I know that this is your first novel and it has just come out, but given that you wrote it before any of this began, do you think any novels you might write going forward will be changed by current events in Ukraine right now?

AKHTIORSKAYA: I do think so. Even now as I'm writing stories, I can't seem to go back and access that pure Odessa of the imagination that I had before - that was completely untethered to reality and current events, which is hard because I have to figure out now how to write about it. But certainly it's completely changed.

SHAPIRO: That's Yelena Akhtiorskaya - author of the new novel "Panic in a Suitcase." Thank you so much.

AKHTIORSKAYA: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.