Very, Very Short Fiction, Mining An Immigrant's Experience

The funny and sad stories of Ukrainian emigre writer and miniaturist Marina Rubin.

01/02/2014
Culture Editor
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Marina Rubin’s very short stories are shorter than most articles in this newspaper.

But she would never leave a sentence dangling like that. Each one of the 74 stories in “Stealing Cherries” (Manic D Press) unfolds into 14 to 18 lines — no paragraph breaks, few capital letters — that form a block of text on the page (the last word always ends at the right margin). Her writing is sparse and precise, yet also lush, with long sentences packed full of life, drama and artistry.

In an interview, she says she’s a huge fan of the saying, “Talk less. Say more.” The stories are often funny, although the humor can be bittersweet.

Rubin was born in Ukraine and left with her family in 1989. An ingenious storyteller, she’s a recipient of a 2013 Blueprint Fellowship from COJECO, the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations.

Like Russian-born novelists Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar and David Bezmozgis, she mines her immigrant experience for her fiction, uncovering the universal. 

Some of the stories in “Stealing Cherries” deal with her life in the former Soviet Union as well as immigrant life in America; others relate to later adventures in New York City and around the world. In “Zelenka,” she writes of first learning she is Jewish, while still in Ukraine, when a doctor visited their home to attend to her 15-year-old brother who was moaning on the couch after painful surgery, his skin covered in zelenka, an antiseptic drug used to prevent infection. She was “just as blonde and blue-eyed as the other Ukrainian girls who wore little brass Jesuses on their necks” and was shocked when the doctor pronounced, “congratulations, young man, you are now a real Jew.”

For Rubin, the compact story is a new form. She has previously published three volumes of poetry, “Ode to Hotels” (2002), “Once” (2004) and “Logic” (2007). She says, “When I wrote this, I was so done with poetry. Poetry didn’t work for what I wanted to say. Maybe it’s my Russian arrogance, but the form needs to be working for me.”

Sometimes the punctuation is correct, and sometimes it’s purposely not, she explains. She doesn’t capitalize the letter I, and says that only in English is the first person singular a capital letter. “Something about American culture,” she says.

Rubin was born in Vinnitsia (“sounds like Venice,” she says), Ukraine. Her father was a successful dentist and they lived in a private home, which she says was very unusual. He was 48 when they came here, and became a dental assistant. Her mother, who was an engineer, now works as a bookkeeper. She says that they are very happy here — “they love America” — and don’t spend time lamenting how their professional lives have changed. They live in Coney Island, near the New York Aquarium, and she lives nearby, on Ocean Parkway.

When the family left Ukraine in 1989, seeking asylum, they went first to Italy and Austria. They arrived in New York City in April 1990 when Marina was 13. She attended yeshiva in Brooklyn for two months and, as she explains, the principal and teachers didn’t quite know what to do with her there. The following fall, she started New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst and quickly became editor of the school’s literary magazine. She graduated among the top in her class and won a scholarship from the United Federation of Teachers to attend Pace University, where she majored in psychology and women’s studies.

In “Welcome to America: Day Two,” she writes of the family’s embarrassment when the Salvation Army came to their Brooklyn hotel handing them food and clothing “as if we were survivors of some natural disaster.” They had, in fact, had furs hanging in the closet; they tried to explain that they came “not because we were poor but because we were jewish, that we were persecuted, that my brother — physics wunderkind — could never study at the russian harvard. … still we took all the books, dishes, and blankets, and put on sweat suits and t-shirts and smiled our grateful all-american smiles because here you just never know how things might turn out.”

In the next story, “Welcome to America: The Weekend,” she tells of being invited to celebrate Passover “with a community of hasidic jews in crown heights. we could have been murderers, robbers, imposters. Nevertheless, these god’s chosen people” opened their doors to them. In every doorway, women put skirts for every occasion in her arms. “we sat at their tables, watched them pray, sing, soak apples in honey, toast to meeting next year in Jerusalem; without any misgivings, we were finally free to be jewish and yet, even among our own people, we didn’t belong.”

“Stealing Cherries” is a phrase from a story set in Vinnitsa during the summer before they left. That story’s title, “Confessions of Love,” she explains, loses something in translation — in Russian, it means first kiss. She likes how the book title captures her former city with its many cherry trees, as well as its connotations of innocence and romance, along with a nod to a great work of Russian literature, Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

“As a child,” Rubin explains, in the cadence of one of her stories, “I never thought of myself as a writer. I knew I wasn’t like everyone else — I was always reading poetry, always scribbling in my journal, very introspective, I thought that I should have lived more frivolously, or a different kind of life. Only when I matured, I realized not only that there was not something wrong with me, but I was blessed.”

Rubin became a U.S. citizen in 1997. She works in the financial world and serves as associate editor of the literary and art magazine Mudfish. After Hurricane Sandy, she volunteered with the Shorefront Y, carrying groceries to grandmothers stuck in their Brighton Beach apartments. She says that her father recently became involved in a synagogue and attends weekly. Her parents — she says again that they love America — marched in the Celebrate Israel parade.

Rubin returned to Vinnitsa on the 20th anniversary of her departure, and in the following year as well — her parents have not gone back. She loves to travel and observe, and lives with enthusiasm and determination. For years, she told these stories to friends and then cut and crafted them into this format. To find a publisher for this collection, she sent out many query letters until she got a positive response. Now, she has been invited by the Writer’s Union to talk about getting stories published.

“I love being Jewish,” she says. “I love being a woman. I love being in New York. I feel like I’m the luckiest, most blessed person in the world. I live in United States. My parents are healthy. I have friends. I have traveled the world. I get to do what I love.”

Marina Rubin will discuss her work next month at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave., at 76th Street. The talk is set against the backdrop of Alina and Jeff Bliumis’ interactive exhibition, “Casual Conversations” (featuring photos taken in Brighton Beach, inviting personal responses to begin a dialogue about identity). The event, in the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery, takes place on Thursday, Feb. 20, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Comments

I found this to be the most intelligent and challenging look at Ms. Rubin's work I've seen. Sandee Brawarsky addresses the punctuation and dialect while still remaining positive about the work. As much is implied between the lines of her words as is contained in the actually review. Kudos to such rare insight!

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