Author Gary Shteyngart '95 Visits Oberlin

April 12, 2016
Owain Heyden
Gary Shteyngart ’95 Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Writer Gary Shteyngart ’95, the author of three novels and most recently a memoir, Little Failure, returned to campus on March 31 for a Convocation talk. He read from parts of his memoir, which tracks his early childhood in the USSR, his teenage years as a student at Stuyvesant High School in New York, and his adventurous long-haired days at Oberlin.

Perhaps the memoir’s most pressing theme is Shteyngart’s relationship with his mother and father. Shteyngart devotes much of Little Failure to unpacking his complicated history with his parents—equal parts loving and abusive, an immigrant household fraught with high expectations and little privacy.

Indeed, when asked why he had chosen to write a memoir instead of another novel, Shteyngart responded by alluding to the recent birth of his son: “If I’m going to prepare to become a father, I should try to figure out who I was as a son, to figure out the good and the bad.” Laughing, he added, “[When I started writing Little Failure] I was 39, and in Russian years that’s 87—we don’t live very long. So this was an attempt to get it all down before I died.”

It may hardly come as a surprise that Shteyngart pulls no punches in Little Failure. With a kind of self-deprecating authenticity, he escorts the reader through intimate episodes of his family’s poverty, his blundering forays into romance, and his haphazard adjustment to Hebrew school. He refuses to shy away from painful details, instead using them as crucial building blocks of his story.

In developing this practice of narrative self-scrutiny, Shteyngart cited his time at Oberlin. As a student in Oberlin’s Creative Writing Program, he recalled how Professor Diane Vreuls crawled across the floor of her office to illustrate a point about a character in one of his stories. From down on all fours, she asked, “How does he crawl, Gary?” “That’s when I got it,” Shteyngart reflected. “A writer lives inside the characters he’s creating.”

Perhaps it is this raw sense of life in Shteyngart’s work that grants it such power and appeal. As Shteyngart read excerpts from Little Failure during the Convocation in Finney Chapel, he would often pause to crack jokes about his asthma or his father’s heavy Russian accent—yet these moments of humor only served to draw the audience further into the emotional weight and deep personal relevance of his story. Shteyngart writes, and jokes, from the heart. Ultimately, he approaches the reader from a state of vulnerability, an approach that has garnered him with admiration and literary acclaim.

When asked how young writers might achieve similar literary success, Shteyngart quipped, “Live in Berlin,” a smile spreading across his face. After a moment, he leaned forward and continued, “No, but seriously. Vary your experience. Try something completely new. Do relax for a little bit, but the next step you take should be something completely different.”

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