About The Author
Elena Gorokhova grew up in St Petersburg, Russia, although for most of her life it was known to her as Leningrad. At the age of twenty-four she married an American and came to the United States with only a twenty kilogram suitcase to start a new life. She has a Doctorate in Language Education and currently lives in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, on BBC Radio, and in a number of literary magazines.
Her first book, the memoir A Mountain of Crumbs, describes coming of age behind the Iron Curtain and leaving her mother and her Motherland for a new life in the United States.
In her latest book, Russian Tattoo, Elena describes how the journey of an immigrant is filled with everyday mistakes, small humiliations and a loss of dignity. Cultural disorientation comes in the form of not knowing how to eat a hamburger, buy a pair of shoes, or catch a bus. But through perseverance and resilience, Elena gradually adapts to her new country. With the simultaneous birth of her daughter and the arrival of her Soviet mother, who comes to the US to help care for her granddaughter and stays for twenty-four years, it becomes the story of a unique balancing act and a family struggle: three generations of strong women with very different cultural values, all living under the same roof and battling for control.
Below, exclusively for Foyles in 'Clashing Cultures of the Past and Present' Elena describes the alienating feeling of being in the US, indeed the West, for the first time, the lessons she learned from her mother and daughter, and how Russia is inked into her heart as indelibly as a tattoo.
The Author At Foyles
Clashing Cultures of the Past and Present
American friends often ask, “What did you expect before you came here?” and “how was reality different from your expectations?” The truth is, I had very few expectations when I arrived in the U.S. because there was no information available in Russia about the West. Everything I came across in my first few months in America was unexpected and unknown. I had no idea how to get on a bus (you had to flag it down). I didn’t know how to eat a hamburger because I’d never seen one. The A, B, C, Ds of a multiple-choice test puzzled the life out of me, so I promptly failed the GRE exam to get into graduate school. And I couldn’t buy a pair of shoes in a shoe store because, alarmingly, the store was full of shoes and it was impossible to make a choice. It was an alien experience and I felt like one. America might as well have been Mars, or any other place where no one I knew had ever set foot.
And then my mother arrived. My mother, a mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective and difficult to leave. She came to help with my newborn daughter and stayed for 24 years. After a short period of living in the U.S. as an adult, I felt I was back in our Leningrad kitchen, a child obediently spooning borsch. Once again, my mother was in control of my life, ordering me to eat soup and wear a hat, just like back home.
Did I learn anything from my authoritarian past when it came to raising my own daughter? I was so persistent teaching her how to read and write in Russian because I wanted to make her perfectly bilingual, like me. I wanted her to love the same books I loved. I imagined her swooning over the simplicity of Pushkin’s verse; I pictured her with a torch under the blanket, deciphering the weird wit of Gogol. I visualized her engrossed in War and Peace, all four volumes, without skipping the battle scenes, as I used to do. I saw her memorizing the poems of Russian classics and reciting them flawlessly before groups of speechless relatives and friends.
But all I heard was complaining. “Why do I have to do all this extra work?” my daughter demanded, pointing out that while she was declining Russian nouns, her classmates were playing football and lacrosse.
“Because I want you to know two languages,” I said, in what I hadn’t yet recognized as my mother’s teaching voice. I realized, with time, that I was trying to control my daughter the same way my mother had controlled me. I realized that if I wanted to connect to my daughter, I had to move into her world rather than drag her into mine.
My memoir Russian Tattoo is an attempt to figure out the complex and complicated relationships with the people who are, or were, close to me. It is also an attempt to understand my connection to the two places I have called home. Like all immigrants, I live with my soul split in half: one half is here, where my current home is; the other will always belong to Petersburg, my birthplace. The longer you live in an adopted country, the deeper your roots grow into the foreign soil, so the wound of that internal divide begins to scab over time. But I know, as all immigrants know, that the scar of exile will always remain.
My Russian memories, influences and connections will remain with me, too, permanent as a tattoo: Russia inked into my heart.
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