So, the last two months have pretty much been about software. Not software in the personal computer/Macintosh sense of the word, even though earlier this year I had to get a new laptop – my old Vaio is dead, long live my old Vaio! – but software in the use it for work sense. Yes, as academics we all have our specific suite of software that we like to curse. Science types, for instance, have cursed Mathematica and anything put out by ESRI for a long time.  As a humanist, I am faced with the challenge of finding software that I can use, that is accessible to my students, and that will not cause undue economic stress to them or to myself.

Finding software that does not cause undue economic stress can prove challenging. As an instructor at a major research university, my students and I get access to Blackboard. Blackboard allows instructors to post exercises, provides students with a platform to hand in assignments with an electronic time stamp, and streamlines communication between faculty and students – for better or for worse. It proves better, because I can communicate with my students without having to keep track of their contact information personally. Our enrollment software interfaces with Blackboard and updates contact information automatically. It proves worse, because I am from an older generation. I typed all my papers my Freshman year in college. I remember when computers came into common use. Students today have been raised with the assumption that you will be accessible via electronic media twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That just is not a possibility in my world.

This summer, I have focused on upgrading my electronic tool skills because I will be having a mixed level Russian class next semester – my students returning from Russia will be mixed in with my second year Russian students. Clearly, there will be a gaping chasm in the level of verbal, grammatical, and written skills. I need these tools to be able to create enough high quality work to rotate students – higher level work for higher level students, and enough common level work for them to learn from each other. Believe it or not, this is a daunting task. My students, particularly my advanced students, need that much attention this year.

I have focused on two workshops – Blackboard certification for distance learning courses at my home institution, and a Startalk teacher workshop focusing on electronic resources. What I have learned from both these courses is that very little high quality language learning educational software exists, particularly for Slavic languages, that does not include a substantial amount of economic investment. Blackboard becomes cost effective only when purchased for a large volume of users. Outside of that, for Russian in specific, there is Russnet, sponsored by American Councils for International Education/American Council of Teachers of Russian.  It provides tools for basic exercises, such as multiple choice questions, essay writing, and matching.  It allows for the automation of general rote and mechanical language learning tasks, like drilling case and verb endings, as well as to develop reading and writing skills.

What is sorely lacking, unfortunately, is a truly robust language learning software platform that can allow not only academics, but serious students of language, to develop their own exercises at all levels – a suite that allows you, for instance, to split your screen in two parts, with an article, for instance, appearing on the left side, while the mechanical exercises appear on the right, so students can still have an easy visual reference to the original language in context. Also, it still is really difficult to create exercises that integrate video or audio files to other text based exercises.

The problem with such a program is the basic realm of economics. Language and literature departments find themselves as the first to face budget cuts, especially in this economy. They need to argue better than other departments for any resources that they have. Unfortunately, more and more, the resources do not go much further than to protect their face to face teaching contact hours. This is particularly vital with the Less Commonly Taught Languages, where grammatical and linguistic structures do not map word to word with the English structures. This means departments cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars on foreign language specific software. This leaves instructors with access to something like Blackboard, which cuts across the board to almost all academic disciplines, but forces instructors to spend increasing amounts of time in front to their keyboard developing content, rather than working on their classroom face to face contact content or, heaven forbid!, on their actual academic research.

The most economically sensible, but administratively challenging, solution, would be for a consortium of world languages and cultures departments within a region to come together and develop such a suite, most likely using open source platforms.  The departments would have to be willing to invest in one or two extremely high caliber developers. Hiring and keeping one or two such developers would be more palatable is distributed among several institutions. A realistic development and testing schedule would lead to a level of software that does not exist anywhere in the market right now. Such a suite, designed with Less Commonly Taught Languages in mind, would prove invaluable to language instructors who face the same pressures in other institutions to teach more with less funds. Anything that can increase faculty productivity in these fields needs to be designed with the needs of this field in mind.



Automatism, Art, and Summer Vacation…

In the essay “Art as Technique,” Victor Shklovsky argued about the importance of perception, and how breaking away from normal perception is an important aspect of art. “Normal” objects, non-artistic objects become so commonplace as to fall away from our normal range of perception. “..Either objects are assigned only one proper feature – a number, for example, or else they function as though by formula and do not even appear in cognition…”[i]  Every now and then something happens to remind one of the importance of removing the effects of automatism to enhance one’s artistic appreciation. In this case, summer travel reminded the author of this situation.

Summer travel, in a way, is when most people actively engage in the process of artistic appreciation. The goal is to go somewhere where they can “disconnect” themselves from daily routine. This can take the form of the traditional trip to the beach, where, if one is fortunate, one gets to sit and appreciate the sand, be it between their toes or elsewhere inside their clothing. In the author’s case, it was a minor mechanical mishap that brought the point home.

The incident occurred –in Northern Virginia – technically, although the rest stop is actually a little over an hour South of Washington, D. C. After making a quick pit stop at a Virginia state rest stop and admiring the amount of super caffeinated beverages in the vending machines – it became evident that somehow my car’s parking lights remained on during the rest stop. Nothing seemed to make it possible to turn off the lights. After getting started down the road with the worry of having to call up the auto club for a jump start the next day, I notice a little red button on top of the steering wheel that had not been there before. That, it turns out, was the switch to turn on the parking lights with the ignition off. After driving this car for more than four years, this was the first time I had noticed the existence of this switch, which I had triggered when trying to wipe dust off of the odometer window. This was a clear case of automatism at work. The thousands of times that I had looked at the odometer window had made it so that I had completely come to recognize only the formula of the odometer, and the parking light button did not even appear in my cognition.

This episode illustrates the difficulty of appreciating the beauty and art present in everyday life. People who live in Seattle for a long time, for instance, become immune to the breathtaking scenery of Mount Rainier, or the beauty of Puget Sound, or the Olympic Mountains. People who live in Puerto Rico for their whole lives come to think of the ocean in January as “too cold” for swimming, while thousands of tourists come and swim in the warmest water of their lives. This is not a case of sensory deprivation, but rather sensory oversupply. As Shklovsky stated, “…art exists that one may recover the sensation of life…” This implies the question: how can you make it so you do not miss the art in everyday life when the tendency is to appreciate everyday life from a position of highly developed automatism?

This brings us back to the importance of summer vacation, and the problem with the disappearance of unstructured summer time. A typical schoolchild’s summer vacation is now three weeks shorter than it used to be. When summer vacation does arrive, the child is thrown into a cycle of highly structured activities as they go from one full day summer camp to the other. This is the result of two contemporary conditions: double wage earner families that need the camps as babysitters when school is not in session, and parents who want to make sure that their child does not fall behind in the increasing “arms race” among parents trying to create as “well-rounded” a student as they can. Children no longer have the opportunity to explore the world around them on their own time—to independent develop the ability to apprehend the world around them form a position of defamiliarization, instead of arriving to a state of adult automatism by the age of eight. When families finally get a chance to travel together, it is only for the one week of summer vacation. Families place so much pressure on making sure every minute is filled with activities that no opportunity exists for parents and children to enjoy their surroundings from a state of artistically productive boredom. Yes, it may seem oxymoronic, but sometimes the most productive state of perceptive defamiliarization is boredom, the kind of boredom that is increasingly missing from the increasingly overly structure


[i] Shklovsky, Viktor.  “Art as Technique.”  Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays.  Ed.Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reiss.  Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. 11-12.


Summer brings about the requisite road trip. This week I fulfilled a required field trip to any one of us in the field of Russian studies: Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York City. After more than thirty years in this trade, it seems almost heretical to admit that I had yet to experience that small part of  Russian culture. I have spent time in Russia. I went to graduate school in  Seattle, which has a substantial Russian population. I even took advantage of the Russian Jewish community one Christmas day, when I ran to a Russian delicatessen in the other Brighton when I had to improvise one Christmas morning breakfast. Fresh baked bagels have never tasted so good!

This June morning took me to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York City. I went on a Sunday, because street parking is free in New York City on Sundays. I, however, miscalculated New Yorkers desire to hit the beach on a day that a typical Puerto Rican would consider too cold for the waves. There was a substantial number of bikini clad New Yorkers on the beach side of Brighton Beach to make me wonder whose standard for beach faring temperature was incorrect.

There were many vendors selling their pirozhki on the street.

After a long search for parking, I finally got to the strip of mostly Russian shops in the Brighton Beach neighborhood. Two blocks that separated the beach from the strip seemed like a world away. Yes, Russian was the main language people spoke on the street. And, yes, there are a good number of decent Russian delicatessens.

Upcoming performances by Russian artists.

What surprised me most was the type of Russian culture encountered in this neighborhood. This was not classical Russian culture that we come to love in our classrooms and readings. The bookstores carried more detective thrillers than Dostoevsky — the sales clerk at the one bookstore where I searched told me they did not carry any literary criticism in their stacks.

My favorite storefront of the day. Very Soviet: “Home of the Shoe.”

This pointed out the fact that culture does evolve. Music, language, fashion all evolve through time. A scholar tries to capture a static moment, just long enough to evaluate a particular historical situation. However, by the type the scholar finishes typing out their essay, their observations have almost certainly become dated to outdated.

I love Russian acronyms. The name of this store is short for Moscow video film.


So, here are some things I would say about this trip. Be adventurous — there are lots of small and large stores and eating establishments. There is not one single major American fast food outlet within sight when you get into this little bubble of Russian culture, so try something new. Worst case scenario, chase the lunch or dinner with several of the bulk chocolates available in most of the delicatessens in the neighborhood.



A Rock Star Sighting and More about the Nature of Writing…

Wednesday, May 23, 2012, the Kennan Institute held an event titled “The National Conversation: Putin’s Return & The U.S.-Russian Reset.” Michael Van Dusen, Executive Vice President and COO, Wilson Center, opened the event by remarking how Putin’s reelection had not proved that remarkable. What did prove remarkable was the protests that have taken place following the elections, which have been mostly peaceful. At this point, Sam Donaldson, ABC News correspondent and current President of the Wilson Council, made a cameo appearance, offering his seat to one of the ladies in the overflow crowd.

Following Van Dusen, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser, delivered a keynote speech. In his speech, he spoke about asymmetries of objective and subjective realities. Putin holds historical and international ambitions and resentments for Russia. He sees the United States as capitalizing on the unfortunate event of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He commented at length on Putin’s designation of the fall of the Soviet Union as the greatest calamity of the twentieth century, seemingly forgetting about various events such as the Second World War and the Stalinist repressions. Furthermore, Putin must be aware that the Russian economy is highly unbalanced, which led to inequalities of wealth that have not created a favorable political position for Russia.

Brzezinski started to discuss the feasibility of what he sees as Putin’s remedy for Russia’s complicated political and economic position: a Eurasian Union, comparable to the European Union in structure but hopefully devoid of the European Union’s tensions.  At this point, Brzezinski pointed out that the problem with Putin’s proposal for a Eurasian Union is that no candidates currently yearn for membership in such a Union. The idea lacks appeal to countries that should be natural candidates for such a union, like the Ukraine. Furthermore, Russia faces tensions from several of its neighbors, like Georgia. Meantime, the United States enjoys support from other countries. The United States has found ways to muster coalitions together, a skill which Putin seems to lack at this timed.

These are some examples that show the ways in which asymmetry of objective and subjective reality affects United States-Russia relations. One way in which the reset has helped is that it has allowed for expansion of involvement.

Brzezinski finished his speech by commenting his opinion that Putin may be a political anachronism. He wonders just how much historical depth is there in his regime. He found Putin’s style reminiscent of Mussolini’s, particularly after viewing Putin’s inauguration. The really emerging political actor in Russia is the new middle class which is asserting itself with increasing confidence. One positive outcome of this Putin/Medvedev period is that individual fear is gone for the first time in Russian history. The sense of political jeopardy is now minimal. This does not mean there is not some level of risk of arrest, for instance, but nothing close to the level of political violence characteristic of the Soviet period. Putinism, Brzezinski concluded, with all its asymmetries, is not enduring.

Outside of the substance behind the talk, this part of the event was the academic equivalent of a rock star concert. Zbigniew Brzezinski was involved in so many high level foreign policy decisions that it is hard to imagine our world without his hand in a lot of the major events that have defined the end of the twentieth century. Among the major foreign policy events during his term of office included the normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China (and the severing of ties with the Republic of China); the signing of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II); the brokering of the Camp David Accords; the transition of Iran from an important U.S. client state to an anti-Western Islamic Republic, encouraging dissidents in Eastern Europe and emphasizing certain human rights in order to undermine the influence of the Soviet Union; the financing of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in response to the Soviet deployment of forces there and the arming of these rebels to counter the Soviet invasion; and the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties relinquishing overt U.S. control of the Panama Canal after 1999. Want some fries with that?

After Brzezinski’s keynote address, the event opened up as a discussion among Mr. Brzezinski,  David Kramer, President of Freedom House; Nina Khrushcheva, Professor, Graduate Program of International Affairs at The New School; and Blair Ruble, Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Susan Glasser, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine moderated this part of the event. Blair Ruble, the always gracious and insightful director of the Kennan Institute, commented that Russia’s main weakness at this time was the Russian state’s inability to master modern statescraft.  David Kramer then commented that Putin is a hostage to his own corrupt and rotting system, which is a mix of arrogance and paranoia. Nina Khrushcheva remarked that Putin has outlived his potential, and that his system is dysfunctional. Brzezinski jumped in to comment that Putin’s power still relies on intimidation, the army, oligarchs, and the secret police, which gives him continuity but no social enthusiasm for his programs.

The discussants further noted how Putin’s reliance on loyalty has become a weakness, in that he cannot trust people outside of Moscow. Dr. Ruble also commented how Stalin’s legacy cannot be grasped by Americans.

All in all, this was a very stimulating hour and a half of contemplation on the current state of the Russian government, and the implications of Putin’s return to power. And it always is real pleasures to listen to Dr. Ruble go into policy wonk mode. He has that rare mix of breadth and depth of knowledge and experience in the subject area, and a real gift to phrase in a way that is accessible to the general public.

What has proved remarkable in all of the different presentations I have attended during the period leading up to the Russian elections this year, as well as Putin’s re-assumption of the office of President, is the universal skepticism with which his reelection has been met. In spite of some indicators that the Reset Policy started by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had some measurable positive outcomes at the foreign policy level,[i] people remain very skeptic about his ability to create enthusiasm domestically among the emerging professional middle class. Journalists also face increasing limitations on their ability to report the news in an accurate manner. It will be interesting to see how this new Putin period plays out.



The other book to which I have returned, now that the madness of correcting finals has finished, is Lidiia Chukovskaia’s Chukovskaia, in her book «В лаборатории редактора,» In page 256, she observes how Samuil Marshak, editor-in-chief of the children’s literature section where she worked, demanded that children’s literature – «вся!» “all of it!”—should be a work of art. The editor’s office should become a place where the fruitful encounter between new material and tradition should take place.[ii] Editing can only be fruitful when it is a work carried in unison with the author. The editor who proves incapable of identifying the feelings and artistic goals of their author is a serious threat to the author’s work.[iii] She equates the whole editing process to an orchestral piece, which must be carefully directed so that all the plays interact in the prerequisite harmonic fashion.

«Да, так и в литературе: терпеливо наклопенные, тонько подмеченные мелочи обогащают воспрятие читателя лишь в том случае, если они вызваны к жизни, подтиняты на поверхность чуством и вся сила чуства служит познанию избранного художника объекта…»[iv]

“And so it is in literature: the patiently accumulated, delicately noted details enrich the reader’s perception only in such cases when they are called to life, lifted to the surface by feelings, and the full force of these feeling serves the interpretation of the subject chosen by the artist…”

The responsibility of mentoring new forms of writing falls particularly on the editor of a young, inexperienced author, who may not himself recognize where his strengths are. Young, inexperienced writers, complain Chukovskaia, often fall into the  banalities, clichés, and thus extinguishes the possibility of fresh material and fresh new thought.

One seeming throw-away comment that Chukovskaia makes when speaking about editors is about the nature of tradition. “To say ‘high tradition’ is to say nothing. There are many traditions in literature. Which of them should be recognized as ‘high’ and ripe for innovation, and which have outlived their time…?”[v]

Most of us read necessary reading on a regular basis. We read the newspaper to catch up with the news, to get the latest sports scores, to catch up with Wall Street. Some of us read to fulfill specific needs: programmers read user guides to fix some software bug, diplomats read briefings and dispatches, students read textbooks. Perhaps those of us who attempt to provide readers with materials need to more carefully pay attention to the artistic side of our craft. Innovation is not simply a concept that exists in the field of computer development these days…x




[i] See Ambassador McFaul’s notes to his speech to the Higher School of Economics,

[ii] Лидия Корнеевна Чуковская, «В лаборатории редактора.» Арханьгелск: АОА «ИПП» «Правда севера», 2005, 256

[iii] pg. 144

[iv] pg. 193

[v] pg. 262

About Putin’s Inauguration and More on Bakhtin and Dostoevsky

Before I get to my main topic, I wanted to provide a link to the Russian Channel 1 footage of Putin’s inauguration.

Do not be intimidated by the fact that it is the Russian television channel – language matters little in this exercise in semiotic analysis. Just let the footage run. You will be able to tell fairly clearly when Medvedev arrives at the Kremlin, when Putin arrives at the Kremlin, and when Putin takes his oath of office.  Later in this entry I will also provide links to articles in English that will provide more details about the setting, in case my kind reader would like to learn more about the setting of Putin’s inauguration.

For reference, think about the spectacle put together for Obama’s inauguration back in January 2009. Washington’s metro system had record ridership, and the city was overrun with people who wanted to share in the experience. It was so cold that Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma “lip-synched” their performances.[i] Everyone remembers it was cold because everyone stood outside to witness the event.

Meantime, if you look at the footage of Putin’s inauguration, one is struck by the feeling of claustrophobia of the ceremony within the Kremlin’s main palace. The presence of soldiers dressed in uniforms that seem out of the Napoleonic period adds to the sense that this was not a ceremony designed for the Russian public, but for the select few oligarchs who got invited to this private event.  The ornate nature of the interiors –Putin was inaugurated in the Kremlin’s St. Andrew’s Hall, the former throne room of the tsars, which stands in stark contrast to the Stalinist monumentalist marble foyer from which Putin departed in Moscow’s White House – really gives the whole even an imperial air which is very missing from the United States’ more populist inaugural celebration.[ii]

Even more disturbing are the aerial shots taken when Putin and Medvedev were driving to the Kremlin palace for the actual inauguration. It seems like Moscow is a ghost city, with no one but the Napoleonic period honor guard standing outside the palace to greet the President/Prime Minister and the Prime Minister/President. Pay attention at the points between 16:30 and 23:50. That is six minutes of Putin driving in a caravan through hundreds of abandoned blocks in one of the largest cities in the world. In the United States, you would have the sidewalks overrun with people trying to get a glimpse of the caravan.  Moscow, in contrast, looks like a ghost town.

The eerie absence of people stands in stark contrast to the apparent activity that occurred the day before the inauguration. The Huffington Post, among the more mainstream online news sources, noted how over 120 people were detained as opposition protests drew more than 20,000 people into Moscow the day before the inauguration. [iii]

This leaves one wondering about the nature of political change in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union.  Specialists tend to agree that Russia has evolved into a strange form of parliamentary oligarchy. The emerging protest movement, which has mobilized the younger emerging middle class in ways never seen in Russia, presents a particular challenge. Will Putin find a way to allow for an increasingly diverse range of political actors to gain equal access to the political processes in Russia? Or will Putin turn to a more “stereotypical” authoritarian mode of governance?

The wonder of living in Washington, D. C., is that we have so many people actually interested in this topic that you can expect that I will have more to say on this topic later this month. ….


Which brings us back to the previous topic of Bakhtin. I know, this constitutes some of the horrible writing that I try to battle in my classroom. There really is no graceful way to transition between Russian politics and Dostoevsky – what am I saying? Dostoevsky was the man (cheesy cliché, check!) when it came to trying to work out political and philosophical questions in artistic form. This is what made him Bakhtin’s favorite novelistic writer. There – transitional link with Putin’s ornate, traditional coronation –er, inauguration – established.

Going  back to Bakhtin’s essays on Dostoevsky, in his chapter  «Основная особенность творчества Достоевкого и её освещение в критической литературе», “Fundamental Features of Dostoevsky’s Work and Its Manifestation in Critical Literature, ” Bakhtin points out that what most characterizes Dostoevsky’s literature is that it has no genetic or causal categories. Rather, he saw details in the world around him, gradations in significance and meaning.  In chapter two, “Dostoevsky’s Characters,” Bakhtin observes how:

«Не только действительность самого героя, но и окружающий его мир и быт вовлекаются в процесс самого знания, переводятся из авторского кругозора в кругозор героя.»

“Not only the reality of the hero himself, but also his surrounding world and reality become part of the very process of knowledge, change from the author’s point of view to the character’s own…” [iv]

These characteristics come through in one of Dostoevsky’s shorter works, Notes from the Underground. If you want to follow along, you can access an online version courtesy of the University of Virginia library system: (Side note: if you like the collection of texts in this site and you live in Virginia, do not forget to write to your legislator and let them know the University of Virginia, and its library system, rock!)

Now that we have a unified source to reference, we can start by taking a second and being impressed by Constance Garnett. Constance Garnett lived at the turn of the twentieth century and single-handedly brought classic nineteenth-century Russian literature to the English speaking world. While new translations of a lot of these works have emerged in the last thirty years, when I was starting my studies in Russian literature the Garnett translations were the only translations we used. And she was a woman. And she translated over seventy one volumes of literature. I have not even written one whole volume of literature in my life, I cannot even imagine how she managed to work her way through so much material.[v]

Now that credit has been given where credit is due, let us go back to the actual text. The story is a strange little narrative of a man who finds himself quickly losing any and all hold on reality.  He starts by revealing his former experience as a low level government bureaucrat – in clear homage to Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” The narrator is not a pleasant person – he starts by admitting he is a “spiteful man” at least four times within the first two pages.

This man contemplates the world around him. The narrator goes through a list of traditional motivators to action or interaction in life. He tried falling in love, but ended up suffering. People in general, he believes, go through life fooling themselves as far as to their motivations and actions. In contemplating the nature of action, he comes to a moment that displays Bakhtin’s claim of Dostoevsky’s ability to display gradation of thought and consciousness where others may not see any gradation at all.

“…You know the direct, legitimate fruit of consciousness is inertia, that is, conscious sitting-with-the-hands-folded. I repeat, I repeat with emphasis: all “direct” persons and men of action are active just because they are stupid and limited. How explain that? I will tell you: in consequence of their limitation they take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in that way persuade themselves more quickly and easily than other people do that they have found an infallible foundation for their activity, and their minds are at ease and you know that is the chief thing. To begin to act, you know, you must first have your mind completely at ease and no trace of doubt left in it. Why, how am I, for example to set my mind at rest?…”[vi]

The answer, in this case, is that trying to set one’s mind at rest is nothing but a foolish endeavor. Free will is a hard concept to accept when seemingly physical and rational laws, such as the mathematical law the two times two makes four, rule the world – “without my will.”

Those who decide to assert their free will end up suffering in Dostoevsky’s world.  Dostoevsky’s narrators peel away layer after layer of motivation for each and every character in his books – from his frustrated male heroes to his virtuous female heroines. He makes passing references (or as my students would say, he pays homage) to major figures in nineteenth century Russian literature. Notes from the Underground intentionally echoes Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, as well as reference Turgenev’s hero, Bazarov, from Fathers and Sons. He also creates a hero that directly opposes Nikolai Chernychevsky’s Rakhmetov, from What Is to be Done? All of these heroes try to manifest their intellectual, personal and political agency, and all of them fail in one way or the other. The richness of the narrator’s discourse, as well as the discourse it carries on with the different type of literary heroes that have populated nineteenth century Russian literature, is one of the ways that Dostoevsky manages to change the author’s point of view to the character’s point of view.

Why do we find it so hard to understand Dostoevsky’s Underground Man? In part it derives from a certain sense of philosophy that strikes us as fatalistic. You English language reader came into the tradition of Russian literature fairly late in the nineteenth century, thanks to Constance Garnett’s herculean translation work. At the same time, English language readers read more popular magazine serials such as Charles Dicken’s novels, which somehow always managed to provide his main hero with a relatively positive ending, or with Jane Austen, whose heroines managed to find their mate in spite of whatever prejudice they bore at the beginning of their work. A novel that so explicitly focused on the ideas of free will and the consequences of intellectual and political agency differed in the way it approached the topics of political and philosophical discourse. Russian literature does not provide any easy options for social change, while one could surmise from a work by Dickens that if society came together as an organic whole it could at least seriously ameliorate the effects of the tenements and slums that had emerged as a result of the early industrial revolution. The thought that one would end underground because of the inability to exert free will in a politically or economically significant way went against the grain of the more positive, rational legal trend inherited from nineteenth century English language literature. If one accepts the existence of Horatio Alger, then the Underground Man is the result of lack of will, rather than lack of existential possibility for action.


[i] Michele Salcedo. “Inauguration Music – Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma – Wasn’t Live But Recorded.”

[ii] Mikhail Aristov, “Benefit, Honor, Glory”, Voice of America, May 6, 2012 See also  Svetlana Kalmykova, “Putin: I’ll do my best to measure up to people’s expectations,” Voice of America, May 7, 2012,

[iii] Lynn Berry “Vladimir Putin Sworn In For Third Term As Russia’s President.”

[iv] М. М. Бахтин «Бахтин под маской: Маска четвёртая: Проблемы творчества Достоевского.» Алконост: 1994, 40-41 Translation my own.

[v] Once again, Wikipedia is not my favorite source in general, but for this general type of information it more than first the bill.

[vi] For more commentary regarding the critical reception of the book you can go to:

Bakhtin and Dostoevsky…

Just listen to the name: Bakhtin. The –kh-, by the way, sounds like the “h” sound that Ernie the Muppet from Sesame Street makes when he laughs. If you are going to write what amounts to a nerdy fan letter to an author who has been dead since 1975, it helps that said author has the kind of name that belies the gravitas of his oeuvre.

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (Михаи́л Миха́йлович Бахти́н) wrote the kind of serious literary criticism that makes you know that you are engaging in no holds barred, honest to goodness, heavy duty intellectual pursuit. I remember when I first heard about Bakhtin in graduate school. We were introduced to two of his main concepts – chronotope, the intersectin of time and art, and the picaresque hero. The term “picaresque” comes from the sixteenth century Spanish narrative El lazarillo de Tormes. Bakhtin took the image of the underclass rascal who uses his wits to gain upward social mobility and applies it to novels at large. I always found his preference for French Renaissance, rather than Spanish narratives, when discussing this term rather disconcerting. His development of the concept, however, proved very useful.  There is, simply told, an intellectual world before Bakhtin and an intellectual world after Bakhtin. He wrote about ideas in a way that illuminated the relations between the real world and the world of creative prose. Never mind that he packed it in the form of linguistically scintillating neologisms, such as dialogic, heteroglossia, and chronotope, among others.

Bakhtin also gained the academic equivalent of “street credibility” through the extremes he endured to write his theory. Bakhtin’s works “came of age” during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev era. He lived a challenging professional life, and taught in a wide range of institutions. [i] His works were hard to come by, since he found himself teaching far away from the intellectual centers of (then) Leningrad and Moscow, and since his works were considered controversial during his time. This only added to the cache of clandestine Soviet writing that made Russian literature such a heady affair during the Soviet period.

Bakhtin took the time to explain the origins of literary forms – both as descendants from earlier forms and as originators of new forms. Which brings me – finally! – to the reading for the week. I have been skimming – for skimming is all one can do when closing the books on a four course load teaching semester – Bakhtin’s writings on Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, by himself, is another one of those Russian writers whose every piece of writing tries to challenge a reader’s conception of the world. His Grand Inquisitor, for instance, is still one of the most exhilarating treatments of free will.

Bakhtin saw Dostoevsky as what best be described as a “founding innovator.” The way that he took previously existing structures and metaphors and integrated them with specific philosophical content turned the novel into what Bakhtin considerd the most advanced literary form.

“Dostoevsky is the creator of the polyphonic novel. He created an essentially new novelistic genre. Therefore , his work cannot be fit into any kind of frame, does not obey any of the hiistorico-literary schemes, which we have become accustomed to attribute to the European form of the novel. In his works, a hero appears whose voice is constructed like the voice of the very author in a novel of the normal type, and not like the voice of his hero. The hero’s voice regarding himself or his world carries as much weight as the normal authorial word…” [ii]

One of the Dostoevskian heroes that Bakhtin analyzes is the one derived from Gogol’s works. One only need to compare Gogol’s Diary of a Madman to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground to see both Gogol’s influence on Dostoevsky, and how Dostoevsky could take what had by his lifetime become a classic literary figure and innovate the figure into a new generation, if that is not too egregious a rhetorical sin to express. Dostoevsky adapted Gogol’s grotesque characters and gave them a greater level of philosophical and moral depth, leading to his take on the Nietzschean superman in Crime and Punishment in the form of Raskolnikov.

Granted, Dostoevsky’s literature does not easily merit the adjective of “pretty.” If you want seductively pretty prose, look to Nabokov, who is constantly trying to show how rhetorical beauty and rot a moral soul from within. Dostoevsky’s universe leaves you unnerved as you wonder if there is any real beauty left in the world. His endings always prove reassuring in that they point to the face that morality can reappear even in the most unlikely souls. It does leave you wondering how out of place society can be if it can morally disorient people with such ease. All of this and more is reflected in Bakhtin’s discussion of Dostoevsky’s contribution to world literature, and why he sees him as the novelistic author above all other novelistic author.


[i] I usually try to avoid Wikipedia as a reference, but in this case the information is so general, and truth is stranger than fiction in Bakhtin’s case.

[ii] М. М. Бахтин «Бахтин под маской: Маска четвёртая: Проблемы творчества Достоевского.» Алконост: 1994 p. 7 Translation my own.



One of the things literary critics get to do is to write commentary on literature about literature, where we ponder the nature of the writing craft. Writing differs according to its form and function. Some forms of writing have gained a place in our culture as intrinsically challenging, like poetry, drama, and “serious” belletristic literature – think Ulysses and James Joyce.

All good writing, however, contains some basic traits. Lidiia Korneevna Chukovskaia, in her book «В лаборатории редактора,»[i]  In the Editor’s Workshop, spends a lot of time discussing what makes good writing, and what makes a good reader of literature. In this case, she contemplates the kind of reading skills that make a skilled editor.

«Интерес к языку, постоянные попытки осознать, осмыслить перемeны, происходящие в нём, тонкий слух к индивидуальным особенностям, присущим языку и стилю того или другого писателя, -вот что характеризует мастера редакционной работы…»

“Interest in language, the constant attempts to understand, to comprehend the changes that occur in it, the delicate sound of individual features inherent to the language and style of one or the other writer, that is what distinguishes a master of the editorial labor…”[ii]

Chukovskaia points out that truly gifted writing can come from a great range of sources, but what it needs is a respect for the words themselves. The style of a work, its form, reflects the totality of the writer, down to the writer’s sincerity or insincerity. What matters most is for a writer to be truly committed to the depth of the words s/he writes, their meaning, and the way they function stylistically to reflect the segment of life from which they derive. The words should serve as the eyes of the world that the writer sees. Total honesty and total mastery of the grammar of the world s/he is trying to depict.

«Искусство – орудие изучения жизни, орудие воздействие на жизнь не в меньшей степени, чем наука. А без ясности – какое же изучение и какое воздействие?»[iii]

“Art is a tool for the study of life, a tool that impacts life no less than science. And without clarity  — what kind of learning or impact can there be?”

The key to this learning, to this impact, lies in the word «естественность» — which the dictionary defines as “natural,” but which means so much more.  In Chukovskaia’s parlance,  “natural” involves not only a sensitivity to language style that reflects the elements of nature it portrays, but also moral and artistic sincerity and integrity in its utterance.

The emphasis on sincerity and sensitivity should come as no surprise to those who Chuckovskaia as The Memory of Soviet literature. Not only did she serve as guardian of her father’s work – his insistence on sincerity and sensitivity in his literary criticism earned a “demotion” to the children’s literature division, where he and other talented writers created some of the most memorable children’s literature in the world – but also of Anna Akhmatova’s works. Her efforts to keep Akhmatova’s literary memory alive ensured that some of the most riveting poetry of the Stalinist period made it to the era of perestroika and to this day.

At the same time, in true Soviet style, Chukovskaia never utters the words sincerity or sensitivity explicitly. What she does is to create the rhetorical equivalent of a picture of the negative space around these words, forcing the reader to fill in the positive space to obtain its meaning. Rather than speak directly of the need for sincerity and clarity in Soviet literature, she speaks about the problems of Soviet literature and its intrinsic “didactic” tone, the imprint of the Soviet bureaucratic way of thinking, чиновничье мышление. The only antidote to that was a scientific approach to language that maintained its reflection of life. “Clarity, clarity, and clarity again is the demand of the editor in the name of the reader on the style and language of scientific language…” Left unsaid, of course, is that this bureaucratic language lacked a lot in the area of clarity. At the same time, Chukovskaia warned of the dangers of assuming too reductionist a stance when it came to grammar. “Editing an artistic text from the narrow position of elementary school grammar means to destroy it.”[iv]

What Chukovskaia tries to encourage is a critical stance that avoids selfish ideological reductionism and encourages sensitivity to the nature of language. The goal is to create a text that will transcend the limitations Socialist Realism placed on Soviet literary production, and which would make it possible to record the reality of life following the Stalinist regime. Thus, true art could emerge from any form of art – novels, poems, children’s literature – as long as the editor and the writer worked together as a dynamic duo and presented a language that clean and true and pure.


[i] Лидия Корнеевна Чуковская, «В лаборатории редактора.» Арханьгелск: АОА «ИПП» «Правда севера», 2005

[ii] Чуковская, 89

[iii] Чуковская, 89

[iv] Чуковская, 92.


Last weekend I had the honor of presenting my paper, “Se robaron mi qiunceañera: Female Performativity and Coming of Age in Latina Narratives,” at the conference of the Mid-Atlantic Council of Latin American Studies, at American University, Washington, D. C. In my previous post I presented part of the research I had conducted in preparation of the presentation at the conference. As with any conference paper, you end up with a whole bunch of regrets. Like I would have liked more time to edit a little better, instead of reading from two copies, the “big glob” with all the data on it, and my blog entry, which helped to summarize my arguments in a really useful way, at least useful to me.

Another pleasure of such a conference is the intellectual pleasure of moving into a state of a Virginia Woolf-sian “Room of One’s Own,” at least for a weekend. At work, I have to split my time among my Russian and Spanish classes, and the bureaucratic demands of my home institution, in addition to the demands of everyday life (who would think fitting in filling up the gas tank at the local cash-only gas station would be so complicated?). The result after interacting with over 90 persons in one day in three languages, as well as trying to answer emails and keeping up with paperwork is a headache and a state of existential headache. A conference allows me the opportunity to sit, center, and figure out where my research fits within the general landscape of contemporary scholarship, as well as providing inspiration for future topics of research. The weekend ended up with an entirely refreshing visit to one of my favorite Washington, D. C. getaway places, the Politics and Prose bookstore on Connecticut Avenue.

So first to the interesting presentations/cool stuff I experienced at the conference. The most suggestive/interesting/energizing panel I attended was panel 11, titled “Confronting Stereotypes: Women and Image in 20th Century Latin America.” The first paper proved personally exciting. Ivette Guzmán-Zavala from Lebanon Valley College presented the paper “Fotografía del siglo XX en Puerto Rico: Delano, Rosskam y el sujeto femenino.” This paper proved exciting for a number of reasons. First, as an alumna of the Ivy Leagues in the 1980s, I lived in an institution where the Puerto Rican presence was miniscule. Furthermore, Caribbean and Puerto Rican studies still had to find their way as a well-represented discipline in the curriculum. We did have a few Puerto Rican graduate students in the Spanish department, which worked more as an “aliento,” a moral encouragement, more than a marker of the presence of the discipline in a visible way on campus. As an undergraduate, being Puerto Rican meant being active with the Federación de estudiantes puertorriqueños, know by its initials F. E. P.

Professor Guzmán Zavala’s presentation used materials from the National Archives and showed a wide range of images from across the island, including some from my family’s home town, Guayanilla. The images showed a lifestyle gone with the advent of “modernization,” which meant some good things: clean potable water, rural electrification, public education. It also meant some bad things, most specifically the treatment by the federal government as a second class territory and its assumption that they could get away with a fair amount of things that would not work in the mainland, like running a bombing range in one of the most pristine waterfronts of the island. The United States returned the bombing range to the island after years of activism by islanders and Puerto Ricans on the mainland – I would say newyoricans, except that I have spent so little time in New York City that that really does not apply to me. The images were evocative, nostalgic, and a visual reminder that if I some days I feel the rupture necessary to negotiate mainland English culture a little more heavily than others, that I am not necessarily going mad.

Compartmentalization of cultural identity – putting those things assumed as givens in Puerto Rican culture but not accepted in mainland “Anglo” culture – is a necessary survival strategy. At the simplest level, it is necessary to come to peace with the fact that Folger’s coffee, fine, now Starbucks coffee, is the cultural standard for morning drinks, and not a nice cup of Puerto Rican espresso, is a simple, evocative, physical marker of this necessary compartmentalization.

Rupture and compartmentalization leads to negotiation: negotiating language, politics, gender roles, and pretty much every other major aspect of everyday life. Sometimes, on a good day, it leads to hybridity, as when I discover my local Korean supermarket not only expands my cooking options by adding hoisin sauce to my pantry, but also when I discover I can find everything to make pasteles there. I guess it is cultural progress when my personal reply to Esmeralda Santiagos’ question of whether liking pizza more than pastelillos made her any less Puerto Rican is that I wonder if liking Korean barbeque sauce better than KC Masterpiece barbeque sauce makes me any less Americanized?

Toss S. Garth from the United States Naval Academy (Annapolis) presented the paper “The Self-Possession of Evita: Woman, Citizen, Leader, Patient, Corpse, Saint.” It really highlighted how the use of popular culture for the popularization of political ideology and agendas was not a singularly Soviet phenomenon. Meredith Glueck of American University presented “The debate over street vendors’ clothes: baianas of acarajé, authenticity, and tourism in Salvador, Bahia’s 1960s.” Outside of showing the important of clothes as political markers, it made me hungry in spite of the fact that the panel immediately followed lunch.

This panel, as well as the other panels, indicated that my interest in Latino studies as an intellectual pursuit is not illegitimate. It did show that there are some ways in which my insights as a Slavic scholar can help expand and innovate research methodologies – as in the case of Cuba. Cuba now would not be so without their engagement with the Soviet Union. To do that, however, requires a trilingual approach – English, Spanish, and Russian. And that is something I can do, when I am not overwhelmed with all my Spanish I midterms or Russian cinema essays.

It is time to restock my Korean barbeque sauce.



Se robaron mi qiunceañera: Female Performativity and Coming of Age in Latina Narratives

A lot has been going these last two weeks. Putin swept into office, as everybody expected. Demonstrations have continued in Moscow. Our favorite aggregator of Russian news, Johnson’s Russia list,, has a few articles to help bring us all up to date. It also seems like the Putin administration will be turning control of the media to the Ministry of Culture, in a move that sounds suspiciously Orwellian…

This week, however, I am mostly focusing on a presentation I will give at the Mid-Atlantic Council of Latin American Studies, MACLAS, conference this weekend. I will be focusing on structural aspects of Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman, and Julia Álvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accent. I want to focus on a structural aspect of both authors’ works: the importance of the transition from girl to woman, the moment marked traditionally by a quinceañera, but which both are deprived by circumstance.

I would like to focus on a moment that becomes a shared moment of insight by both authors: the moment of liminality when a young woman transitions into a young woman, and the challenges posed by the simultaneous rupture and knitting together that occurs at that time. In this case, I use the term liminal as used by anthropologist Victor Turner:

” Liminal rites. Liminality is the term used by the Belgian folklorist van Gennep to denominate the second of three stages in what he called a “rite of passage.” Such rites are found in all cultures, and are seen as both indicators and vehicles of transition from one sociocultural state and status to another — childhood to maturity, virginity to marriage, childlessness to parenthood, ghosthood to ancestorhood, sickness to health, peace to war and vice versa, scarcity to plenty, winter to spring, and so on. He did, however, distinguish between those rites performed at life-crises, such as birth, puberty, marriage, death, and those performed at crucial points in the turning year, or on occasions of collective crisis when a whole society faces a major change, peace to war, health to epidemic, and so forth. The first set were mainly performed for individuals in secret or hidden places and related to upward mobility. The latter were performed for collectivities, were public in character, and often portrayed reversals or inversions of status or confusion of ordinary everyday categories. Van Gennep distinguished the three stages as (1) separation (from ordinary social life); (2) margin or  limen  (meaning threshold), when the subjects of ritual fall into a limbo between their past and present modes of daily existence; and (3) re-aggregation, when they are ritually returned to secular or mundane life — either at a higher status level or in an altered state of consciousness or social being.”

Victor Turner: “Frame, Flow  and Reflection: Ritual and Drama  as  Public Liminality.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6/4 December 1979 466-467

In the case Santiago and Álvarez, they focus on the trauma that results from trauma derived from their radical displacement to American culture at the time when they were emerging to the liminal age of fifteen, the age of the quinceañera. Fifteen is an age heavy with symbolic weight in literature. Even the short story recognized as the first surviving short story in Russia features a female protagonist whose life has become traumatized when her father dies at the age of – you guessed it – fifteen. Even Álvarez observes the seeming cross-cultural consensus of fifteen as the age when a girl becomes a young woman, available for presentation to society, in her non-fiction  Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the U. S. A. Both highlight the ritualized aspect of growing up tweener, adolescent and Latina. They focus on the level of sometimes stifling overprotection provided by the entire family unit – the battle for individual agency in a culture that stresses chaperones and escorts until marriage, the comfort provided by the familiar cocoon of abuelos and abuelas, tíos y tías, primos y primas. Both cases also highlight the tension between the comfort of this familial environment, the pride of mastering that cultural set of gender expectations, and the equal thrill and appeal of mastering the English language culture that surrounds them outside their house. Rupture is severe and significant. Geography, language, clothing, and eventually self, are replaced by a new individual that combines both cultures, the hybrid being.

While they point to Caribbean elements of their upbringing, what fascinates me is the commonality they share with other coming of age narratives.  In this case, I want to call up Vladimir Nabokov, who in Speak Memory  made the following observation about forced dislocation at a young age:

“I would moreover submit that, in regard to the power of hoarding up impressions, Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known. Genius disappeared when everything had been stored, just as it does with those other, more specialized child prodigies – pretty, curly-headed youngsters waving batons or taming enormous pianos, who eventually turn into second-rate musicians with sad eyes and obscure ailments and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters. But even so, the individual mystery remains to tantalize the memoirist… [i]

What Nabokov would attribute to the power of the Russian Revolution to displace a whole generation of young people – the ability to hoard up impressions – is actually reflected time and time again in the autobiographical narratives of émigrés.  I have been looking at autobiographies mostly from Slavic and Latino immigrants into the United States. They provide an interesting point of contrast due to what I call the “permeability factor.” By permeability, I mean the ability of the person to hope for an opportunity to return, or at the minimum visit, their homeland. Most Slavic immigrants were denied this opportunity, due to the laws government immigration during the Soviet period – the result of the “cataclysmic” take over by the Soviets in 1917, which led to Nabokov’s exile, and their expansion throughout Eastern Europe, which led to the exile of many others. Once exiled, these immigrants into the United States had no hope to return to their homelands.

One particularly interesting memoir from the Soviet period is Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation.[ii] Eva Hoffman is a Polish born writer who immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1959, at the age of fourteen. She later came to the United States to study in college in Houston, and she then continued graduate studies at Harvard University. She basically matches Nabokov in the area of demonstrable erudition, down to her studies in music in Cracow before she was forced to flee Poland. In her memoir, she contemplates the effects of the adjustment to her new language, English, on her view of the world around her.

“I am becoming a living avatar of structuralist wisdom; I cannot help knowing that words are just themselves. But it’s a terrible knowledge, without any of the consolations that wisdom usually brings. It does not mean that I’m free to play with words at my wont; anyways, words in their naked state are surely among the least satisfactory play objects. No, this radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.”

Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation. 107

Both writers depict a double language, code switching world,  where in some ways the young adolescent females – right at the point of liminality into adult Caribbean state of womanhood – get thrust into a much more different process of transition, where they need to master the new codes of language, morality and behavior not only for themselves, but also for their parents, whom they often surpass when it comes to language mastery. They are these walking avatars, playing with their new English words as they play with their dolls, but lacking the living connection to the rich traditions and family history that the Spanish discourse carries within itself. The immature narrators become the mediators for themselves as for their families, as their school educations become a means through which their own parents – particularly their mothers – come to master their new roles in a new language.

One of the greatest challenges facing the writers, then, is how to represent these marked moments of drastic cultural transition. Structurally, their management of narrative time becomes one of the main ways in which they highlight the depth of their transition.

Julia Álvarez approaches the presentation of liminal reconciliation, How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, by dividing chapters into discrete chronological blocks that reflect the voices of her multiple protagonists. The book evolves in reverse chronological order, as if trying to lull the reader into a sense of comfort, gradually stripping away the levels of American familiarity and increasing the levels of dvoekul’turnost’, dual culturality, which reflects the depth of the narrators’ cultural dvoeverie – the dual belief system that emerges from the merging of both Spanish and United States cultural orders. Internalized, naturalized dual code-switching emerges as the state of being.

The García Girl follows the stories of the four García sisters, Carla, Yolanda, Sandra and Sofía, and the challenges of adapting to the at times contradictory social expectations of the Dominican and United States cultures. The novel progresses in reverse chronological order. This chronological arrangement allows the author to focus on a different configuration, a different cultural moment, in the life of the family. The last chapter shows the family at the point of emigration from the Dominican Republic. The narrative voice suddenly gets shifted to Chucha, one of the family’s servants on the island, as she reflects on the departure of the family.

“I have said prayers to all the santos, to the loa, and to the Gran Poder de Dios, visiting each room, swinging the can of cleaning smoke, driving away the bad spirits that filled the house this day, and fixing in my head the different objects and where they belong so that if any workman sneaks in and steals something I will know what is gone. In the girls’ rooms I remember each one as a certain heaviness, now in my heart, now in my shoulders, now in my head or feet, I feel their losses pile up like dirt thrown on a box after it has been lowered into the earth. I see their future, the troublesome life ahead. They will be haunted by what they do and don’t remember. But they have spirit in them. They will invent what they need to survive. [iii]”

How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, 223

It is very interesting that it is left to Chucha, the voodoo trained servant, to put an intellectual spin to the existence that the girls’ merely experience: “They will invent what they need to survive.” The girls constantly struggle to interpret the new codes and symbols around, particularly when it comes to gender relations. The most explicitly analytical of this process is Yolanda, the daughter who becomes a teacher. When Yolanda speaks about her boarding school days, she says:

“Back in those days I had what one teacher called ‘a vivacious personality.’ I had to look up the word in the dictionary and was relieved to find out it didn’t mean I had problems. English was then still a party favor for me – crack open the dictionary, find out if I’d just been insulted, praised, admonished, criticized…”

How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, 87

Outside of “cracking the code” of conversational English language,  they also must master the code surrounding relationships outside of the understood parameters of Dominican society. Hoffman describes the cognitive challenge of cracking this code in the following manner:

“Dating is an unknown ritual to me, unknown among my Cracow peers, who aside from lacking certain of its requisite accessories – cars, private rooms, a bit of money – ran around in boy-girl packs and didn’t have a ceremonial set of rules for how to act toward the other set. A date, by contrast, seems to be an occasion whose semiotics are highly standardized and in which every step has a highly determinate meaning and therefore has to be carefully calibrated…”

Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation.  149

“How do you talk to an alien? Very carefully. When I fall in love with my first American, I also fall in love with otherness, with the far spaces between us and the distances we have to travel to meet at the source of our attraction…”

Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation, 187

By the time Yolanda manages to crack the basic codes for dating, she realizes that there are some American norms she does not wish to adopt, particularly when it comes to sexual promiscuity.

“Why I couldn’t keep them interested was pretty simple: I wouldn’t sleep with them. By the time I went to college, it was the late sixties, and everyone was sleeping as a matter of principle. By then, I was a lapsed Catholic; my sisters and I had been pretty well Americanized since our arrival in this country a decade before, so really, I didn’t have a good excuse…”

How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, 87

Esmeralda Santiago literally breaks her narrative in half by dividing the narrative of her coming of age into two volumes, When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman. The books break apart at the line between thirteen and fourteen years of age, when Esmeralda moves from the poor neighborhood of Macún to New York City.

Almost a Woman focuses on Esmeralda’s coming of age as a student at a high school for the performing arts in New York. While Álvarez does express the difference in socio-economic status when they moved, Santiago experiences it in a much more physical manner as she becomes her mother’s interpreter at the welfare office.

“I was grateful for Mami’s faith in me but couldn’t relax until we heard from the welfare office. A few days later, our application was approved. By the I’d decided that even when it seemed like my head couldn’t hold that many new words inside it, I had to learn English well enough never again to be caught between languages.”[iv]

Almost a Woman. 20-21

Being caught between languages, and its real implications for daily survival, is a theme repeated again and again in numerous immigrant narratives. Santiago’s narrative stands out for the way that it explicitly breaks out the challenges specific to life in the late twentieth century for a working class family, unlike Álvarez, whose professional father manages to retool his skills and provide them with a more protected middle class life. Santiago’s work as family interpreter, as the mediator between her family and the public welfare system in New York makes her ponder much more explicitly the sharpness of the cultural division.

“It was good to be healthy, big and strong like Dick, Jane, and Sally. It was good to learn English and to know how to act among Americans, but it was not good to behave like them. Mami made it clear that although we lived in the United States, we were to remain 100 percent Puerto Rican. The problem was that it was hard to tell where Puerto Rican ended and Americanized began. Was I Americanized if I preferred pizza to pastelillos? Was I Puerto  Rican if my skirts covered my knees? If I cut out a picture of Paul Anka from a magazine and tacked it to the wall, was I less Puerto Rican than when I cut out pictures of Gilberto Monroig? Who could tell me?”

Almost a Woman 25

You can feel the personal, moral and psychological weight placed in Santiago, as the eldest and the first in her family to master the American educational system, to play the mediator for her family. The term interpreter, in this case, really understates how active her role becomes within her family, a role that her mother cannot fulfill because she finds mastering the language a much larger challenge due to her age and the need for her to work to support her family.  The fact that Santiago ends up attending a fine arts high school almost works as an ironic undertone to her struggles in performing her role as an emerging English language wielding individual.

[i] Vladimir Nabokov. Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) 25.

[ii] Eva Hoffman. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).

[iii] Julia Alvarez. How the  García Girls Lost Their Accent. (New York, Plume, 1991)

[iv] Esmeralda Santiago. Almost a Woman. (New York: Vintage, 1999)


So, close to the top of my things to do during my spring non-break is to write an article for the Mid-Atlantic Conference of Latin American Studies, MACLAS. I proposed a paper that will include Esmeralda Santiago’s work When I Was Puerto Rican, Cuando yo era puertorriqueña, and Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent.

What was I thinking? I actually chose to write about someone who is living, who writes about events experienced by contemporary living people. Furthermore, I write about authors who have written other opinion pieces and books on topics related to those on which I want to focus. This is almost as stressful as writing about Vladimir Nabokov, who had an opinion about pretty much everything under the Sun, and left behind writings about his opinions about pretty much everything under the Sun. He is also the one who inspired me to write this paper. In his autobiography, Speak, Memory, he talks about childhood memories and the effect of severe change on those memories.

“I would moreover submit that, in regard to the power of hoarding up impressions, Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known. Genius disappeared when everything had been stored, just as it does with those other, more specialized child prodigies – pretty, curly-headed youngsters waving batons or taming enormous pianos, who eventually turn into second-rate musicians with sad eyes and obscure ailments and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters. But even so, the individual mystery remains to tantalize the memoirist… [i]

What Nabokov would attribute to the power of the Russian Revolution to displace a whole generation of young people – the ability to hoard up impressions – is actually reflected time and time again in the autobiographical narratives of émigrés.  I have been looking at autobiographies mostly from Slavic and Latino immigrants into the United States. They provide an interesting pint of contrast due to what I call the “permeability factor.” By permeability, I mean the ability of the person to hope for an opportunity to return, or at the minimum visit, their homeland. Most Slavic immigrants were denied this opportunity, due to the laws government immigration during the Soviet period – the result of the “cataclysmic” take over by the Soviets in 1917, which led to Nabokov’s exile, and their expansion throughout Eastern Europe, which led to the exile of many others. Once exiled, these immigrants into the United States had no hope to return to their homelands.

One particularly interesting memoir from the Soviet period is Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation.[ii] Eva Hoffman is a Polish born writer who immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1959, at the age of fourteen. She later came to the United States to study in college in Houston, and she then continued graduate studies at Harvard University. She basically matches Nabokov in the area of demonstrable erudition, down to her studies in music in Cracow before she was forced to flee Poland. In her memoir, she contemplates the effects of the adjustment to her new language, English, on her view of the world around her.

“I am becoming a living avatar of structuralist wisdom; I cannot help knowing that words are just themselves. But it’s a terrible knowledge, without any of the consolations that wisdom usually brings. It does not mean that I’m free to play with words at my wont; anyways, words in their naked state are surely among the least satisfactory play objects. No, this radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection. [iii]

It is the experience of “living avatar of structuralist wisdom” that all of these writers seem to share, whether Slavic or Latino. Particularly, when looking at Santiago’s memoir and Alvarez’s novel, what strikes one the most is their shared hyperawareness of the role of language in their performance as women in a new environment. Esmeralda Santiago ends up attending a high school for the performing arts, as if to publically display the challenges of communicating in her new world. And a common fear among all of these women is the concern with staying jamona, the pejorative term for an old maid. Fictionalized, autobiographical, or based on interviews, they all share the fear and challenge of mastering he rituals of adolescent womanhood, which implies mastering the female rituals of courtship.

Thus, I get to write about living writers, who write about living people and living topics. And at the same time try to say something original, clever and hopefully insightful about the challenges of facing the period of the quinceañera in a new land.


[i] Vladimir Nabokov. Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) 25.

[ii] Eva Hoffman. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).

[iii] Hoffman, 107.