Storyglossia Issue 38, February 2010.

An Interview with Natasha Grinberg


Natasha Grinberg's "When in Rome" appears in Storyglossia 38. Here, Natasha takes a few moments to talk about the premise of the story, native and new languages, the search for home, and what she's currently working on.


Anne Valente: Where did the premise for this story come from?


Natasha Grinberg: The Greater Miami, where I live, makes me think of the Tower of Babel. The air is filled with the sound of multilingual conversations. In the elevator, I often find myself surrounded by people who have three separate exchanges going: one in English, one in Russian, and one in German or French. Small ethnic stores dot the strip malls along Collins Ave and Biscayne Blvd. You can find ten types of herring and Ukrainian salo (pig fat), Cuban coffee and guava pastry there, but you're not likely to find English-speaking help. This is normal. It's been like this for decades in South Florida.


But something changed about three years ago. I began to notice an avalanche of Spanish signs in large stores, national chains, and banks. As an immigrant who writes in English, I am more concerned than other people about having a common language for all of us to communicate.


My observations of the demographic and cultural changes in South Florida served as an impetus for the story. But it needed more layers to take it to the next level, to make the story less local and more about a contemporary human condition of multilingualism. When I visited Estonia last summer, I found the second part of the story. Having broken away from the Soviet Union, the new Baltic state embraced her national culture and national Estonian language. To make Estonian viable once again, the new state wants her citizens to know it. So, in a way, Russian language in Estonia is an approximation of Spanish in America; it's a language of a large group of immigrants and descendents of immigrants. But the way America and Estonia handle the main and the second language, the way the two countries handle assimilation couldn't be more different.


AV: Semyon seems conflicted, in that he resents the exclusions of nationality such as his initial reaction to Estonia, and the funneling of all languages into common English but he also resents inclusion, since Spanish in America now takes away his common ground of English. Is this a main source of his frustration? Or are his conflicted emotions only natural, and maybe even inevitable?


NG: Fiction invites interpretations, and I'm fascinated by your take on the story. Estonia is a small country in which the majority population ethnic Estonians speak Estonian, a language of Finno-Ugric group. Yet Estonians about a million people altogether—must master additional languages to facilitate their trade and participation in European and world culture. Today, the preeminent second language of choice in Estonia is no longer Russian as it used to be when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union—but English.


Semyons's frustration surfaces when he finds himself in situations that contradict his worldview and expectations, situations that feel unnatural to him. A person's native language is like second skin to him. At the same time, most people are eager to learn a new language when it makes it easier for them to get a better job, earn more money, find more mates, travel in foreign countries. What Semyon resents is the outside pressure to do or tolerate what is unnatural to his self-interest. In that sense, what is happening to him in the U.S. and in Estonia is similar.


In the U.S., Semyon, who feels himself American, is disturbed by the evidence of the American culture being fractured. Unlike a native-born American, Semyon has first-hand experience with assimilation. He knows that the quickest way to learn a language is to learn it and that being nannied delays or eliminates the need to speak English. He fears the consequence of the marginalization of English and English-American culture.


In Estonia, a former Soviet republic, Semyon feels unnatural speaking English (at least until he meets the tour guide). He is a body of Babel, torn by the contradictory demands of the contemporary society.


AV: Throughout, Semyon seems to be seeking a place to call home. Is a home possible for him, with the way he feels? Does he find a sense of home in the end?


NG: That's something I'd like readers to ponder. Can one feel at home in a place that constantly changes? Can one feel at home in a hotel near a busy airport? Can a community stay together when newcomers are treated as more important than old-timers?


But at least on the love front, I see Semyon and Tanya as a happy couple who will support each other through ever-changing American circumstances.


AV: You nicely parallel Semyon's struggles with nationality with his personal relationships. He feels no longer at home in America after 30 years, which coincides with the death of his wife after their many years together. To what extent is Semyons' struggle for home internal, versus external?


NG: When I begin working on a story, I search for situations and characters that would make the theme more pronounced. Had Semyon been happily married, he could still struggle with the changing American landscape, but then I'd have to come up with a different internal or external layer to emphasize that struggle.


The loss of his wife and the fracture of American culture are both external events. They happen to him, yet each aggravates the other, increasing tension in the story. And tension is the engine of fiction.


AV: What are you currently working on? Any stories forthcoming that we can point readers to?


NG: I'm working down the list of plots and themes I've accumulated over the past several years. The labor seems akin to Sisyphus's. The more I write the more new plots and themes I add to the list.


A dystopian short story, "Commune Number Six," will be performed by McCroskey Internet Playhouse and the audio made available for a free download later in March. Last year, they performed and recorded my novelette The Kiss.


I've just finished a story, "The One," but can't say yet where it will be published. It's a contemporary tale about a divorced man trying to stay afloat in the current mancession. And it's, also, a variation on the Fathers and Sons theme.


I try to vary my stories' point of view. Now, I'm working on a piece from a female character's point of view. It's a humorous take on a pair of Holocaust survivors during a hurricane in Florida.


Natasha Grinberg was born in the USSR and immigrated to the United States in 1980. Her short stories appeared in Identity Theory, Scribblers on the Roof, Prick of the Spindle, AIM, Duck & Herring, Cause & Effect, and other literary magazines. natashagrinberg AT