The Writer Lifting the Veil on the Real Russian Experience

Margarita Gokun Silver’s unique personal history, and new essay collection, show that Soviet and Russian stories are more complex than pop culture would have you believe.

The Writer Lifting the Veil on the Real Russian Experience

It might not be usual for refugees to move back to their homeland, but Narratively contributor Margarita Gokun Silver is not your average daughter of Soviet Jews. In this Narratively contributor’s debut essay collection I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Other Immigrant Tales), Gokun Silver details her experience pushing her family to leave the Soviet Union (and then going back for a few years), pursuing a master’s degree – in part to appease her parents  – and building a career as a writer. Before her book’s release on July 29, Gokun Silver spoke to Narratively. 

After years of writing a mix of memoir and reported stories, including one on a tote bag for Narratively about leaving the Soviet Union, what led you to write a collection of personal essays?

I’ve been wanting to write  this collection of essays for a long time. Every time I told people stories about how I grew up or coming of age in the Soviet Union, and then my immigration and assimilation journey, they would always say, “Oh, you got to write it down, write a book about it,” so it’s actually been kind of in my thoughts for many years. I wrote a proposal and, as we usually all do, started sending it to agents and publishers. I kept getting some responses saying, “Oh it’s an interesting story to be told,  but memoirs and essay collections aren’t selling right now,’ or ‘you don’t have a platform.” Then I just got lucky, and a publisher took interest and purchased the proposal in October, and I wrote the book in two and a half months.

At different points, “I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Other Immigrant Tales)” seems to be written in a journal style. Why did you decide to embrace this writing style? 

I love the informal journal style, but also I really enjoyed reading Samantha Irby’s, Jenny Lawson’s, and Jen Mann’s books. That particular way of addressing your reader was a simple fit with this particular work.

I liked your anecdotes about your interactions with babushkas, including your mother. What advice do you have for other immigrant writers who want to share their journey to the United States with a general audience while still staying true to their culture? 

That was a bit tricky because my editor kept coming back to me and saying “Okay, well, what do you mean here?”; “What do you mean here?”; and “How did this go here?”  You just have to work with a really good editor that comes from a different culture than you are because, for you, it’s all internalized. Work with a really good editor who can point you in the right direction as to how to write about these things and make them understandable. 

As someone who has lived in different countries throughout your life, how does being exposed to different cultures affect and improve your writing? 

I speak three languages: Spanish, English and Russian. Sometimes, as I write, a different word pops up.  I only write in English creatively, but a Russian word may pop out or a Spanish word may pop out, and  some of those words are richer in what I’m trying to say. What I usually do is start looking at all the synonyms of the translation of that word. So I think being exposed to other languages gave me this opportunity to write with maybe a richer metaphor or a richer expression. 

How does your Russian heritage influence the types of stories that you do? For example, “The Secret Life of Russia’s Remote Freedom Fighter” story that you wrote for Narratively?

I am, right now, in the second year of my master’s of creative writing at Oxford University, and  all of my creative writing assignments that I’ve had to submit had Russia in them somehow.

My second year thesis will also be based somewhat on Russian history and stories coming out of Russia, and also based on the Narratively profile that I did. I’m planning a nonfiction book that would include profiles of Russian human rights defenders and fighters. I think those stories are so important to be told, rather than stories of the evildoers in Russia that we hear all the time.

If you live in the United Kingdom, you can purchase a paperback copy of I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Other Immigrant Tales) from Bookshop.

If you live in the United States or another country, you can purchase a digital, audio, or print copy of I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Other Immigrant Tales) from Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, or Google Play.