Searching, Re-writing, and Jumping Away: Emigre Identity in "1.5-Generation" Russian-American Literature

Thompson, Kathleen, Slavic Languages and Literatures - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Clowes, Edith, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Virginia

This dissertation investigates self-perception and self-definition in the works of three major Russian-born writers living in the United States: Gary Shteyngart, Anya Ulinich, and Margarita Meklina. The very act of crossing a physical border does more than unsettle characters’ identities. It forces consideration of metaphorical borders between writer, reader, and character, which in turn bring new experiments both in understanding the nature of identity in the global age and in crafting narrative. Here, I ask how changing spatial, temporal, and linguistic contexts shape perceptions of identity.

To answer this question, I examine Shteyngart’s three novels (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, 2002; Absurdistan, 2006; Super Sad True Love Story, 2010), Ulinich’s first novel (Petropolis, 2007), and six of Meklina’s works: five short stories (“Dom”/“The House”, 1995; “doktor Morselli, medsestra Ellen Dayton”/“Dr. Morselli and Nurse Ellen Dayton”, 1998, “Srazhenie pri Peterburge”/“The Battle of Petersburg”, 1998; “A ia posredi”/“And I am in the Middle”, 2011; “The Jump”, 2014) and an epistolary novel (POP3, 1998-1999). I chose these writers for their prominence, sustained interest on the topic, and generic innovation.

The dissertation is divided into five parts – an introduction, a chapter on each author, and a conclusion. The introduction presents a brief history of twentieth-century Russian-American emigration, followed by a description of the sociological context in which Shteyngart, Ulinich, and Meklina write. It also provides a summary of scholarly writing on émigré identity while introducing fundamental conceptual frames such as hybrid identity, the diaspora, transnationalism, and globalization. Chapter 1, “Gary Shteyngart Searches for Self in Time, Language, and Space”, examines Shteyngart’s works in which his protagonists’ unexpected discovery of hybrid identity occurs in a liminal locus of space, time, and language, which I call a “node”. Chapter 2, “(Re)Writing the Self – Large and Small – in Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis”, considers Ulinich’s use of memory and intertextuality to represent her protagonist’s identity as a form of consciousness, which I call a “palimpsest”, that fashions itself in particular spatial, temporal, and linguistic situations. Chapter 3, “Leaps of Identity in Margarita Meklina’s Russian and English Fiction”, explores the role of radical plot and character disruption in selected works by Meklina, where protagonists confront identity in spatial, temporal, and linguistic crises I call “communicative displacement”. I conclude that these three writers gradually move away from inward-turned examination of transnational émigré identity and instead embrace an outward-looking “global” concept of self.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Russian literature, émigré literature, transnationalism, identity
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