Yelena Akhtiorskaya would like to write a book that’s nothing like the book she wrote.
“First of all, it would have nothing at all to do with my life. It would be purely made up— probably fantastical, maybe some science fiction in it—and just as far as possible away from my family,” says Akhtiorskaya, author of the novel Panic in a Suitcase. “You don’t want to write the book about the family, because the family has to read it, and that is a profound stress.”
Akhtiorskaya’s family relocated from Odessa, Ukraine to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn in 1992, when she was almost seven. She says all three members claim no memories of this cataclysmic time, but her biggest stress was almost certainly school. “In Odessa I never went to school, I never went to first grade or kindergarten or any of that, my family just didn’t want to send me. It was kind of very [traumatizing] to just be dropped into second grade in a language that you don’t understand and also not understanding, ‘Why do I even have to go to school, when I could be at home playing with my grandpa?’—so that was bad,” she says.
But perhaps also good? Akhtiorskaya excelled, achieving a diploma from a competitive math and sciences high school, a BA in English from Hunter College and an MFA from Columbia University. She is the recipient of a Posen Foundation Fellowship in fiction and, on account of a starred review, her debut is eligible for the 2014 Kirkus Prize.
“I wrote [Panic in a Suitcase] just because I needed to write. That feeling has always been with me, and I didn’t prepare at all. I don’t think about, ‘Oh, what do I want to write about? What scenes do I want to have?’ So the thing that ended up coming out was all the stuff about my family and about my crazy neighborhood in which I grew up, and all the stuff that’s so deep inside of my guts—which is not something you wantto do, I don’t think,” she says.
Yet Panic in a Suitcase is something everyone will want to read: a smart, subtle and overall outstanding portrait of a Russian family in the 15 years after the Soviet Union’s fall. Part One: 1993 opens on the occasion of a long-anticipated visit by the favored son of the Nasmertovs of Brighton Beach. A feckless, dyspeptic poet, Pasha is still, stubbornly, Odessa-based.
“A sum total of fourteen hours strapped into an aisle seat near the gurgling lavatory of a dented, gasoline-reeking airplane, two layovers, and a night spent in the stiff embrace of a plastic bench in the Kiev airport would’ve been tough on any constitution, and Pasha didn’t have just any constitution but that of a poet—sickly from the outset, the dysfunction lying in the vital organs (heart, lungs), nose and ears disproportionately large for the head, head abnormally large for the body, premature stains under the eyes, spooky immobility of gaze, vermicelli limbs, metabolic peculiarities,” Akhtiorskaya writes.
Despite the inauspicious entry, the Nasmertovs aim to coerce Pasha’s permanent relocation. Descended from “dysthymic men of Literature and Medicine,” patriarch Robert, a former surgeon, believes that a forged correspondence with a Harvard professor who wants to translate Pasha’s poems may convince his son to stay. At the very least, Esther, a former pediatrician, will attempt to parlay that relationship into undergraduate admission for granddaughter Frida, lest she suffer the indignities of her mother, Marina, who is reduced, in this transitional time, to cleaning house for an Orthodox family with many bathrooms and sons.
“Marina was cleaning only because life reserved its most pungent humor for those special enough to get the joke...I’m an actress, she said to herself, an undercover agent, a spy, as she scrubbed around the house’s hundredth toilet bowl,” writes Akhtiorskaya.
This assumed lowliness in pursuit of a better life is just one emigrative irony of which Pasha wants no part. Part Two: 2008 reveals the matter of his relocation long since settled, and it’s now Frida’s turn—grown and in medical school, for the time being—to travel from Brighton Beach to Odessa for the wedding of Pasha’s son. Nasmertovs on both sides of the sea have easy access to plane tickets, top-quality vareniki and beaches all the same.
“And that’s what Pasha had done, traded in something for something else, only it wasn’t as concrete as binary structures or free verse, and he couldn’t pinpoint precisely when the change had occurred. As a result he couldn’t be entirely certain it had been voluntary,” Akhtiorskaya writes.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.