Friday, October 28, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: For Whom You Were Named - Inspiration in Brighton Beach

Emily Rubin’s fiction has been published in the Red Rock Review, Confrontations, and HAPPY. Stalina won the Amazon Breakthrough award and was published in January 2011; it is now being released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on November 15th. Emily is a past nominee for the Pushcart Prize. In 2005, she began producing Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose, a reading series that takes place in laundromats around the United States. She divides her time between New York City and Columbia County, New York, with her husband, Leslie, and their dog, Sebastian.

In the fall of 1997, I took a teaching job at the Neptune Avenue Campus of Touro College in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. I was hired to teach “Oral History: Writing Your Story” to a class of Russian immigrants. The college was looking to expand its curriculum from computer, nutrition, and medical assistant training classes to include art courses in creative writing, dance, and fine art. A choreographer friend, who knew I had written plays and performance pieces based on stories I collected from my grandmother who was born and raised on the Lower East Side in 1898, recommended me. Rose Begun nee Kronenberg was one of eleven children of Eastern European Jewish descent who was born in an apartment on Cherry Street. Nanny, as my brothers and I called her, had very detailed recollections of life in that immigrant community at the turn of the century.  Even though I had a Russian background, my knowledge of Russia after my grandparents arrived in the United States and through World War II and after, was consigned to readings in history books, and films like Doctor Zhivago and others. I had visited Brighton Beach on many occasions to partake of the Russian food, life, and libations offered there, but I had never worked with anyone from that community.
I was looking forward to hearing my students’ stories and had no idea what to expect. As I trundled out on the F train to the Neptune Avenue every Thursday the evening’s lights of Brooklyn illuminated the neighborhoods. Elaborate decorations began to appear as fall turned into winter. Ghouls and giant spiders to crèches, menorahs, inflated snowmen, reindeer, and the occasional peace sign. As I noted the changes to the decorations of the homes that became familiar, I would contemplate the assignment I would give my class that week. I could see the front of the train from my last car vantage point as we swerved around the curves of the elevated tracks. The Atlantic Ocean peaked through the high rises as we approached the station. Seeing and smelling an ocean in New York City has always made me feel a connection to the earth, something that is easily lost in city life. My goal was to learn something about my students’ lives here and in Russia and perhaps show them something of what writing is all about. For myself, writing is often the act of taking difficult, sad, or awkward situations and making them humorous and poignant, and even beautiful. Early assignments were to write the story of the day they left their country, about a place where you felt safe or how they ended up in Brighton Beach. I thought how lucky my students were to live within earshot of the waves and could smell the salt air.  

The Touro College storefront campus was in a strip mall sandwiched between a Waldbaum’s supermarket and a Russian bakery, where I bought my weekly piece of chocolate babkha and a coffee to fuel my teaching adrenalin.

I had 25 students in the fall of 1997. They were in their 60s and 70s and had immigrated after the end of the Soviet Union to Brighton Beach. They all spoke varying levels of English, and many spoke several other languages as well. They had retired from professions as doctors, teachers, craftsmen, and physicists, and any pensions they were due in Russia had disappeared. The country was bankrupt; it was a sorry state of affairs for many of them. Touro offered classes and eligibility for public assistance if they were enrolled in classes. Not interested in the job training courses, many ended up in my class.

“We felt safe nowhere,” they would argue with me after I wrote the assignment on the board.

After all, they did grow up during World War II. A hellish time, but not without its glory. They expressed pride for the Russian Army’s victory over the Nazis. These were very tough people. At times, I found them affected to the point of snobbishness about their country. It was all justified nostalgia, with the truth of their experiences to back everything up.

“Okay, write about not having anywhere safe to go,” I suggested.  

Inevitably, they would come in with stories about their favorite blankets, cupboards, gardens, and barn lofts where they played and felt safe. They were well versed in the art of debate and would take every opportunity to engage in heated discussion, especially with me. These debates gave me an idea of how rigorous education in Russia must have been. They taught me something every time we met.

One week, I came up with the simplest but also most revealing assignment. I asked my students to tell me for whom they named. I thought about my own name. When my mother was pregnant, she was sure she was having another boy, so the name would be Willie after an uncle. When the name did not fit the little girl delivered on a cold winter night, my mother anointed me Emily. She had been at a friend’s house that weekend and their daughter, Emily, left an impression. I recently found out that my namesake was named for a family cat. I like that lineage. 

I have to preface the story of the assignment by saying that I had not thought about writing a novel at this point. I had segued from plays to short stories and had first started to submit to literary magazines. I had even recently gotten my first rejection, which at the time was kind of thrilling. I felt like I had made the leap and gotten over the trepidation of sending out my fragile little stories.

Even before this ‘name’ assignment, I felt inspired by the honesty and direct language my students used to write their stories. They were eloquent and courageous to write their essays in English.

Rather than write the stories, I had them tell us, as many of them wanted to improve their spoken language as well as their writing skills, and this seemed the perfect assignment to practice.

The students named Yuri, Stanislav, Ameilia, and Tatanya were named for uncles and grandfathers who were generals in the czar’s army, grandmothers who saved their children from Cossacks, and on and on. Then, a woman stood up. She had a Louise Brooks hair cut, long dark eyelashes, and heavy eyeliner. She wore a tight black dress, which she adjusted with a sultry swing to her hips as she got up to tell her story.

“My name is Stalina, and I was named for Stalin. My friends told me I should change my name, take the monster away, he killed so many. I told them no, I would not change my name, it is our history, terrible and sad perhaps, but it is who we are.”

The room became silent. I was taken aback, and thanked her and listened but was distracted during the remaining the stories from Tatanya, Anna, Vladimir, etc.

I am sure there were other gems, but it was Stalina who stayed with me. I left class that night and on my return trip to the Lower East Side, all my students’ stories began to swirl around my head. In Stalina, I had found a character to speak a story that would be an amalgamation of these forthright people, a coming of age and a coming of old story, and a filter for all the history of their country I had learned through the gift of storytelling from their very personal perspectives. Over the next five years, I wrote my novel. Several chapters were published in those literary journals that on occasion sent me the thrilling letter of acceptance. It was another five years until the novel would be published.  A long journey, but much like my trip out each week on the subway, so much was revealed as we came out from underground and the story found a way to be told.


  1. Teaching a writing class to students with such rich stories to tell must have been a dream! No wonder you were inspired to write a novel based on it. I can't wait to read your book. Thanks for sharing this story, Emily!

    Just curious, but did you discover anything new about your own family's history while writing your novel?

  2. What an amazing story, Emily. It truly gave me a little chill to think how many stories are hidden behind people's names and a simple question like "who where you named after" can bring them out. Amazing, isn't it, the things that inspire a novel?

  3. Thank you, and good question about my family. After working with my students, I did not necessarily learn more about my own family's experiences, but I certainly understood the stories often told from a different perspective, which helped a great deal as I worked on the singular voice of Stalina throughout the process.