I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Two memoirs about immigrant roots—from the Soviet Union to Syria—and growing up queer on the cultural margins of New York City.
I met David Adjmi about ten years ago, at a snowed-in artist residency in New Hampshire. Mostly I remember finding him original and weird. I felt intimidated, and coveted his expensive French winter jacket. We got to know each other after we both became close to Olivia Laing, a writer who lived in one of the other studios and spoke in an impossibly sophisticated London accent. We spent a lot of time talking around the communal dinner table. At one point, we devised a rudimentary screenplay for an all-male version of The Golden Girls. Betty White’s role was played by Clint Eastwood.
That winter I was working on a hybrid memoir, reportage, and history project titled Young Heroes of the Soviet Union (Random House), a book about the ways we carry our family history inside of us. It begins in Moscow, where I was born. Though he’s best known as a playwright, Adjmi had just started his memoir about growing up in a Syrian Jewish family in Brooklyn, titled Lot Six (HarperCollins). Our books came out earlier this year, during the COVID-19 downturn. I think Adjmi would agree that when we finally read each others’ books we were bowled over by a sense of recognition. Both books reckon with growing up queer and Jewish on the cultural margins of New York City, and with what it means to labor at becoming an American. Besides being original, weird and often agonizing, Lot Six also happens to be riotously funny and awfully fun to read. For this conversation, which took place in July, we communicated electronically between Los Angeles, where Adjmi has lived for several years, and Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Alex Halberstadt Both of us took a long time to write our books. I feel weird admitting this in public, but mine took eleven years; I know yours took almost as long. I’m a journalist and rarely write about myself, which is something I found extraordinarily difficult—for a long time, in fact, I found it impossible. I couldn’t make progress until I managed to make my adolescent self into a character who was completely sundered from me—to externalize him and write him as no different from the other characters. This meant thinking about his narrative arc, motivations, and dialogue; for a few months I wrote about myself in the third person. I think some of the difficulty had to do with the need to externalize myself, and some of it had to do with shame. It was only after I managed to create this character that the book started to work. You’re a playwright who doesn’t write about yourself explicitly, and I wonder if you had anything like this happen when you began working on Lot Six.
David Adjmi In the beginning it was truly excruciating, and I did everything I could to avoid myself in the writing. I tried abstracting it, I tried writing the book as critical essays. When the project started narrowing and it became clear that I was going to write a conventional memoir, I wrote about everyone but myself. My editor was like, “Where the fuck are you in this book?” I just found myself completely uninteresting. I couldn’t believe someone wanted me to put myself at the center of a narrative arc. I was ashamed of myself, probably. I think I was ashamed of having a self—or worse, that I didn’t have a self to write about. But I started to write about that terror, and I made it the subject of the book.
AHMemoirs are kind of a Trojan horse—one’s life seems like a fairly straightforward or at least available subject to write about, but then you run into that insane necessity of splitting yourself in half.
DAThe difficulty with memoir is you have to make yourself subject and object at the same time—you have to write with a sort of binocular vision. You have to create a persona for yourself and also imbue that persona with the truth. Once I figured out the persona, it got easier.
AHThat’s really well said.
DAYour book reminds me of Ibsen—how family lineage and consanguinity are vessels for trauma and affliction. Obviously, it’s more than that. But individual psychic pain is encoded in the genes—which is really right out of the play Ghosts. At one point you write: “This, I understood finally, was history: not the ordered narrative of books but an affliction that spread from parent to child, sister to brother, husband to wife. It took Tamara from Vassily, Vassily from my father, and my father from my mother and me. Fifty years after his death, Stalin—the scarecrow of black-and-white newsreels—had reached into my life, too.” Your family was broken apart by history, so I guess my question is can art undo or repair that affliction?
AHThe recent discovery about how intergenerational trauma is transmitted makes for exciting science, but the intuitive understanding that this happens has been with us since at least Sophocles. One of the first human studies looked at children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. It found that they had inherited these epigenetic markers, and were prone to symptoms of PTSD that had no basis in their lived experience. I wonder if many of the subjects of that study felt surprised by these findings. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I’ve felt something like this most of my life, so when the studies appeared, they seemed like something I already knew to be true. As for art—I suspect you’d agree that art never really undoes or fixes anything. It just makes a little monument to the affliction, and feels like an imposition of order, and meaning, onto the messiness of pain.
DAThe details in your book slay me. There are so many haunting images of people ripped from their lives—the father who returns home to the grown child he’s never met and says, “I’m your father.” The childless aunt whose only daughter was shot in her arms, dancing in the lamplight to “Bésame Mucho” with her penciled eyes and “tugging on the corners of an imaginary shawl.” I could feel a journalist’s detail in how you chart your history. My book is the opposite: an absence of history. You were politicized early on because nationalism and psychic identity were so entwined. Whereas I had no idea where I was from, and had literally zero understanding of politics or historical context as a kid. Mining my family history—which is what your whole book is about, as a way to understand yourself—for me it was just a dead end. Do you feel like you resolved something in yourself writing this book?
AHIt’s true that I grew up in a place where it was nearly impossible to avoid politics even as a child, because of the indoctrination that began in kindergarten, where we played with pet turtles under portraits of Lenin and were taught that “the General Secretary is a child’s best friend.” In writing this book, I think it became important for me to try to understand something about the boundary between collective experience and personal identity, and where my family and I existed in relation to these forces. Most of us think of “personal” and “historical” as different registers of experience and writing, even as opposites, but I came to think of them as inseparable.
DAThat makes sense.
AHI am not sure that I resolved anything in myself; writing the book felt more like an investigation. I tried to piece together something about where I came from and how it shaped me, and honestly that felt like about the most I could do.
DA You exhume so much writing a memoir, but at some point I started to feel like Gene Hackman at the end of The Conversation when he’s, like, ripped open the walls of his apartment. You have to know when to stop.
AH Underlying your very funny book there’s a kind of insistence on the existential sorrow of human life. Even in the beautiful and hopeful last scene you write, “I believed my life was meaningless, that I was worthless in the eyes of the world.” I found this to be courageous, even radical. In writing my book, I was aware of an inner pressure to make the narrative more anodyne and lighter; given the heaviness of the historical material, I worried about making the book too depressing. You don’t do this. Lot Six reminds me of Fassbinder’s films (you write about them in the book!), because they refuse to show beautiful young people behaving admirably. His characters are physically and psychically botched, which makes them so vivid and rich. Your characters function in the same way. Is this something you were aware of while writing?
DA Well, I am obsessed with Fassbinder, so that is the greatest compliment anyone could ever give me. But honestly, I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote the book, and my survival mechanism during the process was to become like an automaton. My goal was to draw myself as objectively and neutrally as possible, like I was drawing a still life. I don’t really find myself that interesting, so I couldn’t fall back on making myself seem admirable and fascinating, because I am neither of those things! But I didn’t judge myself. I didn’t censor unflattering details. I didn’t gild or overdo stuff. I tried to be very precise, because there is truth in precision. You can’t be totally objective, but you do have to try to take the ego out of it as much as possible. I can tell when I’m writing from a place of ego, because it’s bad writing. You have to just drop all that. I can be totally amoral when I write—and you have you be that way. It’s amoral, but it’s also an act of grace, an act of generosity towards your subject.
AH It’s a really unsentimental approach. In Lot Six you describe this al fresco hookup with a young guy on a cruise that you take with your family, and afterwards you write, “The boy was so unscarred and young. I’d never been young in that way. His innocence was boring but it gave him any appeal he had.” That is so precise and unsparing; I think I would have been tempted to make him more idealized and the scene more romantic or at least sexier.
DA It’s weird because I am actually kind of disgustingly sentimental and nostalgic—it’s one of the things I like least about myself. So you’d think I might have turned these sex scenes into little Jackie Collins novellas. But maybe because I know this about myself, I got hypervigilant about being forensic in the writing.
AH In reading your book, I was repeatedly struck by the yearning for Americanness. Though you were born in the US, I think we both felt this. Are you ever aware of when that process of Americanization stopped for you—if ever?
DA America has always been a lie, but when I was a kid I wanted that lie more than anything. At my weakest moments, I probably still want it. I find it very depressing that our mythologies are so tainted. But when I was younger, I wasn’t consciously thinking that I wanted to be more American. I just wanted to be part of a dominant culture. Maybe I stopped trying to be American when I realized that wasn’t possible. Or maybe it’s the opposite, and that’s when I became an American. I don’t know. Do you feel like you’ve effectively become American—or is being American like masculinity, sort of meaningless as a concept?
AH Definitely the latter. When I was a kid, being American was really about appearances. At first it was about speaking English without an accent, but then it became about more subtle cues: names, how one dressed, an absence of a certain kind of Jewishness, and of course the air of social ease, which I believed to signal belonging. In retrospect it was a lot like masculinity, in that it was about constructing fantasies about things that I didn’t have and thought I wanted.
DA In America we are obsessed with this idea of individual sovereignty, and in Russia you were asked to sublimate your idea of selfhood into jingoism and symbolic gestures, and stories of children who died for their mother country. You write at one point that, “our sense of pride was to come not from material abundance, or even personal accomplishment, but from a series of national abstractions … that had nothing to do with the often miserable reality of daily life. The worship of these abstractions is what in Russia was called spirituality.”
AH The Soviet Union was a country organized not around ethnic identity, but around a utopian idea of working for the collective good. So dying for your country was the ultimate expression of this ethos, and that’s a lot of what we read about in school. Since religion was banned, “the nation” became the higher power, the thing bigger and more important than oneself. At least it was supposed to. And so in Soviet society one’s public life became an empty performance, and one’s private life was something done with family and close friends at night, in private kitchens.
DA So basically the entire nation was closeted.
AH Yes, spiritually. The closet is the central construct of Soviet life.
DA At one point in your book, you wrote “like most Soviet boys I preferred war films to musicals.” When I read that I felt like someone had stabbed me in the face. Like, what self-respecting gay boy likes war films? But did you really like the war films? You watched “two uninterrupted hours of armed-forces montage called I Serve the Soviet Union” on weekends? How sutured were you into nationalism as a form of personal identity?
AH Most Soviet movie musicals tended to be Marxist parables about class—my favorite was called Tractor Drivers, and followed these really bland heteronormative couples on a collective farm who try to weed out the only interesting person there, who’s hated because, you know, he reads books and has thoughts about the world that he didn’t read about in the daily paper.
DA Oof. It’s not A Chorus Line.
AH Right. But an average Soviet war movie has about as much queer content as Querelle. In a culture where homoeroticism officially didn’t exist—it wasn’t ridiculed or condemned, it literally didn’t exist—there were opportunities to tell gay love stories under the cover of celebrating war heroes and heroines. I’m not saying that these movies and shows were written by Todd Haynes or anything, but seen with 2020 eyes they are intensely, bracingly gay.
DA For me, the gay content was in soap operas and Battle of the Network Stars, where I got to see cute guys from Eight is Enough in speedos.
AH I think my sexual imagination is forever mixed up with assault rifles and lots of olive drab.
DA I’m struck by your experiences with gay sex in high school, which, reading the book felt pretty courageous to me considering the times. How did you find the courage to not torment yourself with internalized homophobia? When you leave the propaganda of one country and realize, Oh, that was just this ideology, and now I can switch this other ideology. Do you think that gave you this sense of plasticity when it comes to rules and laws?
AH I think that’s right. Also, I was brought up without religion. It was the late ’80s, and I was aware that there was physical danger in being gay, and being outed in school, but it never occurred to me to hate myself for it. I disliked myself for other reasons, but sexual attraction was something I never questioned.
AH As a young person I tried so hard to hector and prod myself into becoming more suitable to my environment that being queer came to seem as one of the few parts of me that felt authentic, that I didn’t want to change.
DA For me, self-invention and self-erasure were linked together, and being gay was a big piece of it—but it was just a piece.
AH I have this file on my laptop where I write down unfamiliar words … and I think while reading your book it doubled in size. There were words and phrases I didn’t know on almost every page. Usually the problem with using unusual or high-register words is that they make the reader suspicious that the author is showing off or being pretentious—but you get around this problem by doing a thing that David Foster Wallace did, which is to surround the fancy words with words like “Funyuns.” Like when you write about two aunts who “gabbed in rallentando overlaps.” After learning English as a teenager I started to collect long words, which seemed incredibly powerful to me, and using them before I knew what they meant. I’m wondering whether something similar happened to you?
DA I think to some extent we both approach English as a foreign language. I mean, I was born here, but I was a bad student and a fuckup. And I never did my assignments in high school. It wasn’t until college that I started to believe I could be a writer. I began making these lists of words and memorizing them so I could pass as this eloquent, interesting person. But the literature I was reading was very highbrow, and English didn’t feel native to me. I didn’t know how to pronounce anything, and I misused words, but I was so dazzled by the language. I still feel that way. I love tiny words, and I love chunky Latinate words, and sometimes I overuse them. I love the archness of big fancy words and how they can coexist with Funyuns and slang and phatic nonsense. And maybe that playfulness comes from this feeling like the English language isn’t really mine—like I’m a foreigner but somehow I stole all the words.
Lot Six and Young Heroes of the Soviet Union are both available for purchase here.
David Adjmi is the recipient of a Guggenheim, the Steinberg Playwright Award, and the Whiting Award, among others. His new play The Stumble is a commission from Lincoln Center Theatre and will be excerpted in the upcoming issue of the Paris Review. Stereophonic (with music by Will Butler/Arcade Fire) is scheduled to premiere on Broadway in 2021. Lot Six is his debut memoir.
Alex Halberstadt is the author of the family memoir Young Heroes of the Soviet Union as well as Lonely Avenue: the Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus. He’s a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, Saveur, Travel + Leisure, GQ, Food & Wine, MoMA Magazine, and the Paris Review. Nominated twice for the James Beard Award for Excellence in Journalism, his essays have been anthologized in Best Food Writing 2014 and The Best American Food Writing 2018.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee