Reviewed by Kerry Neville
Margarita Gokun Silver’s essay collection, I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Other Immigrant Tales): Notes from a Soviet Girl on Becoming an American Woman (Thread Books, July 2021), charts a comic and complex romp across the various “selves” Gokun Silver must navigate as she turns herself from “someone born in the Soviet Union into an American.” At the collection’s outset, Gokun Silver foregrounds her intersectional identities as a Soviet Jewish immigrant, a hopeful American, a married woman and mother, and the artist finally on her purposeful path, and similarly declares that this book is about “immigration” and in short order, “It’s about what it’s like for a young woman to leave one country, land in another, and build a new life.”
Gokun Silver opens the collection with a Preface and an immediate parenthetical aside: “(a.k.a. facts that may or may not be useful as you read this collection).” This aside suggests that this collection is indeed more in keeping with an actual collective than collection as it herds together associative stories into a bound group. This parenthetical opening also implies that Gokun Silver’s stories of moving out of and coming into an identity, that is becoming, cannot and will not be contained between front and back covers, nor follow a neat progression via orderly pages and linear time. A numbered list of these important guiding “facts” then follows including the fact that she will not swear in Russian but only in English because she must observe some standards of “decency” (wink-wink-nod-nod). This is then followed by a Glossary of essential vocabulary that has shaped her trajectory—Babushka, Babushkas, Blat, Dedushka, Fifth Line, and Zhidovka.
The collection inventively borrows its hybrid academic form from the stodgy proscribed scholarly format of a dissertation and transforms it into a self-styled and spirited interrogation of this artist-émigré’s coming-into-being. It is a sly nod to her parents’ once-upon-a-time hopes that she would become a serious doctor-scholar, grabbing hold of the most coveted of American gold rings. The Preface sets the terms and is then followed by the Introduction which attempts to define Amerika and the collection’s forward momentum. Gokun Silver writes that her stories are about “speaking a language no one gets and consequently getting lost and confused and embarrassed and also ashamed. Because you’re an immigrant and a woman and being both isn’t easy,” but also, yes, and in utter seriousness, “it’s a funny book.” Having both a Preface and Introduction reveals how impossible a task it is for Gokun Silver to settle into one definitive opening salvo—this might be a beginning, but so is this, but you might also need this, she seems to say. Readers will require peripheral though essential background information so that they don’t get similarly lost and confused along the way.
The Introduction is followed by 20 essays that range with acuity and wit across subjects such as immigration, assimilation, her Jewish ancestry and faith, marriage, motherhood, body image, sex, and the artist’s coming-into-being. The essays are constructed around bullet pointed and numbered lists, sectioned parts, and extensive footnotes, as if an attempt to contain her stories within an academic, research-based structure despite the author’s own non-linear and discursive narrative impulse. Her experience of an ever shifting and expanding identity is too unwieldy, too complex, and too unruly for linear and logical plot.
In keeping with the often-used bullet-pointed structure in the memoir, here is a Q & A about this collection:
- Why name her dog Pushkin? Silver tells us that she named her daughter’s Maltese after one of St. Petersburg’s most beloved sons because “it seemed like a great idea at the time” because “what better way is here to remember your dog’s Russian origins than to be reminded of the rich poetic history of these origins”?
- What does America taste like? Like that first free can of Coke on the airplane which tastes “sweet, of caramel, and tingly. All descriptors for freedom…That sweet taste told me I’d made it to America.”
- What quality of being has served her well as both immigrant and woman? Stubbornness. She writes, “the guy who later became my father-in-law took to calling me “stubborn,” which is what one calls a child rather than the adult who “orchestrated an entire across-the-ocean-from-behind-the-Iron Curtain-move…. being stubborn works. Older men in my life (read: my dad and later, my father-in-law) may not have liked it but it literally got me where I wanted to be.”
- After all this, what is she most afraid of? Answer: “bogeymen hiding in my closet, snakes, and lost opportunities.”
- What does she believe in? “I believe in taking advantage of all opportunities that come your way and trying everything…Hope always defies logic…In Russian, there is a saying “nadezhda umiraet poslednei” — Russian for “hope is the last to die.”
The collection ends with Gokun Silver’s in vivo understanding of the difficult, messy, and anti-linear task she has undertaken: the no small feat of assembling the multiverse “self” on the page. That is, the sum of all her parts—past, present, future, Russian, American, woman, wife, mother, daughter, artist, and yes, thus far Covid lockdown survivor. She writes in conclusion, “It might have taken me thirty years, a lot of soul wrangling, and even more anguish-induced stomach cramps but I’ve realized I didn’t need to become a completely assimilated American to be different from the girl who left Moscow in 1989. All I needed was some of that American freedom I believed would help me explore who I wanted to be, the determination to let go of those Iron Curtain scraps that didn’t serve me, and the perseverance to both ignore and banish the critics.”
In her Acknowledgements, Gokun Silver reminds us of the miracle of this collection’s publication during Covid lockdown: “To those in charge of aligning the stars—kudos for the job well done. This book came at a time when humor seemed inaccessible and yet its writing kept me sane during the long days of both the umpteenth Covid lockdown and caring for a loved one with a cancer diagnosis. Those of you who might wonder how in the world I did it, I have two words for you—well, actually two statements— (1) if you spent a decade wanting to see these stories out in the world, you take that chance whenever it comes; and (2) nadezhda umiraet poslednei which you’ll remember means “hope is the last to die” in Russian.” Yes, this collection offers us hope and indeed, it is as funny as the author had hoped.