Thursday, February 28, 2013

5 Questions with Emil Draitser

Emil's short stories Directions and It's Not a Simple Thing will be read on March 9, 2013 at 7:30pm as part of the NJ Literary Artists Fellowship Showcase.

The showcase will take place at:
Mile Square Theatre Company
Monroe Center
720 Monroe Street, 2nd Floor
Hoboken, NJ
Click here for directions

For information call 973/514-1787 X11

Recommended for high school age and above
Suggested donation $10 adults, $5 students

Both Emil Draitser's short-shorts, Directions and It's Not a Simple Thing, are about hard things to do: for a poet, to explain his long-time-unseen friend how to find him, and, for a young man, to tell his girl what she would never wanted to hear.

Emil will be reading both of his stories.

A three-time recipient of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowships in Prose Writing, Emil Draitser is an author and professor of Russian at Hunter College in New York City. Besides ten books of artistic and scholarly prose, his essays and short stories have been published in the Los Angeles Times, Partisan Review, North American Review, San Francisco Chronicle, Prism International, and many other American and Canadian periodicals. His fiction has also appeared in Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Israeli journals. He has also received numerous grants for writing both fiction and non-fiction from the City University of New York. Draitser has given numerous public lectures and book talks at universities, cultural centers, and museums in the United States, Canada, UK, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and Russia. (For more info, visit:

The NJ Literary Artists Fellowship Showcase performances are works by writers who received prestigious NJ State Council on the Arts Fellowships in poetry, prose and playwriting. The March 9th set features prose writers with ties to Hudson County. A partnership between Playwrights Theatre, New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Mile Square Theatre Company.

These readings are part of The New Jersey Theatre Alliance’s Stages Festival which is a statewide theatre “open-house” with free and discounted tickets to performances, workshops and events offered by New Jersey’s 31 Professional Member Theatres throughout the month of March.

1)      What inspired you to write “Directions” and “It’s Not  a Simple Thing?”

 The idea for "Directions" came to me almost instantaneously, while I was talking on the phone to my friend, a Russian poet, who moved to Boston, as he began giving me directions how to find him when I come over to see him. I don't recall what exactly he said that made me think that his directions can be shaped as a story, if it takes a whimsical and metaphorical root, that is, directions to how one can get to a poet's heart and mind.   

As to "Simple Thing," I wrote it a while ago thinking when I was that young man in the story to whom the old man talks while sitting near his wife's grave. The character of that old man was inspired by an old man in Odessa (my hometown) stories of Isaak Babel. I just imagined what that character would say about what the word "love" truly means for him.  (I was pleased when one of my readers responded upon reading the story that it helped her understand what the word "love" truly means.    

 2)      Why are you drawn to writing short stories?

For a long time, I have been writing short stories only, perhaps, under influence of Russian literary tradition, of which Chekhov is the primary example. (I even have a short story titled "Chekhov in Brighton Beach," which I plan to use for my next short story collection under the same title.) This short story was even reviewed in the Review Review (

It took me a while to learn how to write longer narratives-- a memoir of my adolescence (, a biography of a Russian spy ( I had met many years ago, back in my Soviet past, and, finally, a novel of emigration (published in Russian and on its way to English edition). I think I much more enjoy short- story writing because for me it is more manageable, I can carry a story as a whole in me for a long while, playing it out in my mind one way or another as a piece of music (Rakhmaninov is one that comes to my mind when I think of setting a certain mood of the narrative). .  .   

3)       You have a BS in Electrical Engineering, a diploma in Editing, an MA in Journalism and a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures. Do you find that your writing is influenced by your diverse educational background or is it separate part of your life?

Back in my high-school years in Odessa, Ukraine, as she returned my homework compositions, my Russian lit teacher told me “You now, Draitser, you certainly have literary abilities.”  She uttered this phrase with total seriousness, void of sentimentality, not unlike the way an American doctor informs his patient about cancer discovered and that, without immediate treatment, the patient’s days are numbered. 

Now, recalling that little episode of my youth, I have no idea on what basis the teacher made such a fateful conclusion about my literary abilities. To write truthfully even about such a seemingly innocent thing as summer vacations wasn’t easy at all. Here too, the replies had to be politically correct. During summertime, we ought to better ourselves. That is, increase our extra-curriculum reading and help the adults.  Of course, we could get some suntan and swim, but it wasn't accepted to express any joy derived from it. To experience a purely physical pleasure was considered to be the contemptible lot of the bourgeois, languishing in idleness, not of the young pioneers of the Soviet Union. 

Therefore, I still burn from curiosity (which, alas, because so many years had passed, is destined to remain unsatisfied) what did I write about in that composition, that so impressed my teacher. After all, I had not much of a choice. I couldn't write truthfully about my parents’ occupations either. Together with his younger brother, my uncle Misha, my Dad whitened ceilings and painted walls in the apartments of private citizens, without notifying the authorities, which was considered being engaged in the condemned “private enterprise”…. And my mother was a housewife in the country in which the ideal woman was expected to work shoulder to shoulder with men using, if not a sledgehammer, at least a sickle. (This precept of the Soviet society reminded about itself each and every time when, accompanied by fanfares, the sculpture was lit along its full height whenever screenings of any Mosfilm studio picture began.)       

So, what was there in my school composition that I could really be proud of? Most likely, my writing belonged to that kind of scribbling the critics of Soviet literature call “varnishing of reality.” But that didn't make my teacher’s praise less valuable to me. As known, to compose cock-and-bull stories that people believe is much harder than to copy from real life. You cannot pull a tall-tale off without making use of your imagination. That’s why I took the teacher’s praise seriously. 

Praise is capable of going even to an adult’s head, let alone to that of a youngster. At home, modestly, but with a secret swell of pride, I inform my mother about my teacher’s compliments. 

   “Vej iz mir,” Mama said in Yiddish, looking at me with the kind disturbed look that a mother gives her child that’s been bitten by a snake. What if it’s poisonous? Then, she has to act immediately. “Woe is mine! Did she say ‘literary abilities’? Are you sure that she said it?”   
Her face expressed some weak hope that I misheard things.  

I shrugged: "That’s what she said.” 

“Well, here’s my advice,” Mama said. “Don’t let it get to you. Don’t take it to your head. No good will come out of it anyway,” she uttered prophetic words.  

Seeing that her caution had no effect on me, she continued: 

“Well, let’s assume she’s right. What are you going to do about those abilities?” It seemed to me that she avoided repeating the accursed word "literature" in any grammatical form, be it a noun or an adjective. 

“Well, when I'll graduate from high-school, I’ll apply to the Literary Institute,” I said without thinking. “Or to the Moscow State University, Department of Journalism.” 

Looking back, I must assume that, because of my tender age, that part of the brain responsible for correlating decision-making with its possible consequences (which doctors call the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex), had not yet fully developed. (In America, insurance companies have long been aware of this; that’s why drivers under the age of 25 pay much higher premiums.)

The complete naivete and virtual lunacy of my intent to step onto a literary path, as well as the providence of my mother’s warnings, I only understood much later. At the time of my high-school graduation, mid-1950s, there was only one writing school in the Soviet Union and only one school of journalism. Both were in Moscow and both were elite institutions. To be accepted there, talent alone, never mind just promise of it, as was the case with me, was by far not enough. With a rare exception, you still had to have powerful parents, a daddy general or mama ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater.  

But I lived in the world in which they remind me at every step that I should appreciate the luck of being born in the most just society in the world. About twenty times a day, more often than the national anthem, I heard a bravura song from the super-popular film Circus: In our country, the young are welcome everywhere they choose to go.”  On every street corner, these words reached me from loudspeakers on the lampposts, and at home from a cable radio with only one, government-run station. (As we known now, Adolph Hitler was much impressed with this Soviet innovation; even he hadn't thought of such an effective way to powder the brains of his citizens.).   

In Circus, the song is sung by an American performer, played by Soviet superstar, Lyubov Orlova.  The American has fled from her country, where they tried to lynch her for giving birth to a black baby, and she's found her happiness in the USSR. In the film’s finale, marching columns of young men and women reassure her, waving their hands at her: “Yes, yes, don’t you ever worry, you transatlantic beauty! Have no doubts about it! The country you’re in now is not your horrible America, bogged down in racism! Over here, our young ones are welcomed anywhere they choose to go.”     

Without actually realizing it, an avid liberal arts lover formed in me. But neither the circumstances, nor the time matched my youthful fantasies about my place in life. For me at that time, as well as for the vast majority of Soviet people, the question was not how to live life to its full measure, but simply how to survive. This, as they say in our Odessa, is “two big differences.” 
            Hearing my mumbling about the Literary Institute and Department of Journalism, Mama waved her hand. “Don’t you worry,” she said. “They won’t accept you in either of them.” 

“Why won’t they? If I’ll have good high-school grades.…” 

            “They won’t accept you anyway," Mama said, nodding in conviction. “Don’t forget that you’re a Jew.”     

“So what of it?” I frowned. I was fed up by that time with constant talks at our home about the fact that being Jewish is a curse, and that I should stop believing everything I read in the papers. 

Mama knew what I didn't want to know: that, at that time, mid-1950s, a young Jew in the Soviet Union had much better chances to get an engineering degree than one in any field of humanities. Humanities were considered  politically sensitive and, therefore, not to be trusted to include any “persons of Jewish ethnicity,” as Jews were named in the Soviet official language.

Seeing that it was useless to argue with me, Mama said: “Well, all right, if you’re so stubborn, let’s have a deal. First, you’ll get an engineering degree. Doesn't matter which one. At least you’ll have some bread on the table. Then, do whatever you want.”

Well, she turned out to be right. As far as my engineering training is concerned, I never thought of it as being helpful in literary terms, but it helped me to survive both back in the Soviet Union, while doing freelance writing, and, for the first few years in America. After all, my first job in the country, before I entered my grad school at the UCLA, was a draftsman in a small electronic company in Los Angeles.

4)      Is the process the same for you whether you are writing in English or Russian? If not, how is it different?

I wrote all my scholarly work and my spy biography in English for it was mostly non-fictional, purely intellectual, exercise for which my English vocabulary is sufficient. But when it comes to artistic writing, since Russian is my native language and I came to America already in my adulthood, after using Russian in my writing career back there, oftentimes a Russian word comes first to me and I have to search the thesaurus for the right shade of meaning of that word in English

5)      You immigrated to Los Angeles from the Soviet Union and then took a job in New York City. What has been the one constant in your life through these various places?

It's a very good question. I thought of it for a while realizing that, despite huge differences,  there is, after all, one constant in my life in all three places. It is a feeling of not being fully at home in any of these places. But for totally different reasons. Back in Russia, it was because being Jewish there in my time meant to be marked for discrimination in certain fields of human endeavour and a subject of ethnic prejudice. (Yes, I was allowed to publish my work in the papers, but only under the condition that I use a Russian-sounding pen name, not my real name, which, for Russian ears, sounds unmistakably Jewish. (I describe this episode of my life in :  And, despite long list of publications, I could write as a freelancer only; being a non-Party member and a Jew made me unemployable in Soviet press.) 

In America, since I came here after living half of my life in a culture, quite different in many respects, I still have hard time to stomach certain aspects of American culture. For example, perhaps, one day I'll finally get also excited, as many Americans do, about torpedoing human bodies in American football and understand why the country's president has to plead with the major television networks to give his speech to the nation priority over televising a Superbowl... . I have still lots of room to grow.    

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