Conversations Between Friends: Nancy Au and Olga Zilberbourg
At the beginning of October, 2019, Nancy Au and Olga Zilberbourg celebrated the publication of their books Spider Love Song and Other Stories and Like Water and Other Stories. The E.M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore of Oakland, CA, generously hosted their conversation. Nancy grew up in San Francisco and writes about three generations of Chinese-American families. Olga grew up in the Soviet Union and Russia and immigrated to the United States, where she landed in San Francisco. Each of their story collections center on immigrant relationships and complex family dynamics. Following up on their in-person conversation, the authors unpacked their lived experiences and approaches to craft in the email exchange documented here.
Nancy Au: There is a moment where my artist heart sang out as I was reading Like Water. In your title story, there is a line: “They assumed everyone wanted out of Russia. How does one explain one’s home? The only way I know is to tell stories.”
I loved this moment so much because it spoke to something that I experienced speaking with my grandparents and parents about their lives in China before coming to the US. My grandmother often said that it was impossible to translate what she wanted to say most of the time, and this is why her answers to even the simplest of questions came in the form of a story. For example, if I asked her if she liked to eat watermelon, she would never just say, “Yes.” Rather, she would tell me an entire story about the watermelon seed spitting contest she’d had with her sisters when they were children in Shanghai, and I would learn about the lion statues they sat upon outside of the large “compound,” which was their home before the Communist takeover.
Olga Zilberbourg: “Compound” in quotes? There must be a word for it that your grandmother used, right? I’m curious to know how she talked about it and what you imagined.
NA: Thank you so much for your question! I think my grandmother used different words to describe her childhood home in Shanghai; most of the time she simply used the word “home.” I don’t know if she knew the English word, “estate,” which I might use to describe a large and opulent dwelling. Her descriptions of her family home seemed to get more vibrant as she aged, and conjured images of a large central stone courtyard surrounded by multiple dwellings inhabited by her family’s caretakers. She spoke of cooks, gardeners, women who cleaned, women who sewed, nursemaids, a man hired to carry her little school bag while she walked to school, a man hired just to open and close the entrance gate for visitors. There was an immense white-tiled room in the kitchen that was used to store just vegetables and fruit. I’ve always imagined that there were other large rooms dedicated to storing just rice, or just meats, or just noodles. My grandmother often described two large stone lion statues at the entrance to the family home that she would sit atop as a girl while eating watermelon and spitting seeds as far as she could. She would also describe climbing to the rooftop of the tallest building of her family estate, and watching the bombs drop in the distance.
My grandmother’s family estate in China was so large, her life seemingly so opulent, that I have had to use my imagination to try to understand what her life was like before fleeing the Communists during the Cultural Revolution with nothing but what she could sew into the linings of her jacket.
In your book, there is a wonderful story titled “Rubicon.” I was immediately drawn in by the protagonist, in the vivid ways she imagined earthquakes, the buildings and concrete crumbling around her. I was so fascinated by how she reflects back onto her teenage self and her life in Russia, and when she realizes how much she both had and had not changed. This beautiful story seems to ask the question of whether it is truly possible to return to or to even know our pasts, or to change back to the person we once were—and, even more strikingly, it questions whether people from our past were ever who we imagined them to be. I would love to learn more about your experiences growing up in St. Petersburg. Are there memories and experiences from your childhood that have shaped you as an artist? As a bilingual artist who writes in both Russian and English, do you feel that this has shaped the way you write and tell stories?
OZ: Thank you for this explanation—what a fascinating story. One of the most influential books I read in graduate school (I studied Comparative Literature at San Francisco State) was a Chinese classic, The Dream of the Red Chamber, set on an estate similar, I think, to what you describe. The book is a love story, but also, it’s a meticulous portrayal of life in a grand house where there’s lots of space, but seemingly every nook has a purpose determined by tradition. I never thought I would ever meet a person with a personal connection to that culture that was so brutally and intentionally destroyed. What I find absolutely fascinating about your retelling of your grandmother’s stories, is imagining the life of a little girl in this compound at the time when culture was changing so rapidly.
One image from my childhood that comes to mind in relation to the story about your grandmother is that of a long hallway of the St. Petersburg University Building. It had been built in the eighteenth century as a walkway connecting a series of government buildings that several decades later were repurposed for the university. The walkway, four soccer fields long, was enclosed and lined with bookshelves on one side and windows on the other. Between the bookshelves and in the alcoves between windows were portraits and busts of learned men—all of them are men to this day, I believe. My aunt worked in the library at the far end of this hallway, and my brother and I visited her there from quite an early age. She let us help her with the stamping machines to prepare the visitor passes and create books for each subscriber. And as we grew up, she entrusted us with a number of menial jobs that I found incredibly glamorous. I loved being an insider in that library. Some of the volumes on the shelves and in storage dated back centuries, and though I was never allowed to touch them, I dreamed that one day I would, somehow, inherit my aunt’s access to them, or in another way, inscribe myself onto those bookshelves.
OZ: What are some of the geographies that you feel comfortable in writing? What geographies do you want to come back to, that feed your creativity? What geographies would you like to write but feel hesitant about tackling?
NA: I absolutely love the way you describe the hallway in St. Petersburg University Building, the immense history and art and literature that line the walls, and your aunt’s important work in the library. I love how you describe being “an insider in that library.” I think of how, in every beautiful way, you’ve “inscribe[d your]self onto those bookshelves” through your writing and translation and teaching, through the incredible books that you’ve written. You continue to honor this dream by bridging time and space and languages.
With regards to geographies, I love thinking about California stories, and in particular, the ways that Chinese communities grew and flourished and sometimes disappeared from various regions, such as in the San Joaquin Delta, the Central Valley, and in old mining towns in the Sierra foothills. I’ve, for a very long time, wanted to write a collection of stories that link the agricultural region of the Central Valley and the Delta to Clement Street in San Francisco. I want to be like a lettuce leaf fluttering on the bumper of a truck as it speeds across the state, and make that journey between these two seemingly disparate regions. I want to learn the stories of the vegetable mongers, the asparagus dealers, the lettuce growers. But I am not brave enough yet. I do not speak Cantonese or Toisan, and I no longer have my grandparents or parents here to help me bridge the cultural or linguistic divide. I wonder if I will forever be searching for a sense of belonging; I have often felt not Chinese enough, but also not American enough. I like to eat mashed potatoes and pesto pasta with chopsticks. My closest generational connections (parent/grandparent) are gone. What cultural path should I forge now?
Relatedly, I would love to know if there are stories that you have always wanted to tell, but have not yet? And, for what reason? What have your experiences been with elder (our parent/grandparent) generations of Russian men and women living in San Francisco? Do you feel a sense of yearning or searching?
OZ: Great question. Most of my unwritten stories are still set in Russia. I feel a deep need to write about the experience of growing up in the Soviet Union while it was falling apart. I’ve touched on that in this book, but I feel that I haven’t yet written the story. I keep trying though, I keep going back to that era and approaching my theme from different perspectives. While I’m thinking about that, I’m also looking for stories here at home, in San Francisco.
As a relative newcomer to San Francisco—my husband and I moved here in 2003—I’m particularly fascinated by stories of the people who grew up here. The Richmond was your neighborhood, right? In the book, you included a story, “The Richmond,” where you have some wonderful descriptions of the area. It’s narrated by Mei, a young woman who’s remembering her childhood there: “I hated the Richmond’s brackish air, its June fog when everywhere else felt like real summer.” Her discomfort with the outdoors is in contrast with what comes later, “our area was filled with all the top-notch vegetable markets, gossipy fishmongers, and bustling Chinese restaurants serving cow’s throat tendon, pork dumplings, cloud-ear fungus, hotpots overflowing with steamy, bubbling chicken broth.”
I remember, when we first moved to San Francisco, people described the Richmond to me as “The Russian” neighborhood. But the first time we made it out there was when my husband’s cousin took us to Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, where another cousin looked for but didn’t find a taco salad. Later, I did discover the stores to buy my buckwheat groats and poppyseed pastry. My favorite store is on one end of the block that also has an Irish bakery and a Chinese grocery store. Looking from the outside, it seems very multiethnic and multicultural, and I do wonder what it was like to grow up there.
NA: Oh my gosh…I think I know which grocery store you are speaking of! My grandmother and I would visit the Irish bakery to buy sweet breads and other treats. And my grandparents’ home was just a few blocks from Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant and very close to Tia Margarita. I’m feeling so nostalgic now! The Richmond was very much as you described; many different cultures and ethnicities intermixed. In my memory, there were so many Chinese people in my schools and the markets and restaurants that I went to with my family. I also have many memories of myself between the ages of six and twelve, going to vegetable markets or the fishmongers with my mom or grandparents on Clement Street, getting jostled around by all of the grown-ups in the crowded, narrow aisles. I have vivid memories of the sticky floors, the wet puddles beneath the produce bins, the earthy smells of cabbage and fish, the sounds of Russian and Cantonese and Toisan filling my ears. Like the protagonist’s parents in my story, my grandparents had made the Richmond their home in the sixty years they lived there, and the stories they shared with me showed me that this was where they felt they belonged more than anywhere else.
The scene I grew up with in the Richmond is very different from the one that met my grandparents and parents when they first arrived in this neighborhood in the mid 1950s, a time when there were signs in windows that said, We do not rent to Chinese, or No Chinese Allowed. I have always been astounded by and so thankful for how much the neighborhood changed since that era, and how fortunate I was to grow up and go to school and have so many friends and neighbors who looked and sounded like my family.
On Sense of Humor
NA: In your book, there is a fabulous story titled “How to Deliver a Genius,” a piece which I absolutely loved for its biting humor and social commentary on parenthood. Your skillful and deeply enviable ability to write humor is something I studied while reading your collection. I took so many craft notes while reading Like Water and Other Stories, trying to learn and understand how you do what you do so well. In the story “B-,” you write, “The test of motherhood consisted of five oral and five written parts.” I loved this sentence because it spoke a truth with such clarity and bluntness. Even though the story deals with a serious subject—the pressure that society places on mothers—your narrator was able to do so while poking fun at the ridiculousness of society’s unrealistic expectations. Is the directness and candor of your narrators related to or embedded within the Russian language and culture, and in particular to the way facts are framed in conversations and stories? Is comedy, which is something that you do so brilliantly well, something that you’d set out to when you started writing?
OZ: To me, my sense of humor is deeply tied to the experience of growing up in a Jewish family in the Soviet Union. I know, in the US, there are stereotypes about Jewish jokes and Jewish humor, but that’s something else. I imagine the reasons why American Jews do humor are probably deeply related to why Soviet Jews do humor, but the specific cultures feel different to me. Soviet Jewish humor certainly included jokes, anecdotes, told for laughs, but it was also a particular attitude toward the world—a survival strategy. One subgenre that my father loves to practice is making unexpected connections between people. I remember once, my parents and I met up in Israel (my parents live in Russia), and we were in a taxi cab together, and my father started talking to the cab driver. Little by little, he figured out that the cab driver was a friend of a friend of my father’s older and deceased brother. This was so random and exhilarating that my father left his jacket in the cab. But of course, the cabbie by then was nearly a family member, so he brought the jacket back the next day.
Humor is so basic that I can’t even fully explain what I find so hilarious about a story like this. When I try to translate these types of stories directly, they fall flat. So I’ve been working on trying to find creative ways to tell these stories, keeping at least some of their flavor.
What about your relationship to humor? I thought some of your stories included moments of delightful romp: for instance, “Louise,” in which one character wants to take home a duck she befriends at a public park!
NA: I have the same sense of humor my grandmother had; much of our time was spent together giggling. We loved to tell stories to one another that blended gossip with satire. My father, who passed away when I was nineteen, also had a terrific sense of humor and seemed to make friends wherever he went. My grandparents became my anchor when my mother passed away a few years after my father; as one of their caretakers, I feel so grateful to have experienced what it would be like to have aging parents. I helped them when they fell down, when they needed groceries, when they wanted companionship, when they craved certain foods but could not easily walk to the restaurant, when they wanted to tell stories about people and places they could no longer visit, when they wanted to gossip and laugh. During these times with them, I liked to pretend they were my parents. I think that I wanted to make sense of this unsettling feeling I carried, of an uncomfortable familiarity with death at a young age. I wonder if they ever pretended I was one of their children (instead of their grandchild), and if it helped them to soften their grief over losing their eldest child.
I think the one space and time in my life that felt the most abundant as an artist was when my grandparents were both still alive. Their stories fed my imagination, and their ways of speaking inspired me to become braver with language and syntax. If I could build a time machine (or a DeLorean), I’d love to travel back to when my grandparents were still here. I would rewind time at eighty-eight mph, and I would record every single story my grandparents shared. I think that learning about their lives helped me to understand my dad. And although these grandparents were on my father’s side, I think their stories helped me to understand more about where my mother came from and how her history and struggles shaped her into the person she became. The stories have helped me to feel more whole, as an artist and daughter and granddaughter.
On Future Projects
NA: I’ve had so much fun working on this with you! To close out our conversation, I want to share with you just a little bit about what I’m working on for my next project, and I’d love to know about everything you are working on!
As we enter our second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, after a year filled with such tremendous human loss, I’ve struggled with just figuring out how to be. Three close loved ones passed away in recent months. There are weeks when I cannot put pen to paper. There are pieces that I want to write, works that speak to the pandemic, the eerie dailiness amidst the grief and uncertainty. I am so deeply troubled by the horrific murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and want to begin working on pieces that explore race and racism in ways I have not yet done before, in particular, the insidious ways that language can perpetuate bigotry. And there is flash that I dream of writing—stories that are playful, funny, and weird. My recent work and writing process feel raw and unfamiliar. I feel like a different writer from the one I was while writing stories for Spider Love Song. The pandemic and physical isolation has changed me. My recent losses have changed me. But what has not changed is my feelings of gratitude for the love and support I’ve received from my husband and family and friends during these challenging times, which has helped me to hold tightly to my dream of living life as an artist.
OZ: So many things have changed since you and I met at E.M. Wolfman’s in October 2019! COVID-19 has changed my plans. I have two small kids, and since the shelter-in-place order was enacted in San Francisco in early March, I’ve been spending most of my time with them. My son—and I—started kindergarten on Zoom, and it looks like we might end the year on Zoom. He’s learning to read and write, and I feel like I’m deepening my relationship with English by hanging out with him.
Besides attending kindergarten, I’ve been trying to stay focused on my novel draft. It took me about four months to return to writing after the pandemic first hit, and by then I knew what I wanted to do. As a young teen, I witnessed the breakup of my country, the Soviet Union, and I’ve been carrying the stories from that time close to my heart. I’m trying to put some of them down on paper, and give them some space.
I try to balance this commitment to writing with staying politically engaged and doing my part as a literary citizen and a human being. I’m glad to hear you’re thinking of writing about bigotry in language. That sounds like a wonderful way to contribute to the anti-racist conversation. Anti-Black racism definitely is the most pressing concern in this country, if not globally. Given my background in two countries, I’ve been looking for ways to help build bridges between progressive writers in the US and in Russia. Two years ago, my colleague Yelena Furman and I started an English-language blog about post-Soviet literature with the intention of amplifying traditionally underrepresented voices. Addressing racism is a significant part of what I hope to achieve with this platform.
NANCY AU’s full-length collection, Spider Love Song and Other Stories, (September 2019, Acre Books), was a finalist for the 2020 CLMP Book Award for Fiction, and one of ten books longlisted for the 2020 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award for Debut Short Fiction Collection, and listed by Entropy Magazine as among the Best Fiction Books of 2019. Her flash fiction won Redivider’s 2018 Blurred Genres Contest, The Vestal Review’s 2018 VERA Flash Fiction Prize, and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2018 anthology. She teaches at California State University Stanislaus.
OLGA ZILBERBOURG’s debut English-language collection Like Water and Other Stories (WTAW Press) explores “bicultural identity hilariously, poignantly,” according to The Moscow Times. This collection received a warm welcome from The Common, LARB, NYU’s Jordan Center, The Manchester Review, Rain Taxi, among others, and was named a finalist at the 2019 Foreword INDIES Book Award. Zilberbourg’s writing has appeared in The Believer, Electric Literature, Lit Hub, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. In addition, Zilberbourg has published three Russian-language collections of stories, the latest of which came out in 2016 in Moscow-based Vremya Press. She serves as a co-facilitator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop and has co-founded Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about Russian literature.