“Russians Are Just a Bunch of Niggaz” – Introducing Multiculturalism to Shteyngart’s Absurdistan

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Every Gary Shteyngart novel addresses multiculturalism.   And they do so by way of articulating the complex relationships of the main characters – who are all Jewish-Russian-Americans – to Eastern Europeans, Latino-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and Non-Jewish-Americans.  To be sure, Shteyngart portrays his main characters as former exchange-students who majored in “multiculturalism” in a mid-western college by the name of “Accidental College.”   In the first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Notebook, we are introduced to Vladmir, a twenty-five year old character whose post-college work is to help settle new Immigrants into the American experience.  He works at the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society.

But what is most interesting about the novel is not to be found in the relationships Vladmir finds as the Absorption Society, so much as the relationships he forges when, in the face of a deal gone wrong, he flees America for Eastern Europe.  There he meets up with fellow Russians and Eastern Europeans and plots to rip off young-rebellious-American-students.  These relationships teach us how he navigates between one cultural identity and the other.  And this, more than anything, makes for one of the greatest novelties of Shteyngart’s fiction.    It shows us at least one possible way in which a Jewish-Russian-American-Immigrant can live in a growing multicultural, globalized, and Americanized society. This kind of fiction provides readers with an opportunity to, as the philosopher Richard Rorty might say, become more cosmopolitan and less xenophobic.  But Shteyngart’s fiction also shows us “how” prescient and rich this post-nationalist experience is or can be.  And it does this by way of a multi-cultured-schlemiel.

In contrast to The Russian Debutante’s Notebook, which focuses mainly on relationships between the main character, white-Americans, and Eastern Europeans, Absurdistan introduces a new relationship: namely, the relationship of the main character with an African-Latino-American- character named Rouenna.  The novel also introduces, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, an incorporation of rap and African-American culture into the schlemiel’s persona.     In the last entry I outlined how Misha, the main-character, and Alyosha-Bob, his sidekick, composed a rap at party at St. Petersburg and how, in response to the rap, they were chastised by Russians who saw this rapping as uncomely.  Misha and Alyosha-Bob are called out on being the “odd one’s out” (schlemiels in a negative sense); but instead of dealing with the situation, Misha calls his psychiatrist in New York, and, when he doesn’t reach him, he does what is most natural to him: he eats.  And this inability to “man-up,” informs, in at least one aspect, his comical Jewish-Russian-American identity.

But the cultural identification informs his identity as a multi-cultural-schlemiel.  To be sure, Misha’s character has all the makings of a “black-Jew.”   (In using this term, I’m playing on the motif that we find in the film The Hebrew Hammer (2003) – a movie that was out there for three years before Shteyngart’s novel was published. The film is based on a Jewish parody of the Blaxploitation genre; I hope to talk on this at greater length in the near future.)

He is large, loves rap, and he has an African-Latino-American girlfriend who lives in NYC, and his nickname is “snack daddy.”   (The name and character remind me of Rappers like the Notorious B.I.G.)

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And in my blog-entry on the prologue, I pointed out how he yearns to be back in NYC with her rather than Absurdistan (somewhere in Eastern Europe) with the “Mountain Jews.”

We meet Misha’s African-Latino-American girlfriend Rouenna in the first chapter.  And we meet her by way of a conversation; namely, between Lyuba – Misha’s young step-mother (who he sleeps with, after his father dies) – and Rouenna.

The differences between their way of speaking and thinking show us a cultural gap and how Shteyngart navigates it by way of a multicultural narrational style.  To begin with, Shteyngart casts Lyuba and her first attempts to speaks to Rouenna about an “orange towel” that she “thinks” is ugly:

She was having trouble with her tenses: “I think, I thought…I think, I thought…” I sink, I sought…I sink, I sought…(11)

In response, Rounna says:   “Damn, sugar…you’re hard-core.” But Lyuba doesn’t know this word and asks: “What it is ‘harcourt’?”  To this, Rouenna, instead of correcting her grammar, tells Lyuba that she is “hard-core” in her treatment of her housekeepers:

“Talking shit about servants.  Like they got dirty hands and all.” 

Lyuba retorts by saying that, before she met Misha’s father she too was “unfortunate.”  Misha gives more details to Rouenna about this and Rouenna, in response, says: “Is that right, sister?”  Lyuba then opens her arms and hugs Rouenna while Misha says that its “just an African-American expression.”  But then Rouenna adds yet another:

“Cause, as far as I can tell, Russians are just a bunch of niggaz”(11)

Lyuba – and Alyosha-Bob’s Russian girlfriend, Svetlana, who is also present – ask Rouenna and Misha what this means, and Rouenna says it is a “compliment.”  But neither of them get what this means and they get offended.  Rouenna tries to relax them by explaining:

All I’m saying is, you know…your men don’t got no jobs, everyone’s always doing drive-bys whenever they got beefs, the childrens got asthma, and y’all live in public housing.  (12)

This only leads to more confusion which is compounded when Rouenna calls them OG’s (Original Gangsters).  And this leads Svetlana to chastise Alyosha-Bob:

“It’s all your fault, she seethed in Russian, “With all your stupid rapping.  With that idiot ghetto tech.  No wonder people treat us like we’re animals”(12).

She then tells Alyosha-Bob that if he wants to be Russian – he is an American Jew – he will have to “think of what kind of image you want to project.”  And that this kind of “talk” doesn’t work to support the image that Russians need to project of themselves.

Since Svetlana and Alyosha-Bob are saying all this in Russian, Rouenna gets upset and tells them to “speak English already.”  But right about when this is about to spring into a fight, the scene is interrupted by an announcement that the police are coming.

I find this interruption telling because it situates a theme that Misha (aka “snack daddy”) will be dealing with throughout the novel; namely, his relationship (and not just Alyosha-Bob’s) with Rouenna’s African-Latino-American culture.  To be sure, her way of life and way of speaking are something he really respects and even emulates as a Russian-American-Jew.

This is all brought to the fore by what happens late in the novel when we see a Rouenna who goes to college, meets up with another character named “Shteynfarb” (who teaches at Hunter College and who, we learn, is a fellow Russian-American, was friends with Misha in “Accidental College,” and shared a “multiculturalism” major) and loses her slang. As this happens, things change dramatically and with it Misha’s Multicultural-Schlemiel-identity.

But for now she speaks in slang saying that “Russians are just a bunch of niggaz.”   And this kind of talk – though shunned by Svetlana – nurtures Misha’s image of the ideal-American identity, which informs his own Jewish-American identity (at least at the outset).  I hope to come back to this in a future blog entry since Shteyngart’s translation of her language, culture, and relationship to Misha’s Russian-Jewish-American identity into fiction shows us how Shteyngart, in this novel, negotiates Jewish-multicultural-identity vis-à-vis the schlemiel.

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