Among my many accomplishments this past weekend, most of which were culinary, was the completion of Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure. I heard about this book while listening to Terry Gross interview Shteynart on Fresh Air and realized that I just had to read it. This is new for me of course, because if you ask my mother, I hated reading as a child and the fact that my sister is one of the best read persons I know, may or may not have had something to do with that. Among my earliest memories are my mother’s blintzes and her nagging words that I will never succeed at anything in life as I am so poorly read. In fact, I picked up reading on my own at around age 9 after falling in love with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
In any event, I am currently on a reading bend and am swallowing books at an alarming rate. The reason I wanted to read Little Failure is because I haven’t been exposed to too many immigrant stories and wanted to see how my own experience and that of my family compared to Shteyngart’s. The book itself is an incredibly well-written, funny memoir that is not filtered through rosy colored glasses but not subject to guilting the reader either. In other words, the author uses humor to make the reader more comfortable during more difficult passages of the story. There were many parts of the book that made me feel as if I were reading my own memoir and overall, the experience felt cathartic because it showed that you can talk about an incredibly difficult time of your life without feeling shame and that many others have had difficult lives and difficult experience that have molded and shaped them into the individuals they are today.
Most importantly, in a strange and unexpected way, reading this novel helped me understand my own parents even better. By American standards, my parents are incredibly strict, very demanding, and highly opinionated. I see that they are not the only ones like that and that these qualities are perhaps brought out by the process of immigration, of starting over and building a new life once again, long after you have done it before elsewhere.
I recently revealed to my parents that I wish they spent more time with me or put me into more activities during the first few years of being here. There was quite a lot of alone time for me with few instances of hand-holding. More than I care to admit and more than I would ever excuse for my own children or my nephew. My mother became upset and told me how difficult it was for them during those first few years. I understood, of course, but I also told her how impossibly difficult it was for me those first few years. Shteyngart sums it up very well in his book when he excuses the lack of photographs of his family from the early 80ies due to the fact that they “were too busy suffering”. This, and many other sentiments of the sort have kept me from recounting my and my family’s own first few years in America. Like the stories of so many other immigrant families, Gary Shteyngart’s journey is successful and he becomes a well-received author and a well-respected professor of writing at Columbia University.
Once again, stories like the one told in Little Failure and even like this one are great reasons to ponder why immigrant children, or children of immigrants are statistically so much more successful? Something tells me that it has everything to do with fulfilling your parents’ dream of making something of yourself because you were brought here to have the opportunity. More mysterious is the fact that this obligation dissipates quickly and is all but forgotten by the next generation. Even more surprising is the lack of empathy regarding the immigrant experience. I may never truly understand my parents, their sentiments and the decisions the faced, but I empathize with their plight.