Take Pride in Writing with an Accent

A Russian immigrant published her first book in life in America

A reference librarian at Columbia Public Library in Missouri has her first book “The Education of a Traitor: A Memoir of Growing Up in Cold War Russia” published in March.

Calmly exploring the room with her eyes, the Russia-born Jewish writer Svetlana Grobman speaks softly and confidently in the chair. She said that when she arrived in the United States in 1990 as a Jewish refugee, she didn’t know the language or culture. Today, she shows no sign of shyness that might be found in immigrants.

Beneath her calm exterior, she wears the scars of a difficult past. While in Soviet Union, the young Grobman faced anti-Semitism everyday, enduring racial epithets and having her book bag kicked. The repression on the Jews was systemic and pervasive: setting different admission rates for Russian and Jewish college candidates, labeling Jewish kids in school, and paying Jews less for the same skills. Anti-Semitism was openly promoted in Stalin’s Russia, with the killing of many Yiddish writers, artists and scientists and the denial of emigration rights to Jews. Newspapers and radio employed terms like “individuals devoid of nation or tribe” and “bourgeois aestheticism” against the Jewish population.

Svetlana in school uniform dress, 1958

“I know why you hate me, but it’s not my fault,” the teen Svetlana said when Lena, her Russian classmate, destroyed one of her drawings.

Grobman recalled the last few years in Russia becoming dangerous for her to stay when anti-Semitism turned sour in Europe. When the regime changed, she left without hesitation.

Six months after her arrival in the United States, Grobman got a job as a shelfer in the Columbia Public Library. She had to sort books by their shapes and colors as a child might do: She only knew the alphabet because she spoke Russian and German before coming to the country, and the meaning of English words were hidden from her at the time.

There is a saying in Russia that hardship brings people closer.

“I don’t think so,” Grobman said.

Instead, immigration put extreme stress on her marriage. Within two years of immigrating, she ended her marriage of 22 years with her Russian husband.

“There are moments when I was just plain scared to death,” Grobman said.

All of a sudden, Grobman found herself in a foreign country with a 13-year-old daughter and no support. It was difficult to play the role of mother when Grobman herself didn’t understand what was happening around her.

Before coming to America, she’d never heard about the Cuban Missile Crisis or America’s Civil War. Education in the Soviet Union was Russia-centric. Grobman had only one class devoted to world history, which omitted many significant events. Working in the library, Grobman sometimes encountered people seeking books related to global cultures and history. She had to learn a lot more than just the language.

When the college-age Grobman told her parents that she wanted to be a journalist, they talked her out of it. They told young Grobman that journalists in Russia were fiction writers.

Her parents asked her whether she was sure she wanted to write about agriculture achievements when there’s really a famine going on. Grobman was convinced by her parents and became an engineer, because that was what everybody whom her family knew did for a living.

Moving to the U.S. at the age of 39 gave her a chance to revive the dreams of her childhood.

Althea Harris is a library associate who has worked with Grobman for 18 years. Harris is most amazed by Grobman’s determination and perseverance.

“When I just met her, I don’t believe she had anything published,” Harris said. “Now she has her book, her articles in newspapers, her blog and photography. It is just amazing to see how she developed a whole new life and career.”

Grobman started thinking about writing the memoir because she had been asked many times by her American friends what life was like in Russia. It required a long-winded answer. One day she told her American husband Gilbert Youmans that she had the idea of writing it all down.

“In Russia, people give their opinions, approval or disapproval, right away when you tell them something,” Grobman said.

Grobman was surprised when Youmans didn’t react immediately.

“It is like…you have to make the decision to write the book yourself,” Grobman said.

Her husband liked her idea of writing the book because people in America seldom hear the insider’s view of Cold War Russia. Youmans is a professor emeritus of English at University of Missouri.

Writing the book took five years. Grobman wrote about three hundred words a day and cut nearly half of if during revisions. Youmans was her private editor.

“My husband is more like an art director than an editor,” Grobman said.

She laughed at moments when Youmans told her “spare the poor readers.”

“It is a common mistake for writers to try to wring the heart strings of readers by making them feel awful about everything,” Youmans said.

With the passing of years, she learned from Youmans and her favorite writers to see the bitter child from a distance and through the lens of humor. Grobman said it takes some distance from the memory to find humor in horrors she had suffered.

Grobman remembered reading Sholem Aleichem, a Yiddish playwright who died before the Russian Revolution. Aleichem wrote short stories of Jews’ life in Pale of Settlement, a shtetl, where the Jews in imperial Russia were required to live. It is from Aleichem she first learned the balance of bittersweet in writing.

“The thing about this country, you cannot necessarily reinvent yourself,” Grobman said, “but I think I have done things in this country that I would never have done in that country.”

Grobman has a blog named “Writing with an Accent” where she post essays and photography of her life in America. She said she knows she can never write like an American. She takes pride in her accent and knows that is what readers like about her.

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