Friday 26 June 2009

Ukrainian in New York

One more year, by Sana Kraskikov (Canongate)

One More Year is the debut short story collection of Sana Krasikov, a Ukraine-born New Yorker and graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Its eight stories focus on the experiences of first and second generation Eastern European immigrants to the United States, and although there are plenty of male characters in the collection, Krasikov is clearly most interested in the fate of the women making this momentous journey westwards.

The women she describes have come to America, like so many have done before them, to make better lives for themselves. They discover however – as in often the way in these cases – that the Land of the Free is not necessarily the Land of the Happy. Ilona, the protagonist of ‘Companion’, falls on hard times and finds herself sharing the flat of her 70-year-old former neighbour, Earl; in ‘Maia in Yonkers’, the eponymous heroine sends the money she earns as a domestic back to her sister in Tbilisi in order to give her son a better start in life; in ‘Better Half’, the 22-year-old Anya is trapped in a violent marriage to the man she married for a visa.

Krasikov’s women do not quite fit into their new surroundings; they stay within their communities, regarding the Americans they encounter with a certain mild derision. Here Ilona describes an American with whom she has been set up:

‘He had graying [sic] red hair and his light lashes were coated with dandruff-like flakes. He took Ilona to an outdoor concert at the local community college. Afterward, she waited while he searched the cabinets of his kitchen, finally producing a tray of crackers and a dry triangle of brie. All she remembered now of the man’s small apartment was the blinding light of his empty refrigerator’ (p. 2).

 

The scenes Krasikov sets are quotidian and ordinary; her characters are unassuming and authentic. She likes reading and writing short stories, she says, because they ‘enable you to focus on one character or life and see an entire personal history’. Krasikov compares short works to poetic odes, valuing the sense of ‘immersion’ they offer in their characters.

Her attention to detail introduces us to quirks of the immigrant experience that would otherwise be easy to miss, an example being the myriad complexities of living in a different language from one’s mothertongue, as felt by Vera in ‘The Alternate’: ‘It was no secret that Alec was “dirty wealthy” now. That was how Vera liked to say it: it was her special variation on filthy rich, the idiom she’d originally aimed for and missed’ (p. 54).

Each of the stories in this collection offers a small slice of the immigrant experience and although individually each tale makes for involving reading, consumed all at once, the collection feels stodgy. Krasikov has herself commented on the necessity of reading short story collections slowly, in order to avoid an overly intense reading experience. Readers of this fine collection would do well to take her advice; this book is best digested one tale at a time; the characters in One More Year are certainly worth getting to know, not least because they offer an insight into the lives of a community rarely presented in literature.


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Resources

Contemporary Writers
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Pen Pusher
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Story
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Orange Prize
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Man Booker Prize
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Granta
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The Bookseller
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International Pen
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Serpent’s Tail
Independent publisher for experimental voices

Random House
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Edinburgh Book Festival
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Jewish Book Week
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