Wednesday, January 21, 2015


The last memoir that I recall reading was The Inner Voice, penned by the American operatic soprano Renée Fleming. Dubbed as the “auto-biography” of her voice, it begins in St. Petersburg as her luggage is checked by bomb-sniffing dogs before a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky for a gala. Elena Ghorokhova’s latest memoir Russian Tattoo is altogether a different beast. Interestingly enough, it begins in reverse. In the 80’s, St. Petersburg is called Leningrad and the memoir begins in the air - as a young Elena flies from her native Russia to America. Rather than charting a glamorous professional life, in Russian Tattoo Ghorokhova chronicles her struggles as a culture-shocked immigrant. The result is candidly intimate and deeply moving.

In the Soviet Union of the 1980s, Elena’s life in Russia is not easy. Daily routines include hostile lines for food, a distant mother, and a society in which the word privacy does not exist. In order to escape her constricted life, at twenty-four, Elena, partly impulsive and partly desperate, marries an American who whisks her away to the US. However, this is real life – Elena’s life – and not a Hollywood blockbuster. We witness step by step her poignant struggle through this new American existence. We witness romantic and familial heartbreaks as well as personal failures in the face of a strange new way of life. We see how hard it is to understand the concept of buying new shoes and eating a hamburger. We see how confusing it is to mature into adulthood while comprehending a world which is completely alien. We see her mature into a mother herself, watching the fall of the Soviet Union from afar, seeing rebellion bloom in her own Americanized daughter, and dealing with loss.

At the Bookshelf, I recently I saw two films: The Immigrant and Boyhood. Reading Russian Tattoo paints a reality of immigrating to the US less glamorous and dramatic than The Immigrant yet no less moving. Russian Tattoo also portrays the infinite complexities and temporal scope of coming-of-age that Boyhood deals with; yet Russian Tattoo rings with more of the indescribable nostalgic Russian toska Ghorokhova describes herself in her novel. Ghorokhova’s memoir is a memoir about life, a real life – what could be more moving and bewildering and amusing as real life itself? Ultimately, the last few pages of Russian Tattoo brought tears to eyes, a rarity with books that perhaps should not be such a rarity. It is a profoundly personal and honest memoir which forces us to examine our own relationships and experiences (and perhaps makes us wish we had documented them in such a beautiful and brilliant way). It rings with intelligence, wit, and wisdom yet is also unabashed in its vulnerability, questioning, and searching.

I am a child of two immigrants myself and have often pondered questions of identity, belonging, and homelessness. As I read Ghorokhova’s Russian Tattoo, I saw myself in her passages describing leftover hoarding, cultural ambiguity, and the futility of battling excessive North American waste. How remarkable is it that I can pick up a book by a woman, writer, and professor that I have never met and see myself reflected through the lens of her life? I urge you to read Russian Tattoo and to discover this marvelous person named Elena, perhaps to find that she isn’t so different from yourself.

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical baritone. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages (with a few in progress). He holds degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, but it was obvious from an early age that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.

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