An exceedingly auspicious debut
Alumna Olga Grushin’s first novel “breathes
new life into American literary fiction”
Moscow native Olga Grushin 93C first landed on American soil in 1989 wearing a suit of red—the symbolic color of the Soviet regime. It was anything but a political statement; Grushin’s mother simply hoped the bright hue would help Emory representatives spot her daughter in the bustling airport crowd.
Upon her arrival at Emory, the seventeen-year-old Grushin, sporting a pair of glasses shaped like an enormous pink butterfly, became the first Russian citizen to enter a four-year program at an American university.
“There were students before me who were offered scholarships,” she says. “But they had to make a decisive break with Russia in order to accept. I was the first Soviet student or, after the Soviet Union fell apart, the first Russian student.”
The following week proved to be a bit of a media crush. The youthful freshman was flanked by CNN, the New York Times, and the Associated Press, all eager to nab the story.
“The crew of Good Morning America followed me for a day,” says Grushin, who admits to being “too vain” to appear on television in her huge butterfly glasses and consequently recalls “fumbling through all my interviews in a sort of fog.”
Today Grushin lives near Washington, D.C., with her husband and two-year-old son. She no longer needs a crimson dress to stand out from the crowd, but the lessons learned from her early brush with fame may serve her well some sixteen years later. Her debut novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, released in January by Putnam/Marian Wood Books, has received serious, thoughtful criticism in the New York Times, London Times, and Manchester Guardian, among others.
Grushin’s novel seamlessly weaves the dreams, the past, and the present life of fifty-six-year-old Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov into a painfully vivid portrait of an artist’s career spanning the 1920s to the 1980s. In his role as editor-in-chief of the state-controlled journal Art of the World, Sukhanov sits comfortably at the top of the Soviet cultural hierarchy, yet his past as an impoverished experimental artist trails him and ultimately turns his world into a nightmare.
Grushin, writes Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, “breathes new life into American literary fiction. . . . [Her] extraordinary first novel is so wise and mature that it is tempting to suspect the author’s biography is a joke. The Dream Life of Sukhanov is sophisticated, ironic and witty, multilayered, intricately constructed, deeply informed, elegantly written—the work, one would think, of someone who has been writing and publishing fiction for years, not someone who is doing it for the first time and doing it in what is not her native language.”
She thus joins a select group of writers who have received acclaim for works written in a language other than their native tongue, among them Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, and Isak Dinesen.
“This time the publisher has it right,” Library Journal said in a laudatory starred review touting The Dream Life of Sukhanov as “that rare debut that requires no hype.”
Grushin was a journalism student at Moscow State University in 1988 when she encountered a delegation from the Carter Center conducting research on Soviet mass media, among them Ellen Mickiewicz, a former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Emory and a member of the political science faculty.
“It was clear that she was very exceptional,” Mickiewicz says. “And her English was good enough that she could manage the course work at Emory.”
“I really didn’t think anything would come of it,” Grushin says of Mickiewicz’s suggestion that she might come to Emory. But then she received a letter from University President James T. Laney, who offered a one-way ticket to Atlanta and a full scholarship to Emory.
She spent her summer undergoing extensive medical examinations, having stacks of forms approved, even breaking into a locked clinic to retrieve a form on time. And she read every American classic she found on her parents’ shelves.
“It was an extremely rigorous process,” she says. Not until she was holding the Delta Airlines ticket in her hand did she realize she was actually leaving home. “I was quite shocked.”
One of her first classes at Emory was a course in Russian Literature taught by Denis Mickiewicz, Ellen Mickiewicz’s husband. He allowed Grushin to turn in her first two papers in Russian.
“At one point he said, ‘Why don’t you try writing this same paper in English.’ ”
Grushin did and realized that it was a very different paper. Mickiewicz suggested that her English might in fact be more direct and personal then her Russian.
“Russian is a very flexible language, unlike English,” she explains. “The order of words in a sentence can be interchangeable and words can take many different forms. Each word can be imbued with nuances you can’t have in English. In order to express an idea accurately you have to hunt for an exact word, which fascinates me.”
Grushin had always wanted to be a writer. As a little girl, she wrote fairy tales and even a long children’s book inspired by Alice in Wonderland .
“But my book started with my heroine, a little Russian girl, falling down a trash chute in a Moscow apartment building,” rather than a rabbit hole.
After reading the first eighty pages, her older brother told her she “clearly lacked the knowledge of life necessary for writing a novel,” and she soon abandoned the project. “I began—and gave up—my first novel when I was twelve,” she says.
Grushin originally thought she was going to be a journalist, but after graduating with a degree in sociology and religion from Emory, she tried a myriad of careers: she worked at a law firm in Washington, as a waitress in a jazz bar, a translator, an editorial freelancer, and eventually an editor at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Institute.
“It was only after this that I thought writing fiction could actually be a career,” she says.
Grushin published short fiction and essays in Partisan Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Massachusetts Review, among other literary magazines.
Although the characters in The Dream Life of Sukhanov are fictional, Grushin says the book emerged through her childhood impressions of her parents’ surroundings and friends in Russia.
“They knew so many fascinating people,” she says. “Many of them were artists, writers, and philosophers—people who had to make a choice between doing something they loved or making life comfortable for themselves and their families.”
Grushin admits to being as oblivious to the outside world as any happy nine- or ten-year-old.
“It was only later, when I was fourteen or fifteen, that I understood many of the things I had glimpsed or overheard in my parents’ circle; but by then perestroika [Gorbachev’s program of economic, political, and social restructuring] had already begun, and what I felt was excitement, not fear,” she says. “Growing up in the Soviet Union in the seventies and eighties was vastly different from growing up in the thirties, which is when Sukhanov has the misfortune of growing up.”
Although Grushin hopes that her novel conveys a Russian sensibility, she says she “really thought in English” as she wrote it. The idea for the novel came to her during the time she was leaving Russia for Emory.
“I thought it would be interesting to write a story about someone who had this great gift, but also has a family to provide for and, as everyone, longs for security and happiness in daily life.”—A.T.Y.