Russian-born Gary Shteyngart photographed in his New York City apartment. “I didn’t lose my accent until I was about 14 years old. I tried so desperately to lose it. I would listen to these records by ... younger people probably don’t realize who he was. There was a guy called Neil Diamond. One song was called ‘Coming to America’ ... ’cause I came into America. So I would always sing, Coming to America, every time unfurling flag. Coming to America ... Today! And that was how I would practice losing my accent.”

Shteyngart’s family arrived in U.S. from Russia when he was seven.

GS: “But then I started writing — books. As an 11-year-old I realized that when you write books, you don’t have an accent. The words on the page don’t have an accent. So I would write down books with titles like Invasion from Outer Space and The Challenge…. That’s how I made my first American friends — through writing it. And what happened — and this is a very interesting part of the immigrant experience — is that after a while I stopped being known as ‘The Russian,’ and I started becoming ‘The Writer.’”

GS: “Born Igor — my name was changed to Gary in America so that I would suffer one or two fewer beatings.”

GS: “Write what you know. Why does Philip Roth write about Newark over and over again? Because he’s from Newark. But also, we live in a globalized world.… Immigrants is a more difficult term these days because so many people — because of jet travel and Skype and the internet and everything else — are able to go back and forth all the time and live in a kind of limbo. It’s much more effective than a world where we had to assimilate or die, the world I knew when I was growing up.”

The “book writer” (2018 Twitter bio) at his home in the Gramercy neighborhood of Manhattan

GS: “Technology does make you self-aware because you’re always being ranked and rated.… We’re trying to put numbers to things and what we’re saying is, We’re scared and we don’t know how else to gain any kind of control.”

GS: “I meet a lot of my Facebook ‘fans’ or whatever. They’re adorable, but it’s a very strange thing: ‘Thanks for that cabbage recipe.’”

GS: “Pick up a magazine, even a decent magazine and open it up — I’m not talking about the New Yorker — and it’s just a bunch of blobs, different colors, with little pieces of information embedded in them, almost like the cover of my book. It used to be that an average person was supposed to have a certain understanding of the world, a certain knowledge about things. And a lot of knowledge was communicated through words. And that is now in decline.”

Shteyngart's books have been translated into 29 languages (so far). Colorful “blobs” adorn the spine of the Danish edition of his Super Sad True Love Story (2010).

GS: “When you’re an immigrant, you’re constantly trying to mimic the world around you — because you don’t understand what’s going on. For me the problem was that in our house we only spoke Russian, and my parents didn’t allow a television in the house. Without English and a television, things were pretty strange. All we had was books — Chekhov, Dostoevsky, all of those dudes. My grandmother had a television set, and that’s how I first started learning about American culture. Now her TV set was a Zenith from 1947, so it got either audio or video — it didn’t get both. So what I would do is I would write down ... I would listen to a show, let’s say Gilligan’s Island, and I would write down the dialogue, and the next time the show was rebroadcast, I would watch the video and try to match the words to the video. The show confused me a lot. Gilligan’s Island was a tough show for me to understand because I kept thinking, ‘How could a country as powerful and rich as America not rescue the millionaire and his wife?’”

Shteyngart poses in the streets of Gramercy. The original Stuyvesant High School — then, as now, notoriously hard to get into — is just a short walk away. In his memoir Shteyngart describes his old school as “a holding pen for international nerds.”

GS: “I’m never completely an American.… For me everything is fascinating still. I come with these virgin eyes, especially because I’ve lived in New York for so long, which is its own city state."

The Writer and the City

GS: “I teach a course on immigrant fiction at Columbia. Junot Díaz, Chang-rae Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri.… What’s interesting is someone like Jhumpha Lahiri. She’ll sell a million copies, how do you ghettoize that? That’s as mainstream as you can get. Midwestern ladies in their book clubs will parse the latest collection of stories. We are now in some ways in the mainstream of literature and partly it’s because America doesn’t really translate works from abroad the way other countries do. We translate maybe 2%. France, Germany do 40%. So immigrants are a strange bridge. They’re sort of like us. They speak the language; they went to Brown. But, on the other hand, they also have a funny smelly story to tell.”

Shteyngard in Stuyvesant Park, the statue of Peter Stuyvesant looming in the background. Any words of wisdom? GS: "Immigrants, yay!"

GS: “If you read The New York Times, you really want to know what this city is about. It’s about power. And what you really want to read is the Business section and the Real Estate section. The rest of it is cute and fun, but the real action is in what gets sold, who’s buying, who these people are. Making that section is a very strange and surreal experience. I didn’t provide any of that information.”

1–2, 6: GS, “My Immigrant Experience” (Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau, published on February 6, 2015)
2 cutline: GS, Little Failure: A Memoir (Random House, 2014)
3–5, 7: GS, interview with Alex Shephard (Full Stop, May 4, 2011)

Shteyngart in Stuyvesant Park

@Shteyngart |

Related Links: The Secret of America | Great Immigrants | Sally JewellArt AcevedoKwame Anthony Appiah | John Leguizamo

Photographed by Jennifer S. Altman, New York City, March 23, 2018 | Produced by Kenneth Benson