Misunderstanding in International Marriage
To Turn the Weakness of Misunderstanding into a Strength
A book about international marriage: Olga Sapp, publisher of Russian Women Magazine, interviewing Paul Greenberg, the author of Leaving Katya .
- Generally speaking, what is your book "Leaving Katya" about? Is it about the contradiction of two cultures or two individuals, who are not ready for the long-term relationship? Or maybe it is just a love story of two young people, who are only in the beginning of exploring different worlds of women and men?
When I started writing Leaving Katya, I really didn't have a goal or a theme that I was trying to express. What I can say is that there were certain initial inputs. A line from Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain kept occurring to me as I was writing. It comes from a part when the hero, Hans Castorp is trying to seduce a Russian noble woman. They are speaking to each other in French. He speaks to her very directly, almost improperly. The Russian woman says (and I'm paraphrasing here) "you're being very bold Herr Castorp," to which he responds, "that is because we are speaking in French which is not my native language, and it seems as if we are speaking in a dream and that there are no consequences." That feels to me to be the dilemma of Daniel and Katya. They are communicating with each other "non-natively" so to speak and have entered into a kind of mutual dream world. A dream world where there are very real consequences.
- To your mind, what is the main reason for this marriage collapse? Maybe it is in culture difference or it is the lack of financial background for family establishment? Or it could be just the youth inexperience to accept the other person the way he is?
We all have a human, socialized self, that lives in the world and takes care of the day to day. At the same time we have a sexual/emotional dream-self that seeks gratification on a parallel but separate plane that has entirely different rules. Daniel and Katya's disconnect is that they have a compatibility on that dreamy plane but a serious incompatibility when it comes to the day to day.
- Do you think your Katya is the general portrait of all Russian women? Could it be the attempt to adapt this character to American way of accepting Russian people in US?
I am not Russian and only came to know Russia after I graduated from university. And while I have many Russian friends and have spent a long time in Russia, I didn't think it wise to try to describe Russians from a Russian point of view. Katya is viewed through Daniel's eyes and I think the New York Times reviewer described it correctly when he said that Katya is perceived through Daniel's misperceptions, "brightly, through a dark glass". I intentionally made Daniel a little bit naive and tried to show how Americans misperceive Russia. The trick about Katya is that she will not let herself be contained within Daniel's box of misperceptions. In Katya I hope that I was able to hint at something beyond Daniel's lens.
- Do you think it is actually possible to understand Russian woman or maybe she indeed has so-called mystique "Russian soul"? Could it be just the myth?
I'm not sure anyone really can understand anybody fully. I liked what Nabokov said about how we are all cosmonauts traveling around in our respective spacesuits and never can really feel what it's like to wear somebody else's spacesuit.
Russian women have the same problem as everyone else--each one is in her own spacesuit. I do believe, however, that Russian women read so much about "Russian womanhood" and "the mysterious Russian soul" growing up with classic Russian literature, that they find themselves emulating these archetypes. It ends up as a kind of circularity. The question really is, are they mysterious by nature or are they told they are mysterious by nature and therefore make themselves more mysterious than nature would?
- In your interview with radio station "Svoboda" you mentioned that love for Russian woman is a hurricane, craziness, complete loss of self-control. Do you really think it is typical for Russian women or it can all be explained by youth's mistakes?
I'm not sure which interview you're referring to, and if I was speaking in Russian it probably came out somewhat imprecise. Of course people have different temperaments and fall in love differently, but the main difference I see is that Russian women place love in a much higher position in the hierarchy of their lives than American women. And so what they are willing to do for love seems, in my eyes, much more extreme. It will be interesting to see if that continues as Russian society becomes increasingly materialistic. When I was a student in Russia we used to sit in the kitchen and talk about poetry and love. Now when I go back to visit we talk about Ikea.
- What do you think about international marriages? In your opinion such marriages are predicted to be unsuccessful?
There are two kinds of international marriages--one, which nearly always fails, is based on misperception. The parties to the marriage come to the wedding with images in their heads about their spouse and about his/her nationality. Rather than try to understand the gaps in their mutual understanding they fill them in with their own fantasies and then eventually the marriage collapses under the weight of its own pretense.
The other kind of international marriage is one where the couple turns the weakness of misunderstanding into a strength. In this day and age, where people have so many complicated over-analyzed ideas and theories about love and sexuality, sometimes a few less words help. The lack of verbal understanding is compensated with a more intense physical and emotional understanding--and ultimately you need that kind of glue to keep a marriage going over many years.
- In spite all, could you give some advice to American men and their Russian women, who chose this way of relationship?
For American men--they have to avoid stereotyping Russian women at all costs. They have to understand that Russia is a deep, complicated country and culture that must be respected and never condescended to, even though Russians will in a somewhat Asian way self-deprecate and express anger at their country. However, that anger and self-deprecation is for them alone. Couples share many things in marriage but they cannot share in the abuse of one or the other's homeland. In addition, American men should try to learn Russian. It's a difficult language but it's not that difficult and with intensive study with a good teacher (not your wife!) most educated men can learn it. The emotional tone of a Russian woman is much less "mysterious" when the language is confronted head-on.
For Russian women, they must try to understand that self-mystification does not help a relationship. While Russia is deep, it is not bottomless and over-mystification of themselves and their culture is just plain, old-fashioned narcissism. Another thing--most Russian American marriages I know of seem to be conducted more in English rather than in Russian. That's a choice that many make, but it has to be a conscious choice and English has to be truly explored. I think many Russian women are not conscious how their tone and mood translates into English. Many of them learn English quite well, but learning a language is not just about learning the words and the literature. I think Russians assume that English is a simple language and that it's enough to treat it almost like a tool. But English can be as subtle as Russian and needs to be felt and respected.
- Is your book translated into Russian and where it could be obtained?
Leaving Katya will be translated into Russian sometime in 2003 by Gorodetz publishing in Moscow. It will be available in stores throughout Russia and I hope in the US as well. Readers can check the book's web site: www.leavingkatya.com to find out when and where they can buy the Russian edition. The English edition was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection this past spring and is still in some stores. It can also be ordered via Amazon.com and BN.com. In Moscow, the English edition can be found at the Anglia British bookshop at 2/3 Khlebny Pereulok, near the Arbat Metro Station. I will be doing a reading/signing there on December 8th at 15:00.
- Thank you so much for your interview and for your wonderful book. It is truly the book you read on one breath and with all the doubts it brings you may feel the author's passion and love to Russians and sincere desire to understand them.
My pleasure. I do think it's important for Americans and Russians to know each other deeply and I like what you're doing to help that process.
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