Coming to America was an “exciting adventure” for the Ukraine-born, Georgia-reared writer Sana Krasikov, who was eight when her family immigrated in 1987. But in her widely praised collection of short stories “One More Year” (Spiegel & Grau, 2008), Krasikov writes of less seamless, more traumatic transitions of Russian-speaking émigrés.
On the heels of the publication of “One More Year,” Krasikov was named the 2009 winner of the Jewish Book Council’s $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature — the most lucrative award for emerging writers of Jewish-themed fiction and non-fiction. The award will be presented at a May 21 gala at Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
Krasikov, now at work on a novel, spoke recently with the Forward about the breadth of Jewish literature being written by young, female immigrants, her own path to becoming to becoming a writer, and the stories she’s most drawn to telling.
The Forward: What do you make of the fact that all five of the Rohr finalists — Elisa Albert, Anne Landsman, Dalia Sofer, Anya Ulinich and you — are relatively young women?
Sana Krasikov: Many brilliant male writers also had intelligent, dedicated wives or lovers who read and edited their work. I recently read a biography of Primo Levi, which discussed how much his wife had worked on his books. She was more than a sounding board for him; she was a partner. … I think the difference today is that it is more acceptable for a woman to dedicate herself to her own inspiration — and, as importantly, that there are husbands, parents and friends who are supportive of the women who choose this path.
And that four of the five finalists, everyone except Ms. Albert, are immigrants?
Well, this is a Jewish award, and the reality of many Jews is that we continue to migrate. Being Jewish has meant continuous movement from one Diaspora to another. As a culture we’re experienced in thinking about identity, the vulnerability of being on other people’s territory. That outsider perspective has always been part of the Jewish sensibility.
When and how did you know that you wanted to become a writer?
Coming from an immigrant background, writing was nothing ever thought possible as a way to support self. … I didn’t start writing fiction in any serious way until I was about 24, but I was always curious about people, trying to understand who they were and what made them tick.
What is the process of writing like for you?
I think about Primo Levi, about a lot people tried to pigeon hole him as a witness. But he wasn’t writing just in an effort to record; it was a struggle to understand. For me, writing is a struggle to understand. To recreate the world through our own understanding of it is the writer’s real work. … So much of the process for me is trying to understand the characters. I produce a lot of material I never use while I am getting to know them.
What has been the reaction of your parents, both of them engineers, to your decision to become a professional writer?
And their reaction to your literary success?
They appreciate my dedication to this difficult, lonely and precarious career. They’re in touch with the fact that every temporary “success” involves a lot of day-to-day failure, humility and introspection.
What kind of stories are you drawn to telling?
In the story collection, “One More Year,” I was drawn to what happens to people in the tumult of socioeconomic change of immigration. My next work follows similar themes on a larger canvas, but with a focus on the same moral choices and compromises people have to make in life.
Who are your favorite writers?
John Cheever, Isaac Babel, Edith Wharton, Graham Greene, Nadine Gordimer, Thomas Mann, I.B. Singer, Marguerite Duras, Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Marillyne Robinson, Alice Walker, Francine Prose, Doris Lessing, Richard Yates, Tobias Wolff, Russell Banks, Joan Didion. The list goes on and on. It’s a deck that’s constantly growing and getting reshuffled.
What does it mean to be a Jewish writer today?
Many gifted authors who wrote in Yiddish never got to be recognized because so much of their readership and potential readership vanished with the war. Perhaps to be a Jewish writer today is simply to continue the work of hundreds of Jewish writers who grappled with questions that touched Jews and humanity as a whole.
What has winning the Rohr Prize meant to you?
On a basic life level, it means that I could go on writing. On an artistic level, it was assurance that my characters were as compelling to readers as they are to me. On a Jewish level, it was touching to think that people out there believed my voice was a valuable one to add to the voices of other Jewish authors.