November 22, 2021

Lisa Williams and the cover of her book, "Forget Russia"
Lisa Williams and the cover of her book, "Forget Russia"

Lisa Williams’ (Ph.D. ’96, English) latest book is her first work of fiction, but it tells a personal story that she’s wanted to share for decades. Forget Russia, published under L. Bordetsky-Williams, is the story of three generations of Russian-American Jews, including an American student who studies in Moscow during the Cold War. 

Williams is a professor of literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey and lives in New York. She recently spoke to the Graduate Center about her novel:

The Graduate Center: How closely is your novel based on your own experiences?

Williams: It’s based a lot on my own experiences in the Soviet Union when I was a student there in 1980, and also on family experiences. My great-grandmother was raped and murdered in Russia during the civil war between the Bolsheviks and the White Army, in a pogrom that was carried out by anti-Bolshevik soldiers in 1919.

My grandmother Sarah must have been 14 years old when she lost her mother. Her father had already deserted her when he emigrated years before to the United States and never sent the fare for her or her mother to join him, just like in the book. After the murder of Sarah’s mother, an uncle took her in and located her father in Roxbury, Massachusetts. At 16 years old, Sarah journeyed across the ocean to live with him, only to discover that he had two children and a new wife, who didn’t want her there. Sarah soon married a man much older than her who had come to the United States before the Russian Revolution. His dream was to go back and build the Revolution. It was the height of the Depression and there was no work here. My grandparents returned to the Soviet Union in 1931 with my mother and aunt, who were 5 and 3. They stayed in Leningrad for nine months before returning to Roxbury — if they had stayed any longer, they would have lost their American citizenship and been stuck there.

When I went to Moscow as a college student, I met the grandchildren of the Bolsheviks. And it was a very profound meeting, because my grandparents had left and theirs had stayed, so I felt like we were peering at what our lives might have been if our ancestors had made different decisions. 

GC: What was it like to be a student in the Soviet Union during the Cold War?

Williams:  I studied at the Pushkin Institute, which was a school for foreign students, for a semester when I was a senior in college. I was always obsessed with Russian literature. I was reading Dostoyevsky in high school and was a Russian major in college, and my dream was to read Dostoyevsky in Russian. When I studied him in Russian, I learned he was probably the hardest writer to ever try to read in Russian.

It was the height of the Cold War, but I wasn’t afraid. I don’t think the Soviet Union wanted to start any kind of incident related to American students. When I came back, though, I was afraid for my Jewish friends there who had associated with me.

GC: You’ve written memoirs, scholarly books, poetry. What made you decide to write this novel now?

Williams: In many ways this novel is my life’s work. The people I met in the Soviet Union changed my life — I felt like I’d been waiting all my life to meet them and I didn’t know that until I’d gotten there. The love I felt for them transcended any limited definition of love. 

Politically we didn’t agree on anything. In this day and age, it’s much harder to discuss political differences and have a dialogue. We would joke with each other about our divergent world views. And we really cared deeply about each other. 

I feel like I wrote this book for myself and other people to learn what life was like there, and how a violent, tragic hate crime affects the following generations. Also, it’s a very little-known history — that many Americas, including some Russian Jews, went back to the Soviet Union in 1931 to build this revolution. The Depression here was devastating. One hundred thousand people applied to the Soviet trade agency based in New York, and 10,000 went. At least 200 Black Americans went. There were jobs there, though living conditions were very difficult. 

As long as you got out by 1936, 1937, you were probably okay. Then the door closed, and many of the Americans who were initially welcomed were arrested, and many perished. 

At the Graduate Center, I studied with [Distinguished Professor] Jane Marcus. Her work and generosity had a very deep effect on me, as a scholar and as a writer. Way back, I wrote a memoir, Letters to Virginia Woolf, about my own struggle with fertility issues, my childhood, and Woolf’s experience as an anti-war writer. And Jane Marcus was so supportive of the book — she was supportive before I even wrote the book, and said, You need to write about the things that are so hard to write about, particularly those experiences that define your generation of women. That’s exactly what you need to write about. Her encouragement to write what’s difficult has always stayed with me, no matter what I’m working on.

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