Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Writing and Living

Hailed as brilliant and funny by The New York Times Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s first novel Panic in a Suitcase recounts two decades in the life of a Ukrainian immigrant household living in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Though not biographical, the book parallels Yelena’s own experience. Her family emigrated in 1992 when Yelena was just seven years old. In the Ukraine, family members were doctors and poets; arriving on the U.S. shores, Yelena’s educated parents were forced back to square one. Beginning the steep assent back to the socio-economic standing they had once enjoyed, they took menial jobs; their only child, who had been tutored at home by her grandfather, was sent to school for the first time. It was a traumatic experience, which the family all seem to have repressed; none of them have memories of the period.

Yelena began writing poems in junior high school. Poetry is very much in her DNA. Her mother writes poetry and her uncle and grandfather are both published poets. But Yelena soon switched to writing stories. She wrote many, many stories. The one thing they all had in common was they bore no resemblance to her life. “It took me a long time until I got to the point where I realized I could write about my own experience fictionalizing it as I needed,” she says.

“I’m always writing,” explains Yelena. “Writing for me is kind of the same thing as living.” She writes in English in longhand, which she subsequently transcribes into a computer. Though seemingly laborious, this approach enables her to revise the work as she goes.

Yelena has a complicated relationship with both her birth and adopted countries. Much like her character, Frida, she feels the pull of The Ukraine. Nowadays it’s possible for émigrés to go back for visits and perhaps more. Yelena speaks wistfully of Lviv, a beautiful, peaceful city. (The fighting is largely confined to Eastern Ukraine, which has a high concentration of Russians. Odessa, where Yelena is from and her uncle and his family still live is a leisurely, free spirited city, which she likens to New Orleans.)

At VCCA Yelena was hard at work on her second book. “I’m completely in the thick of it. It’s been really hard going,” she says. “As soon as I finished the last book, I wanted to start on the next thing. It takes about a year between when the book is bought and when it comes out. So, I was writing like a mad woman.” In the end, she deemed none of it useable. “I had to throw it all out—basically two years of work. It was a very dark time.” But, Yelena is philosophical about it now, realizing that the effort wasn’t a complete loss. “I see it’s okay because you’re practicing and exercising muscles.”

While at VCCA for a month, Yelena was busy filling notebooks with words that flowed out of her. This was her first residency, but surely not her last because it certainly was valuable: “Coming here is so incredible,” Yelena says. “Because everything comes into focus.” That focus is sure to translate into another literary triumph for this young author.


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