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  • Wherever You Go, There You Are
  • Paul Jay (bio)
Panic in a Suitcase
Yelena Akhtiorskaya
Riverhead Books
320 Pages; Print, $16.00

Fueled by the disruptive effects of religious and ethnic hatred, state violence, “regime change,” and the dramatically uneven effects of globalization, literature born of mobility and displacement has proliferated at a remarkable rate during the last three decades, moving from the margins to very near the center of literary production, especially in the United States. In this work, the nation takes a back seat to the border, and the solidity of national identity gives way to the fracturing and reimagining of individual and cultural subjectivities. While the literature of immigration and diaspora has always been about travel and change, in the fictional worlds of writers like Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Aleksandar Hemon, Chimamanda Adichie, and Teju Cole, mobility is no longer one-way but back-and-forth. These writers are interested in what takes place in the real and psychic spaces between national borders. In their fiction, the reader shuttles between Santa Domingo and Paterson, Calcutta and Boston, Chicago and Sarajevo, Lagos, New York, and Brussels. Mobility in this fiction is double-edged, just as likely to get you into as out of trouble.

What better metaphor could there be for all of this than “panic in a suitcase,” a phrase that connects anxiety about both loss and possibility to the pitfalls and opportunities of global mobility? The concept of panic, of course, has its origins in the experience of travel. Panic comes from the Greek word, panikon, which means pertaining to Pan, the god who ruled the hills and mountains of Arcadia and became infamous for creating collective anxiety among those who passed through the woods he ruled. The travelers in Akhtiorskaya’s book pack their panic away in a suitcase in order to contain it, but of course that just means they take it with them wherever they go. Akhtiorskaya has a deft touch. She doesn’t beat the reader over the head with the idea her characters are in a constant kind of panic, but they often are, and it bubbles up through the cracks everywhere. It is a feeling bred by both disruption and possibility, an anxiety related to displacement and the need to put down new roots in new places, but also the fear that comes from having to start over, being pressed to construct new, postnational identities.

There is a lot of packing, unpacking, and repacking of suitcases in Akhtiorskaya’s novel, all of it related to “the immigrant dance step of struggle and settle” as displaced Russians shuttle between Odessa and Brooklyn in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her attention settles on the Nasmertov family. Esther, her husband Robert, their daughter Marina, her husband Levik, and their daughter, Frida, all of whom have been living in Brooklyn since their arrival in the US in 1991. Everything is fragile here: the family’s roots in the émigré world of Brighton Beach, their hold on property back in Odessa (and thus, their connection to home), Marina and Robert’s marriage, Esther’s health, and perhaps most importantly of all for the second half of the novel: Frida’s unsteady sense of who she is and where she belongs. As the novel opens in 1993, Marina’s brother, a poet named Pasha, has arrived for a visit from Odessa. Part One of the novel turns on the family’s efforts to convince him to join them as permanent residents of the United States, Pasha’s exploration of the Russian émigré literary community in the decidedly more gentrified Upper West Side, and his father’s surreptitious efforts to launch his poetic career by enlisting a translator from Harvard interested in publishing his work. Part Two, which takes place in 2008, traces Frida’s journey back to Odessa to attend the wedding of her cousin, Pasha’s son, Sanya.

Part One emphasizes the paradoxical way in which post-Soviet immigrants in Brighton Beach have created a counterfeit version of the very place they’ve fled.

Pasha’s first impression had been horror… His fellow countrymen...


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pp. 9-10
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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