From Russia with words Renowned WNY writer receives award

Emil Draitser’s West New York apartment is a jumble of papers, books, and magazines, along with two computers.

Manuscripts flop from all corners like paper tongues, waiting patiently to be read – or put back in place.

Somewhere in the scattered abode, one would assume, is a kitchen. A 15-foot long bookcase full of Russian literature dominates the living room.

And Draitser wouldn’t have it any other way.

It is from this jumbled domicile that Draitser produces the writings that have won him awards and accolades.

The Odessa, Russia native and Professor of Russian Literature at Hunter College in New York City is the recipient of the 2002-2003 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Individual Artists Fellowship Award. Along with the recognition that the award gives him, Draitser also received a $7,300 cash prize.

The fellowship is intended to keep an artist financially able to continue practicing his or her art.

According to Nina Stack, director of marketing, arts and information for the Trenton-based Arts Council, the selection process is very competitive. Said Stack in a recent telephone interview, “We employ experts in the given fields. There are critics and editors, and they do not know who the author of a particular piece is. What the fellowship does is allows them to pursue their art. Ultimately, it’s about buying time. The money gives them time to create their work.”

A total of 546 people applied for fellowships this past year, in six categories: crafts, photography, poetry, play writing, prose and sculpture.

This is actually Draitser’s second fellowship award. The first, awarded in 1993, was awarded after he submitted a story called “The Little Thread.” Writers competing in the prose category may submit up to 15 pages of writing.

This year Draitser submitted a story called “Faithful Masha,” a touching tale of a Russian writer in the twilight of his career and his faithful wife, Masha. The story is contained in Draitser’s newest collection of short stories entitled The Supervisor of the Sea.

Draitser has authored nine books, both fiction and non-fiction. His stories have appeared in publications such as International Quarterly, The Kenyon Review and The Literary Review.

Satire got him blacklisted

For Draitser, his literary odyssey began well before he immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1975.

Draitser’s specialties were humor and satire. Said Draitser in a recent interview, “In Russia, I was a freelance journalist and my specialty was writing satire and humor. But then I got in trouble. I got blacklisted because I wrote a story about a protégé of the Minister of Culture.” Added Draitser, “The better I became as a satirist, the more I felt handcuffed. They misused my humor so they castrated my satire.”

Knowing that his literary career was finished in the then-Soviet Union, Draitser took advantage of the mass Jewish emigration in the early 1970s and came to America.

And, judging by his vast resume, Draitser has taken full advantages of the freedoms afforded artists in the United States and has never looked back.

That is not to say that Draitser hasn’t gone back to his homeland from time to time. The author returned to Russia in 1990 and 1995 and saw a vastly different land than the one he’d left.

Said Draitser, “Things had changed. It had become very nationalistic. Russians don’t forgive those that leave.”

Said Draitser about leaving the Soviet Union, “Most Americans don’t realize how lucky they are. When I left, we [Russian emigrants] had to give up our citizenship, everything. You’re alive but you think you’re dying. You leave everything behind.” Added Draitser, “I have made many mistakes in my life, but two things I did right are leaving Russia and getting my doctorate from UCLA.”

In fact, within eight weeks of arriving in the United States, Draitser had one of his pieces published in the Los Angeles Times.

The serendipitous nature of that occurrence still elicits a hearty laugh from the writer. Said Draitser, “I sent a story I had written as soon as I came to the United States to a friend who was bilingual (in English and Russian) and happened to be a freelancer for the op-ed page for the Los Angeles Times. He gave the piece to the editors and they printed it. Wow!”

Draitser has seen six of his pieces, mostly humor, in the Los Angeles Times.

As a professor at Hunter College in New York City, Draitser is afforded the unique opportunity to give his students a glimpse into what life was like in the Communist Soviet Union, and why, in his estimation, the society that formed around Communism was so wrong.

Said Draitser, “For me, it is a good opportunity to show how that old system was antithetical to intellectualism and even more importantly, freedom. If you make everyone average, no one can really succeed.”

Continued Draitser, “In the Soviet Union, I couldn’t be open in my satire. I had to be oblique. What it did do, though, was build my muscles for using metaphorical writing. So, in the long run, it did me a lot of good.”

Aside from being overwhelmed and amazed at the bounty of goods and services the United States had compared to the Soviet Union, Draitser was equally amazed at how open criticism was allowed in the United States, even encouraged. Said Draitser, “I really couldn’t believe how open it was. It was a shock to me. I understood it intellectually, but it was still a shock.”

Shortly after his arrival in the United States, Draitser settled in West New York. Said Draitser on his choice, “I like it here. It’s close to the city, which is important to me because I work there. It’s close to the airport and mostly, it’s quiet here. I need quiet to do my writing. I could never be happy living in New York City. Too noisy.”

What keeps Draitser writing, working and teaching well after retirement age? A passion to take his readers (and himself) to different places.

Said Draitser, “What a writer does for you is to take you to a place that you have never been before. Writers are retrieving emotional memory. You’re driven by emotions and that fuels writing. For instance, most of my stories are autobiographical. They are about my experiences as an immigrant from Russia.”

For all of the accolades and awards, Draitser still sees himself operating outside of the mainstream.

Said Draitser, “I don’t feel that I am a ‘mainstream’ American writer. I came here as a formed man. I did not grow up here. There are still things about American society that I do not understand.”