U.S./Russia: Writers in Dialogue

The Writers in Dialogue Program sends American authors to Russia for readings, round-tables, and literary events hosted by Russian writers and publishers and brings Russian authors, editors, and critics to the United States. The program had its debut in April 2017 when American writer Yiyun Li visited Moscow, and Russian writers Lev Rubinstein, Elena Kostyuchenko, and Elena Chizhova came to New York. 

American Writers in Moscow

In April 2017, Yiyun Li was the first American writer to visit Moscow under the Writers in Dialogue program. Her visit launched the series “Written in the USA”, organized in partnership with Russian cultural online platform Colta.ru to acquaint the Russian audience with American authors less-known or unknown in Russia.

In a lecture she gave during the program, Li talked about her personal journey to become an English-language writer. She spoke about the inspiration she got from Maxim Gorky as a child, the labels attached to her as a Chinese-American writer, and the challenges and rewards of abandoning her native Chinese to write in English.

Yiyun Li Lecture in Moscow

Li also participated in a discussion with Russian editors, translators and writers, and went to Yasnaya Polyana, home of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. 

About the Writer

A metaphor’s desire to transcend diminishes any human story, its ambition to illuminate blinds those who create metaphors. – Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li was born in Beijing and moved to the United States in 1996. Her first short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the 2005 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award, and The Guardian’s 2006 First Book Award. Li has won numerous other awards for her writing, including a gold medal in the California Book Awards, and is a  2010 MacArthur Fellow. She is a professor at University of California, Davis, and an editor of the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.

She reflected on the opportunity to visit Russia with PEN America:

“To be able to set afoot in a country and to directly exchange thoughts about current affairs, I feel, offers a rare opportunity to understand the country and how it looks at America, which would not be available to me. The conversations with Russian writers, critics and journalists, both in the formal setting of public events and informal setting of tea, coffee, and dinner, were eye-opening. Similar concerns of Russian interference of Ukraine, the future of America in Trump’s era, and how everyday Americans and Russians respond to these situations, including the involvement of the younger generation, were also an essential part of knowing the country.”

One of Li’s books will now be published in Russian after having been acquired by a Moscow publishing house.

Russian Writers in New York

The Russian writers Lev Rubinstein, Elena Kostyuchenko, and Elena Chizhova  came to New York for the PEN World Voices Festival of International  Literature and a series of literary events and meetings in May 2017. 

“This was my first time in the United States, my first time seeing New York with my own eyes. Before I had imagined myself crushed by the weight of this city of skyscrapers. But this impression, gathered from films and photographs, turned out to be deceptive. The city is full of a genuine freedom and energy, streaming endlessly. Moreover, it is unusually beautiful, but in its own non-European way.” – Elena Chizhova

Feminizm Po-Russki (Feminism à la Russian)

At the PEN World Voices Festival, three Russian women writers, Elena Chizhova, Elena Kostyuchenko, and A. Nune, from different genres and generations, discussed gender, power, and creative freedom in Russia. The panel was moderated by Sana Krasikov, author of The Patriots, an exploration of the Cold War and three generations of an American family. We heard from a chronicler of Pussy Riot and gay rights in Russia, a prize-winning novelist who traces the linked lives of women in a communal apartment in post-war Leningrad, and a writer who follows her heroine’s soul after death. 

Lit Cawl: Three Russians Walk Into a Bar

The delegation participated in NYC Lit Crawl 2017, enjoying literary nights in bars around New York.

Rubinstein’s musical performance

“The second [event] was an almost improvised evening event where, along with the terrific pianist Alexander Izbitser, a long-time denizen in New York, I performed as a singer (despite the fact that I am not a singer aside from a few chance performances). We sang and played basically without rehearsing, which, I hope, gave the affair an improvised feeling and charm. As far as I could tell, the audience enjoyed it quite a bit.” – Lev Rubinstein

Meeting with Editors

The delegation also met with editors from Grove Atlantic, New Directions Publishing, Maria B Campbell Associates, Archipelago Books, and Music and Literature during a breakfast hosted by Grove Atlantic. They also visited with editors from Ugly Duckling Press . 

After meeting an agent during her trip, Elena Kostyuchenko signed a contract for her collection It’s Us Who Will Live Here («Нам Здесь Жить»).

About the Authors

Elena Chizhova is a Russian writer, winner of the 2009 Booker Award for the best Russian book of the year for her novel, The Time of Women. She is the director of the St. Petersburg branch of PEN.

“I got the impression that PEN America were invested in my account and were ready to provide us, the St. Petersburg Members of PEN International, with moral support. This is especially important now in these difficult times when the political relations between Russia and the United States are dipping below zero, so to speak. But it is precisely at times like these when the ties between analogous social organizations in our two countries as well as their mutual support become all the more vital. The same is true of the cultural ties that we the artists must maintain. As everyone knows, politics may change, but culture remains.”

Elena Kostyuchenko is a journalist, writer and activist. She is a correspondent of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, advocates for the LGTB community, and has penned two books, Unwanted on Probation and It’s Us Who Will Live Here.

“It’s strange to write this, but the week I spent with you in New York was the most inspirational experience that I’ve had in the last few years. Now that I’ve returned to Russia, I feel as charged as the battery of a new iPhone. Most likely I will soon return to being aware of my own weariness and limitations, but for now I am still energized.”

Lev Rubinstein is a Russian poet, literary critic, and essayist. He won the NOS-2012 “New Voices” prize for his novel, Signs of Attention, and the 1999 Andrey Bely Prize, the oldest independent literary prize in Russia.

Thank you to those who decided to invite me to New York. Thank you to those circumstances that allowed me to make new friends and see old ones. Thank you to the PEN movement, whose ideas and values I share entirely. Thank you to my beloved New York for allowing me to wander about your streets. “