Our reading for December, Lara Vapnyar’s “Luda and Milena”, is formally, linguistically and thematically simpler than the previous two we have discussed, yet it is an extraordinary short story that should not be dismissed on the basis of its simplicity. Originally published in The New Yorker, it was later included in Vapnyar’s second and most recent collection of short stories, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, among others that share with it the intersecting themes mentioned in the explicit title. The characters of this story, Luda and Milena, are typical of Vapnyar’s work, that is, they are Russian immigrants to the United States. As the author affirms in a number of interviews, she writes about what she knows. Vapnyar immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1994, when she was 23 years old, an experience apparently still quite vivid in her memory and engrained in her literary imagination.
In “Luda and Milena” the author uses the setting of an ESL (English as a Second Language) class to introduce the reader to the two rivaling protagonists, but this setting comes to occupy a secondary importance in the narration. The same could be said of the plot, since the narrative of this story clearly focuses on Luda and Milena’s impressions, reactions, perspectives, needs, motivations and emotions. This E.S.L. classroom is a pretext to bring together the protagonists and to provide the reader with a local color snapshot of immigrant Brooklyn, or with an interesting statement about the divisions and sympathies between different cultural groups in the urban United States, depending on the reader’s perspective, of course. Despite Angie’s “enthusiasm”, the dynamic between the individual students is anything but harmonious. For instance, Luda and Milena are from the same country, but they only feel hostile toward each other.
This leads me to conclude that the Culture Collector for this month’s meeting has a lot of interesting material. I would encourage him or her, and all the participants, to think a bit about the information in the story pertaining to the “immigrant experience”. I think we can explore a number of different notions in relation to immigration, particularly in the United States. It doesn’t matter if these notions are real or imagined, based on prejudice or on experience. In “Luda and Milena”, a large proportion of the narrative is dedicated to monitoring these two silently fueding middle-aged women and their perspectives of each other and of the other students in the class. Try to isolate the moments of objective description and those of the women’s thoughts. Upon careful inspections, I think you will see that the story offers us a great deal of insight into the situation of its characters and that its simplicity can fool the reader if he or she generally equates simplicity with a lack of quality or depth. That said, the Characterizer also has quite a job ahead of him or her – there is an immense amount of information about Luda and Milena. I look forward to hearing your thoughts at the meeting on Wednesday.
Normally, I would refrain from using a term or idea such as the “immigrant experience” because of its tendency to gloss over a much harsher reality and homogenize the experience of individuals who have little in common aside from having been born in a different country. I would also refrain from venturing an explanation of a work of literature based on knowledge of the biography of its author. But this month’s reading provides an exception to my general rule. I believe that “Luda and Milena” is a simple but well written piece of fiction by a storyteller who has a story to tell us (in our own language, not hers!) about an experience that would be difficult for us to know of if not for her will and capacity to tell it. I hope you enjoy this story by Lara Vapnyar.