Monday, 9 May 2016

'My Stubborn Tongue'

This week Anna Fishbeyn came to Pushkin House with a performance that rocked the rafters of our 1703 abode: My Stubborn Tongue. Through acting and singing, with a piano accompaniment, Anna recounts the experience of moving to the U.S. as a 9 year-old child as part of the Jackson-Vanick agreement between the U.S. and Russia, when Russian Jews were, effectively, traded for grain. As she says: “America wanted the Russian Jews to demonstrate to the world how oppressive the Soviet Union was, and Russia needed grain, Russia was starving.” Against this bleak backdrop of human trading, Anna with great humour and insight recounts the ups and downs of being a Russian immigrant with an accent in the US at a time when people with accents were treated as second class citizens (as is still the case in some places). Anna watched her mother continue to be mistreated in department stores and restaurants simply because of her accent, and her family was repeatedly told to go back to Russia during their early years in the U.S.
The stunning Anna Fishbeyn in action
Anna decided to train her accent out of her tongue and to become as American as possible. She changed her name to Annie and spoke flawless English. But her roots were betrayed when her friends would come to her house to be fed Salat Olivye and encouraged to participate in the family’s regular after-dinner performances as her father played the balalaika and her mother sang opera. Her mother and grandmother had drummed into her head that kissing led to sex and sex could lead to only one thing - marriage. So when Anna started to date, she didn’t simply open up about her origins - she “forced her culture” on her dates: she would turn the subject to Anti-Semitism and Stalin before the bra could be removed, and perhaps sing some Russian laments. This was in order to check whether the boy in question was willing to take this stuff on.

As an immigrant, Anna needed to convey to the person she may be about to become intimate with, something of herself, what she had escaped, her background - that even if her family chose to leave that culture, part of it stayed with them. She does an impression of the guy’s response upon hearing about her Russian childhood, ‘Um I can understand that’ he says, desperately trying and desperately keen to get her bra off, ‘Actually I can’t understand that because I grew up in California, and it was pretty sunny, you know like the S.U.N,” pointing at the sky, “and Vitamin D gives you endorphins.” Touchingly, at Thanksgiving, the toasts are all to America; and the family attempts to feed Anna’s American friend the delicacy of cow’s brains as well as the turkey. 

I identified with this behaviour with boys - even though I never emigrated to Russia, I immersed myself in Russia over the years when most of my friends were rooting their lives and careers in the UK. It was hard for me to reconcile these parts of myself when visiting home from Russia, or even for the first years after my return when I was still traveling there a lot. On dates with ‘suitable’ English boys, I would rabbit on about Russia and use Russian words when nervous - I wanted to see if they would take it on, but also, for me, it was a safety mechanism to hide behind. And anyway, deep, dark intense subjects are a good precursor to sex, aren’t they?

Anna Fishbeyn performing in 'My Stubborn Tongue'
Having passed entirely convincingly as an American for many years, Anna decided to embrace her Russianness. She reverted to Anna (the Russian pronounced more like Honor) and began having to explain herself at parties. She was stunned by how little people knew about Russia. She said she originally wrote the play for her grandmother who came to the U.S., and never learned English. “My grandmother used to say, ‘We suffered in Russia and we suffered in America, what is the point of life?’” says Anna, “I wrote the play as an ode to my grandmother, an attempt to make sense of her suffering, of immigrant suffering.” But Anna also concedes that she wrote it for herself, to reconcile the disparate parts of personality. She does this literally also - this is a one-woman show and she plays several parts: her mother, grandmother, aunt, father, several non-plussed American boys, an Estee-Lauder saleslady, her ex-fiancĂ© and his mother, and herself.

Her director is an American-Romanian, Adrian Roman, who saw his own story in Anna’s when he first saw the performance. In this sense, hers is a story anyone who has emigrated or lived abroad and embedded themselves deep into another culture, can identify with. Many people who come through the doors of Pushkin House - whether it is Russians now living in London, or other foreign nationals who have lived a long time in Russia - have a misplaced or split identity syndrome, confused cultural references and a desire to piece it all together. Anna Fishbeyn performs this reconciliation in her play: watching her perform was healing and exhilarating.

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