Leningrad, Queens, Columbia: Gary Shteyngart's Little Failure

Updated: Dec 4, 2018

Interview / I talk to author Gary Shteyngart about his memoir, Little Failure.

Gary Shteyngart, the award-winning author of three critically acclaimed novels—The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story—recently published a memoir, Little Failure. Titled after a nickname given to the author by his mother, the book takes us on a simultaneously heart-wrenching and hilarious journey through Shteyngart’s childhood and young adulthood. Born in Soviet Leningrad, where he spent seven years as a sickly, asthmatic child fiercely devoted to Lenin and his rodina (motherland), he immigrated with his parents to New York as a Jewish refugee in 1979. The family settled in Kew Gardens, Queens, where he discovered the evils of the Soviet Union and the glory of Ronald Reagan. Shteyngart’s parents, raised as secular Jews, enthusiastically embraced the Jewish faith upon immigrating and sent him to a local Hebrew School, where his peers tormented him for his Soviet heritage, strange clothing (often fur), and the tendency to mutter in Russian under his breath. He made it through the experience, earning at least minimal respect from his classmates by writing satirical tales and reading them aloud in school. When he enrolled in Stuyvesant High School—his first day there was one of the first times he’d set foot in Manhattan—he soon realized the folly of his Republican values. He later went to Oberlin College, majored in political science to please his parents, and started writing The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. He finished the book nearly ten years later in New York, while working as a writer of brochures for the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA). It was published in 2002, when he was thirty years old.


I met Shteyngart, a member of the Harriman Institute faculty teaching in the M.F.A. writing program at Columbia’s School of the Arts, on February 11, 2014, at the Columbia Journalism café, just a month after publication of Little Failure, and three months after the birth of his son, Johnny. Tired from flying around the world—it was Day 49 of his 158-day book tour—he feverishly unwrapped a cough drop. “This is my best friend, this Halls men- tholyptus eucalyptus something or other,” he said, popping it into his mouth, “Mmmm . . . ahhhh . . . ahhhh . . . bring it on!”


Read the interview in the Summer 2014 issue of Harriman Magazine.