'I feel like an outsider in every culture'

Margarita Meklina on Galway Fringefest show Emigrant Elegy

Margarita Meklina.

Margarita Meklina.

ONE OF the main events at the Galway Fringe Festival this weekend is Emigrant Elegy. This event is a juxtaposition of emigrant history and human desire to love and belong, in the form of words and music, bringing together the rich multiculturalism of the past and present in Ireland.

We hear of the Jewish and other minorities who settled in Ballybough - ‘the Soho’ of Dublin as it was called. They speak from beyond the grave, giving us an insight into their lives. Their voices will be interspersed with a story of a Russian immigrant who escapes a patronising Syrian husband to end up in the treacherous, yet thrilling, embraces of a Lebanese woman. Woven through these stories and poems is magical music-to- text composed specifically for the event. This confluence of music and words features Dublin-based poet Gerry McDonnell, Russian-American writer Margarita Meklina, and Galway pianist and improviser Maja Elliott. It is organised by the Western Writers Centre.

Margarita Meklina is a prize-winning writer from St Petersburg, who has lived in San Fransisco, and is now based in Dublin. She is widely recognised as a groundbreaking writer for her cutting prose, which helped redefine Russian literature in the 1990s as it emerged from decades under the Soviet shadow.

“I emigrated to the US as a refugee from the Soviet Union, I was in the last wave of Jewish refugees and I had only $10 in my pocket at the time,” she tells me as she describes what brought her to Ireland two years ago. “I worked as a night loader at UPS and after 20 years in the US. I just felt nostalgia to be an immigrant again. I wanted that feeling when you come to a new country with no money.

"I packed just one bag with clothes and another with food, oats and dried beans soup and seaweed, and I got a plane to Ireland. I rented a place with a Lithuanian landlady in Blanchardstown, I had taken no money from the US, I got a job here with a software company who provides software for libraries. The major pull for me was I knew there were good short story writers here, and, whereas it was hard for me to get known as a writer in America, even though I had published six books in Russia, I thought it would be different in Ireland.”

'I went to Jewish university but my mother who is Russian didn’t like that or get on with my Jewish relatives so I always felt outsider even in my family'

Meklina enlarges on her sense of outsider identity; “I am half Russian and half Jewish so in St Petersburg, Russians didn’t like me for being Jewish and Jews didn’t like me for being Russian. I thought, with emigrating, people wouldn’t ask if I am Russian or Jewish. My relatives had emigrated to America which is how I started thinking of emigrating there myself like Nabokov did when he was 20.

"My writing has always about been an outsider. I feel like an outsider in every culture, even in Russia. I went to Jewish university but my mother who is Russian didn’t like that or get on with my Jewish relatives so I always felt outsider even in my family because they were fighting. When I came to Ireland I learned about Gerry McDonnell the poet who writes about Irish Jews, he told me he felt like an interloper into the Jewish world and I also feel a little outside.

"So we thought it would be good to get together and do an event to show there is more than one like us. I felt like an outsider in Russia but then I also felt like an outsider in America and you can never get rid of this feeling of being outside and you have a different view, you don’t quite fit in but you bring something new with you.”

How did she team up with Gerry and musician Maja Elliot I ask? “Gerry knew Maja because he bought a painting by her a long time ago. Maja is fascinated by other cultures, she lived with gypsies in Romania, she played music on a cruise ship in China and studied in Budapest and travelled with Italian jugglers but she always felt like an outsider; she was born in the Middle East and grew up with a Swedish mum and she has since discovered she may have Ashkenazi Jews in her family.

"Gerry wanted to give a voice to the dead Jews who he says are a forgotten community in Ireland so his book Mud Island Elegy is about Jewish people speaking from beyond the grave and many of them had unhappy lives because they emigrated and longed for their previous lives. Maja’s music adds character to these people - she researched lots of Yiddish songs and songs of the Jewish diaspora and I told her songs my grandmother used to sing to me.

"Maja said she wanted to learn some Yiddish because she is a linguist and already knows French, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, German, Romanian. I first met her through friends in Galway and she told me about Gerry and so we had a topic because I already had a book about a Russian Jewish boy emigrating to Argentina, The Little Gaucho Who Loved Don Quixote. Though the show started out as being about Jews, it is much more about all emigrants’ longing.”

Margarita reveals which of her own works she will read as part of the event; “I will read a couple of stories one is called The Sauce Stealer which is the title of my latest book and the story is about my experience in Ireland. When I first arrived I was always hungry, I was just eating my dried bean soups. So one day I went in a restaurant and took two ketchup sachets to add to my bean can and one of the restaurant employees ran after me and went through my bag and I felt very alienated. It was 2016 and the centenary of the Rising and there was all this stuff about the Rising everywhere and celebrations but there is still homelessness and poverty in Dublin which reminded me of conditions in Soviet Russia.

"My story is about a Russian immigrant who is busking on O’Connell Street and sending money to her daughter in Russia, it looks at people who are poor in Ireland and hungry because I was hungry at the time I wrote it. I have another story about immigrants finding love. It has a quote from Desmond Hogan’s The Ikon Maker which I think is appropriate for emigrants; ‘she felt suddenly the hunger of the land she lived in, the need chosen by many people to be loved’ and my story is about an eastern European immigrant coming and finding love with a Lebanese immigrant.”

Poet Fred Johnston, reviewing Meklina’s latest book The Sauce Stealer, writes that she "has a genuine empathy with characters who are lost or slipping off the radar", and Emigrant Elegy, featuring her stories, Gerry McDonnell’s moving poems and Maja Elliot’s sensitive music promises to be a memorable event. It will be performed at Katie’s Claddagh Cottage, Upper Fairhill Road, on Saturday July 29 at 2pm. Admission is free.

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