Red Weather by Pauls Toutonghi. Shaye Areheart Books, 2006, $23, 246 pages.
Yuri Balodis, the hero of Red Weather is an exile from a country he's never seen. He's never been there, yet it dominates much of his life. He is a native-born American, the only child of immigrants who have immersed him in memories of another culture. The recollections are partly his mother's, but especially his father's. Both defected during the Brezhnev era from the Soviet dominated Baltic republic of Latvia. Their angst and anguish inform his young life, their fears direct his politics, and their history haunts his future. In a way, they are living on different planes. His mother never wants to go back. She can't abide the tragedies that befell her there. His father, meanwhile, cannot wrest himself away from his constant longing for the life they lost by leaving. Not that he had much choice. Having insulted the reigning powers, he was imprisoned there and tortured. He and his wife flee years later, risking all in an escape by sea. Yet his every moment is taken up with remembering and lamenting the loss of their former lives, their old world. He is resigned but not reconciled.
Milwaukee is where they've settled, and where their American son is attempting to deal with his heritage. Ironically, neither parent wants their son to speak their language, and he's never been taught it.
Red Weather is spirited and heartfelt, a story of emigration's challenges to identity. It is a deceptively insightful, subtle, and funny.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
"A lightning rod of captivating humor, colorful characters and well-crafted prose." -- Seattle Times
"Toutonghi's unflinching and hilarious account summons all the tormented urgency of one's high-school years, when everything feels so fraught with meaning because it actually is.... Toutonghi, himself a first-generation American, renders the family's Soviet-inflected speech and mannerisms with wit and sensitivity." -- Time Out
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Pauls Toutonghi is a first-generation American. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a Fulbright grant, and he is the winner of the first annual Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Zoetrope, One Story and the Boston Review.
A CONVERSATION WITH PAULS TOUTONGHI:
I meet author Pauls Toutonghi at a quiet middle-eastern cafe in Brooklyn, with a serene back garden. Unfortunately, we don't stay, and wind up in a sidewalk Mexican restaurant at a very noisy intersection. The screeches and sirens of the big city will interrupt our conversation constantly. I shout at Pauls: "Your hero, Yuri, narrates the novel, and says at one point, 'So much of my life with my parents had been solitary. We were a small kernel of Latvians, buried deep within the folds and seams of the broader American culture.' Does he speak for you in that instance?"
"You grew up in Seattle, in a Latvian community?"
"Yeah. My mother is Latvian; my father, Lebanese. I actually spoke Latvian before I spoke English."
"It was your first language? Did your mother speak it to you when you were little?"
"Yes, although when she scolded me for anything she'd do it in English. She didn't want me to develop any negative connotation with the Latvian language. So she would talk Latvian with me exclusively, and of course I spent a lot of time with her when I was small, and I started speaking it with her."
"When you went to regular public school, did you speak English?"
"Yes, I spoke English by that point. I spoke English pretty soon after I learned Latvian from my mom."
"Were you an only child?"
"I have two half-brothers and two half-sisters."
"How large was the Latvian community in Seattle?"
"I would say about four hundred people. My grandfather was fairly prominent and very active in the community. He founded the Latvian summer camp. So I was always expected to partake. I attended Latvian school on Saturdays for 14 years, learning grammar, customs, history, and I developed a real love of the language and culture. My grandfather was a significant presence in the community and they were accepting of me as Latvian. But there was always this tension. Most of the kids I went to school with had two Latvian parents. I felt that I was a little bit foreign, because my dad wasn't Latvian and I didn't have a Latvian name. I mean, I felt like an outsider, having this last name that wasn't translatable, like Berzins (Birch) or Ozols (Oak)."
"How do you pronounce it?"
"'Too tong geey.' It's Turkish."
"Great sound to it." A string of trucks grind past.
"Yeah, I like it. I think it's distinctive"
"How did the Latvian emigres deal with your having a non-Latvian parent?"
"Hmm. Well, you know, they are not the most...ethnically accepting" -- his voice rises, as if posing a question -- "group."
"Really?" I tease. He laughs. "How did your mom's family react to her marrying a non-Latvian?" I ask.
"Not well initially. But they adjusted."
"I take it there weren't any Democrats among the Seattle Latvians."
"Oh, no. My mother was one of the few. She's no longer, but she was one of the only ones back then. She's become more conservative as the years have gone on, but she was one of maybe four or five Democrats. It was and is an extremely conservative group. In part it was because there was this real hatred of FDR for signing over -- relinquishing -- Latvia to Stalin at Yalta. And they [the Latvians] associated Democrats with that. They wanted politicians who would stand up to the Soviet Union, like Eisenhower and Reagan."
"Your narrator and hero is the opposite of you...or you inside out."
"Yes. My hero, Yuri, feels kind of like an outsider in American society, because of his cultural background."
"Unlike you, he doesn't speak Latvian. His mother and father don't want him to speak Latvian. Like many immigrant parents, they don't want their child tainted by their history. They want him to only look to the future. His mother, in fact, never wants to go back. Her experiences in her native country were too horrible. But Yuri's father is obsessed with their homeland. He's working as a janitor [at a car dealership] and has become an alcoholic, but quite a romantic one, and he is always talking about the past and what they left behind. He absolutely envelops Yuri with his longing. He says early on, 'America wants to make you into a pudding.' What does he mean?"