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?"
"That American culture wants to streamline and eliminate difference. I think I was always conscious that there was this pressure to lose your identity, to lose your language, to lose your customs. I saw that a lot and it was something I always thought sad. So I put it in the father's speech. Also he's a character who's prone to saying things. He drinks. He's volatile. He was a song writer and singer, and a poet too. Anyway, the father is beaten down by the circumstances of his life and the fact that he wanted to be an artist, and now he's a janitor. He really had this passion for Latvian culture and song, and loved Latvian poetry and American country and western music. He wanted to be free to sing whatever songs he wanted. And when he tried to do that, he was brutally silenced -- charged with 'anti Soviet agitation' and found to be a 'socially dangerous element.' For which he was imprisoned and tortured, his hand mangled."
I think about this a moment, then ask, "How did you feel about the American romance with communism when you were growing up, when you were in school? Were you surprised by the American left?"
"Oh, I was very surprised. I was raised to just hate communism. I was indoctrinated from the time I was a child, so it was difficult to figure out and later realize that, hey, some of these socialist ideas were interesting. Maybe there was something to them. When I was a kid, I had a t-shirt that said, 'Nyet, Nyet, Soviet!', and it had a hammer-and-sickle and a list of all the countries they'd seized, crossed out on the front, and all the countries they'd invaded, on the back. I grew up in an environment of intense propaganda against socialism and communism. It was weird to realize I actually liked some of their ideas and believed that nationalism didn't have to be exclusionary, full of hatred, or unwilling to accept other ethnic groups."
"You have your hero fall in love with a socialist classmate, who's handing out the Daily Worker, and her father is a radical professor."
"Right," Paul Toutonghi laughs, "which I had so much fun with. I was teaching at the University of Vermont, and the Socialist-Worker people were out in front of the library on the steps, handing out this newspaper. So I'd have these wonderfully absurd conversations with them, where they would talk about the global industrial hegemony and the need for working classes to unite in all forms of struggle against oppression. I thought how interesting it would be if Yuri's girlfriend's father was a socialist, and she too. There I had my conflict between the hero and his family."
"Visitors from Latvia come to stay with Yuri's family, including a cousin his age: Eriks. Your hero envies his Latvian cousin his worldliness and wishes he had grown up oppressed."
Pauls Toutonghi nods. "When I went to Latvian summer camp, they brought over kids from Latvia. And I was very much envious of a sort of sophistication they had and my American friends didn't. It seemed very real to me; the Latvian kids had had tough lives. I was always conscious, from the time I was a kid, of being very lucky and being extremely privileged, of having this very comfortable middle-class upbringing. Part of that was due to Latvian Saturday school, where it was drummed into me repeatedly about the struggles of Latvian people under communism, and how they were forbidden to speak Latvian over there, how many were deported to labor camps, executed. It was a very bloody past. I was conscious of how good I had it. So when I met somebody my age from there, I was somewhat envious of this sense of their having seen a lot."
"Yet, of course, the visiting cousin is wonderfully naive too," I point out. "You have a terrific scene between them as they discuss a microwave oven. 'How can it cook so rapidly?' the visiting cousin asks. 'How does it work?' 'It's a microwave,' Yuri says, faking an answer. 'It cooks the food with micros.' Then he thinks: 'Who knew how a microwave worked, anyway? This wasn't necessary information for living a contemporary American life. You just punched in the numbers and the food cooked.'""I'm glad you liked that so much. Shay Areheart editor, my editor, will be delighted. She had a lot to do with that scene."
"For Yuri's big date, he does something very American. He takes his girlfriend for a joy ride in a stolen car."
"Yes, that was somewhat autobiographical. Not the stolen part but, when I was in high school, I was driving very late one night and decided to take my girl to Canada. Vancouver wasn't very far and we were driving down the road and making out, and we drove off the side of the road into the concrete barrier, blew out the tires, ripped up the fender. I had to drive back at 40 mph with the hazards on. That memory remains sort of fresh."
"When Cousin Eriks suggests that the Latvian flag might fly again, that the country might win its independence, the father just dismisses this. He can't believe it's possible. Was that your family's feeling as well?"
"Oh, yes. I was 15 when the USSR started to break apart. I remember when the television station in the Latvian capital was besieged, there were still Latvians here saying the Soviet Union will never fall. That was a terribly familiar sense of fatalism -- the atmosphere in which I grew up. I think Latvians are the most fatalistic people on earth. A friend, who is an investment banker now, came to the US and lived with my family. You ask him, 'How are you doing?' And, if you're lucky, he'll say, 'Oh, normal.' Never, 'Great!' Honestly, I feel like we are the most gloomy, superstitious, nihilistic folks in the world. If something good is happening, we do not want to talk about it, so that it will continue. Anyway, I cried when Latvia was free again. It was a very emotional thing for me as a teenager."
"You made three trips to Latvia. The first time, how did you feel about this homeland you'd never seen?"
"It was so mind blowing. We were mostly in Riga. We tried to find relatives. We didn't have much family left. They'd mostly died, or were deported in the 40s. Riga, that first time, was still very Russian. And still is. Over half the population there is Russian, something on the order of sixty percent. But still, it was amazing to hear Latvian being spoken everywhere. That was just tremendous and fascinating for me. The difference visible each trip was enormous. Especially in Old Riga, the medieval center of the capital, where they revitalized everything, restored all the old buildings. There's great concern for restoring the beauty of the city. When I went back with my girlfriend, I was in my 20s and I actually saw more of the night life and the seedier side of the city. We explored the medieval center too, and the outer ring of deco architecture."
"Your girlfriend was American?"
"How did she like it?"
"She loved it."