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‘Man is born free, yet everywhere, he is in plastic handcuffs’: A Q&A with novelist Maria Kuznetsova

<p>Duke alum Maria Kuznetsova’s first novel, “OKSANA, BEHAVE!” stitches a loosely autobiographical narrative.</p>

Duke alum Maria Kuznetsova’s first novel, “OKSANA, BEHAVE!” stitches a loosely autobiographical narrative.

“Man is born free, yet everywhere, he is in plastic handcuffs.”

So begins a champagne and shackles night in Maria Kuznetsova’s first novel. In “OKSANA, BEHAVE!” Kuznetsova, Trinity ‘08, stitches a loosely autobiographical narrative, seeing Oksana through the turbulence of her immigrant childhood, and into her independence after she graduates from Duke. With a touch of Russian absurdism, Kuznetsova gives an intimate look at episodes in Oksana’s life, including her experiences amid the lacrosse case. The Chronicle spoke with Kuznetsova about “OKSANA, BEHAVE!”

The Chronicle: This book has been described as a coming-of-age novel. What does coming-of-age mean to you?

Maria Kuznetsova: To me, the arc of the book isn’t her becoming this adult and realizing how life is. It’s her realizing how little she knows, and embracing that. It starts with her being disgusted and embarrassed — basically mortified — by her immigrant family, or just the idea of family, or the fact that she’s tied to anybody. She just wants to fly off. And then, it ends more with family and with her getting there herself, and knowing how difficult and complicated and terrifying all of that is, and accepting it while not being perfect, and knowing that she’s gonna bungle it just like her parents, but she’s going to do her best. I guess coming-of-age is a tricky term because I think it implies that something concrete is gained at the end, and I don’t know if that is true in my book.

TC: You mention some Russian writers throughout the book. How do Russian authors impact your sense of self, and how does that impact Oksana’s sense of self?

MK: I’m from Ukraine, I speak Russian, and my family are Soviet people. I feel like I have this legacy that I couldn’t possibly live up to, with Pushkin and Chekhov and Tolstoy — people behind me when I’m writing. The biggest chapter that involves a Russian writer is the “Yalta Conference,” which is my homage to Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog.” That short story changed my life when I read it just out of undergrad. I just wanted to tell a modern story about the impossibilities of love. I treat it the best way I can, and I think Oksana is kind of conscious that she can’t really live up to that legacy; she is not trying to be Tolstoy or something. But she can certainly take something away from those writers while making her story her own.

TC: One major difference from a lot of the Russian literature that you reference is that a female character is misbehaving. Why did you choose to write about a girl who misbehaves?

MK: I think a lot about Russian superfluous male protagonists like Eugene Onegin, Pechorin, Sergei Dovlatov's narrator, and Oblomov … it’s a lot of Russian men getting drunk and misbehaving and still being charming throughout. And I just didn’t see a lot of stories like that with women acting that way. That was my challenge — to build on that, but from a female perspective. It is expected of males to behave badly, and when women do it, people have a harder time stomaching that. I don’t know that I set out to do that, but as I was thinking about this book, I was like, “this is like a lot of other stuff I’ve read, but it’s also a female getting into certain trouble that generally only male protagonists in Russian literature get into.”

TC: How does Duke fit into Oksana misbehaving?

MK: I have a complicated relationship with Duke. It was a really complicated time — I came from this very middle-class immigrant high school, where we didn’t have the traditional social structures you might associate with a high school. And then at Duke, I found them more placed. So I was trying to figure out who I was in this place where suddenly you have the most freedom you’ve ever had in your life at that point, and I think it’s an opportunity to learn and to grow and to breathe, and also to just get into a lot of trouble.

And then I think part of it is this American Dream. A lot of Russians’ dream is for their kid to go to a school like Duke. They come here, they work hard, and they make it happen. They give the child the opportunity to make it happen. But what does that really mean? That’s what she and I struggled with: “Well, I am here, but is this really the thing that my parents came here for? Is this the opportunity they wanted me to get? When I’m spending all this time at a frat party.”

TC: There’s also the Duke lacrosse case that happened while you were at Duke. Why was that was something you wanted to write about?

MK: It was kind of this thing that was happening, very much in the background of my sophomore year of college, and in the foreground was normal college stuff, that was just like me living my life and hanging out with my friends, and meeting boys, and going to class, whatever … and I don’t think I really understood what a big deal that was until years later. This was way before #MeToo and people talking openly about that kind of thing, and I just wanted to honestly write a better character. The reason I struggled with writing about it was because I had to understand that Oksana wasn’t there; in the earlier draft of the story, she was having all these woke, political 2017 thoughts about what was happening in the background about race and class and gender, and then I realized at twenty, she just wasn’t there. Maybe other people on campus were, but she was trying to get this guy to love her, and didn’t realize that maybe there was something that wasn’t parallel but that she could’ve maybe paid attention to more.

TC: What did you derive from creating this character who is based on you, but who also goes beyond into these situations that you’ve imagined?

MK: It taught me a lot about fiction-writing, and a lot about myself. Writing the character brought out a lot of things that I didn’t know I was that into then. Certain obsessions came out, that I didn’t know I had, that she had. It was a way to learn more about the character and myself. Her search for faith while being this Soviet atheist — I’ve never really articulated that, or thought I cared about it at all, but then I kind of realized “Oh I’m obsessed with this.” It’s always kind of an undercurrent and I’ve never articulated it, but the character has.

Kuznetsova is excited to return to Duke Nov. 1 for DEMAN Weekend  to talk about her work and about enduring rejection as a writer. She is now working on a book based on her grandmother’s World War II experiences.

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