The UnAmericans

The UnAmericans

by Molly Antopol


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A stunning exploration of characters shaped by the forces of history, the debut work of fiction by a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" Honoree.

Moving from modern-day Jerusalem to McCarthy-era Los Angeles to communist Prague and back again, The UnAmericans is a stunning exploration of characters shaped by the forces of history. Molly Antopol’s critically acclaimed debut will long be remembered for its "poise and gravity" (New York Times), each story "so full of heartache and humor, love and life…[it’s] as though we’re absorbing a novel’s worth of insight" (Jesmyn Ward, Salon).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594762669
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/06/2014
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 113,506
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Molly Antopol teaches writing at Stanford University, where she was a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow. A recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, she holds an MFA fromColumbiaUniversityandlives in San Francisco.


A Conversation with Molly Antopol, Author of The UnAmericans: Stories

Your stories move from McCarthy-era America to modern-day Israel to communist Europe and back again. What's your connection to these times and places?

Many of the stories in this book were inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I come from a big family of storytellers, and I grew up surrounded by tales of surveillance, tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI. Those things—combined with my very nerdy love of research—informed my McCarthy-era stories.

In terms of the Israel stories, I've spent my entire adult life going back and forth between there and the U.S. I lived there for years—I used to work for a Palestinian-Israeli human rights group, and at a youth village aiding new immigrants from Chechnya, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union. And for the past seven years, since getting to Stanford and being on their academic schedule, I've spent my summers there.

Eastern Europe is a part of the world that's always fascinated me. My family's originally from there, many of my favorite books were written in (and about) communist-era Europe, and in recent years I've been lucky enough to have received research grants to a number of countries in the region. It's interesting—though my family loves to tell stories, the one place I never got to hear about was Antopol, the Belarusian village where my relatives came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. A little more that a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa, where I met an elderly woman from Antopol who had known my family. It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. She led me to an oral history book about the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, which her son had put together. The moment I finished reading it (I remember just where I was, at the kitchen table in my apartment in Tel Aviv), I began writing The UnAmericans.

How did you come up with the title of your book?

As a kid, I'd always associated the word "Un-American" solely with the Red Scare, and the 50s-era stories in my book grew largely out of my attempt to understand what it might have been like for my family to grow up under the shadow of McCarthyism.

As I wrote more stories, I became fascinated by the complicated meaning the word might have to this current generation of Israelis, forced to contend every day with their country's messy and symbiotic relationship to America. In one of my stories, an Israeli soldier resents having to defend a settlement filled with Brooklyn-born religious families but still pines for a chance to discover the United States for himself; in another, a young Israeli journalist's life path is thrown into question during America's most recent economic meltdown. I also found myself exploring this idea of "Un-American-ness" in terms of privilege—for example, in the book's final story, "Retrospective," my working-class Israeli narrator never feels at home in America even after a decade of living there, whereas his wealthy American wife globetrots across the Middle East with utter confidence and ease.

Some of my other stories are about East Europeans immigrating to America. I was really interested in thinking about this notion of "Un-American-ness" for these characters—dissidents and academics, banned artists and writers—who risked their lives for their politics in their mother countries and are then forced to reinvent their identities in the United States, a country where they're treated as anything but American. I kept thinking about the complicated emotional impact the fall of communism might have had on my characters during that time. I thought about what it might have felt like to dedicate oneself to a cause that, in the course of world events, comes to an end—and wondered whether some people might have had a niggling feeling of nostalgia for that bleak time, simply because they held a significant place in it. For so many of my characters, their entire sense of self is shaped by their political work, and I wanted to explore how having lived under surveillance in Eastern Europe influences their lives once they immigrate to America, where they quickly realize that not only are they no longer being watched—they're no longer being noticed.

You write from the perspectives of men and women, young and old, American, Israeli and East European. Would you still say that your stories are autobiographical?

Grace Paley has this quote I've always loved, not to write what you know, but to write what you don't know about what you know. That's what it feels like for me. One of the main reasons I write fiction is to try to understand what life might be like for other people. I've always seen writing as a form of method acting—for the eight or twelve or fifteen months that I'm working on a story, I'm constantly thinking about how my narrator would react to whatever tangled social or familial situation I'm in, and it's the moment I begin to see the world through their eyes that I know my story's headed in an interesting direction. (That doesn't always happen, unfortunately!) I read a lot of nonfiction, and I love the feeling of trying to explore what it might have been like to live in another place or during a different time, or even to live here in the present day, but as a man, or a person much older than I am—I often find that I'm able to access certain emotional truths about my own life by exploring things from different vantages. I haven't written any stories about female writers living in San Francisco, but I do feel that my stories are autobiographical in the sense that they capture what I questioned and obsessed over during the decade I was writing them. And the theme I found myself circling back to, again and again, was the complicated—and sometimes devastating—impact one person's quest to improve the world can have on the people closest to them.

In your stories, older generations look forward and not back, while younger generations look back in order to understand the present. Do you think these two outlooks can be reconciled?

That's something I think about a lot. The older members of my family are very confused (albeit lovingly) by my fascination with the past. I love to travel and do it every opportunity I get, and they can't understand why I always end up in these freezing, post-communist towns or crowded Middle Eastern cities rather than, say, Hawaii.

I'm still trying to reconcile this question in my own life. The closest I got was in writing the third story in my book, "My Grandmother Tells Me This Story." I'd been struggling with that one for months, and it was only when I made the narrator a reticent older woman frustrated by her granddaughter's incessant questions about dark periods of history she'd never lived through, that the story really cracked open for me.

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The UnAmericans 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Stories that range through time to explore Jewish American, European, and Israeli identity:
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