Associate professor of Spanish, Natalia Santamaria interviewed literature professor Lisa Williams on March 18 to discuss her recent novel, “Forget Russia,” over Zoom. A range of both students and faculty members were in attendance, and the event was hosted by the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and was mediated by history professor Michael Riff.
“Forget Russia” was published this past December after 20 years of writing and revisiting the book since Williams’ experience as an American graduate student at Moscow.
“It deals with three different periods in Russian and Jewish history, but based on my family history,” Williams said, explaining the premise of her work. “The novel begins looking at Ukraine before and after the revolution.”
The book explores a familial history, as the main character Anna uncovers more truths about her ancestors, consequently shaping her future. It touches on inherited violence as well, molding a complex relationship between the past and present. As a result, this detail renders the novel a multifaceted coming of age tale in contemporary Russia and America.
Williams explained that much of her inspiration derives from personal narratives she documented during her stay in Russia as a young adult. There, she was able to engage in the Russian-Jewish culture and gauge the experience of a religious Soviet Jew.
“I saw firsthand the kind of danger they were in. I’ve never witnessed anything like that before,” she said.
The people she built relationships with helped craft the experiences of characters in “Forget Russia,” as it is not a strict tale of one life, but rather, a conglomerate of many. Williams indicated that this style was mainly portrayed in the more violent and perhaps graphic scenes, which were intentionally written to display how an act of hate had affected women of subsequent generations.
Williams also noted that her novel delves into the discovery of self-identity, and she gave credit to Toni Morrison’s narratives and essays for partial inspiration.
“I ultimately feel that Morrison’s words are so wise that it helped root me in my own identity,” she said. “All of our ancestors have wisdom to give us and teach us, we just have to open up to them.”
She also pointed out that her mother has always known her to have a “Russian soul,” which coincides with the meaning of the book’s title and its emphasis on generational inheritances: no one can forget Russia.
“I felt this obsession, that I needed to go there, too, as a young person and take this long transformative journey and spend all these years trying to understand what that meant to me and write about it,” she said.
“I feel that everyone is very much emotionally caught up with the place that was at one time called ‘home’—wherever that may be. So whether it’s one generation removed, two, three or 10 years, somehow there’s a lot of longing tied up to that place.”
Riff closed the night, moving to an open Q&A panel, prompted by questions given through Zoom’s chat feature. A student asked Williams if she wished she had done anything differently. Williams’ answer was a nod to current young writers, as it offered a profound piece of advice:
“As long as you always go for what you want, don’t give up your dream even if it seems impossible and you have a hundred [rejections]. You will have no regrets, and for that reason, I have no regrets.”
“Forget Russia” is available on Amazon for purchase, or a copy can be borrowed through the George T. Potter Library system.