Boris Fishman told people to call him Bobbie when he moved to Wayne.
He was 13 years old, starting a new school, and trying to pull away from his past as an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.
If only it were so easy.
Now, Mr. Fishman, 37, is the author of two well-reviewed novels powered by the tensions of his multiple identities. He will speak at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades next Thursday (see box).
Mr. Fishman was 9 when he came to America from Minsk with his parents in 1988. The move was a surprise, and the world he discovered at his new home in Brooklyn was a shock.
“No one had really warned me about what we were doing and why,” he said. “Soviet Jewish families treated their children on a need-to-know basis. I was such an obedient child that I didn’t ask.”
He quickly learned English and was determined to be an American. Before moving to Wayne, he had studied for the exam to enter Manhattan’s exclusive Stuyvesant High School. He passed. Except: “Nobody had bothered to check that I could attend if we lived in New Jersey,” he said. He couldn’t.
Wayne Hills High School, however, proved to be a good choice — perhaps a better one, he said. “Retroactively, I am so grateful for that experience,” he said. “It lacked that crazy cut-throat competitiveness that awaits you at Stuyvesant and that I found at Princeton.”
Ditching the name “Boris” for “Bobbie” reflected the fact that after four years in America, “I was pretty Americanized.”
And then “a tremendous English teacher had us read ‘Fathers and Sons’ by Turgenev.” Reading the first great Russian novel “woke something in me that had been hiding and made to sleep for some time.”
High school also was when he began to write. First poems, then “two terrible novellas, 90 pages each.
“I think it had to do with having learned a new language at an advanced age,” he said. “It was kind of a game for me to go from one to the other and think about language and everything it could do. I’m not sure I would have had the same vivid feelings about words if I had known only one language.”
After high school, Mr. Fishman went to Princeton, where he majored in Russian literature. After college, he went to Moscow, working for the American embassy, where he discovered the limits of his Russianness. He was too American for Russia, just as he had been too Russian for America.
“I will never be fully the one or the other,” he said. “When I’m with Americans I feel like a Russian, and sometimes vice versa.
“There will never be a wholeness on this issue for me. There’s no piece of the Russian-Jewish-American triangle I don’t have ambivalent feelings about,” he said.
If his immigrant experience left him with a conflicted identity, it did bring him a gift as a writer.
“Because immigration is so full of drama and trauma, I have lots of material,” he said.
The spark of his first novel, “A Replacement Life,” came from his experience as his family’s first English-speaker. “Because I knew the language first, I became responsible for a lot of family affairs that should have been for adults,” he said.
That included filling out his grandmother’s application for Holocaust restitution. She had been in the Minsk ghetto during World War II. “I was surprised to discover there was no requirement for documentation because so much documentation was lost,” he said. “History” — and reparations money — “became a matter of storytelling.”
In the novel, Mr. Fishman imagines someone — a Russian immigrant writer like Mr. Fishman — using his storytelling talents to fill out fraudulent reparations applications for a growing clientele.
“I wanted to raise the question, ‘is there ever a just fraud?’”
“I come from a place where it was very difficult to get things, or a just outcome, without a breaking of the law. It was a system that functioned only through regular bribery and avoidance of the law. So there’s that history.
“Meanwhile there are people who unquestionably suffered during the war, but not according to some bureaucrat’s definition of suffering — that gets more and more lenient over the years. In the 1950s you had to be in the ghetto for 18 months for reparations. Today it’s three months.”
“It’s so morally complex.”
His second book, “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo,” explores a different America. The northern New Jersey couple at the center of the novel embarks on a road trip to Montana.
That too comes from personal experience.
“One bright day 10 years ago I finally got to experience life west of New Jersey — and I was completely knocked off my feet,” he said. “Places like Montana and Dakota. I was mesmerized by the completely different values that prevail there.
“People in New Jersey don’t like stereotypes about New Jersey, but they have the worst stereotypes about Montana. Those stereotypes are equally wrong.
“A lot of people I met there are more interesting than people in New York City,” where he lives.
“I feel so constricted in a hundred different ways in New York City. The pace, the expectations, the expense — I could go on for hours. Being out there” — Montana — “feels like a vacation of the soul. The headmaster is away and you can live a free life. That experience makes good self discovery possible.”
Since his first visit, he has returned on vacations, on assignment for the New York Times Magazine, and this summer for six weeks volunteering on a farm.
Mr. Fishman worked as a journalist “because it seemed like a more stable version of the narrative voice-heavy writing I was in love with. That led to five or six years of feeling mismatched with journalism and trying all kinds of other jobs.” Eventually, he decided that “if I’m going to suffer and be poor, I might as well do it for something I love” and got an MFA degree in writing at NYU. When he finished, he supported himself with a variety of jobs while working on his novel.
“Unlearning those nonfiction instincts was very hard,” he said. “I was always trying too hard to be clever and funny, to analyze the questions I posed on the page. I had to lose all of that and become humbler and dumber in that necessary way where you’re not rushing to explain your meaning.”
The hard technical work of writing was matched by the difficulty of “maintaining a sense of dignity while hearing nothing but ‘no’ and being bad at something. As we get older, it becomes harder and harder to be bad at something. But the greatest joy of life is if you can weather being bad at something and can develop that skill. This summer I learned to drive a stick shift. It was kind of unpleasant because I kept rolling down hills and stalling on highways, but it was satisfying.
“No meaning will ever come if it was easy in the first place. If it was easy it won’t become transcendent.”
“Writing is throwing yourself into something you know nothing about in the aim of telling lies to be able to enlighten somebody who comes across the book.
“It’s staring at a blank page where you don’t know what goes there yet but your sense of self-worth is very much linked to it.”
Who: Boris Fishman, author of “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo”
Where: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades
When: Thursday, November 17, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $10 members / $12 non-members