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From Minsk to Manhattan, 'A Replacement Life' is the ultimate transplant's tale

What a great mind looks like on the outside.
What a great mind looks like on the outside.Rob Liguori

Boris Fishman is the ultimate transplant.

Most of us consider ourselves relocated when we’ve moved a few states over. But imagine crossing more than five thousand miles from the Soviet Union to New York City, along with the even wider cultural divide that is part of that extended journey. And imagine doing so at the tender age of nine years old and in the company of parents and grandparents who don’t speak English and know barely anyone in their new digs.

That’s the kind of experience which can either make or break you, and fortunately for Fishman and his readers, it helped to make him the incredible writer he is today.

Boris Fishman was born in 1979 in Minsk, in Soviet Belorussia, or what is modern Belarus. Virtually from the moment he entered their lives, his parents and grandparents decided to emigrate from their native country. They vowed to leave all they knew, a vow they didn’t make for themselves but for their precious boy, to spare him from what Fishman himself describes as “state-sponsored anti-Semitism” and the “second class citizen” status that goes hand in hand with being Jewish in the Soviet Union.

At that time, the United States had forced Russia’s hand to allow Jews to leave in order to keep from losing favored trading status. The Fishman family officially declared their intention to go, a move that tends to rile up all kinds of emotions in one’s fellow Russians: envy, resentment and distrust. But after their plans were set in motion, Russia invaded Afghanistan and everything came to a halt. The family was stuck in a hellish limbo until after Gorbachov came into power. Finally in 1988 they left for the United States, but not before the Russian experience had left its indelible mark on their young man.

The clan moved to Brooklyn and lived there until 1993 before relocating to the even more foreign land of Wayne, New Jersey. During their first years in their new country, Fishman often facilitated the older generations as translator, explainer of America, and general go-to person when it came to matters of assimilation, often feeling the pull of old against new, “home” against “home”. By the time he hit New Jersey at age fourteen, Boris was showing signs of being mature and wise beyond his years, brilliant, and extremely talented.

My family and I were lucky enough to live up the road from the new neighbors and benefit from the talents of the extraordinary new kid on the block. Fishman quickly became the star of his high school tennis team (and gave tennis lessons to my kids and me), the lifeguard at our community pool (and taught my kids how to swim in it), and probably the best babysitter they ever had. Additionally, in between all of this he wrote poetry, waxed philosophical and could hold long and fascinating conversations with people twice his age. Not your normal teenage angst by a long shot. In the four years we all lived on the same street before our family took off for Arizona, I watched him continuously exhibit every sign of potential greatness.

Boris attended college at Ivy League Princeton, and after graduation settled in the bastion of great minds that is Manhattan. When he was entering college the “official plan” was to study law, but that was mostly to satisfy needs which conflicted with his true calling. He always felt the pull of the pen and wanted to write fiction, but was at the same time a little scared of it. Thus he was compelled to try more “dependable” work first, sometimes hearing deep inside the voices of generations who came before him. Generations who felt lucky to have any security at all and questioned why anyone would risk that security for a dream. Generations who survived years of hardship and struggle. Generations who survived the Holocaust.

The writer in him tried to be satisfied with writing-related work. He toiled for three years as a fact checker at the prestigious New Yorker magazine. He did journalistic work and spent some time in Washington, D.C. writing the Katrina report for the U.S. Senate. He worked in market research and as an editorial director.

But in the end, “nothing satisfied like writing”. So in 2006 he decided to enter a Masters of Fine Arts program and got into most of the places he applied to, deciding on NYU where he studied from 2007 to 2010. And he started working on a novel in 2009.

That brings us to today. Because Fishman finished that novel. Oh yes he finished it beautifully. And he got an agent. And that agent got a publisher. And that publisher was the powerhouse Harper Collins. And that novel, A Replacement Life will be introduced to the world on June 3.

A Replacement Life bears many resemblances to Fishman’s personal experiences. The central character, Slava, emigrated from Minsk to Brooklyn at the age of seven, along with parents and grandparents. Slava leaves Brooklyn and moves to Manhattan (never by way of New Jersey as Boris did. That would probably be a whole other book.), and ends up working for a prestigious magazine. And Slava’s beloved grandmother, although already passed on when the book opens, plays a riveting role in the story.

The novel has already been receiving rave reviews and earning new praises daily, among them from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Open Letters Monthly and Shelf Awareness. It has been placed on the Los Angeles Times summer reading list, and named as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick.

It’s a work of literary fiction. Not an easy beach read, but a read which is immensely entertaining while at the same time informative about Russian culture, rites of passage, and a particularly poisonous period of history which will never be comprehensible no matter how much is written about it.

The novel can be pre-ordered from Barnes and Noble and Amazon, and will be available in Barnes and Noble stores after June 3. And Fishman just finished writing his second novel. He is a true American (and transplant) success story.

I won’t take too much personal credit for encouraging him, even though I did give the kid an engraved pen when he graduated from high school. I wonder if he still has it. If so, maybe he’ll use it to autograph my copy of his book before he becomes a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Next up: a review of A Replacement Life

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