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  1. Book ImageThe UnAmericans: Stories

    Molly Antopol

    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.

A Note from the Author

Many of the stories in this book were inspired by my family’s history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party, and my Eastern European roots and personal connection to Israel, where I lived and worked for years. 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 and library archives—informed my McCarthy-era stories.

The first connotation the word “Un-American” is likely to bring up for people is the Red Scare. But as I worked on my stories, I also became fascinated by the complicated meaning that the word “Un-American” might have to this current generation of Israelis, forced to contend every day with their country’s messy and symbiotic relationship to America.

Eastern Europe is a part of the world that’s always fascinated me. It’s interesting—though my family loves to tell stories, the one place I never heard about was Antopol, the Belarusian village where my relatives came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. A little more than 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.

While I wrote, I kept thinking about this notion of “Un-American-ness” for my Eastern European characters—dissidents and academics, banned artists and writers—who, after risking their lives for their politics in their mother countries, have to reinvent their identities in the United States: a country where they’re treated as anything but American.

I thought about the complicated emotional impact the fall of Communism might have had on my characters during that time, and what it might have felt like to dedicate oneself to a cause that, in the course of world events, comes to an end. I 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.

More than anything, though, I found myself interested in writing about family, in particular the dynamic between these immigrant parents and their children: parents who find themselves in a country whose reality is so painfully different from their expectations; and their children, inheritors of so much political heaviness, who struggle both to honor these thwarted ideals and to navigate their own complicated lives.

It’s fascinating—by spending so many years exploring the lives of these so-called “Un-Americans,” I found myself getting closer to an understanding of what it might actually mean to be American.

Discussion Questions

  1. Many of the characters in The UnAmericans travel or change locations during the course of their story. How does this seem to affect who they are?
  2. What beliefs do these characters cling to, and how do they struggle with letting go?
  3. The age-old themes of East versus West and Old World versus New World are big ones in The UnAmericans. How do these themes relate to the characters’ ideas about religion, or about family, or about growing old?
  4. How does the history of a given character’s home country agree with or depart from his or her own history or destiny?
  5. Think about the idea of home. What does the word mean to these characters?
  6. Why might the author have titled her collection of stories The UnAmericans? Consider the settings, religious affiliations, political beliefs, and other similar factors when coming up with your answer.
  7. Considering the rich interior lives of these characters, think about how our beliefs about others conflict with reality. How do we create other people in our minds?
  8. What do these stories have to say about the place of religion—and especially Judaism—in the contemporary world?
  9. Many of these characters are trying to get away from something. Talk about the theme of escape in these stories.
  10. How do these characters lie to each other, and to themselves, in order to construct alternate “truths” that they find more comforting?
  11. Communism plays a big part in this collection. How has the fall of the Iron Curtain affected the emotional lives of these characters?
  12. What is the place of authority, whether parental or governmental, in the lives of these characters?
  13. Art of various forms—painting, film, writing—plays a big part these stories. What do these stories have to say about the role of art in the immigrant experience?

About Molly Antopol

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 from Columbia University and lives in San Francisco.

Books by Molly Antopol

  1. Book CoverThe UnAmericans: Stories

    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.More