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A Conversation With Convocation Speaker Lev Golinkin

A few hours before giving his address at the First Year Convocation for the Class of 2021, Lev Golinkin flipped the Q&A of our interview to make a point.

“What are you going to be?” he asked. “What are you working for—writing?”

“Yeah, hopefully,” I said.

“Well, imagine you write. Imagine you work for a newspaper. All this stuff that you love, that you work for—you’ve done it. And all of a sudden tomorrow you have to write in Japanese.”

A moment’s pause.

“Well you’re f—ked man,” he said. “Sorry. Better get a job flipping burgers, cause you ain’t gonna be a journalist. Because you don’t speak Japanese.”

His example was part of his attempt to explain the refugee experience to a non-refugee. It was stark, illustrative, and even darkly comedic. In those ways, it was a vocal equivalent of the writing style that made him successful.

His memoir, A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, is an extended exploration of the refugee experience and its life-altering affects. It recounts how Golinkin fled from Soviet Russia with his family at age 9 to escape violent persecution. The threat of pogroms forced them away from their home and across the ocean to New Jersey, where they had to learn English and begin a new life.

“I think if anything, the only thing that refugee experience does is it strips life away from a lot of the bullshit and just makes everything nice and simple,” he said. “Your basic needs are provided by others … It just makes everything more vivid and bright. Everything’s more acute.”

When it came time to go to college, he chose BC. He chose BC as a way to escape to the Jewish faith. While at BC, he dealt with issues that affect many BC students at some time or another, such as anxiety and loneliness, but found help among upperclassmen in the marching band and through various professors. He talks about a number of professors including the late Father Neenan who helped him throughout his time at BC. That time proved to be transformative and shaped the rest of his life.

“I came into BC wanting nothing to do with my past, and I left as a Jew, needing to engage,” he said.

Coming out of college, he began a journey to discover more about his past and to find the people who had helped his family escape the USSR. Turning this experience into a memoir has brought him and his story considerable attention. He was particularly surprised by the number of ex-Soviet Jewish people who read and responded to his work.

“Some of them hated it, but a lot of them really liked it,” he said.

An even bigger surprise was how relevant his work became to contemporary news. When he first set out working on the memoir, which was published in 2014, his editor told him that it wasn’t particularly relevant at the moment—there was nothing in the news about refugees, Russia, or anti-semitism.

“Life comes at you pretty quick, man,” he said. “It’s been crazy that I wrote this—a piece about the Cold War—and all of a sudden it feels like we’re right back to 1989. All of a sudden CNN is stealing my material.”

This sudden resonance extends to Ukraine, which was at war during his childhood and is once again now. He has taken his experience with these issues to write for various newspapers—including The Washington Post and The New York Times—about topics such as the refugee crisis and Jared Kushner’s position as a prominent Jewish American. The refugee crisis above other contemporary issues sticks with him.

“Knowing that there are people in Europe now who are going through something that makes my family’s experience seem like a luxury cruise … to me that is very disturbing,” he said. “To see things from 25 years ago come back.”

When discussing the treatment of refugees and their experience in America, he was straightforward.

“These people, they have pasts they have experiences, they have everything—just because they can’t share it doesn’t mean that they’re worthless or that they just are babies,” he said. “People treat refugees and immigrants like they are children. Even if you listen to somebody talking—they use the same squeaky tone of voice that they use to talk to children. They’re not children.”

Back at BC to talk about those experiences and more, he was in the same position as those mentors like Father Neenan who helped him determine his path forward. The freshmen were all given the chance to read his memoir before his convocation talk, and during the interview he offered another book recommendation: Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman. The story of a Hassidic Jewish woman growing up in Brooklyn, leaving her tight-knit community, and being ostracized brought out a number of important themes that show up in Golinkin’s own work: belonging and breaking out.

Before leaving to give his talk, Golinkin had some advice for both freshmen facing four years at BC and seniors about to set off into the unknown.

“If I look back at BC there’s not a lot of things I’ve done that I regret,” he said. “The things I regret are more the things I haven’t done … What was the thing you wish you did at BC—try not to repeat that mistake. You might move to a new place, and you might start feeling lonely. Don’t panic, because remember how you were—you might have been the nervous the first time you went to orientation. And you turned out OK.”

Featured Image by Lucas Xuan / Heights Staff

September 8, 2017