Interview written by Catharine Bramkamp
“Like Kingsley Amis with a social conscience, Christina Nichol combines an ear for the absurdities of globalized English with an acute awareness of the everyday sufferings and indignities of daily life in post-Soviet Georgia. The result is a pitch-perfect dark comedy that tracks the myriad miscommunications among ‘global partners’ and next-door neighbors and combines them into one of the most powerful novels yet written on the effects of globalization.”
—Marco Roth, author of The Scientists
However, capturing that dark comedy and learning about daily life in post-Soviet Georgia was not necessarily easy or quick. Christina originally traveled to Russia as a child, traveling with her grandfather on a “Peace Cruise.” It was there and then that she fell in love with the Soviet Union.
She explains: “After the nation collapsed I kept going back to post-Soviet countries, fascinated, and sometimes a little alarmed, at how they were recreating their identities. I didn’t go to Georgia originally intending to do research. I was trying to get back to Kyrgyzstan, I country I had lived in the prior year. I applied for a Soros Foundation Fellowship and the only openings they had left were in Azerbaijan, Mongolia, or Georgia. I had seen some Georgian sword fighting dances when I was in Russia so I opted for Georgia. I spent a year there, initially, and then continued to return periodically.
I spoke some Russian so I could get by, though a friend of mine started telling all the shopkeepers to refuse to speak Russian with me so I would be forced to speak Georgian. Since I was teaching English, a lot of my colleagues and friends spoke English so that helped. Slims Achmed (the hero in the novel) was based on a man I knew who went to the U.S., to Louisiana, to study law and came back a George Bush fan. I wanted to write about what might happen if a character went to San Francisco instead. The voice of the character originally came to me with the sentence, ‘My name is Slims Ahmed and I live in the 12th century.’
Georgia, at the time, had all these young men who had, what was called, a ‘Robin Hood’ complex. They would hold up trains and steal from the men to give to the women. They viewed the 12th century as their Golden Age, the time when they owned most of the land in the area, and were trying to get back to that time.
I had copious amounts of notes while I was traveling, but I had no idea what to do with them or how to turn them into a story. That only happened when I came back to the U.S. and was trying to work through my culture shock of what a zany place Georgia was. Georgia is very loud, but in a Shakespearean way, as if people are enjoying acting in a play, calling out to people on the balcony, entwined in a fabric that’s bigger than the individual. California is quieter. Also, we sip our wine individually. They gulp their wine collectively and in Georgia they say, ‘real men only drink white wine.’
The book was written because of the strong voices in Christina’s head. The characters “kept up a constant stream of cultural commentary about the U.S. My roommate at the time used to put an extra plate at the table for Slims. He told his mom that we had a new roommate from Georgia who was having a hard time. She said she would have her church group pray for him. His life actually improved after that.
In a way, Slims Achmed, my protagonist, taught me how to be funny. Humor is a sort of pressure valve for releasing some of the daily tensions of life. It’s strange to me though, that someone would call my writing ‘wildly original’ because it seems like a view of life, that to me, just seems obvious. I suppose the humorous perspective comes from the distance created from having lived in so many different countries and not taking one’s individual dramas so seriously. I have no idea if that is a healthy habit or not.”
The publishing process for Waiting for Electricity was a rather long haul.
“I think publishers weren’t quite sure what to do with a novel written by an American woman from the perspective of a Georgian man. Eventually, I found a fit with Overlook. But I had to cut about half of it and that was excruciating. I had no idea what the response would be. I was a little surprised at how positive the response has been. I’ve tried to view this book as just a bunch of homemade muffins that I’m handing out and hopefully it gives people some joy. If I start worrying about book sales, that’s only going to lead to suffering.”
Then again—often suffering engenders comedy and humor.
Visit Christina at: http://christinanichol.com/
Note: Wall Street Journal listed Waiting for Electricity in the Top Ten Fiction Books of 2014 and published a recent satirical article written by Christina. Savor her talent here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/novelist-christina-nichol-on-croft-quinta-da-roeda-2012-vintage-port-1421955784