February 17, 2002
Newcomers Among Us, With Many Thins To Say


Her friends tell her no one could be more Russian. Indeed, Katia Kapovich - intense, chain-smoking, flame red hair against her black outfit - looks precisely like the Russian poet she is. Yet it is Cambridge, where she has lived for the past 10 years, that feels like home. And two summers ago, when she traveled back to Russia to teach a two-month literary seminar, it was Cambridge she was homesick for.

'Across the river, Charlot Lucien, sipping Starbucks hot chocolate, trimin his olive shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, looks comfortably part of his surroundings. But Lucien, a writer who moved to Hyde Park from Haiti in 1990, lives balanced between his two worlds of here and there. The classic Boston image is one of generations-old families, but the truth is we are a gathering-place of newcomers. We arrive from other states or, like Katia Kapovich and Charlot Lucien, from other countries, to take our place alongside Cabots and Lodges. We embrace the city wholeheartedly or feel the pull of places reluctantly left. But all of us, bit by bit, re-shape the city as we make it our home. And it, in turn, alters us. "

I'm at home here more than anywhere else," says Kapovich. "In Russia, people touch you, they ask you for money, for cigarettes. It's a socialist universe. You are part of others - a finger, a nail - and you have to function in accordance with the other members of the body. WhenI came here, it felt calm, like a little space shuttle, just floating, with no obligation to go down to walk on two feet."

Of her first American days, she wrote, "I barely remember my own name." One memory, though: the sudden nostalgia she felt hearing a Russian melody from a Harvard Square violinist.

While writers feel as much disorientation as anyone else when they move, the sense of displacement can bring a new dimension to their work.

Kapovich said, "My soul speaks in Russian, but I can write about some things more easily in English. It gives me distance. It's important for a writer to have distance. You can't write about something and be in it at the same time. It's like being underwater. Reality has qualities of salt water. It pinches our pupils and makes our eyes red. We need a mask in order to see clearly."

Lucien also strives to maintain a certain distance, even as he settles into his adopted city.

"Now I'm at peace with the idea that I have a life here. But, as a writer, I make a conscious choice not to fully embrace all the issues America has to offer so my mind can remain free to work on issues pertinent to the Haitian experience. That's my only chance to provide a more authentic testimony of the Haitian experience to others."

Lucien's short stories are written in Creole and speak of the tension between Haitian life in America and in Haiti.

"I see our lives here as an extension of our reality there. I see myself as part of, but distinct. For me it's a safety issue, because once I become part of the Boston mindset, my independence as a writer is compromised."

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

 
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