By NINA KOSSMAN
Nina Kossman is a finalist for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
Nina Kossman’s Family Dictionary of the Twentieth Century is a lyrical, panoramic exploration of a family tree shaped by the cataclysms of history. In this assemblage of memories, Kossman exhumes displaced, forgotten, and buried family stories in order to make whole what has been scattered and destroyed by Nazism and Stalinism, while also attempting, through her devotion to her Russian émigré parents, to keep whole the family that still lives. In the tradition of W. S. Sebald, Nina Berberova, and Natalia Ginzburg, Kossman probes questions of “outsider”-ness within one’s own immigrant communities and friendships, plumbs the subconscious, and maps the incomprehensible scale of twentieth-century events and the intimate inheritance of its traumas. These vignettes in Family Dictionary of the Twentieth Century—these entries—build to an immensely moving conclusion about what it means to be the carrier and keeper of a family’s history.
Some 14 years ago I wrote to the Latvian archives, asking them to send me anything they could find on my family, and after several months of waiting, I got more than I had expected. Among many other things, I received my father’s report card from his German high school, Statdtische Deutsches Gymnasium zu Riga, for the year 1929. Apparently, this was not the best school year in my young father’s life, as we can see from his grades on this handwritten report card. Compared to the grades he received in elementary school, where he had been considered one of the best students, “genugend” (satisfactory), the grade he got in almost all subjects in 1929, was seen as a “bad grade”.