This week Susannah talks to Moscow-born, American national: Margarita Gokun Silver, formerly a public health consultant in Uzbekistan and later a cross-cultural coach from Athens to Argentina and now a full-time writer. A successful author of a novel and an essay collection; prodigious freelance journalist and accomplished painter, Margarita is about to collect a second Masters to add to her Ivy League credentials.
What was it like growing up in the USSR in the 1980’s?
I started that decade by proclaiming my loyalty to the USSR as a Young Pioneer and I ended it by giving up my Soviet citizenship and leaving the country for good. In between there was everything that usually happens in a life of a young girl coming of age during the end of Brezhnev/Andropov/Chernenko stagnation era and Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. We marched, we protested, we held kitchen discussions about Sakharov and Politburo, we queued for butter, and we hoped things were going to change for the better. Spoiler alert: they didn’t.
You left your Mechanical Engineering degree course in Moscow and emigrated with your parents to the US, what surprised you the most when you arrived in in 1989?
First impressions: way too many streetlights (Moscow had close to none); the size of their supermarkets, the friendliness of people. The fact that no one walked anywhere (we ended up in a small town—NYC would have probably been different) and the cost of tuition in a local liberal arts college.
After pre-med you went to Yale to do a Master’s in Public Health and later worked in health consultancy in Uzbekistan, how did that experience shape your life in hindsight?
I understood working in health care wasn’t my thing and I just wanted to write.
As the spouse of a US Diplomat on the move you decided to become a cross-cultural coach in Argentina, Greece, Russia, Spain and USA, do you draw on any of those skills and experiences as a writer today?
Curiosity is a big one. You have to be curious about people to be a good coach —and you have to be curious about the world around you to be a writer, to want to tell stories.
Do you have any funny stories about settling in Tashkent?
We bought our car in Tashkent on a Christmas Day by bringing a suitcase full of cash to a market on the outskirts of the city and hoping we’d leave that market driving that car and not stuffed into a trunk of another.
You were already an accomplished self-taught author of two books and many essays and articles, what was the most useful tip you learned in your Creative Writing course at Oxford University?
Sometimes just turning a noun into a verb gives you the exact word you’ve been looking for.
Have you had any feedback from the Russian authorities on your satirical novels?
No, and I really hope I won’t. They aren’t always very nice.
What inspires you to write?
Stories, other writers, conversations with people.
Is it true that if your great grandmother hadn´t missed the train you might have grown up in Argentina?
Technically it’s true but then again it wouldn’t have been really me because if she did make it to Argentina, she wouldn’t have met my great-grandfather and my grandmother would have never been born.
What made you decide to take up oil painting in your 40´s whilst living in Miami?
I’ve always wanted to paint with oil and always postponed it. Then at 40 I decided that waiting for (painter’s) life to begin was stupid and enrolled into a class. I wrote about this decision and how I made it here.
What is it about Madrid that prompted you to return here after your stint in 2012?
I like the vibe of this city, the friendliness of its people, the immensity of its blue sky, the imprint that sunlight leaves on its buildings. It just feels good to live here and at this point of my life that good feeling is what I need.
Which book do you most recommend to others?
Too many to mention and my taste has changed over the years, but I’ve always come back again and again to Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita”.