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Sibling writers speak at Amherst College lit-fest

  • Cullen Murphy, editor at large for Vanity Fair and chair of the board of trustees of Amherst College, left, discusses the literary lives and work of siblings Masha, center, and Keith Gessen March 3, 2018 as part of LitFest 2018 at Amherst College. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Cullen Murphy, editor at large for Vanity Fair and chair of the board of trustees of Amherst College, left, discusses the literary lives and work of siblings Masha, center, and Keith Gessen March 3, 2018 as part of LitFest 2018 at Amherst College. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Keith Gessen speaks Saturday as part of LitFest 2018 at Amherst College. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Writer Masha Gessen speaks Saturday during LitFest 2018 at Amherst College. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Cullen Murphy, editor at large for Vanity Fair and chair of the board of trustees of Amherst College, left, discusses the literary lives and work of siblings Masha, center, and Keith Gessen March 3, 2018 as part of LitFest 2018 at Amherst College. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



@mjtidwell781
Thursday, March 08, 2018

AMHERST — When Masha and Keith Gessen emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States as Jewish refugees, books were the only possessions their parents decided to ship to their new home.

“The books formed the furniture of our new apartment in Boston,” where they landed after several weeks in a refugee camp in Europe, Keith Gessen told the audience at the Amherst College LitFest on Saturday.

Now both prolific writers, the two spoke about their homeland, perception and the “profound and harrowing” experiences of their lives as journalists and authors.

Masha was 14 and Keith 5 when they immigrated to the United States. Keith recalled his early memories of hearing his parents argue over what to pack and ship to their new home.

“My first memory or perception,” Masha said of immigrating to America, “was of a lack of perception. I couldn’t take it all in.”

Masha, a professor of American institutions and international diplomacy at Amherst College, is the author of the 2017 National Book Award-winning “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia” and “The Man Without a Face: the Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.” She has been an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a strong LGBTQ rights activist.

Masha returned to live in Russia later in life, where she was a political journalist, author and activist.

At Saturday’s event, she told the audience that while living there with her partner and their three children, Russia passed a ban on adoption by same-sex couples. She said that, following protests she was involved in during 2011 and 2012, a prominent politician made a televised threat, specifically threatening that Masha’s oldest adopted son would be taken away.

She said she called an adoption lawyer to ask if the threat was credible. The lawyer, she said, told her that her answer was at the airport.

She and her family moved to New York soon thereafter, where she now writes for the New Yorker. Her latest article for the New Yorker, published the day before her lit-talk, is entitled “Vladimir Putin is Campaigning on the Threat of Nuclear War.”

The mood turned more buoyant when one of the audience questions came from a gentleman with white hair, who asked how Keith’s high school newspaper experience affected his career. With surprise, Keith recognized the gentleman as his high school newspaper adviser, George Abbot White.

“Mr. White, my high school newspaper experience is the sole reason I am here today,” Keith said as the audience laughed and applauded.

More seriously, he said it had in fact pushed him to found the literary magazine n+1 in his early 30s, which he called both a profound and harrowing experience.

He told the audience and White that he wanted an experience similar to the one he had on the paper, of a group of people working together on a mission to put something together and send it out to the world.

Besides co-founding n+1, Keith Gessen is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of “All the Sad Young Literary Men.” He has also published journalism and book reviews for The Atlantic and The New Yorker.

Saturday’s discussion was led by Vanity Fair editor-at-large and Amherst College alumnus Cullen Murphy.

White told the Gazette after the event that he drove out from Boston to hear the Gessens’ talk, saying he sees himself as a teacher for eternity and that he is proud to see the siblings’ success.

He said he is proud of all the students he taught over 42 years in public education.

“All I cared about was that they take things seriously and do something good for the world,” he said. “Masha has a distinctive, penetrating way of looking at issues, and it’s a delight for me to read Keith’s work.”

Ruta Ducia, of Amherst, said she came to hear the talk because her husband is familiar with Masha’s work and she had enjoyed a talk by Junot Díaz at the lit-fest the night before. She wasn’t surprised by Masha’s story of leaving Russia, she said, because her own parents had fled Stalin.

“I’m still processing,” Ducia said as others gathered for the book signing. “I loved it. I thought it was very thought provoking.”

As Keith chatted with his high school newspaper advisor, Mr. White, after the event, Masha said she was glad to be able to do such an event with her sibling.

“It felt intimate on several levels,” she told the Gazette. “It was wonderful to share this with my brother and with my Amherst community.”

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.