Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Russian — USA Today

Paullina Simons, whose new novel, Children of Liberty, came out last week, taps into her immigrant’s heart “to write about love when it is young and fresh, when it is still impossible love, imbued with all the hopes and dreams of youth.”

Paullina: Like my heroine, Gina, in my new novel, Children of Liberty, I am an immigrant. I am a first-generation American. I have an immigrant’s heart.

She was born in Belpasso, Sicily, under the volcanic plume of Mount Etna. I was born in the Soviet Union and raised in a communal apartment in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.

The immigrant story is the foundational underpinning of my life. And like Gina, I didn’t want to be an immigrant. Last thing I wanted to be was Russian.

When I came to America in the mid-’70s, I wanted desperately only two things.

To become a “real” American girl.

And to marry Oliver Barrett.

I was even prepared to die of leukemia if that’s what was necessary for great love. I was even prepared to, if necessary, never say I was sorry — which was easy because I hated saying I was sorry. When my father saw me sobbing after I saw Love Story// for the first time when I was 11, he asked, “Who do you feel more sorry for, Oliver or Jenny?” And into my moist pillow, I said, “Oliver.” Because he was now alone with all that love and no one to give it to.

“What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?”

Around the same time I saw The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and it made a similar impression on me. I wanted someone to pine for me on the docks, standing every night across the water watching my own dock light flicker on and off. That Daisy was the wrong vessel for Gatsby’s overwhelming passion was immaterial. What was wholly material was his passion for her.

“He knew that when he kissed this girl, [he] forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath.”

When I wrote my first “novel” I barely spoke English and knew even less about the birds and the bees. It was a 78-page handwritten opus about a boy and a girl who love each other. I was 12. The boy goes off to war and the girl finds out she is having his baby. But then he dies, and she grieves so desperately that she doesn’t give birth for five years. Her sorrow is so monumental that even after the child is born she cannot look at him because he reminds her too much of her one true love, long dead and gone.

This passion and yearning is what I bring to Gina in Children of Liberty. Twenty years before she becomes Alexander’s mother, she is just a Sicilian girl on a boat, clutching at the rails, full of unbridled enthusiasm for her new life.

When the fog of the harbor clears and she alights onto Boston’s Freedom Docks, the first person she meets is Harry Barrington, and just like that, because her family sailed to America, her life is forever changed.

I wanted to write about the life of an immigrant from the perspective of a young girl, someone like me. A girl, barely out of adolescence, still unformed, coming from an old world into the new yet still carrying the Italian parts of herself like I carry the Russian parts of myself. I understood Gina’s desire to morph herself into a “modern” American woman — circa 1905 — a woman a man like Harry might one day love.

I think most great stories are about love. DH Lawrence wrote that the impact of the man upon the woman is the primary force that makes the wheel of the universe go round and round. My husband maintains that great stories can also be written about space battles and giant bugs. On this we disagree.

In Children of Liberty I wanted to write about love when it is young and fresh, when it is still impossible love, imbued with all the hopes and dreams of youth.

So here we have an immigrant and a native fighting to love and not to love, struggling to forget each other and not forget each other, wishing for a different life in which a great passion like theirs might be possible.

Gina feels with all her heart that liberty is the one thing that makes the other great human adventures possible because liberty allows you to pursue all else. Especially love.

I understood this as a young girl just arrived from the Soviet Union. I understand this as a woman who enjoys many blessings that are possible only because my father took a fantastic leap of faith and brought his family to the new world in search of a better life.