Alina Sivorinovsky, who writes under the pen name Alina Adams, is the author of "My Mother's Secret," which is set in Birobidzhan, the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region.
Alina Sivorinovsky, who writes under the pen name Alina Adams, is the author of "My Mother's Secret," which is set in Birobidzhan, the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region.

Eat, Pray, Oy Vey: Decision to pull Elizabeth Gilbert’s Russia-set book worries Jewish writers

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Alina Sivorinovsky’s latest novel, set partially during the 1930s in the Soviet Union, came out during the first year of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine.

Sivorinovsky, who was born in Odessa, decided to use the launch of “My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region” in November to raise awareness about the conflict. She even did a reading at UJA-Federation of New York that doubled as a fundraiser, with all of the proceeds benefiting Ukrainian relief efforts.

“Whenever I did promotion for the novel, whether it was on podcasts or blogs, one of the things I took advantage of was talking about what was going on in the Ukraine today,” Sivorinovsky, who lived in San Francisco for 25 years and writes under the pen name Alina Adams, told J. “I thought it was a positive, not a negative.”

Elizabeth Gilbert (Photo/Wikimedia-Erik Charlton CC BY 2.0)
Elizabeth Gilbert (Photo/Wikimedia-Erik Charlton CC BY 2.0)

So Sivorinovsky was shocked when she heard this week that Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” had decided to indefinitely postpone the publication of her latest novel because Ukrainians objected to the fact that it is set in Russia. “The Snow Forest,” originally scheduled to be published by Riverhead Books in February 2024, is about a family who resists the Soviet government by living off of the grid in a Siberian forest.

“It feels very shortsighted,” Sivorinovsky said of Gilbert’s decision, noting that it’s a “mad stretch” to suggest that the historical novel, which Sivorinovsky has not read, in any way supports the current Russian government or the invasion of Ukraine.

Russian history has long provided rich source material and inspiration to Jewish writers, especially fiction writers, from Isaac Babel to Elana Dkyewomon to Gary Shteyngart. Sivorinovsky, who is currently shopping a new novel titled “Stepmother Russia,” is among a coterie of Jewish writers with Soviet roots living in the United States and Canada who are worried about the ramifications of Gilbert’s decision for their own books set in Russia.

Shelly Sanders
Shelly Sanders

“This is bad for other authors who are not as established and can’t afford to just cancel a book,” said Shelly Sanders, the author of a trilogy of books about a Russian-born girl based on her grandmother who immigrated to Shanghai and then to San Francisco. “If this becomes a trend, and publishers feel this pressure, then it could have a huge domino effect on other writers that aren’t in the lovely position that she’s in.”

Sanders added, “I feel like we as authors can’t be held to the news of the day. Does this mean you can’t read something that takes place in China because of what’s going on there now? It’s a slippery slope.”

Sanders’ next novel, “The Night Sparrow,” is set in Minsk and Russia during World War II and tells the story of a female Jewish sniper. The book is set to be published in February 2025 — at least she hopes it will be.

“If it can’t come out, I would be devastated because this is a story of women that has not been told,” said Sanders, who lives in Ontario, Canada.

Two other writers with Russian heritage contacted by J. declined to comment for this article, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

In her announcement, Gilbert said she chose to delay her novel’s publication after Ukrainian readers flooded her with messages of concern. In addition, a Goodreads webpage for the novel was inundated with one-star reviews.

“It is not the time for this book to be published, and I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced and who are all continuing to experience grievous and extreme harm,” Gilbert said in a video message on her Twitter account.

While it’s unclear to what extent the negative Goodreads reviews influenced Gilbert’s decision, both Sivorinovsky and Sanders said the crowd-sourced reviews site should limit the ability of users to attack a book that has yet to be published.

“You shouldn’t be able to put ratings if you haven’t read the book,” Sanders said. “There should be some kind of monitoring going on there.”

In a statement to J., Amazon-owned Goodreads wrote that it “takes the responsibility of maintaining the authenticity and integrity of ratings and protecting our community of readers and authors very seriously. We are constantly investing in tools and support teams to improve the ability to quickly detect and take action on content and accounts that violate our reviews or community guidelines.” (According to its reviews guidelines, the company will delete spam reviews and those containing hate speech or bigotry.)

A number of arts organizations and commentators have roundly criticized Gilbert in the days since she made her announcement. PEN America, a nonprofit committed to freedom of speech, called her decision “wrongheaded.”

“The publication of a novel set in Russia should not be cast as an act exacerbating oppression,” the organization wrote. “Fiction and culture are essential to supporting mutual understanding and unleashing empathy.”

For Sanders, Gilbert’s decision to self-censor is connected to the current push by conservative parents in states such as Texas and Florida to have books they deem inappropriate — including a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary — removed from schools.

“It reminded me of this right-wing hysteria of book banning that’s going on,” she said. “It horrifies me how they’re just taking books off shelves.”

If Sivorinovsky could speak with Gilbert, what would she say?

“This is a chance to remind people that [the war] is still going on,” she said. “I just saw a video of a bombing in Odessa today. This is your opportunity to speak up about a subject you care about. Why would you turn your back on that?”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.