The Black Russian–a true story of a black American’s amazing adventures

The Black Russian

The Black Russian

Vladimir Alexandrov, of Hamden, grew up in New York City in a Russian emigre family and wanted to be a scientist from an early age. However, after getting Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Geology from Queens College and The City College of New York, he decided that he’d learned enough about the natural world but didn’t understand himself or other people. His solution was to switch to studying literature and the humanities, which resulted in his getting a Ph. D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton. After teaching in the Slavic Department at Harvard, he moved to Yale University in 1986, where he continues to teach courses on Russian literature and culture.

He is the author of a new book out this month, a book that is garnering plenty of advance praise. Booklist, in a starred review, called the book “magnetizing and unforgettable.” And Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer prize, said it was “a spirited tale of boundary-crossing and history-bucking, every bit as colorful as it seems improbable.

We are thrilled here at Books New Haven to welcome Vladimir Alexandrov to our pages, where he has graciously told us about the process of writing and researching this fascinating book about a character who was very real but whom most of us have never heard about.

Vladimir Alexandrov will be giving talks throughout the country. For more information about his interview schedule, click here for the events page of his website.

And now, Vladimir himself:

Tell us about THE BLACK RUSSIAN.

This is a biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas (1872-1928), the remarkable son of former slaves in Mississippi who became a millionaire impresario in pre-Revolutionary Moscow and was the first to import jazz to Constantinople. Although famous during his lifetime, he is now almost completely forgotten.

How did you come across the original story of Thomas, and when did you know that you were going to write his story?

Seven years ago, while preparing to teach a graduate seminar at Yale on Russian émigré culture between the world wars, I was reading the memoirs of Alexander Vertinsky, a singer who was very popular in Russia before the Revolution, when I came to a remark that made me stop. Vertinsky described how he landed in Constantinople in 1920, which was the first stage on the bitter road to exile for many Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks, and then began to perform in an entertainment garden that belonged, as he put it (I translate from his Russian), “to our famous Russian Negro Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the owner of the famous ‘Maxim’ in Moscow.”

I remember that I was so surprised that I put the book down. I had never heard of this  “Tomas,” and the idea that a black man with a Russian first name and patronymic had been famous for owning an entertainment venue of some sort in pre-Revolutionary Moscow seemed wildly improbable. People of African origin were always very rare in Imperial Russia; in fact, the best-known one, Abram Hannibal, lived in the 18th century (and is well known because he was the ancestor of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s great national writer). The well-documented visits by such prominent black Americans as the writers Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, or the actor and singer Paul Robeson, did not take place until the Soviet era years later.

Who was this “Fyodor Tomas” and where did he come from? Why did he go to Russia? How did he prosper there to the extent of owning what sounded like a theater? How did Russians react to his being black? How did he wind up in Constantinople? And why, if Vertinsky said that he was “famous,” had he been forgotten?

I started digging through Yale’s vast library, but after considerable effort came up with only a half-dozen brief and contradictory references to this black man. However, I was fortunate in having a year-long sabbatical ahead of me, and dedicated it entirely to a hunt for information through a labyrinth of archives and libraries in five countries.

What I found far exceeded my expectations.

But I didn’t know that I’d actually be able to write Thomas’s biography until I reached a  tipping point in my research—finding two dossiers about him in the National Archives in College Park, MD, after the archivists there had given up and told me that what I was looking for had probably been destroyed. These dossiers led me to sources about Thomas’s youth in Mississippi, and to archives in France and elsewhere.

What did you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?

How a person refused to accept limitations imposed on him by others, and how he repeatedly reinvented himself in exotic settings far from home. How a black American could find acceptance in tsarist Russia at a time when Jim Crow was on the rise in the United States. How, in the end, the long arm of American racism did manage to reach Thomas in distant Constantinople after he had survived wars and revolution in Russia.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

Searching for information about Thomas was fascinating because it was a detective-like hunt that took me to foreign countries. The process was also addictive because every time I found some nugget of information, the thrill of it made me want to re-experience that thrill again. I recall moments in various archives when I held a folder of documents in my hands that might contain information (I didn’t know for sure, but I was following a lead)—and savored the moment before opening the folder.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

To make it easier to get started in the morning, I don’t stop work the previous evening until I’ve briefly sketched the next paragraphs in the narrative, or in the argument, that I’m fashioning. Rereading that on the following morning helps me re-saturate myself with the ideas, words, and phrases that filled me when I stopped, and functions as a kind of ski jump into the future passage.

If I’m writing a narrative, I put together a detailed chronology that is several hundred pages long, consisting of the events that are my focus, as well as whatever I am correlating them with from history. This linear “story” can then be rearranged into the book’s “plot,” or the actual sequence of events in the final narrative, which will frequently differ from the “story” (which can be useful to do for effect). But if I’m writing an analysis of literary works, or making a literary theoretical argument, I use hundreds of index cards that I sort into little stacks by category, and arrange on a large dining room table, in as big a grid as necessary. Then I shuffle, reshuffle, and rearrange the cards and stacks until the sequence works.

Was the research fairly easy to come by, or did you have trouble finding the sources you needed?

I searched everywhere I could think of, and often followed what seemed to be promising leads that turned out to be dead ends. For example, I asked or hired people to check archives for me in places as far flung as Rotterdam, Rio de Janeiro, and Ankara; and I was prepared to go there myself if it turned out that they had materials related to my quest (they didn’t). But by being as thorough as I could—by weaving my research net as finely as possible, and by casting it as widely and deeply as possible—I was able to enhance my own “luck” and found a lot of information.

Your book reads like a novel, and tells a story that most people never knew existed. How was that process of weaving together the facts to make a story?

It’s very gratifying to hear that readers find the narrative compelling, which was/is a very important goal for me.The abstract principles of building interest and tension are well known; but achieving this successfully in practice is difficult. It’s of course essential to suggest that something important is coming, and then to withhold the details to make the reader want to find out—in short, to create curiosity. It’s also essential to give the reader a sense of the people or person you’re writing about in a way that will make the reader care. This is also something that is easy to set as a goal, but hard to achieve. I also wanted to understand the kinds of cultural and historical forces that buffeted Thomas and that he had to overcome, struggle with, or escape. For example, I was able to explain why he chose to apply for citizenship in Russia in 1914 by looking at the reactions of Russians to the outbreak of the Great War during the summer of 1914. It was thus very important for me to grasp the timing of certain large-scale events through which Thomas lived.

What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?

That I was able to bring back to public memory one of the most remarkable black Americans in history. And more broadly, that I was able to tell the story of a man who reinvented himself repeatedly in most unlikely locales in order to become himself as fully as possible.

Were there any surprises along the way—either in the research or in the writing? Did you find sources who were unexpected?

All the time. For example, just being able to find Thomas’s grandson in Paris was a surprise and an adventure. And so was discovering that much of what he believed he knew about his grandfather was sheer invention (probably by the grandson’s father, i.e., Thomas’s oldest son, who was born in Moscow). Another example of a surprise was when I went to the French Diplomatic archives in Nantes, hoping to find information about Thomas in Constantinople, and found a cache of letters from a lawyer who tried unsuccessfully to get Thomas to pay royalties for the French music that was played in his Moscow establishments. The letters showed how cunning Thomas was as a businessman who wanted to protect his interests (and how he ran circles around the lawyer).

When did you first know you were a writer?

“Publish or perish” has been the mantra of academics forever, so I’ve been writing ever since graduate school. However, what I tried to do in The Black Russian differs greatly from the kind of writing I did in my academic books and articles. I could no longer assume that my audience would be other academics with an a priori interest in what I wanted to say (if they were in the same field as me and wanted to “keep up” with the scholarly  literature in it). Now, I would be vying with all sorts of books trying to capture the general-interest reader’s attention. Trying to write in a way that would appeal to a general reader was a challenge, but an exciting and compelling one (even when I despaired that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off).

Sergio Troncoso writes two books that span immigrant life from the colonia of Ysleta to New York City

Sergio Troncoso, the son of Mexican immigrants, was born and grew up in the unincorporated neighborhood or colonia of Ysleta on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas. His parents built their adobe house, and the family lived with kerosene lamps and stoves and an outhouse in the backyard during their first years in Texas.

Today Troncoso lives part-time in Kent, CT and in New York City, and he is the author of four books. Two of them were published last year, and he’ll be discussing both his novel and his book of essays at the Yale Bookstore at 4 p.m. on July 31st.

This visiting professor at Yale is both a novelist and an essayist, and his prize-winning work has been lauded by reviewers and readers alike, as he crosses the country giving readings.

Kirkus Reviews called From This Wicked Patch of Dust “an engaging literary achievement” in a starred review, and The Dallas Morning News said, “In a media market where cultural stereotypes abound, it’s refreshing to read a novel featuring Latino characters who are nuanced and authentic.  Sergio Troncoso’s latest, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, follows a family from humble beginnings in a Texas border town through several decades as its members move beyond their Mexican Catholic culture to inhabit Jewish, Muslim and Ivy League spaces.”

On Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, The El Paso Times said, “These very personal essays cross several borders: cultural, historical, and self-imposed…. We owe it to ourselves to read, savor and read them again.”, a reviewer of indy literature, said, “A champion for the rights of immigrants who have come to this country for a better, more prosperous life, [Troncoso] condemns politicians and politicos who reach back to ‘ambiguous and even contradictory standards, such as the Constitution,’ claiming their intent is to stop critical thinking, which he deems the measure of good citizenship.”

We are so pleased to welcome Sergio to Books New Haven.



Tell us about your new book.

I have two new books that were published in 2011.  From This Wicked Patch of Dust is a novel about the Martinez family from Ysleta, Texas, who begin life in a border shantytown and struggle to stay together as the children adopt different religions, politics, and geographies.  Julia, the daughter, adopts Islam and marries an Iranian.  Ismael, the youngest, gets accepted to Harvard, works at Yale, and eventually marries a Jewish woman from Massachusetts.  How can you keep a family (and a country) together when its members are changing in radically different ways?  That’s the question at the heart of the novel.

That same year I also published Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, a collection of essays about fatherhood in New York City, immigrant families and what values might be helpful for their success, my wife’s battle against breast cancer, interfaith marriage, the difficulties of father-son relationships, and what I learned as a board member of the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.

Both books have recently won prizes.  From This Wicked Patch of Dust was selected as a Notable Book by Southwest Books of the Year, and received an Honorable Mention in ForeWord’s Book of the Year Award for Multicultural Fiction.  Crossing Borders: Personal Essays won the Bronze Award in ForeWord’s Book of the Year Award for Essays, and 2nd Place in the International Latino Book Award for Best Biography in English.  I am grateful.

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

Well, the two books are complementary in many ways.  Both are about families, and what makes a family, and what undermines it.  Also, I am fascinated by individuals within families, how individuals within the same family can have vastly different experiences.  A family affects an individual in different ways.

This sense of ‘family’ as a cohesive group that is meaningful, is so important, and when you lose it many of us struggle our entire lives to recreate it, in new families and new relationships.  We apply the lessons learned from our ‘old’ family to our ‘new’ family, and so this metamorphosis continues, or gets interrupted and possibly destroyed.  Some of us, of course, never begin with a good family life, and yet even those individuals struggle to gain that sense of unity (and baggage!) that comes with family.

For the novel, I was particularly interested in how this country has lost some of its cohesiveness, and become a land of bitter, somewhat irreconcilable groups, religions, races, ethnicities, and political persuasions.  Can we still have a sense in this country that we are a ‘we,’ even if we have disparate politics, religions, cultures, geographies?  That, I believe, is one of the most important questions the United States is facing today.

Was the subject matter of the book related somehow to your regular job? Or is it something quite outside your field that called to you?

The collection of essays is of course autobiographical, and the novel is similar to my family in Texas, although that is fiction.  The emotions and geographies are true in the novel, but the characters are works of fiction.

Even when my work is somewhat autobiographical, I don’t believe it is mostly about me.  That may sound contradictory, but I don’t believe it is.  I explore questions in my work that I believe others have as well, and so I use myself and my experiences to explore questions that may matter to many people.  Basically, I use myself as a guinea pig to play out problems and philosophical issues, much as a doctor would who is using an experimental medicine on him- or herself first to see what he can find out about his hypotheses.

I believe you are your greatest experiment, and digging into yourself philosophically and psychologically will eventually lead to questions, and answers, that will be meaningful for everyone.

What did you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?

Many people do not know I grew up dirt poor in a border shantytown with an outhouse in the backyard and kerosene lamps and stoves.  My life as a child on the Mexican-American border was tough, but it also taught me many things I find invaluable today, as an Upper Westside parent in Manhattan: grit, creativity, and a work ethic.

I have often told anyone who would listen, including my students at Yale, that places like Ysleta, Texas have as much to teach places like Harvard and Yale as the other way around.  What you learn in Ysleta is never to give up, to outwork your competition, to find ways around obstacles and problems with creativity and resourcefulness, and not to judge somebody as unworthy or stupid simply because they are poor.

I try to impart these lessons to my two sons, Aaron and Isaac, who are New York City kids living in a different milieu than the one I experienced as a child.  For years, Aaron and Isaac told me I was “toughest dad at their school,” by demanding their homework be done first, or no videos or Xbox, by reading to them every night since they could walk, by holding them to be responsible for their mistakes, and so on.  They are great, well-behaved kids who are also excellent students.  I don’t think this is a fluke.  It’s called the hard work of parenting, these ‘immigrant values’ taught to me by my Mexican parents.  These values live on, at least in my Manhattan apartment, thousands of miles from Ysleta.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

For the novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, I wrote a chapter-by-chapter outline, which I changed as I would write a particular chapter.  I wanted to have a road map for my novel, but I also wanted to be flexible about where the story and characters might take me unexpectedly.

I also wanted the novel to reflect the fragmentation of the Martinez family itself, and so I wrote each chapter as a moment in time within this family, to show the passage of time, the fraying and reconstitution of family bonds as the children grew and the adults aged.

What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?

I enjoy telling the story to an audience, and answering questions, and creating that live experience of storytelling, so that has been the most satisfying experience with both books.  I have read across the country, from Texas to California to Connecticut, and back, and every reading gives me some sort of encouragement to keep writing.

Were there any surprises along the way—either in the research or in the writing? Did you find sources who were unexpected?

I was surprised that both books were published at the same time, by different publishers, and that both books won nice prizes along the way.  I am always working, or preparing myself for other projects through research or note-taking or reading.  Sometimes I work on smaller projects, like essays or short stories, and other times I am planning another novel.  I never expected both books to be accepted at the same time, so that was wonderful.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, my wife and sons attended a reading I gave at a bookstore, and so it was gratifying to have them in the audience to see what I do across the country.  We had planned that Santa Fe outing, for pleasure and for my work, and I was just glad I had a great reading and an inquisitive audience that day.

The last nice surprise I received for theses books was that I was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters earlier this year.  You can’t apply for this, and somehow your name is put up for a vote, and if you receive enough votes from current members, then you are in.  I admire many of the writers in this group (Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Dagoberto Gilb), and so I was proud to be included with them, and to get to know some of them at a banquet for new members in San Antonio.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I would say in high school.  My paternal grandfather, Santiago Troncoso, was editor and publisher of El Dia, one of the first daily newspapers in Juarez, Mexico in the 1920s.  He was a rabble-rousing journalist who reported on Mexican government corruption.  His print shop was mysteriously firebombed several times, and he was jailed dozens of times.  In high school, when I was editor of the high school newspaper, he warned me not to become a journalist: “If you tell the truth,” he told me, “they will hate you forever.”  He gave me a lot of advice, some of which I took and some of which I ignored.

My maternal grandmother, Dolores Rivero, was also an early influence.  She was a wonderful oral storyteller, with many people sitting around her porch past midnight to listen to her stories of the Mexican Revolution.  She was a survivor of that conflict, gritty and tough-as-nails, and she had astonishing stories about that chaos.  The first story I ever wrote and published, “The Abuelita,” is about her in many ways.  It appears in my first book, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories.

What has happened since this book has been published? What kinds of reactions have you gotten?

I have gotten excellent reviews, and won a few prizes, which I mentioned above.

On the road, I have had some remarkable readings.  In Kent, Connecticut, a town of only about 3,000 people, the public library was packed and we sold out of books!  The audience was terrific, and I stayed and chatted with people for hours because I was having such a wonderful experience.  Small towns, well, we shouldn’t forget them, because avid readers exist in all corners of our country.

What’s next for you? Will there be a follow-up?

I am working on shorter projects, short stories and essays.  I am also planning another novel, but nothing I would want to discuss yet.

I would hope readers visit my website,  I have created it and maintain it myself.  I love tinkering with HTML, and over the years I have learned to do many things I enjoyed on other websites.  My website is the main way I interact with readers, and I want to have appealing news and content for my many readers across the country.  Thank you.