In “The Conversion,” one of eight short stories collected in Katherine Shonk’s first book, The Red Passport, an American named Tom travels to Pushkin, outside Saint Petersburg, to visit a Russian couple he and his ex-girlfriend befriended while living abroad. Their house is full of relics of his failed relationship–his ex’s clothes, her books, her computer, her spice rack, all turned over to their friends after the breakup. As the visit turns awkward and sour, these shards of his past become an oppressive reminder of the fractured connection between Tom and his Russian friends, who’ve got problems of their own, thank you very much.

It’s fiction, says Shonk, but “some of the dynamics of being friends with people from another culture are real. You seem like you have a lot in common but you’re really on unequal footing, and resentments can come up.” After living in Moscow for a year, she says, “I did have that odd experience of going back to visit friends and they had all my old stuff.”

Shonk followed her boyfriend to Russia in 1995. Born in Chicago and raised in Evanston, she’d never lived outside Illinois before moving in with him in Moscow, where he’d opened a travel agency. Then 26, working as a secretary at Northwestern and trying to gain a foothold as a fiction writer, she was excited by the prospect of an adventure abroad. It was the height of the demented lawlessness of the new Russian economy; Yeltsin was getting reelected and the first Chechen war was gathering steam. Still, she says, daily life was at times as mundane as back in Chicago. She got a job at the Moscow office of Ernst & Young and spent a lot of time “just navigating buying groceries and paying bills.” She barely spoke the language at first, but soon made Russian friends and “finally got enough Russian that I could try and get into their heads.”

When she returned to the States in 1996–sans boyfriend–she began translating her experiences into fiction. She enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to get a master’s degree in creative writing and studied off and on with Fred Shafer, an Evanston writing teacher who became her mentor. She submitted stories to literary magazines like StoryQuarterly and Tin House, and one–“My Mother’s Garden,” in which a pragmatic Ukrainian woman is stymied by her mother’s refusal to leave her contaminated village near a fictionalized Chernobyl–was tapped by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2001 edition of Best American Short Stories. The honor landed Shonk an agent and, after she spent a year revising and shopping the manuscript around, The Red Passport was picked up by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Shonk’s stories are full of intimately observed details of life in postcommunist Russia, where the rules are constantly changing and even the best intentions can backfire. She’s got a particularly keen eye for the inevitable and yet inevitably surprising confusion that ensues when cultures collide. A pair of elderly pensioners struggle to engage the free market by selling poetry on the street; an optimistic American grapples with the expectations of her Russian suitor, a moody former soldier who hopes to use her as a ticket to freedom (or at least get her to pay for new glasses for his younger brother). Intra-American conflict isn’t exempt: in the final story, “Honey Month,” Shonk turns her attention to the peculiar phenomenon of the expat gone native, as an American woman stranded in Prague comes to realize that her fiance is more in love with Russia than he will ever be with her.

Though Shonk’s stories fall squarely in the well-worn genre of expatriate writing, she swears she kept other writers of her cohort at arm’s length, at least until she’d finished the book. “I wasn’t aware of any sort of expat writing trend at all,” she says. “I had seen Ken Kalfus [who blurbs her book] read in Russia….But when [his PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies] came out a couple of years later, when I was working on my own stories, I deliberately didn’t read it, because I didn’t want to be influenced or intimidated, since I knew we were bound to have some settings and themes in common.”

She sees her own work as character driven. “People usually respond to the characters as individuals,” she says, “rather than feeling like they’re getting all this insight into life in Russia. In the early drafts I paid a lot of attention to setting and cultural details. But I’m a big reviser, so in revisions I’d home in on the characters to the point that in the end the Russia thing seemed almost tangential to me–I hope that the characters seem universal rather than really alien or foreign.”

Now working on her first novel, Shonk says she’s probably done mining her Russian sojourn for material. Before she left, she says, “I was writing short stories full of characters close to myself–people working mundane jobs and having relationship problems. So I think it was good for me.

“One thing I like about being a fiction writer,” she adds, “is that even if something turns out to be a disaster, you can probably write about it.”

Katherine Shonk will read from and sign copies of her book at noon on Wednesday, November 12, at Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon in Glencoe. Call 847-835-5180. At 7:30 on Wednesday, November 19, she’ll give a free reading at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark. Call 773-769-9299.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.