The Last Chicken in America
Room B at the Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill fills with silver-haired elders and the Russian-accented chatter of those who remember life in the old country. The bustle wanes as a youthful woman opens her red book, holds it in both hands, and begins to read in a voice that is soft and slow. She reads so quietly that the room instantly is hushed, as those gathered fall silent and listen intently.
The reader is author Ellen Litman (SIS ’95), who is back in the neighborhood where she began her American journey and back in the place where she got her first U.S. library card. She’s reading from her recently published first book, a collection of 12 tales that illuminate the experiences of Russian-Jewish immigrants. The world she writes about in The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories (W.W. Norton) is familiar to many in this crowd.
The author grew up in Moscow, Russia, where she was a shy girl who wrote praise-winning poetry. In 1992, at the age of 19, she immigrated with her family to the United States and to Pittsburgh, settling in Squirrel Hill’s large Jewish community, rich with immigrant flavor.
From her own experience, Litman knows that the first year of living away from one’s home country is tough. Many immigrants are unprepared for the cultural assault and the unexpected blows to self-esteem. “These stories show those feelings. That’s where I started,” she says.
The book’s title comes from a line in one of the stories, when an impatient husband observes his wife as she slowly scrutinizes a package of chicken in a local market. “Lina,” he says, “it’s not the last chicken in America.” The collection draws its power from such flashes of reality. The stories show the struggles and humor of what the author saw along the sidewalks and byways of her first American neighborhood, especially Forbes and Murray Avenues.
About a decade ago, after Litman earned a Pitt undergraduate degree in information science, she left the city to work as a software developer. But, in the early morning hours, she felt compelled to write stories. Eventually, the writing became more important to her than her day job, and she began to pursue writing full-time.
“I did not plan this,” Litman says of her book. “But these stories about immigrants, I felt they
were urgent. The book is a snapshot of what I know.” —By Ervin Dyer