Zinaida’s from Odessa, Ukraine, where they speak Russian outside of Russia. In the U.S., where they speak English outside England, she has met Valentine. Odessa, Zina’s motherland, is motherless, her mother having abandoned their family for the American dream. Now Zina and Valentine are returning to Odessa during the 2014 Ukrainian Spring (Euromaidan). In this place at this time, one’s tongue can determine whether one lives or dies. Two Big Differences is a story of navigating identity through language.

“The Odessitka needed to keep telling Valinka about Odessa. This place was Kievskaya Rus, became the Russian Empire, became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and became Ukraine. Each place was an acacia petal, rising in the breeze, floating, only to fall underfoot again. Like the tongue speaking Russian, it touches the top of the mouth at times, for the soft sign, or to say the name of my birthplace properly: Odyessa. “Odd Yes Ah.” The breeze there carries the smell of grass and
sea. Those petals come to a rest on shellrock both gentle and strong. That shellrock was unearthed to build that city on its own hollows, which run all the way to Tairovsky Cemetery, one of the biggest in Ukraine. There, they say, lies an entrance to the catacombs.
 Galya, in her mind, said, Sh, don’t tell anybody about it.

Her anecdotes touched Valinka, unearthed him, and this power made her an honorary Odessitka again. Ah Deceit Ka. He called this Odessitka Zina, short for Zinaida, which nobody would have called her. He could call her Zinka or Zinochka too if he wanted. If he called her Zinaida, she would stick her tongue out in his face. If that hurt his feelings, he might not stick it out in Odessa.”

“This story is the American English version of one that should take place in Ukrainian Russian. Odessan Russian, Zina would say. She would call me Valinka or Valya or Valentine.
Zina…how would she tell this story? It’s in her voice, in my head, which is located in America now.

But my head was in her Odessa. When I waited in the airport to fly away, to fly home, I pictured Odessa from above. As my mind flew away, my body soon followed. My Russian is still fluent. It’s not fluent enough to tell this story in Russian, though. It’s enough to speak with my inner Zina. I drive around the destroyed landscape here in Detroit. It means nothing to me now. I want to see it from above. I want my inner Zina to fly me away from here on her silver tongue.”


Two Big Differences demonstrates an intimate and authoritative understanding of contemporary post-Soviet life, especially as it’s experienced by people from Odessa—in Odessa but also as immigrants to the US. Singleton writes convincingly and authoritatively from multiple perspectives in the book, including that of a young woman from Odessa. The quality of Singleton’s prose also bears the rhythms and influences of some of the Soviet masters—Kataev, Olesha and, I’d venture, Dovlatov. However, it doesn’t read as mimicry but as the authentic representation of the way his contemporary characters think, feel and speak.”

David Bezmozgis, author of Immigrant City

“Singleton teaches us that to learn a language is to be remade by that language. To move to a different city means to internalize the traumas inscribed in the map. This novel is the product of a deep engagement with the Russian language and a love song to the cities of Detroit, USA and Odessa, Ukraine in all of their different, rich complexities. Necessary reading for anyone considering a move to a different country!”

Olga Zilberbourg, author of Like Water and Other Stories

“It is late in Two Big Differences when Ian Ross Singleton’s unforgettable character Zina ‘needed to let these stories take over,’ but it is clear from the beginning that Singleton himself needed to let these stories take over his novel. Where Odessa meets Detroit and American meets Ukrainian and English meets Russian, everything proves hilariously serious and fantastically true. There are two big differences between this and the next-liveliest novel you will read this year.”

H. L. Hix, author of The Gospel According to H. L. Hix

Two Big Differences is brightly original, structurally inventive, thoughtful and wise, suffused with love for the infinitely lovely and poignantly heartbreaking, faraway city of Odessa; full of energy and effortless narrative fluidity, replete with lightning-quick transitions between the scenes, shot through with bright flashes of humor and sharp wit. The sheer rhythms of this terrific novel are mesmerizing. Ian Ross Singleton is one of the finest young writers at work in America today.”

Mikhail Iossel, author of Love Like Water, Love Like Fire

“A passionately told story of migrations, of romance, and of intergenerational traumas, Two Big Differences, Ian Ross Singleton’s debut, is a rich linguistic treat on every page. The novel is also an operatic love letter to Odessa, Ukraine, as tragic as it is beautiful. By the end of this novel, you will have crossed oceans of feeling like Singleton’s characters have.”

Leland Cheuk, author of No Good Very Bad Asian H. L. Hix


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