Vapnyar spent the first 23 years of her life in Moscow, where she earned a degree in Russian Language and Literature. Her mother was a professor of math education. In 1994 she moved to Staten Island with her husband; she was pregnant at the time.
Though Vapnyar’s husband and relatives found employment in the U.S. relatively easily, Vapnyar was unable to find a job. Feeling lonely and alienated, Vapnyar began to write stories in English. She was first published in 2002.
In 2011 Vapnyar received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is currently pursuing her PhD in comparative literature at CUNY Graduate School and serves as an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University.
She still lives on Staten Island.
Vapnyar has been consistently associated by critics with an emerging group of young, Russian-American authors who, in addition to writing exclusively in English, share a “preoccupation with questions of cultural identity, adaptation and assimilation, and nostalgia." Along with Vapnyar, this group includes writers such as Olga Grushin, Irinia Reyn, Anya Ulinich, and the highly regarded Gary Shteyngart, all of whom immigrated to the United States in the “Fourth Wave” of the Russian diaspora.
Because of their shared interest in articulating the immigrant experience in a nonnative language, Vapnyar and her literary cohorts are frequently called “translingual,” and explore “what it means to be a Russian writer with a hyphen." Thus, the trend for recent Russian-American authors is not to depict “immigrants on their way to ultimate assimilation…[but instead] to present themselves as partially alienated strangers” for a distinctly American audience.
On the one hand, authors have “addressed the pitfalls of writing about one's country of origin for a foreign audience." For example, in “The Writer as Tour Guide,” Vapnyar “reports that a reader, who was himself a Russian immigrant, told her that her books made him uncomfortable because they were so obviously written with an American audience in mind." On the other hand, depicting “North American contexts from the perspective of a Russian newcomer” allows the authors to effectively communicate the alienating experience of immigration and to help them establish their own translingual, transcultural identities. This last point, that the act of creative writing is cathartic and formative, is especially true for Vapnyar, who has wondered (in interviews) whether she would have learned to feel at ease in the United States without writing fiction in English. For Vapnyar, creative writing is her primary “means of establishing her identity in her adopted homeland."
Vapnyar’s reliance on creative writing as a means to form her own identity is reflected in her frequent use of a trope—common to all the Fourth Wave writers—that has been defined as the “self-portrait of the author as a translingual and transcultural storyteller." This trope is essentially an act of parody, where novels and short stories produced by the group present protagonists that are authors or storytellers themselves, spending the majority of the narratives explaining their Soviet lives to American characters. In doing so, Vapnyar is able to “symbolically enact...[her] own role as a self-exoticising translingual writer who presents her culture of origin to an audience of American readers.”
- 2016: Still Here: A Novel (Hogarth)
- 2014: The Scent of Pine: A Novel (Simon & Schuster)
- 2008: Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love (Anchor)
- 2006: Memoirs of a Muse (Vintage)
- 2003: There Are Jews in My House (Anchor)
- 2008: “The Writer as Tour Guide” in The Writer Uprooted: Contemporary Jewish Exile Literature, edited by Alvin H. Rosenfeld (Indiana University Press): 92-105
- Shuster, Yelena (2007). "Lost in Staten Island: An Interview with Lara Vapnyar". Birch Journal: 51–53.
- "All Fellows". John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
- "Authors". Authors - Lara Vapnyar. Penguin Random House. Retrieved 9 December 2016.
- "Faculty". Writing Faculty. Columbia University. Retrieved 9 December 2016.
- Ryan, Karen (2013). Transcultural Identities in Contemporary Literature. Rodopi. p. 27.
- Ryan, Karen (2013). Transcultural Identities in Contemporary Literature. Rodopi. p. 29.
- Wanner, Adrian (2011). Out of Russia : fictions of a new translingual diaspora. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. p. 10. ISBN 9780810127609.
- Wanner, Adrian (2011). "The Russian Immigrant Narrative as Metafiction". The Slavic and East European Journal. 55 (1): 63.
- Hansen, Julie (2012). "Making Sense of the Translingual Text: Russian Wordplay, Names, and Cultural Allusions in Olga Grushin's The Dream Life of Sukhanov". The Modern Language Review. 107 (2): 540.
- Ryan, Karen (2013). Transcultural Identities in Contemporary Literature. Rodopi. p. 30.
- Wanner, Adrian (2011). "The Russian Immigrant Narrative as Metafiction". The Slavic and East European Journal. 55 (1): 58.
- Wanner, Adrian (2015). "Writing the Translingual Life: Recent Memoirs and Auto-Fiction by Russian- American and Russian-German Novelists". L2. 7 (1): 146.