Meet “New Voice” Sufian Zhemukhov

A 2024 National Storytelling Festival Preview

When Sufian Zhemukhov immigrated from Russia to the United States at the age of 40, the last thing he expected was to become a storytelling sensation.

At the time, he was a professor teaching international politics. Though you might assume that’s a serious and humorless field, he liked to tell his students stories about his former life. He enjoyed that so much that it was a natural step to enter local storytelling competitions as a way to practice English, which was his second language. He was there solely to learn, or so he thought.

His was an unusual and accelerated path, moving from amateur to featured teller in an incredibly short amount of time. By 2018, Zhemukhov had placed third at the National Storytelling Festival’s Story Slam. He was an Exchange Place teller in 2022 and was invited to Jonesborough to be a teller in residence for the 2023 Storytelling Live series. He describes that run as one of the best weeks of his life.

His style is conversational, funny, and relatively low key, bringing a unique sensibility to our stage in Jonesborough. His work has been featured on PBS, NPR, and off Broadway, and he has been compared to the great humorist David Sedaris.

While Zhemukhov’s quick ascendence on the storytelling scene has impressed his colleagues, he stays humble by remembering that his family at home would be deeply unimpressed. He descends from a long line of storytellers who were well known in their Russian village. Zhemukhov says his family had a storytelling gene that blessed one person from each generation, counting his grandfather and his cousin among the family geniuses. Zhemukhov jokes that the gene skipped him, and he would not even rank at home.

As a featured teller at the Festival, Zhemukhov plans to share a range of his fascinating personal stories. Many explore the hilarity of having to adjust to life in the United States, which was obviously a big cultural shift from his decades in Russia.

After coming to Jonesborough for the first time in 2018 and watching tellers like Donald Davis, Zhemukhov began developing stories about his childhood to add to his repertoire. “For the audience, these are almost like fairy tales,” he says. “A Soviet boy growing up behind the Iron Curtain — most of the audience has no idea of what I’m talking about.” There’s a distancing effect that audience members might experience, unlike when they hear stories about an artist who, say, grew up in North Carolina.

At the same time, Zhemukhov has come to believe that everyone’s stories about childhood are a little like fairy tales. “They imply a different way of thinking,” he observes. “The narrator’s character is naïve.”

The multitalented performer also plays classical guitar, and he plans to include music in all of his sets.

Zhemukhov is almost as thrilled to be returning to Jonesborough for his first round as a featured performer as we are to have him. “This is such an honor,” he says. “Especially as an immigrant, I still can’t believe that I’m invited. It’s like a miracle.”


Sufian is the first featured teller in our New Voice series, a preview of the 52nd Annual National Storytelling Festival. Learn more about our other featured storytellers here, and watch for three more New Voice profiles in the coming months. We hope you’ll join us for the Festival in Jonesborough October 4-6, 2024.