Reflections of a Russian-Jewish-American Writer

February 22, 2023 | Maxim Shrayer
About the author:

As a young man, Maxim Shrayer left the Soviet Union with his parents after what he describes as “eight-and-a-half years of a refusenik limbo,” and realized that he might have to give up his aspirations of becoming a Russian-language writer and try his hand at writing in English. Thirty-five years later, having lived in Boston longer than he ever lived in his native Moscow, Shrayer reflects on what it means to be a writer who belongs to three cultures: Russian, American, and Jewish:

Over the years I’ve learned that there’s more to translingualism than working not just in one language but in two or more, simultaneously or consecutively. In the not-so-recent past, translingual writers used to be all alone, artistically homeless, culturally stateless. Think of the loneliness of Raḥel, arguably the first modern Hebrew woman poet, who was born in 1890 in Saratov on the Volga and died in Tel Aviv in 1931, leaving for posterity two published collections of Hebrew verse and an unpublished volume of Russian poems.

Think also of Paul Celan, a multilingual Jew from Northern Bukovina [then Romania, now Ukraine] who lost his family during the Shoah, went on to write and publish peerless German-language poetry, and in 1970 killed himself in Paris. Think, finally, of the less unhappy yet still lonely story of Samuel Beckett, the Irish literary genius who spent much of his adult life in France and translated most of his French works into English. . . .

In the 1970s and 1980s, many more writers came to the U.S. and Canada from the USSR, riding the wave of the great Jewish emigration. . . . Representatives of this new wave of American and Canadian translingualism write in English and do so by hearkening back to such major Jewish-Russian authors as the incomparable short-story writer Isaac Babel and also to Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, who coauthored their popular satirical novels. At the same time, not surprisingly, some of the Russian-American authors also nominate Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Mordecai Richler as their literary ancestors.

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