Within (and Without) Languages: A Jewish Writer’s Translingual Adventures

The life of an immigrant writer is always and inevitably a story of unburdening oneself of the past and a history of border crossing.
February 15, 2023

In different ways, I’m rooted in three cultures—Russian, Jewish and American. Yet a writer’s life is about much more than one’s sense of roots. It’s about floating in spacetime, about the texture, scent and taste of words. And the life of an immigrant writer is always and inevitably a story of unburdening oneself of the past and a history of border crossing. The borders—or boundaries—include those of languages, cultures and countries, some of them invisible while others still guarded with silences or even barbed wire. And the attempts at border crossing sometimes delight or enchant the transgressor while also auguring disappointment, heartbreak or even real danger.

I first started thinking about the interrelationship of origins and literary language after coming to the West in the summer of 1987. The black sand of a seedy Tyrrhenian public beach in the Italian town of Ladispoli was my open-air reading and writing room. My parents and I had recently left Moscow for good after eight and a half years of a refusenik limbo. We were spending the summer in Italy while our U.S. refugee visas were being processed. We had brought four suitcases, one of them containing three or four tattered family photo albums, and two manual typewriters, one my father’s, the other mine. The typewriters have survived all the peripeties of transit and still function today, although not much besides those typewriters and some Russian books from our old Moscow library remains of the material baggage of our Soviet past. As to the memory of our lives before emigration, it’s taken much longer to dispose of the immaterial baggage of exile.

It was a summer of transit, a time of many discoveries. In Italy, still waiting for America, I pored over books by Russian exiles who had faced the predicament of choosing another language of self-expression. First on my list was Vladimir Nabokov, the great Russian-American writer, author of “Lolita” and “Pnin,” who remade himself after coming to America as a refugee in 1940, having rescued his Jewish wife and son. I was also reading the novels and stories of Mark Aldanov, who wrote in Russian and actively published in English and who, in the 1940s and early 1950s, before the “Lolita” explosion, was the most commercially successful living Russian author in America. With me, copied into a small leather-bound notebook, was two-thirds of what would become my first poetry collection, to be published in New York in 1990. Would I ever be able to write in another language? I wondered that summer. What would be the price of losing—of abnegating—what I thought at the time to be my own Russian voice?

Four months later, on a wet November afternoon of my first American autumn (which was balmy by Moscow standards), I walked across the campus of Brown University and knocked on the office door of John (Jack) Hawkes. Author of “The Passion Artist,” Hawkes was a legendary American postmodernist, the most famous writer on the Brown faculty. He was retiring the following year. A recent immigrant studying literature and literary translation, I desperately wanted to take Hawkes’s last fiction-writing seminar. All the twelve slots were taken.

Silver-haired, witty, verbally perverse, Hawkes listened to my rambling account of leaving the USSR, of writing poetry and fiction in Russian, and of coming to the U.S. He waited, silently, lips twitching, then asked:    “Have you read Nabokov?”

Hawkes pronounced the second “o” in Nabokov’s name with an extra roundness, as if caressing the stressed Russian vowel. “Nabokov?” I asked, in disbelief. “Of course I have.”

“He’s remarkable,” said Hawkes. “I first read him in 1945—in San Marino.”

“My grandmother got lost in San Marino last summer,” I commented. “She ended up on the local emergency radio broadcast.” Hawkes looked at me with bemusement. In 1965 his novel “Second Skin” competed with Nabokov’s “The Defense” and Bashevis Singer’s “Short Friday” for the National Book Award for Fiction. Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” took the prize.

Hawkes had no interest in Soviet politics, no ear for Jewish immigrant anxieties. Yet he let me into his fiction seminar as the thirteenth student and even had his own plans for my literary future. Hawkes wanted me to write surrealist, pathological tales set in the Russian countryside. In the spring of 1988, a translingual novice surrounded by other young writers—all of them American-born—I first tried my hand at composing fiction and nonfiction in English. I’m forever grateful to Jack Hawkes, whom I ended up disappointing with what was then my passion for politics-infused narratives.

Over thirty-five years have gone by. I’ve now lived in Boston much longer than in my native Moscow. Many times I’ve asked myself, sometimes happily, sometimes wistfully, what it means to write translingually. (In the context of literary studies, the scholar Steven G. Kellman was the first to speak of translingual writers.)

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 Rahel, 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 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. Is a translingual writer who has found a new home no longer writing in a trance, no longer living in transit?

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.

Perhaps literary translingualism means, as the fervently monolingual American poet Robert Frost might put it, “betwixt and between,” both here and elsewhere. If so, what happens when we discover a literary community of fellow translinguals? What changes when we perceive ourselves—and are perceived—as a trend, a literary movement, a school?

Let me turn, briefly, to the story I know best and sometimes call my own, that of ex-Russians—and ex-Soviets—writing in English. When the Russian diplomat Pavel Svinyin (Svenin) lived and published in Philadelphia in the 1810s, he was in a league of his own. When the Yiddish- and Russian-speaking Abraham Cahan, the legendary editor of The Forward, an immigrant from the Russian Empire, was learning to write fiction in English in the 1900s, he, too, did not have many interlocutors. The St. Petersburg–born Vladimir Nabokov had very few artistic colleagues in the truest sense of the word when he arrived in America as a refugees after having rescued his Jewish wife and son.

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. These new Russian-American writers—Joseph Brodsky most famously—sought to write in English Russianly, and not so infrequently this ambition stood in the way of their styles and voices as they forded the Hudson and the St. Lawrence. It has taken at least a generation for Soviet immigrants to find their literary bearings in the New World, and perhaps even longer to form a translingual neighborhood—a community—both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the American and Canadian cultural mainstream. Some of today’s translinguals left the former Soviet Union as children and young people. They have their literary great-uncles and great-aunts on both sides of the Atlantic.

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 llya 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. Today we have translingual literary lovers and partners, editors and publishers, friends and next-door neighbors. A greater sense of shared cultural ancestry and thematic unity makes the circle of today’s Anglophone writers from the former USSR something of a Russian family business and also something of a Jewish community affair. Only time will show whether we’re bound to lose our Russian-American and Russian-Canadian voices tinged with a Jewish accent.                                                                                                                    

Only time will show whether we’re bound to lose our Russian-American and Russian-Canadian voices tinged with a Jewish accent.

Over the years of living—and writing—away from Russia, I have gone through periods of writing literary texts only in Russian, of writing no literary texts in Russian, of writing poetry in Russian and literary prose in English, and of writing only literary prose in English. The final year of the Trump rule and the onset of the COVID pandemic led me to the composition of English-language poetry, some of it in the satirical mode. And throughout these years of living as an émigré and a translingual subject, I have always been involved in one or another form of self-translation. Self-translation has evolved from attempts to give previous Russian texts another life in English (a life they may or may not have deserved)—through creatively revising my English-language fiction and nonfiction—to parallel compositions of texts in both English and Russian, a mode that I presently find most stimulating.

In what language do you think? I’m often asked during readings and literary events. Is it Russian? English? Both? I reply, honestly, that in a sense it does not matter for the creative outcome. Over the years, I have had vivid dreams in which I lectured in French about sophisticated matters of culture and history. When I’m awake, my command of French is limited. In the spring of 1993, when I was living and doing research in Prague, I experienced dreams in which I had extensive debates about politics with the former vintage 1968 Czech dissidents. In reality, my Czech is quite rudimentary. I’m pointing this out because dreams give us deeper access to mechanisms of culture production—mechanisms that probably impact translingual writers most profoundly by revealing the hidden texture of exile.

To return to my own translingual beginnings, my 1987 experience as a Soviet refugee in Italy eventually informed the writing of my literary memoir “Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration,” in which discoveries of new worlds, and words, are measured on the rusty scale of nostalgia. Three and a half decades after emigrating from Russia, I finally felt ready to describe what it had been like to live both within and without languages. “Immigrant Baggage,” my new memoir, is a story of the translingual self that refuses to be trapped in museums of culture and identity. Now feeling less of a stranger among American writers, I’m still learning the secret craft of writing in tongues.

Maxim D. Shrayer is an author and a professor at Boston College. His recent books include “A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas” and “Of Politics and Pandemics.” This essay was adapted from Shrayer’s new memoir, “Immigrant Baggage,” forthcoming in the spring of 2023.

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