Sunday, May 7, 2023

Q&A with Maxim D. Shrayer


Photo by Lee Pellegrini



Maxim D. Shrayer is the author of the new book Immigrant Baggage: Morticians, Purloined Diaries, and Other Theatrics of Exile. His many other books include Waiting for America. He grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the United States in 1987. He is a professor at Boston College.


Q: Over how long a period did you write Immigrant Baggage?


A: Thank you, Deborah, for these questions. It’s a pleasure to talk to you again.


Q: Thanks, you too!


A: I composed the bulk of the book during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of it has to do with a disappeared past and with travel—with crossing boundaries and borders, with examining lived experiences both as a stranger looking in and as a resident peering out.


When life came to a near standstill in the spring of 2020, and when movement across boundaries of cultures and countries became impossible, I begin to reflect on some of the most memorable travel adventures (and misadventures) of the previous five years.


From the existential prohibition against the freedom of movement came the initial impulse behind this tragicomic and humorous memoir. Attempts at border crossing sometimes delight or enchant the transgressor while also auguring disappointment, heartbreak, or even real danger.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: In contrast to Waiting for America and Leaving Russia, my dilogy of memoirs about living in and leaving the USSR, Immigrant Baggage does not have an overarching historical or political narrative.


It is primarily a memoir of living within and without languages; a story of the translingual self that refuses to be trapped in museums of culture and identity, and in doing so continues to seek a greater freedom of self-expression.


Each section of this new memoir is also an item of its author’s immigrant baggage—both material and material—and hence the book’s title and its cover, on which you can see an old-fashioned valise stuffed with various accoutrement of the three principal cultures that I call my own and carry with me—Russian, Jewish, and American.


And yet, if you examine the cover closely, you will discover that it deliberately violates the proportions of the so-called “real life”—just the way proportions of the past are often distorted in the memory of immigrants.


Some of the material objects stuffed into the immigrant’s valise are much bigger than they should be. A bottle of prosecco is almost half the size of Alpine skis; US passports are close in size to the head of Stella, our silver minijewdle. And for some reason Kafka’s photograph adorns the valise alongside the old-fashioned stickers of airlines and transatlantic cruise lines.


What is this all about? I guess, the book’s six interconnected tales are held together by the memoirist’s imperative to make the ordinary absurd and the absurd—ordinary. 


Q: The writer and scholar David Mikics called it “A compact, pang-filled, hilarious marvel.” What do you think of that description?


A: It’s one of the most compactly marvelous things ever to have been said about my work, and I’m tremendously flattered. And especially because it comes from Stanley Kubrick’s biographer.

Q: Some readers have compared your work to that of Nabokov--what do you think of that comparison?


A: Yes indeed, and I’m blushing as I type this answer. David Mikics also said that I write “like Nabokov’s long lost cousin.” (What if we were related via Nabokov’s Jewish great-grandfather Kozlov?)


Another writer I admire greatly, David Samuels, proposed that “Nabokov would have read [Immigrant Baggage] with pleasure.” This is very gratifying to hear because Vladimir Nabokov has been one of the principal protagonists of my critical and biographical work, and also because he, along with Samuel Beckett, represents an almost unattainable, virtuosic degree of translingual artistry.


I would love to be able to write like Nabokov, but it is, alas, not in my genes. At the same time—and I say this not immodestly but so as to suggest that there are other ways of describing the pleasures and perils of immigrant living—I think my work is more overtly concerned with politics and ideology, in some ways more interested in life’s existential dilemmas.


And I also practice, more in English than in Russian, that particularly zestful if also denuding, bittersweet Jewish humor of the sort that we experience, for instance, toward the end of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye cycle, when Tevye, perhaps an immigrant in the making, says to his literary creator: “Let's talk about something brighter. Have you heard the news of cholera in Odessa?”


Q: What are you working on now?


A: All in snatches: I’ve been working on new poems, both in English and in Russian, and some of them have to do with the daily small agonies of observing the war and devastation in Ukraine, my ancestral land.


I’m also working on a couple of longish essays, one of them having to do with today’s undercurrents of anti-Jewish bigotry in Europe and America, the other with Anna Karenina, one of my absolutely favorite books.


And I’m revising in English the book I originally wrote in Russian and now hope to bring to the Anglo-American reader. It’s a short double biography of two great Russian exiles, one of whom, Vladimir Nabokov, was already named in the course of this conversation, while the other is a great master of the art of memory, Ivan Bunin.


In 1933 Bunin became the first Russian-language write to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was an émigré, a cosmopolitan, and a staunch anti-Bolshevik, but above all else, he was a great artist. In English, the tentative title of my book is Nabokov and Bunin: A Rivalry in Exile.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think, one more point to add to my previous answers: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had placed—for the second time since my family’s emigration/immigration—a demarcation line between my past and my present.


In the spring of 2022, as I was putting the finishing touches to this book, I kept thinking of the bloodshed in Ukraine not only as an attempt by Putin’s regime to murder the land where three of my grandparents had been born and grew up, but also as a neocolonial war aimed at the restoration of the Soviet past.


So in a certain sense, Immigrant Baggage is also a story of separation from Russia’s present and future while remaining culturally Russian.


Thanks again, Deborah, and I hope you enjoyed the book.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Maxim D. Shrayer.

No comments:

Post a Comment