The News Service
David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer
America still offers immigrant writers a shelter – a place and a space to write – and even the occasional rewards of the literary marketplace. For an immigrant writer, the welcoming anonymity of American life is both liberating and stifling, exhilarating and disheartening. America still promises, and gives, much of herself to immigrant writers. But once translated and published, immigrant stories start American lives of their own.
“I was born and reared in the lowest depths of poverty and I arrived in America – in 1885 – with four cents in my pocket. I am now worth more than $2 million. And yet when I take a look at my inner identity it strikes me as being precisely the same as it was thirty or forty years ago,” intones the protagonist of The Rise of David Levinsky (1917).
Abraham Cahan, the author of this major immigrant novel, arrived to America in 1882 from the Russian Empire, making a contribution to both Yiddish and American letters. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of writers came to America from Russia as immigrants and refugees, fleeing political repression, anti-Semitism and censorship. Few followed in Abraham Cahan’s footsteps to break out of the confines of the language, culture and mentality of the old country. For many literary immigrants, their mother tongue became a fortress, defending their identities from the American cultural mainstream.
Language is one of the barriers standing between the immigrant writer and his potential American audience. Of the Russian immigrants who switched to English, the most successful was Vladimir Nabokov, who came to America in 1940 with his Jewish wife and son aboard a ship taking Jewish refugees from France. A famous Russian émigré author in inter-war Europe, Nabokov refashioned himself, becoming a great American literary artist. Two of his American novels, Lolita and Pnin, are immigrant stories about Europeans in postwar America.
“Europe, nonetheless, is over,” Nabokov remarked in a poem in 1953, the year Stalin died. After Lolita’s bestsellerdom, Nabokov spent two decades writing American fiction in Switzerland, insisting that he was “as American as April in Arizona.”
What does it mean for an immigrant writer to become an American writer? Is it language, or representation of American life, or something else that escapes definition – something the readers perceive intuitively? Some writers never become American – either in language or in the themes and spirit of their work, or in their commitment to this country’s destiny, even after decades of living in America. A case in point is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in 1976 found refuge in Vermont but in 1994 returned to Russia – his choice, his loss, but America’s also.
Immigrant stories both mirror and mimic the careers of their immigrant authors. At least that has been the experience of our new collection of stories, Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America.
In 1987, when the Soviet Union was still a country and the Providence rivers hadn’t yet girded the slim waist of downtown, our family settled here after nine years of Jewish refuseniks’ limbo. One of the first things we did – still disoriented as we set roots in our new country – was turn to translation. For one of us, it was a mode of self-expression as an author; for the other, it was a way to discover the style of English prose as he, then a Brown University undergraduate, made a transition, both rapturous and rupturous, from Russian to English.
The 13 stories in Jonah and Sarah span 15 years. The first of them to appear in English was “Rusty,” a tale of love and jealousy involving a Moscow artist, his itinerant wife and a beautiful dachshund. The story won a Providence Journal fiction contest and appeared in its pages, in 1989. Father and son, immigrant writer and editor-translator, we would be transported to our Russian and Soviet past while working together.
Collaborating on Jonah and Sarah also carried us toward an immigrant future, with its joys and discontents. The latter part of the collection features immigrant characters inscribing themselves in the landscapes and culturescapes of their adopted country. In “Hurricane Bob,” co-translated by Emilia Shrayer, an idealistic immigrant agonizes over the news of a revanchist coup in his native Moscow while a deadly hurricane ravages the coast of New England. In “Hande Hoch!,” a story both gently ironic and sharply polemical, a Russian-Jewish immigrant couple confronts a Jewish-American family whose daughter is married to a German intellectual.
The publication of Jonah and Sarah validated our choice to become Americans. America still offers immigrant writers a shelter – a place and a space to write – and even the occasional rewards of the literary marketplace. The devotion of many American writers and translators helps steer immigrant writing into print.
For an immigrant writer, the welcoming anonymity of American life is both liberating and stifling, exhilarating and disheartening. America still promises, and gives, much of herself to immigrant writers. But she cannot readily offer them a receptive audience. Once translated and published, immigrant stories start American lives of their own.