In his provocatively titled new literary memoir, Immigrant Baggage: Morticians, Purloined Diaries, and Other Theatrics of Exile, Boston College author Maxim D. Shrayer recounts the poignant and humorous story of losing immigrant baggage and trying to reclaim it for his American future.
Shrayer, a professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies, will read from and discuss his witty and wise new work at a Dean’s Colloquium sponsored by the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences on April 24 at 4 p.m. in Gasson 112.
Inspired by the plight of his Jewish-Russian family and their American assimilation and acculturation, the book explores both material and immaterial aspects of this baggage. Born in Moscow, Shrayer spent nearly nine years as a refusenik with his parents. They left the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States in 1987, when he was a young man.
Through a combination of dispassionate reportage, gentle irony, and confessional remembrance, according to Boston-based publisher Cherry Orchard Books, Shrayer writes about traversing the borders and boundaries of the three cultures that have nourished him—Russian, Jewish, and American. The book’s six interconnected chapters are linked by the memoirist’s imperative to make the ordinary absurd and the absurd ordinary.
“Composed in the time of the pandemic, this book is a partial record of my immigrant discoveries, transgressions, and valedictions,” Shrayer said. “Much of it has to do 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 began to reflect on some of my most memorable travel adventures—and misadventures.”
As Cherry Orchard Books noted, “Shrayer parses a translingual literary life filled with travel, politics, and discovery—and sustained by family love and faith in art’s transcendence. The spirit of nonconformism and the power of laughter come to the rescue when he faces existential calamities and life’s misadventures.
Immigrant Baggage follows Shrayer’s Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration and Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, memoirs about living in, and leaving, the Soviet Union, respectively. They form a dilogy to which he hopes to add a sequel about his early American immigrant years.
In contrast, “Immigrant Baggage does not have an overarching historical or political narrative,” Shrayer said. “It is a memoir of living within and without languages, of the translingual self that refuses to be trapped in culture and identity, and seeks greater freedom of self-expression.”
Each chapter recaptures a moment of displacement and an item of the author’s immigrant baggage—material and immaterial. Hence the book’s title, Shrayer explained, and its cover which depicts “an old-fashioned valise stuffed with accoutrement of the three principal cultures that I call my own and carry with me on my trips.”
Calling the chapters “episodes,” Shrayer cited three examples. “Ribs of Eden,” the unraveling of a ski accident in the Dolomites, reminds readers of history’s many black holes. “Yelets Women’s High School” begins with a Soviet-era theatrical affair, continues as a journey to Russia’s literary past, and finally pushes the émigré protagonist and his preteen daughter to the brink of disaster in a provincial Russian town. In closing, “A Return to Kafka,” recounts a failed attempt to collect overdue royalties from a Moscow publisher, which causes the author to reassess the genius of the Jewish modernist from Prague.
Shrayer completed the book three weeks prior to the start of the war in Ukraine, timing significant to him. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine placed—for the second time since my family’s emigration/immigration—a demarcation line between my past and present. Finishing this book in spring 2022, 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, but also as a neocolonial war aimed at the restoration of the Soviet past. So, in a sense, Immigrant Baggage is also a story of separating from Russia’s present and future while remaining culturally Russian.
“Three-and-a-half decades after emigrating, feeling less of a stranger among American writers, I am still discovering the pleasures of writing in tongues,” Shrayer added. The war in Ukraine brought into sharp focus what I have known for some time and tried to practice in my work: writers are not only products of their origins but also creative re-makers of their identities.”
For more information on Shrayer’s work, visit shrayer.com
Rosanne Pellegrini | University Communications | April 2023