Travels through Russian in English: Dale Pesman, Maria Tumarkin, Maxim Shrayer and Gary Shteyngart
The ‘travels through Russian in English’ of the four authors discussed here took place in different directions, and at different times. American artist Dale Pesman’s Russia and Soul (2000) is a work of anthropology, a retrospective mining of Pesman’s two years in the Siberian town of Omsk, 1990-1992, for what she learnt there of Russian dusha (or soul). Australian historian Maria Tumarkin’s memoir Otherland: a journey with my daughter (2010) recounts six weeks of travel with her 12-year-old daughter, Billie, in Russia and Ukraine in 2008 – Moscow, Kiev, St Petersburg, Babi Yar and Tumarkin’s birthplace of Kharkov – against the background of the author’s migration to Australia with her parents in 1989, aged 15. American literary scholar Maxim Shrayer’s Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story (2013) is an account of the nine refusenik years, 1978-1987, from his eleventh till his twentieth birthday, in which he and his parents waited for permission to leave the Soviet Union. Finally, American writer Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure (2014) is a narrative of his growing up in the Soviet Union and the United States, after his migration there aged 7 with his parents in 1979. Pesman is the only one of these authors not born in the Soviet Union, and not from a Russian-speaking background. Her language travel, then, took her into Russian from (American) English, whereas the other three all moved initially from Russian into (American or Australian) English, with later return trips to post-Soviet Russia and Russian. All four authors are Jewish, and write of Russian-Jewish experience – in Pesman’s case, most obliquely, of how Jewishness shadows her provisional, adopted Russianness. All four texts invoke ways of being – cultural, psychological – which are possible in Russian, that is, among Russian-speakers, and equally, ways of being that emerge between Russian and English. Their engagement with these lingua-cultural ways of being is the focus of my paper.