Imperfect Remembrance: Nostalgia for Svetlana Boym

Marta Figlerowicz in the Boston Review:

Immigrant life easily slips into melodrama. A whiff of blood sausage has me tearfully recalling the evenings when my grandmother cooked it for me. An unexpected “cześć,” or hello, overheard between two fellow Poles immerses me in involuntary memories, as I mourn greetings I shared with high school friends. I never actually liked blood sausage, or high school, and had rejoiced to leave them behind when I moved here. But for a moment, my unconscious fools me, and these recalled sensations compose themselves into a Hallmark card.

Most émigré writers gloss over such moments of weakness, depicting their attitudes and tastes as detached and worldly. Svetlana Boym (1959–2015), renowned scholar of comparative literature, was the rare thinker who leaned into them, in search for a more honest account of the uprooted life. “What might appear as an aestheticization of social existence to the ‘native,’” she wrote of such experiences, “strikes the immigrant as an accurate depiction of the condition of exile.” To be an immigrant is, paradoxically, not just to live in partial alienation from one’s new surroundings, but also to lose distance from the world one has left behind. It is only from such a position of humility, Boym further insisted, that illuminating generalizations about one’s experience—and about what this experience can teach others—can begin. As demonized and idealized depictions of migration loom large, Boym’s reflections on the fragilities of our memories in times of loss and transit seem more pressing than ever.

More here.

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