David Bezmozgis is a celebrated Canadian writer who is known to write within the theme of immigration, a lived experience for many of Bezmozgis’ compatriots. Revered for his work with short stories, film and novels, his effective writing style places the reader in the presence, yet at a distance of the narrative characters, and reads like a fly on the wall in a new story that is as old as time. Bezmozgis has explained that his method includes thinking about certain conversations in Russian and then translating them into English in his mind so it’s no surprise that his writing carries a European rhythm to his stories, with the infusion of Russian syntax in English language storytelling.
This kind of infusion is the personification of Bezmozgis himself, who at the age of 6 years and in the company of 8 kinfolk that made up 3 generations of his immediate family, fled Russia. Upon arriving in Rome in a stopgap, with no clear destination for resettlement, the Bezmozgis family’s choice to make Canada home was retold in his first novel The Free World – a decision decided by the utterance of the words “Da, Da Kanada; Nyet, Nyet Soviet!” in a stairwell. Seven years later, the family arrived in Canada in 1980 and sought refuge amongst the flourishing Russian Jewish community along Bathurst Street in Toronto’s North York. As the Bezmozgis family was settling into their new Canadian life, David pursued a B.A. in English Literature at McGill University and subsequently an M.F.A. from the USC’s School of Cinema-Television. The dual modalities of his attainments speaks to the visual nature of his beloved literature.
While still in school, Bezmozgis’ writing begot awards and recognition that made him a literary star and elevated him to the wonderful company of other young Jewish writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Michael Chabon, Dara Horn, and Nathan Englander – just to mention a few.
Reviewers love him, as do the award committees
Natasha consists of seven partially autobiographical short stories, which progress in chronological order according to the author’s age. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was falling apart and many Russian Jews opted to leave in hopes of a better life. The book describes the social environment and the trials and tribulations that the Bezmozgis family members encountered in a highly detailed and insightful recount of their lived experience but through their literary stand-ins, the Berman family. The story is narrated by Mark Berman, beginning when he is seven through his developing adolescence into adulthood. Bezmozgis skillfully crafts a story of sensitive insight, humour and affection for his formative years in Canada.
In 2007, Natasha was a finalist for Canada Reads, described by CBC as a “literary Survivor” with celebrities championing books until a winner triumphs over the 4 other nominations.
In 2016, Bezmozgis adapted Natasha to a Feature Film and was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay from the Canadian Academy of Film and Television.
Free World moves back in time and depicts the before in Italy – a better description would be life that happened between the past in the Soviet Union, and the future that will hopefully be a freer world. The book tells the story of the Krasnansky family – grandparents, sons, and grandchildren – as they wait in Rome for the rest of their lives to begin. We feel the frustrations of the sons as they try to make a living for their family; we feel the pain of Samuil who fought in the Russian Revolution and is now treated as a traitor to Russia; and the confusion of the young boys who become yarmulke-wearing Zionists in their in-between world. The family is bound for freedom – but what is the meaning of freedom, for people who have never experienced it.
Released in 2011 to wide acclaim, Free World nominated and shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction, and won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award.
The Betrayers is the final part of Bezmozgis’ trilogy. Free World starts with the Jews leaving Ukraine and looking for a new home; Natasha and other stories illustrates life in Canada; The Betrayers considers the future for the Jews of Israel and the changes that have been brought about in the country by over a million Soviet Jews. He also juxtaposes this to the influence of Zionist orthodoxy. Bezmozgis has framed all of this inside the context of betrayal.
Developed while holding a New York Public Library Cullman Center Fellowship, shortlisted for a Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2014 and winner of the National Jewish Book Award and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award.
Immigrant City is Bezmozgis’ 2nd collection of short stories that keeps with his other themes. Bezmozgis is concerned about the “immigrant” – how do they move across the world searching for a better life while still feeling somewhat lost and adrift. How do they find a stable identity? The older the immigrant gets, the bigger the chasm between the old life and the current one. Bezmozgis’ question is how do you go home and still keep going? Or how do you resolve the divide of your life – pre and post immigration? How do the different generations in a family find common ground?
Bezmozgis’ literary strength is that he is a wonderful storyteller
Jewish people have lived in Russia for about 1000 years, actively contributing to Russian life, with a wealth of artistic, political and intellectual talent emerging from this bastion. Until the last few decades of the 20th century, the largest group of Diaspora Jews was located in Russia. Following the decimation of Russian Jews in the Holocaust, those who survived or remained continued to encounter pogroms and anti-Semitism, resulting in two major waves of Russian exodus: The first, at the turn of the 20th century, Zionist ideology took most Jews to America, others to Palestine, and some even to Shanghai; the second mass departure was in the late 1970s and early 80s when the Refusenik movement came to a head. The latter is where Bezmozgis’ literary musings begin.
David sees his job as being a primary narrator of those stories, especially the ones that talk about the journey to freedom, – the journey to the Free World, the story of immigrants. He concentrates on ordinary Jews, who became a displaced Jewish community after leaving the Soviet Union. He has appointed himself to be a witness to the transition from the old world to the new. As we see the world recoiling from the onslaught of immigrants to all parts of the world, Bezmozgis brings us back to what matters: the individual, the personal story, the need for compassion and understanding. Immigration and migration is an old-new story which alters with time and place. It’s best to face it head on. In 2013 interview, Bezmozgis spoke about the lives of his Russian Jewish immigrants as balancing between the “here and gone”. He goes on to say “that’s why I started to write in the first place. To leave a record of something that will eventually cease to be.”
And that’s why I’m a Bezmozgis fan, but see for yourself – David Bezmozgis is out on the circuit promoting his newest novel Immigrant City and we strongly encourage you to attend one (or both) of his upcoming FREE Toronto readings:
- On the Theme of Exodus: David Bezmozgis launches Immigrant City: Stories, presented by JIAS Toronto and Beth Tzedec Congregation
Sun, 7 April 2019 @ 3:00 PM – 4:30 PM EDT
Beth Tzedec Congregation (1700 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON M5P 3K3)
FREE event, Registration required
- Toronto Public Library’s eh List Series presents: David Bezmozgis: Immigrant City, Conversation hosted by Toronto Life editor Sarah Fulford
Tues, 16 April 2019 @ 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM
Toronto Reference Library (789 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON M4W 2G8)
FREE event, Registration not required