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Natasha: and Other Stories
By David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
At 32 years of age, author David Bezmozgis has already become a minor celebrity in literary circles. Born in Riga, Latvia in 1973, he emigrated to Toronto with his family at the age of six. Upon the publication of his debut book, Natasha: and Other Stories (2004), a great buzz surrounded the undiscovered writer. Today, his book of short, connected stories about immigration, which chronicles the Canadian acclimation of a Jewish family similar to his own, is still generating interest.
Featured last week as part of Bar-Ilan University's First Fruits seminar, presented by the MA program in Creative Writing, Bezmozgis spoke to an enthused audience of fans, including Bar-Ilan faculty members and students.
The Jerusalem Post sat down with the author one-on-one to find out more about Bezmozgis' past as well as his burgeoning career. Nestled in the lounge of the Prima Astor hotel on the Tel Aviv coast, a lightly bearded and bespectacled Bezmozgis was eager to discuss his craft.
"When I sit down to write a story, I set out to communicate the emotion that inspired the story," says Bezmozgis. "For me, the idea is getting at some feeling... everything is in service of the emotion."
Bezmozgis, a soft-spoken man, chooses his words carefully, pausing frequently in search of just the right word.
"These were stories that I thought needed to be written. There was a community that had not been represented and I thought that there was something very interesting about it that was moving to me," he says.
In Natasha, Bezmozgis's alter-ego, Mark Berman, arrives in Toronto in 1980 and observes his surroundings. As an immigrant child, Berman is Canadian enough to communicate the plight of his Soviet parents, and Soviet enough to recognize the differences in his new world.
"It was my life's ambition to write well about these [characters]," he relates.
Indeed, Bezmozgis is an exemplary immigrant narrator, strikingly observant and aware of his characters' inner struggles.
When asked about his life before coming to Canada, Bezmozgis lets out a brief sigh.
"I remember very little, just flashes," he recounts. "I remember the day of our departure, leaving the apartment we lived in. My parents say I kissed the walls and I kind of remember doing that... being a little kid and leaving your home, all you've ever known, forever and into the unknown."
In an effort to uncover the roots of his literary interests, Bezmozgis speaks about his earliest memories.
"My mother read to me a lot when I was very young. I started speaking very early, reciting Soviet revolutionary poetry, which is what she was reading to me," he recalls.
"Maybe I showed some aptitude for writing and linguistics. I was always interested in reading, even when I was a little kid."
Gradually, as he grew older, Bezmozgis started reading the likes of Bernard Malamud, Isaac Babel, Philip Roth and Mordechai Richler, the typical big names in 20th-century North American Jewish literature.
Leonard Michaels is another lesser-known author he took a liking to.
"He was a writer I had read and admired," says Bezmozgis. "I read Leonard Michaels when I was doing my graduate studies in film school [University of Southern California's School of Cinema and Television] and when I read him it was a complete revelation. Nobody I had read up to that point had affected me in the same way. He mainly treated the subject of secular Jewish life."
It was when he was still in graduate school in Los Angeles, trying to make a career in film-making, that Bezmozgis finally had a chance to meet Michaels.
After coming across a story of Michaels's that he had wanted to adapt, Bezmozgis got in touch with the author and a friendship quickly developed between them.
"[Despite being] a literary mentor, we didn't really talk much about writing," says Bezmozgis.
"It was more like a friendship than a mentorship, but he was tremendously influential on me and still is. I read him all the time and I reread him. He admired Isaac Babel very much and introduced me to his work."
"Most of what I write is secular," he notes, "but the connection to Soviet Jewry is my frame of reference. The characters [in these stories] happen to be Jewish."
"Ultimately what this does, I think, is what a lot of art does; everybody writes about what they know well. They don't do it necessarily to serve as ambassadors, they do it because that's what moves them."
When questioned about his success thus far, Bezmozgis politely admits that he never saw it coming.
"I didn't know what to expect. The only thing I wanted was to have a book published. What happened after that, there was no way of knowing. I didn't know much about the publishing world. I didn't know how these things worked, what was normal or unusual. I've since come to understand that what happened to me is quite unusual. It's a combination of luck, but also the quality of the work," he says.
"It's still a thrill to see my book in the stores. It's a bigger thrill," he admits, "to see it in the library. It's some kind of affirmation, it's eventful, the permanence of it."
As for any future output, Bezmozgis merely hints at his current endeavors.
"I'm writing a novel now [and I'm] hoping it will be finished sooner rather than later. And after that there'll be some film work. Both mediums offer different things... I think certain stories really do break down into something that is destined for either screen or page. I think it'll be a combination of both things if I should be so lucky."