This article was first published as “The Soviet Emigre Experience: Author David Bezmozgis emphasizes the Jewish in the Soviet-Jewish equation” in September 12, 2011 issue of The Jerusalem Report.Canadian author David Bezmozgis insists on differentiating himself from the characters he has created, the young Soviet Jewish émigrés who populate his fictional works. Yet, he is able to inhabit them so well and completely, that for his many readers and admirers, this highly talented 38-year-old writer and filmmaker has become the foremost literary voice of the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Canada.
With the publication this past spring by Farrar, Straus and Giroux of his first novel, “The Free World,” following his highly acclaimed 2004 collection of short stories titled “Natasha” and his 2009 feature film “Victoria Day” – all chronicling the lives of Soviet Jews in various stages of immigration to Canada – it is evident that Bezmozgis has drawn copiously from his own personal narrative. Bezmozgis immigrated to Toronto at the age of six with his parents from Riga, Latvia, in 1980.
Unlike other authors who are eager to venture into new territory with each work, Bezmozgis feels that he has yet to finish exploring and interpreting the Jewish Soviet émigré story. “I think there’s a lot to be said about that experience,” he tells The Report, as he explains the pull he feels toward writing about what he knows and feels most emotionally connected to.
“The first book, ‘Natasha,’ talks about what it’s like to arrive in a new country, what it’s like to arrive in North America and the experience of Soviet émigrés – Jewish émigrés – which I hadn’t seen anybody write about… I was fascinated by the story and it meant a lot to me. And there was a whole other part of that story, which pre- ceded it, which I couldn’t really address in ‘Natasha,’ but I wanted to. So that is the reason for ‘The Free World.’ I see the two books as complementing each other, as together telling the story of that experience – backwards, I guess, because ‘Natasha’ came first.”
“Natasha,” winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Award, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Commonwealth First Book Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, the JQ Wingate Prize, and shortlisted for many others, is a collection of interrelated stories about young Mark Berman, his parents and extended family, who fled Brezhnev-era Riga for Toronto. They chronicle Mark’s development from a little boy to a young man, and his family’s progress from a stressful, confusing and financially-strapped arrival in Canada to a comfortable middle- class existence.
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© 2011 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.