Author and filmmaker David Bezmozgis appears at York

On Nov. 17, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented Canadian writer and filmmaker David Bezmozgis reading from his book Natasha and Other Stories. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

I stressed our personal connection to each mundane thing, hoping in that way to justify its inclusion. There was the Canadian Tire store where I got my first bicycle, the Russian Riviera banquet hall where my father celebrated his birthday, one delicatessen called Volga and another called Odessa, a convenience store where I played video games, my school, my hockey arena, my soccer fields. Sergei looked and nodded. I kept talking and talking even though I could tell that what I was showing and what he was seeing were not the same things….

from Natasha and Other Stories
by David Bezmozgis

David Bezmozgis has a fantasy of tourists coming to visit Bathurst and Steeles. He believed that, much like Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain Street in Montreal, the area in which he grew up was worthy of fiction, and he decided to make a record of that place and time. The result is Natasha and Other Stories, a collection of linked short stories which he shared with the Canadian Writers in Person reading series.

Right: David Bezmozgis

Born in Latvia, Russia, and arriving in Toronto in 1980, the young Bezmozgis grew up between the old world and the new. Though he claims that most of his work is fiction, the context is nonetheless connected to fragments of his own experience. "The challenge is to create an alternate world that feels real, so that the reader will feel what made me write in the first place," he said. Because nothing else has been written about Russian Jews living in his neighbourhood, he hopes that his stories will enrich his readers’ knowledge of Toronto. 

The material is rich enough that he also shared pieces of his novel-in-progress about three generations of family leaving Russia in 1978 and ending up in Rome. At that time, people were not allowed to leave the country, but exceptions were made for Jews to return to their ancestral homeland of Israel. Bezmozgis described the culture shock of leaving the Soviet Bloc where nobody had bank accounts or credit cards and grocery stores were never fully stocked. Places such as Vienna, Rome and Toronto "were as remote and forbidden as the moon." 

As a Russian-Canadian Jew who was educated in Toronto, Montreal and California, Bezmozgis was asked which cultural group he identifies with. "It’s not like Baskin-Robbins where you choose your flavour," he said. Bezmozgis feels that wherever he is, he generally identifies with whatever part of him reflects the minority. He also resists the Woody Allen stereotypes of bookish Jews, claiming that many of the men he knew were athletic wrestlers. Some of the older characters in his collection were inspired by "people whose like will never be known again. They lived through imperialist Russia, World War II, Stalinism, communism, and they’re losing their Yiddish language. It’s moving to see this specific generation die off."

He described his writing life as "a tough way to make a living. It takes a long time to do, and until you’re done, nobody cares. If you don’t do it, nobody cares. You only do it because you need to." The best parts are finishing a good story and writing a good line after difficulty finding the right word, said Bezmozgis. "Ninety per cent of what you do is unpleasant. It’s work, just work." 

The work seems to have paid off because Bezmozgis believes that his short story collection was the completion of a life goal. "If I never did anything else, this would be it. I have fulfilled my biological imperative," he said. "The question is what to do with the rest of my life, which is what I’m still trying to answer."

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. At 7pm on Jan. 19, in 206 Accolade West Building, Lawrence Hill will read from The Book of Negroes.