One of Canada’s most celebrated authors doesn’t feel fully Canadian. David Bezmozgis moved to Toronto from Riga, Latvia, as a six-year-old boy. That was 39 years ago, but, “Once an immigrant, always an immigrant,” he said in a recent conversation with The Times of Israel.
The same applies for the characters in his newly published short story collection, “Immigrant City.” It’s the Canadian writer’s first return to the genre since his 2004 breakout work, “Natasha and Other Stories,” in which he explored the trials and tribulations of the Bermans, a fictional Soviet Jewish family newly arrived to Toronto.
The subject of immigration is becoming increasingly politicized in Canada, as it is all over the world. Things have changed since “Natasha and Other Stories” was published, but Bezmozgis has not changed how he writes, or what he writes about. He is aware that his stories now take on a political timbre that he may not have intended. Nonetheless, he plans on continuing to mine what it means to come from one country but live in another.
“It seems I’m not done with it,” he said of the subject.
Like the Latvian-born Bezmozgis, the characters populating the seven stories in “Immigrant City” are well along in their lives in their adopted home, but they are still trying to make sense of the immigration experience.
“The ‘Natasha’ stories were about the confusion and drama of new immigrants. This book is about people who have been here long enough to adapt… but not to adapt,” Bezmozgis said.
The acclaimed novelist and filmmaker lives in Toronto with his American-born wife and their three daughters (ages of four to 10). Now 45, Bezmozgis widens his lens on the immigrant experience and explores questions and issues that were not relevant to his younger self.
“You write about a version of yourself, and and as you age, your writing tracks what you are experiencing. You track yourself in fiction over time,” Bezmozgis said.
He employs his signature sharply-crafted, evocative, and oft-absurdist prose to tackle themes relevant to his own life as a veteran Soviet immigrant. At the same time, he broadens his perspective to consider the experiences of newcomers of other backgrounds. In one story, he also visits the lives of Latvian Jews who chose not to leave for the West.
In the title story we meet Muslim immigrants from Somalia. The narrator (an unmistakably fictionalized version of the author) brings his young daughter along to a housing project inhabited by new immigrants to buy a car door to replace the one he banged up. He reflects on his own childhood in similar surroundings, tries to impart to his daughter what it means to be an immigrant, and at the same time struggles to face down his own fears of being among people so different from himself.
In “The Rooster,” the narrator discovers old Yiddish letters indicating that his late grandfather might have fathered an illegitimate daughter who remained in Latvia. Unbeknownst to the narrator and his parents, the grandfather had regularly visited the daughter’s non-Jewish mother, who had also ended up in Toronto. This discovery brings together the narrator with younger generations of the Latvian woman’s family in unforeseen and uncomfortable ways.
The two longest stories are “A New Gravestone for a Old Grave” and “The Russian Rivera.”
The former is about the lawyer son of Soviet Jewish immigrants to Los Angeles who reluctantly carries out a mission to return to Riga to ensure the proper placement of a new stone on his grandfather’s grave. While visiting his hometown — to which he no longer feels any connection — he spends time with the son of his father’s old friend, who chose not to emigrate. The son — also a lawyer — is a stark reminder of what the narrator’s life would have been like had his parents not left.
“Russian Riviera” is a noir narrative about a non-Jewish Siberian boxer named Kostya who wasn’t good enough to represent the Soviet Union in international competition. Resigned to working as a carpenter, he decides to try life in Canada after his former coach summons him to Toronto.
As might be predicted, his hopes of a boxing career in Canada are dashed, and he ends up a bouncer at a gaudy Russian restaurant that the Russian mob attempts to infiltrate. He tries to establish a relationship with another emigrée, but her family looks down on him.
Life hasn’t turned out for Kostya as he had planned and the story ends with a bloody fight in the restaurant’s bathroom.
Bezmozgis, a master of many genres, said he finds writing short stories very fulfilling.
“I’ve been writing short stories all along. It’s a mistake to consider it an apprentice form. Stories are just as substantial as longer forms. It’s about applying two or three ideas against each other to create an evocation, an emotion. You make one strong impression with less plot,” Bezmozgis said.
“I actually think that for most of our life, we experience life as stories and not as novels,” he said.
And as happens with events in real life, the stories in “Immigrant City” often feel as though they end unfinished.
Bezmozgis said a story works if it continues to move the reader after the reading is done. “It’s the end of an episode. It should linger and feel complete at the same time.”
“Immigrant City” is very much a Toronto book. Other major North American cities, like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, are associated with immigration, but the author chooses to unapologetically write about his home town. “My life is here in Toronto,” he said.
Bezmozgis sums up the unique multicultural nature of Canada’s largest city with a line in the collection’s title story. The narrator is nervous about heading home from the Somali family’s apartment with his young daughter Nora wearing the light blue hijab they gave her as a gift. Nora likes it and does not want to remove it from her head.
“In the end it didn’t matter. In an immigrant city, a city of innumerable struggles and ambitions, a white man with a car door and a daughter wearing a blue hijab attracts less attention than you might expect.”
Little Nora in “Immigrant City” expresses best what Bezmozgis and many other immigrants feel. When she falls asleep on the streetcar home, her narrator father tries to wake her as their stop approaches.
“Nora, it’s our stop,” I said. “Do you want to go home or keep going?”
“Go home and keep going,” she said.