Books

Why David Bezmozgis writes about his Eastern European heritage and being an immigrant to Canada

The award-winning author and filmmaker discusses his latest short story collection, Immigrant City.
Immigrant City is a short story collection by David Bezmozgis. (HarperCollins Canada)

David Bezmozgis is a Latvian-born, Toronto-raised author, filmmaker and two-time Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist for his books, Natasha and Other Stories and The Betrayers.

His latest book, Immigrant City, is a short story collection about the contemporary Canadian immigrant experience. It features stories about a fighter working as a security guard in the Toronto suburbs, a father and daughter who end up in a strange rendition of his immigrant childhood and a young man who unwittingly makes contact with the underworld. 

Immigrant City is on the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist. The winner will be revealed on Nov. 18, 2019.

Bezmozgis, himself an immigrant to Canada, talked to CBC Books about how he wrote Immigrant City.

Generational saga

"Some of the stories in this collection go back at least a decade, maybe a little bit more, and some are very new. Through my life changes, the stories change a little bit. Natasha and Other Stories was written at the time before I had children and before I was married. Immigrant City was written when I was a husband and father and after a generation of people — my grandparents' generation and, to some extent, my parents' generation — had died. All of the sudden, you feel differently about your place in the world.

Immigrant City was written when I was a husband and father and after a generation of people — my grandparents' generation and, to some extent, my parents' generation — had died. All of the sudden, you feel differently about your place in the world.

"The world has changed over the last 10 or 15 years and I think that's reflected in the stories. My position in the world has changed, even as just somebody living in Toronto. The life I lead, and even my present social position is different now and different from the one that my family had when we first came to Canada. It's also about trying to understand what my connection is to my immigrant roots as somebody who's spent 40 years in Canada."

The changing perception of immigrants

"Some of the stories engage with the immigrant experience more overtly than others. Part of it is trying to write about the world as I see and experience it. Some of the subject matter is simple domestic material: raising children, being a husband, being in a marriage. But some themes do address the idea of 'being the immigrant' a bit more head on. The title story, Immigrant City, has a main immigrant character who is aware that — all of the sudden — the way migrants and refugees are perceived throughout the world has changed. 

"He now sees people fleeing war and hardship in their countries and not being received well. He's trying to understand how that squares with his own experience and what impression or legacy you want to leave to your children, who have no frame of reference for that kind of bias and are growing up in relative comfort and safety." 

Echoes of the past

"I'm drawn to telling stories in and around my Eastern European heritage because the legacies and the echoes of those stories haven't gone away. Because the Second World War, for a lot of people, feels like yesterday. It obviously wasn't, but it wasn't nearly as long ago as it might seem to other people. If you were somebody of my generation, then your grandparents are not remote people from a far distant past. These were their formative experiences. If you're close to them, you feel the influence of that.

I'm drawn to telling stories in and around my Eastern European heritage because the legacies and the echoes of those stories haven't gone away.

"These are people that you love and you want to understand what they've been through, and then try to understand how that affects you and the world that you live in."

Perceptions and stereotypes

"The only thing I want people to take away from this book is what I wish to take away from any book — pleasure. That's pleasure on the aesthetic level, the intellectual level, the emotional level. I think that's the most important thing.

"As far as understanding the other, that's also what literature can do. In my experience, people have much more in common than they don't. It's perceptions, it's stereotypes, it's politics that gets in the way of it. One thing that literature can do — and should do and has certainly done for me — is to humanize people whom you may feel are alien. They're not."

David Bezmozgis's comments have been edited for clarity and length.

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