David Bezmozgis is the author of “Natasha, and Other Stories”, and “The Free World: A Novel” – his first novel and most recent work. He is also the writer and director of the critically acclaimed film “Victoria Day”. I did not read David’s new book “The Free World” – I inhaled it!
Not only is this story important for us to know, not only does it speak of the many trials and romances of immigration, but the writing itself transports you to another world – a world at once tragic and hopeful – a world from which many of our ancestors came. For some of us who have longed to know about our recent forefathers’ pasts but have been prevented by their passing or language barrier, this book will open doors to discovery not only of them, but also of ourselves.
David will join us at the Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair on Tuesday, October 25th at the St. Paul JCC. The fair will be a unique opportunity for us to see the modern impact Jews are having on literature, as well as meet in person some of our best authors! I will be there for sure, will you?
To give you a taste of what David will be speaking about, and what you can expect from his new book “The Free World,” I spent a little time interviewing him this week. Here are the gems:
Q: What do you hope is a take away from “The Free World”? What do you want a person to understand and/or learn?
A: I hope that any reader–immigrant or native (whatever that means)–derives pleasure from reading the book. There is the dramatic pleasure of reading a story–of wondering what will happen to the characters. There is the pleasure of discovering some inherent commonality between yourself and another person–even a “foreign” person. And there is the pleasure of discovering something new about the world. In short, the pleasure of feeling more connected and less alienated, from other human beings.
Q: Do you think there is alienation, or at least a misunderstanding, between Soviet immigrants and Americans?
Well I just think that the pleasure of reading any book is to identify with another consciousness. There is an element of separation between you and another person, no matter who that other person is, so to read somebody else’s perspective/account/reality, and to realize that you have something in common, is one of the great pleasures of reading.
The more foreign that person appears, at least superficially, in a way, the greater the pleasure: Something you perceive to be incredibly foreign, you discover to be not that foreign at all. So in that sense for Soviet Jews and American Jews, or Soviet Jews and Americans, for all the things that separated them: ideology and language… they can read the book and discover that they have much more in common than they realized.
The book is about Soviet Jews, and they have a very specific history and background where they come from, and that colors who they are and how they react to things – which is interesting – so they are not exactly the same, but on the whole you discover that most people have the same desires, the same needs, they just often, by virtue of history and circumstance, pursue them differently.
Q: To what extent do you feel/hope your story represents the greater experience of immigration for Soviet Jews in the late 70’s? Are you trying to capture and illuminate the stories of many or a few?
A: Yes, the members of the Krasnansky family, while uniquely and discretely alive unto themselves, are also intended to embody the totality of Soviet Jewish experience in the 20th century. It isn’t so much schematic or a stretch–the nature of Soviet history meant that every family felt every twist of Soviet fortune.
Q: Did you write any of the book in Russian, or think in Russian and then translate it?
A: Yea, I think often through the dialogue, I would think of what it sounds like in Russian, then translateit to English; and then in some other instances too. So in that sense there was some aspect of translating from Russian into English, but making that English as transparent as possible – completely transparent to the English speaking reader.
Q: Do you want the book translated into Russian? Is there anything you want those left in Russia and the old republics to know about us as immigrants? Or do you want the book translated for the sake of them having another good book to read?
A: Well first of all, there is a generation of people who live here, in North America, but don’t read English well. So let’s just talk about those people, for example those of your grandparents’ generation, who, if the book was translated into Russian, would have the opportunity to read an account of their own experience. I think there is a whole class of Russian émigrés around the world who, if it was translated into Russian, could read it.
And as far as in the old country, what would I want them to know? I have no idea what they want to know. It’s certainly part of their history; and of Soviet history as well. There are still Russian Jews or former-Soviet Jews, living in those countries who did not leave, but who have family that left, so this is still part of their story. Now whether they are interested or not I have no idea.
Q: You have been compared to the great Jewish writers of the last century. Is there any one in particular to whom you feel a bond, or, whose praise you would welcome most?
A: I’ve spoken before about my admiration for Leonard Michaels. His work influenced me more than any other’s.
Q: Do you visit the “mother land” often?
A: Most recently I was in the Crimea, this past august, for about 10 days. I went to Moscow a couple of years ago: I had a film, “Victoria Day”, that I wrote and directed that played at the Moscow film festival so I got the chance to go to Russia, for the first time really. I also went to Latvia in 2003 with my parents, which was the first time I went back.
Q: How has going there changed or shaped your perspective about us as a people and the place from which we came?
A: For whatever its worth, the impression I got from my parents had a lot to do with Soviet anti-Semitism. Kind of a forbidding, frightening, image of what life was like for Jews. And that wasn’t the case when I was there, particularly when I spoke to Russians and Russian Jews still living there. If anything, there is less anti-Semitism now; it was actually not a dangerous place to be. And that was my experience as well when I was in Moscow, or this past summer in Crimea. All of those frightening stories of what Russia was like, and the danger of it – I didn’t see any of that at all. So that changed my perception.
My idea of what Russia was like was mostly derived from immigrant life, so I knew very little going there. Once I got there I realized that even though I spoke the language, I felt very foreign because my frame of reference was 20-30 years old; which was what people from my parents generation also attested to – that so much had changed, even the language. So in that sense, whatever idea I had of myself as a Russo-phone person in America – more Russian than American, arriving in the former Soviet Union, I felt much less Russian than the locals. So that was a strange thing to realize.
Q: You have traveled far and wide with the promotion of Natasha and The Free World. Have you noticed any similarities or differences that really stood out between different Jewish communities across Canada and the States?
A: First of all, in terms of the Russian Jewish community, there seems to be more consistency. Whenever I go across Canada or the U.S, Russian Jews who happen to approach me have a response that is much more uniform – because Soviet life was much more uniform. So it’s interesting to encounter these people, because their history is a shared history, whether you come from Leningrad or Riga, there is only a small variation in experience. And for the most part everyone knows what happened – which is certainly not the case with American Jews.
But I think if we are talking about an American Jewish audience in general, there is still interest in the traditional Jewish immigrant story. But for them, their idea of the Jewish immigrant story goes back a couple generations, so when they try to relate to “The Free World”, for instance, they do it through the story of their grandparents. Which is fine, but, it’s a different story and that’s because of what happened during the Soviet period: the immigration was different; the people who came over were different. There is an adjustment that I think needs to happen. And I guess it is happening: People are trying to expand their mind about the definition of what this Jewish immigrant experience and story is and can be.
Q: You said there has been a uniform reaction in the Russian Jewish community – can you give an example of what that reaction has been?
A: People will approach and say: “Thank you for writing this book, no one has really written about this before”. I got an email from a young woman saying: “My father went through this, I was born here, he never really spoke about this, having read the book for the first time I feel I understand him”.
From the American Jewish community someone will stand up and say: my grandfather left Russia in 1903 and came to, wherever it is… and talk about the grandfather – it’s usually a statement rather than a question. Then it’s a discussion about what happened a hundred years ago. This story is different, and yet, it is still a part of the very long narrative of the Jewish people and of Jewish exile.
I also get letters from , and am approached by, people who were involved in the movement to save Soviet Jewry, and who really know it from the American side. They get right into the details of “this is what I was involved in…”, “ I went to Russia to do this…”, “I remember this…”, so that’s actually also very important to note, which is: this group of people who were really deeply involved, who, just like the Soviet Jews, haven’t really seen an acknowledgement of what they did and what they went through, in a long time. Gal Beckerman’s book “When they Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone”, is a really good example of someone setting out to chronicle that experience, and my book too, but in a different way.
Q: What an amazing compliment to receive: that a person understands their father, like never before, because of your book.
A: While writing the book no one came up to me and said: “You know what I really need, what I would really love for you to write – and here is a bunch of money, is a story about Soviet Jews leaving the Soviet Union. Can you do that?” I wrote it not because I knew how many people were interested, but because it was a significant and transformative event in Jewish history about which I feel very strongly. Which is not to say I am there to promote anything, I’m just talking about setting something down for the record. I didn’t know, A: if anyone else cared to do it; and B: how many people cared to read about it. For me it was important that I – to the best of my ability – set that record down.
I spent 7 years writing this thing because I thought it was what I was supposed to do.
Q: Was it ever a choice of fiction or non-fiction?
A: No, I’m a reader of novels and stories; as far as non-fiction I wouldn’t know how to go about telling the story. Gal did a fantastic job doing that. I’m just wired differently. My ambitions, such as they are, and my models, are different.
Q: What is the next step for you? Do you want to keep writing about Soviet Jews?
A: I have another book that I started, it’s why I was in Crimea, which deals with another element of the Soviet Jewish story – very different from the first two books. Maybe there will be some other things as well – the subject matter remains incredibly rich, the story is ongoing and is entirely relevant and contemporary. Because it’s not just about the past, it’s also about the influence of Russian Jews on, Israel, for instance, and how those people changed that country, and continue to change it. And the influence of Soviet Jews on North America, and the role of the Jewish community and how that’s changing…
The American Jewish community is starting to pay more attention to this large block of people, who have been in their midst for a while, and about whom they’ve not known what to make, now, for whatever reason, but have awakened to them. And to their credit, are trying to incorporate them more into the larger community and trying to understand them better. And I think there is some reciprocity there, I think that Soviet Jews want to be allowed in. So going back to your earlier question, there are still cultural things that are inherent in both that will take some time and some effort for people to understand about each other… so it’s an ongoing story.
Q: You seem to move easily between print and film. Which medium do you prefer? Which do you think you will, or would like to, pursue more going forward?
A: The real question is: Why can’t I play the piano?
Hear David Bezmozgis read from “The Free World” at the Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair‘s opening night celebration: Party Like a Bookworm!, co-sponsored by TC Jewfolk, on Tuesday, October 25,at 7:00pm. The event is $10 St. Paul JCC members, $15 community. For more information on David Bezmozgis, please visit his website: http://www.bezmozgis.com/