Giller Prize Special: The Chat with David Bezmozgis

Bezmozgis_David credit-David Franco

Our final conversation in our special Giller Prize edition of The Chat is with finalist David Bezmozgis, author of the short story collection Immigrant City.

(See also our chats with finalists Michael Crummey (The Innocents), Megan Gail Coles (Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club), Ian Williams (Reproduction), and Alix Ohlin (Dual Citizens).

The Giller Prize jury says: “The heart barks like a dog,” writes David Bezmozgis in one of the short stories contained in Immigrant City, and the bark echoes down generations, interrupting the everyday, vibrating with nostalgia and lost memories. In this wise and assured collection, Bezmozgis has reimagined immigrant lives not simply as marked by displacement and discontinuity, but of immigration as a shared and binding experience that crosses the boundaries of race, nationality, occupation, class, politics and even past betrayals, to serve as a point of connection and compassion between Bezmozgis’s characters."

David Bezmozgis is an award-winning writer and filmmaker. He is the author of Natasha and Other Stories, The Free World, The Betrayers, and Immigrant City. He has been short listed three times for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, including for his latest short story collection, Immigrant City: Stories, and nominated twice for the Governor General's Literary Award, and his debut story collection, Natasha and Other Stories, won the Toronto Book Award and the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for First Book. He is the Director of the Humber School for Writers. Born in Riga, Latvia, David lives in Toronto.

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THE CHAT WITH DAVID BEZMOZGIS

Trevor Corkum: What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize?

David Bezmozgis: The announcement was made on the Jewish New Year. I was with my mother and my daughters. I’ve been nominated before and my daughters remember staying at a nice hotel for the gala. They were excited about the hotel.  

TC: Immigrant City is the only collection of short fiction on this year’s Giller shortlist. It’s your second collection, following the critically acclaimed Natasha and Other Stories. What draws you short fiction? What can the short story do that a novel can’t?

DB: The question might be why I wrote the two novels in between. When I started writing, I wrote stories and really had no great ambition to write novels. There’s a line I read once: “So little to say, so much time to say it in” that seems applicable to writing and life. I’ve find that the shortest works of art—stories, poems, songs—have been the most powerful because they feel like they have no excess. In anything I write, I try to reduce it down to its essence, as in a chemical process, to find the most succinct way to convey thought and feeling. That can be done in a novel, but the ideal prose form for me is the story.

TC: Imagine you’re on a road trip with one of your characters. Who do you choose and where do you go? What do you talk about and what do you learn on the way?

DB: Many of the characters in the stories are based on people in my own life. Some of them are no longer living. Maybe the act of writing the stories was to do just that, to go on a trip with people I love who are no longer of this world.

TC: In an alternate life, if you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

DB: I’d still want to be making things. It could be anything. Masonry, carpentry, knitting, weaving.

TC: What’s the last Canadian book that changed your life?

DB: Leonard Cohen’s first novel, The Favourite Game, changed my life when I was a student at McGill. I fell in love to that book and modeled an idea of myself on it for a little while. It influenced or reinforced the kind of writing I wanted to do, the kind of artistic life I wanted to lead. I’ve outgrown some of that, but a vestige remains.

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Excerpt 

"Immigrant City" [first story in the collection]

I have three daughters. One is a baby. One is seven and prefers to stay at home. One is four and wants to come with me wherever I go, even to the drugstore and the bank. If I don’t take her, she cries.

Recently, backing out of a tight parking spot, I damaged the front passenger-side door of our car. I heard the sound of metal against concrete, the sound of self-recrimination, dolour and incalculable expense.

In the aftermath I called my wife, who was born in America and raised in mindless California abundance. For her family, scratching cars and misplacing wallets was like a hobby. I, on the other hand, had been an immigrant child, with all the heartache and superiority that conferred. We ate spotted fruit. I told my wife what I had done; her response was less than sympathetic.

I called the car dealership; I called a local body shop; I called a number tacked to a telephone pole. Then I called my uncle Alex, whose greatest fears were identity theft and getting a bad deal. He told me of a Serbian mechanic who, if you paid in cash and didn’t ask any questions . . . I started dialing the Serb’s number when I remembered the year was 2015 and the incompatibility of my uncle’s fears. On a classifieds website I keyed in the make and model of my car door. Who knew? Didn’t every kind of flotsam wash up on the blasted shores of the Internet, including a black 2012 Toyota Highlander front passenger-side door? Indeed, there one was, offered for sale by Mohamed Abdi Mohamed of Rexdale. In the accompanying photo, taken on an apartment balcony, the sun glinting off its immaculate finish, it looked just like my door before I’d mangled it. I sent Mohamed a text. He texted me back. I counter-texted. Soon we had a deal, consummated in texts.

There are a number of practical questions that could be posed at this point. Presume my wife posed and I answered them. However, there are many different considerations in life, and practical is a relative term. Perhaps buying a car door from a stranger on the Internet isn’t the most practical decision, but I was viewing the thing in existential terms. I was asking: Who am I? How far have I strayed from my formative self? What—ai, ai, ai—is the song of my soul?

The next morning, I prepared to go get my door. My wife needed the car for work, but that didn’t deter me.

“How do you plan to get it home?” she asked.

“Like an immigrant.”

As I put on my shoes, Nora, my four-year-old, sidled up to me. “Where are you going, Papa?”

“To get the door.”

We were in that aimless interval between the end of summer camp and the start of the school year. A nanny was looking after the baby, and the two older girls were either fighting or intertwined in front of the television, a lazy fan spinning overhead.

“I want to come with you,” she said.

“It’s far,” I said.

In anticipation of my answer, she made ready to cry.

I reflected: Wasn’t this precisely the sort of trip my daughters needed? What did they know of the real world? While they ate take-out sushi, Syrian refugees were being tear-gassed by Hungarian cops, and Greek grandmothers, flayed by austerity, were walking off rooftops.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

October 29, 2019
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