David Bezmozgis is the director of the Humber School for Writers. His latest book is Immigrant City.
Almost 40 years ago, my parents and I emigrated from the Soviet Union and ended up in Canada. I learned the English language and discovered that I liked to read and write. When I thought about what I’d like to be when I grew up, it was a writer. Maybe because of my literary influences or maybe because of my constitution – maybe a combination of the two – when I envisioned what I’d write about it was Russian Jewish emigrés, mostly but not exclusively in Toronto. For better or worse, this is essentially what I’ve been writing ever since. I suppose it would be considered my “subject.” Between 2004-14, I published three books on this subject, a collection of stories followed by two novels. This week, I published a fourth book, a second collection of stories, also largely about Russian Jewish immigrants in Toronto.
However, something happened between my last book and this one – my “subject” became an “issue.” I don’t mean Russian immigrants specifically, but immigrants and immigration in general. And even though this shift hasn’t affected the way I write, it has changed the way I feel about what I write and how I expect it will be received in the world. Even something as simple as the title of my book – Immigrant City – and the title treatment – multicoloured letters suggesting diversity – now strikes me as a political statement, a choosing of camps: in this case, the pro-immigrant camp.
The trouble is that I have always been averse to camps, particularly in matters of art. To ally with a camp is to accept an ideology, which leads to the death of art, and often much else. Artists can have subjects, not issues. I realize that immigration had once been an issue but I’d thought the matter had effectively been settled and didn’t expect that it might revert to becoming an issue again. In Britain, this issue contributed to Brexit. In the United States, it played no small part in the election of Donald Trump. I’m still not sure what practical impact this change has had in Canada but, by all accounts, immigration will be one of the key concerns in our next federal election. Canada isn’t a perfect country (what country is?) but at least we could claim that we’d basically figured out how to create a harmonious pluralistic society. With that behind us, we could turn our attention to other problems – Indigenous rights, for instance, or gender equality or climate change. And if good art could be made about them, one hoped that sooner or later they, too, would cease to be issues.
But in a highly polarized environment, influenced not a little by identity politics, this seems harder and harder to do. Justly or unjustly, there’s the impression that artists are divided, or divide themselves, into camps and that books – not just overtly political texts but novels, stories and memoirs – become standard-bearers for an issue or a cause. We signal: This book is for you; this book is not for you. In this way, we further perpetuate the separation that has already been created by partisan news outlets and exacerbated by social-media algorithms and risk forfeiting precisely the arena where people are meant to encounter the messy reality of life.
That I happen to believe immigration is a good thing is beside the point. It would be hard for me to believe otherwise since I think that my family’s and my community’s contribution to this country has been largely positive. Which isn’t to say that I can’t understand how others might feel differently. When white nationalists (Canadians among them) marched in Charlottesville and chanted “Jews will not replace us; blacks will not replace us; immigrants will not replace us,” I wasn’t exactly shocked. There is the misapprehension that every new wave of arrivals threatens to undermine or displace the one that came before. But with the exception of the first European settlers who colonized North America, I don’t think that’s borne out to be true. Most immigrants just want to adapt. Their struggle is to retain and impart enough of their language and culture to their children, which is hard enough to do without also trying to impose it on everyone else. Assimilation, not domination, is the immigrant’s dilemma. Proof of this is found whenever transplants return to their country of origin and discover that the place now seems somewhat foreign to them and they somewhat foreign to it. Immigration has changed them. Which is something they can choose to contend with or not.
As a subject, this interests me. But to examine it requires leaving the realm of politics for its opposite – the personal, the idiosyncratic, the ineffable. Which then involves depicting immigrants as they are. Some of them good, and some of them bad. Some kind, some cruel. Some honest, some deceitful. And some xenophobes who don’t particularly care for other immigrants. They are no better or worse than anyone else. I don’t know what else to say except that I always felt they made for good stories.