How a film about Jewish Russian immigrants to the city helped one writer meditate on her own assimilation.
I met the Bermans more than 10 years ago in a fiction-writing workshop. It was my first semester at Concordia University in Montreal, and I was always overdressed for those early fall days—evidence that not too long ago, I was accustomed to living under an African sun. Halfway through the semester, as an example of ethnic literature, my professor introduced our class to the short story collection Natasha and Other Stories. The writer, David Bezmozgis, was a rising young Canadian author, and the collection was his first successful published book (it was nominated for the Governor General’s Award, and went on to win the Toronto Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for First Book—it became a bestseller).
In the collection, the Bermans—husband and wife Roman and Bella and their son Mark—move to Toronto in 1980 from Latvia, then still an entity of the Soviet Union, to begin their lives as Canadian immigrants. They experiment with the English language, with the North American way of doing business (Roman struggles as a massage therapist, taking on odd temporary jobs he was not trained for), with love in the suburbs in a home they can eventually afford to purchase. They move forward balancing a deeply entrenched Russian identity with the expectations of integration—often with awkward and uncomfortable results.
Although the seven stories that live in Natasha and Other Stories revolve around their specific immigration and assimilation experience as a Jewish Russian family, I—a Muslim Arab from Morocco—connected with the earnest aspirations of its characters. I felt a warm sense of belonging, a sudden surge of hope. With the Bermans, I was less alone.
Now, Natasha, one of the short stories in the collection, is being adapted into a film, released today in Canada. Natasha has been a five-year project in the making, written and directed by Bezmozgis. The story, he explains, is the only one from the collection that brings all three generations of the immigrant family together in a swirl of defining and consequential plot development. It is the short story on which the protagonist’s transition from childhood to the disillusionment and understanding of young adulthood hinges.
The film remains true to the short story, save for a few moments that, according to Bezmozgis, wouldn’t translate well. It opens with the bass thumps of Adam Green’s “Dance With Me,” a pool party, and flushed teenagers rolling joints and learning to kiss. It revolves around Mark Berman’s summer of firsts: a summer of understanding what it means to be born in Russia and grow up in Toronto, loved by parents with a Soviet heritage, and never speak English at home. He learns what it means to be deracinated, suddenly uprooted and thrust into another country, ill-equipped linguistically and culturally.
This he comes to understand through Natasha, who flies in from Moscow as his new cousin by way of a strange uncle’s marriage. Natasha is not the average teenager, nor is she truly likeable. She knows too much for a 14-year-old living in the suburbs of Toronto—perhaps not so much for one in Russia, a country where she and her friends earned $25 for participating in pornographic movies. She explains to Mark, in a conversation that takes place through an intimate profile close-up shot, that her mother’s only reaction upon finding out was to tell her, “If you were going to be a whore, you should at least help with the rent.” She’s more sexually confident than I am in my 30s as she strips easily out of her clothes for Mark and begins a sexual relationship with him that is both sweet and alarming. And the future doesn’t bode well for her with her stubborn intensity and inconvenient strength of character.
But Natasha says something that encompasses exactly what I feel today about my country of origin, something I suspect ties us immigrants all together: “I miss it, I guess. But not like I thought I would. Those streets and those apartments. It’s hard to imagine that those places and those people still exist.” It’s hard to imagine because you need to forget.
You need to forget because you need to build something else, something new—that promised better life.
Having been “Americanized” during my pre-university years at the Rabat American School in Morocco did nothing to prepare me for the cultural dislocation I experienced when I first came to Canada. It was an illumination to my silly ignorance to discover that Canadians are actually not at all like Americans, and that moving to another country is not at all like travelling.
Growing up in Morocco, I was a conflicted teenager: I was naturally extroverted, but would often turn down social gatherings in favour of reading books from abroad in my room. Looking back now, I understand that I was an artist at heart awkwardly looking to forge an identity in the arts while aunts, uncles, and friends of the family would insist I get up at weddings and belly-dance like the rest of the women (I still don’t know how to belly-dance). I decided to forge a career in the world of words in an English-speaking country. My late father was thrilled that I wanted more than to find a good Moroccan husband.
In 2005, I came to Canada to study literature without a clue as to what I would do with a degree that likely wouldn’t help me pay the bills. At first, submerged in the loneliness of immigration, I ached for the familiarity of that African country and those nosy and imposing extended family members. Unlike the Bermans, I chose not to surround myself with the established Arab community here—something many immigrants fall into in an attempt to find stable familiar ground. But in time, like Natasha, I found it hard to imagine that those places and those people still existed. You need to forget because you need to build something else, something new—that promised better life.
Natasha resonates with my experience and that of other Canadian immigrants. Mark is like Bezmozgis, who admits that he sometimes had trouble with his Russian in interviews and on set—he doesn’t use the language often enough. He moved to Canada from Latvia when he was six and says, with his usual witty humour, that he has the Russian of an intelligent six-year-old. He had a similar experience growing up with family members who spoke Russian while everyone around him expected him to speak English and integrate. He was conscious of that tension, like I certainly was of the invisible push-pull dynamic between growing up in an American school with Americans and living with family members who didn’t speak a word of English. Now he speaks English with his wife and three children and wonders who he’ll use his Russian with once his mother and other relatives of that generation die.
The ethnic humanities—immigrant literature, film, music, art—are the incredible platform we have for bridging the gaps between all the communities in Canada in these times of cultural misunderstandings. It doesn’t divide us during frictions of globalization; it highlights our commonalities in the face of crises. It’s works like Natasha that help us better understand one another.
I am a remnant of colonialism, a product of the illicit affair between the West and the East. I speak Arabic, the language of the street-market fruit vendor struggling to make a living in Morocco; I speak French, the language of the long-gone colonizers I never knew; I speak English, the language I was taught to think in and the only one in which I know how to precisely express that nagging chronic nostalgia.
And here I am now, on St. Clair West Avenue, standing outside of my apartment located above a noisy Irish pub, owned by an older Persian man who makes an endearing effort to hide his accent—the only way he finds to show me that he’s successfully integrated. I stand there, chatting with Bezmozgis, who has come by to drop off a box of flyers in Russian, about all of these connections between us. I tell him I don’t speak Russian, as if me speaking Russian wouldn’t have been a major stretch of the imagination on his part. He laughs and replies, “That’s really okay.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that David Bezmozgis has two, not three, children. Torontoist regrets the error.