“What I Was Meant to Do”

Steve Charles—After writer and filmmaker David Bezmozgis captivated listeners with passages from his upcoming novel The Free World, a student asked, “What was your inspiration for this?”

The answer he offered made me realize why more students— not only aspiring writers and English majors—should meet visiting writers like David Bezmozgis.

In this “sneak peak and Indiana debut” of a novel that won’t be available until April, Bezmozgis had been introducing us to the world of Soviet Jewish emigres of the late 1970s—a world as foreign to most of us as the rings of Saturn yet inhabited by people with very familiar urges, longings, even daydreams.

This Bezmozgis novel and his earlier short story collection Natasha focus on the lives of a family of Soviet Jews during their emigration from Russia and their new life in Canada. It’s a life he knows well—born in Latvia, he emigrated from the Soviet Union with his family in 1980 at the age of six.

Yet it’s also a world, he realized, that students knew little about. “Most of you were born around the same year the Soviet Union collapsed. This must seem like ancient history to you.”

So he provided an introduction: “Imagine that you are a Soviet citizen never allowed outside the borders of your country. You’ve lived your entire life in a country you could never leave. And if you could leave, you can never come back. You’ll be branded a traitor. You can never go home. If someone in your family gets sick you can’t return to visit them. If they die you can’t return for the funeral.”

They left that country behind for an unimaginable future, and Bezmozgis tells their story from the heart outward with honesty, humor, and the hallmarks of his writing—clarity, verity, and brevity.

So why do you do it, the student asked. “What was your inspiration?”

“It’s a world I know, and a world I feel very strong emotions about,” the writer answered. “I grew up hearing these stories in an émigré community. I was surrounded by these stories. I can’t think of a stretch of history that’s so extreme as the 100 years experienced by Soviet Jews. That was always fascinating to me, and I’ve never seen it written about in North American literature. I thought if I could do a good job of it, that’s what I wanted to do.

“So that’s my purpose in the world. How am I going to spend my time here without feeling I’ve wasted my time? What are you going to do with your life? At what point do you decide what’s valuable, what sacrifices you’re willing to make, and what you’re willing to dedicate yourself to?

“For me, telling the stories of this community is the thing I think I should do. In other words, it is what I was meant to do.”

Vocation. As the late Bill Placher ’70 (and editor of the book Callings) once wrote, “The best way we show our love to the world is to love with a particular passion some little part of it.”

Many of our visiting speakers have callings. The difference is that writers literally have to come to terms with theirs. Their passion for that calling is revealed in the very works they read to us. And if a student asks, “Why do you do this?” generous writers like Bezmozgis will tell them.

Earlier over dinner, he told us that he knows he’s ready to write about something when it strikes an emotional spark in him. That’s where it starts for David Bezmozgis, whose calling is to tell us about a world that must be remembered for our own sake, and whose gift and finely-honed skills can take us there.

Read more about David Bezmozgis’ work here.

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