Canadian Immigrant Literature: The Idea of Home in ‘Natasha and Other Stories’
The concept of home seems fairly straightforward. Known as ‘a place or space that one constructs for oneself,’ home can be perceived as a locus that one keeps returning to, be it physically or spiritually. This definition of home centers around an individual, insisting that he/she has volition. Put differently, this concept of home entails a sense of ownership. Following this trajectory, home is therefore an asset to the self as it becomes a space for one to manifest selfhood (Edwin Heathcote 5). Because this definition of home is one that is universally familiar to the point where it is almost intuitive, the idea to question it becomes foolish.
Yet, the readers are unable to apply this notion of home on the experiences faced by the Bermans or any other immigrant characters in David Bezmozgis’ Natasha and Other Stories (Natasha) because their immigrant titles impede on their agency to construct anything at all. As we read the texts, we find ourselves asking: How do immigrants construct a space for oneself on a land that is already occupied with pre-existing cultures and norms? Defiantly, the characters in the novel seem to inhabit a space constructed by others for others instead. What they experience is a “deterritorialization of culture” (Nikos Papastergiadis 115), whereby culture, and cultural identity, are not confined to a specific physical location but can and do exist in various configurations elsewhere. This counter-intuitive pattern in Natasha forces the readers to re-evaluate our assumptions of home. Characterized by the characters’ helplessness and their cycle of self-sacrificial intents, the novel proposes that home is embodied by the community around oneself and not necessarily in a space constructed by oneself. This essay will expound on the pervasive sense of helplessness that Bezmozgis explores and how it is being used to challenge our initial assumptions of what ‘home’ entails.
The narrative point of view plays a pivotal role in shaping the tone of helplessness which in turn relays the difficulties in conceptualizing home as an immigrant. Using the voice of Mark Berman, Bezmozgis argues that in the immigrant experience, home is not constructed by oneself. Told from Mark Berman’s perspective from the period of his adolescence to his youth, the narrative angle is a manifestation of the vulnerability that characterizes Bezmozgis’ portrayal of immigrant diaspora. The first short story ‘Tapka’ embodies this notion best. As a six-year-old, Mark describes his first house as an apartment that is situated “one respectable block away from the Russian swam” and perceives it as a “privilege” (David Bezmozgis 3). This phenomenon is most aptly described by Irina Reyn’s notion of “assimilated otherness” (150), maintaining the feeling of being at home in a culture while simultaneously remaining foreign to it. While it is understandable that six-year-old Mark has no power in choosing where to stay, it is more important to acknowledge that he does indeed have the power to think for himself, though very limited owing to his age. Yet his choice of words is too coy and understated to pass off as an original thought from any six-year-old mind—which child would measure distances between houses as “one respectable block away?” Not one that would call his own parents out as “Baltic aristocrats.” The word “respectable” is conspicuous; It seems as if Mark had chosen to regurgitate his parent’s words, and in doing so he inherited his parents’ perspective of what home should be. This suspicion is further purported by Mark’s susceptibility to the environment around him, like the television which taught him how to say “What’s up, Doc?” and the playground that introduced him to a slew of profanities (9). If home were to be ‘a space that one constructs for oneself,’ then six-year-old Mark can be considered homeless as he has neither a physical or cognitive space to exercise selfhood. Yet, Bezmozgis suggests that this is not the case, causing us to re-evaluate our former assumptions of home.
It is difficult to assert whether Mark has the luxury of belonging to a home. In fact, this is impossible to determine when considering him in isolation. It is thus crucial to juxtapose his disposition with his character foil Natasha. Being a foil to Mark, Natasha fully embodies what Mark’s parents find gratifying: The act of “[helping] the more helpess” (4) Unlike Mark, Natasha is able to create a space for herself by herself. She uses her transgressed sexuality as an instrumental tool to gain financial independence (96) and even to free Mark’s uncle from the perverse sense of home which her mom has built (105), thus transforming her weakness into strength. However, the novel does not necessarily portray her to have a home either. Despite her disillusionment and a fierce sense of independence, Natasha seems to be struggling to find a home for herself, alas claiming that “[she] can’t live with her [mother] and [she] can’t stay with [Mark’s uncle]” which in turn means that “[she has] nowhere to go” (105) As a female youth, Natasha’s voice is even more emphatic to the readers as she represents the doubly marginalized community of female immigrants in a patriarchal society of a foreign land. Furthermore, the narrative framework suggests that Natasha is perpetually subjected to be constructed by others: While the book is titled after her and her story arc is sequenced in the middle of the series, she is nonetheless a mere construction by Mark in his episodic recount of his life; Natasha being a mere feature of a series that belongs not to her but to Mark. Both as a literary character and a person, Natasha is unable to find her sense of belonging, but tragically it is through the recursive alienating of Natasha that the readers are encouraged to reconfigure our concept of home.
Instead, the idea of home for immigrants is not found in spaces but in individuals. For Bella Berman, if sending Mark to a Hebrew school means that she will not be able to afford to reconstruct her kitchen, then “she can live without the kitchen” (69). Knowing that Bella is in charge of household tasks (40), the proposal to revamp the kitchen space can be read as her attempt to conform to the standards of home as she is indeed constructing her own space. However, this plan has to be sacrificed in place of Mark’s cultural education, so that he will in turn acquire the ability to construct his own space in the future. While Bella did indeed give up a chance to construct her own space, this does not necessarily result in her sacrificing in her endeavor of building a home. Instead, Bella’s decision merely points out the fact that she has placed all her ideals of a home onto her son. For her, Mark is a living embodiment of home, and in him she constructs her expectations. As such, home for immigrants can be defined as an individual or a community in which one can identify with.
Yet, there seems to be a parallel between the idea of home as a space and the abstract concept of home as an embodiment by a person or community, which in turn makes it impossible to entirely neglect the notion of home as a space. For Mark’s grandfather, losing his wife naturally means that he has to “move out of the apartment” as he announces in Minyan (129). This intrinsic relationship between special homes and embodied homes is further exemplified when Sholom Minka tells his story of having his apartment application granted right after his father’s death. Upon telling his story, Minka “[doesn’t] know whether to laugh or cry” (129), implying that the coincident is uncanny and ironic. The basis of this irony rests on the notion that a physical home is needed for the familial home to live, and therefore one without the other will simply not result in a sense of homeliness.
Home is not merely a place or a space. In fact, for many of the immigrant characters in Natasha, home is embodied by another person as the places and mindsets evolve and change throughout the course of time. Yet, even with this new insight, the concept of home in the immigrant diaspora remains nebulous; A closer examination at this dichotomy proves that home cannot be constructed without the right people or the right space. In his rejection to prioritize one element of home over another, Bezmozgis persuades the readers to read home as a concept of relativity instead of reducing home to a monolithic concept that we are universally accustomed to.
Bezmozgis, David. Natasha and other stories. Toronto: HarperFlamingoCanada, 2004. Print.
Heathcote, Edwin. The meaning of home. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2012. Print.
Papastergiadis, Nikos. The Turbulence of Migration: Globalization, Deterritorialization and Hybridity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 200
Reyn, Irina. “Recalling a Child of October.” In Becoming American. Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, ed. New York: Hyperion, 2000. 146-55
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