In her powerful debut novel The Invention of Exile (Penguin), Vanessa Manko juggles timeless themes of displacement, separation, loss, and love. In 1913 Austin Voronkov, a Russian engineer, immigrates to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he finds work at a rifle factory and marries a girl named Julia who works at his boarding house. Seven years later Austin finds himself wrongly accused of joining an anarchist group, and he and Julia are deported to Russia, where they become embroiled in civil war and must flee, this time to Mexico. Julia and their three children return to the United States, but Austin, once again ensnared in the mechanics of US immigration, remains stuck in Mexico City. A mesmerizing piece of fiction, Austin’s journey sears every page of a book that took seven years to find its way to print.
NATASHA AWASTHI: What drove you to invent this drama?
VANESSA MANKO: The novel is inspired by my grandfather, whom I never knew. I grew up thinking that my grandmother never had a husband. I eventually realized that was not the case. So I grew curious about the man from whom I inherited my last name. I heard pieces of his story but never learned the full scope of it. I had this image of a man walking in Mexico City, broken, alone and separated from his family. Who was he? What were his days like? What happened to him? I imagined a version of my grandfather so that I could try to understand who he might have been, and in writing this story I came to believe that a person’s history drives his behavior and psychology. I wrote this book because I had a need to bring his experience out of the shadows of history, to fill the blank space on my family tree.
Do you remember the moment of inspiration?
When I began to write fiction, I saw that this story would make an interesting novel. I was always a big reader, and I started writing short stories in my first graduate program at the Gallatin School at New York University. I was studying dance history but was always writing fiction on the side. Later in my career, I had to make a choice between going the more academic route and possibly getting a Phd in dance history, or following my love of literature and fiction writing. I decided to go to Hunter College for my MFA in Creative Writing. It was there that I began to see how the story I have carried in me could make a novel. It began with the image of a man in Mexico City, a character who was multilayered, whose story was fragmented and went back and forth in time. It grew from there.
Why not a memoir about your grandfather?
I could piece together the historical and cultural context of my grandfather’s life, but I never knew him; he died in Mexico City, long before I was born. When I started writing about him, my own father’s memory and language skills were vanishing. Not knowing my grandfather, not knowing his story, allowed me to invent this character. My intent was to really understand him, his psyche, his culture and time. Literature gave me that vehicle.
How did you research it?
I went from country to country and read the cultural history, from primary and secondary source materials, like diaries, journals, and newspaper articles. I studied the working and living conditions of Russian immigrants in the United States in the 1920s. It was the time of the Red Scare in its first wave, when panic from the Russian revolution spread in America. I particularly researched how that affected Russian immigrants whose communities were put under surveillance. Of course, since Austin is deported to Russia at the time of the civil war, I read accounts of Russian émigrés who had to flee and settle in Constantinople or Paris. I got a real sense of what it felt like to be in a place with a sense of longing to return home.
I also traveled to Mexico. The book is set over there, in 1948, for a reason. The city was in its golden age between the 1940s and 1950s with many Americans doing business or visiting for pleasure. Nineteen forty eight was also the beginning of the Cold War, the time of McCarthy, when Americans accused of being communists fled to Mexico to avoid harassment by the US government, including filmmakers, writers, and artists. It’s the same Red Scare hysteria that keeps Austin in Mexico City.
When did you know it was time to start writing?
I would read until I got a sense of the texture of a time period, or of a mood or tone that I was trying to evoke. I immersed myself in the research and wrote out of that. When I reached a section of the book and thought, “Oh my goodness, I don’t know about this — for instance, when Austin goes to work in the Sonoran copper mines. What were they like?” or “How would an inventor think, and what tools would he need?” Then I would stop writing and start investigating again.
How did you decide on a structure for the story?
Growing up, I learned the actual story about my grandfather in bits and pieces, so the book is fragmented as a way to underscore or to narrate how I got to know him. But that’s how we learn anybody’s story. We never learn the full picture upfront; there are so many layers to an individual, to someone’s story.
Also, the novel moves back and forth in time to mirror the sense of displacement of Austin’s family. They had to migrate from one country to another, and in the end they are broken and divided by a border. I wanted to bring the reader into Austin’s experience and to see how the adventure shaped him, what made him this broken man in Mexico City, and what happened to him there.
I had two vivid images, and I always knew that they would define my beginning and end — the one of a lone man walking the streets of Mexico, and a man looking from across the Mexican border. But the path this man would ultimately take was a mystery, even to me. I wrote down the plot on index cards, which I carried with me, everywhere, like a piece of music. I sequenced and changed the order of events until they came together in the way I wanted to tell the story.
How did a 38-year-old American, a former ballerina living in Brooklyn, get into the head of a paranoid Russian man?
In Russian literature there is always some character living alone in a boarding house. I am thinking about the novels of Dostoyevsky like Crime and Punishment or Notes from Underground. I have always read lot of Russian literature, but I revisited the texts as inspiration to get into the fraught psychology of the Russian soul.
I wondered about what he would have done to occupy his time. He was an engineer and inventor, so he thinks his inventions will bring him back to the United States and reunite him with his family. I also thought a lot about why Austin didn’t just cross the border and return to his family. The US-Mexico border was more permeable then. But he didn’t. He wasn’t able to. It made me wonder about the borders in his mind. He was deported, then nearly executed in Russia, and the years in exile took their toll. These events turned him into a paranoid character who imagines that the government is following his every action. All this created an inability in him to cross his mental borders or to reinvent a life for himself in Mexico City.
So I followed that thread in his psychological makeup, and let myself make an empathic leap.
What was your path to publication like?
For me it was a test of my perseverance and belief in the story. I published an excerpt of it in Granta and that got some people interested. So I started submitting to agents. For years, I got rejected by every agent who saw it. Friends kept telling me that I just had to find the right reader, and I think that is true. When you go into a store and open a book, that’s a very personal experience. It’s the same for agents and editors. I just hoped that those people were out there. It’s about persevering till you find that perfect reader. I finally found an agent who understood what I was trying to do.
Did you find a parallel between Austin toiling on his inventions and you laboring for seven years?
Absolutely. In writing this book, in imagining and inventing every day, I saw a parallel to Austin’s obsessing over his inventions, and to his longing to connect and communicate.
Salman Rushdie calls you “an exceptionally gifted new novelist.” How did you get the book to him?
It was very generous of him and I feel very fortunate. I was a recipient of the Hertog Fellowship at Hunter College. As a part of it, I was paired with Mr. Rushdie as a research assistant. It’s from him that I learned how to study an age and pore over photographs from another time, until you can hear the voices of the period in your head.
How did it feel to get so many excellent reviews?
There is a tremendous sense of vulnerability and wonder. What is my place and role in this new space? How to let the book go and have a life of its own? It’s out in the world and that is wonderful.
Did your father like the book?
He never saw it. He died while I was writing the book.
If you wrote a chapter on what happens to Austin after he finally gets what he wants, what would that be?
Austin existed in this state of longing and wanting for so long that to have what he wants would be alien to him. He’d be in yet another foreign country. So it would be complicated. But it would be the same for anyone who reaches a dream or a goal. It brings you to a new space and time where you have new things to confront and grapple with. I imagine for Austin it would be bittersweet to finally have his family and the life that he wanted after all the years that have already gone by.