Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: Maximum Shelf: The Invention of Exile

The Penguin Press: The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko

The Penguin Press: The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko

The Penguin Press: The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko

The Penguin Press: The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko

The Invention of Exile

by Vanessa Manko

A deceptively simple story about one man's struggle to defy his own inauspicious stars, Vanessa Manko's debut, The Invention of Exile, begins as a straightforward historical novel. Protagonist Austin Voronkov is a man without a country--born in Russia just before the turn of the 20th century, Austin came to the United States in 1913 in search of a better life. His background in engineering served him well, and he found work quickly and consistently. During the day he worked making ammunition, rising through the ranks to become a factory inspector and eventually an engineer. In the evenings he stayed up late, reading books about science and drafting inventions. When he could no longer stand the dingy, cramped workers' dormitories he rented a room in a house where, for $7 a month, he received room and board, as well as help with laundry and shopping from the two teenage daughters of his widowed landlady. He and one of those daughters quickly and quietly fell in love. They took their vows in secret, married in the Russian tradition and in their hearts, if not according to U.S. law.

In 1919, as news of the Bolshevik revolution began to reach the U.S., Austin and his fellow Russians found themselves the target of increasing abuse and suspicion. In response they formed clubs and church groups. After work Austin met with the Russian Social Club in a church basement and listened to lectures on Russian folklore, took English classes, gossiped and worshiped. The Russian Worker's Union interested him less, with all the talk of "workers, society, capitalists," although he attended a few meetings.

Austin didn't believe himself to be a "worker," with all his education and his position as an engineer at the Connecticut Remington Arms Factory. Unfortunately for him, the U.S. government didn't understand the distinction between Austin's passion for scientific principles and the anarcho-communist Bolshevism of his compatriots.  In the end, it was his poor grasp of English that did him in. When asked if he was an advocate for revolution he could only say, "I do not know." Austin lacked the words to protest, and so he found himself deported back to his parents' home in what was now the U.S.S.R.

Julia, his loyal, loving wife, followed him, and over the next decade they bounced from country to country, living in Russia and the Ukraine, then Paris and finally Mexico. They had three children, all born nationless. After a few years vainly petitioning from Mexico for Austin to be allowed back into the U.S., Julia and the children were advised to return without Austin, and were told it should be a matter of weeks before he could join them, that with Julia advocating from the inside, things would move more quickly. Those weeks, however, stretched into months, then a year, then another.

Austin became convinced that his many inventions, drafted on expensive paper and mailed off to the U.S. patent office, would eventually prove him worthy of citizenship. He became a shadow, sliding quietly along the streets of Mexico City until a surprise letter from his now-grown daughter changed everything. Although it's a story worthy of a Tolstoyian epic, The Invention of Exile speeds through the interpersonal drama and the global travel that, in another book, might occupy hundreds of pages. Manko tells the story not of an external journey but of an internal decay. It's an anti-adventure novel, a stark portrayal of a man who "wore down his mind" with endless hoping, whose achievements were lost to time and bureaucracy.

Although darkness is at the heart of The Invention of Exile, Manko's writing is full of light. There are colors everywhere, from the many tints of the copper mines Austin toiled in during those first years in Mexico ("a morning's blue before the sun, the violet gray of evening... emerging out of rock and dirt, reddish against the camel-colored dust... a yucca plant's spiky leaves black beneath a cobalt sky") to the colors of the moment when his wife and children boarded the train home, leaving Austin behind in Mexico ("she in her navy frock... he in his gray suit, a white shirt, stained brown at the collar... they leave Cananea in the blue of morning. The horizon is rimmed in white... in an hour, the sun will breach the horizon, golden and full.")

If at first the narration seems uninterested in his time in the U.S. and his brief return to Russia, that is because those moments faded in Austin's memory to a series of impressions held together by dates, certain shades of light reflecting off lost places. Only light and color are left, like the supposed "Red"-ness that caused American officials to turn their back on Austin when he begged to be allowed to apply for citizenship. Or the "bruised yellow, mauve... charcoal gray" skies of the unwelcoming city of Paris, one more place where he was unable to build a life. Or the shadow of the photographer in the foreground of a photograph--the only evidence that he and his wife were once together, laughing in the arid heat of the Mexican desert.

Manko writes in a lyrical, fluid style, yet behind the carefully crafted prose is a sense of dislocation, a slight disconnect between the words and the story. The Invention of Exile leaves the reader with the sense that Manko has wrapped words around the ineffable, that the book is reaching to describe something  language fails to encompass. This echoes Austin's own discomfort with language, which constantly betrays him. Although he yearns to make America his home, his imperfect grasp of English causes him to be deported just as he is beginning to build a new life. Later, in Mexico, his Russian accent and his imperfect Spanish betray his foreign origins, even after 14 years in that country. As the years go by in Mexico, from 1937 through the 1940s, "far back the walls of his village--stone by stone--began to disappear, the foundation of childhood now intact only in memory, he now an exile of two countries." Austin is an exile in Mexico, refusing that nation's quiet embrace in favor of the fevered, endless pursuit of repatriation to America. Reflecting back on his life, Austin thinks that "another man may find in it adventure. From a different perspective, vantage point, perhaps it was, but he'd wanted a home and what was that but to wander day in, day out among the same knowable streets... to be seen and known." Austin's exile is so profound that he loses not only "home," but his very understanding of what that word means. Hope, too, becomes a burden rather than a source of light. Austin Voronkov is a man who has been translated too many times, worn thin by passing through too many iterations of his self. The Invention of Exile is a portrait of what happens when hoping overtakes the reality of what is hoped for, and when being an exile becomes more important than the place that you once called home. --Emma Page

Penguin Press, $26.95, hardcover, 9781594205880, August 14, 2014

The Penguin Press: The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko

Vanessa Manko: Inspired by Family History

Vanessa Manko studied ballet at the North Carolina School of the Arts and was an apprentice at the Charleston Ballet Theater before she returned to school to pursue higher education. She completed a BA in English at the University of Connecticut, where she discovered a love of writing and then earned her MA from NYU's Gallatin School, where she focused on dance history and performance studies. She was dance editor for the Brooklyn Rail and wrote theater and dance criticism. Manko eventually chose to pursue an MFA in creative writing at Hunter College, where she worked with mentors such as Colum McCann, Peter Carey and Salman Rushdie. She began working on The Invention of Exile while at Hunter. An excerpt from the novel was published in Granta's winter 2012 issue. Manko is originally from Connecticut and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

What brought you to write The Invention of Exile?

While I was at Hunter working on my MFA, I had one idea for a book that was more about my own personal background in the dance world. I thought "Oh, I'm going to write a novel about a conservatory." My professor at Hunter, Colum McCann, said, "No! That's too close to you! Go somewhere else." I'm so grateful he said that. So I had this other idea for a novel that is based on and inspired by family history but has really nothing to do with the world of my upbringing. And that's where The Invention of Exile started.

Austin's character and his story is loosely based on of parts of your family history. Were there any particular stories or documents that inspired you?

I grew up hearing about my grandparents--they had traveled through Russia and Europe and wound up in Mexico where my father was born. But there was very little talk about my grandfather and I grew curious--what happened to him, alone and separated from family; what were his days like in Mexico City? I learned the story in fragments, little anecdotes that my grandmother or aunt or father recounted, but there was never any full-blown narrative. It was too sad and heartbreaking of a story. As a child, I simply believed that I didn't have a grandfather. He was never allowed back into the country and he died in Mexico. When I learned the full scope of his story through research, I felt an incredible amount of empathy for him. I felt, too, that the core of the story would be interesting material for a novel and I wanted to explore the individual, personal story against the backdrop of the larger political forces and how those forces shape lives. I think I wrote The Invention of Exile as a way to get to know this man, or a version of who he may have been, to fill in the gap, the empty space on the family tree. There was also talk of letters that my grandmother wrote to the government, fighting to get her husband reinstated, so those were in my mind while writing and I knew my grandfather had written letters home--notes and postcards that my father had filed away--and they certainly inspired me to think about distance and words crossing borders and the family's efforts to stay connected through letters. I had always intuited some sense of loss within my father, even though he rarely spoke about his own father. Perhaps not surprisingly, I began the novel as my father grew ill. Sadly, he died while I was writing the book and then, for me, it became all the more necessary and urgent to write it because a link to the story was fading.

Did anything surprise you?

There were surprises all along the way. As I was writing about Austin, who was an inventor and struggling to get back to his family or connect or reunite, there was a point when I realized that oh, my gosh, I'm doing the same thing in terms of writing. I don't think I realized that Austin as a character comes out of me, so of course I have an affinity for a lot of his thoughts and ideas. But one day it was just so startlingly obvious to me, and that was a surprise to realize I'm similar to Austin in some ways, in this need to connect.

I've personally never run into an account of this side of Mexico-US relations, and the descriptions of Mexico were some of my favorite parts of the book. Why did you choose to set this Cold War portrait so much in Mexico?

Thank you. Mexico was a fascinating place during the Cold War and I was intrigued that Austin, who had been deported from the U.S. during the first wave of the Red Scare, ended up there, hoping to re-enter the U.S. during what was then, in 1948, the second wave of the Red Scare and the beginning of the Cold War era. I intentionally set the novel in 1948 to highlight this connection and to present Austin attempting to return to the U.S. during yet another hostile political environment, when the government was again taking action against "subversive" organizations such as the Communist Party. He repeatedly ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, whether it be the U.S. in 1919, where he's accused of anarchism, Russia during the Civil War, where he's accused of being an American spy, or in Mexico, first, in the late 1920s and '30s and then, later, in 1948, when any chance of a deported Russian trying to re-enter the U.S. at the start of the Cold War would be just about impossible. In addition, during the start of the Cold War and the McCarthy era, American communists fled to Mexico to avoid being subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and to get away from government persecution and harassment. Most famously, Hollywood screenwriters, directors and actors chose to live and work in exile in Mexico and I allude to them in the novel in an attempt to show how history repeats itself. This expat community was in Mexico as the result of the same fear-mongering and Red Scare hysteria that caused Austin's original deportation and his continued exile. The 1940s was also Mexico City's golden age. American corporations and industries were doing business in Mexico, and it was also a popular place for tourists after WWII. In addition, many veterans studied in Mexico on the GI Bill so Mexico City had a large American presence--businessman, students, GIs, and then the actors, writers, directors all fleeing persecution in the U.S. because of their supposed "un-American" activities.

Austin seems captivated by both the surprising power and the surprising weakness of ink and paper--drawings, documents, letters, passports. Does that reflect any of your own feelings about the written word? Has the process of getting your first novel published complicated those feelings in any way?

While I was writing the novel, I did begin to realize the connection between what I was doing--writing as a way to connect to readers, to share this story--and Austin's attempts through his letters (words) and handwritten patent applications and inventions to reunite with his family. They are both about the need to be heard and understood. So I do share an affinity with his thoughts about both the power and weakness of ink and paper. Some days while writing I felt as if it would all just fall apart, and other days I was convinced that it would come together and take hold and have the power to move readers, to make them consider what it might have been like to endure Austin's predicament. Anyone writing his or her first novel and then trying to get it published will, I think, grapple with this difficult question about the efficacy of the written word, at least I did. Will anyone care about this story and want to read it? Is it strong enough? Have I written a story that is powerful or is it flimsy and weak? I suppose all of it bears some similarity to Austin's hopes and disappointments throughout the novel, though Austin has much more at stake. I think, too, about the letters my grandparents wrote in real life--all the waiting, frustration and feelings of powerlessness that they had to endure was something I was trying to convey as well. In the end, I feel the written word is powerful and maybe getting this novel out into the world means, in some small way, that all the real-life letters my grandparents wrote were not in vain. --Emma Page

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