Vanessa Manko’s debut novel, The Invention of Exile, explores the life of a man in exile. Russian national Austin Voronkov is deported from the United States during the first red scare and spends a lifetime trying to return. Manko launched the book, with help from H.I.P. Lit, at Powerhouse Arena, discussing the novel and what it means to be American with Salman Rushdie.
Austin, an inventor and tinkerer, aspires to the American dream. Austin is then accused of being an anarchist. He, along with his American wife and children are exiled to Russia, and when they attempt to return to the United States through Mexico, he is barred entry. Government bureaucracy stands in Austin’s way, along with a note in his immigration file that is impossible for agents to adjust.
Manko began the novel seven years ago. “I never had plans to be a writer,” she says. In her adolescence she aspired to be a dancer. She studied ballet until she was nineteen, but she says she was always reading, even when she should have been watching the older dancers. It was when she decided she wanted to attain an education that she began writing short stories. Eventually, she decided she would become a writer.
Shortly after starting the novel, Manko began working for Salman Rushdie as a research assistant. He credits her with an important role with two of his novels. He has high praise Manko’s novel too. “I’ve read it a few times,” he says, chuckling, “I recommend you all read it at least once.” He adds that Nabokov once said that only books worth reading twice are books worth reading.
Rushdie explains that Manko originally wanted to write a novel about dance. Her first idea had been about setting a story in a dance conservancy and writing about the characters and what happens to them afterward. “You should write what you know if what you know is interesting,” Rushdie said.
Manko credits Rushdie and Colum McCann at Hunter College for convincing her to avoid the dance conservancy narrative and to seek out another story to tell. Eventually she looked inward at her own family history. Her grandfather, like protagonist Austin, was also exiled from the United States.
An early title Manko considered for the novel was The UnAmerican, a reference to a phrase used during the anti-communist hearings, but also to suggest that Austin was prevented from becoming an American. Ultimately Manko decided the phrase didn’t quite fit. As an immigrant, Austin had the hope and ambitions to achieve the American dream. He was constantly working to improve himself. He was the opposite of an UnAmerican. Ultimately her intent was to raise a kind of existential question of identity.
Growing up, Manko had heard bits and pieces of her family’s past, but she was older before she began investigating the family history. One thing that always struck her as odd, was that her grandmother didn’t seem to have a husband. Eventually it occurred to her to ask about her grandfather, who was also in exile in Mexico. “It was a mystery I was trying to solve,” she says.
The characters of course are inventions rather than replicas of her family. She explains that on a trip to Mexico City, she began observing people and saw in her mind an older man, the character who would become Austin. She empathized with this character, someone who had been broken.
The border between the United States and Mexico has always been porous, and that was even more true in the last century when the book takes place. In creating the character, Manko realized she needed a way of anchoring him to Mexico because Austin never tries crossing the border illegally even though everything he loves is on the other side. Its as though he comes to an imaginary, invisible line that he never crosses. Manko explains that the events of Austin’s life all come together to keep him in Mexico–fear of deportation to Russia, fear of the government.
As to the women of the novel, Manko thought of her grandmother. Her grandmother though was as an older woman than the characters. She explains that she simply transposed many of the qualities of her grandmother onto a younger woman.
Rushdie declares that invention is one of the classic themes of American literature. The idea of self invention is critical to the American narrative, and a common subject is the idea of people making themselves into who they want to be. He points out that in a way, Austin represents this same ideal.
Manko says that in researching the book, she read a lot about inventors. To her, the common thread is that inventors obsess over their invention. That is in a way exactly what Austin does: he obsesses about inventing himself.