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Chechnya is a war-torn, hotly disputed region that is both a part of and apart from Russia. Its history and current fragile peace are not well understood by Westerners, but one author is hoping to shine a spotlight on Chechens by penning a novel set in the region. The story weaves together stories of longtime neighbors and those brought together by chance as they navigate the uncertainties of war. We talk with Anthony Marra about his debut novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” and how it might further our understanding of the region.
- Anthony Marra Author, 'A Constellation of Vital Phenomena'; Stegner Fellow, Stanford University
Read An Excerpt
From the book “A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena: A novel” by Anthony Marra, published by Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Copyright © 2013 by Anthony Marra. Reprinted with permission.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe know that novels can expand our world view. They can provide accounts of places and people that move us in ways that non-fiction cannot. Skilled authors could make us feel connected to characters we might otherwise feel apart from, teasing out emotional parallels to our own lives while shedding light on harsh realities foreign to us. In this way, novels sometimes make us sit up and take notice of a place, a conflict or a history previously unknown to us, a place like Chechnya, a region that occasionally makes headlines but remains little understood by many in the West.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOur guest today provides a literary entry point with a debut novel that aims to fill a void in English language literature. Anthony Marra is an author whose debut novel is "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." He's also a Stegner fellow at Stanford University and alumnus of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and winner of several writing awards including a Pushcart Prize. He joins us in studio. Anthony Marra, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MR. ANTHONY MARRAThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIChechnya is a place that occasionally comes into our collective consciousness, more about that in a minute. But most of us would be hard-pressed to tell you much about it. What made you decide to set a novel here?
MARRAI studied in Russia in college, and I arrived shortly after the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated for her writings on Chechnya. And Chechnya was very much in the air at the time. And I realized it was a place that I knew nothing about. And I began reading about it, really, just to educate myself.
MARRAAnd it's a fascinating and remarkable area. Tolstoy, Pushkin and Lermontov all set works there. But it was really the stories of ordinary people persisting in extraordinary circumstances that I really felt were the kinds of stories that needed to be illuminated through fiction.
NNAMDIAnd the mere fact that you undertook the reading of those stories and of Pushkin and Tolstoy and others, a lot of people tend to be intimidated by that. So I'm curious. What about Russian literature appeals to you?
MARRARussian literature has a vastness to it that I've always found appealing. Life seems lived on grander scales in Russian literature. The books themselves are cinder block sized. And just finishing one of those books can feel like a major accomplishment, but they deal with questions of how do we live, what are we willing to sacrifice for our beliefs, what is -- what's the proper way to live a life, how do we live a good life? And these are questions that, whether they're brought up by 19th-century counts or thoughts for us today, they bear relevance to our lives.
NNAMDISo if it would be intimidating to a lot of adults and presumably even more intimidating for juveniles, why would it be so appealing to juvenile offenders? Today's Washington Post has a story about juvenile offenders who find that they really connect with these big themes that Russian literature is famous for tackling. You didn't discover it in that same way, but what about it -- what do you feel about that piece in The Post today and the appeal it has for those juvenile offenders?
MARRAI thought it was a terrific article and just a beautiful project that Prof. Andy Kaufman is working on. I think that literature can speak to us across all sorts of boundaries. The purpose of literature is to break those boundaries. And having juvenile offenders finding the same sort of wisdom and solace and comfort and understanding from a book that was written 200 years ago by somebody who lived on the other side of the world, I think, speaks to the power of literature.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you found that after reading a novel set in an unfamiliar country you pay closer attention to news and to non-fiction writing about that place? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. To give us a sense of Chechnya as you write about it in 2004, would you read a passage for us? It starts at the top of page 20, just after "A doctor opens a hospital doorway that used to lead to a storage room but now opens to a panorama of the city.
MARRA"On days when both sides abided by the ceasefire, Sonja came to this doorway and looked across the city and tried to identify the buildings by their ruins. The one that flickered with 10,000 pieces of sunlight had been a sheet-glass office building in which 918 souls had labored. Beneath that minaret, a rotund imam had led the pious in prayer. That was a school, a library, a Young Pioneer's clubhouse, a jail, a grocery store.
MARRA"That was where her mother had warned her never to trust a man who claims to want an intelligent life, where her father had taught her to ride a bike by imitating the engine growl of a careening municipal bus sure to run her over if she didn't pedal fast enough, where she had solved her first algebra equation for a primary school teacher, a man for whom Sonja's successes were consolation whenever he pitied himself for not having followed his older brother into the more remunerative profession of prison guard.
MARRA"Where she had called for help after witnessing one man spear another on the university green, only to learn they were students rehearsing an Aeschylus play. It looked like a city made of shoeboxes and stamped into the ground by a petulant child. She could spend the whole afternoon rebuilding it, repopulating it, until the hallucination became the more believable reality. 'Before, you couldn't see the river from here,' Sonja said. 'This hospital is the tallest building in the city now.'
MARRA"There had been plans -- there had been tall buildings and plans to erect taller ones. After the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., oil reserves had promised prosperity for Chechnya in the coming capitalist century. Yeltsin had told the republics to grab as much sovereignty as they could swallow, and after 2,000 years of foreign occupation, it had seemed the republic would finally achieve independence.
MARRA"Her grandmother -- her grandparents had moved to Volchansk in 1946 after Stalin added lorry drivers and seamstresses to the expanding list of professions requiring purging, but she felt as buoyantly patriotic as her Chechen classmates who could trace their family trees back to the acorns. That sense electric optimism was evident in the designs that had been solicited from architects in Riyadh, Melbourne and Minsk.
MARRA"City officials had made a show of the blueprints, displaying them on billboards and distributing them as leaflets at the bazaar. She'd never seen anything like it. The sketches had suggested that the pinnacle of design no longer consisted of cramming the greatest amount of reinforced concrete into the ugliest rectangle possible. Once she had held a leaflet against the horizon and as the red sun bled through the paper, the towers had become part of the skyline."
NNAMDIListening to Anthony Marra reading from his debut novel, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," a debut novel that is set in Chechnya. We are inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. It's my understanding that you could not get into Chechnya before initially writing the book, but you did get there before you finished. How different was what you found from what you write about thanks to the passage of time?
MARRAWell, I visited last summer for the first time. It was more of a fact-checking trip than a research trip because, as you said, I had already written the book for the most part. And it was -- it's quite different from the world depicted in the book. In 2003, the United Nations declared Grozny the most devastated city on Earth, and, if you go there today, you'll see a city that's been nearly entirely rebuilt.
MARRAThere are skyscrapers there. There are sushi restaurants. There is all manner of conveniences, and, really, most of that development has occurred in -- over the course of the past five years. But the people that you meet there still very much carry the memory of the conflict, and everything in the present is seen as a relation to recent history.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Have you traveled to Chechnya or spent time in other parts of the Russian caucuses? We'd love to hear about your experience there. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or send email to email@example.com. You could never have anticipated that the news cycle, just before the publication of your novel, would put Chechnya in the spotlight. Has what you know about the region made the Boston Marathon bombing suspects' connection to that region any more or less understandable?
MARRAHonestly, it's made it less understandable. I had -- with the rest of America, I watched the news come out of Boston with horror and shock, and my thoughts and prayers were with the victims and their families.
MARRAAnd when the news came out about the identities of the two suspected brothers, I was in Massachusetts, actually, and was absolutely surprised largely because most of the people I met while I was in Chechnya roundly condemned terrorism, both because they have repeatedly suffered its effects and because they're very aware and sensitive of the fact that their reputation in the international community has been tarnished by the actions of terrorists over the past decade or so. And so I was shocked and surprised and horrified.
NNAMDIAnd people in Chechnya are so, I guess, not just sensitive, but so keenly aware of what happened and the reputation that it's my understanding that you get two questions when you go there: first, why you're here, and, second, what have you heard about us?
MARRAExactly, yeah. Nine times out of 10, those were the first two questions I would receive from anyone. The first one was sort of a surprise that an American would come to Chechnya, and the second was always, what have you heard of us? What are people saying? Have you heard bad things? We're not all like the people who are portrayed on the news. And this sense of trying to rehabilitate the international image of Chechnya was something that I repeatedly found while I was there.
NNAMDISo I guess the response of the uncle of the alleged perpetrators of this act, who clearly felt a certain sense of communal shame, is what links back to those questions that you're asked when you go to Chechnya.
MARRAExactly, yeah, that sense of trying to right their reputation. I spent a weekend in the mountains of southern Chechnya that border Dagestan, and I was there with an imam from the Gudermes mosque, which is one of the largest mosques in Chechnya. And he repeatedly said -- we were sort of conversing in broken Russian and broken English -- that the people who blow up things, that the people who shoot people are not Muslim, that Islam is a religion of peace.
MARRAAnd it was -- he very much wanted to impart to me this idea that not all Chechens are like the people you see in the news. And the characters in this novel are not soldiers or rebels. They're surgeons. They're neighbors. They're doctors. They are people who want to live in peace and provide for the family, just like the rest of us.
NNAMDIYou know, that's one of the things that I like most about the novel. The, I guess, motto of this show, if you will, is connecting your neighborhood with the world, and I felt like this could have been people who are living in my own neighborhood. We're talking with Anthony Marra. He is an author. His debut novel is called "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIBefore I go to break, though, given that we're talking about the news cycle and the fact that many Westerners are not very familiar with that region, I'm wondering if you feel any pressure being the author bringing Chechen issues to our attention.
MARRAWell, I feel -- I always try to make clear that I'm a novelist. I'm not an expert in geopolitics or on Caucasian history. I feel an obligation to the characters in the novel and the world from which they emerge. But this is fiction. It's a novel. It's set in the recent past, and there are certainly other books, many of which I've listed in the author's note, that interested people should turn to for more comprehensive explanation of recent Chechen history.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you haven't yet and you'd like to, the number is 800-433-8850. Are you a fan of Russian literature? What about it appeals to you? Or if you're not, what doesn't appeal to you? 800-433-8850. We'll return with our two-hour conversation with Anthony Marra about his debut novel, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Anthony Marra. He is an author whose debut novel is "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." He's also a Stegner fellow at Stanford University, an alumnus of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and winner of several writing awards, including a Pushcart Prize. We've been inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. So let's talk with Jerry on Capitol Hill. Jerry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JERRYThank you. I have two questions. One, I traveled to Russia in the late '80s and 1990s. And looking at books and guidebooks or whatever, I was struck that Ivan the Terrible in Russian was Ivan Grozny, meaning that the capital of Chechnya is the terrible, which struck me as a weird name for anybody's capital.
JERRYAnd, secondly, when I -- there are plenty of Chechens in Moscow, but the Russians all said Chechen is synonym for smuggler, bandit, mafia. So how does this perception -- I mean, this is -- even in the movie or book "Gorky Park," the Chechens were the bad guys. So how do you turn bad guys into good guys?
NNAMDIWikipedia tells us that Grozny means fearsome, awesome, redoubtable. How did that play into the history of the place?
MARRAYeah. It -- Grozny has its roots as a military outpost that the Russian Imperial Army was stationed in during campaigns against some of the rebels in the 19th century, and the name Grozny -- the terrible, the fearsome -- is rooted in that period. It's actually a rather remarkable time. Tolstoy wrote about it in the novel "Hadji Murad." And there was this rebellion led by a Avar commander named Imam Shamil, and he sort of devised all of these cunning ploys to keep the Russian army on their toes.
MARRAHe would put the horseshoes on his horses backwards so that the Russians would always chase them in the wrong direction. He devised these ways of stopping arteries by having a beetle bite on the vein and then clipping the body from it. And he was really sort of a very brutal man, but also ingenious in his own way, and that time period is certainly filled with many stories that were the fodder for great Russian literature.
NNAMDIJerry, thank you very much for your call. Your story focuses on the exact opposite of the kind of person you just described, a rather precocious little girl. Tell us a little bit about Havaa or Havaa and why you decided to put her at the center of the story.
MARRAYeah. Havaa is the -- is really the organizing principle of the whole novel. The novel begins one night in a snow covered village in Chechnya in 2004 when a man named Akhmed watches as his next-door neighbor is abducted by Russian soldiers. And later that evening, he finds this 8-year-old girl Havaa hiding in the forest, and he takes her to the only safe place he can think of, which is this ramshackle hospital in a nearby city.
NNAMDIAt which his own medical professional credentials are questioned.
MARRAExactly, yes. He's applied for a job there about 20 times, and he's always been denied. But because there is no longer any staff, he's finally offered a position by the one remaining surgeon, Sonja. And the entire novel sort of revolves around people trying to find or people trying to hide this 8-year-old girl. And I think that life goes on even in these very difficult circumstances and situations, and Havaa is very much representative of that. She is the person who sort of brings a degree of innocence and humanity to all of these characters.
NNAMDIYeah. Why did she staple he gloves onto herself?
MARRAShe -- her father was an arborist, and he encouraged her imagination and encouraged her to view knowledge as this sort of wild kingdom of escape. And she decides at one point that she wants to be a professional sea anemonist, to study anemones, and finds these latex medical gloves and staples them all over her outfit in order to appear to be a sea anemone.
NNAMDIThe story has a timeline. Each chapter begins with the date highlighted on a timeline that runs from 1994 to 2004. But the story also moves further forward and backward at times. What made you decide to essentially highlight the fluidity of time by moving so easily through it?
MARRAWell, wars break families, they break stories, they break buildings, and they fracture time. And this is a novel in which each individual character is trying to recover what's been lost and trying to pull together their lives, trying to put the pieces together. And so I wanted the novel on a structural architectural level to embody that sense of recovery, of salvage, of rescue. And so, as each character in their own stories are piecing their lives together, the novel as a whole mends their individual stories into a communal one.
NNAMDIThe story also goes back, way back into Chechen and Russian history, which is the passion or perhaps burden of another character in this book. Who is Khassan, and what purpose does he serve for the reader?
MARRAKhassan is an elderly historian. And he spent four decades trying to write this epic multivolume 3,000-page history of Chechnya. And every time he gets close to finishing this history, a shift in the prevailing political winds require him to go back to the beginning and revise it in order to conform to the new political standards. And it's sort of Sisyphean task he's set up for himself.
MARRAAnd I knew that readers coming to the book would have very little knowledge of Chechnya and of the region's history. And so his role as a character is also to provide a little bit of context, so that a reader can come to the book without knowing anything about the region and still get enough of a contextual background to understand the choices that the characters make.
NNAMDIHere is Zarah (sp?) in Fairfax, Va. Zarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Zarah. Are you there?
ZARAHOh, yes. Hi. How are you?
ZARAHGood. Thanks for taking my call. I appreciate it. Basically, I just want to make a quick comment that the author, you know, definitely brings to light the necessity of educating every one. In light of what happened, I think definitely, you know, there needs to be a greater understanding, a greater awareness of, you know, regions that are in heed of help. You know, I think what has happened, you know, of course, is something that's tragic.
ZARAHAt the same time, you know, there is a cry for help. Otherwise, I think what has happened, people in Chechnya. And also, you know, in other parts of, like, for instance, when -- the situation in Kosovo in Serbia. You know, I don't think the, you know, the overall viewers in general know much about, you know, what has happened, you know, between, you know, the Serbs and what has happened in Kosovo and then these types of situation. The only time when, you know, we do end up hearing -- go ahead.
NNAMDIWell, do you think novels can help to make those situations more accessible, more understandable because that precisely my feeling about "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena"?
ZARAHYes. Just, for example, like "The Kite Runner." You know, that was a phenomenal...
ZARAH...you know, movie. You know, that was followed by a novel, and it was instrumental to give a realistic hands-on personal, intimate understanding of what it was like to grow up in a very, you know, chaotic time. And that still is now occurring, so I think...
NNAMDIAnd that's precisely what you get in this novel, but we're running out of time. But thank you very much for your call, Zarah. This story unfolds in a way that is subtly heartbreaking one moment, very funny a few pages later and then stomach churning a couple of chapters on. How did you strike a balance between those experiences, and why are all of them important?
MARRAI think that novels need a wide range because life has a wide range. It's not played on either the high or the low notes. It's played on the whole keyboard. And that was something I was very much eager to get across in this novel. I think that there is a lot of light, a lot of humor despite the fact that it is set in this rather troubled region during a troubled time.
NNAMDIWe are in a way welcoming you home today because though you live in California now, you were born and raised in and around in Washington, D.C. How often do you get back? And how do you keep the city with you when you're away?
MARRAI try to come back usually three times a year, and I'm very close with my family and friends. And it's just a joy to be back whenever I am.
NNAMDIAnd we on this show were doing our fundraising drives. We have a co-host of Politics Hour on Friday, Tom Sherwood, who has said, if an individual makes a certain amount of a contribution to the station, then he will take what he considers the bold and dangerous move of having a Washington, D.C. flag tattooed on his shoulder. It is my understanding that you bear such a tattoo.
MARRAI do. You've done your research.
NNAMDIWhere, may I ask, is this tattoo?
MARRARight here on my shoulder. I got it before I moved to California about a week beforehand.
NNAMDIAnd that's how Anthony Marra carries D.C. around with him. I hope you're listening, Sherwood, 'cause Anthony Marra is an author whose debut novel is "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." He's also a Stegner fellow at Stanford University, an alumnus of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and winner of several writing awards, including a Pushcart Prize. Anthony Marra, after this publicity tour is over, all the socializing ends and you'll get back to the keyboard all by yourself again?
NNAMDIWell, good luck with that.
MARRAThank you so much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for joining us. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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