Foyles' exclusive interview with Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
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Anthony Marra

About The Author


Anthony MarraAnthony Marra grew up in Washington, DC, and has lived and studied in Russia.

His story, 'Chechnya', won first place in Narrative magazine's Spring 2009 Story Contest and received both a Pushcart Prize and the Narrative Prize in 2010. His work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. In 2013 he received the prestigious Whiting Writers' Award, which is given to ten emerging American writers each year.

His first novel is A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, set in the Russian republic of Chechnya. The book opens with an eight-year-old girl watching her father being taken away by the Russian security forces. Given their ruthless habit of eliminating family members, Akhmed helps her to escape and together they travel to a nearby hospital, where Sonja, fuelled by coffee and amphetamnies, patches up victims of the ongoing civil war.

Sonja is hoping for news of her sister, whom she paid a smuggler, Ramzan, to to help get away form their wartorn homeland. But Ramzan has betrayed so many of his neighbours, surviving on the rewards of working for the radical Muslims sect driving Chechen resistance, and now even his own father, with whom he still lives, refuses to speak to him.

Marra's first novel sheds light on a bitter conflict that rarely troubles the media, revealing a lawless land where the power of the Russian security forces is brutal and absolute, where any act of generosity carries great personal risk, where every citizen conceals a dark history. It is a novel of tenderness and savagery, moments of hope and long stretches of despair, set in place where life seems cheap but is everything worth fighting for.

In this exclusive interview with Foyles, Anthony talks about an entire generation of Chechens who have spent their lives as refugees, how trauma magnifies moral deficiency and how the Boston Marathon bombings showed America that the war in Chechnya has global significance.

Author photo © Smeeta Mahanti

Questions & Answers


A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaYour first published story, 'Chechnya', won Narrative magazine's 2009 Spring Writing contest. Was this the starting point for your novel?

It was. I wrote the story, but kept adding to it, even after it was published. Quickly I realized that this cast of characters and their world exceeded the limits of the short story form. I began to follow them and they led me into this novel.


You've travelled extensively in Eastern Europe. Did you find Chechnya to be significantly different from former Soviet states?

I travelled to Chechnya after much had been rebuilt following the wars. The hum of construction was everywhere. Except for the former oil-refining district in eastern Grozny, the capital had been largely rebuilt, and in the countryside it seemed I couldn't pass a block without seeing a partially built brick house. The resulting impression is that Grozny is better kept than most Russian cities. It's very clean, little graffiti or litter. Buildings are covered with billboards and banners bearing Putin's face -- something uncommon in the rest of Russia -- alongside images of the father-son presidents Kadyrov. Policemen and military units in blue-urban camo patrol the streets. Once I climbed on top of a tall building to see the view and the sniper guarding it lent me his binoculars.

The most striking difference between Chechnya and other areas of the former Soviet Union is less architectural than cultural and religious. Chechnya has a history and traditions distinct from Russia and its former Soviet satellite states. The Tsarist Empire launched a series of brutal campaigns of conquest throughout the region in the 19th century. Stalin deported the entire population of Chechnya to Siberia for thirteen years. Given this legacy of subjugation, rebellion against Russia is coiled into the Chechen cultural DNA more tightly than in the rest of the former USSR. The many mosques, hijabs, and monuments to folkloric outlaws makes one quickly realize that while Chechnya may be part of Russia, it is not of Russia.

The novel is written so that the narrative skips back and forth - always clearly signposted - through the main characters' recent history.

Wars shatter families, relationships, even stories. But Constellation is less a story about war than a story about ordinary people rebuilding their lives during and in the aftermath of war. It's a story not about rebels and soldiers, but about surgeons, nurses, and teachers, each of whom tries to salvage and recreate what has been lost. I felt it was important for the novel to embody on a structural level that stitching together of the past. Just as the characters piece together their individual lives, the novel as a whole attempts to piece together their collective story.


Most of your characters have lost family members, their ultimate fates sometimes not known, and the security forces, known as the Feds, are ruthless in also eliminating the close family of those they see as a threat. Do you think this has changed the place of the family in Chechen society?

I met a young man in Grozny who spent eight years in Sweden as a refugee. His family could only afford to send one of their children into exile, and so they chose him because he was the youngest. I also met a woman there in her early twenties. She had been sent to Moscow as a young child and returned to Chechnya as an adult. I was walking with her down the street one day and asked what a billboard said. She squinted at it and said she could no longer speak her native language.

So yes, families were ruptured in ways that can be difficult to comprehend. There is an entire generation of Chechens who have spent their childhoods as refugees, losing not only the daily love of their parents, but also the access to language, culture, and tradition that those relationships provide.


Ramzan, a collaborator, notes that "a land without law is like a land without crime". Why is he unable to separate this lawlessness from the basic morality that guides characters such as Akhmed and Sonja?

One of the things I was interested with all these characters, but Ramzan particularly, is how trauma magnifies moral deficiency. In another life, Ramzan's deception might lead to nothing more than cheating on an exam and shoplifting a candy bar. But that same conscience put in a world where the stakes are often life and death lead him to more catastrophic acts. Ramzan, who has been degraded by torture and informs on his neighbours to supply his father with medication, isn't an evil man to my mind. He's someone trapped between a rock and many hard places. What leads us to acts of courage and cowardice may depend on where we are as much as who we are. Were we to find ourselves in Ramzan's unfortunate position, I think more of us would act like him than we would want to admit.


The only other fiction set in Chechnya published in English we're aware of is German Sudalaev's collection of stories, I am a Chechen!, which was translated from the Russian. Why do you think this particular conflict has not been covered for the English-language market?

Today I was glued to the TV, like many Americans, watching updates on the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the ethnic Chechens allegedly responsible for the horrific Boston Marathon bombings. One of the cable-news talking heads said, "We don't cover Chechnya because it's not about us. It's about the Russians and the Chechens." That idea that the Chechen Wars represent a localized conflict without significance to the larger world isn't uncommon in the West, and I think it's resulted in a great cultural shrug toward the region. I've never understood that. Chechnya has a remarkable history filled with remarkable people, who in the 19th century inspired such writers as Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Pushkin.

I began working on this novel because I was fascinated with Chechnya, yet for all the nonfiction, history, and journalism I found, I couldn't find a single novel available in English set during the recent Chechen Wars. In that sense, I came to this book as a reader rather than a writer. I wanted to find this novel in a bookstore, but it wasn't there yet.


Can you tell us anything about what you're working on next?

Presently I'm working on a collection of linked stories set during the same time period that deals with the Chechen Wars from the Russian perspective.


Available Titles By This Author

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Anthony Marra

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