Jacob Newberry’s ‘Summer’ and Vanessa Manko’s ‘The Interrogation’ both feature in the new issue of Granta 118, Exit Strategies. Here the two contributors discuss the resilience of the natural world, the dangers of submitting to categorisation and ways of escape.

 

 

Dear Jacob,

I like imagining you in Jerusalem, and I’m happy to meet you via this exchange. Your piece was one of the first pieces I read, drawn, I think, to its title, the succinct and direct ‘Summer’. I was immediately struck by the sense of place and the broader themes which, for me, seem to be grappling with the idea of city and self submerged or hidden – under water and closeted, respectively. I was so impressed with the way you spread the story out over time so that the reader feels the emotional erosion – of identity and relationships – and how that parallels the very real erosion of the Gulf coast. But there is also an active rebuilding here. Jay chooses to get married to Karen, to build a seemingly ‘normal’ life and homes and bars and offices are rebuilt so that both the literal landscape and the more figurative, psychological and emotional terrain is altered. With both comes a difficult redefinition of city and self and relationships. And meanwhile the water is still rising, future storms are on the horizon and I couldn’t help but feel that those new structures – the buildings, the fences, the feigned ‘normal’ life – may face impending future disintegration, which adds to the feeling of impermanence throughout ‘Summer’. Because your piece is so informed by, and about, a specific place, peopled with individuals shaped and changed by that place, and because I see that you are now studying in Jerusalem, I wonder if you are finding your current location to be an influence on your work or do you find that distance from a place is equally inspiring and/or necessary to your writing?

Thank you for writing such a complex, deeply moving piece.

Vanessa

 

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Dear Vanessa,

Thanks for the very thoughtful comments on my essay, and for starting this exchange.

I’m really intrigued by your impression of the impermanence of reconstruction, both physical and psychological. I don’t think I intended to add that element in, but it certainly feels like an undercurrent in my emotional memory of that time and place. When disaster hits, once the shock has begun to wear off, I think what comes after is often a sense of resignation. For a lot of us from the coast, this has manifested as a lingering anxiety – that the ‘next one’ will be bigger. Jay’s marriage, then, feels like a stand-in for a certain variety of desperate hoping: for normalcy, for a simple and speedy recovery. Sometimes the only thing we can do in response to our deep panic is to flee it altogether. I hope I presented Jay’s decision as coming out of that complicated place.

As for the distance you asked about, I do think it’s essential. Living in Jerusalem is affecting my writing in a lot of ways, but I think most of them are currently unavailable to me. I feel like I’ll spend a great many years unravelling whatever is being stored inside of me just now.

Speaking of distance, I’m wondering how you would describe Voronkov’s central anxiety in your piece, ‘The Interrogation’. I was struck by the cross-genre presentation of it. What you’re taking from theatre seems to add to the reader’s feeling of alienation, though I was also very struck by the slow unfolding of Voronkov’s admission. The surface concern is deportation, but would you say that his real worry is the accepting of a label – and its accompanying identity – that he wishes to reject?

Best,
Jacob

 

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Dear Jacob,

Yes. I think you are right to distinguish between these two concerns – deportation vs. the anarchist label. What’s happening here too is a clash of cultures, languages, resulting in misunderstandings. Voronkov is proud and passionate about his views of society and rejects the label ‘anarchist’ which implies violence and then overthrow of government. He is a peaceful idealist, but his forced confession results in a label he ends up railing against his whole life, which is harder to shake than deportation.

I hadn’t thought of this as cross-genre so I appreciate your interpretation. I read plays for dialogue and do enjoy how drama unfolds through that dialogue. My research led me to trials of arrested Russians and I was drawn to the immediacy of the Q&A form. Originally, I thought I’d write an entire narrative scene, blending into the rest of the novel, but when I got to the interrogation, there was a perfect moment for a page break and then, like the door to the interrogation room closing, it fell straight into the Q&A. I suppose it is very much like watching characters on a stage and I wanted to present how unrelenting the interrogator is; his inquisitor wants Voronkov to be something and makes him into it. I hope I’ve shown that here.

This makes me think of identity and labels in regards to the different choices that you and Jay make – one to live an authentic life; Jay taking what may at the time seem the simpler path, but, in fact, is probably filled with future strife. Jay does struggle with his choice, seeking your approval, and the line, ‘It’s not like he’s dead’ stayed with me, because, for you, it’s implied that Jay’s decision is very much like a death. The irony is moving too since Jay, at one point, in response to your coming out, is the one who tells you ‘this is what we’re living for’.

I wonder if his marriage then felt like a betrayal to you, even as ‘Summer’, overall, is a great exercise in empathy and an attempt to understand? And, also, if you find a paradox here: the strength for you to come out, to ‘live like this’, could be seen as equal to the strength it takes Jay to deny his sexual identity? Or is it more of a weakness in Jay, resulting in your disappointment in him that he cannot accept his true identity?

Enjoy your trip to the Dead Sea!

All best,
Vanessa

 

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Dear Vanessa,

I’m really looking forward to my day at the Dead Sea. I can’t express how terrifically I’m in need of a day of glorious, barrelling sunshine.

I’m glad to hear you read the essay as empathetic. His marriage, yes, felt like a betrayal, as strange as that sounds. My friends from that time were so instrumental in the long process of gathering strength enough to be openly gay in Mississippi, and Jay was the best of all of us. (I think anyone who meets him would agree.) So to see him turning away from everything felt like a profound – if comprehensible – failing. And then what unnerved me most was the way it revealed the frailty of the entire underlying system: whatever hopes and longings were still sustaining me had already proven insufficient for him.

I hope in the process of writing about it that I’ve come to understand his decision a little better. And you’re right, it might have required a different kind of strength than I recognize. I’m probably still too close to it, emotionally speaking, to really know.

Thinking of this makes me further admire the emotional distance you utilize throughout your piece. In my reading, the pathos of the affair is appealingly muted, and I’m suspecting this has a great deal to do with your use of dialogue. In particular, the interrogator’s language is designed to penetrate Voronkov’s defences through the use of inhuman, almost robotic formulations. This has the effect of implicating the reader in a way that mimics the alienation and isolation of an interrogation. Was this a strategy you were aiming for, or did it come about naturally?

Warmly,
Jacob

 

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Dear Jacob,

I don’t think I consciously thought of implicating the reader in the interrogation, but I did very much want to show how the repeated questioning, the insistence, and the rhythm and pacing was designed to strip down Austin’s defences, to catch him off guard. I also wanted to emphasize that the inquisitor had an agenda – to make him confess to being an anarchist. But I’m happy to know you felt the sadness of the whole affair was muted. I had feared it might be too over-the-top, too visceral, which is why I thought I might turn it into a whole scene, with narration and so on . . . Your comments help me to see that something is gained from not adding that narration!

Speaking of rhythm and flow and pacing, ‘Summer’, in its structure, weaves back and forth in time and place and is set over several summers, which, for me, added to the atmosphere of erosion. You’ve really captured the fleeting nature of summer and how it’s a season of homecomings and inevitable, summer’s-end partings. I felt an ebb and flow throughout the piece – the sometimes turbulent, sometimes tender emotions, and of course the sea – and it also made me think of the line you use from Long Day’s Journey into Night: ‘I’m always dreaming and forgetting . . . ’ which alludes to and emphasizes the sense of disintegration. I wonder if you had the play in mind while writing, if it was an influence on your work? And this also makes me think of your use of the word ‘frailty’ in your last email. Mary, in the play, Jay, relationships, the environment could perhaps all be seen as frail?

Take care,
Vanessa

 

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Dear Vanessa,

I’m not sure if I had the play in mind while I was writing, but I remember turning to it in the weeks after Jay let us know his decision. I had read it years before, and that moment of Mary’s wilful disintegration, her choice to fall back into the medicinal blackness, the despair of her family and their inability to do anything to change it . . . I needed that moment a great deal. Of course, that scene is one of the bleaker moments in literature, so whatever comfort I was getting from it was more of a consolation of some kind.

The fragility of the world was definitely a surprise for me after Katrina, though in truth this really only refers to the human-made version. The natural world is, of course, resilient and tenacious. I’d like to believe this is also true of the human heart.

Is it fair of me to ask for a bit of what happens after the deportation in your piece? I know it’s part of a novel you’re working on, so you don’t need to give me a plot summary. I guess I’m just really interested in how the deportation affects his life back in Russia. Or does he find a way to come back?

Cheers,
Jacob

 

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Dear Jacob,

Thank you for leaving me with the image of the human heart being as resilient and tenacious as Mother Nature. When we use language like ‘heart-broken’ or ‘shattered’ to describe loss in love or life, it’s easy to forget that we can heal and rebuild and grow stronger, like the cities and towns on the Gulf coast, I hope.

‘Summer’ made me go back to ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ and on the back cover of my edition there is a great quote from the critic Walter Kerr. He interprets the play as something O’Neill wrote as ‘an act of forgiveness . . . ’ and to be ‘reassuring [his family’s] ghosts, wherever they may be, that he knows everything awful they have done, and loves them’. I thought of you and Jay when I read this line, and, so as much of an exercise in empathy, perhaps ‘Summer’ is one of forgiveness too?

As for Voronkov’s life after deportation, returning to Russia brings more upheaval since the country is in the midst of civil war and he deals with a different, though no less humiliating, kind of persecution there, eventually ending up in Mexico. Overall, I’ve tried to show how the events of his life affected him, while also dealing with his quest to return to the US. I won’t reveal what happens, but I’m glad I’ve piqued your curiosity.

There is a real feeling of persecution in ‘Summer’ too, if that isn’t too strong a word here. Living in New York City, it feels foreign to think about programs to ‘overcome’ homosexuality and so your essay reminded me that there are still places in our country where being gay is not acceptable (in the same way that being Russian was a danger for Voronkov in my piece). It’s so very different from New York and I admire the courage it took you to come out in such an atmosphere. But then again Mississippi is your home state which complicates the relationship to it for you, I’m sure. Do you return often? Will you one day build your life there or is someplace else more home for you now?

This has been such an enriching exchange for me, and I look forward to reading more of your work. Perhaps we will meet somewhere in between New York and Jerusalem.

Warmly,
Vanessa

 

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Dear Vanessa,

Thank you for sharing that quotation! What a generous, perfect reading of the play. I realized in the course of writing the essay that it was intended as a means to forgive myself, mostly for not being clever or smart or strong enough to talk him out of his decision. I needed to believe that I had done everything I could, and by the end of it, I think I felt like I had. I came away from the essay finally believing that I had loved him well and loved him enough.

As for the camps – yes, they’re monstrous and real and looming somewhere silently in all our imaginations, colouring whatever joys and successes we accumulate. In truth, I imagine we savour our small victories perhaps more than people who’ve never been under that lingering cloud. This isn’t to say it’s all gloom and despair – as you said, it’s my home, and a beautiful place. I love it and miss it tremendously. The people I know who come from more liberal places (I have a lot of friends from New York) seem to find my descriptions of being openly gay in Mississippi as basically incomprehensible, and I have to say that gladdens me. An acquaintance from London recently described ‘Summer’ as ‘tropical and exotic’, which I also found quite charming.

I really can’t say if I’ll end up living there again. Sometimes I hope I will; other times I’m certain I won’t.

Thank you for giving me a peek into the future of Voronkov’s life; I’m eager to read the book when it comes out. Thank you for giving me an engaging, thoughtful look into a time, a place and a particular set of anxieties I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.

I’ve also really enjoyed this exchange. I have a feeling we’ll meet before too long!

Warmly,
Jacob

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