The Invention of Exile: A Novel

The Invention of Exile: A Novel

by Vanessa Manko


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The Invention of Exile: A Novel by Vanessa Manko

Austin Voronkov is many things. He is an engineer, an inventor, an immigrant from Russia to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1913, where he gets a job at a rifle factory. At the house where he rents a room, he falls in love with a woman named Julia, who becomes his wife and the mother of his three children. When Austin is wrongly accused of attending anarchist gatherings his limited grasp of English condemns him to his fate as a deportee, retreating with his new bride to his home in Russia, where he and his young family become embroiled in the Civil War and must flee once again, to Mexico.

While Julia and the children are eventually able to return to the U.S., Austin becomes indefinitely stranded in Mexico City because of the black mark on his record. He keeps a daily correspondence with Julia, as they each exchange their hopes and fears for the future, and as they struggle to remain a family across a distance of two countries. Austin becomes convinced that his engineering designs will be awarded patents, thereby paving the way for the government to approve his return and award his long sought-after American citizenship. At the same time he becomes convinced that an FBI agent is monitoring his every move, with the intent of blocking any possible return to the United States.

Austin and Julia's struggles build to crisis and heartrending resolution in this dazzling, sweeping debut. The novel is based in part on Vanessa Manko's family history and the life of a grandfather she never knew. Manko used this history as a jumping off point for the novel, which focuses on borders between the past and present, sanity and madness, while the very real U.S.-Mexico border looms. The novel also explores how loss reshapes and transforms lives. It is a deeply moving testament to the enduring power of family and the meaning of home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594205880
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/14/2014
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Vanessa Manko earned her MFA in creative writing from Hunter College. She has taught writing at NYU and SUNY Purchase. An excerpt of her novel was published in Granta's winter 2012 issue. Originally from Brookfield, Connecticut, Manko now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Vanessa Manko

1913 – 1920

He arrived in the United States in 1913 on a boat named Trieste. His face open, the brow smooth, eyes with the at once earnest, at once insecure gaze of hopeful, wanting youth. He began work fast. First at the Remington Arms Company, making ammunition for the Russian Imperial Army, rising up the ranks to become an inspector of the Mosin-Nagant rif le and later working for the Hitchcock Gas Engine Company. In Bridgeport, Connecticut. His early mornings spent among the others. The hordes of men shuttling to and from factories in lines and masses of gray or black through the dim light of winter mornings and in the spring when the morning sun was like a secret, coy and sparkling, the water f lashing on the sound.

They found each other though. Through all of that, they, the Russians, found each other. They learned to spot each other through mannerisms, glances. This was later. In 1919. Then, the restrictions came at work and in the boardinghouse.

“English! You must speak English! That, or go back home,” the foreman always said.

The warehouses loomed up around the men like capes. Their windowpanes caked with dirt, small rectangles of frosted, beveled glass. Sometimes, the broken panes were replaced by colored lozenges—sea green, slate blue, dark ruby red. Austin liked to connect them, making up constellations, innumerable designs and geometries.

“English!” The foreman’s voice would resound off the tin walls, echoing off the glass, the workers all seated in rows solemn and silent, some standing. once he made the mistake of speaking Russian to a worker.

“Bolshevik! Go back to Russia and bring your revolution with you!” the foreman yelled.

In those early years he sometimes spoke Russian in his sleep and woke in a sweat, the others around him, snoring or stirring as he peeled back his covers to step out of bed, springs creaking.

“The bastard is up again.”

“Hey, Polak—can’t you sleep like a normal person?” The inaccu-acy, or the intent, of the slander—he was not sure which had been the more injurious. Cautiously, he’d slip out of the room and with overcoat on, make his way through the narrow hallways and down to the first floor, feeling for the latch underneath the stairs—its wrought iron handle cool and coarse. He’d made a deal with the proprietor. For one more dollar a month he agreed to keep Austin’s books safe—notebooks mostly. The owner wouldn’t touch them, he’d promised. And in the milky white of those winter mornings, Austin would sit at the large kitchen table working. His drafting paper spread across the table. A compass. A slide rule. Then he was obsessed with the scientist Faraday, examining his notebooks, reading his reports on electromagnetic wave theory for radio. He was fascinated with Maxwell’s question: What is light? He’d read Maxwell’s Matter and Motion, Theory of Heat.

. . .

Near the Remington Arms , mostly, and sometimes too along the streets leading to the Hitchcock Gas Company, men lay in wait to descend upon the workers, thrusting flyers, notices, newspapers into reluctant hands, running alongside them, sometimes for up to two blocks. They were a nuisance, but Austin never refused. He took what was presented and stuffed these pamphlets and papers into the deep pockets of his overcoat. At the end of a week’s time, his pockets had no room for his gloves. on Sunday mornings, early, he removed each piece of paper, unfolding, smoothing out the crumpled notices. He read them, some in Russian, others in broken English. Lecture on the History of Russian Folk; Advance in Soviet Machines; Russian Choral Recital; Speak, Read, Write: English; History of Man. Other postings and announcements filled the boardinghouse’s entrance hallway. Newsprint paper tacked to the walls in a confusing jumble resembling papier-mâché. Someone had secured a row of nails for such flyers and the papers hung off the walls folded inward as if fatigued, corners rustling when the door opened to a February, March, or June gust, causing the inevitable swirl of errant flyers. There were papers on the floor, strewn along the stairs, curled and shivering in the doorway, some escaping out to the street and away. other flyers hung from strings draped off nails, dangling mobile-like and beckoning with more elegance than their unlucky pinioned neighbors.

It was Austin’s habit that, when not in his shared boarding room, he scoured these walls, reading the advertisements and notices, choosing what he’d wanted, writing things down in his notebook. “Professor,” some chided as they passed him entering or leaving. “Bourgeois.” He didn’t listen.

The flyers and notices promised a way to “pass a pleasant evening.” The Russian Social Club, the Union of Russian Workers—it was a place to go, a way to avoid the boardinghouse where there was only room to eat and sleep. The Russian Social Club met in the basement of the Orthodox church. They held music recitals. He could belong to the chorus. They put on plays and pageant shows, organized sales and celebrated Pushkin’s name day. The union offered English classes, courses on the automobile, radio engineering. He paid his dues. He attended sponsored lectures. He received the union’s paper.

It was a brick building where bread used to be made. The ovens were now stacked with books and manuals and the pupils, all union members, sat along the old assembly-line conveyors that lay in parallel, crossing the room in broad silver bands. There was no heat in the building, just cold running water, so they sat in coats and hats. In other rooms, meetings about the state of Russia took place; these were often loud, one man’s voice distinct over others’ murmurings or grumblings. leaving his English class, Austin stood in the open door, watching the meeting in the adjacent room, listening, “workers,” “society,” “capitalists.”

“Don’t just stand there,” a man ordered. “Come in.”

“What’s this all about?”

“For workers.”

“I’m not a worker.”

“Let me see your hands.” The man looks at Austin’s upturned palms. “You’re a worker.”

“I’m an engineer.”

“So? That means you work, don’t you?”


“Then listen.”

He walked in, stood next to the man. The room was filled, men seated, others standing three deep along the walls. They’d turned the lights out as if for a theater performance. one man stood before the gathering, candle in hand, reciting tenets from a broadsheet.

“Why are the lights off?” Austin asked.

“No one outside can see in.”

“And if they did?”

“Trouble,” the man grumbled and disappeared farther into the room, lost.

. . .

To enter a house of women is to enter a home. He’d been in the country six years before reaching the moment when he could move from the men’s rooming house to a home—a proper home, as a boarder, but still a home. Gone from those dank, stark boardinghouse hallways. Eight men to a room. Walls of cracked plaster. White chalky bits crumbling. A fine residue of white covered the splintered wood floors, gray and stripped bare, a fog of white along the windowpanes.

Seven dollars a month. For that he’d receive meals; the girls, two sisters, would do his laundry, mend his clothes, and, if needed, buy him things during their weekly shopping—paper, pencils, tooth powder, chocolate bars. Every Monday, he’d have to write out what he needed in a green ledger book that sat on a diminutive table against the stairs. Why he couldn’t ask for things outright, he never did understand except that perhaps the mother didn’t want him to get too close to her daughters. That, and they kept a careful account of his purchases.

It was a kitchen of white, save for the large table in the center of the room whose checkered red tablecloth provided the room’s only color. Two large windows at the back of the house filled the room with a gauzy white light. outside, a f lock of sparrows alighted from the small rectangular yard, fluttered and traced an arc of black across a window frame like a stroke of calligraphy. One girl stood at the stove in profile to Austin, the other reached for plates from a cabinet—high enough so that her foot came off the ground a little in the reaching. She set one plate atop another, the rattle of them sweet and delicate. He watched her—careful and deliberate with each, a significance in the placing as if the gold rims aligning the white plates held a power within the circle. He knew her hands first, the gesture of them—quiet and sure. Hands that matched her peaceful face, her calm and contained kind of beauty. She had a line of flour across her forehead. He imagined that if someone had told her she would’ve wiped it off without a thought, with no concern for her tired, spent appearance, the loose tendrils and wisps of hair framing her face. A graveness within. Quietude in her gray eyes that he, without knowing why, wanted to upset, disrupt, and cause to f lash. She reminded him of something silver—regal silver with a kind of inner poise as if she had—did have—a deep complicity with herself, had figured something out and was reluctant to part with the insight.

This was Julia.

Julia, setting out plates as thin as coins. January 12, 1919. Nearly a year later they were married.

. . .

His presence had altered the household, that Connecticut household of winter. There are scents a man brings: the dirt, the metallic, alkaline of tools, bleach of white undershirts. The pungency of sweat, the mildew of ponderous shoes. Smoke and shaving soap. It was never discussed though Austin could intuit that there had been a change. The father had died five years prior, leaving his widow and the two daughters with nothing but expenses, working as a necessity and a room to let, if needed. And now the outward signs of an alteration were visible—a household of three women once again included a man. But there was also a latent shift in tone. An anxiety assuaged. His presence allowed it to dissipate like a hand reaching out to balance an unsteady table. For them, he meant security, protection, a release from worry, almost.

He was not a man of material needs. His requests were minimal. Tooth powder and shaving cream. Rolling papers and drafting paper. That is all. He stood, in profile, hunched over a small hallway table, three-legged, its half-mooned surface f lush against the wall. The ledger is splayed open. A pencil within its spine.

His first list amid the commotion of morning. The constant creak of the floorboards as the sisters move from bedroom to hallways, through doorways, up and down stairs. one unrelenting f low of productivity. He’d wanted to write the list in private. He didn’t want anyone to see him struggle with the words. The simplest things could bring one back to the outsider’s humility—the language mostly. Had he used the right word? Was it tooth or mouth powder? He seemed to live his days then trying to decipher codes known only to others. And not simply words, but facial expressions, behaviors. He didn’t know it then, but it would become a habit of his life, his way of being. But it was better to have to write out his list in the ledger than endure the humiliation of speech.

He’d held the pencil in his hand that first day, looked to his right, then left, and bent to write, the door’s transom offering the same, and only, pale morning light. The pencil tip broke. Unusual for him, he who was so precise with any instruments for drawing, but in his nervousness, he’d pressed too hard. He used his thumbnail to peel back some of the wood, a splinter wedged beneath the nail bed. An arc of red. Wincing, he brought his thumb to his mouth and then began again. The pencil, now jagged edged, tore the tissued ledger paper.

“You understand how it works?” she’d asked. From above he heard a step on the stairs. Julia leaned over the banister. A patient smile formed, shy, her gaze pulled back slightly. “I handle this. It’s my responsibility— the ledger book, the shopping.” She hesitated before fully descending the stairs.

“I was writing some things down,” Austin said, his hand f lipping through the ledger pages.

“I do my best to get exactly what you need, but if the store is out I get the next best thing.”

“My spelling is sometimes not so good.”

“I leave your bag right under the table here,” she said. “It’s all sorted from what we buy for the household. I put it just right here.” She pressed her fingertips to the tabletop.

Soon, they had an agreement, a routine—he and Julia. Favors create a bond.

“If you get me some sugar for my tea, I’ll get you a pair of shoes,” he told her, still unsure how exactly he’d approach the man from work who patched together makeshift shoes out of collected leather scraps. It was April, the thaw begun in earnest. The days were getting longer. After dinner Julia made tea. The others, Austin included, sat in the dining room with the windows blue, turning to black. At that hour the city hushed, and it was easier to hear the trolley cars in the far distance, creeping and creaking along the streets, and far beyond that the mournful bellow of the ferryboats as they moved in broad arcs along the sound.

“Really. New shoes. It will be just between us,” he told her.

They had a system. During the pouring and passing of tea, they would find reason to be close, she pressing the stolen sugar into his hand, which he’d then curl into his fist before dropping it into his teacup. It was their secret. A minor transgression, but in a house with no privacy a “just between us” moment was something to be treasured. later, Julia told him that she was surprised by what a man could make one do.

When May and June of that first year came, they rushed from work to meet in the park. Beardsley Park. Austin waited for Julia, he always the earlier of the two because she had the longer way to walk. He paced and when he recognized her gait—fast while on the sidewalk, slowing as she stepped into the greenness expanding overnight—he took off his hat. She had once told him she liked to see his full face as she approached, stepping up to him as he extended his hand. They followed the park’s outer perimeter, always moving in the opposite direction of others. Austin wanted to see people as they came toward him. He was not at ease with the idea of someone at his back. As they strolled, sometimes holding hands, sometimes not, he would describe ideas for inventions, his voice growing low and halting just in case he could be overheard. Julia had to step closer to him then, straining to hear, which made him turn his head and lean down to her slightly, their shoes nearly scuffing, shoulders touching.

He had other ideas too. A house. In time. The implication was that it would be for them and she nodded, just barely—a dip of chin and then she smiled, a quiet delight that she seemed to savor within because she was shy at the prospect of a house; it meant other things that they had not spoken of yet. He liked to lead her to a bench halfway around the park. They held hands then, she kneading his palm like a worry stone.

A heavy thunderstorm. In early July. Austin was delayed at the factory. The force of sudden rain flooded a section of the warehouse basement and the men stayed on, trying to keep the water from damaging the machinery. In their minds, water in the gears, moss in crevices, mold within wires, and wetness causing corrosion meant days with no work and no work meant no pay. They divided into groups of five, passing buckets of water down six different lines that ran from the interior of the basement to the nearest window or door. Austin sloshed through inches of the rising water, his boots then socks absorbing the wet until he felt the chill on the soles of his feet and then the hunger too, his whole being aching for hot food. He was eager to be home, in dry warmth, but disappointment tugged at him too, sad that he wouldn’t be meeting Julia for their time alone in the park, knowing that, in this weather, she’d certainly go straight home. When he was free to leave the factory, he didn’t stay with his fellow workers who wanted to wait out the rain in the neighboring bar. Instead, he walked with shoulders curved forward, crouching away from the rain. When he entered the house, he was grateful for a moment of stillness and to have the sound of the downpour dulled as he stood in the front vestibule.

Julia was not there. Her mother sat alone under the grim kitchen light, twisting a napkin into a coil. The sister was out looking for Julia, who had not returned, the mother said expressionless, which had an anger of its own. He left at once and ran to the park, where he found her before their bench, umbrella in hand, though it hadn’t done much good because she was soaked. The rain had tapered off just enough so that the blossoms of the linden trees could give off their soap and honey scent, the ivory yellow blooms fierce and fresh against the wet leaves. He embraced her. She was shaking. He drew his arms around her. It was the first time he’d touched her so fully and she gasped.

“You need to get warm,” he said. “Come closer, I’m warm here.” He could feel her chill through her clothes, along her neck and wrists. Her cheeks were both feverish and damp and he brought his own cheek to hers.

“I waited for you,” she said.

“I should’ve come here first,” he said by way of apology.

“What happened?” she murmured into his chest.

“Flood at work. We all stayed. Had to clear four inches of water out of the basement. I thought for sure you’d go home.”

“You went back to the house?”

“Yes. Come, we’ll go now.”

“Does Mother know?” She pulled away from him, her face slick and shining white for a moment in contrast to the drab wet gravel pathway, the rain-darkened wooden benches and the trees hanging low and weighted above her.

“No. I just turned around and left as soon as I knew you weren’t home.”

“She surely suspects by now. Did you tell her where you were going?”


“I’ll go in first,” she said. “I’ll make up some excuse. You should come in later.”

“You’ll make me stay out in this? You’ll be sick as it is and then I’ll be next.”

“If we go back in around the same time she’ll guess.”

“Well, let her. We have to tell her at some point.”

“She’ll throw you out of the house, you know.”


“I don’t want you to go.”

“But it’s not going to be like this forever. We’ll have to tell them. I’ve been saving. It’ll be soon.”

“You say all this, but you know I worry about how they’ll manage without me.”

“She can let another room, get another boarder.”

“But it’s not near the amount that I make at work.”

“They can’t be your concern forever, you know. You must have your own life.”

“ You and me. We will marry,” he had told Julia a full year after he’d moved in. It was his attempt at a kind of official proposal. Till then, it had been talk around the subject—that he was saving, what his plans were, how she might fit into that picture he was drawing out for her, with the whispers of a house. Now he’d made his intentions known.

“And how are you so sure?” she had asked, teasing and falling back from him for a moment. The park growing more crowded as the weather softened into full summer and passersby had to filter between them, turning their heads at the abrupt way Julia had stopped.

“It’s inevitable,” he said. “We will give each other an oath.”

“An oath?” She was enraged. She was thrilled.


“What kind of oath?”

“An oath to live together, to be.”


“Yes. I will pass all my belongings to you. All my property.”

“You don’t own anything.” She stepped beside him then and they continued on.

“I own a typewriter.”

“And what am I going to do with that?”

“I have a farm. I will inherit a farm.”

“But that’s in Russia. What good will that do me here?”

“Will you take the oath with me or not?”

“How do we take the oath?”

“We just say it.”

“And then?”

For Austin, who still practiced the old customs and rituals, marriage meant kissing the icons, kneeling together, pressing lips to the Bible. Then you were husband and wife, it was merely an oath between a man and a woman. That was all. She’d agreed to it. It was a violet evening in August. The Russian Social Club’s summer dance was held in the cool basement of the stone church. She was in a lace frock, borrowed shoes with a fake rhinestone buckle; he in a navy suit and a white collarless shirt.

“A Cossack. You look like a Cossack,” friends from work and the club teased him.

The heavy light of August, the late afternoon light of summer’s last month, fell through the windows like ship portals. Some of the windows were stained glass so that here a circle of rose, there the blue of a star, the yellow of a leaf anointed the faces, the bodies moving.

“My cheeks hurt. From smiling,” she’d told him. They’d come separately. She with her sister and he with some of the men from work. When he spotted her, he watched her among the crowd and he could tell she was struggling to keep focused. She half listened, nodding as she searched the room for him. Each, though, was aware of the other’s movements— she through a handful of women gathered like a bouquet at the edge of the dance floor; he tracing the back wall to greet a just-entered friend, each smiling faintly when within each other’s gaze. “My wife, zhena,” Austin mouthed to her across the room. She blushed and turned her eyes away.

The day’s mist and light rain was like an effervescence. They were eager to move into the future days awaiting them like pristine windows strung in a long row.

. . .

January 2 , 1920. We all carry dates within us, flash cards, silver-plated, perhaps engraved. We carry them in us like the memory of those long dead, tucked like the pages of a book, dog-eared. January 2. This was Austin’s date. His days hinged here.

It started in rumors. Things one would hear. Nothing definite, just a sense to be watchful, aware and—to get rid of anything from Russia. Books. Newspapers. “They are taking Russians.” “They don’t do that here.” “Yes, but they are taking them.”

He ignored all the talk. The ones who were saying it were old. He thought they were simply prone to paranoia. But he started to hear things. Anarchy, socialism, communism, proletariat, revolt. To him, they had a clanking, rattle sound, like a chain-link fence in strong winds.

“Better throw out anything from the fatherland,” that was the advice. He removed all the Russian books from his shelves. He still had some of them—Science and Society, Aspects of Engineering.

“ They’ve rounded up other Russians.” Julia was wringing her hands. She is standing at the door as Austin walks in. The house is warm, but he brings in the cold, rubbing his hands, taking hers in his own.

“How did you hear?”

“I’ve heard them talking at work. They are holding some in Hartford, others in New York.”

“I know. I’m not involved in any of it.” He removed his hat, his coat.

“Please, do not spend these evenings out anymore. Come straight home.”

“Most of the things I go to are harmless—music, English courses, history.”

“It’s dangerous now.”

“Don’t worry yourself, Julia, my jewel. I’m not a worker. I’m more advanced. They don’t want men like me.”

“Please don’t go anymore,” she says, handing him the day’s late-edition paper. He reads the headline:

PLAN FOR RED TERROR HERE— Program of organized ‘Russian
Workers’ for Revolution Revealed —General Strike First Step—Then Armed

Revolt and Seizure of all Means of Production and Articles of Consumption Criminals to be Freed — Blowing up of Barracks, Shooting of Police, End of Religion, Parts of the Program.

He bristled, but hid it from Julia. He came home straight from work as she requested. They took walks after dinner, once, twice around the block and then back inside. He’d begun to look over his shoulder, stopped taking the newspapers from the men on corners. He didn’t stop going to the Russian Social Club though. Here, he sang in the choir, sometimes played the zither. And once or twice a treat of elderberry liquor or someone was traveling back to Russia and could send parcels, letters, postcards home. There would be no harm in going to such gatherings. He’d long ago ended his association with the Union of Russian Workers. He didn’t believe that workers and trained engineers were equal. He, with all his learning. He’d taken the courses and studied and he did not come to America to be considered equal to the mere worker, the mere assembly-men who had no design or drafting skills, no knowledge of how physics fit part to part. The workers did not know how to calibrate and compute, measure and cut to make the actual engine, gun, carburetor. Still, he read the article. The Americans were scared. He was scared. The whole country was in a panic. He practiced his English, tried to form words in his mouth without the trace of an accent. It didn’t work. He avoided speaking to strangers. He placed all his reading materials in an empty canvas bag, hiding it under the bed. Just in case.

The city in winter. 1920. A fog shrouded the warehouses and bridges, lending an ethereal quality to the night. It was opalescent almost. The mauve sky with a dark mass of clouds encroaching. It wasn’t the usual bitter, dry cold. It was damp; moisture on the air like there’d been a little bend in winter. A crack. It was snowing still. It was nice to taste the f lakes on his tongue.

Austin left the Hitchcock Company and made his way through the rows of factories that dotted the shoreline. He crossed the railroad tracks into the residential neighborhoods, with their white sidewalks and storefronts of frosted glass. Here and there he could see lights on in the apartment buildings.

He was late. He could make out the others—a blurred image through the foggy windows of the church basement, all seated around octagonal tables or leaning against walls. Austin’s eyes were on his step, the tip of his leather boot caught the light so that he could see the water droplets, the granules of slush forming like a string of beads. His footsteps were soft on the snow-covered cement stairs that led into the basement. The room was lit low, the green sconces lining the perimeter offered the only feeble light. The heat from the radiators and corner fire embraced him. There was dampness too. Mold mixed with tea leaves. A trace of incense, pine resin, and frankincense. Someone was speaking into a microphone.

“Kuchinsky, Marov, Matushko,” the secretary read off the names, “Michailoff, Nikitin, Petrenko, Romanovich, Saloff, Svezda, Vinogradov, Vorinin, Voronkov—”

They were a sorry bunch, the aliens (that’s what they’d been called) with their Russian language, all hard angles and swallowed vowels. He could see the others, their eyes sunken and gray, purple around the rims. Bruised. Some had gashes above the eye, on the brow, the bridge of the nose, blood turning black as it dried, rising over an eyebrow, along a jawline.

They were not the only ones, though he didn’t know it at the time, lined up as he was, forbidden to talk. He was in the private recesses of the mind, panicked and uncertain. But across the city and in other towns along the eastern seaboard, even the cities of the plains and far out west to places he’d never go, the police squads had come for them—the Reds. Men in overcoats, felt hats. Men in police uniforms with their clubs and blackjacks. Men in black or brown suits, men doused in bureaucracy, an officious air as if ordained. They’d raided, entered, and destroyed; rounded up men in church basements, tore into social clubs’ back rooms and mutual aid societies’ meeting halls. They broke up New Year’s Eve dances in school gyms, dances where wives in wool skirts, velvet headbands, brooches, encouraged husbands in the fox-trot—the efforts of immigrants. They stole into private parties, gatherings in boarding- houses, three to the wall. Dinner parties.

He didn’t know all this yet. He had arrived late to the Russian Social Club meeting. And then the sound. It was like the sound of a thousand raindrops, like the batting wings of a startled f lock. Austin had seen them first though—in the already snow-filled streets, through the still falling snow, the black figure was gliding. It was an image he was used to seeing. A sleigh. Snow. He did not stop to wonder at the incongruity; in America, grown men did not glide through the streets at night on a sleigh. That was a sight he was accustomed to seeing in Russia, not here. And then he saw the men dismount, a line of them running, their bodies held tight and low to the ground. The rush of boots on the stairs, like a crashing wave. They had filled the room. These men in uniforms, some in overcoats and felt hats.

“What is this?”

“No one move!”

“What is going on here?!”

“Quiet! You are under arrest.”

“What? There is a mistake!”

“You are under arrest for alien activities against the United States government.”

“We have no activities against this country.” A policeman struck the shouting man with his club. The man clutched his shoulder, falling to the ground. Chaos erupted.

“Bolshevik pigs!”

“Please. Where is your reason?”

“Shut up, if you know what’s good for you.”

The sound of skin on skin was unmistakable. A blackjack to forehead, to backbone. Amid the shadows cast by the low green lights, within the staggered jumble of coats, arms, Austin could make out the coal black of guns.

The blow was hard, fast. He was on the floor. He could taste the metallic flavor of his own blood. He’d bit his tongue. Soon he was hoisted up with the others, all shackled now, wrists, ankles. A policeman led them up the cement stairs, every once in a while came another blow from a club, a blackjack. Sometimes too the firm press of a pistol. The shackles made it impossible to climb the stairs. They had to hop. Humiliation on a dark night.

Habeas corpus. To produce the body, to present the body. To draw the body out of thin air, to produce it bruised and broken. His body was not presented. His body was in a cold, damp cell of a deep January winter.

Later, he would remember those cells the most. A block of darkness that held his body incommunicado. He learned to communicate with the other prisoners using a code they had developed. It involved series of taps on the walls.

What did they want to know? If you were a Communist. If you were an anarchist. If you belonged to the Industrial Workers of the World, the United Federation of Russian Workers, the Russian Mutual Aid Society, the Russian Social Club, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party. If you read the Farewell Call, Pravda, Novi Mir.

What they wanted? Names. Confessions.

He wanted to step outside his body, his mind. He wanted to send his thoughts and words to Julia. For her, his body had vanished. That was knowledge he could not handle. A compassion for her despair. His body could not take it. He shook with rage, or cold, he couldn’t tell which.

He believed in the individual. He believed in the power of science too, that its laws could govern society, save society. He did not know that such ideas could be construed so that they aligned with a kind of anarchism. He was twenty-six years old, new to the language still. Anarchism. He hardly knew what the word meant. In later years, he would see. The idealism of his youth, his vanity, his proud nature—all of these things were traits that made him an enemy to himself.

The one thing he had not been told, the one thing he had not learned through the taps on the walls was the phrase, “I decline to answer.”

They held him for two weeks. Incommunicado. On the fifth day, they came for him. The men led him through white cinderblock corridors lined with gray metal doors. No windows. He was desperate to know the time. He’d lost track of day, of night.

His hearing would be conducted over three days. He sat in a windowless, low-ceilinged room. Small. No larger than a broom closet. He sat facing the metal desk. A blotter and a green lamp sat on the desk. The lamp’s brass chain rattled as metal doors slammed along the hallway. His ankles were shackled to the chair. His hands were cuffed.

A man who smelled like morning, like shaving soap, questioned him. Another served as a translator, though Austin wouldn’t need him. Another man sat in front of a small typewriter recording his words.

His inquisitor leaned across the desk, elbows spread to either side. He bowed his head, sighed, and something about the gesture seemed too practiced, Austin felt. It was an inherited gesture, one not his own, a stolen gesture, borrowed by a boy. Austin looked straight into this man’s eyes, the honey brown of them soft, young he’d felt. He tried to show in the gaze that he knew the man was acting.

“You understand how this works?” the man said. His voice was quiet, tired. Austin wondered if it was late in the evening rather than early morning. The man’s eyelids were puffy. Large circles.

“Do you speak English?”


“All right then. You understand how this works. I ask you a series of questions and you answer. Got it? Good.” Austin was desperate for the time. He tried to look at the man’s wristwatch, but he was not wearing one. If he knew the time he could follow Julia through the hours of her day. He could tell her in his mind that he was okay. That was a light out of this trap, he’d felt. If he could only know the time he could be in sync with her, running in parallel with her life, even if, for the time being, they were separated.

“What time is it?” Austin said.

“You don’t need to know the time,” the man said. The light vanished, any frame of reference gone. Erased.

Day 1: January 19, 192 0

Q. What is your name in Russian?
A. Ustin Voronkov.

Q. In as much as you do not believe in God, will you affirm to tell the truth?
A. Yes.

Q. What is your address?
A. 116 locust Street, Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Q. How old are you?
A. 26 years old.

Q. Where were you born?
A. Province of Kherson, Alexandriyska, Ulesd, Bokas Volost, village of Varvarovka.

Q. Of what country are you now a subject or citizen?
A. Russian subject.

Q. Are you married or single?
A. Married.

Q. What is your wife’s name?
A. Julia.

Q. Where is your wife now?
A. She lives in Bridgeport on Locust Street.

Q. Have you any children?
A. No.

Q. When were you married?
A. There was no ceremony.

Q. In other words you were never married to this woman religiously or civilly?
A. There was no ceremony.

Q. How long have you lived with this woman?
A. About one and one half years.

Q. Why have you not married her according to the laws of this country?
A. Because we live with her family.

Q. Do you keep house?
A. No.

Q. How many rooms do you occupy?
A. One.

Q. One bed between you?
A. I occupy one room by myself.

Q. Does she sleep with you?
A. No.

Q. Why did you say that you were married?
A. Because we gave an oath together.

Q. And you state that you lived with her for about one and one half years?
A. Yes.

Q. Where does she live?
A. The same house as I live in.

Q. Does she sleep in your room?
A. No.

Q. Did she ever sleep in your room?
A. No.

Q. Did you ever have sexual intercourse with her?
A. Not officially.

Q. How long have you lived in the United States?
A. About six years.

Q. When did you arrive in the United States?
A. August 18, 1913.

Q. Do you remember the name of the boat you came on?
A. It was called Trieste, and came from Trieste to New York.

Q. In what month?
A. August 1913.

Q. Did you pay your passage?
A. Yes.

Q. Since your arrival in the United States have you ever taken any steps to become a citizen of this country?
A. I intended to take out papers, but I could not speak English at the time.

Q. Do you belong to any organizations?
A. Russian Inspectors.

Q. You mean that you are employed by the Russian Commission?
A. Yes.

Q. Where?
A. In Bridgeport.

Q. What factory?
A. Remington Arms.

Q. What is your occupation?
A. An inspector.

Q. Of what?
A. Arms.

Q. Did you have any preliminary work anywhere that fitted you for this position?
A. I am a mechanic and engineer there.

Q. Do you belong to any other organizations?
A. No.

Q. Ever belong to the Union of Russian Workers?
A. I didn’t belong.

Q. There is such an organization as the Union of Russian Workers in

A. There was.

Q. There still is?
A. It seems they made it better, but the Union of Russian Workers has an automobile school in Bridgeport.

Q. What is the name of the automobile school?
A. The Russian automobile school.

Q. Was it known as the Soviet Automobile School?
A. No.

Q. We have information that this school was run and conducted under the auspices of the Union of Russian Workers. Did you know that?
A. I don’t know anything about this. I think the soviets started it and then the pupils took it over for themselves.

Q. You mean the Union of Russian Workers started it?
A. No. The soviets of Bridgeport.

Q. What do you mean “the soviets” of Bridgeport? We have no “soviets”
in this country.

A. It was called “soviet.”

Q. Have you an automobile?
A. No.

Q. Did you ever have an automobile?
A. No.

Q. Why were you interested in automobiles?
A. Because I was in the automobile business.

Q. Were you financially interested in the automobile business?
A. I am interested in every kind of knowledge.

Day 2: January 20 , 1920

Q. Mr. Voronkov, you have been to meetings of the Union of Russian
Workers, haven’t you?

A. No. Only when they have lectures.

Q. You have been to business meetings?
A. No.

Q. How many lectures did you attend?
A. Two or three.

Q. What did they talk about?
A. About the origin of man.

Q. They talked about the government?
A. I cannot tell.

Q. They never talked about revolution?
A. I cannot know the subject.

Q. Are you an advocate for revolution?
A. I do not know.

Q. You have no respect for the laws of man?
A. I am a man. I have respect for them.

Q. Why would you live with a woman one and a half years without marrying her if you have respect for the laws of man?
A. We gave an oath together.

Q. Are you an advocate of free love?
A. Yes. We gave an oath.

Q. You say you are an advocate of free love, that is not respect for the laws of man?
A. I say, if we gave an oath—we will live together; get married.

Q. You know about the laws in regards to marriage?
A. Which ones? I would marry her by these laws at any time she demanded.

Q. Are you an anarchist?
A. No.

Q. Are you opposed to the government of the United States?
A. No.

Q. Are your organizations opposed to any organized form of government?
A. I am not opposed to government.

Q. You don’t believe in laws, do you?
A. It depends on what kind of laws.

Q. The laws of the United States.
A. I’ve lived here six or seven years.

Q. You didn’t pay much attention to the laws though?
A. If I didn’t pay attention to the laws it would be a different thing.

Q. What attention did you pay to the laws when you lived with a woman for one and one half years without being married to her?
A. We gave an oath.

Q. What have you to show for it?
A. I passed to her my property.

Q. Is this “oath” written anywhere?
A. No.

Q. Does this woman have anything to show that she has a claim on you?
A. If she won’t marry me, then I will see her corpse.

Q. What is her name?
A. Julia.

Q. And you are here saying that she is your wife?
A. Yes.

Q. Have you anything against this country?
A. No.

Day3: January 21 ,1920

Q. You understand, Mr. Voronkov, this is a continuation of your hearing commenced on January 19th, 1920?
A. Yes. I do.

Q. Do you affirm at this time to continue to tell the truth?
A. Yes I do.

Q. Are you an anarchist?
A. No.

Q. Are you a Communist?
A. I am not an anarchist, neither am I a Communist.

Q. I show you a letter addressed to 116 Locust Street, Bridgeport, Conn., dated January 17, 1920. Did you write this letter?
A. Yes.

Q. I will mark this letter together with translation of it Exhibit (1) and introduce it as evidence in your case. I show you another letter addressed to the same party, did you write this letter?
A. Yes, I did.

Q. I will mark this letter together with a translation of it Exhibit (2) and introduce it as evidence in your case. There is a sentence in this letter that you have written to this young woman reading as follows:
“But there is possibility to come together although through difficult obstacles, so that we should care a fig for that
dirty and stinking ceremony of marriage.”

A. I wrote it. I was not feeling well. I was cross when I wrote it.

Q. Then you were feeling cross because this young woman, when she
found out that you’ d be deported, refused to go back to Russia with you without being married?
A. I offered to marry her any way I could if I could get out of jail somehow.

Q. It goes on to say in this letter:

“But there is nothing in the world stronger than love of heart and soul for only in it there is life and happiness, and not in that dirty marriage.”
A. Yes I wrote that. What about it?

Q. It goes on to say: “If you, yes, love me, as much as I love you, then you would spit upon all these disgustful calumnies.” Did you write that?
A. Yes. I wrote that, alas. I wrote to my lover. I did not feel very well. I know that our love was broken and in that condition I wrote it. I always offered her marriage, any kind of marriage she wants. You will find it in the letters that I offered her that. But she is my wife, you ask her. We gave an oath. She is my zhena.

Q. Are you a member of the Union of Russian Workers of Bridgeport?
A. I was formerly a member.

Q. When were you a member?
A. Four or five months ago?

Q. When did you join?
A. July 15th, 1919.

Q. Are you still a member of the organization?
A. No. I did not care for them. I quit.

Q. When did you leave the organization?
A. I stayed two months and then I left it.

Q. On what points did you disagree with them?
A. Because they hold on the same level workers and engineers, that is, skilled workers—this is why I gave it up.

Q. The Union of Russian Workers is an Anarchist organization, isn’t it?
A. I cannot tell you. I could not understand them.

Q. A man of your intelligence certainly knew enough to read the basic principles of an organization before he joined it.
A. I joined it because there were many Russians.

Q. Don’t you know or didn’t you read the principles of what the organization stands for?
A. No.

Q. You know that if you are found guilty of the charge or part of the charges against you that you will be deported back to Russia?
A. Yes. I do.

Q. You said that you were a member of the Union of Russian Workers?
A. Yes.

Q. You stated also that you resigned as a member of the Union of
Russian Workers?

A. Yes. I did.

Q. Can you tell me why?
A. Yes, according to my convictions as I looked at it, I did not believe in their ideas.

Q. Do you agree with government as it exists?
A. No.

Q. What is your opinion of the system of government you would like to see in existence?
A. By name of science to obtain society.

Q. Without government?
A. Yes. Without government. People would be masters of themselves.

Q. Without State?
A. Yes. I believe it should be.

Q. Supposing I would tell you that these views of yours are Anarchist, would you then call yourself an Anarchist?
A. No. I do not consent to have any name, but if you want to call me that—.

Q. In other words you are frank in stating your opinion about society, but you do not know exactly the name for it?
A. I cannot tell what the name would be, but the form, if changed, would mean the liberation of the workers themselves by means of science and they will improve themselves and be masters of themselves.

Q. Your views of society are that there ought to be no government, a stateless form of society?
A. Yes. According to my opinion, yes. There must be no government or master who will say what must be done. Only science.

Q. These views of yours could be called anarchistic.
A. Well, my opinions are such. Let them call me an Anarchist.

Q. How would this condition of affairs without government, without state be brought about?
A. By means of science you can give your affairs to the people to govern themselves.

Q. Do you believe in the use of force or violence to bring this about if necessary?
A. No. I don’t believe in force. Science is stronger than force.

Q. Do you believe that the present form of government in the United
States should be overthrown?

A. Yes, very plainly, when the people will understand it can be done.

Q. How will it be done?
A. By means of science when the people will understand that they need no commander.

Q. And no laws?
A. I do not know how you can call them laws. They are just simply agreements.

Q. You know we have people in the world whom we call Anarchists.
A. Yes, but I don’t know what their ideas are.

Q. They have views similar to these you have expressed here this afternoon.
A. I said I did not know their program, my opinions are just such.

Q. Would you think it fair from your expressions or views here this afternoon for us to call you an Anarchist?
A. If you compare what I said with what you think Anarchists are, then, okay, I consent to that.

Q. I will ask you again. Are you an Anarchist?
A. It is so. I am an Anarchist.

Q. Have you anything further you wish to state at this time as to why you should not be deported in conformity with the law?
A. I have nothing to say. Let them deport me. But let me take my wife.

. . .

They were married— officially—at Ellis Island. Two-sentence vows. Austin and Julia held hands solemnly speaking. The justice of the peace read in a monotone voice, all the while smoking a cigar that created a cloud of milk white around them. They would be leaving in one hour. He was taking her from everything she’d known and loved. She’d renounced her family, her country, she’d given up her U.S. citizenship. It did not matter. Then, they were not willing to be separated.

The newspapers were calling it the Soviet Ark. The New York Times, January 1920, ran photos. A massive ship, anchored at Ellis Island on a bitter day. They stood on the pier amid the wind and ice. The sky opaque, flurries like chipped ice. The only sounds the murmur of men’s conversations, seagulls crying, the moan of the boat on the day’s hard air. The anchor cranking like a scream; the massive chain lifted out of the ocean, iron red with rust, calcified with sea salt, seaweed. Just moments before, he’d sat on the long benches of the waiting room, the very room he’d sat in only years prior eager to get beyond the bottled-glass windows whose light he knew was day in America—a country behind glass, the new country’s light. Years later he would learn that there were to have been, in total, three other major raids—the Palmer Raids, ordered by Attorney General Palmer after a lone anarchist planted a bomb at the foot of his front door. The raids would be a series of roundups of supposed anarchists or Communists, men and women deemed a threat to the American way of life, men and women who may strike again—more homemade bombs, subversive articles in newspapers, party meetings. They were plotting to take over the country. Somewhere, a man named Hoover had his name on an index card: Voronkov. Affirmed anarchist. Bail set at $10,000. Deported.

. . .

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Boston Globe:
“Rich in history and far-reaching in scope, The Invention of Exile is an achingly painful and all too relevant meditation on what can happen to identity when human beings are crammed inside an unforgiving container of politics, bureaucracy, and fear…[A] wonderful first novel.”

New York Magazine:
“The summer’s surest candidate for lit-hit crossover.”

Vanity Fair:

“Manko’s debut thrums with longing.”
  Kirkus Reviews (starred):
“A superb study of statelessness…Manko brings plenty of energy to this tale…Manko is a tremendous stylist, using clipped, simple sentences to capture Austin’s mindset as his confidence in escape erodes but never entirely fades; Manko’s shift in perspective toward the end of the book reveals just how much the years of exile have weathered him. She deeply explores two complicated questions: What is the impact of years of lacking a country? And how much does this lack reside in our imaginations? A top-notch debut, at once sober and lively and provocative.”

Publishers Weekly:
“[A] fine fiction debut… The beating heart of Manko’s story is Austin’s determination to be reunited with his family.”

“Manko’s debut is a potent examination of the costs of pride and fear as well as the redemptive power of familial bonds.” 

The Independent (UK):
"Breathless.... Manko's prose and pacing are remarkably assured, rapid when traversing oceans and decades, unbearably tense when Voronkov attempts to re-enter America. 'Paper is stronger than one realises,' is a refrain based in part on the author's family history. With these indelible pages, Manko does her ancestors proud."
Salman Rushdie, author of Joseph Anton and Midnight's Children:
"Vanessa Manko's beautifully written and deeply affecting first novel is the story of a man stranded by history in a strange land, torn away by politics and paranoia from the people he loves, exiled and trapped behind an invisible frontier he dares not cross. Manko ranges expertly between Russia, the USA and Mexico to weave her absorbing tale of emigration, deportation, desperation, paranoia, and finally, improbably, love. The novel reminds one, at times, of Kafka, Ondaatje, and even, in its powerful evocation of marooned isolation, Robinson Crusoe. A brilliant debut."

Colum McCann, author of Transatlantic and Let the Great World Spin:
“Vanessa Manko is a voice for the years to come. Her first novel, The Invention of Exile, is an ambitious tale of a Russian émigré in Mexico City. It is an unflinching portrait of how our lives are structured around the complications of geography, beauty and chance, and, at its core, it is a story about those who live in the double shadows of home and history.”

Siri Hustvedt, author of What I Loved and The Summer Without Men:
The Invention of Exile is an achingly immediate, sensuous, and psychologically acute novel about a man whose life has been suspended by the madness of American politics. The book moves deftly between past and present and from one consciousness to another to create a narrative of high emotional tension that turns on the fate of its exiled central character, the Russian born 'Austin.' Manko’s tender, compassionate, and wise portrait of this man, who waits and waits and waits to return to the life he was meant to live, continues to reverberate inside me. I suspect I will carry him around with me for years to come.”
Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name:
"Only writing like Vanessa Manko's, so finely tuned to subtle and nearly inexpressible emotions, to the whispers of deepest loneliness, to the inner-life of a man cut-off from family and country by the capricious machinery of politics and prejudice, can draw such a secret, marginal, puzzling life out of the shadows, and give it the vivid force and poetry of a universal myth. The novel's depiction of Austin [Voronkov] is so intimate and moving that I felt, as I read, that I was living his desperate life myself. The Invention of Exile is a beautiful, bewitching and profound novel."

Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Distrubances:
"Vanessa Manko's fantastically ambitious and rewarding novel, The Invention of Exile, lovingly and carefully details the terrible but wondrous twining of one man's fate with Russian, Mexican and American history."

Betsy Detwiler, founder of Buttonwood Books in Cohasset, MA:
“Vanessa Manko is a true artist with words. Every locale, every scene, every emotion and interaction of characters is vividly created, all through observation of the small details and habits of daily life. The pain of exile, the loneliness, the futility of Austin Voronkov's efforts to reclaim his life, the injustice of the events which have brought him to his desperate existence; all these weigh more heavily as the story of his months and years brings the tension to a heartbreaking pitch. The ending is so right. On the one hand, so anticlimactic, on the other so fraught with the understanding of what lies ahead for Austin. Manko's writing is stunning, and she is able to move so beautifully between past and present. This is an unforgettable debut.”

Reading Group Guide


Austin Voronkov is many things. He is an engineer, an inventor, an immigrant from Russia to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1913, where he gets a job at a rifle factory. At the house where he rents a room, he falls in love with a woman named Julia, who becomes his wife and the mother of his three children. When Austin is wrongly accused of attending anarchist gatherings his limited grasp of English condemns him to his fate as a deportee, retreating with his new bride to his home in Russia, where he and his young family become embroiled in the Civil War and must flee once again, to Mexico.

While Julia and the children are eventually able to return to the U.S., Austin becomes indefinitely stranded in Mexico City because of the black mark on his record. He keeps a daily correspondence with Julia, as they each exchange their hopes and fears for the future, and as they struggle to remain a family across a distance of two countries. Austin becomes convinced that his engineering designs will be awarded patents, thereby paving the way for the government to approve his return and award his long sought-after American citizenship. At the same time he becomes convinced that an FBI agent is monitoring his every move, with the intent of blocking any possible return to the United States.

Austin and Julia's struggles build to crisis and heartrending resolution in this dazzling, sweeping debut. The novel is based in part on Vanessa Manko's family history and the life of a grandfather she never knew. Manko used this history as a jumping off point for the novel, which focuses on borders between the past and present, sanity and madness, while the very real U.S.-Mexico border looms. The novel also explores how loss reshapes and transforms lives. It is a deeply moving testament to the enduring power of family and the meaning of home.


Vanessa Manko earned her MFA in creative writing from Hunter College. She has taught writing at NYU and SUNY Purchase. An excerpt of her novel was published in Granta's winter 2012 issue. Originally from Brookfield, Connecticut, Manko now lives in Brooklyn, New York.


What compelled you to write this book?

The novel is partly inspired by family history and focuses on the life of a grandfather I never knew. The true story came to me in bits and pieces throughout my childhood but was rarely discussed. I grew up believing that my grandmother just didn’t have a husband, and then of course I figured out that that couldn’t be the case and began asking questions. I became increasingly interested in Russian history, culture, and literature, and as I pieced together the historical and cultural context of my grandfather’s life, I grew curious about the man himself. Who was he exactly? How did he think? What were his hopes and dreams, and, most important, what were his days like, living alone in Mexico City, separated from family, language, culture, and country? I became obsessed with discovering and inventing his character as a way to shade in the space of his absence from our lives, and from the life of my father, who grew up without him. Of course, the novel took on a life of its own, but a big reason I wanted to write this book was to find out who my grandfather was and what happened to him.

Austin is wrongly accused of being an anarchist and is deported as a result of the Palmer Raids. Tell us about the Palmer Raids and what you learned while researching for the book. Why do you think this chapter in American history isn’t well known?

The Palmer Raids were a series of raids organized by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in 1919 and 1920. They were devised in response to the growing fear and widespread paranoia that the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik ideology were spreading to the United States and that Reds and radicals and anarchists were plotting to overthrow the U.S. government by force. According to Palmer, members of these subversive groups needed to be identified and found, arrested, and expelled from the country. Together with J. Edgar Hoover, the chief of the Radical Division in the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI), Palmer targeted Russian immigrant organizations such as social clubs, church groups, benevolent aid societies, and labor unions—any organization or institution with supposed communist, or Red, sympathies.

As I conducted research, I learned that it was during this time that Hoover began his infamous index card filing system as a way to keep tabs on individuals and organizations deemed a threat to the American way of life. The index cards noted occupation, residence, associations, and what organizations an individual belonged to or what newspapers and magazines he or she read or subscribed to—basically, any evidence that could be used to prove ties to Red or anarchist ideology. The raids themselves took place over a series of evenings from late 1919 into January 1920. Federal agents and police broke into union meetings, social clubs, benevolent aid societies, churches, and night-school classes. They rounded up and arrested several Russian immigrants, who were then detained, interrogated, and, in some cases, deported from the country. This is precisely what happens to Austin in the novel. We now know that the Palmer Raids infringed on civil liberties, breaking the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments.

I think this is a little-known chapter in American history because it is a shameful one. It’s difficult to acknowledge because it’s so at odds with intrinsic American values. Also, we are a nation of immigrants and one that prides itself on accepting newcomers who want to build better lives here. At the same time, we have a long history of keeping (and kicking) people out, and this isn’t an easy contradiction to face or to contemplate.

Austin’s return to Russia, with Julia beside him, seems almost surreal. The reader, along with Austin, almost cannot believe he’s there. Can you talk about what was happening in Russia at the time? Why did Austin leave in the first place?

Austin and Julia return to Russia during the country’s civil war, when the Whites (anti-Bolsheviks) are fighting the Reds (pro-Bolsheviks). It’s a time of mass hardship, with food and wood shortages; it’s also very cold and an extremely dangerous place to be, especially if you’ve just returned from America. My aim was to convey to the reader the same sense of disbelief and dislocation that Austin and Julia might have felt when returning to Russia in the midst of such chaos, and how such larger political forces can come to bear on, and wreak havoc with, the lives of these two young people simply hoping to build a life together.

Austin came to the United States in 1913 in order to work as an engineer in a rifle factory that made arms for the Russian Imperial Army. Many Russian engineers were recruited for this line of work. He also has his own ambitions and it is in America that he feels he can realize his dreams of becoming a successful inventor, an enduring hope and ambition that eventually becomes his life-long obsession.

The novel shifts back and forth in time and place—from the United States, to Russia, to Paris, to Mexico—and alternates perspectives, to great effect. Why did you choose this format?

I first had an image in my mind of this lone figure walking around Mexico City, silent and absorbed in a world of his own. I wanted to follow him. What happened to him? What is his story? I thought too about how we learn someone’s story—it doesn’t come all at once but in fragments and over time. I wanted readers to see Austin through his lived experiences and how they have affected his current state.

The novel isn’t linear and straightforward; I presented him one way in Mexico City, 1948, as older and broken, and a little lost, and another way as a young Russian immigrant in the United States, filled with hope and pride and ambition. I wanted to follow him throughout his travels and hardships, eventually allowing the reader to piece together his life and come to understand why he ends up the way that he does. As the novel also deals with a family that has been torn apart, my aim was for this structure to underscore and mirror the disparate life of a refugee family.

I also feel the structure is similar to the workings of Austin’s broken mind. And because his is an isolated and obsessive point of view, I knew that in order to broaden the novel’s perspective, I’d need to bring in other voices. I wanted to see Austin through the eyes of the women in his life. There’s Julia, Austin’s wife, who represents the past and is synonymous with his dream and vision of an American life. Anarose in Mexico is important because she draws him out of his lonely existence in exile and offers a glimmer of what it might be to “invent” a different life in Mexico City. And there’s Vera, who, to me, is symbolic of American pragmatism; she’s realistic and straightforward and in direct contrast to her old-world, downtrodden father. Like the countries—the United States, Mexico, Russia—the women in the novel are forces in his life. In fact, I think they are the most active characters in the novel.

Throughout his agonizing wait, Austin must reconsider time and again what it means to be an American. Can you talk about his thought process?

Austin’s determination to return to his family in the United States is tied to his desperate desire to gain his American citizenship. Although Austin is a stateless individual living in exile, I feel that in some ways he is a very “American” character. In fact, he has all the qualities we associate with being just that: he possesses ambition and fortitude; he is preoccupied with success and building a name for himself; he is desperate to raise a family, own a house, and have a garden. As his hopes to reenter the United States dwindle, he is plunged into self-doubt and uncertainty and begins to question his ambitions and identity as fiercely as he holds on to the hope that his inventions will bring him to America. His thoughts about American citizenship and identity shift and become larger, existential questions about life, as he now lives beyond the perimeters of any nationality. He is not an American; only an “applicant” for American citizenship. Neither is he a citizen of Russia, because the country no longer exists; it’s now the Soviet Union. Likewise, he has no rights as a Mexican citizen. Meanwhile, he has complex, contradictory thoughts about what it means to be an American. It is something he desperately wants, but he is also angry, and rightly so—for America is the country whose government deported him and whose politics will not allow him to reenter.

The construction and conception of borders—geographical, temporal, and psychic— reemerge throughout the novel. How do borders both divide and connect us?

In addition to a man alone in Mexico City, I also worked with the image of a man standing before a (then more open) border who is unable to cross it. Why can he not cross the border? That became a central question in the book and I had to write it to explain why. It haunted me, really—how to make it believable and dramatize the psychology behind such action, or inaction. As I wrote the novel and saw how it would move back and forth in time, I realized that the border between the past and present was just as important thematically as the borders between countries. And, of course, it’s also about the borders in our minds—more specifically, in Austin’s mind, and the imaginary lines he’s unable to cross in his life: his inability to cross the border illegally and return to the United States and his family, his inability to step into his present existence and live and build a life in Mexico City, and also the fine line between reality and his more paranoid experiences.

I love the paradox intrinsic to lines and boundaries or any kinds of demarcations that seem to separate, because in fact these are also places that join or connect. For instance, Austin and Julia choose to go to Mexico both because it’s a country that will accept them and because, to quote from the novel, “it’s the closest place to home.” The lines between the past and present also connect and divide. Time is how we delineate certain phases of our lives, but the past is tied to, and exists in, the present. We are the culmination of our particular experiences. Likewise, the borders between states of mind divide and connect. Austin, for instance, goes back and forth across the border of sanity and madness. He is living sometimes in reality, sometimes within his imagination and paranoid fears. I wanted the reader to question his hold on reality. I also can’t help but think about the borders between truth and fiction, because while this novel is inspired by a true story, it is an invention that has brought this character—and a version of my grandfather’s story—across time and place to connect with the reader.

The novel is in part inspired by your family’s story and your grandfather’s life in particular. Can you talk about learning about his story and how you see him in Austin?

Yes. Austin Voronkov is based on my grandfather’s life—my father’s father, whom I never knew. And for the most part his story was hidden, or, at least, not talked about. I like to say my father came from “the generation of secrets.” He rarely spoke about his father, and when he did, it was just fragments of the story—very little about the man himself. I grew curious about who my grandfather might have been, what happened to him, and how it must have been for him to live a life alone in Mexico City. As I pieced together the story, I saw its potential for a novel and I began to imagine his character, an engineer-inventor living in exile and longing for his family. It was difficult material to sort through because, although I was writing fiction, the story was also deeply personal. I found myself examining a family legacy of deportation, fear of government and paranoia, dislocation and powerlessness. In some ways, I hope the novel helps to redeem my grandfather even though I’ve made him into a fictional character. Of course, I can never really know if the fictional Austin is the real-life Austin, but it is my hope that they share similarities.

What does the title mean to you?

The novel follows the story of an inventor living in exile, but the title works on a deeper level as well. Living alone in Mexico City, cobbling together an existence by working in a repair shop, haunted by the past and consumed with his inventions, Austin lives in a world of his own, cut off from others. He is unable to really step into a life and an existence there, and yet he cannot cross the border into the United States—a border that was more permeable during the time of this novel than it is now. In many ways his exile is just as much an element of his imagination as any of the inventions he believes will take him out of his exiled state. In short, he has invented his own exile.


  1. What are your definitions of home and family? What are Austin’s? How do your definitions align or differ?
  2. What was your reaction to the interrogation scenes in Connecticut (pp. 20–37)? Do you think there was anything Austin could have done to sway the inquisitor’s mind?
  3. How is the lighthouse symbolic in Austin’s and Julia’s lives? What about Julia’s flooded garden?
  4. Austin is very hopeful, to the point of obsession, that his inventions will aid him in reuniting with his family. How does the theme of invention work in his life and in the novel?
  5. What is Anarose’s role?
  6. The storyline and perspective shift and jump over time and place. How does this structure inform the story?
  7. Austin muses, “Paper is stronger than one thinks. Papers, documents don’t define a man, but they lived in a mire of them. . . . His days revolved around papers. But no amount of paper means a country” (p. 116). What do you think about this passage? How do papers control how Austin conducts his life?
  8. How does Austin’s story fit into the trope of the United States as a “melting pot” for immigrants? How did it influence your thoughts on the immigrant experience?
  9. Austin is paranoid that an FBI agent, Jack, has him under surveillance. Do you think the agent is real, or is he a figment born of fear and distrust? What purpose does Jack serve?
  10. Correspondence is a vital undercurrent in Austin’s life. How do the many letters and notes we read bring him closer to—and push him further apart from—his loved ones? How do you correspond with people close to you?
  11. How does Austin’s conception and understanding of being American and returning to the United States change throughout the novel? What was your reaction to his thoughts in the final pages?
  12. What does the title, The Invention of Exile, mean to you? In what ways was Austin in exile?


An Unknowable Past

Like many Americans, I am a grandchild of immigrants — fourth generation on my mother's Italian side and third generation on my father's Russian side — and the stories about how my great-grandparents and grandparents came to this country were always shrouded in mystery and belonged to a distant, unknowable past. This was particularly true of my father's family. Every family has secrets — memories spoken of in hushed tones, out of shame, fear, or a reluctance to return to the past and dust off a difficult period in family history. "It's too difficult." "It's too much." "Why would you want to return to a sad time and relive the pain, heartbreak?" So we march onward in our lives and stay focused on the present. But, "The past is not dead. It is not even past," as Faulkner so wisely wrote. When I think about how I discovered the truth of my own family history, what is now difficult for me to remember is what it was like to not fully know the story, the one that I learned over time and through research and that eventually inspired my novel.

"Who was your father?" I asked my own father one day. I may have been ten years old. It was the first time it had ever occurred to me to ask this question. I can see us still, standing in the living room of our ranch house in suburban Connecticut, and I had asked in passing, like an afterthought.

"He was a mechanic. In Mexico." And like that, a flash and an image was formed. I saw a figure — grease-stained hands, a garage on some foreign, urban street filled with sun. "Mechanic." "Mexico City."

Something in the way my father mumbled the words, barely getting them out and then enfolding them back inside, made me never ask about him again. But the image of him stuck with me. As I grew older, I'd hear my father's family story in pieces. How my grandfather had been deported from the U.S. and returned with my grandmother to Russia. How they had to flee during the Russian Civil War to Constantinople and then to Paris and how they made their way to Mexico, where entry back into America might be easier. While that was the case for my grandmother and her children, my grandfather lived the rest of his life in Mexico, waiting to re-enter the States and join his family. In the narrative, there was talk of travels through war-torn countries and of letters my grandmother wrote to the government in efforts to bring her husband home, but there was very little talk of my grandfather, and so the story was filled with gaps, evoking a great absence.

Because my grandfather was not discussed, it was as if he never existed, and I carried on my father's silence about him. But like the figure in my mind, the questions about him remained. Who was my grandfather? What happened to him? What exactly did my last name mean and where did it come from? Or, more to the point, who was I and where did I come from? These seemed the most basic of questions about identity, and I was mystified that I did not know the answers. I then began a circuitous path toward writing. Throughout, these questions persisted, prompting me to take an undergraduate course in Russian history, to read Russian literature, groping and fumbling toward some understanding of both a distant, lost heritage and culture and what had happened to my grandparents. The novel, then, was a direct and blatant attempt to go back into the past. I wanted to find out not only who he might have been but subsequently more about my own father's life and, therefore, about the weight and shape of this inheritance that seemed to reside in me as loss — a loss I could not name, could not account for, and did not know the cause of. Perhaps it's not surprising to note that I began this journey of discovery in the years that my own father entered a period of decline in body and in mind. A link to my unknown, exiled grandfather was fading, and so the need to piece together the story grew more urgent.

As the novel began to take shape — something multilayered, fragmented that would cut across time and place and incorporate different voices, moods, and tones — I knew research would be necessary. Writing, I realized I was doing double work, both uncovering the truth of my grandfather's life and coming to terms with this hidden inheritance, while using it all as a springboard into the imaginative world of the novel. Suddenly, the shadowy, vague family story that was so difficult for everyone to discuss began to come into full light, and I came face to face with a legacy of immigration, deportation, fear of government and paranoia, the peripatetic life of refugees, Mexico and Mexico City, powerlessness and poverty. And the figure of a man alone in Mexico City eventually grew into the protagonist of my novel. While technically only one generation stood between me and my grandfather, because my father had me when he was older, in his fifties, it seemed as if we were really divided by two and that paradox of being close — grandfather and granddaughter — yet distant, allowed me the freedom to imagine his character.

Research provided more concrete facts about how and why my grandfather came to America. As a Russian engineer, he had been recruited to make rifles for the Russian Imperial Army during WWI. Once in the U.S., he took steps to become a citizen, but through the Russian immigrant community, he got involved with various political and labor meetings and was arrested, detained, and eventually deported in a little-known episode of American history — the Palmer Raids, a series of actions devised by Attorney General Palmer and his assistant, J. Edgar Hoover, to remove dangerous Red radicals allegedly plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. Like many other Russian immigrants wrongly accused of radical activities, my grandfather returned to Russia with my grandmother, and they traveled from St. Petersburg to the Ukraine and back to my grandfather's family farm, where he was accused of being an American spy by the real Bolsheviks, causing them to flee once again to Constantinople, France, and then Mexico. In Mexico, my grandfather found work to support his young family, but when his wife and children were allowed to return to America, he was left behind, waiting to be reinstated.

"And they never saw each other again," was the refrain I'd always heard. A heartbreaking, dissatisfying end that begged more questions: What were his days like alone in Mexico and then Mexico City? Why had he not crossed the border and returned home to his family, and why had they not gone back to live with him in Mexico? Why was he never allowed into the country? These were questions that haunted me and ultimately became the focal point of the novel. I turned to more research, gaining a fuller understanding of the cultural and historical contexts that had shaped my grandparents' experience. Here, I learned about the post-Russian Revolution Red Scare paranoia in the U.S. and how the Palmer Raids infringed on civil liberties. I explored life in Russia and during the Civil War. I studied memoirs and histories of the White Russian émigrés in Paris or Berlin or Latin America. I immersed myself in Mexico City of the 1930s and '40s (the Mexico City of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Trotsky) and tried to imagine the more down-and-out, humble existence of a man who was removed from the spotlight and glamour of the city in its golden age, a man fully on his own in a foreign land, separated from his family and the life he had hoped to build in America.

I also traveled to Mexico City, walking around in the parks and neighborhoods my grandfather would have frequented. While the novel, as fiction, differs from the truth, the real-life Austin is buried in the city, ironically and mysteriously, in the American Cemetery. While visiting the U.S. embassy during one of my trips, I learned that only American citizens had the right to be buried here. This was an extraordinary discovery, provoking yet more questions. How did my grandfather, a stateless individual living deep in exile and repeatedly denied entrance into the U.S., end up buried in the American Cemetery in Mexico City, a resting place reserved for citizens of the country he so longed to be in? It seemed a great example of poetic justice, but the mystery remains and it is here I run up against the limits of literature. By telling a version of his story, I like to think that the novel has, in some way, brought my grandfather across the border and into the U.S., but I know that it is only a fraction of the truth. And so the past can never fully be recovered and remains studded with gaping holes or ellipses, what filled them once, now lost to time, prompting me to continue to imagine, to wonder, and to question.

Vanessa Manko

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The Invention of Exile: A Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous 8 months ago
Highly recommended
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A stunning debut novel that transports the reader. Left me wanting more!
ABookishGirlBlog More than 1 year ago
This book really stood out to me at first sight because of the cover, an envelope and a "postmark", very cool design, and yes I judged  this book by its cover! Austin Voronkov is a hardworking Russian living in the United States who generally goes about his business in a quiet, unassuming way. Austin leads what seems to be a lonely existence but he does keep busy not just with work but by attending social events like lectures and classes to improve his English, he even joins a few clubs, but deep down there is still this loneliness that you can feel coming from Austin up from off the pages but then he meets Julia. Julia's father died and so Julia's mother lets out an extra room that they have for rent for extra income this financial predicament her mother finds herself in will change Julia's life forever because her mother lets the room to Austin. Becoming quite fond of each other they begin a general flirtation that turns into so much more. Promises are made that one day they will wed once Austin has saved enough for them to have a nice start to their new life together, but like all great love stories there is a catch or a problem that arises just when it seems like everything couldn't get any better and this happens for Austin and Julia when Austin is rounded up with a bunch of other Russians during raids to round up the growing "Red Menace". Imprisoned, mistreated, and interrogated Austin is soon lead into a false confession that he is an anarchist. Since Austin actually confessed to this he is automatically deported but Julia decides to marry him before he is to leave and she then travels with him back to Russia. Austin and Julia soon learn that Russia is no longer the Russia Austin used to know but instead is a hot bed of revolution with the communist gaining new ground everyday and so it is not looking good for the Voronkov's to stay there. Fleeing for safety they travel lots of different places but settle in Mexico since it is so close to the United States and Julia is fighting very hard to win their way back into the states but there is so much red tape that they find themselves raising their three children there until finally the children and Julia are given visas and are allowed to return but they have to leave Austin behind in Mexico because he is not granted a visa because of his past. Alone in Mexico Austin suffers greatly from his families absence but he doesn't give up hope as he constantly works on different designs and inventions that he thinks are brilliant enough to earn him a visa to the United States and back to his Julia and their children. Slowly the years roll by and still the answer is always no and slowly but surely Austin goes a bit mad from the stress and loneliness of it all. Pretty soon Austin's children are grown and Leo and Vera have come to Mexico to get their father a visa but again they are denied so they soon take matters into their own hands getting Austin fake papers and then they help him enter the United States illegally. Austin after all these years cannot figure out what held him back for so long and is quite confused as to why he didn't try to cross the border sooner. An emotional read, Austin's decline is hard to take and he is just so far away from his family and on his own it is heartbreaking. Even though Vera and Leo come and get their dad and bring him to the U.S. it is already to late, the damage already done, all that loneliness and stress has driven their father mad and there is no coming back from it, he will always be this way. I will not be talking about the political issues in the book given the political issues involving the U.S./Mexican border presently I don't want a whole bunch of mean comments so I will keep my politics to myself however they are a huge focus in this book. There were a few issues I had with the book, one of them is I didn't like how the book flip flopped so much in setting and time, but this did calm down a bit closer towards the end, I also didn't care for some of the narrative it just seemed to disjointed like it didn't fit which would be fine when it is the stuff about just Austin since he is foreign and doesn't speak English very well but I found this quite a bit throughout the whole book and for me it was just strange and made it harder to really grasp what the author was trying to convey to us, the reader.  Discover: A story about the way government policies and politics can affect one person, one family. I gave this book three stars out of five on my blog. My three star rating means the following: A solid reading experience. Enjoyable, well-written and satisfying. Marked by three or four issues, all-in-all not too shabby.  Most books rank on this level for me. I'm just a middle of the  road type person.