Anthony Marra, the author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, speaks like he writes – in ornate, illuminative completeness. He’ll certainly make use of his skill for oration when he comes to Cleveland to give a reading Wednesday at the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University. Constellation, Marra's debut novel, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2013 and a Washington Post Top 10 Book of the Year. Marra's work, an exploration of a dark, desolate Chechnya, also won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction. He will receive the Anisfield-Wolf award in a sold-out ceremony and reading Sept. 11 at the Ohio Theatre. We asked him about Chechnya, his characters and winning awards.
Q: How did you end up getting interested in Chechnya?
A: I went to college in Los Angeles, and I took a year abroad. For half of that, I was in St. Petersburg, Russia. While I was there, I lived down the street from a military cadet academy, where I would see these 16 to 17-year-old kids in their military uniforms marching up and down the block. In their parade marching, they would pass a metro station that had become a gathering point for young men just a few years older than them, who were also wearing uniforms. They were veterans of the Chechen wars. Their uniforms weren’t nearly as clean, and their trousers had hemmed because they had lost limbs. It was an eerie moment where you could see these young men in their early 20s looking across the street at their pasts and these kids in their late teens looking across the street and seeing perhaps a potential future. There was something much more than years and a strip of asphalt that separated them, and that was Chechnya.
Q: What’s it like winning something like the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award?
A: It’s been an incredible honor to receive it. I’m not sure you could find a more distinguished jury on any literary award in the world. The books that they’ve awarded in the past have been the very books that made me want to become a writer in the first place. In Washington, D.C. [Marra's hometown], Edward P. Jones is a colossus of D.C. literature. He’s only written one novel, and I think he’s one of the greatest novelists alive. To receive an award that he received is just deeply humbling.
Q: Since the Anisfield-Wolf awards are given to works that touch on racism and diversity, do you think your book is representative of the Chechen experience?
A: I think it’s maybe a little risky for a novelist or any writer to start transacting in peoples rather than persons. The real spark of fiction, of drama, comes from the understanding of what it’s like to be an individual person in any set of circumstances, and that’s what I was hoping to get at. I’d like to think that, if my characters were to come alive and were to walk into a bookstore in Cleveland and pick up the novel, they would recognize themselves and think that I had done them justice. That’s the only test that one can pass.