By Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth 2014)
My interest in Chechnya began when I was in college. I spent a semester of my junior year in St. Petersburg, where I lived down the street from a Russian military academy. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-old cadets, dressed in sky-blue uniforms, marched in formation around the neighborhood each afternoon. Several blocks away, outside a metro station, men a few years older than the cadets gathered to panhandle at rush hour. These men also wore military uniforms, though theirs weren’t as clean or so neatly pressed. A number had lost their legs and wore hemmed trousers. These men were Russian veterans of the Chechen conflict that the cadets might one day join. When the cadets marched passed, they stared at the veterans as if peering into their own uncertain futures, while the veterans looked back with pity.
What was it, besides a few years and a few feet of concrete, that separated these two groups of young men? The answer was Chechnya, a place that I went on to research, travel through, and write about in my novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
Most present-day first-year students learned to read the newspaper around the same time that religious extremism and its attendant acts of terror and war became headline news across the country. But for all we know about the combatants and ideologues, we rarely glimpse the lives of the civilians populating the landscapes where much of this violence unfolds. What’s it like to be an ordinary civilian, neither overly religious nor overly political, caught between the gears of history? How do we differentiate between right and wrong when the moral compass is recalibrated to point to survival? How can you change your life and your country when you are among those furthest from the source of political power but closest to its consequences?
These are some of the questions posed in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. When I began working on the book, I doubted a novel set in Chechnya would find much of a readership. So it’s been a surprise and privilege to see it taken up by readers across the country, taught in colleges and universities, and even purchased by President Obama.
I’ve received kind and generous notes from survivors of the Chechen conflict, from journalists, and from Americans who have never been abroad. The most common reaction I’ve received from readers has been a variation on: “I didn’t think I would recognize myself in characters whose lives are so vastly different from mine.” This is one of the main reasons I believe my novel would make a good candidate for a first-year/common reading program. If adopted, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena would ask students to empathize with geopolitically and culturally remote characters who struggle with the same fundamental moral questions we all face. While rooted in Chechnya, the themes and concerns that grow from the novel are universal.
When I was in St. Petersburg, I remember leaving particularly good classes feeling as if the professor had tugged on the margins of my vision, making the world I saw larger, more complex, more mysterious. I deeply hope you will finish A Constellation of Vital Phenomena with a similar feeling.
ANTHONY MARRA is the New York Times bestselling author of a National Book Awards Longlist selection, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. He is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, The Atlantic‘s Student Writing Contest, and the Narrative Prize and his work was anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. Marra holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, CA.