The Exile and the Nomad Are Cousins: The Rumpus Original Combo with Ana Menendez

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The Rumpus Interview with Ana Menendez

Amy Letter interviewed Menendez by email, earlier this week, while Menendez was on her way back to the U.S. from Egypt.

The Rumpus: I’d like to make my first question “the obvious one”: since the novel is in part based on some of your own experiences, how much are you willing to share about the experiences that inspired this novel? Can you give us the backstory of the authority with which you write?

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Ana Menendez

Ana Menendez: All writing—all art, really—is personal; the rest is abstraction. In some works, I think, the direct experience is, shall we say, less filtered. I began this novel in 2003, as I was finishing Loving Che. It was supposed to be about a man, Alexander, who arrives in Istanbul with a past—in Afghanistan he was responsible for a boy’s death. He works out his demons amid the ruin and multi-layered splendor of Istanbul. I was almost midway through the writing when, in June 2004, I received an anonymous letter alleging that my husband was cheating on me in Baghdad, where he was working as a correspondent for The New York Times.

Among the many disruptions the letter caused, not least was a blow to my writing. I found that I simply couldn’t create any more. I eventually moved to Miami, filed for divorce, and started working as a columnist for The Miami Herald. But still I could not finish the novel. One night, in frustration and just wanting to write, I began to put down the story of the letter. I didn’t intend to publish it. But, in the mysterious alchemy of writing, the fiction story and the real story merged. Characters hopped the fictional divide. A new story emerged that was beyond anything I could put down. I don’t know where it came from, but I was happy to be writing again.

There is much that is pure invention in The Last War and much that draws on real experience. I did travel the war zones with my husband (though not to the extent Flash did) and I did receive a letter. But because Flash is not me, I was able to see her predicament quite coolly. She is a photographer who has made a life from peering into other people’s suffering. Her camera reveals subtle insights. But she’s never—until perhaps the very end—able to turn that probing lens onto herself.

Rumpus: Did your original character, Alexander, morph into Alexandra, the character that seems to haunt Flash in The Last War? If so, was that a difficult process?

Menendez: Yes, Alexander morphed into Alexandra. He did it all by himself, with little help from me. The writing just took on its own logic. In the first rendering, there was a strong narrator “I” telling Alexander’s story, so everything just shifted naturally.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about the ending a little bit. Your novel’s long epilogue was, I think, a daring choice. I spent days trying to reconcile the story I thought I knew with the epilogue.

Menendez: I knew from the start I would have to include one, mainly to show that Flash learns a little, but it’s not enough to make her change. She is basically the same person she was at the beginning. The epilogue also gives Alexandra a chance to express a small kindness—in her insistence that Brando had been faithful. Whether the reader believes it or not, Flash seems to buy it.

Rumpus: The idea that Brando/Wonderboy had been faithful seems to me to re-characterize Alexandra as far more vindictive. Can you give us more insight into this character?

Odysseus: The Original Exile

Odysseus: The Original Exile

Menendez: I hope that the insight develops out of the reading and I’d rather leave it to each reader to draw his or her own. Some people have said that at the end she seems even more cruel than ever and others see someone (an earth mother, perhaps) who is trying to soothe Flash and bring her peace, however much of a lie it is.

Rumpus: How do you feel about the immediate connection many readers will make between love and war (or marriage and war, etc.)?

Menendez: It’s a classic connection and a natural one. Both represent the more intense extremes humans are capable of. I explored this idea a little in Loving Che as well: The intensity of love is very much like the destabilizing, greater-than-oneself high that human beings also experience in war and strife. It’s one of the reasons I think we will never be able to banish war. No one wants to admit it, but war offers a transforming experience that taps right into the addictive pleasure of power and destruction.

Rumpus: Your previous books have been about exiles. How do you see the exile experience playing into this book? Are you familiar with Ovid’s exile on the Black Sea, and if so, did that play into your thoughts at all when you were writing this novel?

Menendez: Exile is very much a part of this book, and Ovid and his Tristia very much haunt the shadows of The Last War. I re-read a lot of the Metamorphoses during the time I was writing and also the new translations (by multiple poets) of the Odes of Horace. There is nothing more refreshing, humbling, and ultimately inspiring for a writer than the classics. Even when we’re not aware of it, they permeate what we write and what we believe. Even Minerva (whose name has its roots in “memory”) lurks in the shadows of this book. None of this is too overt in the writing itself (at least I hope it’s not). Instead, these very ancient themes form a distant backdrop for the book because they inform my own life (all our lives, really).

Like love and war, the theme of exile is a very classic one (The Odyssey of course being the most obvious example) and I’ve always been interested in it for obvious reasons. As a little girl I was fascinated by this mystical place, this Eden, that my parents had been banished from. The children of exiles grow up with a kind of void at their back. In time, at least in me, this void (this unknowable world) transformed itself from a physical displacement to a metaphorical, or spiritual, displacement—a disconnection from clan and tribe that perhaps inspired me to wander the world (the exile and nomad are cousins, after all). But I’m also curious about how we are exiles from ourselves, how ultimately the individual human experience is a lonely one.


Amy Letter is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in PANK, Puerto Del Sol, Quarterly West, and other journals and magazines. She is the Digital / Electronic / New Media Literature Editor at the Rumpus and assistant professor of Fiction and New Media at Drake University. More from this author →