Borders and Boundaries: Talking with Irina Reyn

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In Irina Reyn’s deliberate, aching new novel Mother Country, protagonist Nadia has left her only daughter behind. That’s certainly how it appears to her friends Georgina and Lena, both emigrants from Russia to Brooklyn, as well as to Regina, the stumbling but well-meaning first-generation American whose preschool-aged daughter Nadia nannies. Nadia’s own daughter, Larissa, remains in Ukraine, where the violent conflict with Russia has escalated to a point of no return. Not only does Larissa live under the near-constant threat of bombing, but she’s a diabetic, and getting access to insulin is near impossible in a combat zone.

Having made the choice in 2008 to leave her home country without her daughter—due to Larissa “aging out” of the resettlement waiting list—Nadia hopes to quickly establish herself in New York and apply for Larissa to join her. Instead, she encounters a bureaucratic nightmare. She waits six years for the Department of Homeland Security to grant Larissa a visa, each year growing more and more detached from her daughter’s life.

Reyn, herself resettled from Moscow to New York by the Jewish American refugee nonprofit HIAS in 1981, is triumphant behind the wheel of Nadia’s sharp, critical voice. Mother Country is a story of a mother’s love, and what happens when that love is stretched by time, distance, difference, and unimaginable violence. There are no perfect reconciliations or redemptions to be found in this novel, but that fact—love is not simple—makes Reyn’s story all the richer.

I spoke recently with Reyn about the impetus behind Mother Country, what it takes to write about motherhood, and how autobiography fuses with fiction.

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The Rumpus: Your background is stamped all over Mother Country. It deals directly with the impact of immigration laws on families and specifically with parent-child separation. So what made you decide to write about this, and specifically about what happens when a mother can’t be with her child?

Irina Reyn: Well, the basic premise of the book was inspired by my daughter’s babysitter, actually. When she was working for us, it was during the time when… there was the conflict in Ukraine. And she would just at some point come in, and I didn’t know that much about her early on, and she would just explain to me the situation in her life, which was that her daughter was in [Ukraine], and she was worried about her every day. It was really just the spark of that idea, the idea of here’s this woman working in the US, and her real life and worry is elsewhere. And it’s there, it’s constantly worrying about the war in your home country. And so it was really the spark of that idea that drove the book forward… Over the course of getting to know her and care about her and hear about the story, I felt very sort of involved in her plight over all these years that she’d been waiting for her daughter to come. And then the last year she actually worked for us was the year that her daughter finally arrived, and I sat her down and I interviewed her. I wanted to hear about her experiences in the war, and a lot of what she told me was what I used for the prologue.

Rumpus: How did that idea and your interest in this woman’s life—how did that go from something you were invested in to something where you thought, I’m going to sit down and write this as a novel?

Reyn: I didn’t really know it was going to be a novel right away. I think sometimes you get to write different books because of different impulses. In this case what made it so easy was that this was the first time where there was just this person, and I sort of knew her voice, and I felt like I understood her in many ways. It was so easy to enter into a character through that voice. And I really just thought it was going to be a short story there, and that’s it, but then I realized that what I was pouring into it was also my experience of being a mother at a time where it felt like no mothers knew what they were doing. Everyone felt so sort of lost, and yet there was so much judgment about parenting and so many firm opinions that were sometimes in direct opposition. So much of the book also took place at that time. Part of what I really loved about my babysitter, I think, does come across in this book autobiographically, which was just the fact that she had all these certainties about, “This is how you raise a child.” And that’s what I wanted. I loved the idea that here was somebody that came in that felt like she knew more than I did, and at times when I was so confused it was so comforting to have somebody have that certainty about parenting.

Rumpus: This story grapples so heavily with motherhood. Nadia and her daughter have this really interesting and complex relationship. This is a topic that’s universally intriguing but so difficult to pinpoint. Tell me why motherhood was something you wanted to pick apart, and what did it mean to you?

Reyn: Well, interestingly enough, I really don’t think motherhood is at all a prerequisite for writing well about motherhood. For example, my first book before I was even a mother, I wrote a book about a mother who leaves her child. A lot of the critique about [the book] was about how awful it was she left her child, but no one ever said, like, “I didn’t really believe that she was a mother.” Craft-wise. In my second book, originally my first draft was about a mother. Because at that time I was writing that second book, I had a kid, and she was three or four, and I just felt like, why not? [My protagonist] would probably be a mother. And I handed this manuscript to my editor, and my editor was like, “I just don’t believe her as a mother. It doesn’t seem credible to me.” It just made no sense for that book at all; it was not a book about motherhood. It was a book about marriage. The mothering aspect of it was completely unnecessary, and it just distracted from the main story. So, interestingly enough, I wound up cutting that. So this was the first book then that I was really dealing with [motherhood] head on. And part of it that I wanted to tackle was that confusion around, like, what is [motherhood]? And how it changes. Part of it is just the fact that it’s not a stable identity. It seems like it’s a stable identity, but it’s an identity that’s always going to shift through your own changes and the child growing up. Then, of course, thinking about Ukraine as a country of so many changing borders, I couldn’t help but connect the two in my mind thematically. The idea of constantly changing borders and boundaries that you’re always dealing with, whether it’s in politics or motherhood.

Rumpus: What are the books that have influenced you the most as you’ve been writing this particular book?

Reyn: I think that what I’ve been really fueled by has been the growth of all these different writers who were either first-generation Americans or first-generation immigrants, who have grown so much since it was—it felt like such a new genre when I was in college. And since then it’s been just this beautiful, rich landscape. Those are always the books that I turn to first because I always want to know how other writers who come from elsewhere, whose parents come from elsewhere, are internalizing this sense of how to write about migration and displacement.

Rumpus: Speaking of migration and displacement, these are obviously big topics in the news. How do you digest the news, especially when it’s so poignant, so personal to you. You’re a Jewish immigrant, you’re a woman, so how do you digest the news, and does it funnel into your fiction?

Reyn: I think with fiction it’s much more unconscious, in so far as that immigration was the big, sort of, quote-unquote trauma of my life. Because it was the thing that divided my life into the before and after. I think that everything has been informed by that moment in my life. So news is less unconscious in that way. I think news comes into it more consciously, which is this sense of maybe internalizing the knowledge that there’s anxiety around this issue for people. Which, I think, is very hard for me to grapple with because, of course, I see immigration as such a hopeful thing, as such a beautiful thing, as something that only enriches us. It’s really hard to grapple with the fact that so many of my fellow Americans don’t feel that way. And some immigrants, as well, don’t feel that way, are very divided on this issue. So I think that there’s some kind of anxiety that hovers over the writing that I’m doing. And it’s certainly here in this book, a book that was finished before Trump was elected, but yet even reading it you sense that something is coming. Even though these are all policies that were in place before Trump—the policy that’s at the heart of the book, which is that if your child ages out of that waiting list, they have to really start from scratch even if they’ve been on that waiting list since they were a child. And, of course, the laws have gotten more stringent, but it’s that anxiety that hovers over the book even though it ends before the election.

Rumpus: That’s interesting that this was written before the election. At any point in the process from this being written to publication, was there ever a point where you wanted to go back and put that into the draft? Or did you like the fact that it had risen out of a time before now, but a time that still deals with issues that are more relevant than ever?

Reyn: I think there was a fine line in so far as that I was kind of relieved that the book really was limited to this time period, which was really during the conflict in Ukraine, so it ended in 2016, actually, at a very specific time. And since news is ongoing, you don’t want at the last minute to shove in things you know are going to be changing. So all I did in the manuscript editing process was that I did highlight a few things that were already there that, interestingly enough, took on a much different valence [after the election]. For instance, there’s a chapter in the book where it’s set in Ukraine, and the protagonist’s friend is going off to Russia to work on these early prototypes of bots. And I’m not even sure why I wrote about that at the time. But what I realized afterwards is that, first of all, there was going to be so much about the way Ukraine was divided into these two parts, where one would be more pro-Russia and the other [was more anti-Russia]… There was going to be this kind of tension between the two parts. And then also clearly there must have been something there—maybe not so much at the time I was writing—but about the influencing of the election. Clearly it was somehow playing some kind of subterranean role, the idea that technology given to Russia was somehow going to be important, even if I didn’t know it consciously. So when I went back to edit, I just highlighted that a little bit, for example. There were some moments that I went back to tweak to give it more present-day valence, but I didn’t really want to do a lot more than that. Because I felt like this time period, by seeing it during this very enclosed time period, it was going to percolate enough with what’s going on in the present.

Rumpus: When people ask you about your writing—and even in particular about this book—what do you wish that they would ask you? What do you wish you could address that you don’t normally get the opportunity to do or aren’t been asked to do?

Reyn: That’s a hard question. It’s hard to come up with the absent. It’s much easier to deal with what’s there. I understand that we read work through autobiography. And I think that with most questions for authors, especially authors of fiction, it’s hard to figure out, how do we talk about fiction in a way that’s not through the lens of autobiography? In a way that’s going to be legible to people that haven’t read the book, for example? But I think that one of the hardest topics for writers to even address is really the role that autobiography does play in the book. Because it never plays into it—or it rarely plays into it, for a lot of us—in the ways that are really legible on the page. And so I wonder, what other ways are there that we could think about it, about talking about fiction, in ways that could still be really engaging for readers, in ways that are not necessarily through the lens of autobiography?

Rumpus: I think it’s very true that, especially when you have a book that’s dealing with something culturally relevant, very poignant, especially as a journalist, you tend to look for the connections between the writer’s life and the story of the book. So do you feel that those connections are made too quickly, in a way that overshadows the overall point of the book?

Reyn: I mean, I was also a journalist, so I totally get that. Believe me, I get it. I’m not even speaking so much from a journalist’s perspective as I am from a reader’s perspective. Because I’m talking more about the questions you sometimes get after readings, where, you know, often they are just more one-to-one kind of questions, where it’s like, “What in the book happened to you?” Which is, I think, different than needing to put in context an author’s life with the subject of their work. It’s more just from the point of view of a reader who is eager to find out what is true in the book. I think the answer is often much more complicated. What is true is not going to necessarily always be the facts in the book aligning with the facts of the author’s life, even if that’s what we’re so often seeking.

Rumpus: That’s really interesting.

Reyn: The truth can be found there. It’s just not always—it’s not in the obvious places. It’s always there; it’s just not where you think it is.

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Photograph of Irina Reyn © Karolin Obregon.


Lauren Puckett is a magazine editor, freelance journalist, and fiction writer based in the Midwest. Her work has appeared in publications including 5280 Magazine and Vox Magazine. Find her on Twitter: @laurpuckett. More from this author →