A Country You Can Leave

by Asale Angel-Ajani

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Interview by Diane Slocum

Lara and her mother, Yevgenia, never stay in one place for long. Yevgenia is a Russian immigrant with strong opinions about life. Sixteen-year-old Lara’s absent father was a Black musician. The place they are winding up this time is the pretentiously named Oasis Mobile Estates in the wind-swept, sun-baked Southern California desert. Lara and Yevgenia develop relationships with the other down-and-out residents of the trailer park while their own tempestuous relationship smolders. Lara attempts to be true to her own personality while Yevgenia tries to mold her to her beliefs.

AUTHORLINK: What was the first idea you had for this book? Where did it go from there?

“I wanted to explore how she tries to break free…”

ANGEL-AJANI: I first had the idea for the book when I was living in Hong Kong and feeling homesick for California, a state I grew up in, and promptly left at the first chance I got when I was 18. Even though on paper, the character, Lara, has more in common with me, I came up with Yevgenia first and wrote many parts of the novel from her perspective. But the book was always going to be a mother-daughter story, so when I started to add Lara, as the daughter, it made sense to have her be the narrator of the story because, unlike Yevgenia, she’s an observer of life and used to playing a supporting role to her mother’s escapades and I wanted to explore how she tries to break free of her mother’s strange but compelling grip.

AUTHORLINK: How did you develop the character of Yevgenia and her philosophy on life depicted in her notebooks?

“…she knows how to carve out life on her terms.”

ANGEL-AJANI: Yevgenia came first through her voice and her strong opinions about men. I know it sounds strange, but I “heard” her rules and edicts first before I knew anything about her, really. I think it was because I was raised by a single mother who was also raised by a single mother. The women in my life— my mother, my grandmother, and my aunts, all had been greatly disappointed by the men who floated in and out of their orbit. So, I was also kind of raised with a set of rules set forth by my mother and grandmother, in particular, who lived in fear of me and my sister “running off” with the wrong people and “ruining” our lives. I gravitated toward Yevgenia as a character because she was less concerned about the fear of life’s disappointments and really shored up her own personal power and strength. Yevegnia was interesting to me because she knows how to carve out life on her terms. This kind of personal power I never saw growing up, especially for immigrant women living in poverty.

AUTHORLINK: Lara and her mother are different in many ways. How do these differences propel your story?

ANGEL-AJANI: Lara, as a Black bi-racial young woman, has a different relationship with the US than her mother, Yevgenia who is an immigrant and is white in the American context, has her own relationship to the US. The surface-level differences between Lara and her mother do drive the story but for me, it’s the places where they come together that are the heart of the novel.

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide on the setting?

“As a writer, I am really interested in the way time gets reflected in novels in particular.”

ANGEL-AJANI: I grew up in the California desert in a similar place where the book is set and had, for a long time been thinking about the kind of pace of life that exists for people that society largely overlooks. As a writer, I am really interested in the way time gets reflected in novels in particular.

AUTHORLINK: Where did you get your title and how does it apply to Yevgenia and Lara?

ANGEL-AJANI: A Country You Can Leave comes from a snippet of an interview with Joseph Brodsky who was talking about the differences between the Soviet and US systems of justice. Brodsky was an involuntary exile from Russia and as a matter of speaking, so was Yevgenia, so I felt there was a connection there.  Also, families are systems that shape who we are— and make up part of our origin stories, as our country/nationalities can, I liked the idea of thinking about families and countries as a place where one could leave (or not). The title kind of probes the question of physical leaving and the psychological leaving of our origins.

Also, since the book grapples with a kind of nomadic lifestyle connected to restlessness and eviction and jobs and adventure, but the setting of the novel is this tiny trailer park in the middle of nowhere, I wanted a title that felt bigger, offered a sort of promise of more than the confines of the Oasis Mobile Estates.

AUTHORLINK: What research did you do?

“…my policy is to draft, then do the research to support or transform what I already have on the page. “

ANGEL-AJANI: I did what I call more mundane research for the book—more timeline and fact-checking for places and music and what something might have looked like in the period that I was writing about. My Russian language skills are terrible, beyond terrible, so I had to do research that would support what I was trying to achieve with Yevgenia. But also, I had to do research on California, despite being born there because I had not lived in the state for so many years and I had lived in Hong Kong for nearly a decade.

For me, “research” can be a great time suck when writing even when it’s necessary—I lost too many days just going down corridor after corridor in pursuit of research. I think there was a moment when I realized that research was an elaborate way for me to get comfortable with writing a novel.  Now, my policy is to draft, then do the research to support or transform what I already have on the page. And of course, there are moments when research can send you down a new path and that is exciting but it’s important to keep the larger story in mind.

AUTHORLINK: This is your debut novel, but it is not your first published book. How did writing and selling the novel differ from your previous work?

ANGEL-AJANI: My previous book is a work of narrative nonfiction based on interviews I had done with incarcerated African women who trafficked drugs in and out of Europe. My novel, A Country You Can Leave, was so far from that experience that I feel like there simply is no comparison, really. Thankfully, my debut novel feels like the first time I have been published, which I know sounds strange. With my first book, I was very disconnected from the process. I didn’t have any say on the title or the cover art for my very first book, so it never felt like it was mine. In contrast, my novel with MCD has been incredibly supportive, collaborative, and really transparent.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now?

“When I am writing, I occupy a kind of tormented or tortured bliss…”

I ANGEL-AJANI:  I am working on a collection of personal essays that is due to the publisher soon. I am also drafting a second novel that feels, for now, like freedom. The most important thing is that most days I am having a great time. When I am writing, I occupy a kind of tormented or tortured bliss that makes me happy, although I am sure my family would say otherwise.

About the author: Asale Angel-Ajani is the author of two nonfiction books, Strange Trade: The Story of Two Women Who Risked Everything in the International Drug Trade and her new work Intimate: Essays on Racial Terror. She is a professor at the City College of New York. She has held residencies at Millay Arts, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program and Playa. She participated in VONA and Tin House.