“I felt as if the place where I grew up was invisible” — An Interview with Linda Mannheim, by Thom Cuell

Linda Mannheim’s second collection, This Way to Departures, focuses on people who have left the place they are from, and what it means to be separated from ‘home’. Opening in the Latin American exile community in the 1970s, the collection ranges from Gone With the Wind, and the lingering effects of segregation to the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  Through these stories of alienation and exile, Mannheim traces the dark threads of discrimination which run through American history and bring us to the point we have reached today.


First of all, can you give us a bit of background about This Way to Departures?

This Way to Departures is a collection of stories about people who have left the places they consider home, sometimes willingly and sometimes unwillingly. The collection certainly grew out of my family history – both my parents were refugees and I grew up in a neighbourhood where most people were either refugees or migrants. I’m also a migrant (from New York but a naturalised UK citizen). I’m interested in the ways that moving geographically changes our sense of the world and ourselves. Like many children of migrants, I never really felt American until I left the US. Some of the stories in Departures are about refugees, some about people who have tried to start a new life in a new place (even when that just means moving to the other side of town), and some are about people who have gone missing.

What period where the stories written over? …Departures is very coherent as a collection of stories, is that how it was conceived initially?

I usually only find out what I’m going to write once I’ve written it. I realised that a theme running through many of the stories I’d written was leaving home. Because my first collection was very much rooted in the New York neighbourhood I grew up in, Washington Heights, I liked the idea of a kind of sequel about people who have left that place.

I pitched that book to Kit Caless (my editor at Influx Press) before the manuscript was completed, but the core stories were there. The manuscript went through a few changes along the way – Kit pulled some stories and we added some new ones.  ‘Facsimiles’ a story about a photocopy clerk making missing posters in the days after 9/11, didn’t make it in until the final draft — it was a story I’d started writing in 2001 and had put aside. I was stunned when I picked it up after all that time and thought, wow, I should work on this. So, the answer is that the stories were written over a very long period – some over twenty years ago, some just before we finalised the manuscript.

You present a diverse range of narrative voices throughout the book; how did you approach this to make sure that you were sensitive in presenting this range of experiences and backgrounds?

I really wanted to write about the place where I grew up and the people I grew up with – when I started to take myself seriously as a writer and went to an MFA programme, I felt as if both were invisible, as were some of the most important parts of my life.  I was mainly reading about upper middle-class white people and encouraged to write about the same. It took a long time for me to come home, both literally (I returned to New York) and metaphorically (when I began to listen to and write about people from my home town). Some of the narrative voices in Departures are voices from my childhood neighbourhood. A few of the stories are based on things that actually happened – for example, Butterfly McQueen from Gone With the Wind really was in a natural foods store I walked into when I was a kid. That said, some of the stories involved a lot of research – I went into a gun shop for the first time in my life to write ‘Noir’ (to ask questions, not to buy a gun). The Puerto Rican and Salvadoran Spanish in it was written by friends who grew up in those places. I show my early drafts to a few people I’m close to and hope they’ll tell me if I’ve written anything that really doesn’t work.

There’s a real sense of dislocation throughout the collection, with individuals going into different forms of exile – both voluntary and involuntary. Does that reflect a larger feeling of political or cultural alienation which you see in the world around you?

I’m not sure if it reflects alienation so much as it reflects a need to get out of a place that’s dangerous, or a need to get out of a place where you either lack opportunity or can’t be yourself. For example, Mia and Reeny aren’t refugees in ‘Dangers of the Sun,’ but they leave New York because, during the time they’re growing up, it’s not possible for them to just walk down a street in Washington Heights without having to worry about casual street violence. Mary, in ‘Waiting for Daylight,’ thinks that when she’s offered a scholarship, she’ll escape the poverty and instability she’s had to deal with most of her life, but instead finds herself dealing with a level of danger she neither expected nor had to face before.

I’m interested in migration because I think it’s something that most of us either take part in or are close to, and I think that historically this has always been the case. Most of us don’t live in the same places our grandparents did. Most of us go to new places at some point, adapt, and find ourselves changed by the shift.

A number of your stories deal with individuals that had been politically active in the 60s and 70s. It seemed important that their idealism hadn’t been abandoned, but was rather soured or disappointed by the seeming triumph of American capitalism. Were you consciously trying to tackle the conventional narrative of individuals drifting rightwards as they aged?

I definitely don’t think individuals drift rightwards as they age and none of the characters in my stories do so. Mona, in ‘The Christmas Story’ burns out on protests and community organising after a long period of political involvement, but her daughter, who is narrating the story, notices Mona is reading about the Cuban revolution even as she withdraws. The title story, ‘This Way to Departures’, is told by an American woman whose husband abandoned her to go to Nicaragua during the revolution and support the Sandinistas, but she isn’t opposed to the Sandinistas; she’s trying to figure out what to do about the fact that her ex (who keeps returning to her) continues to act like a student activist when he’s middle-aged.

I do think there are two things that shape the way people engage with activism. The first is that all political movements work in cycles, and all movements towards progress ultimately face a backlash. That backlash doesn’t necessarily erase the progress made, but some of what’s been built is always destroyed and some of the damage can be brutal. As, for example, is happening in the US right now. Some people can absorb that backlash and keep going the way they did before, but not everyone can. I also think there’s a certain amount of stamina you need to keep going to protest after protest, and many people don’t maintain that stamina as they get older. I’ll go to a protest these days if I feel like it’s really important for me to be there, but I definitely pick and choose. Then again, look at someone like Grace Paley, who was on the street speaking out into her eighties.

Maine Portrait (2)

Another recurring theme is the use of state apparatus for illicit means – for example US support for human rights abusers in El Salvador, and foster children going missing in the system. There are clear parallels with the Trump administration, and particularly its treatment of children in ICE camps, but were you keen to show that there was precedent for this sort of behaviour in 20th century politics?

I think this is another instance where I could only see what I was writing once I’d written it. Both of these stories grew out of things I heard and saw in day jobs I had. As a student in Massachusetts, I worked for a network of organisations that challenged US involvement in Central America. A lot of my job involved organising protests and educational events. One of our conversation openers was: ‘Did you know that the US gives one million dollars a day to the death squad government of El Salvador?’ And it was true – the US did, and the extremely right wing government of El Salvador during that time was brutal. Their ties to the death squads that I write about in ‘Noir’ were widely known. Though ‘Noir’ is a work of fiction, everything in it is based on fact.

‘Missing Girl, 5, gone 15 months,’ is based on the true story of a foster child who’d been missing for eighteen months before anyone alerted the police. Most of the statements that officials make in that story are real-life quotes. I was working for an organisation that represented children in the Florida court system when the story broke. In fact, the organisation that I worked for fundraised to provide children with representation in the courts, because while children were required by law to have a guardian-ad-litem represent them in court, the state did not provide any money for that representation. So, it was certainly clear that officials cared fuck all about children in this system.

You can find forerunners to the brutality of present day American policy throughout its history. It’s a country whose development and expansion was shaped by racism and violence. When I hear people claim everything was okay before Trump came along, I think you’re deluding yourself. And when I hear people claim it was always this bad, I think, you’re posing. The blatant racism, xenophobia, and brutality of the current administration is unprecedented in our time.

Though no one can predict what’s coming, I think you can say that the US is now past the point of return. Even if we (I mean all of us, wherever we might be in the world) avert the worst things that can happen, we have to accept that the US is now broken in a way that it wasn’t before.

Following on, many of your stories deal with the aftermath of the dark events of 20th century history, from segregation to the Holocaust, to the Cold War and particularly its effect on Latin America. What was it that drew you to address these events now, and what are the advantages and challenges of addressing them through fiction?

The short answer to this is that I’m interested in the ways that political repression and political change plays out in people’s day-to-day lives. The longer answer is that I’m interested in that because some of the events you’ve mentioned were close to home. My parents and grandparents fled Nazi Germany and the neighbourhood I grew up in was home to a big German-Jewish refugee community. The part of Washington Heights I grew up in was mostly Latino and African American when I was growing up (I had old parents), but the German of exiles was part of the background noise of my childhood as was the language of loss that many of the adults spoke when they remembered the places they had to leave.

‘The Place That He Can Never Return To’ is about my father and me. I also think it would be impossible to be alive in the United States in the 20th Century and not be aware of systemic racism and discrimination. It was everywhere, pretty much all the time. The Black Power Movement was extremely important in New York around the time that I was starting school, and there were protests, meetings, and public events to address inequality going on all during those years.

In terms of Latin America: the story of the Nicaraguan revolution —  the successful overthrow of a brutal dictator by a group of idealistic young socialists — was a story that captivated many many people. America was obsessed with it, with some supporting the revolution and the US government arming and training the Contra forces trying to end the revolution. The challenges of addressing these themes through fiction… Phew! You have to both be true to your characters and recognise the responsibility you have. An example of this is that, when I write about the Nicaraguan revolution, I feel that I somehow have to convey the excitement of that time as well as the brutality of the Contra War and acknowledge that the Sandinista party is now a corrupt and dictatorial force itself. When I look at that sentence, I feel daunted by the guidelines I’ve written myself. At the same time, these stories are stories about our lives, about the lives of people we care about. Why would we not tell them?

If you were an Egyptian Pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

I would take two books that are really important to me: Art Speigelman’s Maus and Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us. Clearly I’m hoping to get some reading done. Also, a small notebook and ballpoint pen would be good. Finally, I am sorry to say this, but I would almost certainly want my phone, thus setting myself up to annoy other people in the next world when I am distracted by Twitter.

Do you have a favourite joke, proverb or quotation?

 I’m bad at jokes and proverbs, but can think of lots of quotes that seem relevant in these times. Here’s one from James Baldwin: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist”

And here’s one from Grace Paley: “When you write, you illuminate what’s hidden, and that’s a political act.”

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

I really love Country of My Skull by the South African journalist and poet Antjie Krog, which is a memoir with fictional elements as well as an account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearings. It’s partly about what it means to record a history that has been buried, partly about trying to reckon with a scale of rights abuses that can’t be reckoned with, and partly about how your sense of yourself and the place you are from changes as both these things happen.

Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction: Risk, Above Sugar Hill, and This Way to Departures. Her work has appeared in Granta, Catapult Story, Ambit and other magazines. BBC Witness and KCRW Berlin have broadcast her audio stories.

Linda has been an exchange fellow at Kunstlerhaus Schloss Wiepersdorf in Germany, a journalism intern in Nicaragua during the Contra War, and wrote her first novel while she was a visiting associate at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studies. She’s been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, an Authors’ Foundation Grant, and an Arts Council England grant.

For many years, Linda worked with NGOs and community organisations to develop and fund new projects. She recently launched Barbed Wire Fever, a project that explores what it means to be a refugee through writing and literature.

Originally from New York, Linda divides her time between London and Berlin.

Featured image, Departure Lounge 5am, by Jonathan Billinger, used with Creative Commons license.