Asale Angel-Ajani on What We Leave Behind

I read more than a hundred books a year, so it takes a special novel to stand out in my mind. But Asale Angel-Ajani’s prismatic debut, A Country You Can Leave, is truly unforgettable. I was lucky to read an early draft several years ago of this coming-of-age tale, which is also an astute examination of race, class, privilege, gender, violence, and survival. 

Lara, the novel’s Black, biracial teen narrator, and her brash Russian immigrant mother, Yevgenia, stayed with me. As did the minor characters and the Californian trailer park where they live. Years later, I clearly remembered their engrossing story, its strong emotional resonance and fierce intelligence. But somehow I’d forgotten how funny it is. Sprinkled throughout each chapter are Yevgenia’s hilarious words of wisdom, gems like “A small mind always means a small penis.”

A Country You Can Leave is a novel that does it all—and will stay with you, no matter how many hundreds of books you read after. 

It was a pleasure to reread A Country You Can Leave and to catch up on the phone with Asale. 

Rachel León: Yevgenia is such a force in the novel, it’s hard not to start the conversation with her. I’m wondering if you ever needed to rein her in or let her loose? 

Asale Angel-Ajani: There were definitely drafts where she said and did things that were like, Whoa, I don’t know if I could get away with this, but it felt in keeping with the character that I was devising in my mind. Sometimes I did reign her in​, ​to the point of censorship, which I hate to say, and which as a character she would hate me for. But I realized that I was being unfair to her. I knew I needed to soften her a bit. And yet, in early drafts, I was always disappointed when someone would read Yevgenia harshly, mostly because she wasn’t the kind of mother they thought she should be. It left me in a real bind because Yevgenia finds mothering and domesticity difficult, and she is also deeply committed to being herself, no matter the consequences. As a character, she’s fascinating to me, so it was hard to not spend more pages on her.

RL: Yevgenia thinks class is more important than race, and Lara says, “She’d have me believe that my difference was no difference at all, just the problem of other people.” Can you talk about that?

AAA: Yevgenia was raised in the waning years of the Soviet Union in Russia and was taught that class is more a significant marker of difference than race. In Soviet culture there was the pretense that everyone was equal, which just wasn’t and still isn’t the case. I think in the U.S. it’s pretty common for some people to view racism or racial difference as a personal problem, of sociability and relationality, rather than a structural issue, because if it’s a structural concern then we have to address it. What Lara is struggling with are the ways her mother fails to grasp how she is perceived as a young Black woman. This failure on the part of Yevgenia is not simply because she is a Russian immigrant, it’s also because Yevgenia moves through society as a white woman. It was really important for me to explore how the pressures of the external world exacerbate each of their differences, despite their kinship and complicated love for each other.   

RL: I admired how this novel examines privilege. You have a PhD in Anthropology, so I imagine you’ve written about privilege, but also I’m guessing it’s really different to do through fiction?

AAA: I think in fiction there is a greater challenge to appeal to the nuance of the story. To really examine how privilege shows up in people’s lives, in all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I have definitely written about privilege—less through the frame of anthropology and more in the context of Black feminist theory. Black feminist theory, women of color feminist theory, and queer theory have been the most embracing of my own personal experiences, which created the space for the novel—the context of two women who on the surface of things do not have access to traditional forms of privilege. It’s always been important to me to think about how the lines of power and disempowerment blur, intersect, or merge. 

RL: Your novel made me laugh out loud, yet it’s also tender and devastating. It’s smart and tackles important issues, and is still a gripping story. Was it hard to find a balance with intelligence and readability, and with humor and emotional resonance? 

AAA: I’m glad that you laughed out loud! I like to fantasize that I’m a comedian who answered another calling. There are characters I had to rein in because everyone would pull up with their soapbox. For example, Aunt Eunice, the (beloved) evil auntie had to have many scenes snatched from her. But Charles, Julie, Lara, Yevgenia, Papa Bear, and Crystal were all part of my day-to-day existence so I thought about them a lot, which was helpful to keep the balance. Having Yevgenia be the leader of this crew in a way, reminded me that it’s important we have complicated smart stories about a multiracial cast of working-class people. And not just working-class, but poor people who are smart and have inner lives. I wanted to honor the experiences I had growing up in this busted desert town in California. It was important for me to write alongside the single mothers from my childhood, who I can recall bosses and teachers speaking down to, not knowing or even having the capacity to imagine the kind of worldly experiences and knowledge that these women had. What I hope is that the balance and emotional resonance come from care and from being in my character’s realities as much as I could. 

RL: Throughout the novel there’s a tension between the need to be anchored and the more urgent need for survival. Did your academic background inform how you approached that?

AAA: I think we make meaning of the world through the experiences we’ve had. Our experience hopefully affords us the space to imagine the lives of others, so that we can approximate familiarity. I don’t think an academic degree gave me that, in fact, probably far from it. Like a lot of first-generation college kids, the further I went into my studies the more distant my community felt. I came to distrust my voice and it took years to reclaim it. However, what academics did do was train how I observe, and I think everybody has those skills. 

Reflecting on what you mentioned about the tension in the novel between being anchored and the need for survival, I see my novel as being about a community. Even though it’s a story about a mother and daughter, it’s also a story of this community that lives on the edge. The omnipresent issues of gentrification, racism, the criminal legal system, and violence are all a reality in the lives of my characters just as it is a reality for all of us, with varying degrees of proximity.

RL: The novel also deals with inheritance—the traumas and tales passed down from our elders. Arguably the best thing Yevgenia gives Lara is a reverence for books. I wanted to wrap up talking about this quote: “My mother teaches me that stories have value and only the owner can determine their worth.” 

AAA: What I wanted to think about with this novel is: What do we leave behind in terms of inheritance when we are deemed to have nothing of value? Or when we come from histories or countries that are imbued with painful memories? Yevgenia decides that we have nothing but our own stories, the ones we choose to tell about ourselves, and we have books, which also create a kind of legacy.   

I think Yevgenia is a perfect ambassador for this level of belief in assigning value to our own experiences. She is an immigrant who roundly rejects the narrative of what her migration is supposed to mean (i.e. coming to America for better opportunities). She’s a mother who refuses to adhere to the strictures of the invisible maternal code, and she’s a white “outsider” in the American racial framework with a Black daughter that she doesn’t really know how to relate to, in part, because of racism. And like all legacies, Yevgenia is trying to live the example of what she thinks she is leaving behind. So both she and Lara are trying to understand that even if they each have limited power, they can wield power within themselves.   

Rachel León
is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Catapult, Electric Literature, LA Review of Books, BOMB Magazine, and elsewhere.

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