After a road trip from London to coastal Provence Anya returns engaged but with an unsettling sense that her relationship with Luke is on the verge. As a child Anya escaped from Sarajevo and now a family wedding requires her to return. The feelings of alienation and insecurity she has felt since childhood, which are reinforced by her relationship, bubble to the surface and the hot summer builds to a shocking climax. Olivia Sudjic’s claustrophobic second novel is an examination of identity and the fragile boundaries between order and chaos.
Asylum Road explores the many borders governing our lives. What happens when they break down?
In a political context, there are of course dystopian answers to this question (every man for himself, visions of civil war and chaos) and then utopian ones (mutual aid and co-operation). The pandemic has been a strange time to think about both. The truthful answer is I don’t know. I do know writers tend to be control freaks, or that I am one, so unpredictable changes and the threat of disorder panic rather than energise me. And yet I seem to write by leaning in to the kinds of disordered, uncertain scenarios I’m afraid of, even if it doesn’t bring any resolution, so maybe disorder does energise me after all.
One border I wanted to explore in the book was that between fact and fiction, or its increasing erosion, and the now-ubiquitous phrase “post-truth”. The term was first used in 1992 by Serbian-American writer Steve Tesich. He used it in relation to America, but his article was published two months before the siege of Sarajevo and the war in Bosnia began. It seems just as applicable to what happened there, both at the time and now that the facts of this history are being increasingly manipulated. My main character, Anya, escaped that siege (another example of a crisis which demonstrated both the worst and best of humanity) and so for her “post-truth” also blurs the boundary between past and present – Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the UK in 2017 when the story is set.
While she is critical of some borders (such as those which divide people – outsiders and insiders, for example), she is also contained and defined by them, and still others she is desperate to uphold. She fears sudden collapse when it comes to borders therefore, and the domino effect it seems to have whereby nothing has stable form. The idea of freedom from structures which have, for better or worse, governed so much of her life, paralyses her.
Anya’s identity is bound up in Yugoslavia, which has broken up, and a language that officially no longer exists. She is alienated from her family, and the life she crafts for herself in London – around a relationship and academia – proves flimsy. When these are stripped back are we left with an essential core or nothing at all?
There is definitely something which remains, something quite vital and alive, albeit unmoored and uncivilised. I know for myself that some of the times I have felt most “real” to myself, or recognised the animal fact of my body, my needs, my fears and so on, has been when I’ve lost these kinds of anchors. I don’t know if it’s an essential core, maybe, certainly a survival instinct.
Othering is increasingly evident in the public arena – employed by politicians and certain corners of the media to divide or dehumanise groups of people – but your book explores it within a personal relationship. Does it have similar consequences?
I wanted to keep the focus very narrow and intimate, to think about individuals and specificity, so I’d be wary of making too neat an analogy – not least because dehumanisation is about erasing specificity – but I do think one element that’s comparable between these private and public kinds of othering, as you put it, is the way Anya has been conditioned to behave, attempting to be the ‘good’ kind of asylum seeker. These narratives of exceptional, valuable, heroic immigrants also dehumanise people. The fact of their being human at all should be enough for us to extend humanity to them.
One character draws a comparison between the EU, Yugoslavia and marriage as imperfect systems which nevertheless have value in what they represent. Is settling for imperfection favourable when breaking up existing systems causes destruction and chaos?
I put that comparison in the mouth of a pretty pompous and glib character, a centrist dad type, but he has a point. Forms of co-operation seem like good things to strive for and protect as the world grows ever more “connected” and yet (or perhaps as a direct result) more polarised. I’d rather have a lot of diversity of opinion, which makes people see compromise as necessary, than everyone divided into two dogmatic camps and echo chambers who then go to war with one another, culturally or literally. That said, co-operation has to be mutually beneficial, not further entrench existing power dynamics, and so I welcome new and better systems to replace what doesn’t work – sometimes reforming from the inside is not possible.
Your 2018 essay Exposure explored your anxiety following the release of your debut novel Sympathy – itself about surveillance and identity. How did you overcome your anxieties and arrive at Asylum Road?
Writing Exposure was exactly the exposure-therapy I hoped for – exposing myself to what I fear by writing so personally. I wouldn’t say I’ve overcome them, but I can manage better!
What are some of the lasting impacts of the Bosnian war and what is your personal connection to it?
I’m surprised how quickly the war is fading from memory for those in the west, given how televised it was – certainly amongst people who grew up in the 1990s, who were young and for whom it is perhaps too recent to know much about, but still, they aren’t finding out about it. In Bosnia the legacy seems to be stasis, with worrying levels of denial among some Serbs. As with many places ravaged by civil war, it’s a balance between insisting on the truth of what happened and finding ways to move forward from it. I’m not Bosnian, so I purposefully wrote from the perspective of a semi-outsider in that Anya did not grow up there, but my father’s family came from Yugoslavia, of which Bosnia was formerly part. I remember my first visit to Montenegro in 1996, just after the war ended, and the children I met being absolutely fluent in American movies and British comic books. I was only seven, but I felt shame that I could only utter a few words in their own language and knew so little about their world.