Lara Longo’s “Motherland” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department on March 2, 2023. Q&A conducted by Mary Pappalardo, Fiction Editor.
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Mary Pappalardo: The first thing about this story that grabbed me was how you handled the tension throughout—striking that balance between danger and risk and safety (almost to the point of ennui) seems so difficult to me, but accomplished so deftly in this story. What role do you see that tension playing in this story and how do you set out achieving it?
Lara Longo: With “Motherland,” it struck me as an interesting premise, to narrow the space between safety and danger, and let our unsuspecting Senem inhabit that space. Situating the story here allowed room to rub uncertainty right up against the ordinary.
Senem attempts to gain an understanding of the roots her mother had dutifully obscured. The family record, in Senem’s view, is all mysteries to solve and gaps to fill, whereas, for her mother, it’s a history to bury. As she gets closer to the latter, the tension serves to deliver understanding, albeit, not the kind she anticipated.
Displacement from the familiar is great fun to write into. Tasking a character to stand at the center and navigate a place they once thought familiar, where danger now lurks just out of frame, that is a great opportunity to put interiority on display. Ultimately, my hope is that the reader feels everything as sharply and as closely as the character themself.
I lean on reading and rereading Natalia Ginzburg, Jean Rhys, Helen Oyeyemi, and others who so effectively anchor their work in this tension. The moments I held my breath during Good Morning, Midnight and The Dry Heart are my northstars.
MP: I was also struck by the navigation of the idea of a homeland in this story, and what it says about our ideas of belonging, return, exile, escape…could you speak more about that?
LL: The concept of the homeland fascinates me, especially when it comes to those just a step or two removed from their ancestral homelands. Despite the disconnect between Senem and her history, lineage, culture, she feels entitled to it. And it is a part of her, of course, despite her mother’s efforts. It’s a withheld inheritance in a sense. I thought it would make for a more compelling story if her journey to Turkey was one to access what she could not fully reach.
Ancestral lands can take on an outsized, almost mythical quality. It’s tempting to think of them as an escape hatch or shortcut to self discovery, and they very well can be. In Senem’s case though, hers is a place she becomes marooned–both literally and figuratively.
MP: A sort of 2b question here is the specific idea of a “motherland” the story is in dialogue with, and the way Turkey becomes a kind of stand-in or symbol of the narrator’s mother; she only visits after her mother dies. Was there something especially important about exploring the maternal relationship via place in this story for you?
LL: Place can be a proxy for people but it makes for a poor substitute. Senem’s mother and her motherland share commonalities: both are closed-off, reveal little, and are symbols of comfort that can’t be realized. For Senem, they are at once distinct and a conflated entity. Yet, her pursuit of understanding both is undaunted.
Even when danger presents itself on the path of her pilgrimage, Senem forges on. It takes a near disaster for her to take pause. I think it’s an interesting question to ask, whether Senem comes away from this journey with an understanding of her mother in a way she couldn’t in life, or whether it was all simply all for naught.
MP: This might be a question borne out of my spending too much time on Instagram, but I loved the way this story played with the romanticized trope of the solo traveler. Was that something you thought about at all in this story? Have your own travel experiences informed the way the piece developed?
LL: What I wanted to explore was a sort of failed hero’s journey. I think Senem broke her own heart in equating a travelogue with a salve.
It’s not an uncommon experience when the reality of a place turns out to be so incongruous with the world you’ve imagined. Like Senem, I found myself traveling my ancestral land; that experience was one I drew upon for this story.
There is an expectation that in eliminating the distance, keeping an open heart, and willing your preconceptions to become fully realized, you’ll come away transformed, accessing new parts of yourself. While that’s possible, I found how isolating and at times frightening the experience could be. I developed a hyper awareness for my safety. I ascribed meaning to everything in my path, to the point that I felt raw. It’s strange to be of two minds: the motherland as a place to be nurtured and enriched, then also, one that can hurt in equal measure.
MP: Last but not least, I’m always eager to hear what our authors are reading (not least of all so I can build out my ever-expanding TBR list…). Is there anything you’ve read lately, be it books, essays, stories, poems, that you’ve found yourself excited to tell everyone else about?
LL: I loved Szilvia Molnar’s The Nursery. There is so much to admire: the exactness of the language, the tension she builds, the sharpness of the novel’s focus. In short fiction, Ben Lerner’s “The Ferry” in The New Yorker and Jess White’s “The Rialto” in The London Magazine continue to rattle around my head since reading. Lastly, and perhaps most predictably, I always keep Sylvia Plath’s works close to me. I often have a listen to Sylvia Plath Reading Her Poetry.