Literature as Conversation: A Q&A with Idra Novey
Idra Novey’s debut novel, Ways to Disappear, is the winner of the 2016 Brooklyn Eagles’ Prize and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. The book follows a Brazilian writer, who disappears in the wake of a large gambling debt. Her loan shark goes after her American translator, her children, and the editor who launched her career. Beneath a narrative about the relationship between writers and their translators is a deeper story about understanding and desire. A translator herself, Idra Novey’s most recent project was translating The Passion According to G.H. by beloved Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector.
Joshua Graber is a Pittsburgh-based writer, translator, and educator. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, The New Guard Review’s BANG!, and Map Literary. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh.
Idra Novey came to read at City of Asylum on October 20, 2016. Following the reading, Joshua interviewed her about the generous act of translation as a sustaining force of literature.
Joshua Graber: I’d like to start with the idea that you’ve put forward before that some of your favorite writers and intense influences are those that you read in translation from other languages. Edith Grossman talks about it in her book Why Translation Matters as this sort of literary cross pollination whereby Márquez is influenced by Faulkner and then he influences Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie and Michael Chabon, a host of writers that Grossman tracks. So how do you view translation as a kind of vital force, not appended to literature, but as a vital force that actually sustains literature?
Idra Novey: Well, I came to translation as a writer. In college and later in grad school, I was really interested in the poet James Wright and returned often to his poem “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio.” The poem takes the familiar aspects of a football game in Ohio and makes them profoundly strange, and he has a surreal poem about the women who work in the brothel in his town, which I see as deeply influenced by his translations of the Peruvian poet César Vallejo—and they’re gorgeous translations. Wright was a powerful example, for me, of somebody who came from the area where I grew up: western Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, who took what he knew growing up in the Rust Belt and fused it with the surrealism he immersed himself in as a translator of Vallejo. He took the technique of making the familiar strange to create a better fate for the women working in the brothel in his home town. He imagines them emerging, renewed, on the other side of a river. Wright had some strong early poems, but it was only after he translated poems from elsewhere that he wrote about Appalachia in a way that no one had seen before. His work was a really exciting discovery for me as a writer and translator.
I started doing a similar thing, writing poems about where I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, while translating a poet in Rio de Janeiro named Paulo Henriques Britto, and then taking something of Britto’s sensibility and infusing it into my poems about Johnstown. Translation took me back to what I knew, but with new eyes.
JG: You mentioned the poet Paolo Henriques Britto just now—who you brought up during the Q&A at your City of Asylum reading in Pittsburgh in October—so I thought it was interesting that this idea has kind of been enacted with you. You mentioned that you’ve translated him and he’s translating you and that you have this mutual admiration for each other’s work. In an interview with Electric Literature you’d mentioned reading with him and he mentioned that you sound less like the American poets and more like him. What does that say to you about the experience of translating someone as a kind of influence or of reading?
IN: Translation is the deepest kind of reading. You have to really get deep into the novel or the poem, and it’s just a great way to say: what makes this a poem? What’s happening between this line and the next? Why this sound here or that one there? I think translating Britto, I got so deep into his poems that I think they got in deep into the way that I make poems. That definitely happened with Clarice Lispector, while I was working on my own novel. After translating her, I would sit down at night to work on my own book and I could still sort of hear the ways that she cut through all of the expected ways of approaching a scene and just wrote the essence, the reckoning that’s happening in that scene. It really raised the bar for me, as a novelist, to say okay, what is the most essential, fundamental thing that’s happening in this scene? And why put in anything else? I wanted every chapter to be bold and surprising, to be suspenseful but also profound.
JG:I read your translation of The Passion According to G.H. a couple of years ago. I can see that influence in Ways to Disappear. Lispector uses the device where the last line of each chapter becomes the first line of the next and it helps propel things. Were you thinking in a similar way in terms of connecting your book? A lot of your sections are snappy with cliffhanger sorts of endings; the next section often starts near the end of the previous one, but quickly goes somewhere else.
IN: Oh yes, I definitely borrowed that from Lispector. As you were saying, literature is a conversation. The music of literature is going on before you come on, and the music hopefully will go on after you leave—
JG: One would hope.
IN: Yes, and as a writer it’s essential to remember that your song of a novel is not what matters, ultimately. What matters is keeping the music of literature going. The act of translation is also a way of keeping that music going.
JG: You mentioned coming to translation as a poet, but also as a teacher. You were teaching an informal writing workshop in Chile, right?
JG: And from that, you started translating poems to teach your students. That necessity is repeated throughout history. Luther translated to bring the Bible to the masses of Germans, the military and state department need legions of translators, etc. There’s necessity for translation everywhere. Literary translation seems to me a cultural necessity, but many don’t see it that way. What would you say to people who would denigrate—or worse, ignore—translation as an art?
IN: Well, it’s something I talked about a bit at the City of Asylum reading. It’s about who’s going to step up and meet the necessity of the moment. Who is willing to offer: I will give my time to bring this gorgeous novel into another language so that other people can experience it.
I first translated poems on a regular basis while working in a domestic violence shelter in Chile. I translated a Louise Gluck poem that I thought the women who lived in the shelter would really relate to and, so I just translated it myself, into Spanish, as you said, out of necessity. I think that everything that I’ve translated, I did because I felt that if I didn’t do it no one else would. I mean, I wrote this novel in some ways as a love letter to literature and to translation which is a fascinating, unpredictable adventure. It’s a risky, adventurous art form. You work in the vapor between languages.
JG: You’re putting yourself out there.
IN: Yes, way out there. You’re leaping between cultures, between differing notions of fear and loyalty. There are all these acrobatic moves that are involved and it’s really joyful and exciting and comes from a place of radical empathy and generosity. We’re often suspicious of people who do things out of generosity. We ask: “What’s in it for you?” When people do things with a selfish impulse, we’re more likely to trust that they’re being honest. With inexplicable generosity, we mistrust it.
I’m a huge fan of Marilyn Robinson. Her novel, Lila, is one of my all-time favorites. I heard her speak once about how few books in literature are about kindness purely offered and kindness purely received. It stuck with me, as that’s what Lila is about.
In Ways to Disappear, I wanted to write about the importance of generosity in translation, and also in reading. It was something I hoped to explore in this novel that I hadn’t seen written elsewhere. For a lot of writers, you write the novel you can’t find.
JG: Yeah, it’s an old saw for a reason, right? That you should write the book you want to read?
JG: That’s interesting to me, that there’s generosity inherent in translation. I was also thinking about the idea of culture as it relates to translation. One thing that has been pointed out about the difficulties of World Literature at the moment is that English is the only language that all of the Nobel Prize judges can all read, so if a writer is not translated into English, he or she has very little chance of winning. That’s only one example of a bunch. How do you view the idea that translators like you or I, who come from a dominant linguistic system, have a responsibility to preserve not only the essence of the text, but the culture that birthed it?
IN: I think that the best translations come when you feel a deep connection to the work as a person and as a writer and you feel you can understand how to recreate the delight that you found in it as a reader. That has to be paramount. If you translate with more rational concerns in mind, you will probably do the work a disservice and should leave it to someone else who connects to it better.
JG: The American culture of writing education had become dominated by the university. I notice that the emphasis on translation is not quite as strong as the emphasis on creating “original” work. Do you think that the American university culture of writing would benefit from an increased focus on translation and why?
IN: I have only been suggesting that since birth! When I was born at Memorial Hospital in Johnstown, I think I said: “Please, please, can we make translation mandatory in all writing programs and English degree programs in the entire country?” It would really make us part of the larger global dialogue.
I wish in writing programs there was more emphasis on writing beyond the US. To convey to students that they don’t have to sound like other Americans but to find the most exciting, meaningful writing anywhere in the world and figure out how to take it back to their story about Johnstown or Pittsburgh or wherever your material is; and see it anew in a way that you’d never be able to do if you’d never been able to do if you didn’t read César Vallejo or the marvelous fiction writer Yoko Tawada. How can that global dialogue help us to see our own hometowns with new eyes?
JG: Anyone who travels will tell you it can, right? I love that idea of translation being mandatory in English curricula. That’s a great idea. I think it’s great for the fact that it has a more expansive view of the English language, to say that by translating something from Spanish or Portuguese or Hindi or German or whatever language, that the English language itself is enriched and expanded.
IN: Yes, exactly. John Felstiner, a translator, says that translation is like a window. It lets stale air out and fresh air in. I think that would certainly help in a number of M.F.A. programs to open a window.
JG: I agree… sort of hesitantly, as I’m taking part in one right now, but I agree.
IN: My suggestion would be to open all the windows!
JG: I’ve had to take much of it upon myself to figure out how to do the work I wanted to do in translation, but I’ve gotten the chance.
IN: As I did too. You just have to take the initiative. But I think a lot of people would be surprised at how exciting it is and how much it feeds their work. Translation is a metaphor for so many things that we do in the course of a day.
JG: So your conception of translation would extend beyond linguistic translation, to an emotion or an experience into words? You see the act of storytelling itself is imbued with translation.
IN: Absolutely. In Ways to Disappear, I incorporated radio announcements and definitions. I was trying to play with the notion that voice and language are fluid and changing. We’re all re-creating our own definitions and inner dictionaries constantly. Language isn’t any more static than any other relationship is.
JG: In Ways to Disappear, Emma disappears from Pittsburgh. Beatriz, the author she’s translating, disappears. Disappearances abound throughout, which is a subtle commentary on literary culture. It blows up the idea that when an author is no longer around—be it for death or disappearance—her work might all of a sudden take off for reasons beyond the work itself. In her absence, Beatriz becomes more visible. Was that something that you were playing with intentionally?
IN: Historically, women writers tend to disappear from the public record. Translators certainly do as well. And I was both of those things. So the chance of my work in the world disappearing seemed very high, so I thought I might as well write the wildest, most honest novel I can, as there’s a real freedom in that. In saying, no one’s expecting me to write this book, so I’m just going to take all the risks I want. And I did. There’s a glorious freedom to operating on the margins.
JG: So while you were holed away for five or six years writing this thing without telling anyone, nobody was knocking down your door asking if you had a novel they could buy?
IN: No, nobody knocks.
JG: Yeah, the idea that nobody really cares whether or not you’re writing anything really is freeing. Did that allow you to have more fun? Reading the book, it seems like you had a lot of fun writing it.
IN: I had a spectacular time writing this novel. I came up with a loan shark and a whole narrative about ransom notes and poker debt in which to embed my manifestos about translation. I also really wanted to get out of my living room—I have two small children—and even growing up, I always had this restless need to travel and be in other languages and have adventures beyond my high school in Johnstown, which had its own version of adventures, I suppose, with keg parties in rock quarries and so forth.
JG: You wanted caipirinhas on the beach.
IN: Yes. As vivid as my memories of those keg parties are, I wanted to know more of the world.
JG: I really like how your character Emma, after leaving Pittsburgh, refuses to be found. Refuses to let her fiancé call her back to her household duties, to play by the rules, to be categorized. Did you write yourself into her at all?
IN: Well, I’ve never taught at Pitt or lived in Pittsburgh. But like Emma, someone did say to me once: “What is a girl from Johnstown doing in Brazil?” As if the fact that I’m those two things, female and from Johnstown, I was circumscribed to a certain fate. I wanted to write a novel about subverting that kind of social expectation for a girl from Pennsylvania.
JG: Emma’s boyfriend keeps repeating these sorts of lines: these people aren’t your life. Brazil isn’t your life. I’m your life, Pittsburgh is your life. And I love that she refuses that blunt categorization and decides that her life is more expansive and that she will fit more into it.
IN: Thank you. Those were the questions that drove the novel. How much of our lives are ours to define at any given moment? It’s exhilarating to consider how many definitions one can revise in a lifetime.