The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Idra Novey

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I first encountered Idra Novey when I read her new translation of The Passion According to G.H., by Clarice Lispector. Following the haunting ending of the novel, the translator’s note struck me: “I know a number of passages in it by memory, I still feel as if every hair on my head has caught fire when I reach the end of it. The experience of translating G.H. has left me feeling bald, and not as if I lost my hair in the process so much as discovering that like G.H., like the roach, I am actually all cilia and antennae and would never have come to know this without gradually, painstakingly, experiencing every word in this book.”

Beginning writers are told to explore the sensory details in each scene so that the reader can also see, touch, taste what the characters do. What intrigued me about Novey’s note was how the body itself changes after reading—as if a book can make a mark on the flesh. I had not previously encountered a translator’s note that was as charged with lyricism and meaning. I knew I was in the presence of an intoxicating writer.

In the note, Novey also wrote that a translator often has to learn “when to prioritize the music and when the meaning,” and is left wondering what is it the author is thinking. That deep connection between author and translator, and music and meaning, is at the heart of her debut novel, Ways to Disappear. The protagonist, Emma Neufeld, an adjunct professor in Pittsburgh, is unhappily engaged to be married, while obsessively committed to a Brazilian author, Beatriz Yagoda. Emma learns Beatriz has mysteriously disappeared after climbing an almond tree with a cigar. Emma flies to Rio, meets Beatriz’s adult son and daughter, arranges payoffs with editors and knife-savvy loan sharks, all to discover if Beatriz has in fact disappeared. As Dustin Illingworth wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the book “blooms in the spaces between languages, between continents, between selves past and present.”

Ways to Disappear has been selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice and named a most anticipated book of 2016 by Flavorwire, BuzzFeed, Ploughshares, Bustle, and Brooklyn Magazine. Born in western Pennsylvania, Novey has since lived in Chile, Brazil, and New York. Her poetry collections include Exit, Civilian (selected by Patricia Smith for the 2011 National Poetry Series), The Next Country (a finalist for the 2008 Foreword Book of the Year Award), and Clarice: The Visitor (a collaboration with the artist Erica Baum). She has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Poets & Writers Magazine, the PEN Translation Fund, the Poetry Foundation, and the Poetry Society of America. In Fall 2016, she will be the Visiting Distinguished Writer in LIU Brooklyn’s MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Novey and I talked at her dining table in Brooklyn on a sunny, crisp day in March. Her eyes widened with curiosity, then deepened with intensity, as she talked about writing between genres, reading different languages, living outside of the US, teaching outside of the academy, and encountering the books that change your life.

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The Rumpus: You’ve called your novel a love letter to translation. So what does that mean—a love letter to translation?

Ways to DisappearIdra Novey: I have a deep love for the art of translation, and I couldn’t find a novel that captured the fascinating, reckless adventure of it as I’d experienced it, or portrayed translators as the passionate risk-takers that so many of the translators I know are. So I wrote the book I couldn’t find.

Rumpus: In the novel, Emma only translates one writer. But you’ve translated many writers, and from more than one language.

Novey: Yes, I’ve never translated more than one book by any author. But I’m fascinated by translators who have, like Richard Zenith, who’s translated so much of Fernando Pessoa’s work. I get restless for a new kind of influence. The books I’ve translated are books I want to learn from as a writer, to be intoxicated by. And translation is an act of writing in itself. It’s an act of recreation—of a writer’s cadence and tone and everything that distinguishes the voice in that book. Ann Goldstein recreates the voice in Ferrante’s novels so magnificently, and then she goes on and creates entirely different voices in her translations of Primo Levi, Alessandro Baricco, and now Jhumpa Lahiri.

Rumpus: With Ann Goldstein, there is a mystery around Elena Ferrante’s identity. It must be a really interesting position for a translator to be in.

Novey: The reception of a woman’s writing is so often interconnected with how people respond to her physical body. With Ferrante, there is no female body to judge alongside the work. In her absence, Ann Goldstein’s presence become more than the hazy specter that translators often are in the discussion of a book, which has been spectacular. And I really admire Elena Ferrante’s confident refusal to give in and offer up her physical self for public scrutiny, for the world to comment on how old she looks, how fat or thin or attractive, and have that influence how readers respond her work.

Rumpus: You’re so right, because in her books, the female characters feel a competitiveness and awareness about their bodies, so the writer is deeply aware of how women are judged.

Novey: Yes, and when you strip that away, and all you can see is the work, it’s a radically different way to approach a work of writing. When I was visibly pregnant with my children, it changed the way people listened and introduced me at events.

Rumpus: In what ways?

Novey: Well, at one reading somebody introduced me and said, “This is Idra Novey who is eating for two and reading for two.”

Rumpus: That’s gross and fascinating.

Novey: It really was. I had just published Exit, Civilian after working on those poems for five years. They’re about the American prison system and what it is was like to teach in it. To move into a reading of those poems after an introduction like that was rather disorienting.

Rumpus: What got you interested in working with the Bard College Prison Initative?

Exit CivilianNovey: I taught for several years with the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), in a women’s correctional facility near Chelsea Piers that’s since been sold and turned into a series of condos. (The result of that facility closing has meant many of the women incarcerated there are now upstate and see their families in the city, and their children, much less often.) Nicole Wallack, who directed a writing program I taught in, recommended me to teach in BPI because I’ve taught in nontraditional settings before. In Chile, I ran an informal writing workshop at a domestic violence shelter and I taught poetry translation workshops to fifth graders in Washington Heights. It’s always been important to me to be part of a dialogue about literature and writing outside the academic world. In a few weeks, I’m going to teach a workshop at Rikers with the Stella Adler Studio.

Rumpus: What do you think initially drew you to teaching in prisons and domestic violence shelters?

Novey: I think multiple factors drew me to it. The domestic violence I witnessed as a child, police arriving at one point to arrest my mother for ridiculous reasons, and then in high school two friends were raped at overnight parties and thought because they’d opted to go to the party it was their fault. I was deeply disturbed by this and told my older sister, already in college, who was working on Cornell Women’s Handbook. This was in the 90s, long before rape on college campuses was a national discussion. My sister suggested contacting the domestic violence shelter in our town and having someone come to our high school to speak to students about what constituted sexual assault. I asked the principal about setting up an assembly. He said no and in my seventeen-year-old audaciousness I told him that if he had a daughter his answer would be different, and he acknowledged that was true. He let me set it up.

Rumpus: That’s amazing!

Novey: It was amazing! At a public school in rural Pennsylvania! Less than half of my high school class went to college. After that assembly, people were talking about it for weeks and it did change the way my friends saw what had happened to them and a number of male friends told me it changed their thinking, too. The assembly was never repeated, unfortunately, but for me it was one of those watershed moments in your teens where you realize: “I can make something happen, and a single conversation can change things.”

Rumpus: In Chile, you translated Adrienne Rich and June Jordan into Spanish—did you ever publish any of these translations?

Novey: Those were provisional translations, something I just did in order to share those poems with the women in the shelter.

Rumpus: I heard Haruki Murakami say that he started translating English books into Japanese so his wife could read them. He really wanted her to read Raymond Carver.

Novey: It’s the best motivation to have a particular beloved reader in mind! Because you feel this urgency that you really want somebody you care about to be able to experience a sentence the way you experienced it in another language.

Rumpus: How did you decide on the structure of the novel? You have very short chapters, emails, dictionary definitions, this radio “Greek chorus,” and a poem.

Novey: I knew that I wanted to throw in all the things that I had done as a writer and translator into one book. I hit my thirties and I got restless. I wanted to experiment with form, with different voices, to write past what I’d been taught about what a novel was supposed to do. I wanted to do something that felt uncharted. Exit, Civilian is all prose poems, for the most part, so working in short, wry prose fragments was already something I was exploring when I started the novel.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about Clarice Lispector. How did you encounter her? Did you ever fantasize about translating the novel that you did?

Novey: In college, I took a class with an extraordinary professor named Licia Fiol-Matta. The class was called “Experimental Texts by Latin American Women” and it changed my life. After I sold the novel, I wrote to Licia and told her how that radical class shaped everything I’ve written and translated.

I first read Lispector in that class. I wrote an essay comparing The Passion According to G.H. to Moby-Dick and how they both are about confronting racism. Brazil has as long a history of slavery as the United States does. The question of what to do with the racism one doesn’t want to recognize in oneself is a central question in the Passion According to G.H. The narrator can’t remember the face of the woman who lived and worked in her home. It’s a novel about many things, but one of them is about confronting class and race and the narrator coming to eat her own complicity in the form of a cockroach. After reading it in Licia Fiol-Matta’s class, I read everything I could find of Clarice Lispector in English and then learned Portuguese so I could read the books that weren’t in translation yet.

Rumpus: Walter Benjamin wrote on this subject, but what do you think is the task of the translator?

Novey: I think the task depends on the book and on the translator. Is the writer new to English? Is there already an audience for this author?

Rumpus: Were any of the books you translated a first version to be available in English?

Novey: Oh yes, all of them until Lispector. Manoel de Barros, a poet from the Pantanal, the Brasilian wetlands, and Paulo Henriques Britto, a writer from Rio. And I translated a hundred-year-old novel by the Argentine Visconde Lascano Tegui that had never been published in English before. Tegui was a friend of Picasso and Apollinaire and lived in Paris. Tegui’s stories embedded within stories informed a number of aspects of Ways to Disappear. Translation is the cheapest writing education you can get, much cheaper than an MFA.

Rumpus: In an interview with Electric Literature you said, “I definitely write off the ear.” Could you explain what that means?

Novey: Ideas happen mid-sentence for me. It is usually while playing with the cadence of a line that I realize what I really meant to say. I have a gut sense of where things are going, but the revelations, the pleasures that keep me writing tend to happen when playing around with the music of a sentence.

Rumpus: Have you ever written in Spanish or Portuguese? I am thinking of Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book, writing and living mostly in one language, then moving to live in a different language, and then writing in another.

Novey: I’ve never had the impulse for someone else to translate me into my own language. My impulse has always been to translate someone else into mine. When I lived in Chile, I published a couple of poems I wrote in Spanish. They came out in a small anthology of Chilean poetry; I still have it, so I have done a little of that as a way to take part in the writing community where I was living at the time.

Rumpus: What language would you love to be able to have to read in that you can’t now? Is there a writer you’ve read in English translation that you’ve thought: “I’m dying to read this in the original.”

Novey: I had that thought just yesterday. I wish I could read in Persian. Through the poet C.K. Williams, I met a Persian scholar and translator, Ahmad Nadalizadeh, who asked if I would collaborate with him on translations of a brilliant young Iranian poet named Garous Abdolmalekian.

Rumpus: So how do you co-translate from a language you don’t know?

Novey: Ahmad is a fantastic translator and very patiently responds to my questions. He comes up with an initial draft and sends it to me, and then I work on it, trying to figure out how to make the poem really come alive in English, and then we talk by phone or over email. But there is a remove from the original tone and cadence that’s really challenging, but a new kind of challenge, and I’m enjoying it. Still, it would be great if I woke up tomorrow and could speak Persian. Wouldn’t you love to wake and have a language in your mind that wasn’t there the night before?

Rumpus: Oh god. I would love to even have a language I grew up speaking better in my brain. I read that people have said that Ways to Disappear doesn’t sound American. And I was wondering what that means to you as someone who reads a lot of American and non-American literature.

Novey: Well I think we think that American books are funny or they’re serious literature. But humor is subversive. When you add an element of absurdism, you can get away with more, work in dark, daring questions you might not have written toward otherwise.

Rumpus: And you’ve found other literatures have a greater acceptance of multiple registers and tone.

Novey: Well, there are lots of American writers who do that. George Saunders, Denis Johnson, Angela Carter. But that kind of play with register and the absurd is much more common in Latin American literature, moving between high and low, getting at dark, tragic things in a way that wouldn’t possible without pushing a scene into the territory of the absurd. How does this play out in the literature you grew up with?

Rumpus: This may sound strange but I’ve always felt that when I read a book that I would buy from the bookstores in India that story mattered more.

Novey: More narrative driven.

Rumpus: I might be figuring out my whole life what “story” means. You know? Even if it’s a small, domestic trauma, things felt like they were of epic proportions. Things were not just spare and cool, they were laden with meaning, intensity, and lyricism.

Novey: I’d be curious to hear how that emphasizing of story played out in terms of the gender of the author in India in the books you read growing up. In high school, in my family, I felt most aware of contemporary American women writers as the authors of books for vacations.

Rumpus: Like a beach read—

Novey: Exactly. When any adults I knew made time for serious literature it was almost always a book by a man. And it was definitely not until I took Licia Fiol-Matta’s class that I found women writers experimenting with surrealism and absurdism in ways I connected to so intensely I wanted to live in the language they wrote them in.

lispectorRumpus: How do you translate the humor of something absurd? Because it’s not just the words…

Novey: Humor is serious work. But it keeps everybody at the table. It’s disarming. The Argentine novel I translated by Tegui is wickedly funny and subversive. And Lispector has a sly humor that creeps up unexpectedly.

Rumpus: I had to imagine that she must have laughed a few times.

Novey: She wasn’t afraid to embarrass herself. And I suspect the more I translated her novel, the less afraid I became to embarrass myself as a writer as well.

Rumpus: What’s your favorite untranslatable word? Maybe you could talk a little bit about the word “ever.” I remember reading a piece you wrote calling it one of your favorite English words.

Novey: I don’t think there’s anything quite like “ever” in other languages. It’s like embora in Portuguese, which was a word that plays an essential role in Ways to Disappear. When you say to someone in Brazil, “vou embora,” it basically means “I’m going out.” You’re not telling them where you’re going, and you’re not telling them when you’re going to be back. In English, we expect more information when someone leaves the house, even if that information is false. There are many great stories about such lies. The father who says “I’ll be back for dinner” and that’s the last anyone hears from Joe or whoever the character is who never returns. In the novel, when Beatriz climbs up the tree, she goes arboreally embora. She just goes.

Rumpus: You’ve written about the Brazilian environmentalist Ana Rafaela D’Amico and her work posting signs to stop the destruction of trees in the Amazon. You quote George Oppen’s line about doing what one is moved to do. What are you most moved to do with your writing?

Novey: I’d say it’s not unlike what D’Amico’s work with her signs. She’s out there, a woman on her own, hammering things in—one by one—in the wilderness. And isn’t that what we’re all doing? You plant your sentence, you hammer the stake in and then you keep on walking until you’re ready to plant another one. And maybe somebody will see what you’ve erected and maybe they won’t. But at least you did it, you put your stake in the ground.


Swati Khurana is a New York City-based writer and artist. Publications include The New York Times, Guernica, Asian American Literary Review, and The Weeklings. Khurana’s writing and art have received support from Center for Fiction, Jerome Foundation, Center for Book Arts, Kundiman, Bronx Arts Council and others. Find her at swatikhurana.com More from this author →