Witches, Mushrooms, Collective Voices, and Catalan: A Conversation with Irene Solà and Mara Faye Lethem
Irene Solà is one of the most widely read and critically-acclaimed Catalan writers today. The author of When I Sing, Mountains Dance (Graywolf Press, 2022) is a multitalented storyteller, blending art, film, and literature to create inventive and poetic worlds. Her visual artworks have been exhibited at galleries and cultural centers in Barcelona and elsewhere, including the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. Her debut poetry collection, Bèstia (in English, Beast) won the Amadeu Oller Poetry Prize for its evocative images and lyrically-charged language, while her first novel, El dics, earned her the Documenta Prize, establishing Solà as a literary artist who challenges storytelling conventions, experimenting with narrative possibilities and the limits of language.
With her second novel, Canto jo i la muntanya balla (When I Sing, Mountains Dance), she gained global recognition: Solà became the first Catalan writer to receive the European Union Prize for Literature in 2020. The novel has since been translated into twenty-four languages including English—an inspired translation by the award-winning literary translator, Mara Faye Lethem.
When I Sing, Mountains Dance plays with voice in a game of perspectives. Drawing from history, legend, myth, and folklore, Solà animates the rural mountain life and the natural landscape of the Pyrenees to tell a generational story of a family plagued by tragedies, yet enduring. Eighteen interconnected chapters are told by wide-ranging characters. The narration is a joy of discovery: From storm clouds and roe-deer to water sprites and three-hundred-year-old ghosts, we anticipate a different first-person point of view with each chapter, and what the voice—human, animal, elemental, or fantastical—will reveal.
The novel invites us to contemplate the paradoxes that coexist in this otherworldly terrain, where the dualities of life and death, savagery and beauty, grief and joy, guilt and redemption, and memory and history are constants. Storytelling allows the human and non-human forms connected with a place to transcend time to narrate their stories, their memories shaping its collective voice.
I was delighted that Irene and Mara joined me over Zoom to discuss their collaboration. We met across time, like in the novel, and place: Irene in the Costa Brava of the Mediterranean, Mara in Barcelona, and me in California. We spoke about singing a polyphonic story, writing contemporary literature in Catalan, and the power of language to make mountains dance.
The Rumpus: In this novel, you have created a polyphonic world that feels both timeless and universal. What inspired you to write a story about the natural landscape of the Pyrenees Mountains? Do you consider it mythic or allegorical?
Irene Solà: I had this idea from the very beginning of looking at the world from as many points of view and as many perspectives, and with as many voices as possible. I wanted to transcend the human point of view and chose to focus on a specific stretch of the world, the Pyrenees Mountains, to look at that place through the eyes of all who inhabit those mountains or who might cross or pass through them. When I say all, I mean everyone who ever lived there, nowadays, but also the humans who lived there in the past and who might have died there.
At the same time, I wanted to explain it from the points of view of the animals, the fungi, and the storm that approaches, but also, from the points of view of those who, mythologically or magically, are supposed to live there. I wanted to take into account the literature and storytelling that surround that place, and also, to look at it from the perspective of the mountain. It is true the novel rings like folklore and mythological stories because I am very interested in storytelling: the way we have told and imagined the world, and which meanings and stories we have attached to certain places.
Rumpus: The effect is a collective voice, diverse narrators transcending time to tell their stories. Why did you choose to tell the novel through different narrative voices, and how did you animate their perspectives?
Solà: One key interest for me in writing this way was to explore the fact that we perceive, understand, and live in the world in different ways. Everyone will explain the same place, the same moment, and the same time, differently. This view expands more if you take into account non-human beings. I wanted to think about these ideas and to shake up anthropomorphism itself. I would say I chose the perspectives quite organically and at the same time, playfully. When I came to realize that I needed this point of view or that, I tried it. If it worked, it stayed.
The first voice I wrote was the clouds approaching the mountain; after that, I didn’t write anything else in order. Once I realized that I can play and inhabit the voice of a storm, I decided to give myself the freedom to keep playing, to keep trying all the voices that came to mind. I entered each voice by doing a lot of research. I imagined that I was building a swimming pool of knowledge and information, and when it was half-full, I would jump in, start swimming, and start writing. And then, of course, I had to do more research, because writing always takes you places you would not imagine before you begin.
Rumpus: Why do you represent the voices of the water sprites and women historically persecuted as witches in this novel, and why is it important to give these feminine archetypes agency to speak for themselves?
Solà: Telling this novel from all these different voices and perspectives allows me to reflect on the ownership of one’s voice. It allows me to ask questions about who has been able to explain their own story and who has not, and which voices, perspectives, opinions, views on the world have survived and reached us, and which have been neglected or have not been heard.
This is why it was so important for me to write from the perspective of a group of women who had been tortured and murdered because they were accused of witchcraft—something that happened all around the world. While conducting research for that chapter, I read many court proceedings from the trials and realized they were written by the men who tortured and murdered these women. The handwritten documents carry the ideas, the intentions, the preconceptions, and the world views of the men. The points of view of the victims—the points of view of the women—will never be known, because they were unable to tell their stories. So, I tried to imagine them and their voices, the voices of the ghosts of those women. I placed them in the mountains where they lived more than three hundred years ago, and they are still in these mountains and they are able to tell us their story. They are even able to laugh at the men who murdered them.
In regards to the water sprites or water women, they are fictionalized characters that are basically male fantasies. You realize the stories about them are told from the male perspective. We never really know who these women are actually. All we know is that they are beautiful. That’s it, nothing else.
Rumpus: They are passive in many of the stories I’ve read.
Solà: Yes, very passive, exactly. The protagonist is always the male who falls in love with this woman. So, for me, it was very interesting to rethink history, but also the stories from a critical, contemporary, and feminist perspective in order to write my novel.
Rumpus: The past, though, is never far from the present in this novel. While the family story is dramatized chronologically, individual chapters leap across time, behaving like memory. “Up here even time has a different feel. It’s like the hours don’t have the same weight,” the hiker, an outsider to the community, observes. Why do the mountains challenge our perceptions of time, and how might that influence the way we make or pass on memories?
Solà: I would absolutely agree with the idea that this novel is very much interested in memory, and in the ways in which we collectively and individually remember history and stories. I was interested in unearthing, digging up, analyzing, and looking at all the stories and all the anecdotes about all the occurrences as if they were geographical strata placed on top of this mountain. These occurrences and stories were individual stories that, one day, became history. Some were human, some non-human, and I wanted to look at them all.
I also played with time quite a lot because I was not telling this story from a human perspective only. I was telling it from various perspectives so that I could reflect or think about violence, life, and death from non-human perspectives. For example, when Domènec dies at the very beginning of the novel, you could think of it as a tragedy, and it might be a tragedy for Domènec, and maybe for his wife and children, but one second after he dies on that mountain, the grass continues to grow and the clouds continue going to wherever they are going. It is a tragedy only for Domènec and his family; everything else continues. This is the cruel optimism of life. For humans, seventy, eighty, or maybe ninety years is all the time we have to do what we have to do, say everything we have to say, and feel everything we have to feel, but for a mountain, that time is absolutely nothing.
Rumpus: You play not only with voice, perspective, and time but also with language. The novel has a multisensory quality as a result. Did writing this novel test the limits of language?
Solà: One of the starting points of the novel was this idea of exploring different voices and different ways of explaining the world. I realized that I had to be very playful with the way I used language. I had to be very free in the way each character would try to express himself, herself, itself. So, every chapter tells the world in a distinct way. That is something that I think Mara did a really beautiful and amazing job capturing within the English translation. Each chapter has its own character, its own flavor, its own colors.
I also very soon realized in an organic way that not every exchange of knowledge or information is done through language. We also learn a lot of things visually, and that’s why I wanted some visual quality in the novel, and that’s why there are drawings in one chapter, or I realized that another chapter had to be written like poetry because poetry is a different way of storytelling. In the Catalan version, there is even a chapter—“El hermanito de todos”— written in Spanish because, again, it’s the same game. Another language is another way to play with other sounds and other words to explain the same things.
Rumpus: Mara, you’ve been translating Catalan and Spanish literature for many years. What drew you to translate this novel?
Mara Faye Lethem: I write a new contemporary fiction catalog each year for the Institut Ramon Llull, part of the government which promotes Catalan culture abroad. This was one of the books they had chosen and when I read it, I wrote to one of the editors at Graywolf Press, and said “This is it, I found the book that we’re going to do.” The prose is so joyful, and there’s just an energy there when you’re reading. There’s a game being played in a way that doesn’t feel arch. As a translator, I saw the novel as a great challenge. It’s fun to imagine inhabiting all these different voices and bringing them together. I was very lucky in that Irene knows English well. She was able to read my translation, and I could ask her questions to get comfortable with the voices. There were some voices I was more comfortable with than others.
Rumpus: Which voices were those?
Lethem: Oh, the mushrooms! They were so much fun. Remember the little green dolls in Toy Story that live in a vending machine, the claw is their god and they go “The Claw!” and cower away? I imagined the mushrooms in the same way, except their claw is the rain. A collective voice is incredibly rare in fiction to inhabit.
Rumpus: Irene’s language is described as lyrical, playful, precise, and demanding. What was it like to immerse yourself in her voice?
Lethem: This novel resists the idea that I’ll just put one word next to the other. You have to deconstruct all the sentences and the words, make sure you know what they mean, and get them in the right order, then take a step back to extract a larger meaning. Sometimes it feels like you’re staying too close to the original, and you need to give the English version some room to breathe and let it be its own thing, which it needs to be, to a certain extent.
Rumpus: Did you encounter any particular challenges to translating narrative rich in figurative language and poetic prose from Catalan to English?
Lethem: Certain images in the novel are very poetic and very beautiful, but not very explicit. In translation, people want to clarify things they’re worried that they’re missing. During the final editing process, for instance, I wrote to my friends and said, “Do you know what this word means? Is it instantly recognizable as a kind of mushroom?” I needed to find out if it was instantly recognizable as a mushroom to native readers. Sometimes the target audience in the original language gets something right away that the English language audience wouldn’t, and you need to flesh it out a little bit more to explain it.
I also had some fears about the chapter narrated by the “bear,” a local man dressed up to play the part of the animal in the annual Bear Festival. Irene does a great job of depicting the Catalan spoken just north of the border, which is not something that you can make work in English. And, in the chapter written in Spanish, all that remains are some very subtle clues. Sometimes, you can also use Spanglish but they’re really not very equivalent. Things can coexist linguistically here in a way that they can’t in English. Culturally, it’s hard to move some distinctions into the English language realm.
Rumpus: Language has played a central role in the history and politics of the Iberian Peninsula. Even today, some might say that speaking and writing in Catalan is a political act. Irene, you’re fluent in English and Spanish but write in Catalan. What does it mean to you to write in Catalan, and to be the first Catalan author to receive the European Union Prize for Literature?
Solà: Catalonia has a very strong literary tradition, and so I didn’t have to make a decision. Catalan is my language so writing in it feels very natural and obvious to me. When the novel received the European Union Prize for Literature, I was very happy and very excited, but it proved what I already knew and felt: that I can write in Catalan to diverse audiences, and I could be writing in Catalan and I could be writing contemporary literature addressed to diverse audiences and readers from all over the world.
Rumpus: Despite threats to linguicide, the Catalan language perseveres, proving its resilience. What does this novel’s receiving global recognition mean for Catalan writers whose voices are now being heard through translation?
Lethem: I’ve been thinking a lot about the Pyrenees recently in terms of the journey that many refugees took after the Spanish Civil War. I’m translating a writer who was in the war and had to walk to France. Half a million people or so made that walk—not as long as the Trail of Tears, but they share some things in common. Once they got across the border, they were put into concentration camps. He describes this walk through the Pyrenees, and how there are dead women and children on the side of the road, dead animals, abandoned cars. He then walks through a town where he vacationed one summer, three years before. This kind of juxtaposition you see in this novel as well. The way there’s joy, and a constant undercurrent of death that’s not exempt from that joy, but it’s there.
Writing in Catalan is still a political act, whether it feels natural or not. This writer, once he got over the border, went into exile for twenty-three years in Mexico. He never wrote in Spanish; he always wrote in Catalan—it was a homeland inside language that he could carry with him. Our publishing history goes back many centuries and has always been a special way for Catalans to express their “Catalan-ness.” Their resilience has a lot to teach the world about the role that literature can play in cultural preservation and continuity.
Solà: I like everything Mara said, and would add that every language has a DNA, a certain way in which the people who speak that language see the world, explain the world, and name the world. Their mental landscape is their shared past, shared history, shared folklore, etcetera. The recognition this novel is getting or the fact that it has been translated is beautiful, in and of itself, but it’s also beautiful because it will invite more readers and publishers from all over the world to discover Catalan writers.
Rumpus: What do you hope readers take away from this novel, Irene, and is the hint in the title?
Solà: I hope readers have a very good time and have as much fun reading the novel as I had writing it. In the same measure, I hope they will be able to reflect and think deeper on some of the ideas the book proposes. For me, the title has two meanings. On the one hand, it is a very playful title, even cocky, with this idea of “I sing and the whole mountain dances.” On the other hand, I think it talks about language, it talks about literature, and it talks about this huge power they have. Literature and storytelling and languages and stories can make everything possible. They can even move mountains and make them dance.
Author photos by Àlex Garcia and courtesy of Mara Faye Lethem