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Eight questions for Idra Novey

Idra Novey

Idra Novey’s debut novel, Ways to Disappear, tells the story of a vanished writer and the translator who sets out to find her. The translator believes she will be crucial to the hunt – she has intimate knowledge of the writer’s words, and, by extension, the machinations of the writer’s brain. She thinks she will bring something to the search that not even the writer’s closest relatives can.

Novey is a translator, including that of a critically acclaimed edition of The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector, poet, short story writer and, now, novelist. A survey of the work that precedes the novel reveals a steady hunt for the hidden. This is most obvious in her translation work, but also in her own writing; Novey’s poetry collection, Exit, Civilian, for instance, is very nearly a semiotic deconstruction of the imprisoned and everything that concept carries over its head.

Emma, the protagonist of Ways to Disappear, adopts the role of detective, following hunches, uprooting leads and searching for clues in her attempt to find the lost. As Novey writes in an essay for The Literary Hub, “[translation] requires an acceptance of progressing with uncertainty.” Of course, when something is missing, it’s only slipped from the view of an audience – when we are lost, we haven’t gone missing from ourselves. Ways to Disappear, then, can be read as an allegory – the slippery desire of the translator to bring meaning to the untranslated. While Ways to Disappear is, at least to this reader’s mind, an assembly of interests, the concept behind the story has an opposite: ways to find. This, I think, is Novey’s primary interest. These questions, I hope, go some way in interrogating this idea.
– Tristan Foster

3:AM Magazine: Translation appears to me to be both a selfish and a selfless act. There’s a desire there to become as intimate with a text as possible, almost ghosting the author’s composition of the piece, but with the ultimate goal of sharing it with a new audience. The afterword to your translation of The Passion According to G.H. by Claris Lispector seems to confirm this; you write that part of the reason for learning Portuguese was to get closer to Lispector’s language. There is also a line in Ways to Disappear, your novel, which tells the story of a translator’s search for the writer whose work she has been translating: “She’d remember a morning in Rio as no more than an orange glow over the ocean and use that light to illuminate the strange, dark boats of Beatriz’s images as she ferries them into English.” And it’s the published translation, the artifact, then, that is shared. How close is my assumption about the translator’s impulse?

IN: I think all art forms require an openness to contradictory impulses. A translator has to be open to the question of when to indulge in an impulse to prioritize the music and when it’s more important to be straightforward and prioritize the meaning. My experiences as a translator with these conflicting impulses helped me figure out how to be more open to them as a novelist and as a poet. I feel most alive as a writer when I’m living in the syntax of a sentence. I can’t crank out a draft and then go back and refine the syntax. The joy for me is in fully inhabiting the syntax and sensory imagery, in stripping away every preposition or phrase that can be stripped away.

The Passion According to G.H.

3:AM: In Clarice: The Visitor, you explore the idea that the writers who you spend time translating are visitors in your life. And like other visitors – more specifically to that text, the ultimate visitor: a child – they upturn your world. You clearly welcome such visitations – can you explain why?

IN: I have learned a tremendous amount about writing from the authors I’ve translated. I welcomed their influence in my work and I welcome the influence that parenthood has brought to my writing as well. The playwright Sarah Ruhl has an excellent essay about embracing the pauses in one’s writing that parenthood requires. Ruhl remarks that life intruding on writing is, in fact, life and “one must not think of life as an intrusion.” I try to welcome the unexpected as a translator and as a parent, to never view the entrance of a new presence or voice as an intrusion.

3:AM: I think we need to spend another few moments on Lispector. You write in your poem, ‘Letters to C’: “C, I can’t recall / who I was before the haunting handiwork / of translating you.” The section titles of your poetry collection Exit, Civilian are taken from your translation of G.H. As mentioned above, it was part of your reason for leaning Portuguese. Can you talk a little more about what Lispector means to you?

IN: I first read Lispector in college and found the way she moved from sentence to sentence to be radically different from any other prose writer I’d read up to that point. Lispector writes off the ear the way a poet does, risking something new in both the music and the meaning of each sentence. Every time I opened one of her books, I felt bolder, not just in my approach to writing but as a person, in how honest I was being with myself and with other people.

3:AM: In your Preface to Clarice: The Visitor you write that you dodge the difficult questions asked, or implied, by the author whose work you are translating by writing poems. Indeed, Clarice: The Visitor contains a couple of such poems. ‘Letters to C’ sees you, ostensibly, discussing the act of translating Lispector with her. The intimacy of these letter-poems is striking, maybe because the reader is aware of your impulse, and your subject. But more interesting to me here is that we begin to see your merging of forms: letters with poems with the act of translation. There’s further evidence of your attraction to the merging of forms in On Elegance While Sleeping by Viscount Lascano Tegui, which you translated for Dalkey Archive Press, a novel that takes the form of diary entries. There are occasions when you merge forms and others where you take one. How do you decide which mode your creative expression takes?

IN: I often try out an idea in various forms. Something that begins as a story may end up being a prose poem. A number of lines I first wrote for poems ended up appearing in altered form in Ways to Disappear. Tegui, like Bolano, wrote a significant amount of poetry before writing his novel On Elegance While Sleeping. The way he experiments with short prose fragments and embeds stories within stories fascinated me as I was also itching to see what would happen if I expanded on some of the prose poems I wrote for Exit, Civilian into a longer work of prose.

Exit, Civilian

3:AM: Exit, Civilian positions the idea of the visitor as being in parallel to the prisoner. It begins at the title – exit, civilian; enter, prisoner – but many of the pieces in the collection pick at this dichotomy. One of my favourite poems, ‘The Lava Game’, explores this idea of the stuck versus the free, and the rules we’ve made for ourselves that govern which side we land on. “We all died as robbers sometimes; I don’t know why the emperor always lived.” The lava game is a children’s game, but there is an awareness there of an inherent unfairness, of the laws of the game lacking logic; there is confusion. Is the collection your search for an understanding between the two positions?

IN: What a spectacular question. Yes. Every week, after leaving the correctional facility where I taught, I would write down questions. Or stray images. I wanted to understand the ways I was complicit in the devastating injustices I witnessed as I came in and out of all the beeping doors even before I entered the classroom where I met with my students. I hadn’t found any books that explored a civilian’s relationship to the American prison system and it was a book I needed to read.

3:AM: You roam. You were born in the US but you have lived in a number of South American countries, you’ve studied other languages. This is both the literal and figurative rupturing of borders. Does the idea of the bound – specifically, the imprisoned in the context of Exit, Civilian – hold an attraction for you?

IN: I don’t know if it is an attraction as much as it is a fascination. We are all bound to someone and somewhere. In Exit, Civilian, and in Ways to Disappear, I wanted to try to understand what I’m bound to as a writer and an American regardless of what language I may be speaking or where I live.

3:AM: Let’s turn to your novel, Ways to Disappear. In many respects, it can be read as a story about publishing. If we continue with this reading, it’s a cynical view: a writer disappears and enjoys her best book sales in decades. In this reading, there is richness in literature, but only for the few – only a few can literature truly save. For the rest, life is filled by other things, and it must go on. What do you make of that reading?

IN: I’d like to think that we can all be saved by story, at least temporarily, and it may not be a story in a book. It could be a story we overhear on the bus, or from a friend, or relative. My son told me a story yesterday about a tiny leprechaun in tall boots who came to visit his class and sat on his hand. Wherever the story came from, it gave him immense joy to tell me the story and it gave me immense joy to hear it.

Ways to Disappear

3:AM: Ways to Disappear seems to be where all your creative interests converge: the translator and the translated, the visitor and the visited, the idea of staying and the idea of going. There’s a strange Brazilian writer with a migrant background and green eyes. The rules of expectation are skewered. The world is upturned. Where do you see the novel fitting into your creative output?

IN: Ways to Disappear did indeed feel a convergence of all I’d written and translated up to that point. I put everything in. Poetry. My theories on translation. All the stories I’d been storing up and hadn’t had time to write until then. I added it all into one pot and then threw in a loan shark.


Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He is an editor at 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 30th, 2016.