Idra Novey: the Difficult Joy of Writing Ways to Disappear
Idra Novey is an American poet, novelist, and prize-winning translator of Latin American prose. She is based in Brooklyn, New York, but through her far-flung work, she seems most at home in cafés, kitchens, and alleys where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken. In her poetry, Novey not only transcends geographical boundaries, but also travels across time. Her recent translation of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H. explores the outer reaches of the psyche. Novey has won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Poets & Writers Magazine, the PEN Translation Fund, the Poetry Foundation, and the Poetry Society of America.
Last fall Novey visited Bennington to read from her novel Ways to Disappear, winner of the 2016 Eagles Prize for Fiction and named a ‘best book’ of the year by NPR, Buzzfeed, BUST, and the Brooklyn Public Library. Afterwards she generously answered these questions for Literary Bennington.
Literary Bennington: In an interview with Interview Magazine, you mentioned that Clarice Lispector is your favorite author. Did you see yourself translating her work when you first read it in college?
Idra Novey: I'm fairly certain I first came across Clarice Lispector in a past life. In college, I took a class called Experimental Texts by Latin American Women Writers with the renegade feminist scholar Licia Fiol-Matta, who now teaches at CUNY. We read The Passion According to G.H. alongside the poems of Alejandra Pizarnik and the fiction of Diamela Eltit. I experienced such a sense of rapture reading G.H. that devoted the rest of the semester to reading everything of hers I could find. She burns down the house of fiction in every book. I don't think it occurred to me that I would translate her then, but gradually I began to think about it.
LB: In the section "Letters to C" of your book Clarice: The Visitor, there is a poem that refers to translation as "literary dishwashing" and as "a woman's work." Did you feel a certain responsibility when you were translating The Passion because the novel has a female protagonist? What do you think can be done to handle the demeaning perception of both literary translation and the work of women writers?
IN: I asked myself this same question so many times it became a novel. Ways to Disappear is basically a two-hundred page answer to this question. I wanted to upend many notions in this novel--the way we depict translators, our reluctance to revere the work of women writers until long after they've died or disappeared. I wrote the novel I couldn't find. I'd come across several works of fiction about translators but the portrayals didn't quite ring true. The risk-taking, the reckless joys of translation, the generous spirit that drives many people to become translators, something was always missing. Once I came up with the online poker part, I thought why not? Why not write the novel I was longing to read?
LB: In the section "Regarding Marmalade, Cognates and Visitors," is there a particular reason you chose to name the poems after certain months? Was structuring time a factor in the writing of Ways to Disappear as well?
IN: I return often to the art of Louise Bourgeois. In her cells, she uses space around an object to create a kind of visible silence and the silences became a sequence. Like a poem, the cells she creates have edges that highlight what's been contained. I approached each section in Ways to Disappear like a prose poem, as discrete units in a sequence, which is how I wrote the poems in Clarice: The Visitor. The lapse of time between each one, the white space between them, felt necessary to let each section in the novel, or each poem resonate on its own terms.
LB: G.H. takes place in a domestic setting with a focus on an internal adventure rather than an external one. Did this influence how you approached the translation?
IN: There is a mysterious distancing of self from body in G.H. I continually questioned whether a phrase was bewildering to me because I wasn’t grasping its meaning or whether its meaning was intended to be elusive and too slippery to grasp in any firm or certain way. As much as possible, I tried to recreate that uncertainty rather than resolve it.
LB: At your reading at Bennington, while talking about Lispector's influence, you told us that Lispector’s voice “haunted” you. Do you feel like Clarice's diction guided you in writing Ways to Disappear?
IN: The Portuguese translator of the novel said he could sense something of Lispector's cadence in Ways to Disappear. And I also hope the novel reveals what I learned from her as a writer in terms of taking a question as far one can take it and then farther still. Lispector described her experience of writing G.H. as a difficult joy and that was certainly true for me as well writing Ways to Disappear. I wrote the novel I couldn't find but felt an urgency to encounter.