Of all of the literary myths, my favorite one is “Poetry is what is lost in translation.”
When I first read about Idra Novey about a year or so ago, I was not only drawn by the synopsis of her novel, Ways to Disappear, but I stood fascinated with her linguistic and literary background. She is a translator from Portuguese and Spanish, a poet and a novelist. She wrote the book I have been dying to write myself, about a novelist, Beatriz Yogada, who climbs into a tree, disappears, and causes an entire commotion. Her English translator, an invisible presence up to that point, embarks on an adventure to find her.
I first arrived in New York in fall of 2016 to begin my first semester in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Adelphi. I had a couple of days before classes officially started. My first stop was the library where, after having been given a short tour and access to my own account, I wanted to borrow Ways to Disappear. Unavailable, promised, waited for, lost on the way, it finally reached me in December. I loved every word of it and was convinced (as it often happens) Idra Novey had written it for me. This is exactly what I confessed to her, on February 9th 2017, after having attended her panel, “The G Word: Writing and Teaching Genre in a Changing Literary Landscape” at the AWP conference in Washington DC. Vibrant and generous, she laughed and whispered into my year: “Yeah, this book is definitely for us, the invisible people.”
CLARA BURGHELEA: How does it feel to be working both as a translator and a writer at once?
IDRA NOVEY: 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.
CB: Have you experienced a sense of lexical displacement while working with Portuguese and English and how does these shifting identities impact your writing?
IN: That displacement was what drove me to write Ways to Disappear, which explores the shifting identities a person experiences living in more than one language. Ways to Disappear felt like a convergence of all I’d written and translated up to that point. I put everything in poetry. My theories on translation. My favorite words in Portuguese and English. All the stories and ideas I’d been storing up and hadn’t yet written. I just poured them all into the novel.
CB: What language are you most comfortable writing in? Is this affected by the constraints of conventional genres?
IN: I am most comfortable writing in English regardless of genre. In both the prose poems in Exit, Civilian, and in crafting the prose poem sections that came to be published as a novel in Ways to Disappear, I wanted to try to understand what it is I’m bound to as a writer in English and as an American regardless of what language I may be speaking or where I live.
CB: I know Ways to Disappear has been called an experimental novel. Are you comfortable with this label or do you feel the need to claim the easiness to navigate genres?
IN: I find the place between genres to be the most exciting place to work right now, the freest place that allows for the most defiance to conventional expectations. I feel most alive as a writer when I’m exploring the borderlands between genres. The joy for me is pushing against the expectations of any given genre, to write toward something bolder and more surprising both in form and in content, as one deepens the other.
CB: In your poem “The Visitor”, I get you discuss the idea of identity and how we, at times, feel powerfully bound to others -a lover, a child, and in Ways to Disappear, you explore how much identity is connected to one’s sibling. How much did the novel grow out of this question of how others shape one’s identity?
IN: I didn’t set out to write about a sibling relationship in this novel but my sister is a pivotal person in my life and I think the sibling dynamic comes into almost everything I write. My sister and I lived through a period of intense uncertainty together in our childhood and we are still very close. My sister lives five blocks away and we see each other as often as we can, although like Raquel and Marcus, we continually get into arguments and go about making major decisions in radically different ways.
CB: Another poem that I really like is “La Prima Victoria”, again a conversation between the translator and the translated writer. How does the internalization of the translation process of Clarice Lispector’s work reflect in your own work?
IN: I felt deeply mixed up in the life of Clarice Lispector while translating her novel, though she died many years before I was asked to translate her work. I felt such an intense connection to her that I obsessively read a volume of letters she wrote to the Brazilian novelist Fernando Sabino while I was translating her. What she wrote to Sabino about being a writer and mother left me with so many questions that I ended up composing a series of poem-letters to her, which eventually became a book called Clarice: The Visitor, and the questions in those poems later fed into Ways to Disappear.