with Michelle Zau­rov

Idra Novey is a poet, trans­la­tor, and new­ly-mint­ed fic­tion writer. Her first nov­el, Ways to Dis­ap­pear, address­es the pow­er and pow­er­less­ness of par­ents, chil­dren, writ­ers, and their trans­la­tors, brought to light when an inter­na­tion­al­ly acclaimed Jew­ish Brazil­ian writer van­ish­es into the branch­es of an almond tree. Jew­ish Book Coun­cil sat down with the author to find out more.

Michelle Zau­rov: I under­stand that Ways to Dis­ap­pear is your first nov­el. Before writ­ing fic­tion, you were pri­mar­i­ly a poet?

Idra Novey: I’ve always writ­ten a mix of gen­res. I went to grad­u­ate school for poet­ry because it wasn’t pos­si­ble to apply in more than one genre, or in both writ­ing and trans­la­tion. To be both a writer and a trans­la­tor is more com­mon in oth­er coun­tries than in the Unit­ed States, but I encour­age all my writ­ing stu­dents to try trans­la­tion. Work­ing in mul­ti­ple lan­guages can push a writer in more sur­pris­ing direc­tions. That was cer­tain­ly true for me writ­ing in one lan­guage while trans­lat­ing from another.

MZ: And what lan­guage do you speak at home?

IM: Only Span­ish. My hus­band grew up in a large Sephardic fam­i­ly in Chile and we lived in Val­paraiso, Chile for sev­er­al years togeth­er before mov­ing to New York. We speak only Span­ish with our chil­dren, so while I was trans­lat­ing for Clarice Lispec­tor, I was work­ing in Por­tuguese, liv­ing in Span­ish, and writ­ing a nov­el in English.

MZ: There was a part of the nov­el that real­ly stuck out to me in the begin­ning where Raquel first expressed inse­cu­ri­ty con­cern­ing the rela­tion­ship with her moth­er, Beat­riz: She had no patience for the illu­sion that you could know some­one because you knew her nov­els. What about know­ing what a writer has nev­er writ­ten down — was­n’t that the real knowl­edge of who she was?” What are you try­ing to relay about the rela­tion­ship between a person’s iden­ti­ty and their own writ­ten words?

IM: One of the things I most want­ed to explore in the nov­el is what hap­pens, over time, to the par­tial ver­sions we know of each oth­er. What any of us says on social media, or tells at fam­i­ly events, or at work, are nev­er more than sliv­ers. In the nov­el, I want­ed to explore how a moth­er and her grown chil­dren come to see more than sliv­ers of each oth­er, and what sort of emer­gency would bring them to a fuller view of each other’s lives. The same hap­pens in the nov­el with Emma, the trans­la­tor, who con­fus­es her knowl­edge of her author’s work with knowl­edge of her author’s life.

MZ: In the nov­el, Emma escapes from her dull life in Pitts­burgh through her trans­la­tions of Beatriz’s writ­ing. Did you feel that way with authors you’ve translated?

IM: I have found trans­la­tion to be an exhil­a­rat­ing escape and form of adven­ture, but I also have expe­ri­enced the oppo­site, and found trans­lat­ing drew me deep­er into where I was in my own life. That espe­cial­ly hap­pened with Clarice Lispec­tor, who died long before I trans­lat­ed her nov­el, so I only knew her through her work but I found a book of let­ters that she exchanged with anoth­er Brazil­ian writer, Fer­nan­do Sabi­no, while she was liv­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. The let­ters are about rais­ing her young sons and try­ing to write; I read them while I was rais­ing my sons and try­ing to write. The par­al­lels between her let­ters and my life led me both deep­er into her work and into my own.

MZ: Iden­ti­ty seems to play a big role in the nov­el. I saw that com­ing up a lot with Miles telling Emma, This isn’t who you are, this isn’t your life.” It seems that every char­ac­ter has an ele­ment of you.

IM: I think that is often the case with a writer and her char­ac­ters. If you haven’t expe­ri­enced the emo­tions you’re describ­ing, you won’t be able to con­vey them with author­i­ty. You don’t have to have expe­ri­enced that emo­tion in the same sit­u­a­tion as the char­ac­ter expe­ri­ences it, but you do need to have a deep under­stand­ing of the feel­ing you’re describ­ing. I iden­ti­fied with Beatriz’s younger son, Mar­cus, hav­ing grown up the younger sib­ling. As a younger sib­ling, you don’t take the lead and it shapes your per­son­al­i­ty, and if there’s an absent par­ent, it’s usu­al­ly the old­er sib­ling who assumes more respon­si­bil­i­ty, as Raquel does in the nov­el. Mar­cus, as the younger sib­ling, is allowed to con­tin­ue being a child. He con­tin­ues to be the younger less respon­si­ble sib­ling into his thir­ties, when his moth­er disappears.

MZ: Why did you decide to make the Yago­da fam­i­ly Jewish? 

IM: The writer who was the inspi­ra­tion for the author in the nov­el was Clarice Lispec­tor, who was Jew­ish. I’m Jew­ish as well and have come to know a num­ber of real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing Brazil­ian and Chilean Jew­ish fam­i­lies, whose sto­ries and per­son­al­i­ties informed the book. Like Lispec­tor, my invent­ed author Beat­riz Yago­da is an immi­grant to Brazil who arrived as a child. Lispec­tor came as a two-month-old baby. The Brazil­ian media always made a point of iden­ti­fy­ing her as from the Ukraine, but in many instances I think that was a euphemism for iden­ti­fy­ing her as Jew­ish, as oth­er”.

MZ: Speak­ing of cul­tur­al divides, I noticed that a part of Raquel’s hos­til­i­ty towards Emma was because she was Amer­i­can. When you lived in Chile and Brazil, did you wit­ness that kind of treat­ment to foreigners? 

IM: Oh, absolute­ly. Every­where I’ve lived or trav­eled in Latin Amer­i­ca, there’s been a pal­pa­ble hos­til­i­ty from all the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions and the dev­as­ta­tion they have cre­at­ed, and also hos­til­i­ty result­ing from the over­whelm­ing pres­ence of Amer­i­can com­pa­nies and products.

That hos­til­i­ty was some­thing I want­ed to explore in the nov­el, too, even if it’s often pre­sent­ed in the book in a com­i­cal way.

MZ: Despite the grav­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion, you man­aged to deliv­er a lot of the sto­ry light­heart­ed­ly. Humor was real­ly well woven into the vio­lence and mag­ni­tude of cer­tain conflicts. 

IM: Thank you! I real­ly enjoyed work­ing on the humor­ous sec­tions of the book, and humor is sub­ver­sive. When you’re open to humor, you can actu­al­ly go to a dark­er place than you could if you did­n’t incor­po­rate it, because you can get away with more when you use humor. You can throw out things you prob­a­bly could­n’t throw out if you did­n’t embed it in a joke.

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Michelle Zau­rov is a stu­dent at Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in New York, where she stud­ies Eng­lish and lit­er­a­ture. She has worked as a jour­nal­ist writ­ing for the Home Reporter, a local Brook­lyn publication. 

Relat­ed Content:

Michelle Zau­rov is Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s pro­gram asso­ciate. She grad­u­at­ed from Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in New York, where she stud­ied Eng­lish and lit­er­a­ture. She has worked as a jour­nal­ist writ­ing for the Home Reporter, a local Brook­lyn pub­li­ca­tion. She enjoys read­ing real­is­tic fic­tion and fan­ta­sy nov­els, espe­cial­ly with a strong female lead.