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30 Days, 30 Authors: Idra Novey

Friday, November 17, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Idra Novey, the author of  the Sami Rohr Prize winning novel Ways to Disappear, shares the view from Kafka's window, and the impact that  his Judaism had on his writing —and on her own as well.

Like many Americans, my first introduction to Kafka was in high school with what he referred to as his “bug piece,” The Metamorphosis. My husband, who grew up in Chile, was introduced to Kafka via The Metamorphsis as well. In both Chile and in my public high school in rural Pennsylvania, our teachers gave us numerous biographical facts we were expected to regurgitate for an upcoming quiz.

Yet amid all this grade school emphasis on biography, neither of our teachers ever mentioned Kafka’s family was Jewish. It was not until I came home and shared my astonishment about the “bug piece” with my father that I learned this life-altering writer named Franz had gone to Hebrew school as well, and had also grown up feeling acutely, continually aware, as I did in rural Pennsylvania, that he would always be seen as an outsider.

Several years later, in my literature classes at Barnard College, and on my own, I read more about the impact Judaism had on Kafka’s worldview and his sensibility as a writer. While living in Chile, and later in Brazil and translating novelists from Spanish and Portuguese, I became increasingly interested in Kafka’s theories about outsider writers in minor languages as the ones most likely to “indicate breaking points” in literature and push fiction in new directions. This certainly seemed true of the Brazilian Jewish writer Clarice Lispector, and I returned to Kafka’s theories while translating one of her novels.

Both Kafka and Lispector became significant influences on my own writing, and on the outsider Brazilian Jewish author I invented in my first novel, Ways to Disappear, all of which contributed to my eagerness to visit Prague and see Kafka’s childhood home along the Vltava River for myself.

This past summer, after the extraordinary gift of receiving the JBC’s Sami Rohr Prize, I finally made that pilgrimage. As my husband and I moved through the exhibit about the influence of the Yiddish theater on Kafka’s writing, and how often Judaism came up in his fraught relationship with his religious father, we were both surprised at what a Jewish-infused version of Kafka’s life the museum presented.

To have a chance to view Prague through Kafka’s windows was exhilarating and the museum does an extraordinary job of recreating a sense of coming closer to the untouchable, unknowable aspects that shape the sensibility of a writer. Touring the exhibits, I kept thinking about one of my favorite, lesser-known Kafka stories about an untouchable animal that lives in a synagogue.

Written in 1920, it is a wry tale whose humor didn’t really come alive in English until Michael Hoffman’s excellent new translations of Kafka’s short fiction, Investigations of a Dog. The synagogue where the untouchable long-necked animal has chosen to live is a tiny one, and the synagogue’s population is shrinking by the year. The Jewish community is having a hard time finding the funds to keep up the building. The description brought to mind the increasingly empty synagogue my parents belonged to in Pennsylvania and also the one I’d come to know in Vina del Mar, Chile with my father-in-law—those ever-emptier synagogues that exist in places where teachers will make a case for reading Kafka by leaving out any mention of his love of Yiddish theater, or of his strange story about the long-necked, untouchable animal in a synagogue who comes to know three generations of Jews, more and more of whom have moved away from the tiny town where they grew tired of being continually perceived as outsiders.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Idra Novey

Monday, May 01, 2017 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging fiction authors named as finalists for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Idra Novey and her book, Ways to Disappear, a novel about a Brazilian novelist who goes missing and her daughter, son, and translator's hunt to find her.

A warm congratulations to Idra and the other four finalists: Paul Goldberg, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, Rebecca Schiff, and Daniel Torday. Join Jewish Book Council on May 3, 2017 at The Jewish Museum for a discussion with the authors and announcement of the recipient of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature! Register for free tickets here »

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

Like children, works of fiction are constantly evolving. What a draft urgently needs in the morning is likely not what it will urgently need in the afternoon and the challenge it presents the following week will be something else entirely. I find once I address an aspect of a draft that feels challenging, another challenge immediately presents itself that feels even more insurmountable, but that is also the allure of writing fiction, the continual surprises each story presents.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I came to fiction from translation and the writers I've translated have been my teachers. It was while translating the mesmerizing sentences of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector that I began to draft the first sentences of a novel of my own.

Who is your intended audience?

Readers who are open to surprise, who enjoy the adventure of starting a novel for one reason and then, ultimately, loving the book for another reason entirely.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I'm at work on a second novel.

What are you reading now?

Charlotte, by David Foenkinos, about the young artist Charlotte Salamon who was killed in Auschwitz at the age of 26. The novel was an international bestseller but hasn't had a robust reception in the United States, as so often happens with fiction in translation here. But it's extraordinary novel. I already want to read it again.

Top 5 favorite books

I find it hard to rank books like race horses. The best books I read this week are:

Charlotte, mentioned above, by David Foenkinos

Francine Prose's masterful and mischievous Mister Monkey

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I grew up in a backward, dying Rust Belt town where most people were as wary of Jews and other outsiders as they were of art and literature.

In high school, I wrote the first—and I think only—student-written play ever performed at my football-obsessed public school. No one but the other theater club kids in the play and their families attended, but the intimacy of the event felt subversive. There is a freeing joy in proceeding with a work of art regardless of the size of one’s audience.

It was in that empty theater in rural Pennsylvania, at 16, that I first had a strong sense that this is what I wanted to do with my life, that I would go on finding joy in writing and sharing that writing regardless of how many people living around me cared about literature or not.

What is the mountaintop for you—how do you define success?

I try, every day, to stay with the definition of success I felt at the school auditorium described above: to continue being capable of sitting down and taking new risks as a writer, and enjoying it.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

A good cup of tea is essential. And a window.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

Something they didn't expect to get out of a novel about a missing woman's adult children and her translator disagreeing about who exactly it is they are looking for. And something I didn't expect them to get out of such a novel either.

Idra Novey is the author of the novel Ways to Disappear and Exit, Civilian, selected for the 2011 National Poetry Series. Born in western Pennsylvania, she has since lived in Chile, Brazil and New York. Her fiction and poetry have been translated into seven languages and featured on NPR's All Things Considered and in Slate, The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, and Guernica. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.


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Interview: Idra Novey

Friday, September 16, 2016 | Permalink

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.

Continue reading »

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.

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