A poet, translator and fiction writer, Idra Novey honors all those genres in her first novel, “Ways to Disappear.” “This novel,” she told me in a recent conversation, “is a stewing pot in which I threw in poetry and translation in the same book. I put a lid on it and turned up the heat, hoping it would cook into something.” The satisfying result has been a much acclaimed, prize-winning book, which has just won the 2017 Jewish Book Council’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
Novey, who is fluent in Portuguese and Spanish, has translated the work of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector whom she discovered when she was a student at Barnard:
I took a class in Experimental Texts by Latin American women where I read Lispector for the first time. I felt an intense kinship with her. Her relationship to Brazil as an outsider and a Jew was something I related to. I felt similarly in western Pennsylvania. [Lispector and I] were both in places that were not easy for intense, artistic Jewish women to be.
Novey grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a small Appalachian town in which she says racism abounded. She often heard anti-Semitic remarks and felt a palpable hostility towards art. In high school she set her sights on writing, which resulted in a play – the first student-written play produced in her high school. She recalled that the only people who attended the production were the parents of the other performers. However, she says the experience “made me appreciate that you make art for the people who care about it.”
After college, Novey went to South America where she wrote poetry and, like her protagonist Emma Neufeld, translated Brazilian literature into English. In the process, the intensity of encountering Lispector’s work haunted Novey and she became determined to “look for Lispector in a book of my own.”
The precipitating event in “Ways to Disappear” is writer Beatriz Yagoda’s disappearance. In an arresting first scene, the celebrated middle-age Brazilian-Jewish novelist climbs into an almond tree not to be heard from for almost a week. Together with Beatriz’s children Raquel and Marcus, and her steadfast publisher Roberto Rocha, Emma sets out to find the missing author.
The image of Beatriz up in a tree began with Novey’s own fantasy of vanishing with a good book. “I couldn’t imagine myself abandoning my responsibilities,” says Novey, “but that image of taking a book into a tree where no one expected you to go stayed with me. And the longer the image stayed with me, the more I realized it was the beginning of the novel.”
Solving the mystery of Beatriz’s whereabouts is both suspenseful and darkly humorous. Novey observes that books of American literature are often seen as either funny or “high-stakes serious.” In capturing what she perceives as the cacophony of Brazil, she not only mixes up genres, but also confronts “something darker and bolder. The things I wanted to say came out through a loan shark and the adventure itself.”
It turns out that Beatriz has a gambling addiction and is being hunted by gangsters to pay up her debt. That premise is the underpinning of the novel’s shifting perspectives. “I thought of the structure,” says Novey “as a laundry line made taut by high stakes like ransom notes and a loan shark. Once you have that laundry line you can hang all your manifestoes and your poetry on it and they won’t fall.”
Novey’s structure is also built on short, intense chapters that are interspersed with gossip magazine news bulletins about Beatriz, increasingly desperate emails from Emma’s nebbishy boyfriend back in Pittsburgh, and a bevy of translator’s vocabulary words presented to the reader in dictionary form.
Novey acknowledges that her husband’s extended Chilean Sephardic family inspired her to create Beatriz Yagoda and her fictional family. “For almost 20 years I’ve observed this large Latin American Jewish family living in a Catholic country. It echoes my relationship to growing up in Appalachia, but it’s also very different.” She adds, “This novel explores what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century – what it means to have a whole range of people in a family. Beatriz is urban and artistic, but she has family that is shomer Shabbat [Sabbath observant].”
As for the intersection of translating another’s work and writing one’s own fiction, Novey says the connection is “to get every sentence as immaculate as I can. That’s what translators and writers do. Your unit is the sentence and you want to make each one as potent as it can be.”
Given her dedication to craft, Novey’s prose is not only powerful and evocative; it is magical.
Judy Bolton has written about Jewish arts and culture for two decades. She is the culture reporter for JewishBoston.com