Completing a Circle: An Interview with Idra Novey

by    /  April 2, 2019  / Comments Off on Completing a Circle: An Interview with Idra Novey

Idra Novey visited Alphabet City last December to read from her most recent novel Those Who Knew. The novel takes place on an unnamed island nation several years after the fall of a brutal regime and follows a young professor as she witnesses her abusive former lover rise to power. The novel explores the silences expected of victims of abuse and the emotional consequences of enduring that silence while an aggressor is rewarded with ever more success and power.

For Novey, who was born not far from Pittsburgh in Johnstown, PA, her visit to Pittsburgh was a return to her roots — visiting the very Appalachian region that helped provide inspiration for Those Who Knew. The acclaimed novelist, poet, and translator was kind enough to speak with Sampsonia Way about her writing, how she used the novel to explore the mysterious ways in which power begets silence, and how friendship and democracy offer a kind of salvation.

I. Finding Hope and What Goes Unsaid

So tell me, how has the book tour been treating you?

It’s been revelatory. Frenzied but revelatory. The current political climate has created a sense of urgency to talk about power imbalances like the ones explored in the novel. The conversations I’ve had with readers after book events have been intense. There’s been no small talk. There’s been a tone of radical candor every time.  

Have any of the questions been more surprising than others? What kinds of things have you been hearing on the road?

What I’ve heard most is a sense of exasperation and people saying, “How are we going to address the fact that people are being pushed into silence in this country?” Or they’re asking, “Have we made progress? Is awareness enough?” My dream would be for the experiences portrayed in this book to become obsolete and for this kind of narrative to be a part of the past. I would love for a history like Lena’s to eventually read as historical fiction. I’ve heard a sense from readers that it felt painful to read the book, but also cathartic. People are asking the question, “How are we going to move forward so that we don’t silence people and so that people don’t live in silence out of fear of retaliation? How do we fix that?” It’s still not clear.

Yes, that lack of clarity strikes me too. It can seem so bleak sometimes. But one of the things I loved about your book is how there is such hope in the narrative. It made me curious. How important was it for you to see your way through to that hope? And what was that process like?

I have found what keeps me resilient is camaraderie. In the novel, Lena and Olga put on fake beards and joke around with summoning the ghost presence of Simone Weil. I understand that kind of zaniness is not the right sort of camaraderie for all of us. But we all need to be near people who hear us out and who make us laugh. Genuine friendship, experiencing joy with each other is what keeps Lena resilient, and what leads Olga in the novel to eventually step forward and seek a public role in the politics of her country. Having that sense of camaraderie and having people who you can really laugh with and get a drink with, that’s what can keep you true to your convictions. Self-doubt can take over if you’re too alone.

Definitely! That’s really fascinating because when you look at the narrative and those two characters — Olga and Lena — it’s almost like a platonic love story between the two of them and this very authentic thing came through.

Yeah! And it’s something I wanted to write about. You see something similar when you look at the relationships in Elena Ferrante’s novels, or if you look at The Friend, Sigrid Nunez’s newest novel. I see the relationship between Olga and Lena in the novel as a kind of love story, a glorious friendship between two people who are from really different generations and who have really different histories. At every turn in the novel, there’s so much unsaid between them and the tension of what goes unspoken is as much a part of a long friendship as what is said aloud. When and how Lena and Olga would release the tensions in their friendship became a central aspect of the novel.

II. On the Appalachian Island and the 21st Century Crisis of Masculinity

Since you’re from Pennsylvania and from Johnstown, a place not far from here, I wanted to ask what it’s like to return to your origins.

Returning to Pittsburgh feels like completing a circle. One of my closest friends in high school lived in Squirrel Hill and every weekend I could, I would take a bus from Johnstown to come and stay with her family. Their house and Pittsburgh as a city became a refuge and second home. Johnstown is not an easy place to be an artsy kid. When people ask why Those Who Knew is set on an island, I explain how growing up in a Southern Allegheny Mountain town can feel like being trapped on an island. For the most part, a town like Johnstown is a culture and world unto itself. I only came to understand this about my childhood after I left for college, how each isolated town in the Allegheny mountains is like an island and how hard it is to get a boat out. In some ways, many rural regions of the U.S. are like archipelagos made up of very different cultures — and one of them is the southern Allegheny mountain culture. While writing Those Who Knew, I kept returning to the sense of isolation I experienced in Johnstown.  

One of my earliest notes for this novel came from the Steubenville, Ohio rape case — I don’t know if you remember that? A football coach lied to protect two of his players. I followed the case obsessively, trying to imagine how this coach justified to himself his complicity in ostracizing the victim and eliminating any consequences for the boys who committed the crime — all so they could continue to play football through the season. His complicity, the outcome of that trial — it all felt emblematic of the culture that I grew up in. And I kept thinking about that coach. What was going on in his mind? How did he justify lying that way? That Ohio case was what led me to write and to inhabit Victor, the revered senator in the novel.  

Yeah, that makes total sense. This masculine culture that is encapsulated by the culture of high school football is endemic.

Yes, and football culture has quite a bit in common with politics. I grew up in a culture and in a high school like the one in Steubenville. I know those characters. I know that football coach. That case was the genesis of the novel and my decision to make the novel a parable about an unnamed island nation. But the novel is also about an emerging 21st century crisis of masculinity. Many men recognize what they have to gain in expanding what life in a male body can be. But others find expanding notions of masculinity to be terrifying, though why not embrace the gains, the freedom to be released from what Freddy in the novel describes as the repressive roles men have long imposed on each other?

III. American Interventionism in the Political Imaginary

So kind of sticking with geography for a moment — it makes total sense to think of the novel’s origin as one rooted in a kind of Appalachian small town, yet also that of an isolated island. And I was thinking about the way you organized this book around fictionalized, nameless places. It had this amazing effect in which it was super recognizable and yet fantastical. 

Thank you, kind of you to say. The title Those Who Knew comes from the fourth-to-last page of Garcia Marquez’s novel The Autumn of the Patriarch. It’s a novel about a politician who refuses to know the consequences of his decisions. In the closing pages, Marquez writes, “And he went on not knowing while everyone else went on knowing.” I wanted to write a novel about the people who did know.

The title also invites readers to consider what they know about the kind of power imbalances that play out in the novel. I wanted to invite readers to bring their knowledge to this parable, whether it is knowledge of a country where the U.S. has intervened or of isolated southern Allegheny mountain towns like Johnstown.

Were you ever tempted to set it in reality, say, in Johnstown?

No. The novel is definitely a hybrid political imaginary of various places. I had things that I wanted to say about powerful countries intruding on the sovereignty of smaller nations, and how the justifications for those intrusions compare to the ways a person in a position of power might justify intruding on the sovereignty of someone else. Johnstown was a factor but the island in the novel is as much about U.S. interventions in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, in Haiti and in Chile, where I’ve lived on and off for the last twenty years.

And you captured that perfectly. This brings me to one of my questions, though I’m not entirely sure how to phrase it. I was curious about the complicity of American actions abroad, and I was thinking about this, particularly since we’re sitting here in the City of Asylum. So we have this character in this book, Olga, who has a traumatic experience with exile. And then we have all of these characters who are always moving — to the island, to the north, to the valley — moving in order to find their sense of expression. And I don’t know exactly what my question is, but I wanted to know your thoughts about how people have labeled this as a #MeToo novel. Yet there’s so much more to it!

Thank you. It is much more than a #MeToo novel, yes. But an author has no control over how her work may be reduced and categorized. I think there is a tendency, still, to underplay the political imagination of female writers, and it was upsetting to see how the larger political questions of this novel were sidelined in a way that perhaps would not have happened if it was the exact same novel by a male author. But there was just nothing I could do about it.

Well, it is a book about people not being able to see what’s in front of them, so maybe this makes sense.

Ironically, yes! I think a lot about how I stumbled into my knowledge of U.S. interventions abroad. I once traveled through Panama and the day I was going to visit the canal, it was closed for a national holiday marking the deaths of four Panamanian students who were killed by U.S. forces after holding a peaceful demonstration against the U.S. occupation. I had never read about this in any history class, and if I hadn’t been there on the day on which Panama honors the students’ deaths, I may have never known about this annual day of remembrance for four Panamanian students killed by the U.S. military. It was something that haunted me for a long time, which happened again living in Chile and learning much more about the CIA’s role in the Pinochet regime.

And now it’s happening again in Brazil with Jair Bolsonaro who basically borrowed Trump’s playbook.

This novel was very much about reckoning with U.S. interventions, how they continue to reverberate in the lives of people in ways we are never taught in U.S. history classes, even at the college level. When you see immigrants coming in from Honduras or El Salvador and the lack of compassion towards them, I wonder what the dialogue would be if everyone in this country learned about U.S. actions in these places, how our government has contributed to the instability of countries throughout the Americas.

IV. Concealed Knowledge in Love and Anger

As I read the book, I found myself marveling at how well-balanced the novel is. And I’m not exactly sure what I mean by “balance.” But I was thinking about how you’ve captured that vile masculinity of Victor and his anger on one hand, and then how satisfying it was to see Lena’s redeeming anger on the other hand…

I didn’t set out to write a novel about patriarchy. I started this novel before the 2016 election or any news about Harvey Weinstein and his brother’s complicity in his crimes.  It was uncanny to read about the Weinstein brothers after working every morning on a similar dynamic between the brothers in the novel, Freddy and Victor. Freddy knows Victor had a role in Maria’s death. Victor’s capacity for violence is an open secret. It’s not a thriller or a who-done-it. Everyone knows what the crime is, and everyone knows who committed it. The novel is about concealed knowledge, how we become what we carry undeclared.  

As for Lena, her anger nearly breaks her, and she sees how Olga’s sense of humor is what sustains her and keeps Olga authentic and true to herself.  

Yes! And going back to Olga and Lena’s platonic love affair and friendship, there’s this counterbalance.

And there is love between them. Meanwhile, Victor has not been raised with any capacity for genuine friendships. He is painfully alone. The only forms of expression he has are anger, violence, and ambition. It’s a very, very limited range that doesn’t allow for any genuine connection with others.

Yes, totally. There’s that sheer imbalance of power and that raw power seeking power. It’s horrific. And you captured it in Victor.

Thank you. Yes, I hope the novel raises some questions about the tremendous cost of relentlessly seeking power. And I think there is a way in which that kind of power seeking power is flattening. It just flattens people. You lose some of your dimensionality. Anger can just sort of wipe out everything else.

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