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                ONTO IN THE SEA

A conversation with Brenda LOZANO & Annie McDERMOTT;
translated by Carolina ORLOFF
The protagonist of Brenda Lozano’s novel Loop (Charco Press, 2019) is undergoing a period of convalescence. Exactly what they are recovering from is left teasingly open, but recovery soon emerges as one of several transitory spaces in the novel, as a point between two poles neither of which it is perhaps possible to experience in full. Over the course of the narrative, beautifully translated by Annie McDermott, the novel seems to suggest that life itself takes place in these in-between spaces, neither fully in one place or the other. At the same time Loop meditates on the way in which writing both represents and enacts this notion of transition. Writing and translation emerge not as a diktat from author to reader but as another in-between space, one in which ideas and emotions sit between the poles of writer and reader. This is also an in-between space that is never fully traversed. In fact, as the novel suggests, it is often unclear in what direction we are headed and in a refrain that is repeated throughout the novel, the protagonist asks “am I getting closer or am I getting further away.” Mindful that this passage of ideas is of particular significance to works read in translation, Hotel’s Thomas Chadwick spoke to both Brenda Lozano and Annie McDermott to discuss the passage from writer to translator to reader, the spaces that Loop mediates on and the hope they can bring.

I want to start by asking about the book’s origin, could you describe your first encounter with it or with the ideas that would go on to produce it?

Brenda Lozano: There’s something that consecrates literature. I grew up during the 80s and 90s in Mexico City. Being a writer meant, first and foremost, being a man. Being a civil servant, appearing on the front pages of newspapers shaking the hand of some president or other, being in charge of an embassy—as was the case with Octavio Paz or Carlos Fuentes. There was no literature in my house and writing or publishing books wasn’t something I thought about when I was a girl. Hegemonically patriarchal books and literature involve vast epics, stories that cover a century in the life of a family. Sweeping, foundational sagas. When I wrote Loop—something I never imagined when I was little—I liked the idea of questioning how a story unfolds, of playing with the other ways of telling a story. I wanted to explore the notion that stories don’t necessarily have a grand climax, that they don’t take place over a century, and that you can also describe the mundane, the day-to-day; and in that sense, the idea of the notebook deconsecrated what I understood a novel to be. A notebook is something that's unfinished, written in the present, the stories it tells are like shopping lists, the things that happen are everyday occurrences. I got excited by that and so I began to write the book on the day a dwarf smiled at me in the street. It dawned on me that the concept of measuring scales—how they can shrink or grow, like in that game in Alice in Wonderland—is based on a relationship to the norm. When that dwarf smiled at me, an idea smiled with him. And that’s why I began to write this book.
Annie McDermott: Loop—or rather, Cuaderno ideal, as it was then—reached me fully formed, and my first encounter with it came one wet afternoon in a café in Montevideo, Uruguay, when I sat down to begin the translation. I’d just translated two other winding, circuitous notebook/diary novels, Empty Words and The Luminous Novel by the Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero, and I was curious to compare the writings of that reclusive sexagenarian addicted to Solitaire and detective novels to those of this dreamy thirty-year-old office-worker listening to David Bowie on repeat, as they padded around their respective apartments passing the time.

Can you describe what it was like to work on Loop, did the writing/translation proceed in a linear fashion or was it more circular?

I like the fact you mention these two forms. In my case, before I write, I ask myself certain questions which I think set the story facing in a particular direction. I think the great stories in literature have generally been told in the past tense. It has the logic of the Bible, of the Apocalypse: if you tell or retell a story, the verbs fall onto that apocalyptic ending. The story moves forward towards one place. Telling a story in the past tense is like a gravitational force that pulls all the action towards a centre. The narrator has the advantage of knowing which way all the verbs fall, like apples dropping from a tree. And there's something about telling stories in the present tense that's so similar to life itself, to that line which so many stories seem to fit inside, interrupting one another. Nothing is polished, there’s no selection or editing process. And even though writing in the present tense is an effect, I like experimenting with that effect, the effect of the line where many different stories form a single one that’s more amorphous, less epic, perhaps on a scale that’s more accessible. Less clean. I like the rubbish that accumulates more than following the rules about how a great story should be.
I think translation always feels circular to me, looping through draft after draft more times than I can count, until I feel slightly dizzy. It’s a strange sort of going round in circles, though, because it eventually takes you where you need to go—and in that, I’d say, it has much in common with .

Early in Loop the narrator describes how she likes drawing lines across a page of a notebook with a blue pencil and notes how they start to look like the sea. This seemed to introduce a central question raised by the novel, namely the promise and the challenge of transcription. It also seems relevant to both the acts of writing and translation. What was the promise and what was the challenge or writing/translating Loop?

Beautiful question! My best friend always says that perhaps what we call literature is nothing but the long tradition of bad translations. I'd add to that translations of the stories we experience, that we see on social media, the bad translations that are our versions of the world. In this sense, writing Loop, for me, meant a process of transcribing and badly translating the small stories. Now, for example, moving through the space of a novel I want to write, as if I were in an empty house where I’m exploring the empty rooms to learn more about the people who live there, who these people are who are going to inhabit this space, I came across a shoe box with some empty perfume bottles inside. An image comes to me and little by little I get to know the woman who left that box of empty perfume bottles in a drawer, imagining who she is and why she did it, and other features of her personality come to me until suddenly I know who she is, and why she’s obsessed with keeping empty perfume bottles at the back of her wardrobe, even if in the end that box doesn't appear in the story. I’m not sure this says a lot, but finding these small details is how stories come together, and this is so like the process of translation. How to translate that into a scene, I think, is also a challenge. And how that scene, in turn, becomes part of a story.
Those blue pencil lines have a lot to do with the voice in Loop—direct, unadorned, almost childlike, yet becoming something much vaster than themselves on the page. For me, the promise and challenge of translating Loop lay in recreating the playful, poetic simplicity of this voice in English, believing in its ability to say big things in small ways and resisting the temptation to overcomplicate or embellish it. Take the second paragraph of the novel. In earlier drafts, I tried to avoid repetition by finding other ways of saying “adult life” and “pencil sharpener”, before deciding the repetition felt right: “As a girl I thought the electric pencil sharpener was what separated me from adult life. Between the blue plastic pencil sharpener and the electric pencil sharpener—in my father’s office or on the teacher’s desk—stretch the distance between childhood and adult life.” (A convenient decision, because I don’t think there are many synonyms for pencil sharpener out there…)

Throughout the novel the narrator takes great delight in their Ideal notebook. As well as being the notebook in which they writes, the Ideal notebook often has other uses. It works as a coaster for their coffee cup and is used to turn on a light when they can’t reach the switch. They spend a lot of time trying to find more of the Ideal notebooks and at one point find some that are similar even if they can’t tell which is the imitation of the other. How does the notion of the “ideal” work in Loop for you?

Simone Weil is one of my spiritual guides. Reading her notebooks and books has been a kind of salvation for me. I remember that at the time I was reading one of her brilliant essays about the idea of desire being always one step ahead. And that made me think a lot about how that translates into telling a story, into a novel: the unfinished novel, the one with a feeling of perpetual present about it. There is always something ideal about stories, something that's one step ahead. Stories are more desire than reality. The way we describe something that happened to us changes the facts. And in that sense, the past can be as uncertain as the future. I think that is, in part, the nature of words, the intrinsic relationship they have with desire. That ideal we never reach.
The ideal is always just out of reach, so in a way it’s a pleasing paradox that what’s most often described as ideal in this novel is the notebook, which is not only always within reach of the narrator, but also, as you say, something that helps her reach other things (light switches, yes, but also miniature epiphanies about her world). The narrator plays with this, telling us that an ideal notebook “knows, above all, that it can’t be ideal because being ideal means always being just out of reach—and not right in front of you, Bic pen.” I enjoyed this slipperiness: is the ideal something static and permanent in relation to a shifting reality, or is it changeable and difficult to grasp? Is it the shore you’re swimming towards as the waves threaten to carry you away, or is it the shimmering ocean you gaze out at from the safety of the beach? As a translator, I also enjoyed the slipperiness of the word itself, which is as at home in grand, metaphysical claims—“Jesus Christ is the notebook, God is the ideal”—as it is in casual everyday understatements: “The government of this country isn’t ideal”.

As I read I spent a lot of time thinking about the presence or rather absence of other characters in the novel, specifically Jonas whose time away at his mother’s funeral appears to structure the novel itself, but also other family members, parents, mothers whose absence from the narrator’s life have a strong presence within the narrative. Loop appears caught between viewing writing/translation as a process of isolation and viewing it as a means of connection. To what extent did these tendencies of isolation and community play out in your experience of working on Loop?

This has changed for me in recent years. The figure of the writer as an authority, as a man that writes alone, of sitting on a panel, for instance, at a book fair, I think today all that is very questionable and I think there are also other forms of writing. I think times have changed and I find that very interesting, exploring how we could write today, what panels at book fairs could be like. And book launches! Why do we have this horrendous custom in Latin America of coming to see a writer being praised at a table by two or three people? That's elitist, it’s about worshipping the people before looking at the work. But maybe I went a bit off-topic… sorry. I just wanted to say that I’m very interested in exploring how these practices have changed. I'm interested in how people write and how we can tell stories today, more collectively.
The translator Sophie Hughes said something once that I loved—that translation isn’t lonely if you’re listening closely enough to the author. And in a way, I think the protagonist of Loop avoids being lonely precisely because she listens so closely—to the writers she reads, and to her friends, family and the chance acquaintances she meets in bars and stationery shops. This close listening means she can then bring them to life in her notebook, recreating their voices perfectly through carefully-observed turns of phrase. Of course, listening is a one-sided process, and the narrator certainly worries that she’s listening to Jonas a lot more closely than he’s listening to her. But these voices provide plenty of company for the translator, and I had a lot of fun with all of them, especially the excitable twenty-four-year-old Proust fan with a black eye from a drug deal gone wrong.

At one point the narrator says that “writing is more like unravelling than weaving”. Was the same true for writing/translating Loop? Did Loop unravel?

Pessoa has a beautiful verse that reads: ‘My soul is that which has not’. I think we’re whatever we don’t have, just as writing is more what never was, what ceased to be or what was erased than what happened. I like to think that we’re more like that absence, those places where we're not, that writing is also the ghost more than anything explicit.
Translation always feels a lot like endless unravelling and weaving—you have to weave and unravel a translation a lot of times before you finally weave it the right way. But it’s a productive, necessary sort of unravelling, which is just the sort of unravelling that Loop is about.

As a novel Loop feels like a route between two points in a life; a link, a line, a loop between them. Reading it, I found that I often didn’t know where it was going, something which seemed to be anticipated by the repetition of the line “am I getting closer or am I getting further away”. I wanted to finish by asking whether this notion had pursued you as either writer or translator, is Loop something you are still getting close to or did working on it closely serve to pull you further away?

The times I’ve felt comfort or certainty have always been followed by something that makes me question it. And I think the space of literature is a vulnerable space, a space of uncertainty and unease. You never learn how to write a book, how to tell a story. And I think this, instead of making you feel more confident, is a reminder that you’re always at the beginning, that nothing is certain. Perhaps that vulnerability in the face of uncertainty is also a feminist place in this world that’s so hostile to women. That vulnerability, that not knowing, that stepping away from the patriarchy which controls everything, which wants to know and discern it all, is also a way of experiencing counternarratives.
The line about getting closer or getting further away is first used when the narrator says that as she writes she feels like she’s in the middle of the ocean, trying to swim towards the shore. This feeling of being alone in the sea while you write, with nothing to hold onto, adrift in everything the text might become and subject to all the invisible forces tugging it in different directions, is something I think translators manage to avoid, at least in part, because the text we’re translating already exists. That’s the nice thing about being a translator: you’ve always got something to hold onto in the sea.

Brenda LOZANO is a fiction writer, essayist, and editor. She studied in Mexico and the United States. She has participated in literary residencies in the US, Europe, and Latin America, and her work has appeared in several anthologies. She edits the literary journal Make in Chicago, and she is part of Ugly Duckling Press in New York. In addition to Loop, she has published her debut novel, Todo nada (All or Nothing, 2009), which is currently being adapted for the screen, and a book of short stories Cómo piensan las piedras (How Stones Think, 2017). In 2015, she was recognized by Conaculta, the Hay Festival, and the British Council as one of the most important authors under forty years of age coming out of Mexico, and in 2017 she was chosen by the Hay Festival as part of the Bogotá 39: a list of the most outstanding new authors coming out of Latin America. She currently lives in Mexico City. Loop is her first book to appear in English.

Annie McDERMOTT translates fiction and poetry from Spanish and Portuguese. Her work has appeared in publications including Granta, World Literature Today, Two Lines, Asymptote and Alba, and her co-translation of City of Ulysses by Teolinda Gersão (with Jethro Soutar) was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2017. In 2013, she was the runner-up in the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, and in 2014 she took part in a six-month mentorship with the translator Margaret Jull Costa, during which she worked on texts by Brazilian writers such as Mário de Andrade, Graciliano Ramos and Marcelino Freire. She has previously lived in Mexico City and São Paulo, Brazil. She has also spent time in Tbilisi, Georgia, studying Georgian, and in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Carolina ORLOFF is an author, translator and scholar who has been working on research projects studying the literature, politics and culture of contemporary Argentina. At the end of 2016, together with Sam McDowell, Carolina co-founded Charco Press, an independent publishing house focused on the translation into English of contemporary Latin American literature. Carolina acts as director and main editor at Charco Press.


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