3 Questions with 3 Debut Novelists

Igoni Barrett (Blackass), Idra Novey (Ways to Disappear) & Mark Doten (The Infernal).

Three phenomenal writers talk about their forays into long form fiction.

A. Igoni Barrett, author of “Blackass”

Furo Wariboko, a young Nigerian, awakes the morning before a job interview to find that he’s been transformed into a white man. In this condition he plunges into the bustle of Lagos to make his fortune. With his red hair, green eyes, and pale skin, it seems he’s been completely changed. Well, almost. There is the matter of his family, his accent, his name. Oh, and his black ass. Furo must quickly learn to navigate a world made unfamiliar, and deal with those who would use him for their own purposes. Taken in by a young woman called Syreeta and pursued by a writer named Igoni, Furo lands his first-ever job, adopts a new name, and soon finds himself evolving in unanticipated ways.

  1. Blackass’s premise — a black man who wakes up to find he’s been transformed into a white man (minus, of course, for his ass) — bears a striking resemblance to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. There are also several more character transformations through the novel continuing the theme. How are you responding to or transforming that story?

In Kafka’s story, Gregor, the protagonist, remains confined to his bedroom by his family after his transformation. He spends the rest of his life stuck in a prison of guilt and ingratiation, and never truly explores the arthropodal possibilities of his new identity. For example, what might have happened had he escaped his family and tried to build a new life? That’s a question that Blackass engages, and my main character, Furo, feels in many ways the opposite of Kafka’s hero.

2. The novel also deals with ‘code-switching’: the act of adopting different mannerisms to suit different groups. How do you see this relating to questions of authenticity versus assimilation and survival?

That depends on the society, the individual, and the particular situation. If a person really thinks their survival is tied to whatever manner or idiom they adopt at any point in time, then of course they’ll choose that path over any worries about authenticity. Assimilatory ambitions, however, always go hand-in-hand with some form of self-betrayal. What I’m curious about, though, is how come the white American expat in Nigeria never exchanges his accent for a Nigerian one? And perhaps more to the point, how come so many Nigerian migrants in the United States so readily discard their homegrown accents? The answer to this question springs from the same place as the false dichotomy of ‘expat’ and ‘migrant’.

3. There is a whole section of Blackass written through tweets as Furo’s sister posts about her search for him — why did you choose this device to relate that part of the story? How do you see literature adapting to our increasingly digital culture?

Literature will adapt to digital culture in the same way it has absorbed everything that came before. Case in point is my use of tweets as a literary device — a choice I made for many reasons, one of which was that I wanted my novel to refract the zeitgeist of its characters’ generation.

Idra Novey, author of “Ways to Disappear”

Deep in gambling debt, the celebrated Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda is last seen holding a suitcase and a cigar and climbing into an almond tree. She abruptly vanishes. In snowy Pittsburgh, her American translator Emma hears the news and, against the wishes of her boyfriend and Beatriz’s two grown children, flies immediately to Brazil. There, in the sticky, sugary heat of Rio, Emma and her author’s children conspire to solve the mystery of Yagoda’s curious disappearance and staunch the colorful demands of her various outstanding affairs: the rapacious loan shark with a zeal for severing body parts, and the washed-up and disillusioned editor who launched Yagoda’s career years earlier.

  1. The New York Times reviewer of Ways to Disappear said that “a novel starring a novelist can often seem a little pleased with itself, as if the author is looking over her shoulder” (before going on to express effusive admiration for your book). Does it feel at all strange writing a character who is also a writer/translator?

It felt urgent and necessary to create a character who is both a writer and a translator as I couldn’t find any novels about such a person except for Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story published ten years ago, which was about a translator of French literature. To translate a mostly unknown Brazilian woman writer for American readers is a very different thing. We don’t read much Brazilian literature in the US and even less by Brazilian women. All of those factors play into what the narrator of Ways to Disappear comes to write in her own voice as she’s searching for her author.

2. Before the publication of this novel, you were best known as the translator of Clarice Lispector’s works into English. What drew you to her work? What drew you to translation more generally?

I was drawn to the adventure of it. Translation is a very affordable way to travel. You have to really inhabit an image in order to recreate it in another language. You have to transport yourself, in your imagination, to another country. Whenever I feel restless with certain aspects of life in Brooklyn, I work on a translation and it gets me out of here. It also keeps me writing with a global perspective, remembering the particular privileges that writers have in the United States.

3. One of the themes of the novel is the way that the definitions of others confine and control people. Is there something about the act of translation that can influence this? How do we understand each other as people without boxing others in?

Oh, if only I knew the answer to that last question. But if the answer ever seemed clear to me, maybe I’d lose the drive to keep on writing, as the question of why we can’t help boxing each other and ourselves into narrow definitions is a question I return to over and over as a writer.

Mark Doten, “The Infernal”

In the early years of the Iraq War, a severely burned boy appears on a remote rock formation in the Akkad Valley. A shadowy, powerful group within the U.S. government speculates: Who is he? Where did he come from? And, crucially, what does he know? In pursuit of that information, an interrogator is summoned from his prison cell, and a hideous and forgotten apparatus of torture, which extracts “perfect confessions,” is retrieved from the vaults. Over the course of four days, a cavalcade of voices rises up from the Akkad boy, each one striving to tell his or her own story. Some of these voices are familiar: Osama bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, Condoleezza Rice, Mark Zuckerberg. Others are less so. But each one has a role in the world shaped by the war on terror.

  1. A number of reviewers of The Infernal have commented on the ways in which it disrupts the myth of the trauma hero. What do you think about that narrative? Why do you think, even in the face of the unpopularity of the War on Terror, do we hang on to that myth?

The portion of my book that fits into the “trauma hero” narrative deals with a story of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that was and still is circulating. I’m going to dodge your question a bit, and avoid the larger implications of the trauma hero narrative (which Scranton deals with beautifully in the essay you link) and just say that at the time I started that thread of the book, there were repeated stories in the media of male vets who had killed people back home after they left the military — killed themselves, killed wives or girlfriends. These stories of violence got leaned on. The narrative of murders and also of gun suicide by veterans — it all sort of got mixed together in a media story to indict the Iraq war, and also to indict mental health services for veterans. And I wanted to take that repeated story, and work it into the book. To take the media story — what had become something like a left blogosphere cliché, though of course also a very real story of lives destroyed by war — and make it specific and strange and push into it as hard as I could, within my own abilities.

2. The text of The Infernal is riddled with strings of seemingly meaningless letters and numbers in imitation of data corruption, among other textual oddities. How do you intend these irregularities to affect the reader?

As you say, to corrupt. And they are meaningless, that’s right — if they’re code, as the book suggests, it’s an unbreakable code — in the world of the book, these moments depict “untranslated” material, translations corrupted in the data flow. There were real sentences and paragraphs in earlier drafts of the novel that I chopped out and replaced with the code. But you can’t access the lost text through these randomized strings of characters. There is no key, no way of understanding the randomized characters that will get you back to what was lost. My intent for the reader? In some sense, it’s to make the book uglier, more annoying, more difficult, as the book progresses. To break the reading experience more and more, and to push the reader against this brokeness. Though “uglier” is a bit double-edged here. I could also imagine readers finding the ugly affect aesthetically pleasing and smiling at it as the randomized character sets takes over the page. But I can’t control that. Some people hate it, which is fine.

3. Your description on Twitter is just a quote from Final Fantasy III: “art that evokes the end of the world is popular now.” Can you talk a little about that? What does that mean to you?

I laughed out loud when I saw that FFVI quote last month when I was playing the game. The new novel I’m working on now also involves the apocalypse, though in a very different way — more “realistic,” as it goes. But why am I doing this? Writing a second novel that connects to the same material, and also — not to get too far ahead of myself — working on a third novel set in the same world as the second, with the same apocalyptic preoccupations? I wonder sometimes if anyone cares, if apocalyptic lit is over. And also I wonder what it says about me that I need to anchor my books repeatedly to the literal end of the world. But seeing this quote from over 20 years ago in this video game made me laugh. We as humans are set to die at any moment — could die tonight — and we see in it an apocalypse. As if the whole world ends with us — that’s the narcissism of humans. We will never stop seeing apocalypses. Every year it seems like there are more novels and TV shows dealing with the end of the world. Also, we actually do have the power now to destroy it all, to push a button and unleash the apocalypse. Which was not true for the eschatological Christian communities in 19th century America, for instance. We can actually do it. We can end the world. So quoting “art that evokes the end of the world is popular now” is some combo of wishful thinking for me and my work and truism for the culture.

Get a copy of Blackass, Ways to Disappear, and The Infernal today, and be sure to see these phenomenal writers on Friday, March 11 in conversation with Tobias Carroll from Volume 1 Brooklyn.

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