Alicia Kopf

The PEN Ten is PEN America’s interview series. In this special PEN World Voices Festival edition, Mary Ann Newman, co-chair of the PEN America Translation Committee, interviews Catalan writer Alicia Kopf, author of, most recently, Brother in Ice. Kopf will participate in the panel “Translation and the Power of Language,” moderated by Newman, on April 21 at PEN World Voices Festival, and will also appear in tonight’s Festival event “Literary Quest: Westbeth Edition.” View the full Festival program and purchase tickets here. This interview was translated by Mara Faye Lethem.

1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?

My writing is entirely informed by, and grows out of, my identity; however, in the case of a writer, the limits of this identity (identity is in and of itself a complex term) are stretched, tested, and exceeded in the text, giving way to a literary artifact that goes beyond the writer’s limited identity and becomes a mirror for the reader.

In my case, my notion of identity is similar to Pessoa’s (which is why I like to say that Alicia Kopf is not a pseudonym, but rather a heteronym in the style of the Portuguese poet):

“I multiplied myself to feel myself,

To feel myself I had to feel everything,

I overflowed, I did nothing but spill out,

I undressed, I yielded,

And in each corner of my soul there’s an altar to a different god.”

(translation by Richard Zenith)

2. In an era of “alternate facts” and “fake news,” how does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction?

Writing fiction, for me, means searching for the truth. It particularly means exploring existential questions that can only be carried out within the space of a fictional pact with the reader. That does not mean that the process of writing is unmoored from reality; quite the contrary, I write very closely to my experience and then rigorously rework many events clearly marking the perspective, in the first person: I describe them through the narrative voice. This produces a realistic effect, but it is not reality that interests me, but rather the truths behind it. Since I select some fragments of reality instead of others, in addition to combining them freely and adapting them to the narrative format—which has its conventions, such as the mere fact that a story begins and ends—I believe that we must always be skeptical of the possibility of really grasping “the truth” but there is always the attempt to seek it, to find some sort of truth, especially “emotional” truth.

3. Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?

Our writing often reflects the bedrock composed of all that we’ve read and everything that has influenced us. We are products of many voices that have passed through us, as well as the cultural environment we are immersed in. Inspiration is often a combination of various preexisting ideas that we turn into something new, unlike appropriation, which comes from one single reference without citing the original. I am very much in favor of intertextuality, I consider myself a great collector of quotes, although of course I like to pay homage to the original authors by mentioning them. The rest of my writing surely has echoes of my literary inspirations, which I acknowledge when asked about my influences. However, the construction of one’s own voice goes beyond the combination of influences, and as we said earlier, involves an exploration of one’s own identity in order to have it emerge as authentically as possible through the writing. This operation requires courage, and not everyone is willing to do it.

4. “Resistance” is a long-employed term that has come to mean anything from resisting tyranny, to resisting societal norms, to resisting negative urges and bad habits, and so much more. It there anything you are resisting right now? Is your writing involved in that act of resistance?

Writing is in itself a form of resistance. Perhaps that is a platitude, but it must be said that there is nothing that nurtures the act of writing (when “writing” is understood as literary writing) for any end beyond the exploration of the possibilities of existence and the creation of worlds. The act of self-affirmation and radical singularity that writing involves, especially writing that attempts to take on the unknown and the unsaid (meaning literature), always implies a desire to go against the grain, to act as a dissident, to flee the cliché and the complacency of taking refuge in groups and consensus. Writers exist in an uncomfortable space.

5. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?

It depends on the context you live in. In my country it is clear that the right to freedom of expression is severely threatened as there are artists who are being imprisoned for the lyrics of their songs and because of the fact that the Catalan people are unable to peacefully and democratically express themselves by voting, as we saw last October 1, with the referendum that was repressed by the Spanish government. In that sense, I believe that the Popular Party’s conservative and reactionary policies are doing much harm.

6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

Clearly, my novel, Brother in Ice, where I talk about painful things that are hard to broach both for me and for my family, such as my brother’s autism and how that has affected us. When they told me that the manuscript I submitted to the Documenta Prize (without anyone else reading it first) had won, I got scared: I realized that now people would read it.

7. Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?

Not on a stylistic level, since I tend to be an exacting corrector of my own work and sometimes I’ve even eliminated good passages that I later reincorporated in the second edition. Although since Brother in Ice is my first novel, I was completely unaware of the impact my words could have, especially on people who were the basis, in some aspects, of my characters. On the other hand, I never use real names and I try to change enough details so that those models are not recognizable. It is a delicate subject, one which I’ve thought a lot about after publishing. The truth is that after the first surprised reactions, in general the people the characters were modeled on have ended up liking the novel. I wouldn’t take any of it back.

8. Post, stalk, or shun: What is your relationship to social media as a writer?

I consider the social networks to be a great source of information and dialogue (even though I limit my usage for practical reasons). I am aware that I often find myself in news bubbles that confirm my own views on reality. On social media, I prefer listening to posting, even though I enjoy sharing things I like and think my friends and followers will like too. So I use them as a channel for conveying my narrative voice, although I try to do so very occasionally, since the high level of concentration I need to write is incompatible with the visual and informational noise of social media. I suppose you could say I practice “post, stalk, and shun” alternately depending on the creative moment I find myself in.

9. Your book, Brother in Ice, has been translated from Catalan (by Mara Faye Lethem). How did you experience the process of translation? Did it give you any new insights into your own work or your own language? Has Brother been transformed in any way?

In Spanish there is an expression—specifically a verb—used to refer to the act of translating, of “pouring” a book from one language into another; for example, “pour” or “decant” the book from Catalan into English. It seems to me to be a very apt expression—the material, the story, is the same, but the mold of the language changes. In my experience, what most changes in translation is the rhythm, which is a narrative question that is highly important to me. Mara Lethem is a great translator. She asked me many questions during the process, she sought me out to talk about it, and I can say that the story in the English translation is exactly the same. What changes more than anything is the rhythm: In English the words are shorter and sharper, which I like because they remind me of ice’s hard edges, so it works with the book.

10. Finally, can you tell us about a piece of writing that has influenced you that readers might not know about?

In Catalan, my writing model is Josep Pla, for his degree of refinement, precision, and conciseness; his The Grey Notebook is a fundamental book for me. An indispensable author who taught me very early on about the impediments I would encounter when writing, and at the same time inspired me to do so, is Virginia Woolf. Enrique Vila-Matas’s work is also very important to me, as it opened me up to what’s called “auto-fiction,” and at the same time it makes wonderful use of intertextuality, as well as being an example of rhythm on a sentence level. There are also classics to which Brother in Ice is very indebted, such as Moby Dick. Additionally, there are authors I very much admire even though we don’t share similarities on a stylistic level, but on the perceptive level they’ve opened up possibilities in my outlook and expanded the limits of what can be expressed: Clarice Lispector, Alice Munro, and Karl Ove Knausgaard. And others I would have liked to have known about before publishing because they are magnificent, such as Renata Adler, Vivian Gornick, Joan Didion, and Maggie Nelson; I hope that in the future my work will somehow echo theirs.