For poet and translator Idra Novey’s inventive debut, the author drew in part on her own experience: her main character, Emma, is the translator of a Brazilian novelist who has gone missing. Emma’s impulsive quest finds her working as an amateur detective in Rio de Janeiro, and that’s when the unexpected adventure — and comedy — of Ways to Disappear truly begin.
We asked Idra Novey to talk with us about the books that have led her on unexpected journeys.
”Even in college, I knew if I ever wrote a novel it would be about someone traveling abroad. All the lines in books that stood out to me enough to type them up and paste them on my wall were from writers who’d left the country where they were born at one point or another. The transcendent changes they underwent as writers, and which their characters underwent as they reckoned with life in a new language led to such radical, surprising revelations. Here are three of the novels I return to again and again about the shifts in perspective that can occur while stumbling in a new language in a country one is just beginning to understand.”
By James Baldwin
“This novel, written while Baldwin was living in Paris, blew my mind open like the doors of a barn when I first read it at nineteen. Nearly two decades later, I still find it transfixing, especially the notion that home is not really a place but an irrevocable condition. To try and get away from one’s childhood is like trying to get away from one’s own torso. You can’t leave your earliest homes behind any more than you can leave behind your rib cage. Baldwin explores this conundrum in bold, miraculous ways.”
Under the Volcano
By Malcolm Lowry
“Whenever I open this book, I shake my head with wonder. Frederico García Lorca coined the term duende to speak of art that is driven by a reckoning with death instead of being inspired by an angelic muse. Under the Volcano is a duende-driven blazing demon of a book. The book follows the last hours in the life of an alcoholic British consul in a small Mexican town on the Day of the Dead, but it’s the visions that fill those hours that got this book into the canon of must-read expat novels and a permanent place on my nightstand.”
Autobiography of Red
By Anne Carson
“Anne Carson is my idol. She also wrote her first novel after working for many years as a poet and translator. This genre-bending genius book is about a love triangle and a complicated trip to Argentina and Peru. But it’s really about the mysteries of being human, as all lasting literature is. At one moment, Geryon, the young photographer at the center of this novel who also happens to be a lonely, red-winged monster, notices that “enormous pools of moments kept opening around his hands.” To leave one’s language and country is a pursuit of such pools of experience. If I ever get stuck on a desert island with one book to keep me sane, it will be this one.”