All That Makes a Life: Jennifer Croft on Writing Her Memoir

Translation requires striking a balance between two people’s voices that can be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

From being the co-winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize alongside the writer Olga Tokarczuk, Jennifer Croft has just been announced as a judge of the 2020 International Booker Prize. Croft works across Polish, Ukrainian, and Argentine Spanish, and is currently translating The Book of Jacob, a nine-hundred-page epic by Olga Tokarczuk. She is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize.

In Homesick, Croft’s memoir, words and their meanings shift and shine through in unusual, tender, and life-transforming ways as the subject moves from a family home, to being the youngest person to be enrolled in her undergraduate class, to going through tragic heartbreaks. A most engaging read, the memoir itself has shape-shifted in interesting ways, having started as a Spanish novel and as a blog. The English-language version (Unnamed Press, September 2019) too is accompanied by photographs, which operate as their own language system, bringing, by turns, softness and sharpness to the storytelling. On the occasion of the release of Homesick, poet and previous Social Media Manager of Asymptote, Sohini Basak, spoke to Jennifer Croft over email.

Sohini Basak (SB): I want to start with the photographs. Could you tell us a bit more about the role of photography in childhood and consequently in your memoir?

Jennifer Croft (JLC): Although photography played an enormous role in my childhood and adolescence, I didn’t really remember that until I started writing Homesick. Because I was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina when I wrote the book, I wrote it in my strange Spanish, which is both foreign (since I started learning Spanish only in my late twenties) and very local (since I’ve only ever studied and spoken porteño Spanish in Buenos Aires). In that first Spanish-language version (called Serpientes y escaleras, coming out next year with Entropía), that language provided a sense of suspense about where this character from Tulsa, Oklahoma was going to go next, and how she was going to end up speaking the way she did.

Then, when I started rewriting the book in English as Homesick, I tried to think of ways to generate a similar intriguing distance between form and content. My agent Katie Grimm and I decided to incorporate some of my actual photographs from my travels over the past twenty years, as well as a few taken by my mother, Laurie Croft, from mine and my sister Anne Marie’s childhood. This meant radically revising the book, turning it into a memoir (rather than a novel), but made sense because there was already so much photography written into the text. For example, an early passage about the two little girls who are the protagonists of Homesick says:

In the four years since she’s had her camera, Amy’s taken fifty-one more pictures of her sister, seven of which feature the dog Santa gave to Zoe last year. The dog is a scruffy Scottish Terrier with a black plastic-looking nose. Like Zoe, the dog is wild, and Amy suspects it is a bad influence, eating things off the floor it knows it’s not supposed to, like dead bugs and Silly Putty. Amy knows for a fact that Zoe still eats the dog’s treats even though she has told her not to more than a million times. But in her camera Amy discovers a way of civilizing both creatures, of teaching them to sit still. They even learn to play dead. Amy takes her pictures carefully because the film is not cheap, making the dog and her sister pose for ages till she gets it just right.

This impulse of the older sister’s to capture the younger sister, to preserve her, is soon heightened even further by the younger sister’s development of a very serious illness that frightens Amy and makes her want to protect Zoe even more.

SB: How did you select and arrange the photographs with the text? And how long did it take to arrange their sequence and sizes, what to leave out and what to include?

JLC: I wrote Serpientes y escaleras in about a month, but it took me a couple of years to work out the design of the English version. I am not a professional photographer, as the text and photographs make clear, but rather someone who organizes her thoughts by means of images, who takes enormous pleasure in the beauty of the world. The challenge here was to also find meaning in that beauty, and to create meaning that would vex the text while remaining inviting. I wanted to design something that would make the reader wonder about the journey to come, whether in the early portion of the text, where the sisters’ lives appear idyllic, or as the text goes on, when the girls are beset by tragedies.

SB: “Neither the Spanish nor the English is a translation.”—it says on the Homesick website. How long have you been working on the memoir? It started off as a blog, and has gone through several evolutions; did the change of medium affect the form and content?

JLC: Shortly before I wrote Serpientes y escaleras, I co-founded a bilingual digital magazine called The Buenos Aires Review that featured new writing from North and South America (and elsewhere), all illustrated by Latin American photographers. And after writing the first draft of my book in English, I started experimenting with a similar format while I was away on a residency outside of Kraków, asking the friends who were reading my draft and responding with their own childhood memories to also send me pictures. That was how the blog started, but it quickly turned into a space for more languages, as well, with friends—and, soon, strangers—offering to translate chapters into their native tongues.

SB: The expansion of the novel and its subsequent version amazes me, the languages range from Farsi, Korean, Bengali, to visual translations. The disclaimer on the website is: “The names of the novel’s characters, as well as the design and sequencing of the chapters, varies from language to language.” As a writer and a translator, did you have conflicting thoughts? 

JLC: Not at all! I relish these differences and encouraged them wherever I could throughout the translation processes. I firmly believe that different things make sense in different contexts, and I appreciate enormously the wisdom of the translator familiar with another context as she works.

SB: Your memoir is as much as about you as it is about your sister, about her presences and absences in your life. There’s a moment of tender clarity when the narrator realizes that in every picture she takes, she wants to capture her sister, the gesture of “cradling” the camera is described as an almost “hermetic, time-repellent embrace.” I love that. Could you tell us more . . . 

JLC: I also didn’t know the book was going to be about my sister when I started it, but as I wrote, I realized that all my fears and feelings of being adrift and homesick revolved around the precarity of her life and health when we were growing up, as well as now. This realization triggered others, regarding empathy, oversensitivity to others’s pain, and even translation, which requires striking a balance between two people’s voices that can be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

SB: When the narrator first translates a poem from the Russian, amidst a recovery after a series of breakdowns, she is drawn back into life, into living. The first words that she uses to describe what she feels after completing the translation are “welcome,” “infinity,” and “safe,” which I found most interesting. Are those sentiments you continue to live with and experience as a translator?

JLC: That harmony is indeed very healing for me, as has been the incredible hospitality shown to me by the many countries where I’ve lived since my early twenties, their languages, and their writers.

SB: In an essay by Olga Tokarczuk (“How Translators Are Saving the World), that you translated, she writes: “Translators free writers from the profound loneliness that is inherent to our work, when for hours or days or months or even years on end we wander alone in the cosmos of our thoughts, internal dialogues, and visions.”

Could I turn that around and ask you if translating a long text is also marked by some kind of loneliness? I’m interested in the texture of the hours and days you spend between languages . . .

JLC: One of the reasons why I wrote the Spanish version of my book was that I had co-founded The Buenos Aires Review, but I was still seeking more ways to become actively involved in the local literary scene. I was living in Argentina, earning my living translating from Polish into English after having just completed a PhD in Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University, writing my dissertation in English.

Strangely, I did also translate a book around the same time from Argentine Spanish (Romina Paula’s August, published by The Feminist Press), but I did most of that translation in Iowa City and Paris. I seem to simultaneously crave isolation and connection, perhaps slightly more than most people do.

SB: You have recently translated Wioletta Greg’s Accommodations, which is a sequel of sorts to her previous book Swallowing Mercury (translated by Eliza Marciniak). Could you tell me about the challenges of writing and translating memoirs, especially ones that are told as fiction?

JLC: It seems to me that the challenge in telling the story more or less as it actually happened is to nonetheless excise all that is not absolutely necessary to the heroine’s trajectory, although it sometimes felt difficult to me to sacrifice scenes and people I remembered fondly or that were important to me for other reasons. The other difficulty for me lay in pinpointing a final destination, when after all I have not yet completed my journey in real life.

Wioletta Greg is a poet and evidently takes great pains to express herself as richly as possible. Translating her is both hard and rewarding because of this.

SB: As children, as siblings, or playmates, we are always constructing secret languages. You delve into this in your memoir. In Wioletta Greg’s books too, there is a language and a world that a girl creates as she grows up, it changes and the codes she changes as she moves out of the house and into a Catholic hostel, a rite to passage . . . 

JLC: Wioletta’s language does change a lot from her first novel, Swallowing Mercury, to her second, Accommodations. I hope she writes a third to make this a coming-of-age trilogy! I also tried to juxtapose somewhat the language of my current self with the clarity and the mystery of childhood by braiding in a letter from adult Amy to adult Zoe that runs throughout the otherwise chronologically told narrative, captions to the color photographs throughout the book.

SB: I love it when translators build the experience of translating a text or an author into a full-fledged book or parallel project that readers can access. I’m thinking of Idra Novey’s collection of poems Clarice: The Visitor and the novel Ways to Disappear. Is there any chance that you will make translation the focus of your next book?

JLC: Yes! Translation is the focus of two of my upcoming novels. One is called Fidelity and is set in Buenos Aires; the other is titled Amadou and is set in the primeval forest on the border between Belarus and Poland. For now, I won’t say any more than that . . .

SB: That sounds so very exciting! You have been recently appointed as one of the judges of the 2020 International Booker Prize. What kind of fiction intrigues you most as a reader? And what kind of fiction would you like to read more of?

JLC: It’s going to be a lot of reading, and I’m excited about all of it. I think anything that is able to get to the heart of a specific experience, character, or place is going to speak to me, whether through the unfolding of events in the narrative, or the nature of the prose, or in some other way. What excites me most in reading translations is coming upon those magical sparks between authors and translators, that excellent match that yields something wonderful and new.

Jennifer Croft’s illustrated memoir Homesick (September 10, Unnamed Press) can be preordered here.

Sohini Basak’s first poetry collection We Live in the Newness of Small Differences won the inaugural Beverly International Manuscript Prize and was published in 2018. She is the recipient of a Malcolm Bradbury Continuation Grant and a Toto Funds the Arts prize for her poetry. Currently, she works as an editor in Delhi.


Read more interviews on the Asymptote blog: