Posts featuring Annie Ernaux

Imagining Truths: In Conversation with Gabriela Ybarra

I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life.

“The story goes,” begins Gabriela Ybarra’s novel The Dinner Guest, “that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal.” This guest, Ybarra writes, occasionally “appears, casts his shadow and erases one of those present” and forms part of the complex family mythology that Ybarra seeks to unravel in her stunning documentary-style debut. The Dinner Guest is a free reconstruction of the events surrounding the kidnapping and murder of her grandfather in 1977 and the death of her mother in 2011. Ybarra deftly combines collective memory, media reports, photographs, Google search results, and instinctive imaginings to unearth her family’s traumatic past. Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, The Dinner Guest, flawlessly translated by Natasha Wimmer, has just been released in the U.S. by Transit Books. On the eve of publication, we spoke with Gabriela Ybarra about writing grief, playing detective, and finding freedom in a photograph of Robert Walser.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey, May 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): When did you start writing The Dinner Guest, and was it always intended to be the novel it became?

Gabriela Ybarra (GY): I started to work on The Dinner Guest shortly after my mother died in September 2011. Her illness went by so fast that, when she passed away, I felt the need to write down what I had lived through during the previous months just to make sense of it all. During the process, I got stuck several times. In the beginning, I thought that this was because I was a novice writer and still lacked experience, but as time went by, I realized that there were some behaviors in my family that I couldn’t explain. For example, during my mother’s illness, my father kept talking about a rosary covered in blood, which I thought was very weird, but couldn’t find an explanation for it. As I started to look back, I realized that many of these behaviors were related to the kidnapping and murder of my grandfather by the terrorist group ETA in 1977. In grieving my mother, I stumbled upon the unresolved grief related to my grandfather.

STH: The Dinner Guest is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. The framework of the story is undoubtedly factual; the kidnapping and death of your grandfather, your mother’s illness, and her subsequent passing are all real, and yet, there are also parts that are pure fiction; imagined events, conversations, and connections. Is it important for you that readers view The Dinner Guest as a novel?

GY: Genre isn’t so important to me. I consider the book a novel because I believe that memory is always fiction and, in the case of my grandfather, I had to make up big parts of his kidnapping because nobody in my family would tell me anything about it. For many years, my family lived as if these traumatic events had never happened. I could infer their pain through their silences, but lacked a story; the only information that I had came from the newspapers. In the case of my mother, I did know the events quite well, but reality is often too complicated to make believable, so I had to twist it.

STH: The Dinner Guest reminded me of Annie Ernaux’s Shame, which, in spite of being a memoir, is very similar in tone. Ernaux described Shame as an “ethnological study of myself” in which she examined the influence of a particular incident in her childhood on her relationship with shame. But while Ernaux avoided “inventing reality,” you have actively pursued it while employing voice that feels similarly precise and analytical. Did you experiment with the narrative voice, or did you start the project already sure of the tone?

GY: I like what Ernaux says about the ethnological study of herself. I always feel that I’m a detective of my own life. At the beginning of the writing process, I wasn’t sure about the tone, but I found it through trial and error. I felt that the text worked better when the emotions were contained and not too explicit. In earlier versions, it wasn’t like this at all.

STH: How did you approach researching The Dinner Guest? Did your research most often confirm or contradict your imaginings?

GY: I imagined as I researched. There were many things that I didn’t know, so I couldn’t have imagined them before beginning my research. When I invented things, I always tried to stay true to what I knew of the characters and situations. During the writing of the first part of the book—the part about my grandfather—I was always trying to come closer to my father. Although this is not explicit in the text, it was very shocking for me to see my father’s grieving face in the newspapers; it also impressed me to realize that my father lost his father when he was about the same age as me when I lost my mother. When I saw all the photographs and the news, I couldn’t deny that the murder of my grandfather was true. I always think of The Dinner Guest as a ritual of grief and an exercise of truth in which I use fiction to help me assimilate the deaths of my mother and grandfather.

STH: I find it wonderfully destabilizing the way the narrative frequently cross-examines itself. For example, chapter three begins with a passage which discounts a particular story about your family that is presented as fact in the previous chapter. What inspired you to do this?

GY: In memory, and in most investigations, there are contradictions. I found them constantly in the newspapers.

 STH: Can you speak about your choice to include real documents, including photographs, newspaper articles, and Google search results in the narrative?

GY: I included documents that I felt were important for the story. In the case of the picture of my father with the handcuffs, for example, I tried to describe it, but I thought that it was more powerful to attach the original document. It gives more veracity to the text, I think.

STH: You refer to Robert Walser several times in the book; quoting from The Walk, including the infamous image of Walser on his snowy death-bed and imaginings of Walser’s final walks. How are Walser’s writing and experience in conversation with The Dinner Guest?

GY: Walser’s picture was very inspiring for me. The three deaths narrated in the book seem terrible: my mother died too young at a hospital, my grandfather was kidnapped, and Walser spent his final years in a mental hospital, but I feel that the three of them had—or I like to think that they had—the possibility to die as they lived. My mother was able to die lightly, my grandfather found refuge in his faith, and Walser died walking; that is what he most enjoyed doing. It impressed me to know there is a freedom that is impossible to snatch even when you are in captivity.

STH: Was the experience of “imagining” Walser easier than writing free reconstructions of events involving your family and friends?

GY: It was easier. I think it was the part of the book I enjoyed writing the most.

STH: Are you interested in further examining any of the themes and ideas explored in The Dinner Guest in your future writing projects?

GY: Yes, writing The Dinner Guest has started some very interesting conversations with my father, and I’m thinking a lot lately about how terrorism affected my childhood in the Basque Country. I’m currently writing another book that combines fiction and non-fiction. I’m once again a detective of my own life!

STH: In The Dinner Guest, your narrator mentions writing every Sunday until either being exhausted or running out of ideas. Is this also true for you? What is your usual writing routine?

GY: Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore. I wish I could have an entire day to write. Now I have a 17-month-old baby, and I need to coordinate my working schedule with the kindergarten. The Dinner Guest was written during weekends and very early in the morning, mostly in bed, before showering and going to the office. When I was living in New York, I would often wake at 5:30am in order to get in two hours of writing before work.

STH: Were you involved in the translation of the novel? And how was the process for you?

GY: For me, it’s always painful to reread The Dinner Guest. It is hard to go through my mother’s illness and my grandfather’s death again, and every time that I read the novel, I have the desire to rewrite the whole story. However, it was a pleasure to work with my translator, Natasha Wimmer; she is very sensitive and talented. 

STH: Have English-language readers responded to the book in the same way as Spanish readers have or were there differences?

GY: When I went to London for the book launch, I was impressed to see that most of the people in the audience were women. This wasn’t the case in Spain.

Gabriela Ybarra was born in Bilbao, Spain, in 1983. She currently lives in Madrid, where she writes and works in social media analysis. The Dinner Guest is her first novel and was published to critical acclaim in Spain, where it won the Euskadi Literature Prize 2016, and in the UK, where it was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. She occasionally writes for El País.

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in New York. She holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University and most recently, her work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Gulf Coast Journal, and Cagibi Literary Journal.

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Who Will Win the 2019 Man Booker International?

I tried to decipher from their inflection and word choices whether perhaps one of the books held their attention more than the others.

We know you’re just as eager as we are to learn who will win the Man Booker International Prize tomorrow, so we’ve enlisted our very own Barbara Halla to walk you through her predictions! A member of this year’s Man Booker International Shadow PanelBarbara has read every book on the short- and longlists, making her our resident expert. Read on for her top 2019 MBI picks!

Last year, someone called the Man Booker International my version of the UEFA Champions League, which is fairly true. Although I don’t place any bets, I do spend a lot of my time trying to forecast and argue about who will win the prize. And I am not alone. For a community obsessed with words and their interpretation, it is not surprising that many readers and reviewers will try to decipher the (perhaps inexistent) breadcrumbs the judges leave behind, or go through some Eurovision level of political analysis to see how non-literary concerns might favour one title over the other. Speaking from personal experience, this literary sleuthing has been successful on two out of three occasions. After a meeting with some of the judges of the 2016 MBI at Shakespeare & Company, I left with the sense that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) would take home the prize that year. In 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft) seemed to be everyone’s favourite, and despite a strong shortlist, I was delighted, although not shocked, to see it win.

The winner of this year’s Man Booker prize is proving more elusive. The shortlist is strong, but no one title has become a personal, or fan-, favourite. And I find the uncertainty at this stage in the competition very interesting. It is almost in direct contrast to how the discussion around the prize unfolded between the unveiling of the longlist and the shortlist. When the longlist was announced on 12 March, it was immediately followed by a flurry of online reactions that are all part of a familiar script: despite predictions by “expert” readers, few big names and titles made it onto the longlist. With good reason, some literary critics addressed the list’s shortcomings with regards to its linguistic and national diversity. Independent presses were congratulated for again dominating the longlist, a reward for their commitment to translated fiction. But as dedicated readers tackled the longlist head-on, there was a general feeling of disappointment with a good portion of the titles, which allowed the best to rise to the top quickly.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week in literary news, we recognize the ones who created the world we live in.

We are out for justice this week on “Around the World with Asymptote.” From Brazil, a question of diversity is in the spotlight of contemporary literature. In China, the hundred-year-old May Fourth Movement continues to captivate with its relevance. And over in the UK, the fight for the Man Booker is on. We’re taking you around the world to the major literary events and publications of today, and it’s pretty clear: there are still plenty of us out there fighting the good fight.

Daniel Persia, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil

It’s been a controversial few weeks here in Brazil, as the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS) canceled one of its upcoming events in Rio de Janeiro, scheduled to take place from May 7-9. The workshop, Oficina Irritada (Poetas Falam), received heavy backlash for the lineup’s lack of diversity; though the program claimed to represent “different generations” and “diverse trajectories,” not a single one of the eighteen poets invited was an author of color. Writers, readers and critics alike took to social media to comment—both on the event, and more broadly on the state of literary affairs in Brazil. In contrast, a successful twelfth iteration of FestiPoa Literária, in Porto Alegre, took on the theme of Afro-Brazilian literature, paying homage to writer and philosopher Sueli Carneiro.  

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My 2018: Barbara Halla

It would be a lie to say that I don’t seek stories written by women about what it feels like to live as a woman.

Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, walks us through her reading list for 2018, a diverse set of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books by women writers. Along the way, she reflects on feminist theory, the beauty of contemplative essays, and the power of collective memoirs.

Anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of following me on Twitter knows I am a dedicated disciple of Elena Ferrante. So, when I found out that Edizioni E/O had published an extended literary analysis of her work, I risked missing my flight by rushing to my favourite Milan bookstore (Rizzoli) to buy a copy.

Tiziana de Rogatis is an Italian professor of Comparative Literature, and her book Elena Ferrante. Parole Chiave (Elena Ferrante. Key Terms, not yet available in English) is exactly the kind of book my nerdy heart needed: an investigation into the literary and philosophical works underpinning Ferrante’s literary creations. I think it’s important to note that a great part of Ferrante’s appeal is in her ability to shore her works into a lived reality, one that does not require an extensive knowledge of Italian history, or feminist theory, to be appreciated fully. In fact, with the slight exception perhaps of her collection of essays and interviews Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein), you lose absolutely nothing if you go into it with little context. That being said, de Rogatis does a fantastic job at explicitly laying out and connecting Ferrante’s text to the literary foundation upon which they were built, her analysis a sort of Ariadne’s thread helping the reader through the labyrinth of Ferrante’s writing. Ferrante borrows heavily from Greek and Latin mythology, like Euripides’ Medea or Virgil’s The Aeneid. Many of the struggles her women experience and the way they think about those struggles can be mapped directly onto various modern feminist texts, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Hopefully Europa Editions will translate this book, too, because it is essential reading if you are even mildly obsessed with Ferrante. I am currently re-reading the series and am amazed at how much de Rogatis’s work enriched my understanding: Elena Greco, for example, uses the word “subaltern” frequently throughout the Quartet.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to France, Brazil, and Argentina.

It’s never a slow news day on Fridays at Asymptote. This week we bring you the latest publications, events, and news from France, Brazil, and Argentina.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from France

Is it perhaps time to talk about a renaissance for French literature in English translation? More classic French literature has always had an audience in the English-speaking world, but in the past few months new authors are taking the literary world by storm. Édouard Louis is only twenty-five but already a public figure in France. His latest book, a semi-autobiographical work, History of Violence (translated by Lorin Stein) was published to great acclaim in late June. Alison L. Strayer translated for Seven Stories Press Annie Ernaux’s The Years (published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions), an innovative collective autobiography that is both memoir and social critique of our times. To continue the trend, in June came also the publication of Gaël Faye Small Country (translated by Sarah Ardizzone), a coming-of-age story that tackles hard issues, including the Rwandan genocide and Civil War in Burundi. The Guardian went so far as to call Faye “the next Elena Ferrante.”

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