Reading for Silence

Idra Novey talks about US intervention through a female gaze, reading silence in literature, and the strange prescience of her new novel, Those Who Knew.

Lauren Goldenberg
November 5, 2018
Photo: Sylvie Rosokoff

I reviewed Idra Novey’s first novel Ways to Disappear—winner of the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature—in 2016, and since then have followed her work closely. In addition to writing fiction, Novey is a poet and translator, most recently of Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. Her new novel, Those Who Knew, set in an unnamed country with a violent political history, opens with a woman named Lena, contemplating going public about her experience of assault at the hands of a rising politician named Victor. I spoke with Novey in her local coffee shop two weeks after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lauren Goldenberg: I looked again at Ways to Disappear and I realized that both of your novels are asking a similar question—how do you know a person? Reading about Victor, who is seen as this champion, this savior by the public, I really thought of Eric Schneiderman, because here was this champion of women’s rights—

Idra Novey: He was pushing for legislation to make choking a partner a crime while he was actually engaged in that behavior in his own relationships. The hypocrisy with a capital H! I had tried to create a character that reflected this hypocrisy, but then to see that happen in such a devastating way in real life, that was really disturbing. I’m really interested in thinking about that disjunct between public presentation and private behavior. With social media sometimes we’re more invested and how we present in public than who we are. And that’s pretty dangerous, to be more invested in reputation than in relationships.

LG: I kept coming back to Freddy, Victor’s brother—that line when he finally confesses what he knows about his brother to his boyfriend, and his boyfriend says, “I don’t know one person in this country who isn’t one step removed—”

IN: —From some kind of brutality.” Which is true. If you don’t think you have some degree of collective complicity in violence, it’s just denial. We have to say it takes the whole village to make social change. It takes all hands. So many of these crimes get lost. Whoever gets control of the narrative gets to dismiss these crimes from history.

Hernán Diaz recently said to me, there’s so many books that are about dictatorship and US interventions but you found a way to make it new. I hadn’t really thought in a conscious way about making it new, I was just staying true to the story that I wanted told. But I felt like what he was getting at was about who was controlling the narrative—that it wasn’t told predominantly by a male narrator; what made it new was talking about what happens in the wake of a US-supported regime from a female perspective.

LG: In both novels you talk about the north. In Ways to Disappear, it’s very explicitly the United States. Here there are no named countries but we all know the referents. As I was reading it, I was thinking about how the characters survive these abusive relationships, but also about the abusive relationship between the unnamed country and the north. The fraught relationship between Lena and the US tourist Oscar displays their very different understandings of their countries’ relationship.

IN: Again, it’s about complicity and how much you don’t even know about your own actions in the world beyond your own community. It was important for me to have that US tourist abroad, to see his level of ignorance about US interventions in other countries. Look at Iran, at Korea, at many of the countries in the Caribbean and the Americas whose trajectory has been altered by US interests and how little we learn about that in school in the United States. I stumbled into my knowledge of US interventions through travel, the way Oscar does in the novel. And I just wonder, when we’re talking about immigration—about a lot of issues in this country—a factor is our limited knowledge of how much we’ve intervened in the direction of other countries. I wanted to address that, but not in a soapbox kind of way.

LG: I think the way 9/11 is handled in the novel really crystallizes this. Oscar is living abroad when he finds out, and he leaves the house and sees that woman driving by in a car, kind of carefree. Most of the time its Americans hearing bad news from abroad and we continue doing that, we continue living our lives—

IN: We do that all the time. It’s important for us to remember that the whole world doesn’t see us at the center of it. America First is not the priority for anyone else. That was one of the turns I anticipated from a very early draft, how to approach 9/11 and how it was perceived by people living in countries devastated by US intervention. I wanted to see an American living abroad reckon with that. And he kind of shuts down. He’s not ready to hear it.

LG: The novel covers 40 years, more or less. There’s this thread of antisemitism, it’s not a major part of the story but it’s subtly there throughout . . . The novel really gets at what is buried under these layers of silence. You learn that one of the characters is herself Jewish but she can hide behind her name—

IN: My grandparents escaped pogroms to Finland, and then came to the US. Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, has always been, and continues to be, a very antisemitic place. So I think I’m much more attuned, perhaps, to the insidious ways that you learn not to bring it up. It’s a safety issue. For many people who grow up in an urban environment where that isn’t a daily threat, you don’t realize that’s actually happening in large parts of our country.

I see myself in the writerly Jewish activist tradition of Adrienne Rich and Grace Paley and Muriel Rukeyser. I want to engage with whoever is being silenced in this country, and to address it in a meaningful way as a writer. I would like to say that growing up in a place where I was made to feel unsafe for being Jewish has helped me access the experience of vulnerability that others have.

LG: In your recent Paris Review piece, you discuss the silence around sexual violence in literature. There’s so much in the book about silence—primarily sexual violence, but it’s also this silence about history . . .

IN: I think sometimes seeing too many scenes of women brutalized and objectified can be a disservice to the humanity of those characters. Showing them in ways where they’re in control of the narrative can give them their sovereignty back. Listening to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, and the details that were seared into her memory—how that bodily memory is what stays with you and recurs in your inner world, how that’s what’s roaring inside you. I wanted to show how that happens for the women in the novel.

There are some of us who have been aware of reading for silence and how silence can be loud because we have been silenced. And I actually think the people for whom it’s most important to learn to read for silence are those who haven’t experienced it. We need to talk about that, because when you have a president who says, why didn’t you tell your parents, you realize how many people in this country have no idea how powerfully people are pushed into silence.

Look at Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and the father in that book who forces his daughter into silence about the sexual abuse that’s going on in their household. She writes letters to God. The story of silenced victims of abuse is throughout literature, but we’re not teaching or discussing it that way. Literature can be a place to start teaching people to hear that silence, to read for it and be attuned to it.

LG: Jia Tolentino wrote a piece recently arguing that Kavanaugh wasn’t confirmed despite MeToo, but because of it. We are saying the things we have wanted and needed to say and in fact we are being punished for it.

IN: It’s a chauvinist backlash, from both women and men. Toni Morrison has that famous quote where she says the enemy is not men, it’s the system of patriarchy. And that’s so important, because there’s nothing wrong with having a male body. And there are as many women who perpetuate patriarchy as there are men. It concerns me when we create this binary of referring to men as the problem, when it’s really masculinity, patriarchy.

The novel really started with an image of this boy being told by his father that he couldn’t cry. One of the questions I wanted to raise was, how are we raising our sons? For them to value being good listeners and being kind, to not think that dominating other people is what gives them value. How do we encourage young men to have the emotional range and the emotional sensitivity that we expect from girls so they grow up to be emotionally capable adults?

Because what happens with those emotionally stunted men? To see Kavanaugh crying over that dopey calendar was so painful. It was so pathetic. He enacted that rage with such confidence, you knew that he had years of training of giving in to that rage.

LG: I wanted to ask about the pig shit. It’s such a brilliant subplot about corruption.

IN: Did you see that actually happened? There were actual pig shit lakes that flooded in North Carolina. I was like, oh my goodness, I invented this and then it actually happened! It was kind of uncanny.

It was great fun to write. That’s something I try to keep in mind always, that if there’s no joy for the writer, there’s no joy for the reader. Even though this is a novel with high stakes, there still has to be room for laughter. Because I think that shift in register, that shift in tone—when you can feel something wreck you and then two sentences later, laugh—is how a book gets deeper into your memory. When I just feel punished by a book page after page, it doesn’t really stay with me.

LG: You also achieve this in the structure itself. You have a straight, more traditional kind of narrative, interrupted by these bits of Freddy’s plays. Has playwriting also been a germ somewhere?

IN: I wrote a play in high school—I think it was the first and only student-written play ever performed in my tiny, public Western Pennsylvania high school. Nobody but the parents of the other theater club kids came. We made plays because they gave us joy, not for an audience. And that’s true for Freddy too: he’s not making money from his art. He’s doing it because it’s the core of his being. It was good as a writer to remember that it’s not about reputation and it’s not about perception. It’s about making the art that you can’t not make. We sometimes underestimate how important joy is to staying true to our convictions, how humor is a form of resilience.

LG: We’ve been talking about the ways that the novel feels so prescient and yet it’s also not, in the sense that it shows you that these power dynamics are true always.

IN: That’s why I thought it was important to do it as a parable; I found I felt freest as a writer working with a country unnamed. Because I do think these power imbalances manifest everywhere and they have for a long time.

One of the beauties of coming to writing fiction in your fourth decade of life is that you have a sense of how things happen over a longer period of time. In this country the younger a writer is, the more excited we are about their books, and there are a lot of prizes that prioritize age as indicative of why something’s exciting.

And that may be true with figure skating and gymnastics. But I think with art, more years of life can make for deeper, more resonant work. I don’t think I could have written this book 15 years ago. It took the books I translated, it took the places I’ve lived, it took the jobs I had, it took the poetry I’d written. I feel like I brought all of that to this book. It felt very much like this was the novel I was fated to write.

Lauren Goldenberg is deputy director at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She is a member of the Jewish Currents Board of Directors and of the Jewish Currents Council, and her book reviews and author interviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Music & Literature.