Exercises in translation: an interview with Jenn Díaz

Unauthorized translation of an interview by Núria Escur

Jenn Díaz, writer

“I don’t understand that a woman settles for being only the lover”

A member of the swimming league. That was Jenn Díaz (Barcelona, 1988) until, at age 19, literature came across her way, and from then on she hasn’t stopped surprising. At age 24 she had four published novels to her name, selling well and reviewed favourably by the critics. The latest one, Madre e hija [Mother and daughter], is on the same path. This young woman has got something baffling, something like middle-age maturity in the body of a provocating girl.

Question: It must be tiring to be a young promise for so many years?

Answer: Earlier it was worse. I have been the young promise for six years now and I don’t know when they will stop calling me that. Nowadays youth continues until age 45, I suppose.

Q: Your grandfather assassinated his brother-in-law. Does one, when publishing family secrets, think about the pain that one could inflict on third parties?

A: I published this story because my mother permitted it. But when it came out in the newspaper all of my family went against me. It was strange: I appeared worse than my grandfather who had killed somebody.

Q: Was it a crime of passion?

A: My grandfather had a somewhat retarded sister. Her husband did whatever he liked with her, he also beat her. She was a girl looking for protection in him. It drove my grandfather crazy; one night he invited the other to come up to the rooftop, and I suppose he thought “either him or I.”

Q: Sometimes one has to choose between reality and fiction.

A: I didn’t lie. I explained what my grandfather had done, and I also offered him a justification. I didn’t say “he was an assassin” and period.

Q: “One cannot write without offending anybody,” you remember.

A: And I already work with filters.

Q: Like for example?

A: My mother. For example, I will tell her not to read this interview. My mother is a very special being, with her head somewhat unstable and I know that there are some things that don’t fit well.

Q: It would hurt her? But you have just published a novel called Madre e hija, and it is unavoidable that they will ask you for the similarity.

A: At the beginning I wanted to talk about me and my mother. But in Chile I got to know the story of Claudia -which is Natalia’s story- and I got caught up. I didn’t want to put too much emphasis onto my story so as not to offend… The relationship with my mother on its own is already complex enough, it doesn’t need an additional explicit war. I think once my mother dies I will write the great novel on mothers and daughters.

Q: You will have permission.

A: I will be free. I will take off this filter that I keep right now to survive among my family.

Q: Karl Ove Knausgard did that and antagonized everybody.

A: He opened up a channel, yes. These are too risky exercises. I will wait. But in my texts… my mother can find herself.

Q: You use repeatedly the word “stepmother”.

A: When I got together with my current partner, his daugther thought I was taking away her father from her. She saw me as an enemy, I suppose. Nobody talks about this.

Q: How does one practise motherhood when one assumes it without having sought it?

A: It’s a permanent conflict. One can never let ones guard down. The problem is not the living together with the child; the problem is that she has got a real mother. My partner’s daughter is seven years old, in my house she behaves in one way and in her mother’s  in another. And she already knows how to manipulate all of us. What happens is that she has come upon a specialist in maternity and conflicts. I know all of her excuses.

Q: But there is also a love relationship.

A: Totally. It’s the closest that I am to maternity. When divorce didn’t exist, a stepmother would only appear in the case of somebody dying. Today she arrives because your father has fallen in love with a woman who is not your mother. But the children of divorced parents adapt fantastically: “A new home,” they tell you.

Q: Another dike: do not write what you think until she is 18 years old.

A: Naturally. I cannot commit any irregularity and risk denunciation.

Q: You were never a child who read. In your home they didn’t read.

A: No, at home nobody read. They still don’t read. My father, a bricklayer, didn’t do it and my mother either. I don’t know why I began. I wanted to study psychology to understand myself.

Q: And you went to see a psychiatrist. Did you get it clear?

A: No, he confused me even more. It seemed a horrible experience to me, a bad professional. My great conflict is that the things that people take for granted, for me are not as obvious, I see them from the side. For example, the non-motherhood. I think my problem is confusion, maybe I am a compulsive obsessive…

Q: Some people say you write as if you were double your age. Do you feel like this?

A: My parents always worked -with schedules that didn’t allow them to overprotect me- and I shared a bedroom with a sister who was ten years older. I grew up autonomous. In the after-dinner talk there was never anybody younger than I.

Q: How many times have they criticized you for writing about the Franco regime without having gotten to know it personally?

A: Many times. The important thing for me is neither the Franco regime nor the war. It is the domestic life that the women have got to bear who live during that time. I don’t care that I haven’t studied the Franco regime in detail; my wars could be invented ones taking place in invented countries.

Q: Of all of the women typologies that you have dissected -and it’s been quite a few-, which has been the hardest for you to construct?

A: Natalia has been very difficult, because I can’t understand that a woman settles for being only the lover of a man. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe that she would live it as something natural giving it all for a man who lived with someone else. This “if it’s not with him it’s with nobody, if it is not with him… neither children, nor travel, nor nothing.” These romantic love relationships start from very poor mental constructions. I think that Natalia didn’t have enough courage to go out and get to know somebody else.

Q: But do you think there exists a model of a woman totally accepted by society?

A: Nooo [sic]. I think whatever model of a woman you choose you will commit errors. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you are married, single, divorced, it doesn’t matter; there will always be a sector that views you with critical eyes. And you will be unhappy if you take them seriously.

Q: What do you think abou the so called “mediatic” authors that flood our Sant Jordi celebrations?

A: A pain, a real pain in the …! Actually, I hate Sant Jordi. You realize that in comparison to a mediatic author you are nothing: you sell around 300 copies with a lot of effort and you have to do two additional jobs to survive and pay your dues to social security. The people from outside the sector think that you are doing just fine… but you live like a rat. It is somewhat depressing because one day you find out that this mediatic book has not even been written by the one who puts his/her name to it.

Q: Among your references there is Natalia Ginzburg. How is that?

A: She is the one I admire most and who does appear least in the roles. I want to be Natalia Ginzburg “à la catalana”!

Q: So you will know that she was a blank verse. Gender studies really bored her.

A: Yes, and physically she was very masculine. But she, as man or woman, wrote about daily life, domestic life, and exercise that hasn’t been practised by male authors so far. Therefore I am not angry, nor in pain, nor sad nor anything that they say that I write feminine literature, because it is true. The problem is when they consider that this puts you on a lower level.

Q: Alice Munro received the Nobel prize writing about these apparently “little things.” If you could have gathered around a table three of these people and have dinner with them?

A: It would have been fascinating to sit down with Clarice Lispector. But I was really struck by Martín Gaite. And yes, don’t ask me: it’s true that I bought berets to look like her.

Q: Please describe your generation to me but be critical.

A: So look, I think that my generation is totally frivolous. Very impressionable. Hardly interesting. We are between 20 and 30 years old and spend all day being ridiculous between the mobile phone and the social networks. I am already retiring from this.

Q: They entitle your reviews “Beautiful Jenn Díaz.” I don’t remember any of a male author that would start “Beautiful X.”

A: I can’t stand it, I can’t. This drives me up the wall, they tag you with an explotable cliché. But it doesn’t matter if they call me feminist or machista, there will always be an offended male somewhere.

Q: But in your novels you kill them (males)…

A: They are not useful to me as characters. They are only useful when they explain what we women are.

Q: What has been the most uncomfortable situation as a writer?

A: We live in a world in which if you are not exposed, you will disappear. And I use to be at home, in pyjamas, wrtiting, when suddenly they tell me to get dressed and go to some function. Look, they took a picture for a magazine: “The 20 women who in 2020 will be in plain apogee.” And when it was published they had retouched my legs!

Q: Is it impossible to find eroticism in literary circles?

A: The literary sector is very boring and superficial; with it we all develop into showcases.

Q: When you say to you are interested in the stories that are told “with guts” we have to understand that you suffer with them. Is this at this point not too [Mercè] Rodoreda-esque?

A: The truth is that I don’t like to write, I like having written, to be over with the birth. I am very orderly, responsible, and I cross out pending matters, and with a novel you never stop crossing out. That makes me anxious.

Q: I heard from you that the only engaged literature is that distilled by journalism. Have you ever felt that you could change the world when ending an article?

A: When I write an article I believe that I help somebody, yes, that I give a voice to some collective. That of the stepmothers, for example, who spend years chipping stones for nothing.

Just before this frightful and commercial Mother’s Day [Spain: first Sunday of May; translators’s comment] Jenn Díaz offers a book about this. The first one in Catalan. “I have never had any problems for being bilingual [Spanish, Catalan]. In the end Juan Marsé writes Catalan literature in Spanish. True, when I think the novels in Catalan I fix on my mother-in-law and when I think them in Spanish… I remember my grandmother.”

Jenn, who ended up with a partner who is a mountain bike professional, doesn’t like anything more than being at home, quiet. El Barça. The lyrics of El Último de la Fila. Her world. “Life wanted me as writer [escritor], like this in global masculine form [and not escritora; t.c.],” she says, while she recognizes that out of time she would have liked to steal Voices in the Evening from Natalia Ginzburg. And despite her age she has arrived at the heart of generations double her age. She’s not afraid of her critics’ whip -for one thing or the opposite- and she doesn’t have any intention to shut up. “It’s that my ideas rust if I don’t let them out.” During the final years of highschool she dedicated her investigation piece to schizophrenia: “I was fascinated by a philosophy teacher and what is more, I had a bipolar boyfriend and I myself sometimes live in two parallel worlds.”

SOURCE: (c)Núria Escur, “Quién”, La Vanguardia, April 30, 2016, p. 8-9 [printed edition]



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