Saskia Vogel and Jen Calleja discuss the intersections between writing and translating, the art of depicting power dynamics, and creativity in the time of coronavirus.
The first piece of writing I ever read by you was your translation of Amanda Svensson’s short story ‘Jag vill veta var stockrosorna kommer ifrån’, titled ‘Where the Hollyhocks Come From’ in English. It’s part of the Swedish Series you edited for Readux Books, and I interviewed you about your work back in March 2015 for my translation column in The Quietus in a piece titled ‘The Translator is Present’. What I remember clearly when reading that translation was that the story was intriguing and moreish, but also that I had to talk to its translator, and that I would want to read anything they – you – had written, be it translations or their own writing. There are other translators who don’t or don’t often write their own texts who I wish did, because I get that same feeling when reading their translations that writing is their ultimate mode of expression, and that they wholly inhabit every text they create. What do you make of that grey area we inhabit somewhere within the hyphen between writer-translator? Incidentally, I remembered the other day that you were at my first book’s launch four years ago at DIY Space for London, it was a big surprise as you’re not often in London, so it feels fitting that we’re meeting here, in these emails, around the release of I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For.
Jen, I used to see you every weekend here in Berlin when I’d visit an old warehouse complex that had been turned into a Sunday market with music and food and all the bits, and a Sauna Youth poster was pasted up on (I think) an electricity box. Over the course of a month or two I watched the poster peel and fade. I was new here in Berlin then, as I was when I came to your reading, my first encounter with your poetry and your publisher Jess Chandler’s excellent work, and your band’s poster brought me comfort. A reminder of the web of community that, no matter how solitary the creative life can be, nonetheless exists. The way you mix advocacy, community and art in your career has been an inspiration.
When you asked to do that interview with me, it meant the world. I was new to translating and to have someone reach out and treat me as though I were a translator, rather than ‘trying to be a translator’, gave me a much-needed boost of confidence. Thank you for that. I love that ‘Hollyhocks’ had that effect on you. It was a turning point for me: the first time I let myself be free with a text and found my way in translation. When my novel Permission first came out, I saw myself described as a translator who has written a novel. It shouldn’t matter which came first, but I can’t forget how the desire to become a better writer (and to write that book) has shaped my life more than anything else. I’m two decades into writing and only started translating in late 2013. I didn’t expect to find a career that would shape me as a writer and that would become a passion all its own. Translation felt like channeling, in the seance sense, and I found that sweet space where I could just be immersed in language. It’s where I’m happiest. I treasure that hyphen.
I’m not sure I would have been able to write this novel had I not been a translator. I suddenly understood what 50,000 words meant, you know? And then being so close to another language and to other voices has shaped how I use English. My dad read my book and was like: I can’t believe you got away with using so many fragmented sentences. Well, that’s the Swedish creeping in . . . I look through my novel and note the influence of Lina Wolff and Karolina Ramqvist, and I wonder: where does my voice, their voices, and my translation of their voices intersect? Is it all grey area? Have I been influenced by them or have I engaged in theft? Is influence theft? When reading your story collection, I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For – encountering your playfulness, the many worlds and moods and voices, your imagery – I found myself wondering about this intersection in your work. There is such freedom in your writing. How do writing and translating relate for you? What do you make of influence?
The idea of my face fading away on a Berlin electricity box is a strange one! I remember inviting an author I’d translated, Gregor Hens, to come to that show. He had told me that he would listen to Sauna Youth on YouTube, which made me cringe a bit. He couldn’t make it in the end, but I wonder what he would have made of me on stage shouting my head off. That is a very nice feeling though, knowing that it made you feel connected in some way to that network we’re part of.
What you say about simply gauging the size of a novel through translating is so true. After translating Hens’ memoir Nicotine, which was my second ever book translation, I felt like it was less daunting because, in a way, I’d manage to write a book, that is, (re)construct, (re)write, (re)create those tensions and dynamics for the length of a book. Reading and translating can be a preparation for writing, if you’re so inclined. I think I’m directly channeling Kate Briggs channeling Roland Barthes there. Ultimately influence is a natural part of writing and living. I’ve learned a little something from every author I’ve translated or read, it gets filed away somewhere in my mind, and sometimes I can’t switch off that overanalytical part of my writer-translator brain where I’m not reading like a reader, but in this way of deconstructing every sentence as I go to learn its mystery, its purpose, its rightness.
I started writing while living in Munich for a year when I was 18/19, before I began being a ‘big reader’ (I hadn’t read much beyond the school syllabus) and still years before I would translate anything, which had two effects I think: firstly, I found my own way of writing that felt like it came directly from me, always in this slightly surreal style right from day one, and secondly my English became affected by trying to communicate in my then broken German. I became hyperaware of my limited capacity for communication in German where every utterance became simplified due to necessity, and I started simplifying my English when I spoke with German-speakers as an empathy reflex, because I understood the anguish of a convoluted foreign sentence. This is why my prose and poetry is quite clear and direct, from glimpsing into the absurdity of language and trying to find the essence within everything. You can’t unsee it!
We both deal with power dynamics in our books, but while mine feature a lot of distance in relationships and social encounters, and misuse of institutional and social power, yours explore intimacy, the erotic and non-conventional relationships. I’ve skirted around writing about sex for a long time, it seems impossible right now. I have a pretentious question for you: is sexual desire the lens you view the world through in your writing?
What you’ve written about how broken German impacted your writing made me think of something I read about bilingual children: that knowing two languages increases empathy and awareness of the world around. That is: people appear to each other in different ways, but not all of us learn, are taught, or are encouraged to approach meeting another person with this awareness. Which, weirdly, brings me to your question about sex. Sexual desire is the lens through which I wanted to write Permission. It’s the main character Echo’s perspective, for sure. I wanted to explore how this perspective serves her in the world she inhabits . . . And to an extent, it’s mine. Recently, I’ve started to think that the heart of my interest lies in how we are able and unable to communicate ourselves to each other, personally and politically. That interest overlaps with a curiosity about communities and culture that sit outside of the ‘norm’. So far, perhaps because it has been my world for so long, those communities tend to revolve around the erotic.
I’m thinking about the imagined scenario of Hens watching you on stage with Sauna Youth shouting your head off, that meeting of worlds. Sometimes, I feel like I’m pulling off a fine trick running the lines of life I run. (Most of the time, I think they all coexist just fine.) I’ve unfortunately had too many experiences where being a person (a woman?) who writes about sex has devalued or trivialized me in another’s eyes. I’m still trying to find the essence here, a clear and direct way of formulating myself that will defang such moments.
One story I especially love in your collection is ‘The Turn’. The ship called the Miranda July, the sentence, ‘Once I had started, I kept going back to my hot crab bath,’ the perspectives from which the story is told. It is full of desire, yearning and physicality. The physical experience of being, working, feeling in the world is so palpable. This excites me. May I ask, would you share, why you’ve skirted sex? (Or why you think you have? In ‘The Turn,’ it’s present in its way . . .) And how did the world of ‘The Turn’ come to you?
I sometimes get fixated on thinking long and hard about what I’m going to say so that I get to the heart of the matter, which is clear in my writing too, I think. This is partly from wanting to be clear out of kindness, but also because I hate the idea of taking up someone else’s time! I was a very quiet child, it would take a huge effort for me to say anything. I’d have to think it through from every angle in my head, which has ended up being the perfect reflex as a writer-translator. I think my stories were so short when I started out for that same reason of not over-speaking.
The meeting of worlds thing was strange in the beginning, I wanted people to take me seriously so I didn’t want to mention playing in bands, I thought it would make me seem unprofessional, but then I found that when I did mention it to editors or even writers I translate they would often see it the way I did, that is, as a part of my creative practice as a whole and as an important part of my life.
It was really fun constructing the ‘world’ of ‘The Turn’, and part of the inspiration was this American show Deadliest Catch, about crab fishing, but also Ice Road Truckers and one about modern-day lumberjacks, these brutal, almost addictive, death-wish jobs. The starting point for the story in ‘The Turn’ came from an article about how one sign or tactic of domestic abuse can be a man coercing their partner into being nearly constantly pregnant as a way of keeping them under control and at home. It shocked me, and I thought about it for a long time, how something that was meant to be a happy experience could mask something awful, be turned into a weapon against someone, and what this meant for these women’s sense of motherhood. Darlene becomes the focus for her partner’s superstition, loss of control and paranoia, and throughout the story he is trying to figure out where he went wrong to end up in the place he does. I wanted to describe this kind of relationship, how a woman – and simultaneously their partner – might have slowly found themselves there from an initial place of partnership and mutual desire, but also how she could still find empowerment and happiness within it.
I did write one story a while ago about sex, or rather a professor with sex addiction, called ‘List of Power Stations’. It’s set in a reality where his addiction is not quite socially acceptable, but is recognised as an illness, so when he’s late or has to masturbate under a table people are very understanding because they have an attitude of ‘he can’t help it’. I remember a friend reading it and commenting on how it might have been more interesting if the professor had been a woman. I thought to myself, yeah, why didn’t I make the professor a woman? And then I remembered that it was because I wanted to distance this character from myself. I was partly writing about my own experiences of not feeling able to control my anxiety, which would sometimes manifest as me flapping or clenching my hands or rubbing them together, or sometimes, yep, a heightened sex drive, but it was much more about the fantasy of a world where you could be openly anxious in public or at work and there would be an infrastructure to support you. Maybe I had been worried at the time about what people would think about a woman with sex addiction in a society that allows her to be uncontrollably sexual, whether in a literary text it would just come across as another hypersexualised fantasy woman. If anything, the story seemed believable and tame in comparison to that possibility because we often implicitly allow men to be – and to be depicted as – sexual or hypersexual and seeking out their release.
Even then, the story is about someone unable to really connect and someone out of control, his sexual desire forms a barrier between others including his wife. I wonder what it will take for me to write about people connecting and having great sex together! I’ve always viewed your involvement in sexual subcultures as I would any other field of expertise and experience. We’ve talked about how translation might have affected your writing, but how do you think writing within and about the sex industry, the narratives of sexual fantasy, sex and desire itself has affected your language, your sentences, your writing, what you think about writing as a mode of personal expression?
What you’re saying about taking up space resonates. I’m preparing a grant application for a project at the moment, and I realized that my ‘pitch’ wasn’t a pitch, but a ramble . . . and I can just see their eyes glazing over. An audience, preferably a live one, really helps you figure out how not to overstay your welcome. I recently read comedian Steve Martin’s memoir about his early years as a stand-up, and it struck a chord. He tried out a set once where he eliminated punchlines in order to give the audience the freedom to laugh whenever they liked. It was not well received, and he was left thinking wait, but let me explain the theory behind it! He experimented like this a lot, and as I was reading, I was thinking what a gift a live audience is. There’s an interesting tension between the theory and delivery, the ramble and the pitch. I like to think that 50 Shades of Grey, by introducing an idea of a (deeply flawed) BDSM relationship to the wider cultural imagination ‘warmed up the audience’ for me, and made it more possible for me to write the book I wanted to write, without having to lay the BDSM 101 groundwork that seemed necessary when I first started writing about the subject. Has your experience performing on stage fed into this idea of not overstaying your welcome, that is: helped you understood to whom you’re writing and how it might be received?
I don’t know what this looks like from a male perspective, sometimes I wonder if men are being encouraged to discuss sex with the same inquisitiveness and empowerment non-men are. Piggy, the submissive foot fetishist in Permission, embodies that question for me. He missed out on the Sexual Revolution because the revolution he encountered wasn’t about the kind of sex and community that he was looking for. I mean, the patriarchy fails us all, and I think men as well women can find themselves in places where they can’t, don’t know how, or feel too ashamed to have the kind of conversation about sex and desire that they actually want to be having.
Thank you for saying that about how you perceive my work. I feel really lucky to work in publishing where it is usually seen as that: just another body of knowledge. When I poke my head outside of my bubble, that’s when I can feel quite alone and vulnerable. I suppose working with adult content, I’ve lost a sense of what may or may be obscene or what NSFW means, and I like what that opens up. I put erotic inquiry at the heart of Permission because I wanted to see what it would be like to write a book where sex and desire are given the attention often afforded to other aspects of love and connection, with sex at the center rather than as, oh, let’s say a waypoint in the development of a relationship, and where BDSM is not predominantly used as a metaphor. In a stylistic sense, with Piggy’s sex scenes I wanted to see if I could create an atmosphere of arousal (and anxiety) through form, so that even if the reader can’t relate to his desire, the rhythm of the text might get their heart racing. I also drew on the style of the Swedish modernist Rut Hillarp. Her writing on female masochism, the surrealist aspects of her work and the ‘incomprehensibility’ that has been identified as a feature of 1940s Swedish modernism made me feel free when writing about altered states.
In the weeks we’ve been emailing back and forth, the coronavirus has been putting the world more and more on lockdown. Reality has shifted so quickly. My husband and I work from home, so the day-to-day doesn’t look that different, but there’s an underground river of newsfeeds and uncertainty that has changed the feeling of each day. I’ve been on lockdown since March 9, and only now, in early April, have I been able to start writing again. I’ve been reading, taking notes, but not really understanding how to write at the moment. Olivia Laing’s Crudo springs to mind: a chronicle like that makes sense, and I can feel the virus slipping into my fiction and nonfiction. How have you been faring?
All of what you’ve said is really interesting. Particularly about how form can be the site of arousal – it reminded me of how narrative is control, dominance, purposeful withholding, flirting, and, as is often said, can replicate a very normative route to climax – and how, like you say, sex is often used just a base to hit in the depiction of a relationship, when it’s often so much more complicated and non-linear than that.
When I’m reading I’m a sucker for laughs, I try and read something that will get some kind of reaction because the silence can be deafening. I did a reading at a festival in Ireland in January (when I was thinking about Brexit on the way there and the grassroots #WakeUpIrishPoetry movement on the way back, having witnessed the energy around it first hand) and was amazed at hearing people reacting with little gasps and laughs and a few asides to friends throughout one of the longer stories in my book. I thought it was really generous of the audience, and showed me ‘bright spots’ in the story I hadn’t considered before. In terms of performing in bands, it’s more like playing chicken with myself, how much I’ll challenge myself to scare myself. It’s different with writing because it’s just me, there’s not a wall of noise and distraction behind it, it’s just bare, solitary voice, so it really comes down to whether what you’re saying – and the way you’re saying it – keeps people with you.
I work from home a lot too. In the beginning I started missing my ‘escape route’, the ability to just leave the flat in the morning and go work wherever a bus would take me, starting to work on the bus on the way, or sometimes just riding buses all day writing. Now I see with distance that it had become less about my general need to be on the move and had become more to do with procrastination. My husband and I have set up the desk in the living so we can work diagonally from one another, it’s nice now having a colleague and to not skip lunch or bypass breaks, so I have a far better working routine now than I ever did. I did have a couple of weeks of only reading and making notes for projects. I’ve been writing a pamphlet essay called Goblins that’s partly about the Jim Henson/Disney live-action fantasies I used to watch on VHS as a child – Labyrinth, Return to Oz, The Storyteller, The Dark Crystal etc. – and it’s been nice to accept and welcome the reassuring feeling of regression while rewatching them for a particular kind of ‘comforting research’. What would have been launch day for I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For was when it properly hit me, I had this strong, pre-set urge to get ready and leave the house, which, when you constantly have anxiety dreams about being late, was a tense experience. At first I thought I was being precious when I couldn’t work like I usually did, but then I realised I was having this constant feeling like something was wrong or I had forgotten something, which is obviously my old life. I’ve had an idea for a short story about a psychological coping mechanism I came up with during lockdown. Who knows if I’ll write it, but if I don’t, I’m OK with that.
Saskia Vogel’s Permission is available now from Hachette.