Interview with Karmele Jaio

Our intern Ann had the pleasure of interviewing Karmele Jaio, a Basque writer whose novel Her Mother’s Hands (translated by Kristin Addis) was published recently by Parthian Books. They talked of the central themes of the novel, as well as the experience of being a Basque writer and of being translated.

Ann: What inspired you to write Her Mother’s hands?
Karmele: When I begin to write a book I never know exactly what I’m going to write about, but always feel that I have something inside that I have to write about, that I have something to discover there. Sometimes I think that I write to know what’s in my mind, to know what I want to say. When I began this novel I only had one picture, one image, in my mind: the hands of a woman on the sheet of a hospital bed, and a young woman sitting in a chair near her, looking at her hands. In that moment I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to say, but then I discovered that there were a lot of feelings inside me that needed to get out. I discovered years later that one of the inspirations of this book was the real worry that I felt at that time (without being conscious of it myself) because of seeing my mother converted into an old woman from one day to the next. I wasn’t conscious of this worry when I began to write the book. The writing of the novel helped me discover it.

A: What do you think was the most difficult part about writing Her Mother’s Hands and having it translated?
K: One of the worries that was present all the time while writing the book was not to be too dramatic. The situation I was describing was quite dramatic, so I was conscious that it was very easy to slide in a waterfall of drama. So I can say that I wrote the book with containment in that sense. And about the translations (I translated it myself into Spanish) the most difficult thing was not to lose the sound, the voice. Translating myself was a very difficult task, but also very enriching. I need to translate my own works, whenever I can, because Basque is a very different language. Basque is an isolated language; it has no connection to any other language. So, It’s very different from Indo-European languages. So when I translate into Spanish I need to rewrite my work. It doesn’t work if I translate very literally. More than ‘translate’ I say to myself: how would you write this in Spanish? And I write it that way, because I write in a very different way when I write in Basque than in Spanish. Each language takes you on a different path. And translating your texts is a very good exercise as it makes you know your style of writing better. While I’m translating my own work, I feel like I’m seeing what I wrote in Basque in front of a mirror. I see details of my way of writing that I didn’t know. It’s a hard but a very enriching exercise.

A: How does it feel to have your book translated?
K: Basque is a minority language. When we write in Basque we know that we are writing for a small community of readers. So translation is, obviously, important for us. For Basque literature and for Basque writers it is very important to be translated. So I feel very fortunate because more readers can understand the novel now. This moment right now is a very important moment to Basque Literature. Basque is an old language, but it is at the same time a very young language. In the 1970s, the Basque language was unified, was standardised. So, at that time a new standard language was created called euskara batua. And we write in this language. So Basque writers now feel like treading on new ground, treading on freshly fallen snow. We do not have that huge literary tradition of other languages and this gives us also some kind of freedom when we write.

A: This isn’t your first published work. How does it feel to have everyone treat you as if this is your first book?
K: Her Mother’s Hands was my second book and my first novel, written some years ago. After writing it, I have written another four books, but this is still the most well-known. I understand that is the first time that it appears in English so for English readers it is like my first book. It’s like beginning again. I know the route of this book in Basque (it was very good, better that I expected) but I do not know it in English. It would be very great news if the welcome of the English version was as good as it was for the Basque one.

A: Her Mother’s Hands is the first of your works to be available in English. Could you tell us a little about your other works? Anything you are particularly proud of?
K: Her Mother’s Hands is my most well-known book, but like I said, I wrote another five books: another novel, three short story collections and a poetry book. I always say that I’m a better writer of short stories than novels. I love the power of suggesting that the short stories have. I think I give the best of me in the short stories. And also I am satisfied with my poems.

A: Nerea is a journalist like yourself. How much of her work life is based on your own experiences?
K: I chose this job for Nerea because I thought that it was going to be easier for me to talk about a job I know. That’s the main reason. At the same time, I liked to talk about the representation of reality. Newspapers are doing a representation of reality every day, and we read news like they were reality itself. They are a representation, not the truth.

A: Did you have any particular influences (other books, media or authors for example) in your writing of Her Mother’s Hands or in your authorship in general?
K: Most of my influences are short story writers. I learned to write by reading short stories (Carson McCullers, Katherine Mansfield, Julio Cortázar, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Dorothy Parker…), and in the last couple years my favourite writers are also short story writers like Alice Munro. I love her writing.

A: The book has a lot of very spirited and central female characters. Did you make any conscious choices in regards to the women in your book?
K: It wasn’t a conscious choice. The women appeared there. I think one of the reasons for this is because I’m writing about caring people, and, as we all know, caring is still in this world mostly in women’s hands.

A: At your talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival you said that you wanted to write about relationships and their development. Would you like to elaborate a little on this? SONY DSC
K: In all of my books, there always appears one central theme: the difficulties of communication between people. If I had to describe the world I write in, I would say that it is the world of unspoken words. For me, in all these books it is of more interest what the characters don’t say than what they say. I think that is like real life: we talk about trivial things, and we hide our more important worries inside. For me writing is discovering, and I discovered that the communication between people is one of my worries. I think that we can live with one person for years and still be two strangers.

A: The book has a particular focus on the power and lure of the sea. Is that something that you have felt yourself?
K: Yes. My family is from the coast, from a little village called Lekeitio. My parents had to leave the village and go to a city, Vitoria, in the central part of the country because of my father’s job, and I always listen to my mother saying that in the city she felt that she couldn’t breathe – she needed the sea. And for me the sea has always had this connotation of freedom. In the novel, the sea is a metaphor of life, sometimes it is calm and sometimes it’s furious, but it’s important to look at it with a raised head, with one’s chin up as Nerea’s mother says.

A: How much do you think the uniqueness of Basque experiences (of nationhood and language or lack thereof?) has influenced your writing?
K: I think that we always write from our nearest experiences, and these experiences, of course, are modelling our writing. The only way to talk about a universal theme is to talk about a very concrete thing that you know and that you live. So, I write from my nearest reality and at the same time I think I am writing a universal story that anyone, in other places, can understand and feel.
The language is also very important to me at this point, because writing in a minority language is always a choice. All Basque writers are bilingual, all of us, so first, we have to decide in which language we are going to write. A French or an English writer maybe doesn’t have to think about that. And this choice also has an influence on the way we write.

 

Karmele Jaio Eiguren (1970-)

Cover photo Her Mother's Hands
Her Mother’s Hands (transl. Kristin Addis)

Karmele Jaio is a Basque journalist and writer. She has published several novels as well as short story and poetry collections. Her Mother’s Hands is one of the best selling Basque novels in recent years. It was first published as Amaren Eskuak in 2006 and subsequently translated into Spanish. It has received the PEN Translates Award, and has won the Igartza Prize. In 2013 it was made into a film, which was presented at the San Sebastian Film Festival. One of her short stories appeared in the anthology Best European Fiction 2017.

If you would like to know more about Her Mother’s Hands, you might want to read Ann’s review of it here on the blog.

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An Interview with Bernard Mitchell

Every photo tells a story. A collection of the right photos, can tell a history. Bernard Mitchell’s new collection, Pieces of a Jigsaw: Portraits of Artists and Writers of Wales, captures the faces behind the artistic and literary tradition of Wales. He sat down to an espresso with Parthian and described the origin and process for how these distinct photos were created. Bernard will be presenting Pieces of a Jigsaw at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery on 25th November at 11:00 a.m. as part of the Being Human Festival.

How did this project of taking portraits of writers and artists begin?

I realised there was a group of people from Swansea who were all connected with Dylan Thomas. They were friends, but they were influenced by his writing and they were a symbiotic group if you like. I call them the ‘Swansea Gang.’

Can you talk about your process of staging these portraits?

Daniel Jones was the first of [the Swansea Gang] and I was quite young and very nervous. He very kindly saw me, and they all did. Daniel met with me and we went upstairs to the room where he had a grand piano and he composed his music. Pubs in those days were open at 12 and dead on 12, the clock went boing! and he said ‘Time for a beer.’ So we went to the pub and as we drank more, the more relaxed he got.

Pubs close at three, by that time, we got some very relaxed photographs and it was great. But his wife came in at 3:00 and said ‘Danny, I’m taking you home, I’m locking you in your room, until you compose some music.’ So that’s how it all started, the very first group of people were the Swansea Gang.

And when you’re shooting, do you know when you have ‘the one’ or do you see it in the negatives afterwards?

 

You’ve got to feel it. You know when to stop. But with some artists, they become friends, and some artists I follow. When I restarted in the 1990’s … I wanted to photograph artists and writers and the correlation between them, this catalytic, symbiotic thing that writers and artists are together. Writers are influenced by artists and artists are influenced by writers.

How much time would you spend with these writers and artists before you felt like you could accurately capture them?

I’d always start work about 10 a.m., go to their house, have a coffee, sit down relax have a chat, and while they’re doing that, I’m looking around.

For portraiture and photography, what are the benefits of that medium that other forms of storytelling don’t offer?

Well in the early days, everything was black and white and my opinion of black and white was that it gets to the brain quicker, it’s a very simple . One of the most important things about photography is that it’s international. You don’t have to speak the language. It communicates instantly. You see the image, you should get the message. Fortunately or unfortunately with my photographs, the message is buried deep within the photographs.

Do you envision this project to continue in the future?

I’ve only really just started again, about two years ago. But five years ago, I had a stroke and I did nothing for quite awhile … But now, I want to do it again.

What do you hope people take away from Pieces of a Jigsaw when they read it?

I hope they will look carefully at the photographs and try to analyse what it’s all about, because they’re not accidents. They’re not snaps. They are very carefully constructed, they are constructed within millimeters of what’s in and what’s out.

You said you like the black and white contrast, but there are some stunning colour ones.

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Now, then the reason for this one in colour. Do you see the portraits of herself? She has a red tam. The red tam is by her left foot. By her right foot is a toolbox, it’s red. The tam isn’t on her head, but the tam is on all the portraits in the background and it’s red. That’s the reason for the colour. You see, the colour has a use; it’s not colour because it’s colourful.

Image of Bernard Mitchell with camera.Bernard Mitchell grew up in Swansea where he currently lives after a retiring from a career in photojournalism with Thomson Regional Newspapers. Bernard’s passion for this decades-long project has led to exhibitions at the National Library of Wales and generous donations of portraits to the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University.

Pieces of a Jigsaw can be pre-ordered at the following link: Pieces of a Jigsaw – Parthian Books

An Interview with Nathan Munday

 

‘The mountains themselves are like a kaleidoscope of colour. Something lives in those hues and I wanted to show that we’re not just pieces of slime on this earth, we’re actually wonderfully made and our world is wonderfully made as well,’ Nathan Munday said. He sat upstairs in Heath Christian Bookshop in Cardiff an hour before the book launch of Seven Days, his debut memoir about a trek with his father through the Pyrenees. Published by Parthian in October, Seven Days enfolds readers in the journey–past the vengeful sheepdogs and uncertain storms, and into the warmth of unlikely friendship.

Eddie: When you made this trek in the Pyrenees with your father, did you know you’d be writing a book from the experience?

Nathan: I’ve been to the Pyrenees 7 or 8 times. I didn’t intend to write a book about it all, I do keep a notepad just in case, but that particular week, the main narrative of the book, that was a particularly eventful year. I saw an advertisement for a competition for travel writing in the New Welsh Review, so that was the genesis moment.

E: The memoir is full of characters that are equal parts jovial, solemn, and reflective. Do you think mountaineering attracts a certain type of person, or brings out the same attributes of a vast range of people?

N: I think mountains do attract interesting people, but most people are interesting when you get them on their own. I think that’s the beauty of mountains and refuges is that you’re forced to encounter individuals, rather than groups of people.

 

E: The people you meet in the refuges are transformed into mythological and literary heroes from folklore. Did these attributions occur to you upon meeting them or upon putting together the book?

N: To be honest, a bit of both. When I saw my friend, who we call ‘Hemingway’ come through the door, I did think ‘Dad look, it’s Ernest Hemingway from the dead!’. Others have come later. But I think that’s true of any writer. I think it’s an amalgamation of present experience and looking back.

E: I think it imbued such life into the story.

N: I love myth, and folklore. The whole book really looks at those boundaries of what is real and what is not. And how real people become these heroes or antiheroes or mythic figures. I hope to show in the book that most humans have something wondrous sort of stamped onto them.

E: Let me read a passage from the book: There was something mystical about a grieving traveller crossing a mountain range after so much suffering. The mountains provide an escape for those who suffer. 

Do the Pyrenees provide an escape for you and your father?

N: My dad lost his mother at a young age and I think the hills gave him time to think and sort of stew in what [he was] feeling. For me, I’ve always been quite a sensitive person. I do need those times once or twice a year where I can escape. The modern world doesn’t give us those quiet times. We’re always in a hurry. We eat our food in a hurry. We’re always in a hurry for the next thing in life, aren’t we?

E: The book emphasizes how we associate summits with holiness and accomplishment. Does this notion hold up for you when you reached the summits in the Pyrenees, or it did reside more when you were among strangers in the refuges?

N: I start the book with that idea of ‘to peak.’ And I think a mountaineer has to be careful because you can become a ‘peak-backer’ and all you do, and my dad’s guilty of this, is ticking boxes … The mountains in a way were like a microcosm, where our life is not always going to be on the peaks. The valleys are probably more important, because it’s in the valley you decide which path you take up and if you take the wrong path it can be fatal.

E: Biblical accounts of mountaineering stories are interspersed with yours. Can you talk about how mountaineering provided a helpful lens for you to see these biblical stories in a new light?

N: Religion is always painted in a sort of negative, boring way. But actually if you read the bible, it’s far from it … The historical Jesus was a man, I believe he was also God. He wasn’t just a man, he was a normal man who enjoyed going up the hill, who needed to go up the hill to have times away from the hustle and bustle. It always drew my imagination. I think that’s the crux of it, these are spaces where the mundane fuses with the supernatural.

Nathan Munday is attending Cardiff University for a doctorate exploring Welsh writing in English and Welsh. Seven Seven Days final cover (1)Days was shortlisted for New Welsh Reader University of South Wales Travel Writing Award. He lives in Cardiff and still goes trekking through the mountains with his father for a week every year. He can be contacted on Twitter at @nathanmunday2Seven Days can be purchased from Parthian’s website here: Seven Days – Nathan Munday

An Interview with Eleni Cay

 

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Thursday the 24th of August saw the Slovakian-born poet Eleni Cay attending an evening event at Blackwells in Manchester, alongside two other poets; Michael Conley and Rebecca Hurst. The poets read from their debut collections and engaged in discussion. Parthian intern Julia Bradley attended the event, and interviewed Eleni.

A video of some of the poems performed is available here:

 


 

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Eleni with Parthian’s Julia and Maria

Julia: In your ‘non-poetry’ life you’re a researcher, investigating the effect of technology on children’s learning. How has this research affected your poetry, particularly in A Butterfly’s Trembling in the Digital Age which takes technology as a major theme?

Eleni: Art and science reveal the reality about life and the truth about the world. In my academic research I approach technology systematically. I look for patterns, commonalities and objective assessments of their impact. In my poetic work, I address technology with my heart. I let my feelings bear upon my words, and bring in intelligence from life rather than didactic books.

 

J: A lot of your poems in Butterfly’s Trembling seem to be quite disillusioned with this ‘digital age’ in which we now live, particularly when you write about the use of technology in relationships. Do you think that technology used in this context is purely negative?

E: Definitely not! As Alain Badiou wrote, ‘We shouldn’t underestimate the power love possesses to slice diagonally through the most powerful oppositions and radical separations’. This includes technology and the fact that it can both impoverish and enrich love.

 

J: You’ve created many film poems of your work, which have been shared widely on social media – do you feel any tension or conflict about this, when some of your poems in the translated collection highlight the uneasy alliance between intimacy and technology?

E: As I write on my website, I see multimedia poetry as a way of challenging discriminatory poetic forms. I believe there are many ways into poetry and multimedia can open and validate these multiple paths. To me, poetry can be expressed in a spoken, written, physical or visual mode. Although these different modes of expression have all distinct qualities, I don’t think there should be a hierarchy to them.

I’m particularly interested in spaces that augment content and form into novel poetic genres. This is where dancepoems come in. I have recently created a “Living Book” about dancepoetry. This is part of my ongoing efforts to enrich contemporary poetry with new art forms and diverse voices. The book is freely available online: https://dancepoems.wordpress.com/ . So far, I have received some very positive feedback from poets and dancers across the world.

 

J: Last week novelist Howard Jacobson caused controversy over his comments that the rise of smartphones and twitter could ‘make children illiterate in 20 years’ – how would you respond to this?

E: That’s an interesting comment and I’m curious to know what made Mr Jacobson say that. My definition of literacy is expansive. We have traditional literacies such as reading and writing and new literacies such as multimedia production and design. My projection for the next 20 years is that both kinds of literacies will evolve and enrich our understanding of what it means to be literate. These changes will affect both children and adults.

 

J: What advice would you give to (particularly young) people about navigating today’s ‘Digital Age’? 

E: I don’t think I’m in a position to give advice- we are all participants, designers and evaluators of one big experiment and need to work together to ensure it doesn’t fall apart or leave anyone excluded. The signs that I look for when navigating this “Digital Wild West” are beauty and knowledge. I firmly believe that both hold tremendous potential for recognising that life is full of colours, shades and hues, not black-and-white pathways.


You can watch a video of another interview that Eleni has done here:


Eleni’s first translated poetry collection is A Butterfly’s Trembling in the Digital Age . It was translated from the original Slovak into English by John Minahane.

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The book speaks to the poet’s own (young) generation about how technology affords new ways of expressing love, while nostalgically evoking times before Facebook and selfies. However, nature-versus-technology is not the primary theme here. In fact, most poems focus on how human beings are entangled with technology, and on how they jointly influence all aspects of being in the 21st century.

The butterfly, a symbol of change and fragility, sounds a note of caution about using technology to reinvent love and quintessentially human values. To find the ways in which love can survive in a high tech world, one might need to look again at nature and its laws. The poet tries to catch those subtle harmonies that are often missed when ‘human’ and ‘technological’ are counterposed too exclusively, as Either/Or.

There are 55 poems in the collection, written in a variety of metrical and stanzaic forms, but mostly in common metre, analogous to sung music. The poems are accessible on a first read, with layers that invite a re-reading and re-thinking of what it means to be loved in the digital age.

 

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Eleni Cay is a Slovakian-born poet living in Manchester, UK. Her poems have been published in two pamphlets – Colours of the Swan and Autumn Dedications – and featured in MK Calling 2013 & 2015. Eleni’s poems were included in anthologies such as Mother’s Milk, poetry magazines such as Envoi and Atticus Review and on Button Poetry. A full collection of translated poems was published by Parthian Books in July 2017 and a pamphlet is due in autumn 2017 by Eyewear Press (The Lorgnette Pamphlet Series).

 

johnminahaneJohn Minahane was born near Baltimore in the south of Ireland in 1950. In 1996 he moved to Slovakia. His first major undertaking as a translator from Slovak was a selection of the poems and literary essays of Ladislav Novomeský (Slovak Spring, 2004). Later published works include selections from the lyrics of Milan Rúfus, To Bear the Burden and Sing (2008); Six Slovak Poets 2010; Ján Buzássy’s Eighteen Poems (2012); and the classic novel Three Chestnut Horses by Margita Figuli (2014). Recent poetry collections which he has translated include Jozef Leikert’s The Cobweb of Being (2015), Štefan Kuzma’s whisper (2016), and the anti-war poems written at the outbreak of World War 1 by Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, Bloody Sonnets (2016).