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.


Her Mother’s Hands & A Glass Eye: Basque Women in Translation

Our intern Ann D. Bjerregaard reviews two newly translated Basque titles and comments on the importance of reading women in translation.

Looking at the shelves in bookstores in the UK, it’s tempting to ask where all the female writers in translation are. Indeed, the blogger Meytal Radzinski as biblibio asked exactly that question in response to a report by University of Rochester which stated that in 2016 only 33.8 % of works that are translated into English were written by female authors. With translated works being comparatively rare in the English-speaking world, this gross gender imbalance should have people worrying.

Translated works from other parts of the world, other cultures, other places and perspectives have the potential to expand our knowledge of the world, to open our eyes to different lives and ways of living, and to give us a glimpse into the world of our fellow humans across the border. Of course, it is a matter of opinion whether you think insight into other cultures, literatures, and experiences is worth having, but if you do, you should be concerned about the representativeness of the works that are translated.

Radzinski is, and in 2014 she decided to dub August ‘Women in Translation Month’ (#WITMonth) to bring awareness to the discrepancy. During this month, readers from all over the world pledge on social media to read at least one work by a woman in translation, and to share book recommendations with each other, as these titles are so few and far between. They often receive very little publicity and so they usually fly well under the literary radar.

To honour Women in Translation Month, here’s my contribution. I have read the two new novels Her Mother’s Hands by Karmele Jaio (translated by Kristin Addis) and A Glass Eye by Miren Agur Meabe (translated by Amaia Gabantxo). Both novels have been translated from Basque and published this year by Parthian Books.

A Glass Eye & Her Mother's Hands
A Glass Eye & Her Mother’s Hands

In Her Mother’s Hands, we follow the journalist Nerea as she struggles to balance her time between a demanding newspaper job – and an even more demanding chauvinist boss – and her work-from-home husband and young daughter whom she barely ever sees. When her mother, Luisa, is hospitalised with total amnesia, Nerea’s life gets even more complicated. Through the novel, we see Nerea battle stress and neurosis, but also work with her elderly aunt to rekindle her mother’s memory; to make Luisa recognise her daughter again.

This is very much a character driven story, and thankfully all three women are very interesting and intriguing characters each with their own distinct personalities, strengths, and secrets. This is a story in which the women are really allowed to come to the fore, out of the kitchens and backrooms. I especially loved how the novel refrained from a classical chick-lit ending. Without spoiling too much, I can say that, uncharacteristically, this is a novel about women that is not centred on getting or saving a love relationship. Her Mother’s Hands could have been so trivial, but thankfully, it had some delightful twists and turns.

I found myself identifying deeply with Nerea in her tautness, her tightrope run to do everything; be a good journalist, a good wife, mother, daughter. She is so plagued with guilt – towards her mother for not having recognised the symptoms of her illness, towards her husband for never being at home and towards her daughter for never being there for her. Jaio’s depiction of Nerea is very believable. Nerea isn’t some superwoman, but neither is she a complete neurotic wreck. She struggles through, combating her self-critical inner demons without letting them paralyse her.

‘Her mother’s hands rest on top of the sheet […] Her hands cover the name of the hospital, as if she wanted to hide where she is. As if even in her sleep, she were trying not to worry anyone.’ (2)
Though it is similar in some ways, A Glass Eye is a very different novel. First of all, it’s autobiographical and very aware of this. The novel is full of meta-comments, self-ironies and reflections on the writing process. It centres on a woman who is a fictionalised version of Miren Agur Meabe as she struggles to fill with writing the hole left by her former lover.

“inevitably, I have become a character on these pages: even though this is me, it also isn’t exactly me (accidentally and on purpose). Such are the advantages and limitations of self-imitation. Another has emerged here, a slightly indomitable one that saw fit to escape my orders and shape into something of her own choosing […] which I allowed” (Meabe 124)

What struck me the most about this book was how it made me realise that I have read very few novels in which the main character is a middle-aged woman, and in which her middle age is allowed to fill so much. I wonder if this is a short coming of my own or of the book market in general. They represent a sort of invisible minority, middle-aged women – in fiction women of their age are often consigned to the roles of mother or wife. Here’s a story about a menopausal woman who swears, has sex, is divorced, refuses to care for her ailing father, and doesn’t worry about her son. It is such a refreshingly honest portrait, and though Meabe sometimes comes off as whiny, she does so with a distanced, self-deprecating irony that makes it a surprisingly entertaining read.

With a first-person narrator who is also a writer and poet, it is only natural that the language of A Glass Eye floats poetically off the page and playfully entangles action and introspection. The descriptions of the landscape and surroundings are deeply sensual, as are those of her glass eye and the slightly gross surgical procedures involved in fitting it.

As you may have guessed, loss is one of the most important themes in the novel. Loss of a lover, loss of youth. Meabe constantly circles around the loss of her eye – the window to her soul, her bridge to other people’s minds. This prothesis becomes an important metaphor in her writing, which gives the story an unusual and intriguing edge.

A Glass Eye has a lot to say, and though it does so in a sometimes poetically roundabout manner, it has an aching resonance that is difficult to escape.

‘My left eye is made of glass. […] When they told me they had to remove my eye I was terrified: it’s not an easy exercise to put aside something you always had and to imagine your face with a fake eye on it, like a scream.’ (3)
Having never read any Basque literature before, I found it very interesting how the setting was both unobtrusive and slightly jolting. Contemporary Basque social issues lurk just beneath the surface of the narratives. Most of the time, the novels could be set almost anywhere that has both city and rural areas, but here and there the reader is offered glimpses of a completely different world, such as when the translators include Basque words, or when characters casually mention war and liberation-struggles.

“They speak as if about something inevitable, as if what happened [a car bombing] were a natural phenomenon, like an earthquake, for example. They speak the same way when something like that happens. As if it were something that had always existed. And it is like that, because for both Nerea and Maite it has always existed. Those of her generation know no other reality.” (Jaio 72)

Karmele Jaio - Event banner - 3rd draft