Michelle Bailat-Jones’ Fog Island Mountains is a literary feast, a gorgeous excavation of perspective and how it shapes suffering. A writer and translator, Jones’ Fog Island Mountains won the 2013 Christopher Doheny Award from the Center for Fiction. She has translated the work of C.F. Ramuz (Beauty on Earth, Onesuch Press, 2013), Julia Allard Daudet, Claude Cahun, Laure Mi-Hyun Croset and others. Her short fiction, translations and criticism have appeared in various journals including The Kenyon Review, Cerise Press, Two Serious Ladies, Sundog Lit, Spolia, Hayden’s Ferry Review, PANK (online), The Rumpus and The Quarterly Conversation. She also works as the Translations Editor for Necessary Fiction. She took time out of her busy schedule to talk with Entropy.
Entropy: One thing I was struck when reading Fog Island Mountains was how lyrical the prose was. There was a gorgeous flow and rhythm in both the writing and the characters, their personal motivations. How important is rhythm in both your writing and translation?
MBJ: In all honesty, this is one aspect of the novel that I continue to feel somewhat torn about. Yes, I personally love lyrical writing and the rhythm of a text (my own or one I’m reading) is important to me—but I do find there is a limit to how much heavy lyricism a reader is willing to take for 200 pages or more. Sometimes you just need a straightforward sentence. The book knowingly pushes up against that limit, asking the reader to accept that Azami is narrating her story aloud, and it was a challenge to find the right balance. I always read everything aloud when I’m writing, but for Fog Island Mountains I did this multiple times, again and again, switching commas and periods and vice versa, trying to make things smooth, hoping to entice readers into as similar a reading rhythm as the one in which I wrote it. I know this is fairly impossible but I wanted to try.
You ask about translation as well, and indeed, I think rhythm is one of the most important aspects of capturing the essence of a foreign-language text in its English version. It may not be the same rhythm that comes out in the end, but it has to have a similar effect on the reader. This is an aspect of translation that I really enjoy. Language is musical, and I think writers rely on this – it’s a shame when this goes missing in a translation.
Entropy: I love how the weather and the geography, affected by the impending typhoon, become a sort of metaphor and gauge for the tempo of the story. “All that sky above her head, even with the thrashing trees and the moving clouds, she can see the moon, and her heart is beating too quickly with her sudden anger, this redness growing within.” How important is geography to your writing and storytelling?
MBJ: I love this question because it makes me think about why I love fiction that is grounded in place—however big or small that place may be defined within the work—and what makes one novel more geography-dependent than another novel. I get a little jumpy when people talk about setting as character, probably because my translator brain suspects this is maybe just a shortcut way of saying something else, but I definitely seek out and admire books in which the place/geography/setting somehow adds to their texture. I’m thinking of complicated and exciting books like William Goyen’s House of Breath, Kirsty Gunn’s Featherstone, Elizabeth Gentry’s Housebound, Joanna Ruocco’s The Mothering Coven, Tove Janssen’s The Summer Book…
I did purposefully want the weather and the geography in Fog Island Mountains to mirror and highlight different elements of the story. Kyushu is mountainous, rainy, volcanic, routinely damaged by storms and earthquakes—in that sense its geography is shifting, from mud slides and tsunamis to regular flooding and smaller changes, and this is something that people have to deal with all the time. So this became a physical reality that I hoped to parallel beside the emotional reality of a family tragedy with its difficult but necessary re-shaping of inner landscapes.
Entropy: Alec’s emotional arc is so compelling and you delve into his mind and explore the recesses of his suffering and grief. What was that journey like for you as a writer? What were some of the challenges?
MBJ: I have such a hard time answering this question. I’d been circling around issues of grief for many many years in my writing, and Alec’s story is finally where my questions found their most comfortable and honest expression. But it’s funny when you think about how a character is developed, where they come from. I wrote a short story a very long time ago about an American woman who ends up in a small town hospital in rural Japan. She can’t speak the language, she’s sad and angry about a recent event in her life, and she’s really and truly lost… and when they wheel her into her room after her surgery, she wakes up to find she is sharing with an older man, a foreigner like herself. In this particular small town, it seemed the easiest thing to do to put these two foreigners together. It’s absurd. But they spend about a week sharing the room and Alec helps the woman find a small measure of comfort. So Alec came to life as a prop for a completely different story that no longer exists. With him came Kanae, his absent wife, already a part of that original piece, and their three mixed-culture kids, as well as his entire life in Japan as an expatriate. Ultimately this is what attracted me, his complicated life and what it might be like to think about as it reached its conclusion, and so Alec was immediately the true-est part of that original story and from him came the rest of Fog Island Mountains.
Entropy: On the topic of challenges, how did you handle the difficulties of translating Beauty on Earth with its multiple perspectives?
MBJ: The easiest answer is – with a lot of different colored highlighters and thorough checking and re-checking for consistency. Ramuz is so weird in this way. And I mean that as the highest compliment. His POV shifts are sometimes baffling, most often really exciting. How he dares to shift the reader’s position from scene to scene, even within scenes. I love how he alters our understanding of the characters by constantly re-positioning our view of them. My biggest worry for the translation was that some of these shifts would look like translation mistakes, instead of specific author decisions. And sometimes it was hard to know what he was doing and why he was doing it. I’m finishing up another of his novel’s right now, and the shifts are less marked than in Beauty on Earth – this makes it both easier and again a new challenge. In Beauty on Earth the shifts are everywhere, and once you get used to them the book flows forward without much to stop you, but in this new one, the shifts are a bit rarer. They can feel more like interruptions.
Entropy: Can you talk about your translating process? Do you like to work in silence, or with music? Are there any rituals that help you?
MBJ: For all of my work, I have to work in silence. Or, at the very most, with classical music in the background. I just can’t handle any extra words floating around while I’m already working with words. I don’t think I have any interesting rituals when I’m translating… I usually draft with a dictaphone, reading from the work and translating directly. Then I go over everything and double-check my terms. A lot gets changed on this second draft as I re-think all my original choices and see the English on the page. As a writer, I love re-writing more than anything else. I tend to write a draft and then re-write the whole thing (usually with a new structure or POV) after a considerable amount of time has passed. This works for me with translation as well, except I don’t need the time lapse to re-envision the text. Luckily, the author has done this work for me. But I need the re-writing (re-typing, re-reading outloud) to smooth everything out the same way.
Entropy: If there was a dream work (or two) you could translate, which would it be and why?
MBJ: Such a fun question. I’m really interested in women writers from the turn of the 20th century and up to the 1950s and 60s who have never been translated or very little translated. I’m interested in the women who are no longer alive because the chances of their being translated is now that much less. But these were women doing really interesting things whose work hasn’t been made available to larger audiences yet. Specifically I’m thinking of the Swiss writers Clarisse Francillon, Ella Maillart, Monique St.Hélier, Alice Rivaz.. and also Francophone writers in general like Marie-Vieux Chauvet, Hélène Bessette, Claude Cahun and many more.
Entropy: What are you working on next?
MBJ: For writing, I’ve got a novel on submission right now, and so I am taking a short breath between novel manuscripts to finish a longer poetry project I’ve been working on for about a year.
For translation, I have several projects I’m trying to find homes for: a Romanian-Swiss author with a stunning multi-voiced novel about a flood, a book of literary essays from a French author, as well as some short stories by Clarisse Francillon, whom I mentioned above. The easiest way for me to describe Francillon’s work is by comparing her to Mavis Gallant. Francillon was writing about 1950s Paris (where she’d moved from Switzerland) and she was both daring and insightful. Her stories are beautiful, her novels complicated.