Jennifer Croft was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 and a National Book Award Finalist for her translation from Polish of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. She is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, MacDowell, and National Endowment for the Arts grants and fellowships, as well as the inaugural Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation and a Tin House Workshop Scholarship for her memoir Homesick. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a founding editor of The Buenos Aires Review and has published her own work and numerous translations in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Granta, VICE, n+1, Electric Literature, Lit Hub, BOMB, Guernica, The New Republic, The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. She currently divides her time between Buenos Aires and Los Angeles. Her memoir, Homesick, follows sisters Amy and Zoe growing up in Oklahoma where they are homeschooled for an unexpected reason: Zoe suffers from debilitating and mysterious seizures, spending her childhood in hospitals as she undergoes surgeries. Meanwhile, Amy flourishes intellectually, showing an innate ability to glean a world beyond the troubles in her home life, exploring that world through languages first. Amy’s first love appears in the form of her Russian tutor Sasha, but when she enters university at the age of 15 her life changes drastically and with tragic results.
Juliana Roth: I first came to your work through your translations. Most particularly, your translation of August by Romina Paul put out a few years ago by the Feminist Press. What drew you to translating that story in particular?
Jennifer L. Croft: My very first friend in Argentina, Martina Verdún—a fabulous translator, traveler, and polyglot—recommended Romina’s novel to me shortly after I moved to Argentina. I came to know and love all the books published by Entropía, a wonderful Buenos Aires indie press that has also published Sergio Chejfec, Mario Bellatin, Mariana Dimópulos, and Sebastián Martínez Daniell, whose beautiful novel Two Sherpas I’ll be translating for Charco Press this fall. Entropía is also publishing my first novel, Serpientes y escaleras, next year.
JR: How exciting! Is this how you first came to writing, through translation?
JLC: I came to translation through writing, thinking of it as a kind of apprenticeship. There is no closer way of reading than translation; it lets you get inside the writer’s mind and examine every little element of theme and style. I’ve learned so much about pace from Olga Tokarczuk, wit from Natalka Sniadanko, vulnerability from Romina Paula, kindness from Federico Falco, feeling from Pedro Mairal, and all of that gets channeled into my own writing, more so than any of my favorite authors in English.
JR: Romina Paula feels like a MasterClass in vulnerability. I also loved her references to Six Feet Under. Watching that show brought up so much vulnerability for me as well because of how close it brings us to death so I was glad to see it in the book along with other pop culture. What I found really remarkable about your memoir was how many genres you moved between in the work: image and text, lines of poetry and prose passages. I want to link this freedom in your writing to your translation practice. Would that be too much of a leap? To see each genre you use as a language?
JLC: I love that interpretation! I think I feel that genre doesn’t have to set limits on where a book can take us. I’d like a literature with a Schengen Agreement, where visual arts can freely intermingle with poetry and prose—I think this is infinitely more reflective of what the world looks like today than a Franzen performing Tolstoy, because our lives and our concerns have in fact changed radically since the nineteenth century. The novel is not an eternal monolith. It’s a relatively recent innovation. Why stop innovating now?
JR: Right. I’m taking the form for granted there. There isn’t a single way to do it. You also introduce the idea of a photograph as a secret early on, defining powerful photographs as ones that withhold some level of information and practice a certain sort of secret-keeping. How did this idea of what we show versus withhold influence your relationship with the reader in crafting Homesick?
JLC: Homesick taught me about silence in literature, how powerful the unsaid can be. I wrote it when I was living in Argentina, learning to play the flute from a wonderful teacher named Nili Grieco, who always reminded me how important it was to wait—to play the note long enough, and then to pause when the music called for it. Rhythm can’t be made by rushing.
JR: I love that. And I feel like each time you switch between genre there’s a new silence, a pause. I’m curious about Homesick being mostly in third person, especially with the idea of the distancing offered by photography that we were discussing. When you turned to the photographs, those sometimes felt like the most intimate moments. You often would switch to addressing a “you,” Zoe. How were you considering point of view here?
JLC: I wrote Homesick first as Serpientes y escaleras, which is a novel in Spanish. When I rewrote the book in English, I also added photographs and developed a structure that would enable the images and the text to be in constant dialogue. My editor at Unnamed Press, Olivia Taylor Smith, was the one who had the idea of calling Homesick a memoir, encouraging readers to connect the contents of the book to the larger context of my life.
JR: And then that has the story take on a whole new meaning. That’s such an interesting choice. I loved how you mapped the synchronicity of the lives of sisters from an almost metaphysical communal memory bank to the biological level with menstruation. What have you learned from writing this memoir in what it means to take on the role of a documentarian within a family, especially a family that’s grappling with an illness?
JLC: One of the lessons Amy learns in Homesick is that trying to capture every important moment in the life of a family, or even in the life of a single family member, is not only futile, but also actively destructive, in the sense that it distances her from lived experience and creates a false sense of security and possession. The notion of a document or a history makes me very wary. I can only tell a story, and all of my photographs show only my perspective, my particular, specific engagement with the world in which I live.