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from the March 2022 issue

Transcending the Human Viewpoint: A Conversation with Irene Solà

Born in 1990 in Malla, a town north of Barcelona, Irene Solà is one of the brightest talents in the emerging generation of Catalan writers. Her second novel, Canto jo i la muntanya balla, won the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature, the 2018 Anagrama Prize for the Novel, the Núvol Prize, and the Cálamo Prize. This March, Mara Faye Lethem’s English translation, When I Sing, Mountains Dance, is being published by Graywolf in the US and Granta in the UK.

A polyphonic, playful, and inventive novel set in a Pyrenean community, drawing on history and folklore, it has been described by Max Porter as “rich and ranging, shimmering with human and nonhuman life, the living and the dead, in our time and deep time.”

Solà has a degree in fine arts from the University of Barcelona and a master’s in literature, film, and visual culture from the University of Sussex. Her first book of poems, Bèstia (Galerada, 2012), won the Amadeu Oller Poetry Prize and was translated into English as Beast (Shearsman Books, 2017). Her debut novel, Els dics (The Dams, L’Altra Editorial, 2018), was awarded the Documenta Prize. Her visual artwork has been exhibited in the Whitechapel Gallery and Jerwood Arts in London and the CCCB in Barcelona.

We spoke over video call—me in London, her on the Costa Brava, a coastal region of Catalonia, where she is writing her next book.


Madeleine Feeny (MF): When I Sing, Mountains Dance gives voice to the inhabitants—human and nonhuman—of a mountainous area between Camprodon and Prats de Molló, two Pyrenean villages. What is your connection to that environment?

Irene Solà (IS): That landscape gave me a canvas to explore many things I was interested in, such as witchcraft, folklore, certain kinds of violence, and cruel twists of fate. I could play on it with all these perspectives and voices. But although it’s only about an hour from where I grew up, it’s not my hometown. When I was writing it, I was actually living in London, so I traveled to the Pyrenees as often as I could to research, walk around, and talk to people.


MF: There’s a strong sense of the ancient majesty of the mountains, the inexorable changing of the seasons, and the interconnectedness of land, weather, animals, and humans. Where does that derive from?

IS: I had two key ideas when I was working on the book: firstly, I wanted to transcend the human viewpoint by focusing on a specific stretch of land and seeing it through the eyes of all who inhabit it—the humans who live there nowadays, those who lived and died there in the past, the animals, the fungi, the approaching storm, the mythological creatures that are supposed to live there, and even the geological strata that make up the land itself. Secondly, I was very interested in unearthing all the personal stories, folktales, and historical incidents linked to that area. These two ideas—the different perspectives and the layers of events—were my main inspiration.


MF: In the novel, we see the same events from multiple perspectives (chanterelles, a storm, ghosts of the Spanish Civil War). How did you find those distinct voices?

IS: I wanted to explore the fact that we all experience the world differently, so the same moment in the same place will be lived and remembered differently by everyone present. If you take nonhumans into account, that expands even further. I was interested in, on the one hand, shaking anthropocentrism, and on the other, playing with language to give each voice a distinctive way of narrating the world. For example, it was fascinating to write the part of Lluna, a dog who has lived with humans all her life, and the roe deer, who has never seen them before, because I wanted to think about how differently they would perceive humans. The book keeps playing these kinds of games, presenting the same story and landscape very differently. For example, the women who are accused of witchcraft speak in archaic language, and other characters speak in a modern vernacular.


MF: What sources did you use?

IS: I really enjoy research; the writing process is as important to me as the end result. Because I studied fine art, my writing technique borrows a lot from contemporary art methodologies. I begin a book by asking questions and trying to understand what I want to learn about. Then I start reading, traveling, talking to experts. From the beginning, I was very interested in witch trials—I wanted to read historical documents about them—and folklore, which contains all our human virtues and vices. I have this idea that oral storytelling carries DNA of who we are, who we have been, and how we have explained and imagined the world. So I read a lot of stories about those mountains, and the more you research, the more you start realizing the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. I’m not one of those writers who does all the research and then starts writing. No, because everything I find is so exciting, I start writing simultaneously and keep researching as I write because new questions arise.


MF: How did you conceive and execute the novel’s structure?

IS: I wrote the book very organically, not in order. The first chapter I wrote was Chapter One, the storm, and I really enjoyed myself and realized it worked—I could jump into the viewpoint of a cloud and describe the world from there. So, I allowed myself to be very playful and unafraid, and to try everything. And because there are connections between chapters, I somehow wrote them almost at the same time, linking from one to the next. During the writing process, I imagined all the voices as if I were building a mountain, and the central story—about a family that suffers two violent deaths—as a river. In every chapter at some point we can see the river. In some it’s huge, but in others we only hear the water, or it’s mostly subterranean and then appears in the distance. So, this river allowed me to sew together all the chapters, and that helped me construct the whole.


MF: These characters’ lives are shaped by the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, from orphaned children missing limbs to the old grenades that still pepper the hillsides. Growing up in the region, how did this history affect you?

IS: You do feel it, it’s in the conversation—one of my grandmothers used to tell stories about her childhood during the war and there have always been lots of films and books about it. I wanted to explore it in the context of this novel because I was very interested in these layers of story that exist in the world around us, and many thousands had to flee Spain through the Pyrenees—not just soldiers, but families with little children. They crossed those borders, they walked through those mountains. Nowadays you can find things they had to leave behind: parts of guns, bullets, but also empty food tins—marks left by this specific moment in history.


MF: What is it like to be part of the Catalan writing community?

IS: There is a very strong tradition of Catalan literature (poetry and prose), and I absolutely feel part of it. I don’t feel it’s a small community because there are so many writers and readers, a similar number to those in many other European languages. It’s beautiful to be part of this tradition, but I also write in Catalan with the intention of appealing not only to Catalan readers but also, in translation, to readers all over the world.


MF: How does it feel to be translated? How collaborative is that process?

IS: This novel has been sold into twenty-four languages, which is very exciting. Some of the translations are already out and others are in process. Mara Faye Lethem, the English translator, has done an amazing job. Apart from Catalan, I can only read and write Spanish and English, so with both of those translations I tried to be very engaged and help the translator as much as possible. We worked together a lot, reading and rereading and discussing the nuances, but with the others I’ll be less directly involved.


MF: Who are your greatest creative influences?

IS: In Catalan literature: Mercè Rodoreda, Victor Català, Enric Casasses, Maria Callís Cabrera, Joan-Lluís Lluís, Jaume Coll, Mireia Calafell, Blanca Llum Vidal, Carles Dachs, Lucia Pietrelli, Carme Riera . . . I could go on! In world literature, it’s Ali Smith, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Halldór Laxness, Mariana Enríquez, Fernanda Melchor, Cristina Morales, William Faulkner, Juan Rulfo, and Verónica Gerber Bicecci.


MF: How is it working across different artistic disciplines—do they inform one another?

IS: I see my novels as art projects that take the form of a novel. I studied fine art in Barcelona, then finished my degree in Reykjavík. When I was studying fine art, I used to do a lot of video art, drawing, and installation, but also writing, so early on I discovered I was as interested in using words as my prime material as I was paint and the camera. I wrote my first and only poetry collection while I was studying fine art, and then I realized I had been studying art for five years and I felt this urge to study literature. So, I moved to the UK to do my MA in literature, film, and visual culture, and I enjoyed it a lot, but what I liked best was that at night, once I had finished my master’s work, I would write my first novel. Early on in my two degrees it occurred to me that I was interested in using everything I was learning to develop my own creative projects, and ultimately, this was the most important thing I learned: how to work on my own ideas.


MF: Are you currently focused on writing? What are you working on at the moment?

IS: Right now, I’m working on my next novel. Again, it’s an art project that will take the shape of a book, and I’ve been traveling and researching and learning a lot through it. That’s my main focus, but I’m always involved in art projects too, or should I say projects that are labeled art. I’ve just been part of a show in Mataró (near Barcelona), which is still open, and I’m preparing another exhibition for next year. When it comes to form, it depends on the show, but it often involves text, images, a lot of research. My artistic process is always the same. What changes is the shape it takes: it might be hanging on a gallery wall, or it might be a book you can buy in a bookstore. But the process is very similar, and often the one influences the other.


MF: As the Catalan independence movement continues to divide the region, how do you feel about your identity as a Catalan writer? Does the debate influence your work?

IS: I was living in the UK around the time of the referendum, so I experienced it from a distance. As to whether it affects or appears in my work, I wouldn’t say so, especially not el procés, the Catalan independence process that began in 2010. I don’t know if it will appear in the future (this is a question we writers get a lot in relation to the pandemic, and I always say not now, but I’m not sure about the future). As to language, I did not sit down and decide to write in Catalan for any specific reason. I write in it because it is my language, it never crossed my mind to write in any other, and I believe I can write Catalan stories set in the Pyrenees that resonate with universal audiences.


Irene Solà is a Catalan writer and artist, winner of the Documenta Prize for first novels, the Llibres Anagrama Prize, the European Union Prize for Literature, and the Amadeu Oller Poetry Prize. Her artwork has been exhibited in the Whitechapel Gallery.

© 2022 Madeleine Feeney. All rights reserved.

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