Alicia Kopf by Mara Faye Lethem

The author and translator of Brother in Ice confront Romantic notions of genius, dysfunctional family expectations, and other challenges to self expression.

BOMB 146 Winter 2019
146 Cover Nobarcode
Img 9374

Installation view of Diary of Conquests at La Capella, Barcelona, 2014, ink on wall. Image courtesy of the artist.

The relationship between an author and their translator can take myriad forms, including a nonexistent one. I figured out long ago that ultimately my loyalty must lie with the text, not the writer, although there are moments when I feel I’m inhabiting someone else’s brain, or aspiring to. I can’t say it’s always comfortable. In the case of the work of autofiction Brother in Ice (And Other Stories, 2018), its author, Alicia Kopf, and I are never at a loss for words when we get talking. She is erudite yet approachable and self-possessed. Our conversations are inspiring, refreshing, and comforting, a bit like consulting the I Ching online, as Kopf’s narrator alter ego does in the novel.

Kopf interweaves research notes with fictionalized experiences, using the epic history of early polar explorers as a metaphor for the narrator’s own heroic journey: her coming of age as an artist, daughter, and sister in the hostile, uncharted territory of early adulthood in a twenty-first-century Catalonia ravaged by economic recession. The resulting hybrid novel is a poetic investigation of the concepts of endurance, resilience, and the frozen emotional lacunae—complicated by interdependence—of family relationships, particularly those with an autistic member: the eponymous Brother in Ice.

Brother in Ice is a paean to creative process; here Alicia and I explore her approach to her subjects, the fraught boundaries of autofiction, and the near ubiquity of dysfunctional families.

Mara Faye LethemBrother in Ice starts with an image of tabular icebergs floating in a pool. If ice is, in a way, the unknown or the paralyzed here, is water the medium where things begin to flow? What’s the importance of this idea your narrator presents, that all the swimming pools in the world are interconnected?

Alicia Kopf Water as a metaphor is deeply rich, and many great works of literature and poetry, like Moby-Dick, are sustained by it. Our bodies are composed primarily of water, and water goes through complex cycles, just as we do. I recommend Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter by Gaston Bachelard, who studied the poetics of elements in depth. For me, most everything can be explained through the different states of water. It is a mirror of the psyche and a conductive element. 

In the case of the swimming pool, this is a purely human construction, limited and artificial, a space of leisure and play. Their continuity within my book is a way to make a limited, domestic space, such as the self, become limitless and contain the essence of something as unfathomable, wild, and ancient as the Antarctic, a territory that freezes and stores information in much the same way as a book or photograph does.

MFL You combine the celestial and the terrestrial to great effect in this book, juxtaposing big metaphors of the creative journey with talk about the more practical aspects of finding your artistic voice. There’s a scene where the protagonist is reading A Room of One’s Own. Implicit in that book was Woolf’s affluence, whereas in yours you address the search for a way to live a creative life without a trust fund.

AK Well, I began this project, after graduating and finishing an internship, during a serious economic recession in Spain. Like so many writers I had to have other jobs. Yet I was aware there was a ticking clock. I knew I had to use the energy of my late twenties to create the work I wanted to make because it would become increasingly difficult—were I to have a family, for example, something I was unable to even consider at that point. And there are a lot of prizes open only to artists under thirty-five, which is unfair.

As a woman pursuing a creative life, I’ve paid a high price in the lack of understanding from my family for my life choices. A boy has promise, whereas a girl, not so much. Not until she proves it, and proving that takes work, which requires self-confidence from the get-go, so it’s a vicious cycle: if you don’t have that confidence to begin with, you’re starting out in a worse position. I knew that everything had to arise from the quality of my work, not attitude, not contacts. I submitted a manuscript I’d shared with no one to a contest for writers under thirty-five, and I won. I chose this investment. A very risky investment.

MFL You don’t have any other artists in your family? As you know, everyone in my immediate family is an artist. There was a point in my childhood when my answer to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was “NOT an artist.”

AK No, I don’t come from an intellectual or artistic background. I had a good public education. My mother was an elementary school teacher, so she had a lot of respect for culture, books, but without being an intellectual. And my father didn’t finish college, so I didn’t have a particularly—how shall I say it?—nourishing environment, although I spent a lot of time in libraries as a girl and that nurtured me. I lacked the knowledge of what it truly takes to be an artist, what it means, how demanding it is, the necessary routines.

MFL I remember a professor I had in art school telling me how his father couldn’t understand how, as an artist, his son had chosen to create something for which there was no market. That joke about art being one-percent inspiration and ninety-nine-percent moving and storage hits a little too close to home for me. Yet the value of a commitment to the art-making process is abundantly clear. They say that art is cheaper than therapy. Do you relate to that idea?

AK One doesn’t negate the need for the other, unfortunately. (laughter) Art’s therapeutic, sure, but let’s not forget it’s a monologue. And sometimes you need an outside perspective. 

MFL One might think you wrote this book as a vehicle for self-exploration, to spew these ideas out and then create art with the, um, vomitus, to put it one way, but it could also be interpreted as a manual or example for others to follow—what was your intent?

AK There isn’t a single intention for a work of art. As artists we lead this curious double life sometimes, feeling something very intensely and searching for an innovative, special, different way to express it. With this book, I was creating a survival guide, using the metaphor of ice and the diaries of explorers like Ernest Shackleton to talk about the life of a contemporary young woman, and how to survive as an artist, and as a woman, in a challenging environment.

That said, the novel’s not just a structure, a set of formal innovations—all of that comes out of a feeling heart. The positive response to that expressive aspect of the book has been a complete surprise and a great gift—I wasn’t expecting it to touch people. As I work, I say to myself, “I’m going to do this, and expect nothing.” I’m doing it because I want to do it. The response of readers has been healing for me—to continue the idea of art as therapy. So many have identified with it—even men, who aren’t my age or part of my cultural context—because I’m speaking about loneliness and a lack of orientation in life, and we’ve all felt that at times. I’m also talking about dysfunctional families, which are most families, if not all in some degree or another.

MFL How did your family react?

AK I’ve always made clear to them that this book is autofiction, not an autobiography; it’s a structure and I’m only talking about certain things in my life, or using them as a basis. Despite that, in the beginning the reaction was, shall we say, harsh—

MFL Did they read it before it was published?

AK My mother did. My father didn’t until later because we weren’t on speaking terms at the time, so you can imagine the state of things in my family. I didn’t think I had much to lose. My mother got angry and made some comments about the character based on my brother. I took it as an impetus to add more to the character, thinking if she was shocked by it, it must have lacked nuance. So her comments were positive, not because they were encouraging, but because they made me consider how that character was depicted. Later, when my parents saw how well the book was being received, they had to reconsider its value. I’m sure that had the book gone unnoticed, their reaction would have been different. They’ve had to recognize that there is something interesting, something valuable there, and in the end they’re proud of me. I think all parents have the best intentions; they want their kids to do well, and when they do they’re very pleased.

MFL As the youngest in a family of artists, I come back to the question: To whom does the family story belong? 

AK I think every artist—you, me, your brothers—uses biographical material because it’s impossible not to. You write based on your points of reference. But there’s a distinction between writing a biography and writing a novel, which doesn’t represent the lives of the real people and is not judging them. I’m in the second camp, although of course there are people who saw things in my work that they felt spoke about their lives. It’s difficult to generalize about whom the stories belong to. There are many devices you can use to protect people’s identities, and in the end someone can still deeply identify with a character and feel that the story belongs to them. But up to what point? If they’ve never formalized that story, written it down, then it doesn’t exist yet as such. I think there are a lot of shades there. Artists don’t invent; they combine and connect preexisting material in new ways. 

What do you think? You have more experience with this. I haven’t suffered through it; I wonder how it would feel for me from the other side …

MFL You know how people say, “This book spoke to me”? Well, I’ve had the opportunity to read certain books knowing they’re speaking to me about my life, for good and for bad. It’s a meta experience, and it can feel like an immense privilege. Someone once fell in love with me based on some idea of me he got from my brother’s novels. That was a long time ago. More recently I got called an asshole in a bar.

AK That’s a bad, or naïve, reader. If someone thinks they know you because they’ve read novels written by someone in your family, that’s a problem of not understanding the function of a novel. 

MFL Alicia, you wouldn’t believe it. Once, at a translation conference, a professor of literature sat me down and said, “I have to ask. Is your father really like that?” I almost fell off my chair. I respect this professor, so I wasn’t sure how to handle it. On one hand, I was like, “Well, yes.” (laughter) On the other hand, I was thinking, How dare you ask me a question like that? In what world is that question appropriate, or even, ultimately, interesting? 

AK Unfortunately, there are a lot of people interested in gossip. And writing, much more than visual art, can give rise to that. I’m still thinking about how to protect my loved ones from that. But seriously, I think that’s a reader who doesn’t understand the difference between reality and fiction. When someone writes an autobiography, it makes sense that people pose questions like that, but a novel is a collage of experiences, and there can be a character that’s a mix of three people and, as such, is none of them.

MFL I suppose you’ve read at least some of Knausgaard’s epic work My Struggle.

AK Yes, I discovered him as I was finishing Brother in Ice and it was very encouraging. I thought, Here’s a person drawing from his own life in a very radical way. I was never interested in using people’s real names because I don’t think that’s important or adds anything. I’m interested in the emotional truth of the story. 

When you’re working so close to your own experience, you’re illuminating areas that were dark. On the other hand, when you’re working with fiction—if absolute fiction exists—you’re typically repeating known narrative patterns. I find that when I look at real life, it always reveals something new to me, something incomprehensible that flies in the face of all cliché. But when I “invent” and think of things with a purely literary logic, I’m actually recombining existing elements. So it’s harder to discover new things. The subjectivity that Knausgaard expresses, that of a man who’s a father and an artist, and all his frustrations; that’s a new perspective. We’ve seen men who are artists, but not so many who are artists and real hands-on fathers. I’d like to see that from the perspective of a woman too, like you, a mother and an artist. Maybe it’s because he’s a man that his take feels so new: I’m sure there are women going through that same “struggle,” but it’s not surprising because that’s the most normal thing in the world. 

Knausgaard has a pristine, masculine, direct way of expressing without trying to avoid offending anyone. Only a man can work that way, without fear of reprisals. To be honest, I was working with that fear about my family. And I don’t have a problematic family; I’m not talking about anything life or death. There are many women around the world who would face much more serious reprisals for telling their own stories. Sadly, self-expression is a privilege that not everyone has.

MFL I wanted to ask about the relationship between your visual art and your writing…

AK Brother in Ice is part of a larger project, Àrticantàrtic, an exploration of polar exploration, asking what has lead so many men to the conquest of blank spaces that are of no apparent interest? And how would one represent a conquest? The drawings reproduced in the front of the book are from an installation of drawings I did called Diary of Conquests. Before Brother in Ice, I made an artist book, Ways of (not) coming home (2012), that also had an accompanying exhibition. I often work this way. I immerse myself in a subject, and there’s a point when I’ve read so much about it, that the drawings just come pouring out and I have an exhibition. And after that comes the novel or book. But basically, it’s all of one piece. It’s an artistic project, and there’s a part that’s expressed textually and another part expressed in drawings or videos.

MFL That approach seems to work for you; you don’t get stuck because you can always switch gears.

AK I’m always doing one thing or the other, and they feed each other, so, yeah, I stay busy and entertained.

The images come first. For me that’s a faster medium, and the novel is more conclusive. For me, a book represents a phase of my life, which is why I need about four years to complete it—to produce the material and then have enough distance from it to be able to see it as somewhere that I was, where I no longer am, so I can play with it artistically. I’m working with the detritus of my life reconfigured into something else, which is not my body or my experience, but contains its essence.

MFL This may be a tangent, but I’m thinking about the Book of Genesis, and how important naming each and every thing is to the story of creation.

AK Over millennia most every human feeling and experience has been named. But an artist can be aware of what he or she is experiencing in a different or particular way. You have to foster an awareness on many levels, not just personally, but also in terms of gender, class, sociology, culture. You have to reach that level of consciousness in order to realize where you are coming from, what your perspective is, and what you can contribute that’s both particular to you and will have an impact on other people. And that’s easier said than done.

MFL Have you seen the film Crumb?

AK No—I know Crumb’s work, but I haven’t seen the film.

MFL It’s an amazing documentary. You have to see it. I should watch it again. The part that’s stayed with me is the figure of Crumb’s brother Charles, who seems to be more talented but less sane—so the artist in the family is not the one with the most genius, but the one best able to communicate the talent he has.

AK I make a distinction between potential and reality. There are hypothetical abilities someone may have, but when it comes to describing them as artists, that I judge solely on the work they’ve created, not the promise of work. Because there’s a lot of talent in the world; I’ve taught and there’s someone talented in every class. The difference between talent and genius is work. And genius without work, the idea of someone who’s considered a genius based on their potential, that’s just a stereotype, one that’s generally reserved for men. I’m still battling that term, which is so easily applied to men and so rarely to women. To me, an artist without a body of work isn’t an artist, sorry. And as such, he can’t be a genius, either. (laughter)

MFL Do you see any value in the typically female role of muse in the world of art? 

AK I was lucky to have gone to art school after that dichotomy had been debunked. I came of age with artists combatting these sorts of notions, like Cindy Sherman, who took on both roles at the same time, to name just one. As muse, a woman conforms to a role that doesn’t offer her many benefits; it’s limiting. It’s not a role I’m personally interested in, no disrespect intended for those who are. Everyone has a right to their own voice, and a muse isn’t exactly someone with a voice. 

MFL Lately, I’ve been thinking about the accepted ways of being an intellectual. I’m sort of the opposite of encyclopedic, and I’ve always felt a little ashamed about that. While at the same time, I want to rage against it as prioritizing a more typically masculine brain. Are you a completist? When you like an author, do you read their entire oeuvre? 

AK When I studied literary theory, I learned that it was useful to do, so I do sometimes. I have to really like the author. I’ve read all of Proust, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and other essentials, but it’s not a way I read habitually. It depends on whether I need to study them in depth or I’m reading more for pleasure. But what does that have to do with a male brain?

MFL I think it’s the idea that the very parameters of how one should read, or think, or write, are more fitting to a certain way of being in the world, a certain tunnel vision, a certain swagger. I get why multitasking isn’t the straightest line from point A to point B, but my creative journey isn’t a single-minded one, by its very nature, so I find myself forced to champion and validate the magpie brain.

AK Of course, they created the parameters. Men created the nineteenth-century cult of the artist or genius, and of course they tailored it to fit them. Maybe we should make our own concept that takes us into consideration. For example, if a woman has children, she can’t have the accepted ascendant professional curve; there will be ups and downs. I don’t think we have to measure ourselves with the same yardsticks. There’s a lot of work to be done in terms of examining those yardsticks, which were made by men, in a specific context, based on the way they worked, that comes out of Romanticism. And it’s probably time to replace them.

MFL I feel like there’s so much we need to replace. Men’s roles are terrible, too. 

AK Masculinity, from a very young age, is a process of frustrating so many desires and pruning sensitive little beings—

MFL They’re not supposed to cry!

AK Exactly, they’re as limited as we are. Yet traditionally, the denial of the expression of certain emotions, etcetera, has afforded men privileges, which they aren’t, in large part, willing to renounce. Why should we renounce so much?

MFL I’m still working on renouncing the female privilege of hiding in the background, of avoiding protagonism. 

I find your book brave, and courage is one of the themes. Sometimes I had the feeling you were challenging yourself.

AK I was searching for examples of epic survival, and trying to force myself to confront a blind spot in my own identity and in my own story, that I hadn’t been able to explain and that hadn’t been explained to me. And when I found it necessary to consult psychoanalysts, I did, because I wanted to discover a space that was unexplored, both narratively and biographically. Does that require bravery? Perhaps, but what I needed to discover was more important than any possible consequences. I wasn’t sure this would ever be published, so I just went for it.

MFL And what are you working on now?

AK Similar things. With less of an emphasis on my family but still centered around my personal relationships. It’s all about finding the limits of expression, finding an obscure spot, something that’s a struggle for me, that I haven’t been able to name, and that’s why I need to write a novel. To discover something through language. Sometimes it’s a struggle, and other times it’s a game. If I could explain it, then I wouldn’t have to write about it. 

Translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem

Lethem is a writer based between Barcelona and Brooklyn, who translates from Catalan and Spanish. She edits the New Catalan Fiction catalog each year for the Institut Ramon Llull. Her writing has recently appeared in Lit Hub and the New York Times.

After the Father by Wendy S. Walters
Pages from the print version of Wendy S. Walters's essay "After the Father" as it appears in BOMB Magazine's spring 2021 issue.

“Each time they told me to smile I felt at risk for oblivion, as if it wasn’t me that they were looking at but, rather, some bright reflection of themselves, some aspiration gnarled against their own self-perception.”

Where You Surprise Yourself: Peter Rock Interviewed by Leni Zumas
Rock Cover

“Some of the best nonfiction is now being written as fiction.” Peter Rock on his new novel, The Night Swimmers.

We Must be Willing to Engage: Matthew Clark Davison Interviewed by Lyle Ashton Harris
Doubting Thomas

A novel that explores gay identity, multiracial relationships, class privilege, and the discrepancy between progressive ideals and enduring stereotypes.

Originally published in

BOMB 146, Winter 2019

Our winter issue is dedicated to this planet’s greatest resource: water. With contributions from Saskatchewan and the American Southwest to Iceland and Northern Europe, an array of voices are brought together here—artists and writers investigating water as site, sustenance, and symbol, along with those expressing alarm and calling for intervention.

Featuring interviews with Lauren Bon, Oscar Tuazon, Jaque Fragua, Brad Kahlhamer, Ruth Cuthand, Janaina Tschäpe, Jessica Grindstaff, Tomoko Sauvage, Cecilia Vicuña, and Alicia Kopf, as well as writing by Laura van den Berg, Natalie Diaz, Stefan Helmreich, and more.

Read the issue
146 Cover Nobarcode