Loving Your Inhuman Characters: Andrés Barba and Yiyun Li in Conversation by Raluca Albu

“All our worst mistakes begin as fiction in our lives.”

Blake Angels 01

William Blake, detail of The Rout of the Rebel Angels from Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1808. Watercolor painting.

Andrés Barba’s latest release, The Right Intention (Transit Books), is delightfully obsessed with obsession. The collection of four novellas features a marathon runner whose marriage is falling apart, an older gay man that talks himself out of pursuing his devoted young lover, a woman struggling with anorexia, and a family waiting for a mother to die. Despite their seemingly grim subject matter, Barba makes these stories buoyant and beaming with intricate interiority that transforms stark alienation into something warm and familiar. 

In his previous book, Such Small Hands, Barba impressed readers by evocatively taking on the point of view of a young girl named Marina, who loses her parents and moves to an orphanage. The collective “we” is used to narrate the story. In The Right Intention, he continues to explore perspectives beyond his own. He had this to say about that process: “It´s exciting to discover things about yourself while writing about people that are supposed to be unlike you. When I started this book, I thought I was just writing about anorexia but then I discovered that I was also writing about myself through that story and the others. Isn´t it always like this?”

To capture the complexity of a character’s inner world with nuanced specificity, Barba said it’s important that “the story comes first, and then the idea. When the idea comes first, there’s a prejudice, and you try to fit the whole world in the small shoe of your idea. When the story comes first then the idea comes out naturally, and sometimes even against your own moral [inclinations] or previous ideas about the world. That´s a sign that you´re writing the real thing.”
Barba has been publishing steadily in Spain since 2001, where he recently won the country’s most prestigious literary prize, the 2017 Premio Herralde. He’s released two other books in English (Rain Over Madrid, and August, October) and last year, Transit Books, a new press in the Bay area with a focus on international literature, launched him into the U.S. market with Lisa Dillman’s beautiful translation of Such Small Hands.

What follows below is an edited transcript of an interview between Barba and Yiyun Li last year at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco. During their conversation, they explored the intricacies of translation, writing from other perspectives, love and power, along with other topics that continue to illuminate our understanding of his latest work. 

—Raluca Albu


Yiyun Li During my recent trip to Russia, my Russian translator came up to me and said that she’d been asked to translate one of my stories within a week, and she’d said how could that be possible? A translator has to spend years reading a writer’s work. She told them she’d need at least six months to read my work before she could translate me. Which is exactly the case with Such Small Hands. In the Translator’s Note, Lisa Dillman writes about how she’s followed your work for years and years, so this is not just a week’s work, this is years of work and love. I read somewhere that your book has been compared to Shirley Jackson and The Virgin Suicides, and I wanted to hear if you have any thoughts about that comparison.

Andrés Barba I haven’t read Shirley Jackson but I’m familiar with The Virgin Suicides, and there’s something about that book that is very interesting to me. I was interested in creating this collective character, and in the very beginning, I thought how could this be done? I was trying different things because the origin of the story came from a chronicle I read by Clarice Lispector. Set in the ’70s in an orphanage, a group of eight or nine-year-old girls kills another girl and plays with her corpse for a week as if she were a doll. It was a terrible story, but at the same time, I thought it was a kind of love story. The origin of that terrible episode was a love story. And I wanted to make this group of girls in the orphanage act as just one person. I tried several things and none of them worked. And then all of a sudden I realized I was writing a Greek tragedy, and that what I needed was a chorus. And when I understood that everything started to work. Jeffrey Eugenides, in his book, understood the same thing, too. But in Eugenides’ book, you never know what is happening inside the mind of the girls. Here it’s the opposite. You know only what is happening in the inner mind of this collective character, and you don’t know what is happening in the mind of the subject.

YL After I finished the book I was trying to envision the group of girls. I could see the body, but I could not see the group of girls playing with the body, which was even more powerful. Marina, we could see; we could see her scar on her shoulder, we could see the seven-year-old. She’s physically present, but this group of girls, their voice was so prominent and prevalent, but their physical presence was a little bit absent. Is that how you imagined it?

AB Yes, I was thinking as you were saying this that it’s always clear when you are not from a place; you can always feel that. But what happens when this makes people think that you have something that they don’t? There’s something there about possession, about the things you have yet to experience.

YL There’s a line at the beginning of the book: “Her first triumph was this: we were no longer all the same.” But they are still the same? Why is that?

AB One of the structures that I had in mind before I started writing the novel was of Paradise Lost. The thing with Adam and Eve in paradise is that nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed. All of a sudden they see that they are naked and they feel embarrassed. Paradise has become a fiction that is no longer believable. But they are still the same. Only the seed of weakness is starting to grow. And the seed of weakness is not sin, but love. What makes us weak is love. When we love we become exposed, and that’s what’s happened to the girls in the orphanage. The orphanage is no longer the same place for them. It’s no longer a paradise.

The Right Intentions

YL And that’s the most disturbing kind of love that you want to have. It’s interesting because these orphans have always been orphans, right? But Marina was not always an orphan. Marina had a pair of parents, the first sentence told you what happened to her parents. So Marina came from the outside—a non-orphan who becomes an orphan. And you said something about possession, she possesses memories, she possesses a doll from the hospital the psychologist gave her, she also possesses experience. Is that why she can never become one of them?

AB After Marina’s parents die in an accident in the opening of the novel, she goes to the hospital and is not reacting to the tragedy in the way she’s supposed to. I was reading Henry James the other day, a story in which there is a woman with a kid who is playing beside a cliff, and the kid is just about to fall and die, but he doesn’t. And she expects to feel something about that, but she doesn’t. It’s a beautiful negative sin in a way, something that didn’t happen that doesn’t provoke something that was expected. And the sum of two negative things provokes the most impressive reaction to this woman, who no longer knows who she is. It’s very interesting what doesn’t happen.

With Marina, she doesn’t react to the accident, and to get her to react the nurse gives her a doll to play with, to make her a little girl again. But when she has the doll in her hands, she becomes something different.

YL In this country when something doesn’t happen and it happened it’s called alternative history. The reason I was thinking about alternative, I mean this is such a beautiful word that has been destroyed by this administration. I love the word alternative, but you can’t use it freely in this moment. Marina could have had an alternative life—two, in fact—she could have stayed that happy child with her parents, or she could have allowed herself to be absorbed into this community. Does she, or does the narrator, have a sense of this possibility? Of how the story denied her that alternative life?

AB I don’t think that’s in the novel, or at least not in the character of Marina, but probably in the character of the girls. We often talk about things that did not happen and what could happen if that did happen, or something like that. But in the case of Marina, she’s kind of an inhuman character, because she just doesn’t react. Her presence in the orphanage makes all these girls suddenly ask themselves: Would I have been a happy girl? The envy and the fascination they have for Marina is the seed of fiction, and fiction is fascinating and dangerous at the same time. All our worst mistakes begin as fiction in our lives. All the things that we project start as fiction, the things we decide from the future is a fiction. The way we reread our past is fiction. So I think I didn’t answer your question.

YL No, I think you answered exactly how I wanted you to. The reason I ask the question is because these girls have a version of the life they want Marina to have, and it’s interesting because you have a group of people who share a vision for someone, and they use their power to make that someone fit into their imagination, yet Marina does not fit into that version. Do you think the girls have power over Marina? Marina certainly has power over these girls.

AB One of the most beautiful things in life is talking about someone you love with another person who loves that same person. There’s an invisible link that starts there.

YL And this is what links the orphans.

AB The thing is, who has power over whom? I think it’s impossible to answer this question. Who has the power, the one who loves, or the one who is loved? Who has the power to modify the other. That would be the question, in which case it would be Marina.

YL Marina did modify the girls. Yes, I think so.

AB But I don’t think she is the one who loves.

YL No she’s not.

AB Well, who knows, maybe? We don’t know what happens inside Marina.

YL But the thing is, it’s so wonderful to write a child character who doesn’t have the capacity to love. It’s almost refreshing. You don’t want a child to always be cuddly. This is the danger of children, right? That reminds me a bit of Peanuts. It’s always children, dogs, and birds speaking. The grownups are all offstage and you can’t even understand what they’re saying. And here we have nurses, the psychologists, the people who run the orphanage, who feed Marina. All these grownups are again sort of a group. What are they like in your head? Are they individual characters?

Barba Such Small Hands

AB I’m thinking of your book now. You say that children don’t talk about the weather. I found that beautiful. Children don’t have small talk. Children always have essential talks. They don’t talk about things that they don’t care about. So I think that is the difference between the adults’ logic and theirs. You say that it was refreshing to talk about a kid who doesn’t love? I don’t know if she doesn’t love, maybe, it’s a possibility. The thing is how open are we to talking about kids as they really are and not in the way that we would love kids to be. We project things on kids because we need them to be that for us. But how accurately are we conjuring the essence of childhood when we do that?

YL Which reminds me of years ago, when my older child was in preschool, and there was a series of articles in the San Francisco Chronicle about how you prepare your child for life. And the preschool teacher wrote a letter to the editor who said, “I don’t understand why you say we have to prepare our children for life, they are living their life. We need to recognize they are living their lives the way we are living our lives.” Which is true. How do you write into these children’s heads? Or is it so effective because you didn’t really think they were children?

AB There are two things here. There is a stylistic problem. How do you put words to childish thoughts? There’s always been a problem with that. You can use a childish tone to address it. But this didn’t happen with the chorus. It was very adult in a way because kids have very sophisticated feelings. But they don’t have the words for expressing them in an accurate way. But what would happen if they did? The question is what is more realistic in order to give an impression of what happens in the child’s mind. So that was the stylistic problem. And the other is, well, I was thinking how would I react in a situation like this. I don’t know if you have cats, for example. I used to hate cats a long time ago. 

My wife is from Argentina, and she was hungry for a cat when we moved to Madrid. And we went to this place in the south of Spain and she wanted to take any cat on the street, it was terrible. In Spain we say, la loco de los gatos, meaning a type of a woman who wants to take all the cats she sees on the street to her house. So we found this newborn cat, and she said please, come on, please, it was almost indecent. Tears in her eyes. Please! And I said, okay, the car was a mile away. I said if the cat comes with us to the car, we take the cat. And she said okay. And we took the cat. Once I had the cat at home, it’s interesting how you start to interact with a mind that isn’t human, it gives you a lot of information. Because dogs are almost human. Dogs are like your cousin. But cats are not, cats are like a martian. But you start to know how to deal with a non-human logic. And I think with kids it’s a little bit the same.

YL I think at seven, eight years old, everything is a life and death thing for them. It reminds me of when I went to a talk at a school and this little girl was reading her school report about her seventh birthday party and she said: “Every grownup came to me and said, ‘Isn’t it fun to be seven?’” And she said “I haven’t been seven yet for a day, I don’t know what to say to you.” I want to ask a little bit about translation. Are you closely involved?

AB Yes, one of the most beautiful things about Lisa is she read the book a long time ago. I just found out the real story about her trip to Madrid two days ago.

YL In the Translator’s Note she writes about how she went all the way to Madrid just to meet you, and to translate your work, but she was so afraid of admitting that she was coming all this way for you that she made up an excuse. “By the way, I’m in Madrid, can we meet up?”

AB We’d already met, and she had already read two stories of mine. But she did this translation totally out love for the book, which is such an unusual thing to experience in life, I don’t mean in literature, in business, but in life. When people do things totally out of love, it’s so beautiful—meaning that Lisa was doing it for free, without knowing if she was going to find a publisher. She is a very good translator, and I knew at that time that she understood the spirit of the book. I trust her so much. I told her to do whatever she wants. And she did it right.

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