Q&A: Adria Bernardi on new release Benefit Street

By Sarah Kloth

In this Q/A, Adria Bernardi shares how translation has impacted her writing style and what it has taught her – and much more.

Benefit Street

Benefit Street

For nearly two decades, Şiva has met after work on Tuesdays with four friends at a teahouse called the Kafiye. In interrupted conversations, the women explore what it is to live engaged lives inside and outside the home. Amidst joking and complaints, while drinking too much tea and eating too many sweets, they tell of their days: a son’s ninth birthday, the bruise on the arm of an aging parent, soldiers stationed outside the school, the funeral of an opposition political leader killed in a mysterious car accident.

Set in an unnamed provincial capital of an unnamed country, Benefit Street tells of a wide circle of friends—teachers, lawyers, missionaries, doctors, artisans—in a time of gathering and dispersal. It tells the story of mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, colleagues, and neighbors, as war to the East threatens and constitutional rights are daily eroded by an increasingly authoritarian regime.

The ideals of youth, freedom, and coexistence are severely tested with the shocking revelation that the charismatic leader of their group has sexually abused the women under his care. The limits of reconciliation are tested as Şiva makes an arduous journey into the mountains to meet an estranged mother with a genius for weaving complex rugs.

Tell us about your new book, Benefit Street.

AB: Benefit Street, my sixth book, is set in an unnamed country in a troubled region. It follows a group of women whose lives have been disrupted—subtly or poignantly—by intertwined events, both far-reaching and personal: Civil war, political strife, displacement. Infidelity, children growing up, parents growing older. The shocking revelation of sexual abuse by a friend. Against the backdrop of the gentle knocking and thrumming emanating from a loom as the main character Şiva’s mother weaves masterful, complex rugs, the narrative loops and weaves expertly between scenes of the friends gathering at the café Kafiye for tea and sweets, and through the overlapping shadows of war and change, friendship and separation, loyalty and betrayal, exile and home— leading readers to contemplate what it means to lose a language, a culture, a community and hard-won freedoms.

It’s the winner of the 2021 Fiction Collective Two (FC2) Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, and published by the University of Alabama Press.

You are both a multiaward winning author, and an Italian translator. How have your translation skills impacted your writing style, and what has this taught you?

AB: Bringing over a work into translation requires that I put myself aside, both as a writer and as an individual, to the greatest degree possible, in order to understand the original work on its own terms. That process requires a kind of ongoing questioning; for example, there’s a word which I think is intended to reinforce a tone and meanings of irony. Am I correct? Have I understood correctly? And if so, how do I then find a word or a phrase that imitates it in English?

The practice of translating has deepened and widened the ways I think about lexicon, the choice of words, for a particular work. There is always more than one way a phrase can be translated and there are often multiple choices for a particular word which would all be correct in terms of denotation. For example, small, little, tiny, diminutive, minute, puny. But would some of these choices not resonate with the original work overall? Which of them are in keeping with the meaning of a passage? When I think about the works I’ve translated, there is a wide range.

Three of the translations, those of the work of Tonino Guerra and Raffaello Baldini, involve works written in a particular dialect of Italy and which echo conversation, the spoken word, and the voices of speakers tied to the land and small communities of the countryside left behind by “progress”. By and large, these are storytellers who have not studied for very long in an educational system and who have a visceral attachment to the places, people, and objects of their worlds. Then, there’s The Rings of the Universe by Ubaldo de Robertis, who was a nuclear chemist. I consider all of these works as philosophical poetry, but the explorations are very different.

In translating, there will always be word choices expressing the same original language word that belong to one body of work but not to another. Thinking about words and phrases in this way while in the process of translating changes the writer; it gives her more ways to understand and to consider, among other things, perspective and tone. When I return to a work original to me, a poem, for example, or an essay, I carry with me the same kind of ongoing questioning that occurs during the process of translation, a process that involves continually questioning, asking myself over and over, for example, does this word even belong here?

Your awards include the Bakeless Prize for fiction, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and the Raiziss Depalchi translation award. What has this recognition meant to you, and in what ways has it helped you as a writer?

AB: Writing is a solitary life; it’s a way of living that requires solitude. Anyone dedicated to their craft understands that the moments of validation are few and accepts that the work must be done mostly without outside approval or encouragement because writing is, by its very nature, an internal journey. In those moments when great writers, who are also teachers of their craft, singled out my work for praise, it signaled to me that it has reached its reader, that the work is important, and that it matters in this world. What I also understood is these rare moments, a gift in a writer’s life, sustain her—especially in those inevitable stretches when she gets disheartened. It’s a kind of touch-home, like those places deep inside us that we seek out to sustain us in difficult times. I think of these moments of recognition as a little zone of generativity I call upon from time to time when I’m particularly in need of reminding myself, you know what you’re doing. Ignore the distractions. Trust your voice.

What do you enjoy most about connecting with readers?

AB: One of the most validating moments around the publication of a book is when a reader tells me the work has been important to them and speaks about why they’ve connected with it. It’s an honor whenever someone who has read my work starts talking about how it reminds them of another book important to them and then starts discussing their relationship with books and literature. It’s a deeply gratifying pleasure to learn that a reader has associated the work with another beloved work. Intellectually and creatively, it’s amazing to hear someone discuss how it is that the work reminds them of another work. At that point of the discussion, I’m listening to them discuss their own processes and experiences as a reader which always yields surprising and unexpected insights.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

AB: If what the question is asking is how it is that worlds get imagined, or a voice emerges, or a phrase starts to assert itself, I’m not sure I can answer that. I think of that moment of invention as a kind of coming together in a moment—maybe what I’ve been reading or recall reading, maybe a song that I once knew really well that I re-hear, someone’s offhand comments, a car horn beeping. Books, the world around me, the experiences of people I know intimately and of people I’ll never meet but whose lives have demanded that I pay attention. What’s harder to convey is that it happens through and as part of the writing processes.

I’ve always drawn inspiration from my grandparents and my great aunt, all immigrants, who all had terribly difficult lives of great privation as children and as young people pretty much up through their thirties until, if I can repeat their ironic joke, things really started looking up for them during the Depression. I’m drawing inspiration now from my mother and father, who are both in their 90s, and who are so steady and strong and devoted to the world, and who also somehow, even with the pandemic, maintain a much wider social network than I do. I’m inspired by my mother-in-law who just turned 95 and seems terribly annoyed to have been slowed down at all. My mother, my father, and my mother-in-law have been kind of inspiration in showing how to live in a pandemic that no one seemed to be expecting. I draw inspiration from my husband, who is an outpatient psychiatrist who manages through all the chaos of this world to stay focused and dedicated to his vocation. I draw inspiration from my two grown sons. It’s not a particularly great moment to be a young person, and I get inspiration from their wisdom, kindness, and by the fact that they both seem to see right through all the nonsense.

I draw inspiration from Rebecca J. West, an esteemed scholar of contemporary Italian literature at the University of Chicago. She was my professor when I returned to school in 1989 after having been away for ten years from the academic world to earn a master’s degree in Italian language and literature. Through her intelligence, her creative intellect, her generosity, humor and generativeness, another world opened up to me.

Who has influenced your writing the most?

AB: When I truly committed to the craft of writing, which was immediately after I graduated from college in the early 1980s, there were three writers I studied closely. Reading each of them was life changing. With each, I learned something about language and storytelling that I had not understood before. I had studied literature and history seriously before this. But this was the first time there was not a teacher defining literature and intellectual investigations. And, like so many readers and writers who came of age during this period, I, too, “discovered” Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez, and Toni Morrison. After the discovery of these writers, my relationship to literature, to language, and to self-expression was never the same. Each of the three writers for me represented a creative and intellectual liberation, a model, a way to live one’s life as a witness to the world, to invent new language, and in the invention of new imagined worlds to adhere to a high standard of the intellect. I learned that I was solitary and that I needed to work in solitude. It was the reading of these authors, what was so liberating for a young woman inventing herself as a writer, was the experiencing, this work belongs to you—the reader. There is no intermediary. They each gave me the liberating message and the challenge that there’s no one else who can write what I alone can write.

Describe a typical writing day.

AB: Well, to watch what goes on is pretty boring. What might show is me stepping outside to check the mailbox. A typical day starts with a cup of tea and sitting still for a few long moments by myself trying to understand what I’m experiencing. Were there any dreams of note? What am I preoccupied with? This morning, I try to listen for any phrases that might be going through my mind and to detect whether or not there are concepts I’m focused on or circling around. At breakfast, I usually read the news. Over the years, I’ve gotten into the habit of going for my walk first thing in the morning because 1) if I don’t I won’t do it, and 2) for much of the year in Nashville it’s too hot to take a walk any later in the day. I sit down to write every day in the morning, including weekends, and I work until noon or one. Which is lunchtime. Over the course of the afternoon, I may revisit something I’ve written earlier or tend to administrative tasks. Ideally, I’ll finish the afternoon reading something that I’ve committed to reading deeply. Somewhere in there, all the other things of life get tended to, bills for example or the inevitable washing machine repair. Also, I try to remind myself, usually not that effectively, to do my neck and shoulder exercises.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

AB: In fourth grade, one of the teaching materials that was used for teaching reading was part of a series in which there were excerpts of stories on laminated sheets inside boxes that were color coded. The students worked their way independently through what was essentially a file case, with each of these boxes representing a different reading level. There was, of course, a kind of hierarchy of readers and a kind of competition that was encouraged. I whizzed through the first and the second of these boxes with the filing systems inside them. A reader read one excerpt or a chapter from a longer work at each reading, did the related testing work afterwards, and could then tick it off the list and move to the next laminated card in the file. One of the colors, I think, was aqua blue. And another, I think, was maize. When I got to the third box of this filing system, which was called the SRA learning method, I remember that I had pulled out a laminated sheet and I read an excerpt of a particular story that made no sense to me. I had no way into the story. I remember that I experienced it almost as if reading something in a language I didn’t know. My eyes went over and over the text. Nothing was going into my brain. It was like my mind had glazed over. The two key words, possum and persimmons, were completely foreign to me. I couldn’t figure out what they were or what it meant. I felt locked out, and I don’t think I ever “mastered” that particular reading lesson. But I felt the sound connections between the two words.

What do you hope readers will tell others about this book?

AB: I hope one reader will tell another reader, You have to read this. It’s about friendship and displacement.

What does literary success look like to you?

AB: My work is fairly idiosyncratic and for a writer whose work is idiosyncratic, and by that I mean, it doesn’t seem to easily fall into one category or another, there’s considerable challenge placing both shorter and longer work with a publisher. That said, I think that success for me is when a work finds that first reader who puts it on the journey towards becoming a book; in the case of Benefit Street, that reader was Joyelle McSweeney, poet, prose writer, playwright, critic and publisher, who was the judge for the 2021 FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. As a writer, I don’t think there’s any greater indicator than the moment a reader has signaled to you that the work is in some way essential to them. That it has been worth living with for a period of time. After the first reading for the book launch for Benefit Street at Parnassus Books in Nashville, I received a message from a young professional woman, a healthcare provider and an emigrant from a war-battered country, who said that the story brought back sudden lost memories of home and that she valued how passionate and connected I am to my characters’ voices and their stories.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

AB: When I’m not writing or having the pleasure of a long quiet read, what I most like to do in this world is going for walks and hiking. I love to kayak on very quiet bodies of water. I like spending time outside in the garden—although I find I’m not enjoying the tedious parts of gardening such as weeding as much as I used to. I love going to see films and being around other people who are each individually watching the same film. One of the highlights of last pandemic summer was during that period when it looked like it was going away and getting tickets for all the films the Fellini festival at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville where I live; it was wonderful to watch and listen to the films on consecutive evenings running such that I was carrying around those sounds in my head for two weeks. I like to travel and journey; as it has for so everyone, this ongoing pandemic has changed the ways I’m able to do that. I like listening to music and especially going to a show at the Ryman Auditorium. If I go to a city I don’t know, I like to spend time in an art museum. I think one of the greatest pleasures is to be cooking dinner with the radio on in the background.

Are there any new projects you’re working on?

AB: Most of my current writing is poetry and creative nonfiction essays. I have a couple of longer investigations in process, including an extended mixed genre essay about migraine. I hope to soon complete the final work on a work of historical fiction about a physician and man of science in the 18th century. It’s about the centuries-old tensions between mind and spirit involving a character whose life is dedicated to rational thinking amidst a pervasive onslaught of Ignorance.

Adria Bernardi

About the Author

Adria Bernardi is a writer and translator whose publications include an oral history, a collection of essays, a collection of short stories, and two novels. Her eight translations from Italian include the prose of Gianni Celati and the poetry of Tonino Guerra and Raffaello Baldini. She has been awarded the 1999 Bakeless Prize for Fiction, the 2000 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and the 2007 Raiziss/DePalchi Translation Award. She has taught fiction-writing at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She was awarded the 2021 FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize for her novel, Benefit Street, which will be published by The University of Alabama Press in 2022.

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October / November 2022