Monday, October 3, 2022

Q&A with Adria Bernardi


Photo by Isaac Stovall



Adria Bernardi is the author of the new novel Benefit Street. Her other books include the novel Openwork. Also a translator, she has translated eight works from Italian to English.


Q: What inspired you to write Benefit Street, and how did you create your character Şiva?


A: Şiva first emerged first as a voice. That voice was speaking several phrases, phrases that turned out to be the opening paragraphs of the novel. Her voice was clear, it was separate from me, and it was insistent. When I heard that voice, and what it was saying, I understood that it belonged to a woman named Şiva and that it was part of a novel.


This wasn’t the first passage of the novel I wrote. A short story, “Servant to Servant,” had been written before I heard Şiva’s voice, and the story stood alone on its own for a long while as a short story.


Other fragments of the narrative emerged. I felt that these pieces were interconnected—but I didn’t understand how. When I heard Şiva’s voice, I understood that the characters in the short story, “Emiz and The Missionary’s Wife,” were linked to Şiva, and I also understood that she was the narrator of a longer work.


Benefit Street was written during the Iraq War and during involvement of the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan.


Prior to this period of time—and then again during it—friends, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues of my husband--who’s a psychiatrist who works with patients with chronic mental illness--parents of my sons’ classmates, pulled me to tell me of a precipitous leaving from a place that had been home due to war and repression.


Some spoke of the terror of the flight itself and the uncertainty of the journey; some described the places where they lived before life had landed them to this new “here.” Most of them spoke of the impossibility of return.


These stories were shared by men and women of different faiths, of different ethnic heritages, of different cultures, of different generations. They were speaking to me, confiding in me, asking me to somehow bear witness. What they said stayed with me.


When Şiva’s voice emerged, I understood that I had a way to attempt to honor the people who had asked me to listen to them and to try to understand complex experiences associated with displacement and the conditions that precipitate traumatic displacements.


Q: The author Andrea Barrett said of the book, “What does it mean to lose a language, a culture, hard-won freedoms, a community? In this mysterious, allusive, and wonderfully economical novel, Bernardi’s characters weave a moving tapestry of friendship, courage, and deep feeling.” What do you think of that description?


A: Andrea Barrett is a great writer and a great thinker about the complexities of the human condition over the long arcs of time. She is a great teacher of writing and has been a source of generativity for many writers, including me.


So, when she described Benefit Street in this way, it signaled to me that the novel had reached its reader. That she “got” it. That she understood what the intentions of the novel were—the ethical questions guiding it, its aesthetic, and the intellectual, emotional and psychological journeying within it.


It’s a description that so succinctly and so acutely describes what it is the novel aspires to be. Reading that first sentence almost made me weep. That’s it. That’s what it’s about.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Once I heard Şiva’s voice, I understood where she was located on a specific physical landscape—at a point where three streets came together. I understood where she was in a moment in time.


When I clearly experienced and saw five women friends hugging and parting from each other after their habitual weekly gathering and going off in five different directions, I immediately understood their relationships with each other and that their lives would have different trajectories.


One of the things that never changed during the writing of the novel was the beginning point and the ending point that this moment defined. When I didn’t know very much else about her, I understood she would be displaced from her home and that she was telling the story from a great distance of time and space.  


One of the big shifts during the writing of the novel occurred once I was committed to more deeply to imagining Emiz and how she was connected to the five friends. I knew she was a painter who was now weaving rugs. I didn’t set out to write about rugmaking, but it became essential because it defined Emiz.


After this phase of writing the novel, the images, sensations, and conceptualizations related to weaving became a primary motif of the novel and helped to give it its shape.


Q: How did you create the novel’s setting, and how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: After hearing Şiva describe the five friends kissing each other on the cheeks and departing in different directions, they were located on a map. This map became the beginning of the imagining of the city where they lived.


And once I had a sense of an emerging map, I began to imagine the meeting place where five women, all teachers, met for tea every Tuesday after work before they rushed home. The map and the space inside the teahouse, where they were seated around a table, talking, complaining and drinking way too much tea, became the spaces in which these characters began to emerge, to move, and to live.


In my first novel, I understood exactly where and who the character Bartolomeo de Bartolai was the moment he was imagined in his setting: he was sitting at the edge of a mountain river among stones, and he was a shepherd, in the late 1500s, and I knew which side of the river. That was the moment I understood how the novel would be narrated.


Those spaces—whether it’s explored in a narrative present or in a reconstructed memory—is largely where I write from. Certain passages, images, descriptions don’t end up in the work because they turn out not to be essential to the overall work, even though they have contributed to more complex imagining.


To understand where the character is physically positions that character in space and time. It also establishes the place, the perspective, from which the character perceives and experiences the world.


Even though I may not have any idea about what the narrative events will be—what happened? what is going to happen?—when a character is situated inside a space, there are a multiplicity of ways to perceive, to hear, and to understand the internal life of that character. For me, the specific space and the voice speaking in it is usually where it begins.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I hope to soon complete final revisions on a work of historical fiction about an 18th century physician and scientist. It’s about the age-old tensions and conflicts between mind and spirit, involving a character whose life is resolutely and single-mindedly dedicated to rational thinking amidst a pervasive onslaught of ignorance.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As I said, Benefit Street was written over a long period of time during the Iraq War and the during involvement of the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan. Final edits of Benefit Street were completed as the U.S. was leaving Afghanistan. The preparations for the book’s launch began in winter 2022 during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


And so, the traumatic ruptures which the novel investigates were repeating even as I was finishing this novel, the images of destruction caused by war—apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, theaters, images of a child reaching for a parent.


The voices of Benefit Street, of characters who were dedicated to making the world new, to democracy and to freedom, who had been vigilant in attempting to prevent the authoritarianism and wars of their grandparents’ generation from repeating, had to redefine, rebuild, and rededicate themselves again to living in the changed world.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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