Today’s post is written by Adria Bernardi, author of Benefit Street.
As writers—and as humans—we don’t easily accept that the best laid plans, the carefully formulated articulation, a stream of highly focused thought, are—more often than not— interrupted.
The speaker is interrupted . . .
Someone enters the room . . .
The phone rings . . .
For a long time during the writing of Benefit Street, a novel about the complexities of friendship among women, I envisioned that the continuing conversations of five friends who meet at a teahouse every Tuesday would spool out in a continuing, flowing narrative. The narrative, however, had other ideas. The narrative event was always and inevitably cut short: one of the women was distracted. One of the women stood up abruptly, realizing she was late.
In coming to the realization that this wasn’t going to be the kind of narrative that creates the illusion of a story flowing seamlessly over an arc of time, I understood that interruption was a primary theme of the work. I begrudgingly accepted that rather than being an indication or a symptom of breakage which needed to be fixed that these interruptions were, in fact, a source of continuity. Words and phrases conveying the concept of interruption might show me ways to shape a novel about the traumatic dispersal and displacement. Specific phrases about interruption offered another way to make a unified whole out of what were, seemingly, disjointed fragments.
After a long period of not being in contact with a friend, the difficult moment of restarting a conversation arrives and has begun innumerable times with a comment about interruption: “Well, where was I in life the last time we caught up with each other?” wrote a writer friend whom I had known when we were much younger women. “Now, where were we?” said a friend as she climbed into the passenger side of the car after we hadn’t seen each other for years.
Once I understood that interruption was an element of the narrative, just as it was in the lives of these women, I understood that there were opportunities to create unity in a novel premised on fragmentation. But where would these repeating phrases occur? I asked. What would the variations be? The narrator and the characters calling attention to interruption became a way to restart an ongoing dialogue and to introduce a new narrative event. A particular phrase established the conditions for restarting the conversation and for bringing the speakers together again. As they actively discussed how interruption affected their lives, these repeated phrases revealed their consciousness of interruption in their lives: “We had to prioritize. Talk quickly . . . Time went by so fast,” says the narrator.
The variations of a phrase such as, Now, where were we? became a way to bridge one narrative moment to another. A phrase such as, Stop me if I told you already, suggested I could employ the idea of interruption and the language used to express it as a way to link seemingly disparate parts of the story. The concept of interruption and the repetition used to express it became one more entity that moved through the novel with a life of its own.
This idea of interruption, particularly as it related to friendships of the women over time, activated my thinking about the role of repetition in literary works that owe much to the spoken word, to the conversational, and to oral traditions. These kinds of narratives often rely heavily upon repetition to hold the narrative together and to make narrative itself, with the same word or expression being repeated, repeated in a variation, and then looping back again in yet another variation. The tale, the chivalric epic, the fable, for example, all rely upon repetition and variation of repetition of certain words and phrases to build narrative, to create suspense, and to deepen the meanings of the work.
Having translated poets whose work is characterized by its echoing of conversation and orality, there was a phrase that kept resurfacing as I was in the process of actively thinking about interruption and repetition. In an interview with Daniele Benati, Raffaello Baldini, whose poetry is written in the dialect Romagnolo of Italy, said something about repetition that kept echoing in my ears. Making a distinction between standard Italian—with its complex grammatical rules and the great probability that a speaker will make an error in speaking—he suggest that dialect, being a smaller language is, instead, one in which one can’t make a grammatical error or be corrected for them: “[w]hoever speaks in dialect doesn’t feel bothered by a word that is repeated several times and then loops back again later. Italian, on the other hand, is hypersensitive about repetition; it will not tolerate it.”
At a certain point deep into the writing of this novel about displacement and traumatic dispersal, I accepted the idea that interruption and repetition were the shape of the novel. That these repeating phrases about interruption, and the variations of them, indicated how a story could be told by opening opportunities for the continuation of a dialogue that had been left off. Instead of trying to remedy these interruptions in the telling of this story, they could be embraced, named, and emphasized.
The interruptions, of course, continue to happen. The phone rings: it happens again.
Stop me if I told you already.