Irene Solà is the author of When I Sing, Mountains Dance, winner of the EU Prize for Literature in its original Catalan. It is a novel of many voices, of folklore and magic in the Pyrenees, and its English publication has seen acclaim for translator Mara Faye Lethem. But Solà’s work is not limited to prose. Past projects include an award-winning poetry collection and art installations in Barcelona and London. As part of the Spotlight on Catalan Culture in the UK, she spoke in English, Spanish and Catalan to our editor, James Appleby.
It’s a moment of such excitement for Catalan literature – you can feel it here at the London Book Fair. How is it to be at the centre of that?
I think we all feel very, very happy that this is happening! The idea that people are interested in other literatures and other languages – for sure it has to make the world a better place. I’ve been touring with When I Sing, Mountains Dance, and every time I go to a place where I haven’t been before – or even a place where I have been! – I really try to understand what people are writing there. It’s a way of connecting – of trying to understand.
And London is obviously one of the places that you know well. You spent the majority of your twenties here. Could you tell me a little about the importance of English literature for you?
It’s very important! I was already using words in my art and I wanted to study literature. So I came to the UK and I did an MA in English literature at the University of Sussex. For me, it was amazing. I mean, I obviously had to work a lot. It really fed me – after spending a whole day reading and writing my essays, in the night I wanted to use everything in my writing.
Your latest novel is set in the Pyrenees and full of its nature and history. But that isn’t quite where you’re from, is it?
No, no! I am not from the Pyrenees. This book – you could have set it in any other place, even a city like London, where I lived when I was writing it. I chose the Pyrenees because the stories that I wanted to tell fit on top of those mountains. And also because I felt I needed to tell this story in, like, a mountainous landscape. I did not grow up there, but they are not far away from my place, so I have been many times. Still, I had to do a lot of research, a lot of walking around – trying to meet people there who would tell me their stories.
And what about Malla, your home town?
[Laughs.] Malla is a very little town. It has, like, 260 inhabitants. I don’t know if you say this in English – it’s like, diseminado? It means there are no streets. Just fields, forests, and little houses. My father is a farmer and I grew up on his farm. But you don’t have to imagine it as very far away from society. It was an industrialised kind of rural.
[Spanish.] I’d like to know more about your experiences in Iceland. Your book even begins with a quotation in Icelandic. What was it like for you there?
I went to Reykjavik to finish my BA in Fine Arts. I was living in Barcelona by then, but Iceland was the first time that I really left home. I worked so much – I was creating all the time. People in Iceland would tell me stories about ghosts, elves, gnomes. There’s a whole tradition of those stories – I was always trying to get people to tell them. But although those specific stories were Icelandic, stories come from every culture, and mine is no exception. I realised that I wanted to use these stories and legends myself – from a critical, contemporary and feminist perspective.
Language is clearly important to you. Did you learn any Icelandic?
Ég tala ekki íslensku! Which means, I don’t speak Icelandic. [Laughs.]
I was taken in for a moment! And talk to me about Spanish. In When I Sing, Mountains Dance, the chapter Everyone’s Brother was written entirely in Spanish. How was it to write in a second language?
In the middle of the writing process I realised that one chapter would be written in Spanish. So much of this book is about voice and different perspectives. It’s about how we all tell stories – how we all experience the world in different ways. In the novel I’m always playing with different ways of telling stories – it’s why one chapter is written in poems. It’s also why there are illustrations in the novel – not all knowledge can pass through words.
The use of another language is just the same. Another language means other sounds, other words, other grammatical structures – all to say the same thing. So, in the context of this book, it made perfect sense to include a character with another language.
Speaking of which, could you answer this question in Catalan? You’ve just mentioned the poems within your novel – you’re the author of a collection called Bèstia. How important is poetry to you?
[Catalan.] Poetry is very important to me. It’s all part of a broader set of interests – they go in a big pot and take on a different shape depending on the project. That might be a book of poems, like Bèstia, or it might be something entirely different. All of these, including my artistic training and the novels I’m writing at the moment, come from the same impulse.
Science is also part of that group of interests, isn’t it? There are mountains in your work, there are dinosaurs and plate tectonics. Where does your interest in science come from and what is its role in your work?
It’s funny, I don’t often get this question. I’m a little surprised that you asked – but I’m glad! For me, writing is about play – and play can be very serious, and it can also involve a process of deep learning. It’s everything you don’t know and everything you want to learn. When I started writing this book, I didn’t know how clouds formed, I didn’t know how roe deer gave birth or what they ate. So I had to do a lot of research – scientific research – and historical research, too.
[English.] Let’s come to Max Porter and Daisy Johnson, both of whom are involved in the Spotlight on Catalan Culture here in London. Max is interviewed later in this edition and Daisy will be interviewed next time. What’s your relationship with their work?
I absolutely love it. Grief is the Thing with Feathers came out when I was living in the UK. It was everywhere and of course I read it. I bought Lanny in New York and the bookseller told me, This is the best book you’re ever gonna read! With Daisy, I really like the atmosphere of Everything Under. How she submerged me in that story, in that river. How I was there, living in that boat.
Something that’s also been clear throughout the Spotlight is your love of music.
More than music, I’d say sound. It was very important for me to listen to this novel. When I was writing it, I read aloud to myself and to anyone who wanted to listen. So that’s one thing. But in terms of music… it’s complicated. Like, I’ll just send you my Spotify. [Laughs.] But I can say one name. I’m a very big fan of Rosalía. Everything she’s done. She’s exploring – experimenting! And I love how she’s very bold, very free.
All the Catalan writers say they love Rosalía! Ok, one last question. Your novel contains not only human but non-human perspectives – clouds, mushrooms, deer and bear. Why did you make that decision?
It was there from the very beginning of this novel. I wanted to choose a specific place and a specific story – the story of one family living in those mountains. But I wanted to do so from the point of view of everyone who was part of that story. And when I say everyone, I mean animals, clouds, mushrooms, characters from folklore, even the mountain itself.
I thought very deeply about voice. Who can tell their own story? Who cannot tell their own story? What power does the storyteller have over those who cannot speak? Which voices have survived and which have been neglected? These are questions that interest me deeply.
When I Sing, Mountains Dance is available in the UK from Granta Books.
Canto jo i la muntanya balla is available from Llibres Anagrama.
Photo Credit: Òmnium Cultural