Class of 2020 First Year Book
Ways to Disappear:
by Idra Novey
Our vision at Washington College: The enduring values of Washington College – critical thinking, effective communication, and moral courage – move the world.
How do these three values move together, so that critical thinking leads one to speak or write eloquently and persuasively, and then leads to morally courageous action and leadership? How does one’s education help one to think and act in order to move the world?
These are the ideas at the heart of the Class of 2020’s first year book, Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear. This just-published novel has already won rave reviews for its innovative use of form and fast-paced, noir-style story telling. The novel seems to argue that to be lost is to be found, just as “To have made a coat of words” is to “cloak…yourself in it.”
The main character in Ways to Disappear is a young American translator named Emma, and the very questions of effective communication and moral courage confront her. Emma rushes to Brazil when the author whose work she translates, the acclaimed fiction writer Beatriz Yagoda, suddenly disappears. In Brazil, Emma hears “the Yankee clang of her accent in a way she hadn’t heard in years. She’d learned the language too late to ever get the r’s right. Every time she spoke it was unavoidable: she released a fleet of mistakes.” And so communication becomes a big theme in the novel. What words can be translated, what idiom can be rephrased for maximum meaning, how can one person lose herself in a culture and thus find herself?
Just like Emma, who searches the liminal overlapping spaces between languages and cultures, students beginning a new journey at Washington College will be asked to translate and transcribe: to make a new coat of words and to cloak themselves in it, to find who they are and translate that into who they might become. Novey’s novel tells us that “transcribe” means “To convert a written work in such a way that it alters the expectations of others and/or oneself, often requiring the abandonment of such expectations entirely.”
Emma arrives in Brazil, expecting to meet a friendly face, but instead meets Beatriz’s loan shark, and he threatens her with bodily harm if she doesn’t raise money to pay off Beatriz’s debts. Emma’s mission constantly changes in this way: though she is hunting desperately for her author, trying to ensure her safety, roadblocks come in unexpected ways.
One unexpected conflict arises between Emma and Beatriz’s adult daughter, Raquel. These two women represent the “cloak of words” and those actions that live outside of words. Emma believes wholeheartedly that because she has translated Beatriz’s novels, she alone has the key to the writer’s psyche. This presumption of knowledge unsettles Raquel, who ponders, “What about knowing what a writer had never written down—wasn’t that the real knowledge of who she was?”
Emma’s expectations are thrown for another loop when she meets Marcus, Beatriz’s adult son, and the two begin a romance. There’s a problem, though: Emma is engaged to a perfectly nice, perfectly respectable, perfectly boring young man in Pittsburgh, where she leads a perfect yawn of a life. Will Emma risk her own life—will she translate herself into a new and truer version of her self, following the lead of the inscrutable Beatriz Yagoda?
Ways to Disappear challenges you to read in different ways. Novey is as interested in the forms that cloak us as the words we choose to make that cloak, as when the translator wonders whether to render a phrase technically or artistically: “desire—what a man will deny himself until he can’t. … In Portuguese, Beatriz had technically written, what a man will deny himself until he won’t. …. Santiago’s desire had to be imperative, to carry the weight of fact. At least in English.” Novey highlights that Emma’s translation reflects Emma’s identity: she is denying herself so much that she needs that “weight of fact” to believe she is powerless against her life. But for Beatriz, desire is different. If one gives in, it is only to the inevitable future that one has always been constructing, sentence by sentence. We select our words, and our words in turn build who we are and how we understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us.
At Washington College, we believe in a liberal arts education that combines the analytical and artist, the creative and the scholarly, the mathematical and the lyrical. We think it is important to read and think carefully, to compose and converse with both moral courage and critical thought, to find the truth via inquiry, to decode and to deconstruct. We encourage you to remake the codes, to find yourself and the words that will help you cloak and re-cloak yourself and the world of your understanding. And we’re confident that Ways to Disappear provides a great opportunity to begin your liberal arts education.
We look forward to hearing your thoughts about Ways to Disappear in the small group discussions of the novel you will participate in during New Student Orientation.