by J.J. Marsh
Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer, a translator, and a reader. Her first novel, Fog Island Mountains (Tantor, 2014), won the 2013 Christopher Doheny Award from the Center for Fiction and Audible. Michelle works as the Translations Editor for Necessary Fiction. And with two other writers, Sara Johnson Allen and Laura McCune Poplin, is a founder of and instructor at the L’Atelier Writers Workshop and Retreat. Here, Jill J. Marsh talks to the author about her recently released second novel, Unfurled.
For more than twenty years, Ella has learned to live without her mother, Maggie, who disappeared into a fog of mental illness when Ella turned ten. Despite this trauma, Ella has forged ahead, becoming a veterinarian, getting married, and most of all, developing a deep, trusting bond with her father, John, a ferry captain in Seattle.
Ella’s contented life is shattered when her father is hit by a car and killed. Going through his papers, she learns that her father maintained a secret relationship with her mother. The unsettling questions raised by her father’s death and her mother’s unexpected reappearance send Ella on a journey to discover the truth about the woman who abandoned her and the man who raised her, a journey that threatens her marriage, her unborn child, and ultimately, her sanity.
The title resonated with me. ‘Unfurled’ sounds freeing, like an opening up of protective wings. But our main character’s comfort state is tightly furled and she’s happy that way. Until her father’s sudden demise, when she only furls tighter.
I had a discussion about the title with a person at my Geneva reading. She didn’t know the word ‘unfurled’ and we talked about different ways of translating it into French, but also just what it meant. It was more difficult to explain than I thought it might be, especially outside a nautical context, but also because of the tension you’ve noted, that the furl/unfurl can work in both directions. I’m delighted the title will spark conversations.
The book is about reframing memories and retelling a narrative that shaped several lives. Do you see identities as stories we tell ourselves? And can those be restrictive as well as reassuring?
I guess I do consider identity as something shaped by narrative, by the stories people tell themselves—about their families and lives, about their backgrounds. All the little bits of ‘truth’ and interpretation that construct our inner selves, as well as the face we put toward the world. In the novel, for Ella, this is all about control over what she experienced and how she understands it. She needs this control (in your words, to be tightly furled!) and when the story begins to break down, she struggles.
One motif which recurs and repeats is human interaction with the natural world. The sea, animals and nature, not to mention the weather, play a poetic and prosaic role in the novel. How far was that driven by the sense of place?
Unfurled is very specifically grounded in the Pacific Northwest of the US, and so it is definitely driven by this sense of place—the water, the outdoors, the rain. I probably have a very romantic view of wide, natural landscapes. I grew up in them, I spent my childhood hiking and camping throughout Washington and Oregon those were my only summer vacations. I think it would be hard for me to avoid using these backdrops in my fiction, even if this is the first time I’ve focused so intently on the landscape of my own childhood.
The key theme I took away from the novel was choice—that and beating wings. Every decision made can free, or unfurl a person, while trapping others. The repercussions of an individual’s decision, driven by protectiveness or altruism, can have precisely the opposite effect.
This is something I wanted to explore, and it relates to knowability. How can anyone really know another person? How can one person understand the decisions of another? What makes connection, and what breaks it down? What do parents owe their children, what do children understand about the inner lives of their parents?
You have a particular perspective on the world as a translator. Is the ability to express yourself in two languages an unfurling for you?
I love this question so much. I’ve never thought of it that way, but yes, this is a fantastic way to describe the particular feeling of opening up someone else’s text with words that are closer to me. Translation is an odd discipline because the translator is both stepping forward and remaining effaced at the same time—obviously every word of a translation is mine, so it no longer truly belongs to the author, but the point of entry was the author’s world and the author’s creation and the author’s words. That tension is marvelous, and I love inhabiting it.
How do you follow up Unfurled? Or does it stand alone?
I don’t think the landscape of Unfurled is one I will go back to again. Not in the same way. It’s more fun to think of where to go next.
You were one of the readers at Writers Resist in Zürich earlier this year. You wrote and spoke about the injustices of the world from a female perspective. How do you see the current political environment?
I’ll just say that I hope everyone is paying attention to the dangers of the various neo-fascist movements that are growing around the world. The anti-immigration movements, the anti-regulation movements, anti-science, anti-intellectualism, ultra-nationalism, the rise of hate crimes—I’m alarmed by all these issues, and increasingly preoccupied with figuring out my role in this big crazy marvelous messed-up world as a human, a parent, a writer, a translator. What can I do? Am I doing it? What should we all do? Fight apathy and fear, be wary of sarcasm as a numbing shield. Fight powerlessness in small, possible ways. Stay connected to people. Stay engaged in the issues. Read like hell. Be careful with language. Keep hope.
And, finally, The Woolf special question: Which work of literature is your favourite and why?
It’s impossible for me to pick one favorite work of fiction. I have a favorites shelf that holds my collections of books by so many writers: Comyns, Kawabata, Woolf, Lispector, Jansson, McCullers, Gordimer, Triolet, Kavan, Ramuz (oops, I think you have to be dead to make it onto my favorites shelf!) I love them all. If I have to pick just one I’ll go with Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist. It’s an exquisitely crafted book. The reason it means so much to me is because it represents what Gordimer worked so hard to do as a writer—capture the essence of a specific moment using words that were as honest as they were beautiful. But this is probably true for all of the writers on my list, for all the writers and books that I love.
And don’t forget to sign up for our mailing list to receive alerts about latest issues, as well as information about events for writers in Switzerland.