A Kind of Shape-Shifting: A Conversation with Jennifer Croft

By Brian CastleberryFebruary 27, 2024

A Kind of Shape-Shifting: A Conversation with Jennifer Croft

The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft

JENNIFER CROFT’S brilliant debut novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey (2024), begins with the titular author—a world-renowned novelist of seemingly magical powers—having assembled her illustrious team of translators so that she can reveal her latest creation, a novel called Gray Eminence. With sharp and comic detail, we are introduced to each of these translators by the language in which they work: English, Spanish, Slovenian, and so on. And just as we settle into the great author’s home and prepare ourselves for the growing mystery of her new creation, Irena Rey goes missing—leaving our cast of translators alone in a dreamlike forest where nothing will remain as it appears. Arranged in the beginning like an antic, surreal Agatha Christie tale, Croft’s novel transforms into something far more profound as the very nature of translation becomes a tool with which to examine the limits of identity and the purpose of communication.

At the heart of things is our narrator, the Spanish translator Emi, who catalogs the behavior of her fellow translators with a critical and somewhat paranoid eye. Desperate for connection (and for answers) after Irena Rey’s disappearance, she guides us through the various attempts to solve the mystery of the great author’s absence even as a new mini-society is created in Rey’s abandoned home. Or wait … our real narrator is Alexis, the English translator who has translated Emi’s book for us and provided corrective footnotes along the path, and who also plays a significant part as Emi’s unfairly maligned antagonist. Or maybe Irena Rey herself is the true narrator, as her story and the translators’ stories prove to be more closely related than any reader will imagine until the novel’s end. Hilarious, philosophical, and restlessly inventive, Croft’s novel strikes the perfect balance between intellectual gamesmanship and good, old-fashioned storytelling. Think Nabokov’s Pale Fire in the hands of Lorrie Moore.

Croft is best known as the Booker Award–winning translator of novels by the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk (Flights in 2017, The Books of Jacob in 2021) as well as books by Federico Falco (A Perfect Cemetery in 2021), Pedro Mairal (The Woman from Uruguay in 2021), and Romina Paula (August in 2017). Translating from both Polish and Spanish, garnering awards from both the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Croft has been a major champion of the translator’s art. In 2022, she was featured in The New York Times for her leading role in demanding that all translated literature feature the translator’s name on the cover—a movement that has already forced changes throughout the publishing industry. Her astounding and poetic hybrid memoir, Homesick (2019), relates the story of the author/translator’s relationship with her sister, using—as The Extinction of Irena Rey does—a combination of media to help expand and humanize her text. Homesick was awarded the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in 2020.

We spoke by email in January.


BRIAN CASTLEBERRY: First off, I have to ask: What got you interested in working in translation? What’s that journey been like?

JENNY CROFT: When I was very young (possibly seven?), my father got a summer job in Prince Edward Island. It was the only international trip we ever took together, although my father was a professor of geography. I was profoundly inspired by it. Before that, I was behind my classmates in terms of writing; after that, I could not stop writing, mostly travel stories about a butterfly who flew all over the world.

A few years later, as I began to connect world and stories with languages other than English, I started learning Russian. I became obsessed with Russian, and in the end, that obsession led to me going to college early, when I was 15, because I had run out of Russian courses to take in high school. I majored in English and Russian and minored in creative writing, and as I neared the end of my college career, it felt increasingly like the only logical combination of those three things would be literary translation. I hoped that literary translation would permit me to travel too.

It did, and I became a translator, and I saw more and more that translation is like an apprenticeship in writing, among the many other things it is, so I think that and the collaborative aspect have kept me hooked for all these years.

The Extinction of Irena Rey reminds me at times (in a very good way) of both the closed-circle cast of the Poirot novels and the high-octane emotion and zealotry of Dostoyevsky in, say, The Brothers Karamazov.

I love this description! The Extinction of Irena Rey started from a few inchoate elements: the primeval forest that straddles the border between Poland and Belarus; cults of celebrity; and the power of literary translation that can be used for good or evil, although either way, most people won’t know about it because translation is always hiding in plain sight. I love the old-fashioned setup of throwing a slightly-too-large group of people who don’t know each other, or who don’t know each other that well, into a strange house where strange and possibly terrible things happen, and then making them stay there for far longer than they (or anyone) would like. And I felt that putting the house on the edge of a forest that is both magnificent and frightening would allow everyone to act even wilder than they might have otherwise. One of the main inspirations for the whole idea is Witold Gombrowicz, a Polish writer who was stranded by war and then socialism in Argentina for 24 years, particularly his novels Pornografia (1960) and The Possessed (1939), and maybe Kosmos (1965). The Possessed was the last thing Gombrowicz wrote before being stranded, a gothic love-hate story that he published under a pseudonym in serial form over the summer of 1939. I love the tone of The Possessed, which is quite hard to pin down: is it a satire? It must be, at least to some extent, but we also care what happens to its characters and are moved by them and fear for their lives. I was drawn, too, to the idea of serialization, and in some ways, I imagined The Extinction of Irena Rey as a gothic sitcom, or maybe just a dark sitcom—Irena Rey is the gothic component of the book, and she isn’t around for very long.

You create this impressive story-within-a-story by having one character narrate the novel as if it were a factual memoir, and another character translate and comment on it. I’m amazed by the high-wire aspect of this, especially rereading the book. Why was such a structure important to you?

I love blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction, and I felt it would be more convincing to probe the darker depths of translation through translation itself—if we never know which of our narrators (both of whom are translators, one of whom is translating the other) is telling us the truth, then we have a more immediate sense of what translation can do and how it can destabilize an original text and, by extension, us.

Of all the characters we meet, Emi seems like the narrator we may trust the least: her paranoia, her more-than-occasional meanness, the fact that she’s often missing from key events. At the same time, she’s delightful and propulsive and absolutely essential to the book’s success. Was she the starting point for you?

For me, the starting point was amadou, which was the original title of the novel. Amadou is a fascinating product of a fungus (Fomes fomentarius) that is both a parasite and a decomposer—deadly to a tree, useful to a forest. The product was used for thousands of years as a fire-starter, until overharvesting and the invention of safe, reliable matches made it obsolete. It has a sort of horrifying aspect if you don’t know what it is, like a horse’s hoof clamped onto a tree trunk, but it may actually be making a big comeback now as scientists search for ecologically sound materials—it could be used in place of certain types of plastic and has long been used in lieu of leather.

In terms of Emi and Alexis, I realized I wanted to pit the two stereotypical extremes of translation against one another. Emi is faithful to a ridiculous extent, and Alexis is unfaithful to a ridiculous extent. This has to do with their backgrounds and personalities, which obviously also generate a lot of friction throughout the book. Emi felt more natural to me as a narrator, and I also wanted to satirize the outsize power of English-language translators through Alexis, which meant I needed a little more distance from her. Most importantly, though, I did want the reader not to fully trust the translation of the novel they’re reading, and that would have been harder to achieve by having the faithful translator translate. It would have meant much stiffer prose and a more arduous reading process of constantly wondering what’s going on, rather than a kind of aftertaste of wondering, Wait, what happened?

The Białowieża Forest infuses everything in this novel: Irena is almost synonymous with it, various magical and dreamlike figures reside there, it is the home of the amadou fungus and the moss, the loggers threaten it, etc. What drew you to this place?

I first visited the Białowieża Forest with my father in the spring of 2004, as I was completing my Fulbright in Warsaw, because someone else in my Fulbright cohort had been researching the deer of Białowieża, and he invited all of us over to check out his work. I was immediately totally absorbed by the forest. It felt so powerful, truly awe-inspiring, dangerous and energizing and gorgeous. Then, in 2017, the Polish government started allowing logging, supposedly because of a spruce bark beetle infestation that unfolded due to a changing, drying climate, and I went to try and understand the extent of the damage. I was horrified to see sections of felled forest, chain saws lying on the ground, and signs forbidding entry, and I was also horrified to think of how continued climate change would affect the stunning biodiversity of this one last European primeval forest. I knew I needed to write something, and when a national park worker happened to show me my first tinder polypore (the amadou fungus), I saw the metaphor for translation and began to understand what I would write.

Irena is only present in the book for a few pages, but she is felt from start to finish. Part of this is the incredible way you paint her in those early pages—a flashy, brilliant, larger-than-life author—but the effect is also maintained by the cult-like nature of the relationship between these translators and their author.

I’m really interested in parasocial relationships, where one person is deeply invested in someone who doesn’t even know they exist. Their whole life may revolve around this person. These types of relationships are often cultivated by celebrities and their teams—it’s how they maintain their power. It’s an example of how art and artifice become intertwined in a way that can become toxic as an artist’s admirers start to inhabit entirely fictitious worlds in which the sentiments and actions of the artist they admire are pure projection. Irena Rey is an example of this, and her great novel that everyone is translating over the course of The Extinction of Irena Rey is about this: art is dangerous to the world because it replaces the world. The example Emi gives is this—“Architecture offered the clearest picture of this rule: An elegant home like Irena’s meant razed earth and mutilated trees.” In other words, the place the translators have always seen as their refuge and sacred space has now been cast—by Irena herself—as just another instance of violence against nature. That lot was once forest and habitat for thousands of kinds of creatures, not just one.

In terms of my own experience of authors as a translator, I have experienced both of the sides that went into Irena Rey: I’ve seen lots of diva behavior, and in Olga Tokarczuk, who is the opposite of a diva, I’ve seen a kind of charisma that very few people have, almost an aura, which draws in her readers and makes them feel supported, safe, and, most importantly, understood. There is a magic to Olga that I think comes through in her writing. Irena Rey has that magic, but she’s wild and unstable, and we don’t really know what her motivations are, and she’s recently been pushed over the edge.

Shape-shifting serves as a metaphor for translation in the novel. We’ve got the mythical creature Leshy—an actual shape-shifter—sort of haunting the characters’ imaginations. But really, no one seems to remain who the narrator believes them to be. What’s going on here?

Leshy is a traditional Slavic forest deity who can take on any shape in the execution of his sylvan responsibilities, luring or tricking humans who try to violate the forest. I definitely wanted Irena and her high school classmate–turned–forest ranger Leszek to seem fluid in this way, in the service of the forest. I also do think translation is a kind of shape-shifting, and nature is full of this: Fomes fomentarius, the ermine that turns white in winter to blend in with the snow, etc. I think shape-shifting is much more natural than we wish to believe, in the sense that every identity is fluid and multiple; humans literally contain other organisms—bacteria, fungi, protists, viruses—and are governed by brains that remain little understood. I wanted to dramatize the dissolution of the notion of individuality throughout The Extinction of Irena Rey, especially as we near the end of the book.

Instagram is used very cleverly here, and I love the use of visual elements in the text. It reminds me of your hybrid memoir, Homesick, and also reminds me of that great user of “found photos,” W. G. Sebald. Here they serve a direct need in the plot (“Her comment was a skull emoji!”). What draws you to this sort of experimentation?

I’m always interested in blurring boundaries and love any kind of hybrid project—which is what translation also is. Combining word with image to create a unique significance that could not be achieved with either word or image alone is one of my favorite things—in fact, emoji are a great example. Emoji change the meaning of a text, shifting the whole tone. Or take picture postcards—a message on a blank piece of paper would give the recipient a completely different sense of what the person who sent the postcard has been up to. My first book, Homesick, is about a girl who uses photography to gain a sense of control over a frightening world. The book is filled with her (my) photographs, in black-and-white inserted into the text itself in a way that adds (I hope) to atmosphere, often darkening it, while the color photos are interspersed on their own pages with short notes to give the reader a vague sense of where the girl is headed, since they run in reverse chronological order while the text goes in chronological order. The distance closes as the narrative goes along.

In The Extinction of Irena Rey, the photographs are also mine, but their scope is much more limited. Emi’s Instagram posts show time passing much more quickly than it has in the narrative itself, and they show the reader a few key scenes from Białowieża, both the village and the forest. The later pictures act as clues.

What non-English writers and translators should we be paying attention to now? Why do you feel we should seek out translated literature?

One of my favorite books of all time is Vernon Subutex 1 (2015) by Virginie Despentes, translated from French by Frank Wynne in 2019. My husband, Boris Dralyuk, is the English language’s best translator of verse, and he is currently working on a mock epic poem by Alexander Voloshin, who fled Soviet Russia in the 1920s and became a Hollywood extra (among other careers). It’s an astonishing feat of translation that I can’t wait for everyone to read. I love Doomi Golo (2016) by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from Wolof and French by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop.

In general, I just feel we should all be reading more translations, and that we shouldn’t think of them as being so different from originally English-language works. In some ways they are so different, and that is one of the reasons we should be reading them. But in terms of their value and their beauty, which people seem to worry about when it comes to mediated texts, there is no reason they should be different at all. We need better access to translated works, bigger publishers, or better distributors for smaller publishers, more translated audiobooks. I also think everyone should try their hand at translation. It really is the best way to learn to write, and even to read deeply. Perhaps if more writers were translators, too, that division between translated and not translated would cease to seem so important.


Jennifer Croft won a 2022 Guggenheim Fellowship for her novel The Extinction of Irena Rey(Bloomsbury US and Scribe UK, 2024), the 2020 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing for her illustrated memoir Homesick, and the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her translation from Polish of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a PhD from Northwestern University. She lives in Tulsa and is represented by Katie Grimm of Don Congdon Associates, Inc.

LARB Contributor

Brian Castleberry’s debut novel, Nine Shiny Objects (2020), was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and an Indie Next selection, and was long-listed for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His shorter work has been published in Narrative, Day One, Lit Hub, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.


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