An Interview with Sara Nović

Kelsey Motes-Conners,Emma Fricke Nelson & Sarah Ulicny

In this interview, author, translator, and creative writing professor Sara Nović discusses how she navigates the agency of form, the inclusion of d/Deaf characters in literature for hearing-centric audiences, and how she is joining with other d/Deaf writers to push publishing gatekeepers toward authentic representation. Sara is the author of Girl at War (Random House, 2015) and America is Immigrants (Random House, 2019). She is also working on a memoir and the forthcoming work, True Biz (Random House).

Northwest Review (NWR)
You’ve written across so many different genres. Of your forthcoming works, True Biz is a novel and your upcoming memoir mixes autobiography and critical theory. Your debut novel, Girl at War, began as a short story, and you have an MFA from Columbia University focusing on novels and literary translation. Obviously, you’re a writer who navigates between so many different modes of storytelling. How do you know which mode works best for the story you want to tell?
Sara Nović (SN)
It’s funny, because this question is something I think about a lot, but less so across genre. As an MFA student, I found Heidi Julavits’s term “container” for a story or idea really useful, and it’s one that I’ve passed on to my students. I always tell them, “you could carry your coffee around in a Ziploc bag, or you could just put it in a cup,” as a way to get them to think about structure and what suits the needs of their particular project.

As far as whether something is fiction or nonfiction, that’s a more gut-level decision for me — if I want to make an argument of some kind, that’s nonfiction, and if I want to explore a feeling, or better yet, if a character shows up while I’m writing, then that’s fiction. More frequently, if it’s something I really care about, like deafness or more generally any exploration of identity and language, it shows up in both places. Much to my chagrin, I’m not much of a planner when I write. I always wanted to be a writer who had outlines or color-coded index cards, but alas, I am low-tech: I just sit down and write sentence after sentence in a notebook.

That said, on the craft level, I do think quite a bit about containers, particularly in fiction — should a story be in the present tense or the past? From whose point of view? To me, a story’s container has a large bearing on dictating its urgency to readers. These decisions still end up being mostly trial-and-error, for me, though. I’m a really slow fiction writer. I actually just switched a short story from third to second person this morning.

Historically, the publishing industry has been a fairly homogeneous space, and whether intentionally or not, this has led to a reluctance to publish and promote a broader range of stories. Recently, however, with the rise of OWN voices, and the outside push for equal representation, we’ve seen some positive changes. As a storyteller and a writer in the Deaf community, to what extent does inclusion and representation influence your works?
At first, including Deaf characters in my writing just happened naturally because they were the people and stories I wanted to write about. (Well, at first first, I avoided writing about Deaf characters because I was mimicking Famous Writers, in whose work d/Deaf people pretty much don’t exist. But when I got over that part and realized I should write about what interests me, it felt natural.) In the novel I just finished writing, though, representation was something that I was much more actively thinking about, namely including the way intersectionality functions within the Deaf community itself. For me, there are always ways to think about amplifying others’ voices and pushing back against tokenization of myself by hearing-centric entities. There are so many talented d/Deaf writers and artists out there, and I can’t and shouldn’t speak for our whole community, nor can or should anyone else. It’s going to take many of us to get real, authentic representation, so in that sense it’s a work in progress.
Have you ever felt pressure to censor or change your stories because the publishing gatekeepers worried they wouldn’t be relatable or understandable to a reader outside the Deaf community? How would you respond to such a reaction?
All. The. Time. It’s an ongoing fight. Although, even Girl at War had its haters — I actually threw my manuscript in the trash at Columbia after a professor told me that I should reexamine my work’s purpose since there were already “so many Holocaust novels out there.” (Girl at War is about the war in the former Yugoslavia, in the 1990s.)

These days, a novel with a cast of pretty much all-Deaf characters raises its own new issues. On the one hand, the fact that I am even arguing with publishing gatekeepers about maintaining the authenticity of my work is a function of my own privilege. On the other, there is a push to explain everything in a way that makes it palatable for a hearing audience. In those discussions, I often think of this Viet Thanh Nguyen quote: “Writers from a minority, write as if you are the majority. Do not explain. Do not cater. Do not translate. Do not apologize. Assume everyone knows that you are talking about, as the majority does. Write with all the privileges of the majority but with the humility of a minority.” The teacher in me probably leans toward a little more explaining than this, but it’s a good reminder to be brave.

Emma Fricke Nelson is a poet based in Portland, Oregon. She is a lover of road trips, cold rocky beaches, and sitting alone at airport bars. In her dreams, Emma stands in a barn smashing plates dipped in red paint across whitewashed walls. If you have a barn you’re willing to share, she’ll bring the plates.

Kelsey Motes-Conners is a poet, essayist, and novelist based in Missoula, Montana.

Sara Nović is the author of Girl at War (2015) and American is Immigrants (2019). Her second novel is forthcoming from Random House in Spring 2022. She is an instructor of Deaf studies and creative writing, and lives in Philadelphia.