Laia Jufresa Weaves Together Richness Through Common Grief In Debut Novel 'Umami'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Umami is a word that's become popular to describe a certain kind of undefinable richness in food. A character in Laia Jufresa's new novel, "Umami," puts that word on the place he lives, in Belldrop Mews, a small housing complex he owns that's laid out around a Mexico City courtyard like the map of a human tongue, with units for sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami.
The residents are neighbors who each have their own stories told in different times, different stories that, in time, reveal common threads of love, loss, regret, recovery, mystery, loneliness and an undefinable richness. Laia Jufresa's "Umami" is translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes.
And Laia Jufresa, who was born in Mexico City and was named one of the most outstanding young writers in Mexico by the Mexico20 project, now lives in Cologne, Germany, joins us from Olot, Spain. Thanks so much for being with us.
LAIA JUFRESA: It's such a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: The book opens with a little girl who's planting a garden. And then, within just a few pages, you realize it's actually a story about a little girl who's lost her sister. How do you know where to begin somebody's story?
JUFRESA: That's a very hard question. Some people say at the end of writing the story, you know where to begin. But for me, I wanted to write about grief during a period of time because I also wanted to write about the end of grief.
And that's related to umami itself because umami's a flavor that is very hard to pinpoint, depending on what you're eating. If you add more MSG, it can become salty or sweet. So I wanted to maintain this throughout the book - this kind of grief where you're already coming out.
And you can have the memories and the joy again and then come back to the loss. I wanted to have those nuances and those ambiguities.
SIMON: There is a stage in grief where you don't want to get over it, exactly. You want to cling to it.
JUFRESA: Yes. And I think that's also portrayed in another of the characters, the owner of the Mews.
SIMON: This is Alfonso, yeah.
JUFRESA: Alfonso Semitiel - and I think he's more in that period. And he's trying to cling to it through writing and through expressing and finding out who his wife, who dies, also, the same year as the little girl - these are the two that mark the whole community. And he's trying to reconstruct her in a way and not lose her now.
SIMON: Yeah. I made a note of something that he says that just got to me. Speaking of his widowhood, he says (reading) things you thought you shared but which turned out to be theirs - when death does you part, it's also the end of what's mine is yours.
JUFRESA: Yeah. And that's also - I have to say, should be a tribute to Sophie - to the translator - because she was able to find a phrase in English that reconstructs both the feeling and the use of a phrase that you get in your wedding - no? - but in a way that's not exactly the same in Spanish because it didn't work.
So it's one of the ways that you can lose nuances in translation. And I think she was able to keep them alive. Yeah, I think that's one of the things. When you lose somebody, you lose parts of yourself and part of your world that you thought were very much who you are - and that it turns out they were more part of the relationship that you were in, no?
SIMON: Yeah. How do you work with a translator on a book like this? - because you obviously speak English. And the style and the characterization in this book is remarkable. And you were very generous in citing the translator.
JUFRESA: I had already had the opportunity to work with Sophie. She had translated some of my short stories.
SIMON: This is Sophie Hughes, yeah.
JUFRESA: Yeah, Sophie Hughes. I would say that Sophie's the only friend I've ever made through color notes in a word document. It's such a treat to have someone translating your work because no one ever will read your work as closely as a translator does.
And when you're writing, you have the fantasy that you will have readers like this, I think, that pick up all the details. And there were some passages that she told me, no, I really - I've read these three times aloud. And I don't think it's working.
And I was very open to that. And I changed things. I got inspired. So I also wrote a bunch of new stuff that's not there in the original. I think it, in a way, is a better book because it had two authors in a way.
SIMON: Irresistably, I have to read a section for which, I guess, you should both take a bow. You have a character, Marina, who lives in Bitter, who makes up her own words. And she has her own version of the Lord's Prayer (reading) Our Father who art in Devon, Halloweened be thy name (laughter). Your whiskey gone, you will be prone to bursts of laughter and rage. Give us this day our daily taste of fasting and forgive us our thefts, as we forgive (laughter) your bad taste.
JUFRESA: That's a pleasure to hear your reading of that. Those parts, like that, I completely rewrote in English. Sophie had made a translation of the original. And I think it wasn't as playful as original. So I just copied the prayer in English. And I started playing around with it and came with new versions of it.
SIMON: Do you think if all of us knocked on the doors of our four or five closest neighbors, we would find some of the common threads that you find among this group of people in "Umami?"
JUFRESA: You know, I think it's obviously a community that's been pretty much the same people for many years, except Marina, who's a newcomer. But the kids were all born there. And the old man has seen them grow.
The parents have gone through their own processes and separations within these walls. So I think it's a bit exaggerated in the neighborly relationships. But I do think of these ripple effects of losses and absences. You can find them in small communities in very different ways if you knock in people's heads and hearts.
SIMON: Laia Jufresa - her novel, "Umami." Thanks so much for being with us.
JUFRESA: It was such a pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.