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Sigrid Nunez and Tara Menon

Oct 14, 2021

Because I Couldn’t Be a Dancer

An Discussion with Sigrid Nunez and Tara Menon

New Books Network 2021

The brilliant New York writer Sigrid Nunez‘s most recent novel is What Are You Going Through; her previous one, The Friend, (2018) won the National Book Award. She speaks with Tara Menon, of the Harvard English department, and author of a terrific article about Sigrid Nunez in the Sewanee Review.

The conversation ranges widely and then plunges into depths. Because life is defined by grief and mourning, so too are my novels, says Nunez. She thinks her upbringing with immigrant parents who felt adrift from their homeland and her own “failure” as a dancer (recounted in her 1995 debut novel, A Feather on the Breath of God ) are the ferment from which her vocation as a writer arose. The question of genre is tossed around:”fictional memoir” perhaps, which gets confused (insultingly, Tara thinks!) with auto-fiction. But Sigrid is fascinated by establishing a reality that is entirely made-up (“not a single friend angry!”), yet also documentary in nature. Perhaps the best tag for her work is “essay novel”: that allows one to do what Javier Marias calls “literary thinking.” And there’s a wonderfully non-Pavlovian answer to the treat question: sometimes you can just have the whiskey….

  • Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (1979)
  • W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn (1995)
  • V. S. Naipaul, Bend in the River (1979), Enigma of Arrival (1987)
  • Annie Ernaux also writes a kind of auto-fiction that resonates with the fictional presence of a “real” first person
  • Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
  • Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
  • “Docu-novel” of Svetlana Alexeievich (author of Secondhand Time, 2013, which while wonderful is not a novel…)

Aarthi Vadde is Associate Professor of English at Duke University. Email: aarthi.vadde@duke.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu.

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Aarthi Vadde and John Plotz

Aarthi Vadde is Associate Professor of English at Duke University. Email: aarthi.vadde@duke.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu.


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