A Conversation with Laura Lindstedt, author of My Friend Natalia
What is My Friend Natalia about?
This is a novel about a Finnish woman code-named “Natalia.” She begins treatment with an unnamed therapist whose gender remains unclear, ostensibly the narrator of the novel, who prescribes a series of writing exercises. Those exercises, around which the therapeutic dialogue revolves, constitute the plot line of the novel.
Why does Natalia seek out a therapist? What does she think is wrong with her?
Natalia claims that she’s obsessed with sexual imagery. She says she thinks about sex all the time, but when she really, truly drifts into intimate relationships, she loses contact with herself and with her lovers. “The more I kiss them, the less they are there,” she grieves. Natalia knows in theory what constitutes a healthy sex life and a healthy relationship, but in practice she ruins everything time and again.
This is Natalia’s story, and she is perfectly dedicated to storytelling. Little by little, through revealing her fantasies, she tries to twist the therapist around her little finger. The storytelling itself becomes an act of seduction. Are Natalia’s sexual fixations only a cover-up story, as the therapist believes, behind which her true problems are hiding? This is one of the questions I leave the reader to mull over.
Why did you choose to not specify the therapist’s gender or even to name them?
If the therapist were, say, a man, that would invite a slew of interpretations, not based on the text itself. That’s how powerful gender stereotypes can be. Some readers have been certain that the therapist is a man, others that they are a woman. Some readers have changed their mind in the course of reading. This proves that when we read, we inform the narrative with our own assumptions, our own experience. By creating an ungendered and unnamed narrator, I wanted the reader to confront their own assumptions about gender.
Is the therapist a reliable narrator? We don’t talk much about the power dynamics between doctor and patient – almost like it’s a forbidden topic. Why do you think that is?
There is a constant struggle for power between the therapist and Natalia, even though the therapist translates it as the “progress of therapy.” They are very keen to defend their professional ethics, and a willful exercise of power definitely doesn’t abide by those ethics. However, the truth is that they both cross the boundaries of therapy.
Besides, in the final analysis, it’s not crystal clear which of them is the actual narrator of the novel. The therapist and Natalia are working together, but it’s not obvious who is leading and who is in control, and who is putting what into the other’s mind. The reader is always on high alert, wondering who is to be trusted.
I don’t have personal experience with therapy gone wrong, but I know it happens. It is solely the therapist’s responsibility to establish and maintain boundaries, which means that the therapeutic relationship is never equal, never symmetrical. For this reason, it is tremendously difficult for the person undergoing therapy to recognize when rules are being violated, or there’s an abuse of trust. If you are being manipulated, you tend to blame yourself, as is the case in all abusive, hierarchical power structures.
Having said that, I must underline that the state of affairs in My Friend Natalia is far more complicated than this. For me, Natalia represents a feminine power that resists recuperative forces of interpretation. The therapist is a force working against her, analyzing her words, struggling to understand her behavior and trying to put her “in her place.” But Natalia won’t settle down; she defies definition.
What is the level of autofictionality in Natalia? You flirt with this theme in your novel, don’t you?
In previous interviews, I have said that My Friend Natalia “takes a deconstructive approach to the self-help narratives of our time and drives the tools of autofiction into a dead end, asking what is concealed, when everything is revealed.”
At the most blatant level, the theme of autofiction arises from the “layering method” the therapist develops in the novel. It is my fictional contribution to a spectrum of therapies, verging on bibliotherapy and psychoanalysis. During her treatment, Natalia writes stories of her life and layers them with her imagination. In other words, a fictional character writes her own autofiction.
To shuffle the pack, I have left traces of myself on the pages. In one of her therapeutic exercises, Natalia imitates the handwriting of French-American artist Niki de Saint-Phalle (1930–2002), an artistic master who intrigues her. On the pages of the novel, it is my handwriting, a bit similar to that of Saint-Phalle’s, reproducing the texts of Saint-Phalle’s artwork My Men (1994). I have also written all the translations of My Men with my black ink pen, though I don’t always know the basics of the language, as was the case with the Dutch and Romanian translations of My Friend Natalia. I call this a “calligraphic meditation.” That’s one example of how I play with different levels of fictionality, and how I complicate the question of narrative control.
Speaking of Niki de Saint-Phalle, there are several real life artists, philosophers, and writers referred to through the book such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Eve Ensler, and Tennessee Williams. Why did you add these real world characters into a work of fiction?
The layering method of Natalia’s therapy is parallel to artistic creation. As an author, I draw inspiration from the historical strata of thought, from artistic works that existed before me, and will be there when I’m gone.
I am also thrilled by inventing fictive works of art. In My Friend Natalia, there is a fictive painting titled Ear-Mouth hanging on the wall of the therapy room. It is made by a Franco-Finnish artist Elise Watteauville, a product of my imagination as well. Indicating listening and speaking, in other words symbolizing communication, the Ear-Mouth constitutes a significant key to interpretation in the novel.
My Friend Natalia was originally published in Finland two years ago, in 2019. Certain global phenomena, i.e. the Me Too movement, became heated at that time. Did it have any impact on your writing?
The Me Too movement started during the writing process of Natalia, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take any effect on my novel.
Today, as I look back on my life, I could also describe My Friend Natalia as my epitaph for heterosexuality. Or, at least, for the most toxic forms of it. Like many women, I grew up under the regime of the heterosexual matrix, to quote a concept of Judith Butler. It means, roughly put, that the conventional binary gender system is achieved by performative acts perpetuated in our culture. Well, I found the heteronormativity of mainstream culture stifling, unsatisfying. I have noticed that many women in my social context also struggle with this issue, seeking to solve it through various means. I am still at the very beginning of trying to tackle it, but hugely curious to walk further.
In their review of My Friend Natalia, Kirkus says that your translator, David Hackston, “has performed a virtuosic task capturing the Finnish pyrotechnics in English.” There’s so much innuendo, so much delicious playfulness in the novel – how do you retain that in 12 different languages? Can you talk about your experience(s) or any difficulties you encountered having Natalia translated?
When my previous novel Oneiron (2015) was being translated, I communicated individually with each translator, and that was a big mistake. It brought on a lot of extra work for me. So with My Friend Natalia, I wanted to organize everything in a different manner. First I wrote a joint letter, where I highlighted things I thought would cause trouble. Then I created a Slack channel for questions and comments. I highly recommend this platform for the exchange of ideas in translation processes.
There are some specific characteristics in Natalia that the translator needs to be aware of. The main trickiness is that I play with Finnish words and with the etymology. The challenge is therefore how to translate them into target language in a most elegant and natural way. I encouraged the translators to be inventive, and I must say that David Hackston was one of those who really put their imagination and nuanced sense of language into play.
Of course there are always elements doomed to be lost in translation. Just to give one example, the therapist frequently uses an academic idiom “per se” which is a Latin term meaning “in itself.” If you put these two small words together: perse, in Finnish it means “ass.” When the topic is sexuality and different body parts, the outcome is nothing but comic.