Yael Farber: “I find it very deadening not to be engaging with things that are difficult or emotional”

An interview with the director of <em>Nirbhaya</em>, a new play about the Delhi rape case that shocked the world.

I was in Barcelona when I heard Jyoti had died. I didn’t know her name then but I knew she was a young woman like myself and my friends, and that her death highlighted a need for change.

On 16 December Jyoti Singh Pandey boarded a bus in Delhi with a male friend, Awindra Pandey. What happened next is etched into public consciousness. The driver and his five companions beat Awindra unconscious then took turns to rape Jyoti on the floor of the bus as it circled the streets. When she fought back they raped her with an iron rod which destroyed 90 per cent of her intestine. They then threw the couple from the bus and attempted to drive over them, before disappearing into the Delhi night.

The news was broadcast and people prayed for Jyoti’s recovery. Not knowing her name they lit candles for a girl they called Nirbhaya, the Marathi word for Fearless. Nirbhaya has now become a familiar name for a young woman who fought to live, but who eventually died, a beautiful, intelligent girl who has in death become a potent symbol for change.

When I heard that writer and director Yael Farber, moved by the incident, was creating a play around it, I felt this was to be an important production and wanted to hear more about the ideas behind it, so I met with Farber in a small Edinburgh cafe to discuss her show.

After seeing Nirbhaya I am somewhat in awe of her. I left the auditorium feeling completely drained yet absolutely alive. Jyoti’s story is a framing device; in between Jyoti boarding the bus and getting attacked five other women tell their stories of rape, violence and abuse. The testimonies glisten, these women hold nothing back.

Although Farber felt strongly about the case the idea to create the play originated from one of the actors. “There’s an actress in Mumbai who was one of the performers, Poorna Jagannathan. She contacted me on Facebook because she had seen my work and said ‘Women are ready to speak here, will you come and make it work?’ and of course that was an amazing invitation and I said yes.

“It was very quick to do the work for this year but we just felt this time next year this story would have passed back into the tide of indifference. This young woman died and if her life were not to be in vain we have to carry forward what it evoked on the streets.“

Farber is keen to see attitudes towards women change, and she hopes Nirbhaya will be part of a larger process of breaking the silence. “We didn’t want to just tell the story about Jyoti because to do that is to suggest it’s an anomaly in some way. What we wanted to do was show that this sits inside a larger frame, a wider tapestry of an endemic violence against women. We felt that by bringing personal testimony it provokes this civic gesture which

is that these five women get up every day and break their silence in front of witnesses as a way of saying ‘this is the only way forward, if we begin to speak, we begin to take apart this idea that we should carry the shame’ because we live in silence when there is a currency of shame and when you start to speak you are.”

I ask Farber about the creation of Nirbhaya and she tells me how closely she worked with the actors . “It’s testimonial theatre which is different to verbatim [in that] it requires the engagement of a playwright, and that was my role. I gathered their testimonies and did a lot of research and interviews and group sessions with them but then I, I would go away and craft and find the words and trajectory to condense it, each piece could only be possibly ten minutes.”

Something I found poignant in Nirbhaya was a child’s yellow dress which was handed to Poorna by Japjit Kaur, playing Jyoti. “Theatre is about evoking memory, thoughts, sensuous responses to things and sensory responses to things,” says Farber. “If she just told us she was a child and [the abuse] happened then we will hear it but if we see a little yellow dress we will understand it and we will remember what it was like, to wear your favourite yellow dress and you know just to evoke that image inside us because we want to bring the audience on a journey with us. With each story Jyoti hands [the actor] their object, in other words saying ‘remember yourself, speak about this, tell your story, bring your testimony.’”

I mention the recent case of a thirteen-year-old abuse victim being labelled ‘predatory’. Farber frowns and shakes her head. “Extraordinary, but yet it’s appalling but not extraordinary, this kind of stuff happens all the time and I, think across the world in different ways, we, we create some kind of diversion from these, and we have to find ways to break the silence.”

It is apparent in Nirbhaya that as well as seeing the injustice in the world (she has previously written about apartheid) Farber also sees beauty – the performers speak about Delhi as ‘a city where god runs in the wires’ and the way Farber speaks has a flow and rhythm akin to poetry.

“There’s such brutality and difficulty, but there’s such beauty as well,” she says. “The sacred and the profane live alongside each other, so inside all that difficulty and pain, there is immense, very profound sense of spirituality and divinity.”

Was it not difficult for her, though, writing about such an intense and horrible subject matter?

“I find this kind of work very fulfilling, so for me difficulty is part of it. Of course it’s difficult, of course it’s emotional but I’m grateful for those things,” she says. “I find it very deadening not to be engaging with things that are difficult or emotional. It’s not easy, but it’s my work and it’s where I draw my purpose from. For me, difficulty is part of all the work I do. I trust if something is difficult because it’s usually worth it.”

A performance of Nirbhaya. Photo: William Burdett-Coutts
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era