‘I’m leaving, I’m staying’: Jonas Hassen Khemiri and Alice Menzies on The Family Clause

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, author of The Family Clause, and his English-language translator Alice Menzies discuss family, fiction and the task of translating a novel into another language.

Sana Goyal
The Family Clause, written by Jonas Hassen Khemiri and translated by Alice Menzies, on a turquoise background.

Suffused with spectres and shifting perspectives, death and disappearing acts, crossed wires and wounds, Jonas Hassen Khemiri's The Family Clause (translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies) is a stunningly well-observed portrait of a family over a ten-day reunion. Expect suffocating scenes as familial relationships unravel amidst the memories of the past and choices of the future, nestled alongside depictions of everyday monotony, amusing moments and unassuming wisdom.

Readers can identify the characters based only on their relationships to one another (‘a son who is a father’, ‘a father who is a grandfather’), the artful technical choice to leave them unnamed resulting in a story of instant relatability and universality. Patriarchy, duty, obligation, devotion, devastation – Khemiri asks: What does ‘family’ fundamentally mean? And can we ever find freedom in familial ties?

If you had to describe The Family Clause in one sentence…

Jonas Hassen Khemiri: A portrait of a family going: I love you, I hate you, I’m leaving, I’m staying, this ends here, but let’s try again, I’m never calling you again, hi it’s me.

Alice Menzies: Family tensions simmer and come to a head when an absent father comes to stay.

The novel is premised on and propels around a clause: ‘the father clause’. Jonas, what, in your mind, is the contract between the author and the reader? Is it relative, can it be renegotiated?

Jonas Hassen Khemiri: 1: Don’t be boring. 2: Respect the reader’s time. 3: Tell a story. 4: Don’t be banal. 5: There’s big drama to be found in small things.

But to be honest a lot of my favourite writers would look at 1-5 and happily break all of them.

The Family Clause was first published in Swedish in 2018. How does it feel to now have the novel reach English-language readers – and to be published during a pandemic? What was working with your translator, Alice Menzies, like?

Jonas Hassen Khemiri: Alice Menzies is amazing, and it’s such a joy and privilege to have translators like her. Timing-wise… well… the books and albums that I love took time to find their dedicated readers, so if nobody finds the book now, maybe they will when this madness is over. Because it will end. Someday. 

Alice, why did you choose to translate The Family Clause for English-language readers? What was it about the novel that enticed you to embark on this project?

Alice Menzies: Ellie Steel at Harvill Secker approached me and asked if I would be interested in translating a sample from the opening chapter. I’d really enjoyed Jonas’s earlier novels, so that was a huge privilege in itself, but the description Ellie sent over also sounded great. As soon as I started reading the book, I was hooked – not just because Jonas’s writing is so wonderful, but also because the story and the characters really pull you in – and I thought an English-language audience would enjoy it too.

How did you approach translating the text? Did you do it in its entirety – and then share the complete manuscript with the author – or was it more collaborative, a back-and-forth process, where you constantly communicated with each other?

Alice Menzies: I always prefer to produce a full first draft and go through it a few times before sharing it with the author – partly because any tricky sections often work themselves out by the third or fourth draft, but also because I don’t want to pester the author too much.

With The Family Clause, I sent the full manuscript to Jonas, with queries that I couldn’t quite work out and suggestions for small changes that would help clarify things for English-language readers, and he generously answered all of my questions and gave me feedback on the translation. Once Ellie had finished her first edit, there was more back-and-forth, tweaking things. It was such an enjoyable process from start to finish.

You’ve said in a lecture that you don’t really think about form, only words and language. You write across genres: novels, short stories, and plays. Did this particular story ask to be written as a novel, or was it a conscious choice?

Jonas Hassen Khemiri: This story was too personal to become anything other than a book. When I started out writing about the grandfather, the father and the sister, I recognised them from my own family, and I could tell that they were hiding something.

And indeed, there is a certain person who has been turned into a void, and a secret. The grandfather has abandoned a daughter in a previous relationship; her life ended in turmoil and now the grandfather walks around in a body heavy with the guilt of maybe having caused the destruction of his own child. Also, I sensed that the dead daughter would enter the story at some point (to seek revenge? To forgive?), and dead people tend to do a better job of being believable in novels than in other forms.

I was also interested in the consequences of realising too late that you have been a bad parent. What can you do? Well, one strategy, if all other options (time travel, asking for forgiveness) are out of reach, is to take care of the next generation, the grandkids. And the grandfather in the book does this, at least for a few hours, towards the end of the book.

Did you read any fiction about father- and parenthood, or other family sagas around the time of researching and writing this book? Can you recommend your favourite titles on this topic?

Jonas Hassen Khemiri: I remember reading Mann’s Buddenbrooks, Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Bolaño’s amazing short stories. And, of course, and always, the incredible Svetlana Alexievich.

Being present, being seen, being understood – these are some of the bigger ideas the book concerns itself with. Yet, your characters remain unnamed, and the narrative is home to absences, silences, scars and distances. What do you want readers to take away from the book?

Jonas Hassen Khemiri: That they are not alone in the eternal and impossible quest of finding a balance between family and freedom. That the outside world can’t hurt them if they are reading a book. That silences can be filled with words and that nothing is as scary as it seems. That sometimes it’s easier to run away than to stay. That running away means freedom in the short term and prison in the long run.

What were the most challenging themes and scenes to translate, if any? Which were the most rewarding?

Alice Menzies: The scene that immediately comes to mind is the one in which the son is looking after his two young children, trying to get his daughter ready for nursery while also keeping an eye on his one-year-old son. The sentences get shorter and shorter as his stress levels rise, almost as though the rhythm of the text is in sync with his racing pulse, and I remember finding it really tricky to get the balance right – to really mirror the relentlessness of the Swedish – but also incredibly rewarding when it felt like it finally ‘clicked’.

What, for you, is an act of translation?

Alice Menzies: That’s a tough question. I think, essentially, that translation is just another form of communication. Every translator will interpret a text in a different way, producing a different end result based on the many decisions they’ll have to make about things like tone and register, rhythm and nuance. To me, translation is ultimately an attempt to interpret everything the author meant and wanted to convey, and reproduce that in another language, in a way that mirrors the reading experience of source-language readers as closely as possible—bringing great books to audiences that wouldn’t otherwise be able to read them.

Are you working on something new? What’s next?

Jonas Hassen Khemiri: I’m writing. Not sure what it is yet, but it looks weird (in a good way).

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