Belgrade-born American writer Tea Obreht's debut novel, "The Tiger's Wife," recently was awarded the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. The book is set in an imaginary Balkan country, where the main character investigates the death of her grandfather after the wars of the 1990s. Obreht has sold the rights to her second, unwritten, novel to Random House. Slobodan Kostic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service spoke to Obreht, in Serbian, about her life and work. (Translation by Nedim Dervisbegovic)
RFE/RL: What does it mean for you to be the youngest recipient of the prestigious British award?
It doesn't mean a lot to be the youngest, but it does mean a lot to be in the company of the previous winners. I didn't expect the book to be published at all, and everything that has happened in less than a year is really unbelievable. Winning the Orange Prize is really a great honor.
RFE/RL: I suppose that even in your wildest dreams you couldn't have imagined that your book would win such accolades and attention.
I couldn't imagine that at all. This was my first novel. When I started writing it, I didn't know whether anyone would read it at all. I had hoped that someone would like it, that it would maybe be published by a small publisher. What has happened is quite extraordinary. I'm still waiting to be hit by a bus.
RFE/RL: What does it feel like to open "The Washington Post" and read that your writing is reminiscent of the Balkan version of [Polish-Jewish-American writer and 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature winner] Isaac Bashevis Singer?
The feeling is unbelievable. Those are writers that I like and it is an honor to be compared to them. This is simply unbelievable.
U.S. edition of "The Tiger's Wife"
RFE: It is very rare in literature for someone to achieve such success with the first novel. What are the good and the bad sides of such quick fame?
I have yet to find out about the bad side. It's still very early and my adrenalin is still pumping. All the writers I know say that it starts influencing their writing. The cases of some writers who wrote their first novel and then stopped writing confirms this. It's a big risk."
RFE: How old were you when you discovered the writer in yourself?
I was eight. I came to Cyprus with my mom, my grandmother, and my grandfather. I had only started playing with the English language, and I wrote a short story about a goat in English. I went to my mom and told her, "This is what I'll do; I'll be a writer." My mother said, "OK, great." Since then, I've never wanted to do anything else.
RFE/RL: You've always written in English?
Since my family was always moving when I was small -- first to Cyprus, then to Cairo, and then to America -- I feel a bond with all these parts of my past and my childhood, and I think that with my whole experience I belong to American culture.
I have always written in English, because it's the language I feel most comfortable writing in.
RFE/RL: In that sense, do you feel that you belong to American culture?
I absolutely feel that I belong to American culture. My whole education was in America -- high school, undergraduate, and postgraduate studies. So I think that a great part of my identity is tied to America, but definitely to the immigrant America. Since my family was always moving when I was small -- first to Cyprus, then to Cairo, and then to America -- I feel a bond with all these parts of my past and my childhood, and I think that with my whole experience I belong to American culture.
RFE/RL: Maybe you fit in the American melting pot also because of your origin, since you were born in Serbia, where you lived until you were 7, that your grandmother is from Bosnia and that you were on the move all your life, having spent part of your life in Cyprus and in Cairo?
Exactly. That mix of personal and family history fits with the idea of the melting pot.
RFE/RL: It seems that you have never detached yourself from the Balkan region, which is the setting of your novel.
That's absolutely true. I'm tied to the Balkan way of thinking and, especially, to the Balkan way of thinking about stories. I think there's a concept of "a Balkan story." Even small stories are somehow big, huge. There's a moment in a Balkan story when the line between mythology, legend, and the story become irrelevant. Somehow, that mythology becomes a truth in itself and it becomes a very personal truth. The way in which you receive a story becomes your truth, and then it becomes the truth for the person you're telling the story to. That is very much our way, and it attracts me very much.
RFE/RL: How was the story about a "tiger's wife" created?
It started with me coming over here to Ithaca to start postgraduate studies. One winter, the city was snowed under and I, of course, instead of writing started watching TV for hours and days on end and some program about tigers was on. I sat down and wrote a short story about a girl who was deaf and dumb and she was a friend of a tiger who ran away from the circus. Somehow I felt very emotionally attached to that story, especially to a little boy who watched their interaction. My grandfather had died several months before I started writing that story; and at a certain moment that boy became the grandfather and the narrator because Natalia, who is a doctor, leads the whole book. That's how it started, in a totally strange and banal way, and then it all fit together. Then came the immortal man from some previous unsuccessful stories, and all these things simply met each other and turned into a novel.
RFE/RL: Critics single out the way in which Natalia deals with definite situations, such as death and the breakup of a state, as a particular quality in your novel?
A novel is about people, not about ideas, about human stories and not about historical stories. I think coming to terms with death was the most important thing during the writing of this novel, and that's how it all started.
This novel is definitely much more about personal stories than about some grand historical perspective. I didn't want to get involved in politics or history, and that's why there are no real names. Since a novel is a personal project, it's of course about some personal things, but the stories are not just mine. A novel is about people, not about ideas, about human stories and not about historical stories. I think coming to terms with death was the most important thing during the writing of this novel, and that's how it all started.
RFE/RL: In what sense?
I couldn't understand the concept of death. My grandfather was the first person in my life who died. This brought about a terrible fear and it frightened me a lot. I couldn't understand all those things that I had thought were just simple facts. Some kind of spiritualism of death simply disappeared and I tried to deal with it. The novel was a way to get through all that.
RFE/RL: How many autobiographical elements are in the novel?
There are some autobiographical elements. But many writers like to say they have no autobiographical elements; I think that's very hard, because the things that occupy a writer find their way onto the page. At that time, I was occupied with death and some idea of breakup and how people deal with difficult situations. There was death or the breakup of the country [Yugoslavia]. I went through my grandfather's death, who had declared himself Yugoslav all his life and who was linked to my childhood. Therefore, all these feelings toward Belgrade, especially towards the Balkans, they all came through my memories of childhood and what I saw when I returned to the Balkans in 2003.
RFE/RL: Do you think the former Yugoslavia could present itself to American readers in a new light through literature and art in general?
All these feelings toward Belgrade, especially towards the Balkans, they all came through my memories of childhood and what I saw when I returned to the Balkans in 2003.
That would be phenomenal. I think art always opens doors in some way. When some piece of art is accepted from a part of the world where there are problems, there is always a chance for doors to be opened for other kinds of art and other aspects of culture from that place, and there is always potential for interest in other things. I heard there are many more Western tourists in the Balkans this year, and that is phenomenal. Those kinds of things have already started, and if the book can help a little bit, that would be very nice.