SUFFERING IS THE GREATEST TABOO
translated from Serbian by Novica Petrović
Ljubica: When the two of us got acquainted, you were a poet, and then a change occurred. You started writing stories. How does a poet see the world, and how does a prose writer see it? I'm asking you this because I've never written poems, I believe it's a special talent that one is born with, which exists in one as a special vocation, a special sensitivity.
Jelena: People usually think that prose outgrows poetry. To my mind, that is an insult to poetry because, as I see it, it is the crown of literature. Even before I wrote poetry, when I was twenty or so, I kept trying to write stories but didn't like them. What I probably needed was more time, to gain some experience and maturity. That is the important difference between prose and poetry, you can write poetry when you're young, when you have no experience, out of some biological, instinctive knowledge, and make it good. That is not the case with prose. It requires maturity. At least that was the case with me. My early stories seemed to me to be lacking a foundation, the characters were thin and unconvincing, but at the back of my mind I knew that sometime in the future I would write more stories. So I kept on writing poetry until I was thirty, and my poems were my entire world. However, I read a lot of stories back then, some of which influenced my poems in a way, and they got increasingly long. In fact, my collection of poems Scenes from the Life of a Band Leader is half-way between poetry and prose, with a precisely worked out running order, with chapters about the band leader, whose life story develops in the course of the book as if it were a novel. It was quite natural for me then to switch to prose after that.
Ljubica: Poetry, then, is the call of youth, something connected with the instinctive and the affective...
Jelena: I don't think that is so with everyone. There are people who write poetry all their lives. But later, at certain moments of elation, heightened emotional states, I tried to write a poem and came to the conclusion that I could no longer do it.
Ljubica: Does it mean that writing a poem is a spontaneous act, whereas when writing prose you apply craftsmanship skills that an experienced creator possesses?
Jelena: That depends on the person. Some people write everything all their lives, novels, stories, poems, essays, literary criticism, plays... There are those who write only one kind of thing. It's pointless to draw conclusions about the existence of some kind of rules, there are no rules for youth or for the experience one gains with maturity. In my case, there came a moment when poetry quite simply left me. As to why that happened and how, that I don't know. The only thing I know is that phases in life change.
Ljubica: Let's talk about your stories that inspire me and thrill me. I don't know whether you might find this offensive, but in those stories you come across as very feminine indeed.
Jelena: Think so?
Ljubica: I see them as suggestive writing originating from female experience, speaking of which, it is not what everyone thinks about when ecriture feminine is mentioned, it's not inferior and sugary. To me, it's feminine and strong. What's your view of female and male writing? It would be interesting for me to hear your thoughts about male and female writing, for I think you have managed to do what men can't do.
Jelena: You know that I have a lot of stories written in the masculine person. I wrote them so on purpose, in order to show that I can write both ways, like a woman and like a man. I think that a good writer must feel both ways. If he or she is restricted to one or the other only, then that's the same thing as what we've said about poetry and prose. Bad. As far as the so-called female writing is concerned, I've answered such questions time and time again, this whole story is used up and full of stereotypes to such an extent that I'm quite sick of it. They say, your writing is feminine but it's not sugary, as if it goes without saying that women's writing is supposed to be sugary. There are so many women whose writing is not sugary and so many men who are prone to kitsch.
Ljubica: All those stereotypes should be demolished, and we should talk about female and male writing as different narrative strategies that are neither better nor worse than the other, just different ways of writing.
Jelena: I demolish stereotypes by not talking about that at all. That whole story is pointless. I like to be addressed as a writer, not as a woman. I'm a woman in other spheres of life, here I'm a writer.
Ljubica: Right, but the erotic in your stories is presented from an angle which is not that of a man. Even when you write from the point of view of a male narrator, I recognise that he is seen through the eyes of a woman, the way a woman imagines what a man sees and feels.
Jelena: The book Fairground Magician was named after the eponymous story written in the masculine person, whose eros is male only. I don't know about other women, but I think I can write from a male angle and from a female angle as well. I'm kidding a bit, but I do think that, when I enter this creative mood, I can feel what's happening in the eros of both men and women.
Ljubica: Your stories are sophisticated but daring as well. I see that you play with taboos in them, the ones that it is shameful to talk about. What do you think about a writer's task to shake those taboos up a bit when they can't be demolished altogether?
Jelena: Personally, I don't have any taboos when it comes to writing. If I did, I wouldn't be writing about them. What are you getting at actually?
Ljubica: You've written a story about lesbians.
Jelena: Yes, there are such stories. There are stories in which incest is mentioned, or stories in which sex is openly discussed. To me, sex is no taboo, I don't see anything shameful about it. As a writer, what I find intriguing are things that are close to the edge, although a simple human story can be interesting as well. It depends, of course, on how it is told. There's that story about a married couple and a cat, where the woman's attitude towards the cat reflects her attitude towards her husband and his infidelity. There's nothing unusual in it, but it's narrated in an artistic way. And as regards taboos, to me, the greatest taboos are human suffering, abandonment, death, partings, the disappearance of anything. They seem more terrible to me than these socially established taboos.
Ljubica: What you said is very interesting. Do you think that people don't talk about suffering and parting in the right way, that there are stereotypes and taboos concerning that as well?
Jelena: There are stereotypes in everything. Suffering is the greatest taboo. People are forbidden, especially in this modern world, to be sad, to suffer, to say that they can't go on, to be weak. That has become unacceptable and is no longer modern, it's on the verge of being indecent. People are not allowed to neglect themselves on account of their suffering. Good manners and the requirements of civilisation impose upon them to take good care of themselves. Human suffering is a much greater taboo than sex. Every sociologist, psychologist or writer should deal with it, deconstruct it down to the tiniest details, in order to see its scope and what can be done with it. Suffering is something that people shun. If taboo is something people try to evade, then it is certainly not sex.
Ljubica: How can a writer help deconstruct this taboo concerning suffering?
Jelena: I don't know if the role of a writer is to help in this at all. I don't know what the role of a writer is supposed to be at all, either. Many people have told me that they recognise themselves in my stories, and when I was young, I felt better when, having experienced some revelation or other while reading, I found out that some of my suffering had been written about in books. We feel less alone then, for we can see that whatever is inside us that is hidden and weighs down upon us actually exists in others, too, and that there's somebody else thinking about that. Even though such things make people feel better, I don't think that it is a writer's role to do that.
Ljubica: Why do we write then?
Jelena: We write for selfish reasons. No writer writes for the sake of others, out of altruism, in order to do his or her readers a favour. That's pointless. We write for ourselves, out of narcissism and our authentic need to realise ourselves. Everyone has that need, and writers realise it by writing books and meeting their readers. However, there have been writers in history who did not want their books to reach readers. A writer has a strong narcissistic and selfish need to get that madness out of him/herself. Maybe that's a kind of introspection, through which we examine ourselves and believe, like real narcissistic individuals, that all our thoughts are precious and that we should note down as many of them as possible. Put it down, commit it to paper, lest it should get lost! I'm married to a writer, so I have a double dose of that narcissism in my home.
Ljubica: Do you read to each other what you write?
Jelena: We do, he reads to me more than I to him. He writes aphorisms, and he writes every day, as opposed to me. I'm a terribly lazy writer.
Ljubica: Apart from being a narcissist, I'd like to be a bit of a voyeur as well and take a peek in your writer's workshop where you create your stories. Each writer has his or her magic concept, some secret process that he or she undergoes in order to reach those deep-hidden contents. I, for example, listen to certain kinds of music that I choose in accordance with what I wish to impart. I write down scenes and fragments of conversations in a notepad.
Jelena: I never write anything down, even though my husband, who keeps writing things down in his notepad, tells me it would be a good thing for me to write down some ideas. About once every two months, I sit down and start writing, be it on account of a deadline or because my publisher Gojko Božović keeps reminding me that it's time to hand in the manuscript. I usually only have the first sentence in my head. What will happen with that sentence or that character afterwards, I have no idea. I write a story over the course of the next two or three hours, it takes me that long to type it, as if someone were dictating it to me, and it usually stays the way it is. I don't change it afterwards, maybe a few commas here and there. My husband finds something to correct, be it the language or a typing error, and I don't spend much time working on my stories. Apart from that first sentence, I think up the story's title. Sometimes I try to think up a line of development in advance, which my characters proceed to change, as if they had a life of their own which shows them what is supposed to happen next. I let them develop the story by themselves. No, that's not a mere phrase or some artistic mumbo-jumbo of mine, I really mean it, they write the story by themselves. If I were asked, I would probably have more stories with a happy ending. However, my protagonists tend to be melancholy types prone to depression, who often come to a tragic end, sometimes even commit suicide. It's their will. What I have to do is just commit that to paper.
Ljubica: Your stories are very polished stylistically, with a musical touch. One hears music in them, the way music, in the movies, leads your emotions before the picture.
Jelena: I think I have a good sense of rhythm. It was also important to me when it came to poetry, and in my stories as well. That is why it gets on my nerves when someone wants me to change some word or other, and this change betrays my inner rhythm. There is an element of truth when they say that people who sing nicely, and I think I do, manage to compose a story in a musical manner.
Ljubica: In your stories, one feels that music of your heartbeat, a personal frequency. Do you connect your stories with some specific music, music that you listen to or music that's in your head? It would appear to me that you listen to jazz, for you improvise very skilfully.
Jelena: I like listening to Arsen Dedić, but I like modern music as well. In my home, it is often very noisy, the radio and TV turned on at the same time. I wouldn't believe it myself, but I've written a lot of stories to the blaring of the radio or the TV set. From my husband's room, you can hear loud music that he enjoys listening to. Despite all that, I am able to completely isolate myself and focus on the text only.
Ljubica: You're like Chekhov, he could write anywhere, in a restaurant or at a railway station.
Jelena: I can do that, too. I sometimes write while taking a ride in a public transport vehicle. I think I learned to concentrate like that while I was working at the Radio, when about ten of us shared a small staff room with only four typewriters.
Ljubica: In your stories there is a lot of smart and sophisticated humour. Wit is a very rare and precious thing, something that only a chosen few manage to achieve. There aren't many people who manage to make us laugh, and many, it would appear, consider laughter to be something trivial and superficial. I notice that passion seems to have moved out of literature, the passion for life, without which there is no real picture of the world.
Jelena: There are a lot of writers among us who think that they ought to philosophise in a manner that makes the rest of us develop an inferiority complex. You read a book of that sort and quite simply feel guilty because you don't understand what the writer wanted to say. They believe that a good book must be boring. If it's fun to read, then there must be something wrong with it. I suppose this stems from the erroneous assumption that it's very difficult to attain something that's worth a lot. On the contrary, I am of the opinion that only that which we find easy to do and which gives us great pleasure is worth doing. Whatever we find difficult to do may not be the right thing for us to do, which does not mean to say that we should not make an effort, but there must be some joy to be found in it. If one feels troubled and does not enjoy what one is doing, one can hardly make a success of it. We often think that we have read something of high quality if that book has made us miserable and we struggled through it for the sake of cultural requirements, for it has received some award or other and critics have described it as a must. I think that a book must be interesting in the first place. That is the most important role of a writer, to be an entertainer, which certainly does not make it trivial. Many writers will be horrified by this, but I just don't care. Entertainment first, and only then, through entertainment, will you manage to impart something else to the reader. A writer must allow the reader some breathing space once in a while. You can't pressurise the reader all the time philosophically and emotionally, and expect him or her to read, read, read, and not get anything in the way of respite after all the strain and wisdom permeating the couple of hundred pages read so far.
Ljubica: Why is laughter considered to be of marginal importance when it is such a rare gift, a special talent? Few people are capable of making mankind laugh, there are many more who make people sad or indulge in futile philosophical games. It would appear that people no longer need to play. And then again, a sense of humour is an extraordinary talent. Telling someone to be witty is the same as setting that person the task of being good-looking or smart.
Jelena: That is a major topic, which I often talk about with my husband, who is a satirist and feels very bad because everything connected with humour and satire is considered to be facile and frivolous, lacking the necessary artistic gravitas, a third-rate product. Possibly, if we went a little further, we'd come to some religious views forbidding people to rejoice and laugh. Or maybe it's just that people need to pretend to themselves that they're adults, for most people think they're adult if they're serious and don't laugh, that if they play, they negate themselves as serious and responsible beings. But play, laughter, passion, those are the basic elements of life's energy. They make us alive. If these are lacking, one can hardly communicate with other people.
Ljubica: It is important for a writer, then, to know, one way or another, how to remain a child.
Jelena: When you talk to someone through art, if you address only the adult part of that person, then you get a response from the adult part. A good writer must address the child in his or her reader, for emotions and creativity are to be found in the child. Creation does not come to us from the adult part but from the child.
Ljubica: Childhood is not just a Garden of Eden where we feel the joy of things seen and experienced for the first time. It is joyful and sad at the same time.
Jelena: I think about childhood all the time, and even today I like to read books about childhood days. Just as you said, childhoods are both magical and sad, even those most unhappy ones. In fact, childhood is a very troublesome thing and one of the great taboos. It is often idealised as a happy time, the most beautiful time of our lives, because you don't have the responsibilities that an adult has. A child is not aware of that, never having worked, and not knowing how it is to have a boss or to have to go to work. But it's much more difficult for a child than for an adult, because a child has many more fears, is worried about many things, doesn't have a clear picture of a lot of things, human relations for example, of which it has only a vague idea. A child feels guilty about many things it had no part in. I'm talking about happy children as well, not just those whose childhood was traumatic. Children have a lot of problems inside their heads, a lot of worries. When you grow up, a lot of things become clearer to you, you realise what the connections between you and the rest of the world are, which helps you assume a position. When you're a child, you fight for all that. You're very powerless. To me, childhoods are very inspirational because of the pain and trouble of growing up and searching for your place in the world.
Ljubica: Your Russian origin is very interesting, because of your grandfather Leo in your stories. It all looks exotic, quite different from my childhood, spent in the yards of Belgrade's Čubura district. Russian blood coloured your childhood and growing up in a special way. I feel it flow from Russian classics into your prose a bit.
Jelena: I've written stories which were inspired by classical Russian literature, even though it is not my favourite literature, unfortunately. I'm more inclined towards modern Western literature, but I did grow up on Russian books and with typically Russian emotions of closeness, tenderness and exaggerated outbursts of feelings. It wasn't excessively old-timey, but it was very tender indeed. In our home there was a surplus of emotions of all kinds, just the sort that you can find in Russian literature, and that certainly exerted an influence on me. Later, I didn't know just what to do with all those emotions and vulnerability. In our home, everyone was very considerate, and that hardly fits in with this cruel world of today, which is why I mostly feel totally out of it. That's why I've reduced myself to my own micro-world in which there are but a few people, who pose no threat to me.
Ljubica: It seems that there's not much empathy today, sharing the feeling of others. The world has become cruel, or is it just our impression of it?
Jelena: I don't know if it was any different in the past. In the world that I grew up in there were more emotions. I don't know if everywhere else the situation was the same as in my family, for there was a constant overflow of emotions, love, suffering... This indifferent and pragmatic world of today is quite unrecognisable for me.
Ljubica: We find a shelter and a means of escape from it in reading. Which writers have strongly affected you and pointed you towards literature?
Jelena: My repertory of books for girls was the usual one, probably the same as yours. All those books found their way to me. The Witch of Grič, Françoise Sagan, Katerina, Mirjam, the whole package. I read a lot, I especially liked reading poetry. But the decisive book for my poetic experience of the world was [Zvonimir] Golob's collection Doves in the Wood. That is the rhythm that continued to live in everything that I wrote later. I read that book and I thought: that's me, that's what I want to be. I mean that energy which entirely corresponded with me somehow. After that, when I started writing stories, I read Ian McEwan's book The Comfort of Strangers. I can't describe to you how that book affected me. And when I reread it last summer, after twenty years, I realised how many stories I drew out of that book. I didn't plagiarise it, of course, but I recognised retroactively in it those sentences which entered directly into my subconscious and from which some of my stories would be created much later. Another turning point was Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Even before that book, I sensed somehow the cruelty of beauty, the mortal aspect of love and passion, but with that book I really felt it for the first time, and started dealing with that in my writing. I also developed as a writer with the help of Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski, who represented a sexual revolution of sorts to us. He showed me that things do not have to be sugary in order to be tender. The periodical Pismo [Letter], edited by Raša Livada, which featured lovely translations by [David] Albahari, opened the door of the American short story to me, and that was a precious experience.
Ljubica: Some writers are of the opinion that they shouldn't read, that reading only spoils things for them and exerts a negative influence on their style. I increasingly get to hear how young writers say, when interviewed, that reading obstructs their creative work. They seem to forget that you learn your craft through reading.
Jelena: Is that possible? I couldn't imagine my life without reading. I read constantly and I read a lot, I make an effort to read books written by new colleagues and writers of my generation. I try to follow what's being written in the area of the former Yugoslavia. I can't manage to read everything because a lot is being published, and I'm interested in quite a lot of things. Apart from belles-lettres, I read essays, political comments, for example, of the sort written by Teofil Pančić or that used to be written by Stojan Cerović. A writer can only profit by reading, for if we find a good book that we feel a kinship to, it can elevate you on a wave of emotion to such an extent that you get inspired to start writing something personal. Sometimes a single word is enough to get me going and direct me to an emotion that is deeply hidden. In the final analysis, you should respect your colleagues and contemporaries who write alongside you. There are writers that I like reading, and there are also those whom I read in order to be informed, to know why they are said to be bad and boring.
Ljubica: Reading often becomes a substitute for life. People who read a lot rate their reading experience as highly as their life experience. What do you think about Kiš's parallel between life and literature? What is the connection between them, does literature rely on life and to what extent does it need life for inspiration, and to what extent is it capable itself of thinking something up? Personally, I like writing about some experience which has become deeply embedded inside myself as my story, one I have experienced myself or have thought a lot about. And you?
Jelena: In my books there are six suicides: just imagine what it would be like to have lived through all their experiences!
Ljubica: But you certainly thought about it.
Jelena: I've never thought about it in a suicidal manner. You don't have to live through each and every emotion that you have in your story. You should observe and carefully listen to people, think about them. I'm interested in people and I like talking to them. The Internet is a fantastic thing, I waste a lot of time chatting with unknown people and listening to their stories. It's very inspirational to me when I hear about the different ways people can think, so that I get to know them, I see what preoccupies them. I get to hear things that would never cross my mind!
Ljubica: Today, people are quite preoccupied with history. Writers, too, at least in our country, deal with historical topics a lot. There is an increasing number of historical novels being published, both those dealing with events from the recent past and those reaching much further back in time. Is that also a form of escape from reality?
Jelena: Some writers feel the need to study their collective being and to get to the personal in this way. I am more interested in a personal perspective, but I can't deny that the collective one is very interesting. History is not an escape, it is our reality. We've had so much of it over the last fifteen years that it has swamped everything and become our reality. I've taken a great interest in it and been involved in a number of events, only I didn't include them in my stories, which doesn't mean to say that history was of no interest to me. The way I see it, it has no place in my books. There are great writers like Milan Kundera, who manage to include current history and politics in their books. But not every writer is a Kundera or an Orwell. Many are unable to distance themselves, or politics lures them into the mundane, trivial, moralistic.
Ljubica: There was a time when, in repressive societies, a writer had to “smuggle” those political views of his/hers that he or she couldn’t express publicly by way of literature, thus making them less visible, but visible enough. Now, when everyone can write what he or she thinks and have it published in newspapers, there’s no point in dragging pamphlets and political views into literature. Literature, it seems to me, should get rid of that political ballast and remain on its own.
Jelena: For someone to write a good book, which contains history, politics and an overview of society, he or she needs to be a really great writer. I think that we lack such a writer today, of the kind that once existed. At this moment, we don’t have a Balzac who would write a novel with a thousand characters, human destinies, and who would paint this time and society they way they are, with all their diseases and perversions. The French writer Michel Houellebecq is going in that direction, but I’m referring to the Balkans. We lack such a writer. And there’s plenty of stuff to write about!
Ljubica: We’ve done this interview for the periodical Sarajevske sveske. You’ve published some texts of yours there. What do you think about this project, already a classic now, that a periodical of this kind very studiously and abundantly presents the cultures of different peoples, but peoples close to one another?
Jelena: Sarajevske sveske is an excellent periodical, especially for us, writers possessed of inquiring minds, who wish to know what is being written in these parts and how people think. Whatever connects us in times of partings, all that is of enormous significance.