Five years have passed since the publication of your last novel.
It took me a long time to write Levhartice. If I’d had the right conditions it might just have taken me two or three months. But I think that the longer period of time helped it to develop.Iva Pekárková
What makes the chief protagonist of Levhartice tick?
Milla has the feeling that she has been buried alive in Prague over the last few years. She takes off for a “cure” to Britain, where she seeks the anonymity that she didn’t have in Czechia, even though nobody actually noticed her here. But they had her categorized.
She is also dealing with the fact that Czech men don’t like her.
I have noticed that many, perhaps most, Czech women between the ages of 37 and 45 or 50 who no longer have or never had a model’s statistics feel totally, utterly crushed because they no longer interest the men and that they are now too old for them. My entire generation has been through this. And it’s not just a matter of years. A brunette found a husband when she was 18 or 20, and after some time he started to criticize her because she wasn’t a blonde. And if she was a blonde she would be taken to task why she wasn’t a brunette – and so on. Whatever a woman was like, her husband would begin to reproach her for not being something else, and yet he had married her. When “ladies of some age” go out into the world, they cannot believe their eyes: the men start to notice them! It is refreshing. And I’m not the first to say it: lots of women know of this.
Is this a purely Czech syndrome?
Possibly Eastern European and mostly generational.
Why is this?
The men don’t know what they want, and blame it on the women.
What do you think this reflects?
Their frustration? Dissatisfaction with life? But I hasten to add: naturally I am only talking about some men. Some women from my generation (and other generations) can be real harpies and henpeck their husbands in a way that’s quite unknown in most of the rest of the world. When you look around the world, you see that Bohemian and Moravian aren’t that awful: they don’t marry off their daughters when they’re twelve, they don’t bring several legal wives home and they beat their partners almost exclusively when they are drunk and not in order to “educate” them while they are sober. The fact is that many women from our geopolitical region have got the feeling that once they reach a certain age they become invisible – and all you need to do is go abroad to stop being transparent. That is what I am referring to in this book.
What place does Levhartice have within the context of your work?
I intend to write a “black and white animal trilogy”. The first part was Sloni v soumraku (Elephants in the Twilight) about an Englishwoman who is getting on in years and a young Senegalese. This is a story that has been entirely stolen from one of my taxi customers – the young Senegalese man actually. We went for a beer a couple of times, he told me about his life and marriage to this older English woman, and he wrote me a couple of e-mails. About a year later his wife hacked into his e-mail, found these messages and wrote me an awfully rude e-mail asking me why I was trying to seduce him. I answered in a sisterly way, but she answered with about eight more rude e-mails, in which over time she described her entire life. I just needed a bit of research and Sloni v soumraku was ready for publication. I wrote this book as a bit of a warning: today too many women are taking up with partners from Africa who are several decades younger than they are – and for the most part it doesn’t work out. Sure, several novels have come out with similar subject matter, but Sloni v soumraku is quite unique in that the story is written from both points of view: the naïve older white woman and the very unnaive young African. Each of them has their truth on their side.
How do you carry on charting black-white relations in the second part of your trilogy?
In contrast to Sloni v soumraku, Levhartice describes a working “black-white” relationship. I also wanted to describe the trend whereby lots of people scorn their own culture as they fall in love with a foreign one, often to an embarrassing extent. Milla isn’t entirely mad, but she has felt hurt by her culture. She seeks consolation in other cultures – and meets up with this black family, which is not at all ashamed of its African origins, but does not place any special importance on them. So a situation emerges in which Milla is enthusiastic about black culture – and the blacks with European culture. The way that situation develops is described in Levhartice.
What else do we have to look forward to?
The last part will be called Pečená zebra (Roast Zebra), which was inspired by my Nigerian friend Kenny, who always looks at the menu in Czech restaurants and enthusiastically declares: “I’ll have the roast zebra”. This book is to be about blacks in Bohemia. I don’t just know about them from Kenny, but I get consulted by lots of Czech girls who have fallen in love with blacks and have children with them and then don’t know what to do – as well as their mothers. I try to help and advice them where possible, but it isn’t always easy. In Pečená zebra I would like to describe a phenomenon that I have noticed: here there’s a whole caste of girls who have been disappointed in their relations with a Czech, and then instead of taking more care next time they fall head over heals for someone who looks, talks and acts “exotic”. Sometimes it works out, but too often it doesn’t”.
How do you write? By hand or do you rely on the computer?
I write serious things with my pen, because the speed of handwriting matches my train of thought. Hand contact is also important for me and I don’t want to lose the abililty to write anything anywhere, even with out wifi or electricity. I write too fast on a typewriter or computer and mostly things I am not that bothered with.
You wrote Levhartice in Budapest among other places as part of the Visegrad residential programme. Was this your first ever creative residence?
I’d already been on three residences thanks to the Germans. In 2002 with the assistance of the Robert Bosche Foundation I spent two months in Berlin in what was then the bohemian quarter of Kreuzberg. I was also at Wannsee near Potsdam and on the island of Sylt in the Baltic Sea.
What kind of literature are you influenced by? Do you read more in English or Czech?
I’m mostly influenced by life but of course I read a lot. Twenty years ago I was influenced by black American writer Toni Morrison. I’ve been reading in English since 1982 or 1983. I also read in Czech but it’s easier to find what you want in English.
What is the difference between literature written in English and in Czech?
Literature written in English is greater to the power of four. There are several styles in English where there’s only one in Czech. Seventies and eighties translations of Faulkner and Hemingway, for example, all look tastelessly alike, whereas originally they were in totally different styles and had nothing in common. When books by these two authors, for instance, are stylistically similar in Czech, it doesn’t mean that they were bad translations of course. Translations had to be readable, they couldn’t drag too much and they weren’t supposed to distract the reader from the context. And Czech simply doesn’t have this stylistic range.
In English there are no grammatical rules, just grammatical recommendations. When Faulkner decided not to write apostrophes, his book came out without apostrophes. When Bukowski decided not to write capitals at the start of each sentence as he was too lazy to hit the shift key, the book came out without capitals. When Kerouac wrote On the Road all at one go on a toilet roll and he told his publisher not to correct the typos as they were all Freudian, Jordan published it typos and all. In Czechia you write something and the Czechifiers will come running to say that Pensylvánie is spelled with a single N! What about William Penn then? Doesn’t matter, they say. Under the new Czech rules Pensylvánie is written with one N.
So the Czech tendency not to step out of line shows up even in the spelling?
Even there. Anything that is too thin or too thick. Anything that stands out from the average, with breasts too large or too small, or hair that’is not what is expected, or with an N too many is bad.
You left the Czech Republic when you were twenty-two. Did you know the unofficial literature at that time?
I read samizdat and exile works but the great majority when I was already outside the country. In Czechoslovakia I knew that it existed but it was a total mystery for me. I might have been around the dissidents a lot or even drunk with them beer. Jáchym Topol also said somewhere that it took him four years to accept dissent even though he sat in the same pubs as its representatives.
After you emigrated you quickly got to publish in exile journals.
They sent out for me to write something. They came to me through Škvorecký.
How did a young girl get to make an impression on Škvorecký?
It was actually very easy to do. He appreciated me enough to travel from Canada to New York on the basis of the manuscript for my novel Péra a perutě, which I had sent him. He couldn’t believe that a young girl had written it. He thought some older established Czech writer had taken him for a ride. He was sixty by then, but he was still a good-looker. We had a Manhattan, which he drank regularly, and it was amazing. He brought along the Jewish author Heda Kovály, who is no longer with us these days.
How have you managed to publish in such prestige magazines as the New York Times and Penthouse since the revolution?
An agent found me. Round about 1990 Czechoslovakia was in fashion and at the time I was one of the few Czechs who had experience of communism within living memory and who at the same time was able to write an article in English. Unfortunately all this came to an end round 1994-95 and then nobody was interested in us. But to this day they still use my first book at universities all over the world to teach them what it was like in Communist Czechoslovakia, because in contrast to some excellent books by Hrabal for example, Péra a perutě was relatively schematic. It was basically a list of everything that annoyed me about the Commies. Péra a perutě was brought out in English in 1992 as Truck Stop Rainbows by Farrar Straus & Giroux in New York, translated by David Powelstock. But perhaps it wasn’t entirely the best. If I’d waited another two or three years to publish it, I would have translated it better myself. The English version was handled by that agent.
You haven’t published anything in English since 2000.Don’t you feel there’s an enormous difference publishing books in a world language and in the language of a small nation?
Of course, it would be great if I had more books published in English, but English literature is saturated with absolutely so much. Twenty years ago I was a Czech pioneer. Kulatý svět came out in English and above all my book about driving a taxi in New York, which attracted the greatest response. I went down as one of the not so many people who have written something about this job in New York while actually doing it. Gimme the Money was brought out by a London publisher, I translated it myself and it didn’t go through an agent. For a short time I had an agent in London but he soon gave it up. And I’m not able to write and promote myself at the same time.
I am the first to write about black-white relations in Czech. And this subject needs to be promoted here because in the USA and Britain, interracial tolerance is now completely normal. In Czechia it is still an issue whether or not the blacks are just monkeys. When I walk down the street with Kenny in Britain, nobody notices. In the suburb where I live they all like us and we are an established couple. I go to the shop to buy some yoghurt and the woman at the counter asks me straight away where my husband is. How is he? He hasn’t been in for a while. We walk down the street here and an old dear stares round at us for so long that she bumps into a lamppost. Huge difference.
From the “insular” viewpoint afar how do you see the current political climate in Czechia?
Quite exceptionally it annoys me. I voted in the last elections a few days ago but it was a negative vote. It seems the politicians here have learnt to get on very nicely with corruption, by which I don’t mean to say that there aren’t any uncorrupt politicians. But knowing who to vote for shouldn’t take years of study. You should know who to go for.
Interviewed by Jaroslav Balvín