Entering Other Worlds

Interview with Ivana Dobrakovová

You live in Turin, but as a writer, you work in Slovak and in Slovakia. How do you go about the obligatory promotional activities of a writer: media interviews, readings, festivals and so on?

With difficulty. My child goes to school and I cannot leave Italy on a whim anymore. If, however, I get an invitation in advance, I manage to attend some events. But the truth is, I don’t get too many invitations anymore because people who organize literary events know I don’t live in Slovakia.

Some writers want to be in contact with the readers, others don’t. Which group do you belong to?

I am interested in what the readers have to say about my books. I get only a few direct reactions, however, partly because I’m unable to attend readings and festivals too often. When it comes to online comments and social-media discussions or web content in general, I don’t feel the urge to know everything, I don’t google myself. 


The prose writer has made room for the translator

Your book comes out five years after Toxo (2013). Why is there so much time between them?

Good question. At first, I was writing something else, but I wasn’t happy with it, so I decided not to publish it. Then Elena Ferrante and the four volumes of My Brilliant Friend came along and I had to hurry up because these really were books people were waiting for. Plus we also had the Czech translations breathing down our neck. It was a rather large translation project, around 1600 pages. Finally, when it was over, I’ve started collecting these texts, I wrote for myself and felt no rush. 

The translator sort of blocked the writer?

Sort of. I am quite slow both in writing and in translating, but I’m very glad I had the opportunity to translate Elena Ferrante. I don’t know if I’ll ever be part of such a wonderful translation project. My writing had to stay on hold for a while.

Matky a kamionisti (Mothers and Lorry Drivers) is your fourth book. You debuted in 2009 with the short-stories collection Prvá smrt v rodine (First Death in the Family), you wrote the novel Bellevue and then you added another collection of stories Toxo. Now you’re back to writing short stories again. There are five independent texts inMothers and Lorry Drivers, yet they are interconnected and sort of composed…

Those stories complement each other; together they are supposed to create an additional meaning of sorts. Even their alignment presents a certain dramatic arc. This book contains only five stories but they are definitely longer than the stories in my previous books. The first one – about the father – is an exception, as it kind of acts as an introduction. The four stories about women that follow should communicate between or with each other. I believe this is quite a shift from my previous book. The texts are not built on surprising endings; rather, they focus on inner monologues of these women. It’s not one character who goes through different situations in each story. These are different voices, women with different experiences and worldviews.

The question of (auto)biography always comes up in conversations about your books. How personal are Mothers and Lorry Drivers?

I do write about topics and problems I’m concerned with. Things I write about are not completely foreign to me. In this case, however, I really wasn’t the starting point for the book. I looked at others, friends and people I don’t even know, and in a way, I tried walking in their shoes, to empathize with their stories, fates, situations and convictions. Each destiny is specific, with a unique view of the world, of oneself, of one’s body, family relations, of how we connect to reality. Naturally, some of the stories are closer to my heart than others. While writing I went through a thinking process: if I lived there and not here, if this happened to me and not that, if I had such and such experiences, what would I be thinking, what would be important to me, how would I be able or unable to live with myself?


Female characters dominate

The book consists of five texts: FatherIvanaOliviaLara and Veronika. I mention this because one of these titles stands out – why and how did the father appear among those female characters?

The short story Father could’ve been called Svetlana after its narrator and it wouldn’t stand out. In the end, however, I decided to call it Father because he’s the character the story is about. This title was also used when it was published in a magazine. It’s a bit different than the others but I thought it was important to include. It shows where everything stems from, where to look for answers to the questions at hand. 

The rest of the book is dominated by female characters.

Yes, women dominate. Most of the men – of the few present in the book – don’t even have names, they’re called A, R, Mr. Yuk, or nothing, him.

Let’s uncover these stories a bit. As the title suggests, Father is about a family history. It’s the tale of a father and his daughter, or, actually, of a family. 

It’s Svetlana recollecting the childhood she had spent both in Bratislava and in a village in the “Hungarian” south. She reminisces about her family background, her mother, sister and especially her father, who was an alcoholic with a psychiatric diagnose. Despite the gravity of the topics, the narrative is quite cheerful, I think, or at least tragicomic.

The short story Ivana is also set in BratislavaThe two different settings –Slovak and Italian – are crucial to this book. 

There are two “Italian” texts and three that take place in Slovakia. Ivana is the story of a young woman in her thirties who lives with her mother. She receives a disability allowance because something dire had happened to her in the past, something that had prevented her from taking part in ordinary life. She meets a journalist through a girlfriend whom she had met during her horse-riding days. I work with two time levels in this story, but I wouldn’t want to reveal more. 

Then there are two texts, which together create a whole. Do they present some sort of Janus-faced female sexuality?

Olivia and Lara both take place on the same day, or, more precisely, on a late afternoon in Turin. Yes, they’re about two ways of looking at the same thing. How we perceive our body, how we deal with our sexuality, family relationships, relationships with men. In the beginning of our interview, I have suggested that this book was more polyphone; it has several voices. Perhaps these stories are an example of that. 


Bratislava acts as a footing

Veronika from the last story reminds me of the female characters from your debut. She is obviously younger than the other female characters and the story – as one can tell from real-life facts – is set in Bratislava around the year 2000.

Yes, the story is from a time when people used to go to net cafés and when it was almost unthinkable to call out-of-state because the telephone bill would be horrendous. Slovakia was already open to the world, but everything that came from the West was still fascinating to us. It’s something I also wanted to recapture. Veronika concludes the previous themes, yet at the same time, it sort of goes back to the beginning. 

Your depiction of Bratislava – even its less known parts – is vivid. At the same time, there is the Italian setting, which – as you have said – is not as exotic for the Slovak reader as it used to be, say, in the 90’s. However, the insider look is still interesting. How important is the setting of your stories for you?

The setting is always very important for me, even in stories where the place is not exactly specified. When I write, I need to be able to see it at least in my mind’s eye, to see a tangible place, to orient myself within the story. “My” Bratislava is the city of my youth, of a time when I still lived here. The horse-riding club in Ovsište, the city centre, the castle hill, Borik, Horsky park – all these places are meaningful to me. The book has three texts set in Bratislava and two in Turin. I guess it should be the other way around at this point, but Bratislava still acts as a footing for me and I return to it not only in person, but also in writing. Turin, however, made it on the book cover; there’s a picture from the Vanchiglia neighborhood – where I really live – with Mole Antonelliana, the Turin monument that towers above buildings when you walk around Vanchiglia. Right now it’s one of the hippest neighborhoods as it lies between the university and its campus; it’s lively because of the students. My nightlife descriptions are inspired by this part of Turin.


I don’t want to spin in circles around myself, but…

This book is different but it’s still connected to the fiction world you have created in your previous books. How do you view this continuity and where do you see a shift in your poetics?

You can’t really plan how you evolve and how your writing changes. The process is mostly automatic. For instance, I can’t write the type of short story I had offered to the readers in my first book anymore. At times, I feel the urge to write an intense story with a sudden twist, but halfway through I get bored. I don’t believe in it anymore, I want to do different things. Stories with more civil inner monologues emerged at this moment, but it’s not something that I had planned, they just turned out like that. I’m intrigued by different characters, I try to enter their worlds, delve into their socio-psychological background. I don’t want to spin in circles around myself. And yet these themes are still mine. Vlado Balla once said that he will always be splitting up the same hair. I’m sure that’s true about me as well.

What are your plans for the upcoming months? Will you return to translating or are you working on a new fictional piece?

I have plans to translate several contemporary female Italian writers. I have almost finished the translation of the novel The First Truth by Simona Vinci. I’m also translating the book Encyclopedia of a Woman by the Neapolitan author Valeria Parrella. Afterwards I should start on the most recent Silvia Avallone. When it comes to my own writing, I have some notes for a larger text; I know more or less what I want to write. I need to finish something else first and then I’ll start.