Daniela Balážová interviews Barbora Hrínová, winner of the Anasoft Litera Award 2021 and the René Prize 2021.
The jury of the prestigious literary competition Anasoft Litera had a hard time with the final selection this year. The winner, Barbora Hrínová and her debut Unicorns (Jednorožce), was ultimately decided on account of "increased authorial sensitivity and the ability to amplify - hopefully - the reader's sensitivity".
Let's start with the end of the year. How was this year for you? How do you assess the impact of the pandemic on literature and culture?
As an author, I see the general quieting and slowing down of society as stimulating for creativity. I think the last period has been fruitful for literature. Spring and summer were also favorable for events, I quite enjoyed the Anasoft Litera Presents talks – I visited several nice cities in Slovakia and met interesting people. We had already switched to online learning in the first wave of the pandemic, so the return to distance learning didn't surprise me. Since in the Department of Screenwriting and Dramaturgy we are primarily concerned with the preparation of texts, it can comfortably work this way. The situation is much worse for production studios, as well as for whole artistic disciplines that depend directly on the realization in front of an audience...
Your debut Unicorns suggests you have a sense of humor. Were you amused by the reactions after its release?
Not really. I guess I was lucky to have some very perceptive reviewers who found the book appealing and understood it more or less as I intended. Especially after the Literary Quotient discussion, which tends to be very critical, and in which Unicorns did quite well, I was finally able to relax. What I watched with humor were the events leading up to the book's release, when the pandemic broke out in March and for a while it seemed that not only the book market, but also the whole world as we knew it, might disappear. I told myself that I would probably never be able to debut and that I had transferred my insecurity into a society-wide collapse. I was so glad that eventually the situation settled down and we were able to launch the book – even live –, during the brief stage when things loosened up in the summer.
You've described your characters in several interviews as eternal seekers. Are you one of them, since humans are perpetually discontented creatures?
In the stories, I wasn't so much concerned with depicting eternal discontent, because we all suffer from that from time to time, I guess, but rather with the seeking nature that is typical of a certain type of character. That someone can't settle down any longer, can't find their place in the world. It has to do with otherness, with the fact that my characters encounter stereotypes and non-acceptance in society. It takes them longer to find happiness, love or even a job. But it's not just about confronting society, it's also due to their inner instability, insecurity, perhaps complexity. In this sense, the 'unicorns' certainly reflect parts of myself. Sometimes I tend to think about things for too long, to doubt. But I don't see this as a negative trait. I am sympathetic to people who are not preoccupied with some preconceived and definitive worldview, philosophy, or social group affiliation, but are constantly correcting their opinion according to what they see around them. Eternal seekers to me are also those who are not locked into their certainties and beliefs, but are open to the new.
Your short stories come across as the stories of ordinary thirty-year-olds, crafted by a sensitive observer. Were specific people an inspiration for you?
Yes, when I write, I am mostly inspired by reality, by unmediated experience. I find it irreplaceable and unique in some ways, but it's just my concept and someone may be inspired, reversely, by the world of media or literature. The preliminary images of the characters in my stories come from my surroundings, but I never portray them in a direct or a straightforward manner. I think a lot of other things happened in those real people's lives than what happens in my texts. I just pick and choose what fits the topic I'm thinking about. In the case of Unicorns, it was variations on the themes of loneliness, insecurity, otherness. And I had a period when, despite being from Bratislava, I was living in sublets, and there you naturally meet a sample of people who haven't settled down yet and are in a kind of transitional stage of life. That's what fascinated me about them, but also about myself during the period of writing the book.
What attracted you to otherness and society's perception of it?
Otherness in Unicorns occurs on two levels; one is literal, where the characters from the LGBTI+ community fall by definition, and the other is universal, all-human, after all, every person is a minority in their own right. I didn't want to emphasize the moment of sexual identity or outward difference in the characters, because I think that such people are part of everyday life and are not different from the majority in any essential way. Rather, I was interested in and irritated by their social perception, which often reacts very dismissively and critically to even a small deviation from the norm. I wanted to create a space in the stories where we could also look at the "different characters" or various shortcomings in a slightly more human way.
How long did the decision to publish a collection of short stories take to mature?
I wanted to publish a collection of short stories for a long time, but after finishing college I somehow lacked the inner stability and maybe even the courage to navigate things in the direction that was most tempting to me. The necessity of making a living tested my initial idealistic intentions. I wrote scripts for television, worked on documentary projects, and my intention to write a book remained theoretical for a long time. I had a lot of notes on Unicorns, and a broader set of characters, which eventually got pared down to suit the needs of the whole. I did a lot of thinking about them and a lot of doubting and a lot of scribbling. By the time I sit down at the computer, I usually have two versions of the text both concocted and discarded in my head. So it's been quite a journey, but I'm glad I was finally able to curb the internal monologues and get down to writing.
Unicorns cross the borders of Slovakia. At one point it becomes clear to Bony that "by the time he finds a mate, he'll at least get to know the Visegrad Four"; Alice, while in Georgia, worries that after swearing on the Mother of God in a few hours, she might have to swear on a photo of Mao... To what extent does the world inspire you?
Travel is inherently inspiring at its core, it doesn't matter if I'm going on a trip to Skalica or the other side of the world. I've spent extended periods of time in Georgia and the USA and both stays brought me a lot of experiences and observations, but also a different perspective on the local culture. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else than Slovakia. I think that even here at home the world is not just ours, local, but through the internet and contact with foreign countries it has become much wider and richer. But it has also become more complicated. Almost everyone carries around a little "global village" in their smartphone and in their head and confronts it. So the world outside Slovakia inspires me as much as the world at home - I look for situations and stimuli that will portray my characters in an interesting light.
Was it intentional not to limit the characters to the Carpathian Basin, to one region or only to the city?
Partly, traveling is the natural lifestyle of my characters, the generation of so-called millenials. So I didn't even think about keeping them in any one, limited space. Obviously I enjoy exploring the same themes in different settings. My female character in the Caucasus seems to me in some ways as lonely and lost in society as the old woman in the village in Eastern Slovakia. However, I wanted to portray this modern "nomadism" not only from the point of view of the "eternal seekers", but also from the point of view of their parents and even older people. In the short story Klebeta (Gossip), the fates of an aging woman and an even older woman are intertwined. Both of their descendants are scattered around the world and neither woman understands their lifestyle. They feel lonely in their own way.
You have set the bar high. As a debut author, what does winning the Anasoft Litera Award mean to you?
When I was presented with the award, I said I didn't expect it at all because I know what it looks like from the outside. That it's a debut and part of society sees it as a big surprise. However, I had perceived reviews and positive discussion around the book over the year, so it gave me reason for some pleasant anticipation. But I was, of course, skeptical. I was very pleased with the jury's justification for why they gave me the prize, in which they captured exactly what I was after in Unicorns, even before I started writing. I'm sure it's also a commitment for me, but it doesn't feel like uncomfortable pressure. Rather, I see the award as a source of joy and motivation that I can return to when I have relapses of uncertainty and doubt.
According to the jury, the shortlist had "three strong, qualitatively balanced books". Who did you tip as the winner?
My favourites were Richard Pupala and Jana Juráňová. Rišo for his symbiosis of perfect short-story form and the feeling he put into his stories. I've read all three of his books and it's always been a treat for me. An immersion into a world that is very intense, even existential, set against the backdrop of ordinary ordinariness. In her novel Naničhodnica – as in her other work – Jana Juráňová confronts social stereotypes in a very interesting way and brings to light the situations of the weak. Especially the first part of the book about the octogenarian Ľudmila, who finds a temporary asylum in the corridors of a hospital, is beautifully written. I've read almost all of the books from the Anasoft Litera top ten list and there was something powerful and interesting in each one for me.
The short story “Chemistry” is supposed to be made into a film. At what stage is the development? When you were writing the short stories, did you play with the possibility that they could be turned into a film script?
This project has a very long history. The work on the screenplay started even before the book, from the same material. A friend of mine – also a screenwriter – and I wrote an idea for a ten-part TV series, and we later wrote one part of it into a film script. Parallel to that I worked with the same theme in the form of a short story. However, the making of a film is a very complex and lengthy process that depends on many people, variables, and also luck. It seemed to be shaping up promisingly, but there was a change in the production company, and so the whole process was reset from scratch. But we have the main thing – the script – and now we are waiting for the evaluation of the Audiovisual Fund to see if they will give us green light to move forward. But I generally don't write prose with the intention of it being made into a film. I appreciate that literature has a much greater independence than film as well as a shorter path to realization.
What are your plans for the future? What is the subject of the new prose you are working on?
I plan to pay more attention to health and to life itself. And yes, I'm working on a longer piece of prose, but it remains to be seen whether it will eventually be a novel or a collection of three novellas. The unifying theme is one atypical man, a father-daughter relationship, the family, the strange little communities we form. But I don't want to reveal more, it's still in the process of formation. And after the pandemic is over, if we can hope for such a thing, I'd like to revive some of my travel plans.
Barbora Hrínová (1984) graduated from the Film and Television Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava, where she is an assistant professor in the Screenwriting Studio. She completed study and research stays in Georgia and the USA.
She is the author of radio documentaries, and she has collaborated on several series in the field of television scriptwriting and on the documentary series Prvá. She is a three-time finalist in the Short Story Contest (2008, 2017, 2018) and winner of the Anasoft Litera Award 2021 and the René Prize 2021 for her debut Unicorns.
Photo: Martina Juríčková