I See a Story Behind a Space

An interview with the Anasoft litera Award 2020 laureate Alena Sabuchová

The trip to the Polish region of Podlasie was somewhat punk – no plans, no expectations. In the end, it morphed into three years of traveling in search of a strong story about growing up in a place where time has stopped and where people with problems rely on whispering healers. Sabuchová's book Šeptuchy received a wide readership, the attention of literary critics, various nominations and so far two prizes, but also the label folklore. She had found her theme a thousand kilometers away from home. Or was it the whisperers' doing?


"A non-pathetic relationship to folklore and a non-sentimental rendering of the female inner world" - these are some of the phrases the judges of the Anasoft Litera Award used to describe the qualities of the novel Šeptuchy / Whisperers. What do you think about that?

I have been struggling with the topic of folklore since the book came out, and I do not completely agree with the notion that The Whisperers are mainly about folklore. Of course the book is partially created against the backdrop of that specific setting and the whisperers - healers belong to that place, but in this case, I am very pleased that the committee underlined my non-pathetic attitude to folklore. Pathos is the last thing folklore needs nowadays. And whether the book is sentimental or not – I myself am sometimes sentimental, but in the book I tried to give the most natural account and I am glad if it all came together. 


What kind of approach do you think folklore deserves?

This is a grand question which we probably will not be able to solve. People talk about folkore and put it into different perspectives and its meaning is undeniable since it's part of our culture and history. To be able to exist as nonprofane, it requires a non-pathetic approach. I also think it does not need to be saved. Often, the question is raised whether folklore will stay alive. Of course it will because it's something that is natural and always evolving. I think we need to approach it on an individual plane, let everyone take whatever they want for themselves. Because we all see folklore differently and that is a good thing. 


Recently, more Slovak books have been labeled as folklore. Is that accurate?

You should ask Katarína Kucbelová or Dominika Madro with whom I had been to various debates on the topic of folklore. We have said to each other that there probably are certain common features, but I suppose it's a question for literary critics and journalists why they had cathegorised us in this way. In the words of Katka Kucbelová, it's a bit unfortunate that all three of our books came out at the same time and that is why the discussion about them has also been quite deformed. 


Better than being labeled as alternative medicine...

I could have also appeared in the category of esoterics or healers (laughs)! At the BRaK festival, Marek Vadas and I have indeed discussed the topic of folk healers in Podlasie and in Africa. However, we both said that our books are not primarily about that, healing is only one plane of the story. 


One of the committee members, Michal Jareš, detected a similarity in describing a forgotten region in contrast with the modern age to the fiction of Olga Tokarczuk. 

I have an affinity to Poland when it comes to the theme, it really is close to my heart. I have always liked Polish arts, literature, films and theatre, but in the moment when I arrived at the Polish-Belarussian border, I realized this was my land. I found myself there and I felt incredibly well. It's connected to the fact that when I had left for Podlasie, it was an adventure, it was punk and the photographer and I didn't have any idea what we were getting into and what we would find. It sometimes happens that certain things come to me and I know I want to stay in contact with them forever. 


Where would you go in Slovakia if you were searching for a similar story? Perhaps in your home town Ružomberok in the Liptov region?

Probably not, my town is quite Catholic (laughs). People ask me about folk healers, where they can be found and whether they still live here. My answer is that they could be found in the East of Slovakia, near the border with Ukraine. I wouldn't search for them in Ružomberok. However, the story of growing up which is the main plot line of The Whisperers, is partially inspired by me and by the time when I lived in a village near Ružomberok. 


You chased this book to the Polish region of Podlasie. Is it a manageable way of writing?

Three years ago I had no plan and I didn't know what it would mean. Only after I had arrived did I realize how far it was! Since the photographer Robert Tappert and I had already delved into the whole thing, we were unable to abandon it and despite thousands of kilometers, we kept traveling there, and quite often, too. This type of writing process doesn't bother me, on the contrary. Genius loci is important to my writing. I am sensitive about the setting, I see the story behind a space. I always need to have touched at least the grounding stone to be able to begin writing. That's why if I had two years for traveling and collecting material, I'm all in. 


Has being in the proximity of the Polish whisperers influenced you in any way? And how about watching or trying out their rituals? 

The author of the book Žítkovské bohyně Kateřina Tučková admitted to having difficulties with processing the power that she let out of her stories of the White Carpathian healers.

I guess I am quite rational and I went to Podlasie as an observer. Although I've tried their procedures, my medical condition – anaemia – persisted. Maybe I am not as sensitive as I thought I was, or maybe I got used to it all. But if you're asking whether the whisperers have cursed me, they haven't – it feels more like they were responsible for me winning Anasoft Litera (laughs)! I have neither uncovered a miracle while I was there, nor did I feel that someone tried to harm me. If anyone asks whether "it" works, my answer is that I don't know and I don't wanna know. I didn't go to Podlasie in search of an answer. It's much more interesting to observe what's going on as a bystander when one is a story teller. The magic I had found there is more connected to the place and to the story. 


This year, women dominated over men in Anasoft Litera's TOP 5 finalists, while on the judging panel of the award it was the other way around. Did the position of women change in the field of "serious" literature?

The judging panel should answer this question. It is, however, interesting that they have in fact awarded a "girl novel" about growing up. For a long time women's literature has been defined as something cheap and second-rate. I personally don't divide literature into women's and men's. There is the kind of art that we can subjectively consider as good and the kind that does not fulfil certain quality criteria. A story has got to work, resonate, I need to be able to get something out of it. Unfortunately, the term women's literature will always evoke paperback novels with a half-naked man and a woman in the wind on the cover. But not to sound elitist: if a book has its target audience, it's alright. 


Do you know who your readers are?

I now have a better idea because many people have written to me. I thought they were women and girls around my age but I have been getting messages from male readers as well as from women of different age brackets. It feels nice to not belong in a box. 


Aside from your success with the Anasoft Litera Award, you have also been nominated for the Ján Johanides Prize 2020 in the category under 35. Do you feel like it could limit your  future writing in any way?

I guess the quality of what I write will be closely watched no matter what it will be, but I would like to take a break from literary writing. I need a lot of time to write another book since I need to immerse myself into collecting new material, and besides, other projects await – perhaps it's time for a film debut. 




Alena Sabuchová (1989) studied screen-writing and dramaturgy at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. She received the Ivan Krasko Prize and the Tatra Banka Foundation Prize in the category Young Creator for her debut Zadné izby. For the story of her second book Šeptuchy, she had been returning to the region of Podlasie at the Polish-Belarussian border for three years - a region that is magically slow and where healers still operate. The novel received the Anasoft Litera Award for the best prose of 2019 and also the prize of the book bloggers Panta Rhei, as well as a nomination for the Ján Johanides Prize 2020 in the category under 35.





Alena Sabuchová was photographed by Veronika Elekaničová