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Natasa Durovicova

You grew up in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia which is now part of the Slovak Republic. Do you still have family there? Your parents were granted political asylum and you moved. Where to? What was this experience like for you? How hard was it adapting to a new country? New language? Do you still have family there? When Vaclav Havel became President and the communist rule ended, what was this like for you and your family? Did you or your family ever think of returning? When the division happened which is now the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, were you in agreement with this happening? Why?

My family's shift from Czechoslovakia to Sweden was not intended to be an exile pathway. Rather, my parents decided to ask for politically asylum only after a couple of years' persistent effort to return home from Sweden (where my father was visiting faculty in Uppsala ) with something like a prospect for a semi-normal life. They finally resigned themselves to exile only in the face of substantial jail sentences awaiting both the extreme likelihood of their children being barred from entering college and of draft of my brother's age group as the USSR seemed headed for a military conflict with China on the Ussuri river. 40 years later the prospect of a war between the Warsaw Pact countries and the USSR on the eastern front seems one of those sci-fi 'conjectural scenarios' but that is what became the tipping point for our lives. My entire not-immediate family lives in the Czech and Slovak republics, now in this reconfigured cultural landscape of the new Europe, and we visit every once in a while. Both my children speak a viable version of Slovak.

The years in Sweden were complicated: it was-still is--an admirable country in every possible social and public respect, fair, generous, logical and beautiful. Therefore, a difficult place to adapt for people from a culture grounded in more, let's say contradictory (even baroque) codes of ways of being in the world, of appearances, of propriety, of fun and pleasure…. the first years of social 'homelessness' were made easier by assorted fellow East Euro exiles, both in Sweden and elsewhere in Western Europe. That was a real and crucial generational network which, though fading, still exists.

The return "home", or at least to the place which for so long was strictly the space of our dreams (and, as often, nightmares-every exile has had their sleep interrupted by the pressing wish for and equally pressing fear of the return to the impossible home) was exhilarating but, after more than 20 years, to some extent irrelevant. By 1989 the 68 exile generation's children were already irretrievably part of their new countries. My parents, by contrast daily surf back and forth between their two worlds, both literally and emotionally. And travel home to Slovakia 3 times a year, only to then miss their Swedish life, having found themselves in dire disagreement with the surges of nationalism in both post-separation parts of the old federal republic. …The option of renegotiating your identity at 80 is a romantic but uncomfortable predicament. Still, better to have than not to have that option, it must be added.

My parents recently visited the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. You have spoken at the library/museum. Does it represent your cultural heritage how you would like? From what my parents said, it sounded like it did. Is there a strong Czech and Slovak community in Cedar Rapids? When I lived in Iowa City for 2 years in the early 1980's, I don't remember this being there. Is it a fairly new museum/library?

The National Czech and Slovak Museum is an interesting venue, organically integrated into its surrounding community and a hub of cultural activities. Iowa was a prime goal for Czechs leaving their homeland for reasons of economy but also for those of politics, for those escaping the harsh anti-minority climate in the second half of 19th c Austro-Hungarian Empire. Chicago's various industries, especially construction, became the first settlement this side of the Atlantic for some, but access to land was what brought many Czechs here to Iowa. At the same time, the poorer and less nationally conscious Slovak speakers were leaving the Hungarian portion of the Empire, mostly to work in the Pennsylvania coalmines and metal industries. So the two separate communities mainly joined together in the course of WWI, forming a pragmatic alliance which then directly led to the formation of a common new republic out of the ashes of WWI.

The museum in Cedar Rapids has traditionally gathered, protected and interpreted artifacts and materials of the Czech farm-based Iowa migrants. The Slovak part really only got incorporated when funds were raised for the handsome new "republic" museum in the late 1980s-and the edifice now stands as a monument to a state formation that fell apart only a couple of years later, in 1992. So, the museum building itself is thus a kind of architectural archeological evidence of the now-vanished Czechoslovak republic. So, it is now working on re-configuring its specific central European focus towards the broader history of migration in Iowa, now mainly Hispanic but also Balkan, a local history of working class people in the food and agri industries. Which also ultimately goes to show that what used to be boosterishly called "proud heritage" really is a skein of wool, a tangled past out of which one can pull out a strand and knit oneself a cover-up, only to later pull it apart and re-knit it into something else….and more than once, if circumstances demand.

I am influenced by Vaclav Havel and when the fall of Communism happened in Czechoslovakia. Currently, I am working on a book about it. I also love his plays that he has written. What influence has he had on you? (if any) What other European writers influence you?

Vaclav Havel was one among the many samizdat East-Euro writers that formed the core of our reading during the exile 1970s and 1980s. He had a unique standing and function in this particular literary scene: a staged play could bring so much more attention to the political situation that a book or a newspaper article., and the absurd tradition of East European theatre had already been well established by names like Ionesco and Gombrowicz. A Havel play would make it possible to bring one's sympathetic Swedish friends to the theatre and be sure that such gesture of political solidarity could turn out be entertaining as well as well-intended. But the writers crucial for me during this period were first of all Josef Skvorecky, a Czech novelist who not only wrote some of the key books brilliantly capturing the disorienting exile experience but also established, together with his wife, a publishing house in Toronto that became an essential home for innovative Czech and Slovak writing during those two decades. In addition, there were two Swedish authors, the "philosophical" novelist Lars Gustafson and the radical journalist and self-identified "scrivener' Jan Myrdal. 1970s was a complicated and so far understudied decade in an Europe torqued by a simultaneous radicalization of left and right force, and these two novelists were the ones through which I was trying to make sense of the era.

You have degrees in drama and cinema. In the European Cinema, there are challenges in translation which is something you have written and spoken about. Please discuss this. What differences do you see in American and European Cinema? (I tend to see more foreign films. For me, foreign cinema is filmed beautifully and has more substance. I am lucky that in Cambridge, there is a Cinema that shows independent and foreign films).

I first got involved with film because I thought that for a non-native speaker an image-based medium would be easier to understand and address than any given single national literature. Perhaps it thus was inevitable that I've ended up paying a lot of film-scholarly attention to the way language affects, permeates, "marbleizes" cinema, the way fat does meat. The original appeal of this topic, broadly 'cinema and translation', has been in discovering the turmoil of early sound cinema: the challenge of translating the just-synchronized dialogue threw a huge ( and today still eminently operative) monkey wrench into the circulation of films in the world. Until today it's an axiom that Americans will not watch a subtitled or a dubbed film, condemning themselves as a result to a completely monochromatic national film fare. The question of how this came to be remains to be researched and documented: but there can be little doubt that the fact that most Americans have never casually watched a French comedy or Chinese historical epic or a Turkish musical, nor ever a TV program from any of these places, has made us as a nation less than fully tuned in to the fact that parts of the world might have tastes, relexes, priorities or opinions quite different from ours. Not Huntington-clash-of-civilization "Other,"-simply different.

That said, I don't think one can make a wholesale distinction between "American" and "European" cinemas. There are just different attitudes toward your role as a viewer. There are films which want to make sure the viewer is only offered what they have already seen and enjoyed before, and that his or her preconceived ideas are flattered. Hollywood makes many of them, but then so does Bollywood or for that matter Nollywood; there is a steady stream of such movies made in various European countries. Then there are films which in some way take a risk, no matter how small. Magnolia or Ulee's Gold, alongside, say, films by a Chinese director like Lou Ye or Jia Zhangke-no silk gowns or flying daggers. Film critics and reviewers should stand up for those.

You are on the staff of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Discuss the challenges you face teaching and what your experience has been like there in Iowa City. How long have you been there?

The IWP is an amazing establishment in an amazing cultural landscape. The program has been around for 40 years now, a pathway for bringing writers from all over the world to a relatively little-known region of the US. In other words its very premise bucks all kinds of tides: contra the broad 20th c trend of the US exporting huge amounts of cultural pablum (as well as much first rate work) the IWP imports a kind of cultural spice: it comes in in small amounts, a highly concentrated form, not to be taken in lightly, and which can be quite influential in a subtle kind of way. Each residency is permeated by discussions of politics, defined broadly as well as subtly. As well, we put the writers in front of locals and students, often young writers themselves (this is Iowa, after all) and let them talk abut whatever they think is essential for their work. Our goal, as we tell the writers on arrival, is, on one hand, to simply clear out time and physical conditions to get some serious writing done. At the same time we go out of our way to offer opportunities to gather as much as possible empirical evidence about the US and the region. Most writers are pleasantly torn between these two alternatives. What better place to work than an American university campus, its lively daily programming and its huge, open, libraries. In turn, each fall, we get to meet 25-35 of some of the most interesting people from all over the world.

In the last few years the IWP has been complementing the residency by meetings and conversations between writers from abroad and those from the US on location in Greece. A way of participating more directly in conversations on lightning-rod global topics such as "justice' or "the commons," not among specialists and professionals but among those who often (especially outside the US) function as mediators of such large-scale ideas for a wide readership.

You edit an international magazine called 91st Meridian. This is a wonderful online magazine. I have read so many international writers that I just love. It also puts me in touch with writers I never heard of. In your current issue, I especially loved reading the poem, A Knife All Blade by Joao Cabral de Melo Neto. Talk about this magazine.

As editor I want the journal to feature the best of our participants' output side by side with other "world" writing. Defined broadly: we've published translations into Latin as well as from medieval Welch, alongside brand new translations from German or Albanian, or essays that illuminate in particular translators' practice and thinking. As much as possible we publish bilingually, and with introductions to each author.

Web publishing is a paradoxical undertaking-the explosive amount of information and access we suddenly have at our fingertips, and are expected to draw on in our thinking, has also produced a kind of rain shadow-a world invisible, un-reflected, in the mirror of the virtual which now can become doubly invisible. All of our writers are themselves extremely globally savvy but they also often are go-betweens, news-bringers from domains and views from outside the ever-more-dominant Anglosphere as embodied in the www. We try to listen beyond clichés and sound-bites.


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