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Vol 3, No 15
30 April 2001
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Jumping into Another Life
An interview with Iva Pekárková
Madelaine Hron

Iva Perkárková's innovative oeuvre spans a wide spectrum of subjects. In Péra and Perutě (Truck Stop Rainbows, 1989), she describes the decay and immobility innate in Communist Czechoslovakia, as she follows the story of an avid nature-lover hitchhiker who risks her life and ruin to save a dying friend. In Kulatý svět (The World Is Round, 1993), her setting moves to an intermediary refugee camp, symbolizing the precarious liminal stage between Communism and post-Communism.

In Gang Zjizvených (The SCARZ, 1998) and Dej mi ty prachy (Gimme the Money, 1996), she captures the independence of two heroines in New York, one a deeply wounded individual (Gang Zjizvenych) who must shed her illusions to achieve wholeness, and the other, Gin of Dej mi ty prachy, who can only fully integrate into her new environment by becoming hybrid and multifaceted like the City itself.

In her latest novel, Třicet dva chwanů, (Thirty-Two Khwan, 2000), composed upon her return to the Czech Republic and after a trip to Thailand, Pekárková turns to more mystical and mythical themes, without forsaking her deep interest in the individual psyche. A graduate in biology, Pekárková's work is marked by its attention to the microscopic. While abroad she also worked as a taxi driver and bartender, which is perhaps also reflected in her fiction, as she displays an unusual sensitivity for human emotions and interpersonal relations.

Currently, Pekárková lives in Prague with her husband Raymond Johnston, and, despite her best intentions, is involved in politics as a reputed commentator in the press, is a well-known figure in feminist circles, as well as receiving acclaim and renown for her literary works. She herself would more likely describe her present life as that of a passionate traveler, who makes a living translating pulp fiction.

CER's Madelaine Hron recently met Iva Pekárková for an interview in Prague, on the banks of the Vltava, in front of a forum of attentive and cackling swans.

CER: How did your book, Gimme the Money, come about?

Pekarkova's Gimme the MoneyIva Pekárková:Oh! (laugh) I just wanted the money! Well, to tell you the truth, when I was living in New York for a couple of years, I wanted to get to know it very well, and one of the ways of doing so was driving a taxi. And I guess now I know New York much better than I know my own native Prague! 'Cause, after driving a taxi, I really did get to know New York well. So well, in fact, that after a couple of years, when I walked up and down the streets, walking just seemed too slow, after having driven in them. So actually, I didn't like walking any more. But driving—especially at night, when you can drive so fast, when you can switch from one neighborhood to another... I thought maybe I knew something about taxi driving, and actually, I think I know quite a bit. So I wrote about it in a book, about the various tricks that taxi drivers and taxi owners use in the city.

CER: So how much of the book is fact, and how much is fiction?

Iva Pekárková: Well—I can say I was never married to two African husbands at the same time! And I wasn't an illegal immigrant myself. Nor am I exactly my heroine, or at least, I hope not. Because I consciously made her more naive than I was, so that she could discover more, so that it would all be more shocking to her. I'm not sure how old she would be, but I made her more or less my own age; I imagined her in her late 20s, early 30s. But her life, emotionally, was much harder than my own.

CER: What was the scariest thing that happened to you on the job?

Iva Pekárková: The scariest thing was probably when this guy held a knife to my throat. All the while threatening me, and carrying on this little conversation, stuff like "Aren't you afraid to drive all alone in New York, as a woman?" The whole episode lasted, oh I don't know, several minutes. But it felt like days... It wasn't the only time I was robbed—oh no!— I was robbed twice more, but that happened in a matter of seconds. They just took my money and left. It all lasted about 30 seconds, you know, the classic New York robbery. But this [other time].. This time I thought, "I am really, truly dead."

CER: And the funniest story?

Iva Pekárková: Oh! I know lots of funny stories, little funny stories happen all the time... But one funny story I really like to tell is about... love. Once, I picked up this couple in the cab, at about four or five in the morning. And they were kissing and what not... and then, suddenly, they started fighting. And then, at a red light, the man just got out of the cab. Slammed the door and was gone. Then the woman started crying and crying, blubbering things like, "Oh why was I so nasty to him? Will he ever forgive me? What will I do?" And so, I told her "Why don't you just call him up and explain?" "How can I call him up?", she replied, "I just met him today, at the nightclub!! I have no idea who he is! But if you ever get him into the cab again, here—I'll give you my phone number and address, and please, just give it to him and tell him I'm sorry."

Now it never really happens that you get the same person in your cab, not when you drive in New York. But sure, I took her piece of paper. And three days later, you won't believe it, I got this guy in the cab again, alone. He recognized me, and we talked for a bit, and so I told him "You know, this woman you were in the cab with a couple of days ago, she gave me her phone number and address; I can give it to you if you want." "Oh sure, sure! I would really like to talk to her again. She was so very nice and I was so nasty to her that night."

So, I don't know what happened, but maybe he called the woman up and maybe, they are still in love!

CER: How do you write? How does the writing process come about?

Iva Pekárková: Well, first of all, I usually have to make sure I have some time ahead of me. I'm not one of those people who just can sit down for an hour a day and write a page, keep it up for a year and finish their book; there is no way. That was quite a problem for me because I needed a job to make a living, and at the same time I needed enough time off so I could write for, let's say, five, six weeks at a time. So in fact, taxi driving solved the problem for me for some time, because, as a taxi driver, you are not an employee, you are self-employed, so to speak. You can basically tell the owner of the cab you won't show up for six months, and they can't really do anything! You can hope they will take you back when you come back, but you also know you can go to another taxi company.

CER: Do you have any literary or art influences you take in when you write?

Iva Pekárková: I sure hope not! (laugh) But I would say that ever since I started reading Toni Morrison I've been really impressed with her writing. And this was long before she won the Nobel Prize. And as a young person, I liked Jack Kerouac. Obviously, in Czechoslovakia, when I was growing up, my access to English literature was limited... Some of the stuff was translated, but not very well. So basically, I discovered English books when I was 23 or 24. And there was just a million books I really loved. Basically, I think I read all the good books, because I can't think of anyone I hate among the more famous authors.

CER: What can you tell us about the translation of Gimme the Money into English?

Iva Pekárková: The story is that the publisher in England wanted to get a grant from the Czech Ministry of Culture for the translation, which he did get in the end. He was told that if my name was on it, he was never going to get the grant, which was probably right. So the book says, "translated by Raymond Johnston" and me. In fact, I translated it. But then again if it weren't for Ray, I don't think I would ever dare translate my own work into English. Because so far, he has been a great inspiration; he goes through whatever I have written very carefully and makes sure that the English is correct. So even though he didn't translate it, the translation wouldn't be possible without him, let's put it that way.

CER: Since the Velvet Revolution you have moved back to the Czech Republic—how has this changed your writing?

Czech author Iva Pekarkova
Czech author Iva Pekárková

Iva Pekárková: Oh, I don't know, really. I think I understand some differences much better. Let's say, tastes. Reading tastes, for example, are very different in America than those here. One of the funny things about such tastes is that I think my first book [Péra a Perutě / Truck Stop Rainbows] was much better received in America than it was here. In a way, it's simply written; I kind of listed all the things I couldn't stand about Communism. And Americans found it informative. The Czech response to it often was "Yeah—so what? Why is she telling us all this? We know it!" But it's funny, because now in the Czech Republic there is a whole new generation of Czech people who are too young to really remember how things were before the Velvet Revolution, those who are now 21 or 22, and who remember their childhood under Communism only vaguely. And the novel has become popular among this new generation. So there must be something in it!

You know, people tell me that if I want to be a Czech writer, I had better write about Czech topics. I find this extremely hard. To find some kind of place, some kind of style actually, that I would find interesting. I do see stories, but they all seem similar; I don't really see any stories I would want to write about or know well enough to want to write about them. Actually, the very interesting Czech writer Zuzana Brabcová once said, "There are no stories in the Czech Republic." And I think, in a way, there is something to it. Because a lot of what the average person here finds interesting is some kind of watered-down re-hash of stories I have seen and heard about in New York City.

One of things that interest me most is mixing of cultures, and various clashes of cultures, opinions, ideas or races. That's why New York was so right for me; I could watch all that. And here, we still don't know so many, many things, which, worldwide, are so well known. For example—racial topics. Try writing about racial topics for a Czech audience, from the point of view of a person who has lived abroad for so long. It's so hard. I don't want to start explaining things to them. At the same time, as in the case of Gimme the Money, a lot of people didn't get some stuff. Because it's so foreign to them. But when I was writing it in New York, it never quite occurred to me that Czechs would not get some key points. I don't really want to start thinking in terms of "Who is the stupidest reader?" and "How much do I have to explain things?"

CER: Did Gimme the Money have any political agenda?

Iva Pekárková: I suppose it did, in the view of the people here [in the Czech Republic]. I just thought I was writing a story! But here, I have been accused of being a feminist, of being an anti-feminist, of being completely "afeminist," whatever. I simply don't understand. I don't think I was trying to support any kind of doctrine with this book. But then again, maybe I was. I wanted my heroine to come to New York, as a completely "clean slate," so to speak. I didn't want her to harbor or resist any ideas. I wanted her to have a fresh outlook on things. Because so often people in New York, who have lived there all their lives, have certain pronounced opinions. I didn't want her to have any opinions. I wanted her to be a clean slate and slowly learn what she could learn, herself. I hope I succeeded.

CER: What have you been working on recently?

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Iva Pekárková: I just finished a travelogue—of India, where I spent about ten weeks last summer. It's finished and should be out in May, in Czech. And my Třicet dva chwanu (Thirty-Two Khwan) came out two, three months ago, and seems to be selling very well. In fact, it's another book about culture clashes. It's ostensibly about Thailand, but in fact, it's the first book into which I finally tried to put some of my ideas and observations about immigration and emigration. Until now, all my heroines, even though they lived abroad, never quite dealt with emigration as a phenomenon. For example, Gin in New York simply is in New York, we don't know how she got there and why. This book finally tries to talk a little bit about how and why the heroine left her country, whether it was a good decision or not, how she dealt with it in Thailand.

The book is set in Thailand, in 1988 and 1989, just before the Velvet Revolution; the heroine, though, never imagined that she could go home in a year. So Thailand becomes a sort of surrogate homeland for her. While it's completely different from what she had known at home, it still has something in common with Czechoslovakia. It's a country that is very homogenous and people have certain set ideas. About hairstyles, for example: one hairstyle is the proper hairstyle for these people and another for those people. Actually, it reminded her of her own little provincial Czechoslovakia, as she had known it.

At the same time, I just wrote about Thailand as such, as I saw it. And how hard it is for a person to come to terms with a new country. How hard it can be for a person who basically grew up as an atheist to live among the Thai people who are Buddhists and think that death is a good thing and "life is suffering." This belief is reflected in every aspect of their life: there are no safety belts in cars or people fix roofs with no equipment which could possibly save their lives, should they slip and fall.

You know, what happened to the heroine also happened to myself: she becomes close with one Thai person who later gets killed. And all his friends who knew him for 20 years say "Ah, that's too bad, Mr Daeng is dead." And they don't so much as cry, because it's not polite to cry. It's not polite to cry, because by crying you are basically saying "Oh, I loved him, but he was a bad guy, he didn't make any merit for himself. And so I am crying, because in his next life he will be a snake! And I am so soooorry!" Well, you can be a little sad because you have lost him, but you should not cry because you're supposed to officially believe that he was a good person, and that in his next life, he will be rich and live a nice life, and you should be happy for him. So this is one of those things that are hard to deal with.

And I guess that is what the book is about. Traveling. At the end of the book, I draw this little comparison, of traveling after death with immigration. Because that is what immigration is like: you just jump into another life, and you have no idea what your new life will be like. It's, in a way, a little death—isn't it?

Madelaine Hron, 30 April 2001

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