Lana Bastašić, the authoress of the novel Uhvati zeca (Catch the Rabbit) which was one of the top contenders for the NIN award in 2018, has told us about the novel itself, about her life and her work in Barcelona, about the challenges that writers face, and about what she expects from her audience, as well as what her audience expects of her.
She was interviewed by Milena Ilić Mladenović.
What were the biggest challenges you faced while writing this novel? Even though the form and the content of the novel go well together in “Catch the Rabbit”, what do you think is more important: the way that you discuss something or the very subject being discussed?
I think those two things are inseparable. The way that we talk about something already conveys a portion of the message. Language is neither transparent nor direct. If that were the case, all you would need is a dictionary and you could call yourself a writer. Every language is actually a translation. And that translation is full of holes, mistakes, it is incomplete, but it is all we have. Take the subject of love, for example. It is something that is discussed both by Shakespeare and Taylor Swift, both by Joyce and Mexican soap operas, both by philosophers and teenagers. Great love novels aren’t great because they talk about love but because of the way that they do it. Take Wuthering Heights, for example, that great myth which deals with the repression of human nature for the sake of establishing the Victorian home. Catherine says “I am Heathcliff”, not “I love Heathcliff”. That is because Emily Brontë knew that the word “love”, regardless of what dictionaries may claim, is actually false, overused, and has become profaned. Above all else, it is completely banal and unusable when it comes to Catherine. It is a word that has a different meaning for each of us.
For me, it was and remains the greatest challenge in regard to writing: how to reveal something about us, humans and our (in)humanity through the very choice of words. I thought it important to illustrate that sometimes language alone is a lot more important than some reality which it is supposed to represent, and which is actually often nonexistent. We are the ones who create this reality through words, or at the very least, we sustain the fragile illusion of reality.
The novel opens with a quote from “Alice in Wonderland” – Alice says: “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” Lejla changed her name and her hair color, Sara changed the language she spoke and her place of residence. Many things changed, but what we see in the book is that Sara and Lejla do not change substantially. Just like Bosnia doesn’t change and remains in the darkness. Is there an identity on the other side of the mirror?
If I’m allowed to be the arrogant author, I would disagree with the notion that Sara and Lejla do not change substantially. Rather, I would say that Sara’s idea of a rigid and immutable “substance” is inherently false and that that’s the lesson which Lejla teaches her. The Bosnia seen in this novel is actually only Sara’s Bosnia, it doesn’t exist outside the narrator’s words and it would be pointless seeking its equivalent in the real world, considering that it is built exclusively upon personal memories, experiences, and emotions. That is why Sara’s Bosnia is dark, one-sided, and incomplete. Just like Lejla is one person in one moment and another person the next moment – Sara cannot get a grip on her. Ultimately, she realizes that even trying to do something like that is arrogant. For a long time, we were taught that literary characters should be consistent and precise, that point A should lead to point B, that everything has a purpose. Sara learns that people simply aren’t like that, people elude definitions, and they are often inconsistent and meaningless. Language is there to bring order to chaos, however fragile that order may be. Therefore, to answer the question, not only is there no identity on the other side of the mirror, there is no identity on either side of it. The mirror itself, just like language, is merely an attempt at answering the question: “who am I?” In that sense, you will sooner find the answer looking through a window than into a mirror.
Lejla’s bruises are mentioned in only one sentence. Then, in concord with the “right to remain silent”, they are never mentioned again. So, is she married to an abusive husband? After Sara smiled at the sight of her old Motorola, she said: “You think that people can choose everything in life. That’s because you went through life having a choice about everything.” Is there a way out for Lejla, who says: “I am here now because it seemed like the last option I had”? What does this last option mean for Lejla?
Lejla’s body was like a territory, which meant that I had to be brutal. The origin of those bruises is unimportant. She simply had to through everything that Bosnia had to go through so that Sara would wake from her comfortable European dream. That is why the bruises aren’t mentioned later on – Sara justifies it with her story about friendship when, in truth, she is incapable of facing the pain that her friend/her country went through. Austria is the promised land for hungry Bosnian girls who believe that there is a better world somewhere out there. However, that, too, is just an illusion. In one moment, Lejla is a high school graduate who, in Sarah’s eyes, appears as if she could bring down Austria-Hungary, and in the next moment, she is prostituting herself in Vienna. To me, Franz Joseph is just a modern-day invader, the namesake of an Austro-Hungarian emperor, a capitalist who buys his way into victimhood. Lejla has to play his game in order to reach the end of the story, just like she has to walk past the statue of Franz Joseph I before entering Albertina.
How difficult is it to create an authentic literary character without writing about oneself? Surely, many people have noticed that you and Sara have some things in common – you both studied literature, you both come from the same town and you both left it, maybe you have the same hair color, etc. Sara is, of course, a fictional character, but I’d like to know how you remove yourself from a character and what parts of yourself you write into them?
The writer is already present in everything that they write. As such, it is superfluous to write about oneself on top of that, or to write oneself into the story. It is impossible to view oneself critically. I have been writing a diary since I was 8 years old, so I view literature differently. It isn’t there to say something about me, that in itself wouldn’t be interesting, but to say something about humanity. However, the greatest problem that befalls young writers is the inability to distance oneself from oneself, to truly speak through the words of another without judgement and to keep those words sincere. So, the characters in this novel are doubtlessly some parts of me, but those parts are extracted and drawn out into extremes which quickly began to live their own lives. The only thing I have in common with Sara is the fact that I, too, left my home country and feel that that country never truly left me. But in that sense, it seems to me that neither Sara nor myself are special, it describes an entire generation of people who reached maturity at a time when great myths fell apart. What I have in common with Lejla, apart from the initials, is actually something much more intimate i.e. the refusal to accept other people’s definitions and explanations, as well as the refusal to seek a greater purpose in everything that goes on in my life. In that sense, Sara and I are very different, she insists that everything must make sense and have a point, she romanticizes other people’s suffering, etc. What I found to be the most difficult is assuming the viewpoint of someone whom I disagree with on that matter. But it was also a challenge. That is why I find it weird when someone says to me: “you said so in the book,” because I actually didn’t say a single word in that book. Still, I hope that Lejla will manage to free herself from the jaws of Sara’s narration and show the reader that not everything is as it seems at first glance.
While I was reading the novel, I was under the impression that I was watching a film. Have you ever thought about how your novel would be adapted to the big screen?
I live close to the “Filmoteka” movie theater and I go to at least two movies each week. This has definitely affected me, especially the issues around framing and editing, as strange as it sounds in the domain of literature. One of my best friends is Carlos Marques-Marcet, a film director, and we often talk precisely about what connects our two disciplines and how they are different, so both are important because of those differences. However, what I love about literature is the fact that nothing exists outside the words and the sentences, language is everything, and the readers are free to let their imaginations run wild when it comes to what lies behind the words. In a movie, we would have to see Lejla, and in the book, she only exists within Sara’s words. Carlos told me that perhaps the only real film equivalent of my book would be one where Sara was a director or a photographer, but that would be an entirely different story.
What bothers you the most about how your novel was received?
It would be appropriate to say that I am merely the author and that I don’t have the right to be bothered about anything, no? Anyone can read my book in their own way and there is nothing that I could (or should) do to interfere. However, if I am to be perfectly honest, what bothers me not only about the reception of my book but about literature, in general, is people reading with the idea of realism standing behind the text. Then, there’s the discussion about how realistic the characters are, how realistic the city is, etc. To me, literature is there precisely as a means of questioning our idea of what is real, not to serve as reality’s selfie-stick. There are readers who are satisfied with simple information, who view the text as if it were algebra, and when they see that two plus two equals four, they nod, satisfied, giving a thumbs up – the book is correct. I do not care about information. I’d like to go back to Wuthering Heights in order to illustrate what I mean: there are many modern-day writers who would say that Catherine’s brain secretes dopamine when she sees Heathcliff. That is information, that is reality, and it tells us absolutely nothing of any importance. I’m exaggerating, but at the end of the day, it’s the same thing, that belief that literature is precise science, the mirror of reality which doesn’t question what it is that we consider real and whether this reality is the same for both you and I. Someone once asked me where exactly Sara’s house was in the city of Banjaluka. My question is: where even is Sara’s Banjaluka? Writers are cartographers of inner worlds. For everything else, we have Wikipedia and Google Maps.
Since you are one of the founders of the Bloom School of Literature, tell us something about the concept of this school. How did you come to the idea and did it develop as you expected?
Bloom is a place where people who are passionate about literature can share that passion with others without banalizing that love as if it were a hobby and without it becoming an academic pursuit. All of us who work at the school take literature very seriously, we have spent years with it and within it, but we also think that studying literature shouldn’t stay solely in academic circles, buried in professional magazines that few people read, reserved for people who decide to study literature or literary theory at university. It is a pity that someone who wrote a doctoral dissertation about The Epic of Gilgamesh doesn’t have an opportunity to share their knowledge with others. Similarly, it is a pity that I, as someone who studied English literature, don’t have an opportunity to attend a lecture about The Epic of Gilgamesh. Or about The Divine Comedy. Or about German romanticism. So, for example, we have a woman working at Bloom who wrote a doctoral dissertation about Icelandic sagas and teaches German at university.And this spring, she has the opportunity to teach a course about Ragnar and Lagertha at our school, which is fortunate for the many fans of Nordic literature. If you have passion and commitment, and if you share them with the world, people have many nice surprises for you.
Seeing as you are an editor for the magazine “Carn De Cap”, what would you point out as dominant in Catalonian literature at the moment? Are there any key differences compared to what the Balkans have to offer?
Catalonian writers are still combatting a sense of lesser worth because they are working in the shadow of the great Spanish language. In that sense, some of them went to the extreme – in a paranoid endeavor to preserve the small language, they do not allow themselves the light-heartedness without which literature cannot survive. The result of that paranoia are books which serve as examples of proper language that belong in a museum, poetry which cannot be read without a dictionary, etc. However, there are others like Max Besora, Borja Bagunya, Rose Cabre, Miriam Cano, as well as other young writers who approach their language without any complexes, they listen to it both at university and on the street, they question that which is what’s taken for granted, and they create freely. No language is small, the only thing that can be small is what we use it for. And if I had to compare Catalonian literature to ours, the first difference that I notice is the number of women in literature – not only among writers but in all spheres of literature – as well as the fact that it doesn’t surprise anyone anymore and that it is not appropriate to discuss it as a sort of special subject.
I saw a Facebook comment where you “defend” Joyce from an allegation that he is overrated. You said “it seems like Joyce overestimated us”. I thought about that for a long time. What kind of audience did Joyce want? What kind of audience do you expect to have?
I think I was talking about Ulysses in that comment. Of course, tastes differ, and to me,Ulysses is the best novel of the 20th century and I can defend that statement argumentatively, yet there are others who will say that they just can’t stand Joyce. That doesn’t mean that anyone is in the right, just that people expect very different things from his books. But in this case, I don’t think it’s entirely about taste but also about the fact that we have gotten used to the notion that the individual is the center of the world, the capitalist dogma of “the client is always right” has infected literature. We want everything as soon as we want it and we want to get it as easily as possible, and so we view even the most minute exertion as a waste of time in a world ruled by the terror of productivity. My students spent nine months reading Ulysses last year. During that voyage, we also read Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Vico, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas, we listened to Wagner, Mozart, Irish ballads, and so the reading of one novel became a small Odyssey after which nobody remained quite the same. Some people consider it a waste of time. For me, there is nothing more beautiful in this world than the idea that one book opens a door into another one, the other one opening a door into yet another one, and so all the way back to the very beginnings of the written word. I always adored puzzles and riddles and I still enjoy the fact that I still haven’t found all of the secret doors in Ulysses. Do I expect that kind of audience for my books? Of course, I can’t hold a candle to Joyce, nor would I be able to create a tapestry as complex and as delicate as he did, but I had to face the fact that even in my book – which is a children’s book compared to Ulysses – some references will remain forever hidden. A few weeks ago, Ala Tatarenko wrote to me, she had realized that the name “Lejla” means “night” in Arabic. I was jumping with joy knowing that someone realized that. But those are my small obsessions which have nothing to do with the intimate relationship that every reader has with my novel.
And finally, the theme of this issue of Libartes is awakening. What does the term awakening mean to you?
The first thing I thought of was Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening. For me, reading that novel was a sort of awakening, not just as a young woman who had to face the expectations of a small rural community but also as a writer who must translate that experience into words. But on a final note, I would like to mention another type of awakening that Virginia Wolf wrote about a lot – being awake in the moment, the desire to be aware of the moment in which I am in and the ability to perceive it in its entirety. After all, isn’t that the purpose of all art? To immortalize the moment. And to never succeed at it. 😊
Lana Bastašić (Zagreb, 1986) has published two collections of short stories, one book of poetry, and one book of children’s stories. She has received several short story awards (Zija Dizdarevic, Ulaznica, and Karver: Odakle Zovem, among others), two poetry awards (Targa UNESCO in Trieste andDani Poezije in Zajecar), and an award for an unpublished drama (Kamerni Teatar 55 in Sarajevo). Her stories were published in Polja, Putevi, Sarajevske sveske, Povelja, and other regional magazines. She lives in Barcelona, is an editor for the Carn de Cap magazine, and she heads her own school of literature called Bloom.
Interviewed by Milena Ilić Mladenović: Born in 1986. Graduated from and completed her master’s studies at the Department for General Literature and Literature Theory at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade. Writes short stories and long poems, incompetent essays, and competent recipes. Records stories of her sons.
Translator Filip Čolović (1995) – born in Belgrade, he is currently finishing his undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade (English Department). At the moment, he works as a content writer and translator. Appreciates the avant-garde and all forms of quality art and fiction.
Translation edited by Dejan Mujanović