PLUME INTERVIEWS: PETRA HŮLOVÁ
Petra Hůlová is one of the most distinctive and outspoken Czech writers of her generation. Her literary debut at the age of 23, All This Belongs to Me (Torst), became an instant hit among Czech audiences when it was published in 2002. She has since established herself as a leading voice in modern fiction and authored nine other novels, the latest of which – A Brief History of the Movement (Torst, 2018) – is coming out in English translation by Alex Zucker in September 2021 with World Editions, and will be excerpted in Project Plume’s Issue Zero.
My interview with Petra Hůlová takes place on a sunny December morning at Periferie Café, just around the corner from her home in the residential Prague district of Bránik on the southside of the river. When I arrive, I find her already seated at a sunlit table under a large window and holding a tiny pre-smartphone-era mobile to her ear. Until now, we’ve also been communicating via phone calls and SMS since she is in the midst of an experiment to give up all forms of internet usage for a full year, including email.
When her call is over and we have taken our coffee orders from a friendly waiter, Petra apologetically announces that we’re shorter on time than anticipated. Alex Zucker‘s English translation of her latest novel, A Brief History of the Movement (Torst, 2018), has recently been picked up for publication in the US and the UK by World Editions and she has a deadline to meet today. Of course, I can understand, considering she has to factor in getting to the post-office in time to snail-mail the edits to New York. I can also share her excitement since we’ll be excerpting the novel in Project Plume’s Issue Zero coming out this May 2020.
Now a household name in Czech fiction, Petra Hůlová was first launched into the literary limelight back in 2002 with her debut, All This Belongs to Me (Torst), a family saga set in Mongolia narrated through four generations of women protagonists. The novel became an overnight success among Czech audiences as well as her first book to be translated into English by Alex Zucker (Northwestern University Press, 2009), marking the start of an ongoing collaboration between author and translator. In addition to A Brief History of the Movement, Zucker also translated Hůlová’s fourth novel, Three Plastic Rooms (Jantar Publishing 2017), the episodic monologue of a sharp-eyed sex worker in Prague.
Hůlová’s work has also been translated into German, Polish, French, Italian and other languages. As an author who is known for pushing the boundaries of what is considered ‘literary’ language, Hůlová’s prosaic versatility serves as a nod to her translators’ accomplishments. Each of her novels is also distinct in terms of form and theme: from a contemporary romance between two immigrants in New York, the historical mystery of a Danish man stuck in a Siberian gulag, a portrait of pro-communist “losers” of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the tale of a Ukrainian woman navigating Czech society as an immigrant, through to the confessions of a mother who is out of touch with her maternal instincts.
A Brief History of the Movement sets itself apart from the rest in that it is Hůlová’s first clear foray into speculative fiction. Set in a dystopian reality in which a feminist society known as “the Movement” has risen to power, the action takes place within a network of government reeducation institutes aimed at eradicating ideas of male dominance and the sexual objectification of young women. Even within the realm of science fiction, Hůlová touches upon motifs that have routinely cropped up in her work, including the social concepts of gender relations and sexual identity.
I have a myriad of questions about the process and perspectives behind her body of work so – with less than an hour left and no time to waste – I jump right in as soon the friendly waiter has set down our coffees.
How many months have you been without internet?
Now, for three months exactly.
Do you see that it has any effect on your writing?
I don’t write at the moment apart from my journal and notes where I reflect on my life so it’s difficult to say. But I can say I feel more immersed in myself, more concentrated and less [all over the place], you know that feeling. I feel a sort of clarity and calmness, the sort of satisfaction that comes from the feeling that you are right here, right now. That this is your life, and that’s it… a feeling of belonging.
When you are working on a project, where do you work from?
In general, when I’m working on my longer texts, I use this studio across the river from my place. I commute there by bus, three stops, it’s twenty minutes from my house. It’s very small, 4m², and until recently there was no window. It’s in this old factory house [that now] serves as a working place for visual artists. They need big spaces and this old tiny one is not suitable for them to work on their sculptures and stuff, so I have it thanks to them. That’s where I work on longer texts. But if it’s an article or a short text, I do it at home.
I’d be curious to go back and talk about your first novel, All This Belongs to Me. I read in past interviews that you were embarrassed, in retrospect, to have narrated a novel from the perspective of a Mongolian family since you only lived in Mongolia for a short time yourself. In one interview you said “How could I dare do this? What would I think if a guy from Japan came to Prague for a year and wrote about being Czech?” But the book was actually really well-received and established you as one of the main voices of Czech modern fiction. All the interviews I read are from many years ago so I’m wondering if, after some time has passed, you feel differently?
I might feel differently in a funny way, in that the book is completely cut from me. It’s my old self. I don’t recognise myself in there very much. But it’s part of my writing history and I would not say I feel ashamed about it anymore because I think art should be a place of freedom where you can adopt any perspective or any identity for any character and it can become your own. You work with it and play with it, and you can do it for better or worse, but there should be no limits in terms of what you are or are not expected to do.
That’s how I feel now but I would say that the environment is actually moving in the completely opposite direction. The fact that I spoke in the place of Mongolian women — for all those years, I was the one who had a problem with it and I was unsure of my right to do it. But at the time [when it was published in 2002] it was perceived as “no problem” and, as you said, rewarded. Now, I feel OK with it, but the environment has become more critical. It’s interesting.
I even got this criticism from my American students that I have a workshop with about Czech literature in English translation [at Charles University in Prague]. I used my book [All This Belongs to Me] as a part of the syllabus and my students mentioned it critically, saying that I was Czech and this was Mongolia, so how could I dare to adopt this voice? It’s worse that I’m a white European, which makes sense within another discussion.
But in the context of literature and adopting voices there should be no limits. The field of fiction is where the problem starts. I think once we start to impose any limits we’re doomed and it’s a slippery slope, so better not to approach literature from that perspective at all.
I finished the book and I was like, OK, but I don’t feel I said what I wanted to say. … I couldn’t continue without shattering the whole structure of what I had written so far. I just felt it was not a good approach from the very start. So I had to write the book again from scratch.
You’ve written nine more novels since your debut. Do you see a shift in priorities of what you want to write about as time goes on, or do you find you approach writing differently?
I do reflect more on what [I’m writing] than in the beginning but the process is not very different. I think it’s not the way I write but more how I think about it. The process as such is still an exciting adventure of sorts. But before, I [was more interested in] stories that deal with private situations and people and love and hatred and emotions. I was interested in human relations very much, while now I think I tend to be interested more in the wider picture of society and “what is society?” and how we are or are not part of it. The larger picture is what interests me more than in the beginning. That might be the right answer for what is different.
A Brief History of the Movement is narrated by Věra, a female educator at the institute set up by ‘The Movement’ to eradicate the sexual objectification of women. But you mentioned previously that you first wrote the entire novel from the perspective of a male educator. At which point of the writing process did you decide to switch perspectives and why?
It was a super painful process. It was the most painful process of writing a book in my life because I wrote what would have been 400 pages of the book from the perspective of the guy, he was one of those who started the movement. There is this situation in the end where he [sends] these guards to take his best friend to the institution. That’s how it ends. And then I finished the book and I was like, OK, but I don’t feel I said what I wanted to say.
I realised what I’m really interested in is what’s going on inside these institutions and how they work. But I couldn’t continue without shattering the whole structure of what I had written so far. I just felt it was not a good approach from the very start. So I had to write the book again from scratch and set it in the institution, because how this whole movement started was not the core, and I could skip that.
I just put the whole manuscript away and started from scratch, from the perspective of this lecturer. As I mentioned, in the institution there are also male lecturers and doctors, it’s not only women reeducating males. I didn’t want to make it like a war between the sexes but more ‘those educated’ educating ‘those yet uneducated’. So it could have been a male narrator but the female perspective somehow felt easier.
Before, I was interested in human relations very much, while now I think I tend to be interested more in the wider picture of society, and “what is society?” and how we are or are not part of it. The larger picture is what interests me more than in the beginning.
How did you decide to pursue this idea of a feminist dystopia in the first place?
There are many ways to answer that question. One possible answer is that I felt that men’s perspective on women should change. I don’t like this perspective and I don’t think it’s fair, so it should be changed… so let’s imagine how it could be done. (Laughs.) That’s a very simple answer.
Then, there are things like this situation with my daughter in the city centre of Prague. There was this billboard with a model in her bikini and the advertisement was for something like, I don’t know, yogurt or spaghetti. My daughter was five years old and she asked me this question which I’ll remember for the rest of my life: “Mommy, why is the lady naked?” I still get goosebumps because… you don’t want to explain the truth. It’s a powerful question that reveals the whole thing.
And then there was this paragraph by the French author Michel Houellebecq [in his novel Submission], which is quoted at the beginning of my book. [It’s where the narrator] describes his encounter with an old friend of his from university, twenty years later when they are both in their forties. She’s into him, they have dinner, go drinking, he goes with her to his apartment. Then she gets undressed and it’s as if he realises it’s a great mistake to be with her because she is just so old that he can’t get aroused anymore. He describes her as a being whose capacity to get someone else aroused has finished.
It was a very strong reading experience and this connection between the aging of the female and the possibility to be loved as a human being is very intriguing and powerful, and I felt I wanted also to tackle that in my writing, and kind of give a punch to that sort of perspective. So this is also my fight back against this perception of females. This should not be felt! (Laughs.) But once you say it, it’s like a monstrous statement, because you cannot determine what people’s feelings should be. But at the same time, it hurts everything in myself. So what will I do with all that? It’s very confusing. So the book is an attempt to somehow work through all that stuff.
The book remains ambiguous, though, in that it could even be seen to be critical of radical feminism.
Yes, it’s very ambiguous. It’s kind of both.
There was this billboard with a model in her bikini and the advertisement was for something like, I don’t know, yogurt or spaghetti. My daughter was five years old and she asked me this question which I’ll remember for the rest of my life: “Mommy, why is the lady naked?” I still get goosebumps because… you don’t want to explain the truth.
Do you find gender relations and sexuality are a running theme in the big questions you are interested in exploring?
Obviously, my work speaks for itself. Whatever red thread there is in my work is unrelated to [what I can say about it]. It was never my resolution or decision to say, “I would like to work with sexuality to show ‘something’” but somehow, I always have been thinking about it so it always popped up somewhere. It just comes with my writerly character or my way of thinking. But I never made it a credo for myself.
You have been translated into English, German, Hungarian, Polish, Italian and other languages. Have you read any of your works in translation?
Yes, I read what I am able to [including] Alex Zucker’s English translations (All This Belongs To Me, Three Plastic Rooms, A Brief History of the Movement) which are great, then the Polish translations which are very good, and German — also very good. The other languages, I’m unable to check on.
Was All of this Belongs To Me translated into Mongolian?
No. I really doubt there is anyone who would be able to translate it. There are many Mongolians who speak Czech but I don’t know about any literary translators at the moment.
How did you and Alex start working together on your first book?
I think got we acquainted through Jáchym Topol, our friend in common, or Viktor Stoilov, [mine and Jáchym Topol’s publisher at Torst], who knew Alex already from before. So via either [one of them]. Then I lived for a year and a half in New York where Alex still lives, so we met a couple of times while I was there. And then when Alex came to Prague, he contacted me. So we started to have a friendship. I would say we are really close. He’s such a great translator and not only translator, but knows a lot about Czech literature. And Czech literature has to be thankful to him for all that he has done for it.
This connection between the aging of the female and her potential to be loved as a human being is very intriguing and powerful, and I felt I wanted also to tackle that in my writing, and kind of give a punch to that sort of perspective.
We have yet to see what the critical reception for A Brief History of the Movement will be abroad, but I’m curious to know, how have Czech audiences reacted?
It has not been translated to any other languages so far but there has been this theatre performance in both in Nuremberg and Prague, a Czech-German coproduction. So I do know something about the response abroad from this theatre play, which is pretty interesting because here in the Czech Republic it was [perceived] as an anti-feminist thing, as if mocking feminism. A “let’s see what will happen if feminism continues to grow”. I’m simplifying a little bit. But let’s say that this was the frequent reaction in the Czech Republic.
While in Germany, I know from the actresses who performed it – and really, very well – who told me that there were many women who visited them after the performance backstage to say “thank you” for this show that tackles these urgent topics and opens up important issues such as beauty and youth being the essence of female’s attractiveness and how it’s dehumanising for us. [They] were very happy that there is this emancipating theatre. Again, simplifying.
But that’s how it was perceived in Germany, as empowering for women, while here [in the Czech Republic] it’s taken as a criticism of feminism. So that was very interesting for me. And the theatre play mirrors the book pretty well so I think it the book could be received ambiguously in the USA as well.
We’ll find out when the book is released by World Editions in 2021 — until then, look out for the preview excerpt in Project Plume’s Issue Zero, out in May 2020.
Text & Interview by Salwa Benaissa