On Roving, Writing, Reading, Teaching, and Navigating Worlds: Nkiacha Atemnkeng Interviews Téa Obreht
May 23 ● BY Nkiacha Atemnkeng
I was in Téa Obreht’s fiction workshop during my penultimate semester at Texas State University. It was the icing on my MFA cake. Every time I emailed Téa for workshop-related matters, I always included the accent t’aigu on the “e” in her first name, Téa, so that I didn’t annihilate my endowed chair’s first name as an aromatic beverage, Tea, on the internet. Perhaps my keen sensitivity to letters with accents stems from the fact that I lived in a Francophone city, Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital, where I mostly communicated in French for years. But I think Téa also has something in common with tea, because whenever Téa smiles, it is always very warm, just like early morning tea. And the warmth from her smile radiates through the air and warms her students’ hearts in class as well. And just like tea, Téa is also a mixture of components from many places and cultures; having lived in a bunch of countries and cities around the world.
She says wandering appeals to her enormously because she finds it to be regenerative and creatively enriching. At the Douala airport where I used to work, I once met a young American named Indy who travelled to every country in the world by the age of 24, breaking the Guinness world record for being the youngest person to travel around the world. I asked him why he had embarked on such a costly trip. Indy told me that apart from his record attempt, exposure to different cultures establishes a well-rounded foundation that will enhance his character and understanding of the world we live in. Téa’s reason for roving, which I’ve mentioned already (not to every country in the world though) is reminiscent of Indy’s globetrotting to me. Over an email exchange, I interviewed Téa Obreht, now a new mother, about her roving, writing, reading, teaching, navigating worlds . . . in short, everything.
Nkiacha Atemnkeng: You have been interested in living in Texas for a long time. Coincidentally, that opportunity came in 2020 when you were appointed as the endowed chair at Texas State’s MFA program. What was your experience like working as the endowed chair of Texas State MFA for the past two years? Also, I’m wondering why you were always interested in living in Texas?
Téa Obreht: As an immigrant, I’ve always been very curious about this state and what it represents in the landscape of the American imagination and identity. Part of my second novel, Inland, was set here. Teaching here was incredibly special. Doing so during the pandemic, in particular, offered me a window into the sheer determination of our students. Maintaining any kind of routine, achieving any kind of goal, is really difficult in times of crisis and flux. Creative endeavors are particularly vulnerable to mental and emotional stress. On top of the daily struggle with this new reality, many of our writers grappled with questions of relevancy: does my work speak to the current moment? Does the work I’m doing matter at all, given the magnitude of what’s going on in the world? It was really moving to watch you all meet these challenges and attend to your undergraduate students, support your MFA community, adapt to life in a new city and for many of you a new country, and still manage to produce remarkable, thought-provoking original work.
Atemnkeng: On behalf of all your students at Texas State, thank you for the compliment, Téa. You have travelled a lot, both outside and within the U.S.—which I’ll focus on first. You lived in Atlanta when you first moved to the U.S., then Palo Alto in California, before moving to New York and then Texas. Your late grandfather, Stefan Obreht, was an aeronautic engineer who also travelled a lot. And I’m wondering if your impulse to keep moving comes from him, since you were very close to him. How does it feel to be constantly on the move? Is there any one place which you truly consider home?
Obreht: That’s a very good point—and yes, I do believe that my impulse to keep moving was heavily influenced by my grandfather. My mother, too, travelled a great deal. She still hasn’t settled in one place. Wandering appeals to me enormously. I find it to be regenerative and creatively enriching. Like everything, however, it has its downsides. Belonging somewhere takes time. Forming a community takes time. Wandering can make you an outsider to certain kinds of knowledge—which can be tricky for writing. A lot of my work tends to focus on displaced people, or passers-through, people trying to make sense of settings to which they are fundamentally outsiders, and I suspect this is tied to my own experience of the world. Though sometimes you go somewhere new and feel at home right away—as was the case for me in Cairo, and, more recently, Wyoming.
Atemnkeng: Still on the topic of travel, but specifically your roving arc outside the U.S. You were born in Belgrade. You moved to Cyprus at a young age and later settled in Egypt; you visited every Maghreb country from there too. Now fiction written by North African writers influenced European Literature a lot. The 1988 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, specifically impacted Balkan Literature. Your life journey instead took the opposite trajectory; a Balkan who moved to and lived in Egypt for years. I assume being in “the source of inspiration” left a unique impression on you, when you dug deep into the English translations of Naguib Mahfouz’s large body of work, which was originally written and published in Arabic—and other Maghreb writers. How did living in Egypt, Mahfouz’s country, personally influence your own work as a European, when you became a writer in America?
Obreht: What a twisty and interesting question! I’m trying to remember now how I first came to Mahfouz. I believe through Serbian translations of The Cairo Trilogy, which I must have read close to the end of our time there, and then revisited in English some years later. Growing up in Egypt had a profound influence on my storytelling interests—you felt the full weight of history there in every aspect of life. And as you say, looking beyond Mahfouz, there are influences and aesthetic exchanges between the literatures of these regions. Among them is certainly the focus on place—specifically, the city as a character, a dynamic product of culture and history. Another is how folklore lives on in families and neighborhoods. Another is the influence of pre-Abrahamic belief on cultural identity and contemporary society.
Atemnkeng: I found the language in your work to be simple yet effective, and your sentences have a certain musicality without really trying to be rhythmic or rhyming. It’s the opposite to the way I approach language and write sentences—I landed on writing as a young adult through my teenage fascination with hip hop, where rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and bars are at a premium. I’m wondering, what’s your philosophy on the sentence?
Obreht: I can certainly see that influence in your prose. My philosophy on the sentence has changed over time in tandem with my changing relationship to my native language. As a non-native speaker, you are not only trying to learn how storytelling works in this new language, but you’re also often trying to hammer your understanding of language into a shape that reflects your formal education. Because you’re an outsider to the language, it can take a while to give yourself permission to be playful. When I wrote The Tiger’s Wife, I was focused on hyper-detailed prose and long, lyrical sentences. This seemed to be the right way to get at the ornateness of Slavic oral storytelling norms while still preserving the formal integrity of English. In recent years, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between English—in which I write—and Serbian—in which I think, and wondering, “Why are you so preoccupied with the formal integrity of English?” Languages of the former Yugoslavia are lyrical, but they’re also incredibly playful—and this leads to a kind of precision that doesn’t always feel available in English. There’s a great deal of room to manipulate a sentence, transform adjectives into verbs and vice versa, to achieve the precise effect you want—of poetry, of humor, of pathos. There’s an ability to be very impactful with tremendous economy. And these days, I’m finding myself more drawn to that. I check my sentences to see: how would I say this in Serbian? Is this exactly what I mean?
Atemnkeng: I’m curious about the deathless man in The Tiger’s Wife. He is such an interesting character who reminded me of a few of such quirky characters in my narrative tradition, like les enfants terribles. Is the deathless man shaped by some folkloric influence or your admiration for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism?
Obreht: The deathless man is based on a character who appears in both Slavic and Germanic folklore—but as you say, I think these immortal, death-knowledgeable wanderers tend to appear in storytelling traditions all over the world. In the stories I heard as a child, this type of character served to teach lessons about the necessity of death. My springboard for how he turned out in The Tiger’s Wife was: what a lonely function that is! How would somebody like that attempt to connect with other people? Would he be honest about his abilities, or lie to blend in?
Atemnkeng: Those are thought-provoking questions about his mental state. Now due to the success of The Tiger’s Wife, it is very easy to play it safe by making your late grandfather and Serbia the “go-to” for your next couple of novels, perhaps even your literary career. So why did you leave that and make such an audacious move in the setting, themes, and subject of your second novel, Inland?
Obreht: I wish I could say that I had control enough over my obsessions to be making deliberately audacious moves. The more I write, the more I accept that I’m the kind of writer whose projects pick her rather than vice versa. I tried writing two—well, technically two and a half—novels between The Tiger’s Wife and Inland. One leaned very heavily into Balkan themes; the other was a realist western about disreputable doctors. Neither worked, but I think both had to be written for me to figure out what it feels like to really be writing the right project. And I didn’t find that until I bumped into the true story on which Inland is based—which, despite being set in the American west, still featured many of the same essential ingredients that made up The Tiger’s Wife: ghosts; turn-of-the-century Balkan people; a man who has a personal relationship with death; a possibly mythological animal about whom a young boy is curious. Ultimately, I think Inland turned out to be the right project because it allowed me to keep asking some of the questions that still lingered for me after The Tiger’s Wife. Of course, as is so often the case, I didn’t realize that until after I’d finished it.
Atemnkeng: I have this weird interest in origin stories and original artefacts, such as handwritten manuscripts of novels, poems, paintings etc. Please tell me the story of how you wrote the first draft of The Tiger’s Wife. Were you scribbling first in a notebook? Or did you write directly on a computer? Where is that original manuscript of The Tiger’s Wife stored? How will you feel if it goes missing?
Obreht: Your fascination with artefacts is going to be a touchstone for both your work and your life as a writer. I look forward to checking in on this prediction as the years pass. I wrote the first draft of The Tiger’s Wife on the computer—I edit sentences as I write them, so longhand, for me, has been quite torturous for many years. Unfortunately, this is quite unromantic: it means the “original” manuscript exists on the now-decommissioned laptop on which it was written, but also on an external hard drive, and in the inboxes of its first readers. However, there’s an annotated draft of The Tiger’s Wife, a first galley, and a first edition hardcover that went on tour with me in 2011, and into which I scribbled people’s recommendations and email addresses and stuffed little pamphlets and bookmarks. I would be devastated if any of them went missing. All three are at my mother’s house—specifically because things don’t go missing from there.
Atemnkeng: I would love to steal a glance at that “rockstar first edition” copy of the novel. I’m also thinking that technology played an important role in the first draft looking like the finished product, which was not the case for all the paper written manuscripts of the past, probably reddened with editors’ ink or considerably marked with content and line edits. I’m wondering how technology will shape how future novels are written. Téa, do you think future novelists (if media doesn’t completely kill them all) will be writing by speaking to word processors on their nail-sized phones as they move around in electric, driverless cars? Will they be eye-clicking on 5D devices? Or will there simply be a telepathic machine that will just type the scenes and dialogue in their brains, as they lie on their beds all day introspecting and weaving stories?
Obreht: This is an incredible question. I wish it were within my powers to imagine how future novels will be written because I think the form itself is evolving in new and fascinating ways, many of which are already inaccessible and incomprehensible to me, stuck as I am in my ways of both thinking and creating. However! I do think that what has endured through the evolution of the form has been the ability of prose to access interiority and create consciousness. I believe we read fiction in order to inhabit minds other than our own, to imagine ourselves into times and dilemmas we might otherwise never experience. To be able to say: I don’t agree with this character at all, but I am with them. And I do think that core necessity will remain.