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Interview with Lidija Dimkovska

I met Lidija Dimkovska at the Twin Cities Book Festival in October, fleetingly, and completely by accident. I had been staying at a writing residency outside of Red Wing, Minnesota, and after a few weeks of being confined to the work centre, cabin fever set in and I tagged along to the cities with one of the other residents who had a car and a lunch date. I circled the fairgrounds aimlessly for a long time, content and a bit overwhelmed to be among so many books and their people, a stark contrast to having been holed up in my rural accommodations. Finally, looping again to the front of the exposition, one of the name tags on a table caught my eye — Dimkovska’s — and I let out an excited yelp that frightened the woman at the information desk. Dimkovska, who hails from Macedonia (an ex-Yugoslav republic) is an esteemed writer across Europe, the author of several novels and volumes of poetry, and winner of the EU Prize for Literature in 2013. I had just read and loved (and blurbed) her first novel translated into English — A Spare Life, about twin sisters conjoined at the head who serve in part as an allegory for the ex-Yugoslav republics and the bloody separations that came to pass in the civil war. The novel had stuck with me, the weight of it — dense with the minute detail of the twins’ lives, while at the same time encompassing a broader Balkan history with the expansive feeling of myth, or elegy. I watched as she read from her book in English, then spoke passionately about how one could not be alive and apolitical, a reminder particularly prescient given what would happen weeks later as the election results rolled in. I waited for her at the signing table to introduce myself, and Dimkovska, recognising my name, stood and cupped my face in her hands — ‘Sara!’ she exclaimed, and though I was far away from everyone and everything I knew, the trill of her ‘r’ and the light in her eyes made the Minnesota State Fairgrounds feel, for a moment, quite a bit like home. The following interview was conducted by email, after the conclusion of Dimkovska’s book tour in the States.

 

—S. N.

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve spoken about how A Spare Life is an allegory for the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Could you elaborate on that?

 

A

Lidija Dimkovska

— In A Spare Life, the protagonists are Macedonian twins with conjoined heads, Srebra and Zlata. They were born in the 1970s, the generation I belong to, and my novel is primarily dedicated to this generation. They grow up in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, which was, at that time, one of the republics of ex-Yugoslavia. Their life is complicated for many reasons: physically (they have to do everything together, no single movement is an independent one), psychologically (almost nobody wants to be with them or loves them, even their parents, who are working-class and ashamed to have daughters with conjoined heads). At the age of 24, they go to London to be surgically separated, and during the operation one of them dies. They are aware that the operation is almost impossible and that one or both of them will be the victim of their own desire, but they agree to that because they don’t see any other solution for their lives.

 

At the same time, in Yugoslavia, the desire for Serbian domination over the other republics grows, alongside the desire of Slovenia, and after that Croatia, to separate from Yugoslavia. The war began in 1991, first in Slovenia, then Croatia, and then – for the longest time – in Bosnia. Was such a separation possible without someone becoming the victim? In my novel, the tragedy of the separation is not the concept; it is in the most brutal and primitive application, just as it happened with a nonsense war that destroyed lives, people, places, humanity. The allegory between the conjoined heads of Zlata and Srebra (their names mean ‘gold’ and ‘silver’) and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia was not my initial idea when I began writing the novel, but during the writing process many allusions and connections between them spontaneously appeared.

Q

The White Review

— So what gave you the idea to use conjoined twins as your protagonists? Were you thinking about the sisters first, or were you always seeking a symbol for your larger message? Why did you choose to tell the story from only one of the sisters’ perspectives?

 

A

Lidija Dimkovska

— I got the idea from a documentary about two real sisters from Iran, who had conjoined heads and decided to separate from each other at a mature age, publicly, in a television documentary. They both died. I was shocked by their life before the operation, and their death, because they were full of optimism and hope, but of course aware that the end of the story probably would not be a happy one. For many years I carried their story in my mind, and one day I decided to write a story with similar characters, but within a context that is known to me: Macedonia and Yugoslavia.

 

Later, during the writing process, the twins Zlata and Srebra became symbols for many things, chiefly my generation: those born in the 70s who never believed they would have to experience war. My novel begins in 1984 and ends in 2012, so it encompasses almost thirty years of personal saga between the sisters and their family, but also a historical time: changes in the political system from socialism to capitalism and the war in ex-Yugoslavia. When I’m writing I always choose a character to tell the story when I am sure that only he or she can tell it authentically. Usually the main character is a witness to everything, so it was natural to choose Zlata, the twin who survived, to tell us the story of her and her sister’s life. And certainly, as a writer I have always been interested in unusual, strange or uncommon characters who are different from others.

Q

The White Review

How do you balance clarity of message with driving the narrative forward on a plot and character level?

 

A

Lidija Dimkovska

— I tried to enter the skin of the narrator, Zlata, and to follow her voice, her rhythm, her mind, her heart. At the beginning, it was difficult for me to locate her and her sister’s bodies in space because of their conjoined heads, so I drew them to be sure that I would not make mistakes describing their positions. I researched conjoined twins and tried to put myself in their position: how they live in everyday life, for example, how they sleep, go to the toilet, sit, eat. It is extremely difficult to imagine what two bodies so close to each other do in these situations.

 

After that I tried to understand them psychologically, especially because they have very different personalities. For me, Zlata, the narrator, was closer to my own attitudes and thoughts, so it was not so difficult to write from her position, but similarly I needed to understand and authentically present Srebra. I gave the narrator all the freedom to express herself. It was very interesting experience; I felt myself caught in Zlata’s voice, and in a way, I felt that I belonged to her and to the story, and not they to me.

 

I wanted to tell a big, long story about a possible life in a very concrete time (1984-2012) and two very concrete spaces (Skopje, London). I am not sure that I tried to keep a balance between the plot and the characters in the novel; on the contrary, I followed the narrator to the end of my writing skills and also to the end of my human perspective. I think that in this novel I broached a somewhat radical place in writing, the point where life and literature make eye contact.

Q

The White Review

I can’t help but see parallels between pre-civil war Yugoslavia and the current political climate in the United States. Do you feel similarly?

 

A

Lidija Dimkovska

— While travelling through the US on a tour, presenting my novel in ten different bookstores in different cities — even though I personally only met people who said they would never support Trump — in the air, in the masses of people and their spirit, I felt that he would win. It’s not easy to explain why — as I said, no one said that they liked him and I believe them. But travelling around, feeling the atmosphere in the cities, seeing from the outside how people live, how they are more and more alienated from each other, how the system of fear functions, all these platforms advertising certain lifestyles and desires; all of this is in line with the way Trump presents himself. When I was there in 2006, I couldn’t feel the segregation between black and white people. But this time, just looking at the unemployed sitting in central Baltimore filled me with the sentiment that the American Dream has, for some people, transformed into a nightmare.

 

The anguish that caught ex-Yugoslavia at the beginning of the 1990s was like the anguish in America before and after the presidential debates, and it exploded after the election in mass dissatisfaction, disappointment, and protests. Still, I don’t think that the ex-Yugoslav and the American destiny are very similar, I can only speak about feelings and fears, not about real conclusions. What happened in America can happen everywhere. When I was reading in Oakland, I got a big piece of cardboard from a local exhibition with the inscription: ‘If you want to make Trump sad, vote.’ I wanted to take it with me back to Europe but it didn’t fit in my suitcase.

 

The same message applies to politicians in Europe. In my fatherland Macedonia you could write: ‘If you want to make Nikola Gruevski sad, vote.’ And this message can quickly transform into its opposite. The politics in many European countries are rapidly worsening in a similar context to these new American politics. Trump proposed a wall between Mexico and the States, but the Slovenian (left) government has already placed barbed wire between Slovenia and Croatia to prevent refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, from entering.

Of course, there is an important difference between any European country and the States: the political decisions of each European country can destroy that country, but American politics can destroy the world. In Europe, Nazism and fascism are returning, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they never left. I hope that human rights, if they cannot be improved, will at least stay as they are in America, and not worsen.

 

Q

The White Review

Do you have any thoughts, advice, or reading recommendations for Americans reeling from the results of the election?

 

A

Lidija Dimkovska

— In a situation of disappointment and fear, such as this, everyone should find their personal way of grieving. I always suggest that art is the best medicine for an illness of the mind and soul. In the Yugoslavian war, when Sarajevo was occupied by the Serbian military without a possibility for escape, artists made so much art and held many events, and that was also a way of fighting against evil and the occupation. So read books, watch good movies, listen to good music, and find comfort in art, because art is timeless.

Q

The White Review

In that vein, any advice for American writers? Or in a broader sense, what do you think a novelist or poet’s responsibility is in a time of political tumult?

 

A

Lidija Dimkovska

— Every person is a not only a homo sapiens, but a homo politicus. You cannot close your eyes to the reality of the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you must sit at your desk and write poems or novels against Trump; you can write also from the perspective of the antagonist. If you feel justice and you are by nature and education a human being who loves and supports freedom, democracy, and human rights, it will be, in one way or another, obvious in your writing.

 

Maybe it is true that literature cannot change the world, globally, but it can stir the reader, and influence their own behaviour and understanding. From literature we learn empathy, but also freedom of thought and expression: how to understand the human being and the world we live in. As a homo politicus, of course, every writer can also engage himself in concrete social or political activism, but that is another kind of question.

 

Q

The White Review

What is the state of things in Macedonia right now? What are the current struggles, and what’s next for the country?

 

A

Lidija Dimkovska

— For ten years, the Macedonian government has consisted of a coalition of a Macedonian right-wing party, VMRO DPMNE, and a party of Albanians who live in Macedonia. That’s ten years of criminal corruption, a kind of soft dictatorship that brought much of the media onto its side, and an architectural catastrophe in the capital city Skopje, amongst other problems. If you watched pro-government media in Macedonia you would have thought it was all milk and honey, but the truth is that half of the nation is jobless and young people have been continuously leaving the country. People who see what’s going on have made countless protests. The Colourful Revolution pulled people together for a common purpose (to change the government and to bring justice) in a way we haven’t seen since Macedonian independence in 1991: this was not just a protest against the dictatorial regime in Macedonia but also against all corruption in politics and society. That government never learned the rules of democracy, and it transformed the country into a kind of personal farm, or a feudal property. On December 11 2016 there was an election in Macedonia that ended with a near-tie between the former ruling party and the opposition, SDSM. The former Prime Minister and VMRO DPMNE party leader, Nikola Gruevski, missed his deadline to form a new government after failing to secure support from his former partner, the Democratic Union for Integration. Because of that Macedonia has been without a new government for almost two months. But finally the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) decided to give their signatures to opposite party SDSM to get the mandate to form a government,  and I really hope that it will be formed in the first half of March and lead on a new beginning of democracy in Macedonia.

 

Q

The White Review

I saw you read from your work in English at the Twin Cities Book Festival. What is it like to read your own work in translation?

 

A

Lidija Dimkovska

— I always prefer to read in my mother tongue, Macedonian, because I write in it and when I read my work aloud I feel the energy and the atmosphere in which I wrote the novel. On my tour in the States I only read my novel in English once, at the festival in Minneapolis. It was an interesting experience for me to hear myself in the language of my novel, to hear my characters in a foreign language so wonderfully translated by Christina E. Kramer. I enjoyed it, but still prefer to read in my mother tongue, as it’s a language almost never present at readings in the States.

Q

The White Review

What are the limits and drawbacks of working in prose versus poetry? How do you choose your mode for a given idea, and how does your writing process differ between forms?

 

A

Lidija Dimkovska

— In my life, poetry and prose are two doors leading to the same home. For a long time I thought I could only write poetry, but when I discovered the urge to tell a story, to create characters, I fell in love with writing prose. There are times when I write more prose or more poetry. Sometimes poetry and prose ‘fight’ in me, each asking for their own time, own space. But to give birth to words is, to me, the most beautiful thing — when I write I am absolutely happy, regardless of subject. Once I began feeling the urge to write fiction, my happiness doubled.

 

Writing prose is psychological and physical work (my back always hurts me when I write prose). It demands time, externally and internally. Even if I write my novels in quite a short time, I always carry the story for years before I sit and write it down. With poetry it’s different: the poems, in a way, write themselves. I am not a kind of poet who says ‘I am going to write a book of poetry this year’. I just slowly write poems, and when I have enough for a book I concentrate myself on its structure. For me writing is like breathing — I write because I need it.

Q

The White Review

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
A

Lidija Dimkovska

— Shortly before my tour, I published my third novel in Macedonia and in a way I feel like I’m still living with it. The title of the novel is Non-Oui, or ‘No-Yes’. Or ‘Neda’, short for the name for Nedjeljka, a Croatian woman from Split who moved to Sicily in 1947 after marrying a former Italian soldier, and became a partisan in the Yugoslav battalion Garibaldi after the capitulation of Italy. It’s a novel about the Second World War, Croatia and Yugoslavia, and the life of a woman immigrant who lived in Sicily for many years behind closed doors because of a mafia regime. It’s about love, identity, language, about Split and Castelamare del Golfo, about the fascism that is returning to Europe (or never disappeared). It is a human drama of loneliness, of (not) belonging, love, politics, and about how Nedjeljka, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, forgets the Italian language. Speaking the Croatian language that only her granddaughter can understand, she once again becomes a foreigner. It is a novel about how people become ghosts in their own environments — but who will care for ghosts?

 

Now I’m thinking about a book for children, my first one, and it’s quite difficult to begin. At the same time, I’m researching for a new novel that exists so far only in thoughts and plans: I am going to write a story about lost people, lost places. How can we gain back what we have lost, if we can at all? And should we?

 

And about the poems—they write themselves when they feel it is time. My new poetry book In Black and White was published in Macedonia some months ago, and my translators have already translated it into English, so now I hope to find a proper home for it in the English-speaking world.

 

Besides writing, I translate Romanian and Slovenian literature — my next project is to translate ten poets from Slovenian contemporary poetry for a literary magazine in Macedonia.

 

 

 

*

 

This interview was selected for inclusion in the 2017 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director for the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Lidija Dimkovska is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2013 European Union Prize for Literature for A Spare Life. She is also the author of the poetry collection pH Neutral History (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, and Do Not Awaken Them With Hammers (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006). She lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Sara Nović is a writing instructor at Columbia University and with Words After War. Her first novel, Girl at War, was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016. She is the fiction editor of Blunderbuss.

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