The Valley Advocate just published an excellent article about Vladislav Bajac, author of Hamam Balkania and director of Geopoetika, a most amazing Serbian publishing house. In addition to publishing the best of the best of world literature, Geopoetika is also the home to SPIT (Sebian Prose in Translation), a new government-funded program to translated Sebian works into English and find publishers around the world to bring out these books in their respective countries.
Drew Adamek’s profile of Bajac is wonderful, and worth reading in its entirety. Below are a few interesting excepts:
SPIT is an attempt to introduce the English-speaking world to Serbian literature. Supported in part by the Serbian Ministry of Culture, Bajac hopes to expose the global literary community to the challenging and innovative literature being produced by Serbian authors by publishing five translated selections of Serbian literature in English-speaking countries each year. The goal is to showcase the diversity and quality of Serbian authors, and for Serbian writers to become part of the global literary conversation. The first book to hit the American market will be Hamam Balkania, available in March, 2012.
SPIT faces many road blocks to entering English-speaking markets: media coverage of the 1990s wars damaged Serbia’s international reputation, sufficient funding is always a challenge and the works are not intended to be the type of blockbuster popular fiction that dominates so much of today’s publishing industry. Perhaps most daunting, not just for SPIT but international literature as a whole, is that only 3% of the books published annually in English are translated from a foreign language, according to the University of Rochester Three Percent Blog. [. . .]
Q: You took some very bold narrative risks in your most recent novel, Hamam Balkania. You write at the beginning of the book that you are pursuing the question of identity and you use both present and past-tense, first person and third person narrative voices, as well as dual storylines—one set in the present and one set in 1500s Ottoman empire—to find answers. How did you come to weave such a complicated story to answer such a difficult question?
A: I was very aware of the risky path I wanted to go. In the book, I am talking about exploring the ideas of spreading identity and of mixing cultures. I asked myself what would happen if I could put in one novel, very literally, the historical side of the story and the present side of the story. I wanted to say that there are different ways to show the issue of identity and mixing cultures. It sounds like it could be a very kind of artificial work but I said okay, I’ll take a risk.
I always tried to write on the issue of identity by showing one person going his own way but this book is connected to many more historical characters and living persons. I used historical persons as examples that living within two cultures or religions was possible. I wanted to say that this is the proof; they lived that life.
But the contemporary side of the book was a way of saying that this issue is still there- everywhere, absolutely everywhere. What is the conclusion? I don’t know the answer, but I wanted to make it a part of the game.
This risky way was a bit brave because it included other difficult issues as well: addressing the very negative myths about Serbs who became Muslim [during the Ottoman Empire]. There is this idea that they are traitorous, for example. It is still a big issue in the Balkans, in the Ex-Yu, in Serbia today.
I think I reached something that I have never reached before in any book I wrote. However, the book is not only written by the author, it is written by the reader as well. You can’t say that you’ve finished the writing of the book until it is read well.
The consequences of those ideas are still unknown to me, which I like. [. . .]
Q: What is the philosophical idea behind the SPIT (Serbian Prose in Translation) Program? How did you decide which books to include?
A: We started this with the very humble idea of “let’s try to show what we have.” And if we have any reactions from the world, we will be more objective in understanding our own literature. That’s a question not only on the quality of our literature but of our identity as well. Until we compare ourselves with others we do not know who we are.
We choose primarily the books that we think are good literature. Then again, we choose books as different from each other as much as possible to show a wide cross section of Serbian literature.
What we’ve come to understand from SPIT is this: not that we are one of the best literary nations in the world but that we are interesting enough. The positive critical reaction to the styles and the poetics among Serbian authors shows not only that we are different within the larger literary world, but also that we are different among each other. You have nations whose literature is all very similar. Okay, it’s dangerous to generalize but you know what I mean.
This is not the case with our literature; diversity is the main characteristic of literature in Serbia. We still have more books to show the world, even though this is a small country, with a small number of people. We feel that we are equal to other cultural nations, including the United States. That’s why our work must be shown to the world.
I am not talking about getting famous bestsellers; that is an entirely different kind of writing. But we have to try to get into these markets because our so-called “heavy mental” literature deserves to be read as well. The financial mathematics might not be there but the numbers of readers are.
The literal meaning of the word SPIT is a joke too. It’s like being named an ambassador. You never know when a politician says to someone, I am going to make you an ambassador, is it a praise or is it a punishment? Because it sounds like praise, but then again, it says I don’t want to see you around here. You are expelled from the country, kind of in a nice way. So SPIT is in the very same way a joke in that, “these are the authors we spit out.”
You can read the entire piece here.
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