Anita Musioł talks to Czech writer Radka Denemarková about feminism, exclusion, and the role of women in her novels “A Contribution to the History of Joy” and “Kobold”.
Anita Musioł: In A Contribution to the History of Joy you write: “Men do what they like. In another life, would you like to be born a man? I would like to be born as a free person.” Does this mean that women are not free people, that they cannot be free?
Radka Denemarková: I think that we often don’t realize that women are not really free because they are not treated as such. My parents taught me that if I was smart the world would belong to me, but then I started my life as an adult in the real world, and I thought what is this? Where am I and what is going on? Why am I constantly reminded that I am a woman, that I am not as good as men?
There are jarring examples of places in the world where women can’t go to university, can’t leave the house alone, can’t decide for themselves, but apart from these extreme situations we come across lesser discrimination every day. Many men only want to see women as lovers, mothers, their assistants, they don’t like the fact that women are ‘everywhere’, and even though women have had the right to vote for 100 years now, these men cannot get used to it. They can’t come to terms with the fact that women have various roles in society, they still don’t like the way we participate in life as equals. Luckily, the days when women could not study medicine, because they were thought to have smaller brains, are behind us now, but the glass ceiling is still there, and men still prefer to choose another man as their successor at work, for example, as opposed to choosing a woman.
Recently, I attended a literary festival in Guadalajara, Mexico – there was a discussion about European literature, and I was one of the guests, the only woman. The moderator was an alpha male; I could feel it from the very beginning. When introducing me to the audience he said “I am happy that we have this lovely writer here, a female author”, and that was when I realized I had to confront him, so I picked up my bag, and I wanted to leave the stage. I told him that I thought I had been invited because of what I do and what I write, and not that we were on a date. He understood, and from then on he treated me with respect.
The women in the audience were very proud of my reaction. I believe we must draw the line. I could have acted ‘like a woman’ and said thank you, that is so nice of you and so on, but I didn’t want to behave that way.
What about equality? You were once asked whether there was such a thing as male and female writing, and you replied: “I don’t mix gender into my writing.” So, you separate writing and gender. Also, in one of your books, you write that “literature has no beginning and no end, no borders and no dimensions.” Do you think there is no ‘male’ and ‘female’ literature?
I make a conscious decision to talk about literature as universal. Currently women’s literature is a big topic in the Czech Republic – everyone talks about how good and strong it is. But for me, this is an archaic way of thinking, it just shows that men still don’t understand that women can be smart and can write well. I don’t want to play this game; a person is a person, I am a person, an independent human being, regardless of whether I am a man or a woman. These conversations remind me of mediaeval times, when theologians wondered whether women had souls.
I was recently invited to a talk about ‘women’s literature’. I said I would come only if another event was scheduled, this time about ‘men’s literature’. Of course, no-one knows what this could be – in people’s minds there is no such thing as ‘men’s literature’, but therefore I think there is also no such thing as ‘women’s literature’.
When we fight for equality and equal rights, as with racial differences, we find that affirmative action has reached gender lines. Recently, a well-known American female writer told me that it is now acceptable in the US for women to write books where the narrator is male, but unacceptable for men to write books with female narrators. So, in fact, this is a type of censorship. The same thing happens with cultural appropriation and racial, ethnic issues – the writer I was talking to is a white, privileged, attractive young woman, and the main character in her new, historical novel is a Native American during the times of British colonialism. After reading the manuscript, the author’s agent told her that she needed to change this Native American character, because how could she, as a white, privileged woman, give this character a proper voice?
This is a great example of how we misunderstand literature. If this continues, we will never be able to write anything anymore… I couldn’t write from the perspective of a swallow, as I have in one of my books. Literature is all about empathy, the ability to adapt to someone else’s way of thinking. What if I feel like writing a book about Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, or about Trump? I can try to ‘become’ these characters, that’s the whole point of writing about them.
I think that as an author I am not important to the reader, only the person I write about is important, and telling their story. If we were to stick to these ‘new rules’, Tolstoy or Flaubert would not have been able to write their best novels, and I would not have been able to write my historical novel Money From Hitler, about a Jewish orphan who has nowhere to return to after the war, because I was not an orphan during the war…
But something similar happened to me a while ago! My Czech editor, whom I had worked with for 10 years, had an interesting reaction when I delivered my manuscript of A Contribution to the History of Joy. He said that I had written so many great historical novels, so why a novel about all these women all of a sudden? I will be called a feminist!
I said OK, let them call me a feminist. If this same story had happened to men, I would have written about men. He continued his rant, telling me that feminism was a ‘Western project’, it was something for women who disliked men. I explained to him that I liked men a lot, but I was a feminist and there was no conflict between the two. I never heard anyone complain that there were too many men in a novel… no one told Tolkien there were too many male characters in Lord of the Rings.
Let’s look at some stereotypes of what makes us happy. You once said in an interview: “Happiness is something that each of us generates, regardless of whether a man happens to be around or not.” What you mean is that we can look for prince charming, but we should be happy even if we don’t find him. Yet, at the same time, Justyna, your character in Kobold, is waiting for a man to ‘save’ her. True, her life is hard – she has nine children and she is poor – but she doesn’t think of how to find a job, how to help herself in any other way. The only solution is a man to love her, and therefore resolve all her problems. Another of your female characters in the same book, Hela, is actually called a “trophy”. You also say there is no female solidarity, that “wolves always travel in packs” – men stick together, while women fight among themselves for men. What can we do to change this?
I write about these things because I don’t know how to change them. I think that human rights start in the kitchen, and, unfortunately, many women define themselves through men. If a woman wants to go to university, have a career, if she decides she doesn’t want to have children, she’s immediately perceived by society as incomplete. Everyone is waiting for her to find a partner, have kids, to live ‘like everyone else’. But men can live as they choose, this is normal for them.
I see some hope in the fact that although today people still feel that seeing the world from a male perspective is the way things should be – the ‘natural’ way of the world – we can work to change this perception. The past shows that changes can be made: slavery was abolished, Jews left the ghettos, in the United Kingdom people from the colonies like India or Pakistan got the same rights as people born in the UK, so change can happen. The problem with women’s rights is that physically we resemble men – people have two eyes and two legs, and the differences between us are not as visible as in the case of race. But precisely for that reason that confrontation with gender discrimination is necessary.
In October 2019, there was a discussion at the Frankfurt Book Fair about the Nobel Prize for Peter Handke. Last year we had the scandal in the Nobel Prize committee, with one of the committee member’s husbands harassing women, yet now the committee has decided to give the prize to a male writer who physically abused women – one of his victims even said that this prize given to him is just additional humiliation for her. Everyone chooses to avoid this topic, some people even joke and say that maybe the women he hit bothered him while he was writing, so he had to hit them to make them stop. My question is: why did the committee choose him? We have so many great writers who are not controversial, they’re honest and ethical people.
We mentioned solidarity among women, or rather a lack thereof. Are the women in A Contribution to the History of Joy united against men because they hate them? Does a hatred of men build their solidarity?
The female characters have a duality to them – they are positive characters, yet at the same time they are murderesses. There is a solidarity between them because they are united by what happened to Ingrid, who committed suicide. They are now fighting together and this gives them power and a sense of unity, but of course this is not the way changes in the world and in our thinking should be made; we should implement changes in the legal system, not lynch our enemies. I do think that people have their own battles to fight and there is a line that, when crossed, means you take justice into your own hands, but this is wrong.
I think talking about how defenseless women can be is very important. After World War II, there was a plan to classify rape as a war crime, but no one supported the idea. The same terrible crimes are going on today: even recently, in Syria, the Kurdish journalist who was murdered was raped after she was captured.
What is the role of outcasts in your work? Kobold is full of them: Justyna, poor and a Roma Gypsy, with many children and no job; her neighbour, who is visibly unwell and a social outcast. Do you think an outcast can escape their fate?
The fact that Justyna is a Romani is not obvious until the very end of the book. It’s interesting that throughout the book many readers were mystified – why is she so alone, why does everyone reject her, why is she left on her own, on the margins of society? Then at the end we understand why. This understanding is a manifestation of a hidden racism we all hold inside, because all of a sudden it is clear to the reader why she was treated as she was, when her race should not really matter.
As far as the neighbour is concerned, he’s a character I really like a lot, he first appeared in an earlier book of mine. This character shows that people are able to feel sympathy and empathy, but are not always ready or able to show it.
As to Justyna, look at this paradox: she loves her children very much, and she is an example of a great mother, yet society wants to separate her from her children. Despite her devotion, society does not accept her; her love and the care she offers her children mean very little, because she does not fit the ‘mold’. And Kobold – on the social stage – appears to be an excellent father, a great husband. They all look like the perfect family, yet no one knows what is really going on behind closed doors.
Do you think we can escape, change our lives, get away from the trauma we went through – like in A Contribution to the History of Joy? Can we flee our home and roots, get away from lives of poverty, or a lack of education?
I think it’s possible, though very hard to do. As in Hela’s case, the victim often feels what had happened to them was their fault. In such cases, society needs to step in: we need to be clear about who was victimized, especially in the case of victims of rape and sexual abuse. The victim cannot be blamed. Once this is clear, the next question is how to work through the trauma.
It turns out that reading A Contribution to the History of Joy can be a sort of catharsis for some people. Recently, I got a pair of earrings shaped like swallows from a 60-year-old reader who had been raped long ago. She never reported the rape, but while reading my book she felt like the characters were also fighting for her.
Two years ago, I attended a conference in Belgrade, Serbia. During a talk on sexual abuse and concentration camps, a psychologist said that the victims could not find the words to describe the humiliation they had felt as a result of the rapes, they could not talk about it or live with it because they had lost all trust in the world – and it’s impossible to live without this basic trust. Some readers thought I had been raped too, that this was why I had written this book. I told them that no, I had never been raped, but I have the empathy to write about that experience.
That is the secret of writing: I can be anyone I want to be, I can become whoever I want. I can become a raped woman, a Native American, a woman of colour… That is the power of literature.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
You can read an extract from Radka Denemarková’s “A Contribution to the History of Joy” here.