Our latest literary guest is a novelist, short story writer, translator, journalist and editor, Branka Čubrilo. She comes from Croatia, but has been living in Australia since 1992. She writes in English now, and you can find The Mosaic of the Broken Soul on Amazon. Visit her author webpage for more information on her and her work.
Hi, Branka – tell us a bit about yourself, please.
Cheers Renato, thank you for your invitation to Radikalnews and hello to all your visitors and followers.
I have been writing for most of my life – namely since I was a primary school student, and in a way it defines me. I love travelling and have travelled extensively, mainly for the purpose of my novels and in search of my characters. I see my life as a ‘novel in the making’ – every new day is an opportunity to meet new people, get into interesting situations or conversations, an opportunity to give and get something that would enrich my life and, by all means, the life of people I come in contact with.
We both come from the country of brotherhood and unity – how have the events in the early nineties (the breakup and the war) defined you as a person and a writer?
This is a tricky one, Renato, but let’s try to answer it to the best of my understanding. Lots of people had a misconception of Yugoslavia as one of the communist countries where people lacked freedom of speech, expression and freedom of movement. Yugoslavia was rather a socialist country made up of the six, so-called brotherly republics, and during Tito’s time it was well respected as he stood out as a very prominent, wise and charismatic figure. We had a lot of freedom of expression in the seventies and eighties, namely, the decades when I was a child and young adult. After all, I was the generation that was growing up with Goran Bregovic’s music, with Emir Kusturica’s films, where we had the sharp-tongued ‘The New Primitives’, the satiric theatre and comedians, a flow of pro-active and creative new wave musicians – we grew up with equivalents to Sex Pistols and The Clash, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, bands and musicians like Johnny Štulić and Azra, Psihomodo Pop and Ekatarina Velika, Riblja Čorba, then the Slovenian scene – Laibach, Marko Brecelj and Buldožer. People expressed whatever they wanted in the seventies and eighties, no one cared, there was much more freedom of speech back then than in those new so-called democracies that emerged after the war ended. Materially we were better off than many European countries, not only Eastern European countries; it is even impossible to compare what it was like to today’s robbed by tycoons poor states of ex-Yugoslavia. I had travelled always extensively, so I had the opportunity to compare and was always happy to return to Rijeka whenever I went away. The propaganda was so strong, media went crazy in portraying whatever they wanted to portray and the new rules were adopted: A Lie became the Truth and no one could stop that madness and primitivism that was imported from the ‘grand democracies.’
Hence the nineties were really tricky. But as a person who had the sensibility and ability to understand what was going on in the shadow of all those events, back then I understood from the very first day what was really going on. It wasn’t difficult: there were those Three Guys who worked together from the very beginning, they sat at the table and divided, or shall I say, butchered the country. They were mere instruments, puppets in the hands of the masters who needed them and used them; so-called ‘leaders’ used the people, who gladly, willingly and proudly joined that bloody banquet at the dusk of reason and human decency.
I didn’t want to be a part of that, even though those events weren’t the reason I’ve left my hometown. I left it for absolutely different reasons and settled in Sydney.
When you ask ‘How it defined me as a person’ I can tell you that it devastated me, the knowledge that we hadn’t learnt anything from the past and that this hatred was just put to sleep waiting for the right moment to raise its ugliness. I was sad that primitivism and hatred were to win once again. As a person I felt that I had lost something that was very precious. We all lost peace, humanity and dignity, yet it saddened me that people were so quick to give up those qualities, readily, without a second thought.
As a writer, I looked at it from a different perspective: I was capable to adopt a different view-point, to explore it from different angles and at a distance, to disassociate or to cry; I adopted a wide variety of emotions and let myself into mercilessly sympathizing with characters and emotions of absolutely polar opposites.
In 1999 I had published the novel ‘Fiume – the Lost River’ back in my hometown of Fiume. I have translated it into English and the book is going to be published this year in English with my US publisher, Speaking Volumes.
And this book also talks about wars and separations, tragedies, lies, fallacies and the life of immigrants of different walks of life, when one has to wipe the slate clean and start from the beginning.
How is Australia different as a working environment for writers? Was it hard to switch to other language and culture?
Huh, Renato, for each and every question I can start my answer with, ‘yeah, that’s a tricky one’. Australia is a young country. Full-stop. In time of my youth we, the young people, young urban intellectuals, read a lot, went to the theatre, were exposed to the culture, tradition of the written word, art, music et cetera. We have here a fast culture predominantly preoccupied with material wealth and growth, the philosophy applied – Greed is Good is quite obvious, tangible … but on second thought – this philosophy applies nowadays globally: greed, rather money, is almost like a new religion.
One needs quite a number of years to adapt, to fit in, to understand and to let go. It is a process. I had the advantage of speaking a number of languages and a natural openness and curiosity to all differences. Then, I can freely say, I have that rare talent to pick up a language and culture so quickly and easily, I almost speak without any accent, even dialects are often easy for me to pick up. As a writer I gained an advantage of being exposed to a different language and to take the challenge to write in English. I find English amazing, it is such a good language to write in and express myself on such a subtle level. I am grateful for that.
What is writing to you? A mission? A therapy? A way to get to know yourself better?
To me writing is – me. I usually don’t fall into the trap of identifying myself with, and limiting at the same time, by certain definitions and labels. But when it comes to writing this is all I know how to do fairly, this is all I really want to do on a daily basis; this is my communication with the world and with myself at the same time.
I wouldn’t call it a mission, as, once again, I don’t define myself with missions, I think I’ve got that talent and I am trying to the best of my ability to share it with the world: to communicate those messages that I find to be important.
I would say that writing is always some sort of therapy for any writer, because while I write I really am trying to communicate with different aspects of myself. Those aspects that were neglected by me, muted by the environment I grew up in or even the authorities years ago, the aspects that were too fragile to sustain themselves in such a harsh environment. I give my voice to a variety of characters and those characters are my inner inhabitants, so to speak. I really enjoy when I surprise myself with some character that I thought wouldn’t come from my psyche – then I am really pleased and challenged.
If you weren’t a writer, you would be …?
You have already mentioned some of my other job experiences and hobbies. I am a linguist working as an interpreter and a translator, and most probably that’d be my main occupation. Anything that could be in connection with the written word I would do, or for that matter the spoken word too. I have a great hobby, for the past thirty years I’ve been practising yoga and meditation. When I came to Sydney, out of luxury and excess of free time at that period, I enrolled at the International Yoga Teacher’s Institute and obtained a diploma to teach yoga. I obtained the diploma in 1994 and since then I have taught hundreds and hundreds of people this fine art of self-knowledge and self-discipline. I still keep two to three evening classes as my students ask me to keep on going; I am happy that I can share my knowledge with others while teaching and practising does lots of good to me too. Just a year ago my nineteen-year-old daughter joined our group to my sheer delight as I wouldn’t ever push or direct her in any particular way, but let her decide what her interests would be.
Where do you mainly get the spark of inspiration? From other writers, from other arts or is it life, that provides the greatest source of inspiration?
Mainly my inspiration comes from life itself. I have led quite an interesting life, met many interesting people of all walks of life and I draw my inspiration from daily life. Sure, I do read a lot and some writers are a great inspiration. Art is an ever-inspiring medium without a doubt. I visit great galleries and museums wherever I am in a new city, but locally, here in Sydney we have the Gallery of New South Wales and it is worth a visit; just recently we had Goya’s exhibition to which I went with my daughter and we laughed at the fact that some ten years ago she was bored stiff at Prado while I couldn’t take my eyes off Goya. All those images I store in my soul and take with me, then I pull them out whenever it is needed.
What does a typical work day of Branka Čubrilo look like?
I get up at 5:30 am, put some classical music on and do several yoga positions to stretch my body and my mind in an attempt to invite my characters into my space. Then I sit at my computer and focus on my work for several hours. The most fruitful time for me is early morning as it is quiet here where I live; it is almost otherworldly in the early mornings, hence I take the advantage of that almost perfect atmosphere. I have my interpreting jobs booked in advance, so it depends if I have to go to the city, then I stop writing and take up the other job. Interpreting is such interesting work, for I can meet really interesting people with some jaw-dropping stories, exactly what we were talking about earlier, stories of war and crimes, tears and suffering. Then I wonder – ‘How come our politicians claim that now we live in better times and circumstances’ when what I witness from the people who came from the country once called Yugoslavia is just the opposite.
If I stay at home, then I write for an entire day. I write novels, short stories, I write for some magazines, nowadays it could be anywhere in the world, and I do translate my own work or I translate some other creative and not-so-creative stuff.
I don’t have time to socialize too much; therefore my evening yoga classes are both – a source of enjoyment and a way to socialize with like-minded people. Usually, to yoga many kind, creative and spiritual people are drawn. I finish my day with reading what I have written in the earlier hours and spending time with my daughter whenever that is possible. I absolutely enjoy spending time with my daughter, as she is a talented person and a very challenging source.
How do you approach writing – do you do a lot of research or do you write mainly from your head?
Yeah, that’d be going back to what we discussed earlier. My experiences and experiences of people around me direct me mostly in my writings. I have a good capacity to remember and I do use sketches and vignettes from my life and my travels. Certainly, if I write about some historical events, there is a need for research, but as we talked earlier, I have witnessed the recent war on our soil and interpreted first hand the stories of migrants, hence lots of research was never needed.
Yes, there are topics and themes that need a bit more research, I am currently writing a new novel; there is a family connection to the famous genius Nikola Tesla, of course, I did some research. I’d say I write from my head, may I say from my heart as well, but whenever I need more accuracy I do some research.
In 2002 I obtained a scholarship from the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to go to Andalucia, Cadiz, to research historical and cultural settings for my trilogy Spanish Stories. That was the most substantial research that I had enjoyed greatly.
Is being a writer today easier or harder than, say, twenty … thirty years ago?
Can I really answer that question fairly? It isn’t the easiest profession, as we all know. I think to be a good, again, substantial writer, is always difficult regardless of era. I never talk about others, but there are writers who self-publish and it used to be called ‘vanity press’. I think that a good writer is one that has to offer something to her/his readership. That people can learn something, discover something new or change something within themselves. This is an era of pop-culture and reality shows. I don’t read vampire stories, zombies, wizards or pornography nor do I write about it. I write about the human condition and human advances, about the human soul in an attempt to awaken better qualities in myself and my readership. I publish only work that I think is honest and speaks to myself – then I believe it would speak to others as well. To be honest, a strong writer with a timeless message of human goodness and advances, unfortunately, can be lost in the vast ocean of literature that is crowd-pleasing. It is the same in music and art. I think that a writer has to be honest to herself/himself as Franz Kafka put it plainly and beautifully – “Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly” and that is, kind of, my own stand when it comes to writer’s work.
How important is social media as a channel to promote your work and find support in other writers (and readers)?
Oh, this one is an easy one: look, you found me via social media. A direct contact from one writer to another. Yes, it can be very handy but it can be overwhelming too, especially for someone who can’t easily get into contact with unknown people. It has its advantages and disadvantages as anything does. I personally dislike some aspects of it, but I have understood that it is a way of how to survive in modern times. Now we live in a world where one has to be aware of all this stuff going on, sometimes I think that social media is feeding the young generation in a way that is beyond ‘normal’, and it is often terrifying because normal friendships are not just normal anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I have met some fascinating writers, or people from different fields, people I would never have met in other circumstances. It is a good channel for promoting fellow-writers and oneself too. Put it in plain words – in moderation everything is fine.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am writing a new novel. It all started as a short story that never left me alone. It is a multifaceted novel, a family saga that dwells on several generations of creative people, intellectuals as well as everyday people from the parts of Europe that I am familiar with. All my stories and protagonists, including the current one, are set in different countries on different continents.
Wars and deceits abound in the story; two love stories are in the body of the novel and the role of the church in daily life of religious followers who have an unwavering zest for destruction, displacement and lies.
If anyone is keen to know more about it, I have summarized it in this essay written recently
Who are your literary heroes?
By now I think you can guess, my heart is in the classic literature, though I love modernism and post-modernism.
If I had to single out a writer I would start with Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Then, I love Daniel Defoe, Dickens and I can’t overlook Marcel Proust and Jean Paul Sartre.
I read a lot, and there are some other contemporary writers I enjoy greatly, but still I love going back to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
What advice would you give someone who is just starting or thinking of being a writer?
The publishing industry isn’t the easiest one; a writer needs sound knowledge of the topic she/he is writing about, hence good research is needed, a talent, daily practice of her/his art and lots of discipline. If you put all those ingredients together, you still need a good portion of luck. Well-established writers follow their own pattern and associations, while new, aspiring writers, probably need some advice. It isn’t easy to give advice to anyone – as there are so many aspiring writers who consider writing to be an easy task, but it isn’t, really. Especially when it comes to something ‘deep and meaningful’, one has to be in tune with one’s own being, well read, well informed and equipped with all sorts of worldly experiences not to mention to possess great imagination.
If someone really aches to be a writer, then one has to count on many rejections, which means to develop a strong, steady character, not to take everything too personally; to understand that their own friends will fall in number and whose comments might be hurtful purposely. With the wonders of the Internet anyone can write anything about your book – hate reviews or even hate mail. On the other, positive side, there are a number of rewards: when good reviews from literary critics or competent colleagues come your way, when a reader, a person you’ve never met and never will meet, sends you an e-mail telling you that your book has made a lasting impression on them, when you receive an award or just a card from a random person encouraging you to ‘continue to deliver great work.’
For the novice: weigh it, then put your heart where you think it yearns to be and sharpen your tools; we are always delighted when a new, well-written story or writer dawns.
Thank you, Branka!
Look, it was my pleasure, Renato. Thank you for the invitation and good luck to you and all the readers.