A cab on both sides of the road: Iva Pekárková’s London

One of the things I find most refreshing about Iva Pekárková’s writing is that it is so untypical. Her books have taken us to New York, Nigeria, and now London and Senegal, breaking the stereotype of Czech literature as inward-looking and local. You may remember Iva talking in a past edition of this programme about her autobiographical novel “Dej mi ty prachy”, published in English as “Gimme the Money”, inspired by her experiences as a New York cab driver. After New York, Iva spent several years back in Prague and she also travelled widely in Africa, but for the last four years she has been living in London with her Nigerian partner Kenny. It was there that she wrote her two most recent books, the novel “Sloni v soumraku” (Elephants in the Dusk) and a collection compiled from her popular London blog, published under the untranslatable title “Jaxi taksikařím”. I caught up with Iva during a brief visit to Prague. In a café round the corner from the radio, she told me about her life in London, the differences between the world of the book and the blog, and her plans to complete an intriguing literary trilogy. But first she spoke of her love for living in different places.

Iva Pekárková
“I think it’s a wonderful thing we have these days. You can almost choose where you want to live. You cannot choose any place but many of the places you would like to live and actually live there, which is really great. And I think people like me are very numerous. It’s not such a big problem any more, so it’s not always a trauma. It could be sometimes like a big gift that you get from the world being as it is – multicultural in many ways.”

You lived for several years in New York. Now you live in London. Do you feel as much at home in London as you did in New York?

“It’s hard to say. I suppose not. I will always associate the New York of the early 90s or even late 80s with youth and beauty and energy and whatnot, so I will always remember not just the city as such but also how I felt in it and how it was. I’m afraid my youth is not coming back any time soon, so I obviously have a slightly different way of looking at things. And I must say that New York was definitely immensely more fascinating to me. It started with the skyline and continued with the lifestyle and even language. London isn’t quite as fascinating, but in a way I find it easier to live in.”

It’s interesting that at least for part of your time in London, you ended up doing the same job as in New York, working as a taxi driver. You wrote a wonderful novel “Dej mi ty prachy” (Gimme the Money) about that experience, and then you found yourself doing the same job in London.

“Well, obviously I planned it. I said - why don’t I try being a taxi driver on both sides of the road? - so to speak. I started at a time before I was even sure I could drive on the left side [laughs], but it wasn’t as bad as I managed.

“We had steady customers, so I could watch these people over the course of two years or even a little more. There was this one guy who went to Poland, fell in love, brought his girlfriend over, got married and got divorced, in the space of two years, and there were people who even died in the meantime, people who were hopeless at the beginning and found wonderful jobs, people who went the other way, people that hated you at first and then found out you are not so bad. You know, things like that. So it was really interesting, because this way, if people told you stories, I’m not saying they were always believable, but you could always find out whether the person is most likely lying or not, and whatever.”

And so these stories found their way into your writing?

“They kind of did. I did start a blog, and I took just a completely different approach than I did when it comes to the book I wrote about New York taxi driving. What I did was that I tried to take little stories, short ones, and publish them in the form of blogs. And now the publishers decided to do a book of all these blogs and some stories that also took place in London. So this is what I did.”

It’s an interesting barrier to cross, the barrier between the blog and the printed book. There are thousands or millions of blogs out there, and so many bloggers must be dreaming of getting their blog in print form. There is still a certain kudos attached to the book, isn’t there?

“I suppose so. The publishers, they kind of insisted on publishing whatever I have written, even though I told them that perhaps we should just leave some blogs out – they are not so interesting, but they said, no, no, no, let’s just do it, it’s short enough. It seems like a little bit unnecessary to publish it again in this printed form, but at the same time I did meet quite a few people, even people who are not bad with modern technology and things like that, but do still prefer very much to sit down or lie down with a book, and read these things in the form of a book, as opposed to reading them off a computer screen.”

And of course it’s a very different form from the novel or the short story, because, just as in the 19th century many famous novels were written originally for magazines and therefore had to be episodic, in the same way the blog tends to be very short and very immediate. This must have a big influence on the way that you actually write.

“It does. I don’t think it will influence my writing for ever. I think I can go back to a classical form or whichever. But it’s interesting in a way, because you don’t want to write half a story and then tell the blog readers – okay, now I will tell you more of it tomorrow or the day after. So basically it’s these little concise stories, which you have to dig out of the matter of whatever you have lived through, whatever you have experienced. And they should have some kind of beginning and some kind of ending, a funny ending if possible, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, some story. It’s a bit of a challenge really.”

And it’s also personal, isn’t it?

“Yes. Of course it can be very personal. I have tried to protect the identity of the people I wrote about. I definitely did try, but obviously it’s still me in there. And one funny thing is that you get a lot of feedback, immediate feedback, which of course was not always friendly or something, but there was also a lot of friendly, helpful feedback and this way I would know – okay, I have written this blog and people misunderstood it badly, so why don’t I explain it a little bit better or why don’t I pay more attention to the things that I know because I live in London, but other people can’t possibly know because they live in Prague or elsewhere in the Czech Republic? This was how it was teaching me slowly, which I think was not bad.”

Last year you had a book published, which has been discussed quite a lot. Once again, it’s set in London, but also in Senegal. This time it’s a novel in the more classic form. It’s called “Sloni v soumraku” (Elephants in the Dusk). And it’s caused quite a lot of debate, because it deals with quite a controversial subject – the subject of older European women finding younger men – partners – in West Africa.

“It wasn’t just West Africa but mostly West Africa, and not just European women but American as well – I mean white women generally. The phenomenon is probably quite old, but it was unheard of on such a large scale up until ten or fifteen years ago at the most. So I tried, because I know a lot about Senegal and I know a lot about Europe, and I know a lot about the African culture, African thinking and so on, to do something which I am not aware of anyone doing in book form before, not even in English. You know I wrote the story of a couple – an older European woman, very naïve, and a young Senegalese man, definitely not naïve at all. And you know, I didn’t demonize the poor African guy, but I just tried to show that the woman was very, very naïve, he was definitely no saint, but she thought along these lines, he thought along these lines. They are completely different. Obviously the whole relationship is doomed to fail from the first minute. But I didn’t make him the only person who actually screwed everything up and was a very bad guy, because I tried to look at it from his point of view as well. So it was the interaction of these two people who are both not very nice really!”

Was there one of the two characters whose head you preferred to be in when you were writing it?

“Well, I tried not to do that. I just tried to give both of them a chance to speak and stuff like that. I definitely didn’t try to judge. And this is what the critics said as well, which I was very happy about, that the book doesn’t judge. I don’t like to judge him, I don’t judge her. I just describe what could have happened or what most likely happened.”

And how about the reception of the book in the Czech Republic? There is a tradition of Czech readers being a little bit suspicious of their writers who go abroad. The most famous example, of course, is Milan Kundera, who lives in France. You’ve chosen a subject which is fairly far removed from most Czech readers’ day-to-day experience. Have you found that you’ve had any negative feedback in that respect?

“You know what, it’s actually quite interesting, but I didn’t really get any. I don’t know about anyone who would say – I hate the book because it’s not Czech enough. I suppose they’ve got used to me writing about these topics. But I was really surprised because most of the feedback I got was really, really positive.”

And where is your writing taking you now? I know that you’re working on another book.

“I have decided in the course of the last year that I should write not a sequel to the book “Sloni v soumraku” but I would like to write a kind of trilogy. I will call it my black and white trilogy. The characters and places will be completely different, but it will all be about black and white relationships. So now I’m on the second book, and I’m actually trying to work on it this summer. So this should be about a woman – she’s European, Czech even – and she will basically fall in love with a family from Nigeria, and then things will develop in funny ways. The Nigerian people don’t really value their own culture, while she doesn’t value hers, so it’s very funny because they keep convincing each other that their own culture is good for nothing, but the other culture is wonderful. So there’s some kind of story in it. And the third one, which of course I haven’t started writing, I would move it a little bit closer to home, and this would be basically about the adventures of this guy and how he got to the Czech Republic and what he had to go through in order to get his citizenship and stuff like that, and what kind of adventures he lived through. And it would be the third and final one of this black and white trilogy."