Iva Pekárková on hitchhiking, hermaphrodites and star-crossed love across (closed) borders

Iva Pekárková, photo: Adam Kebrt / Czech Radio

Prague-born novelist, travel writer and journalist/blogger Iva Pekárková has lived abroad for the better part of twenty-five years, having first defected to Austria in 1985 and then settled in New York before eventually putting down roots in London after stints back home in the Czech Republic, and extensive travels in Asia and Africa. In town for the Prague Writer’s Festival, we spoke about the influence of movement on her early work – from hitchhiking under communism and driving taxis ‘on both sides of the road’ – and her latest book, about a disabled Czech women married to a Pakistani, kept apart by the powers that be.

Iva Pekárková,  photo: Adam Kebrt / Czech Radio
Iva Pekárková had felt compelled to write already when a young girl, hungry for adventure and frustrated by the oppressive censorship of literature that restricted her from learning about the outside world. Her father was a physicist and her mother a chemist, and she studied microbiology and virology at Charles University. I began our inteview by asking her if she inherited a love for the ‘hard sciences’ from her parents.

“Oh yes. Yes, I did. And I still do. There’s not a single day in my life as a writer when I’m not grateful for having studied microbiology because I did learn how to think scientifically. And it’s very, very good for writing.”

I understand that you started writing already in your teens…

“Oh, yeah. Thank goodness none of my earliest attempts survived! But, yes, I always wanted to become a writer, ever since I was ten or eleven. Because there was this funny feeling in the whole country. It wasn’t just me – too many people had the same feeling that. How shall I put it? We were living in a difficult age, we thought. We thought we were suffering tremendously, and we had a feeling we should be writing it down. That all this stuff should be somehow documented, somehow written down, and that the world shouldn’t forget what we lived through.”

“Of course, it was a very naïve feeling, but this feeling was prevalent among people I knew. Even very young ones. And since we had basically no access to good novels, good books, not even history books, we felt like we had to be the ones to actually write the books, to document everything. Even to figure out how to store it – all the newspapers and stuff like that. We didn’t believe that the libraries would do it properly. Because at any time someone could come and say burn all the stocks in the libraries.”

“So, we were collecting this proof of our suffering. And because I couldn’t really read anything descent aside from one book by [Josef] Škvorecký and one book by [Milan] Kundera, which of course were all illegal to borrow. I felt like I had to be the one to write the novels and so I was preparing for it. I knew that I couldn’t much yet. But I wanted to prepare for it … I knew I could really write much yet, but wanted to as so as I could and gathered enough experience for that.”

You say you’re glad that not much of that writing survives, but I did read about one story with an interesting history to it – Double Sex is the Motto.

Photo: Malik publishing
“It was actually a novella. It was like eighty, ninety pages. It was a very funny thing, you know. I wrote it when I was eighteen. The leading classes kept telling us how everyone should be emancipated. You know, women should have the same rights as men. There is no imparity. No one treated better than others. Blah, blah, blah. Of course, it was all over the world, but we didn’t know it. And it was on a very funny scale, kind of. Because nothing happened in reality but they kept talking about it.”

“So, I was trying to imagine what would happen in case they wanted everyone to be absolutely equal, which in the conditions of the country as it was then meant that everyone would be a hermaphrodite. And it was kind of funny because everyone had to get ‘hermaphroditised’. They got invitations for the operations and had to go – it was absolutely mandatory. If you didn’t, they would get you anyway and do it. But, of course, the government and the leading classes, they didn’t – women might wear some beards and stuff like that and they guys might wear some breasts, or whatever – but they didn’t have to go through the operation, of course, because it never went for them.”

“I was young and discovering these forbidden things, like sex, so I was making fun about it. Let’s say someone is freshly ‘hermaphroditised’ woman wants to act as a man and then she meets a man who happens to be a freshly hermaphroditised’ woman and they argue about who should be who. Stuff like that. It’s actually quite a lot of fun. But it was a very simple.”

This novella was not something that could be published out in the open, but I understand that you were hitchhiking and came across some people who had actually read it.

“Oh, you are very well informed! It was probably the best thing I have ever heard, the best critique of one of my books I ever heard in my life. I was hitchhiking – of course I couldn’t sign this book because then I would be expelled from school and be in deep shit. I would be in big trouble – and these two guys maybe five, seven years older than me picked me up, and while they were taking me, I think, from Hradec Králové to Prague, they told me the story in the book. They were laughing and saying, ‘Oh this is the best book we have ever read – I wish I knew the man who wrote it!’”

“And of course it was very hard not to reveal that it was me. But I was very careful and didn’t do it because what did I know? I mean, these guys could have been like the secret police, you know. So, I just said, ‘Oh, yes, this must be a very interesting book indeed. Tell me more!’ So it was very funny, a very nice experience. Every writer should have one like that at least once in his lifetime or her lifetime.”

'Elephants in the Dusk',  photo: Millennium publishing
It’s interesting that this happened while you were hitchhiking because in your early work, hitchhiking is a big part of it. I’m thinking of I guess your first full novel, right – Truck Stop Rainbows. Tell me about your hitchhiking, personally, and how that weaves into your storyline.

“Hitchhiking back then, I think for many people, not just me, was one of the very few ways of being free. You know, some people became members of almost gangs – they would do drugs, they would drink themselves stupid, every day. I didn’t do it. I had a slightly different drug, and it was hitchhiking. Meeting new people, you know, going places, travelling fairly fast from place to place. Getting to know every corner of the Czech Republic. And I had a very good idea what the country was like, which was a very good thing for me as a future writer.”

And years later, of course, you were famously a taxi driver ‘on both sides of the road’ – seven years in New York and a few years in London, driving a minicab. You got a lot of inspiration from people you met, in that way?

“Oh, yes, in a way. Actually, it was kind of funny because in New York everyone said, ‘Oh, this must be great to drive in the city and collect all these stories from people.’ It’s not really true because the people are in your car maybe five minutes on average, maybe ten minutes. Very often they talk to you, but if they tell you something, is it the truth? How do you know? So, paradoxically, much more interesting for me was the city of New York, itself, which was wonderful.”

“And then, when I was working in London as a minicab driver, maybe fifty or sixty percent of the passengers were – what did they call them? – ‘Steadies’! They called them ‘the steadies’. The ones we drove once a week, maybe twice a week, or once a month. But we did know them. So, if they told you untrue stories, usually you found out very soon what the truth was – which was much, much more interesting because then you can compare what they told you to the actual truth. So, in this sense, it was very good for collecting stories about people.”

Going back to Truck Stop Rainbows, you say hitchhiking was an expression of freedom, but also sexuality plays a big role in this book along with your sort of litany of complaints about the communist regime, and this made the book more interesting to foreign audiences, initially, than to Czechs, but that later changed, right?

“This is actually very interesting because in a way you can call it a list of things I hated about ‘Socialist’ Czechoslovakia, as it was called, and since I wasn’t a very experienced writer then, I didn’t try to make the plot thick, and stuff like that. I didn’t try any tricks, really, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull them off properly. So, I just basically put the list and put some kind of story into it, described a couple people, but mostly it was about the regime and how one particular person felt oppressed by it. Perhaps not in very visible ways. Perhaps people would say, ‘Okay, did someone try to kill her? Did the regime put here in prison?’ Well, no. But it was a whole array of little things which made life very, very hard – and boring. Horrendous, basically, for someone who wanted to travel, who wanted to experience freedom.”

Photo: Mladá Fronta publishing
“And it was kind of funny because the Czechs then said ‘Well, okay, fine. Yeah. This is how it was. Why are you telling us? We know!’ And then it turned around… The book in any easy to understand way describes what life under communism was like in the 1970s or 1980s. And now, it’s kind of funny, the younger people, the generation born after the Revolution, or even five years before, when they grow up, all of a sudden this is like a brand new country for them, even though it’s the same place where they live now, they read it as some kind of book about a foreign land.”

I meant to ask you earlier – I’ll go back in time a little bit – about your decision to defect or emigrate. Was that a difficult one? Did you tell your parents? Also, you spent a year, roughly, in an Austrian refugee camp – probably that’s not what you envisioned.

“It was actually – it’s a long story, not for 15 minutes, really. But my mom died while I was still quite young and of course I didn’t tell my father because he was capable of going to the police and, you know, denouncing me. But I did tell two of my friends. They said it was a very bad decision, you should stay where you were born. All these kinds of things we here now from these anti-migration people – ‘Stay where you were born!’ But I felt so bad in the country. I couldn’t really see anymore. I couldn’t really learn any more about my own history. I couldn’t see the rest of the world. Very much I consciously decided to trade the little country I was born in for the rest of the world. And I though then that I would never be able to go back.”

In her early books, Iva Pekárková wrote about the communist East and émigrés to the democrat West, and refugees from other parts of the world, and she continues to explore (and push) boundaries of all sorts – between countries, cultures, races, men and women, sexuality. She’s written extensively, in blogs and short stories, about multicultural London, and a trilogy about interracial romance and heartache, while getting ever closer to writing again about her Czech homeland – a place she once found boring.

“It’s much better now because we have the mafia, we have the gangs, we have immigration and cultural clashes – or better yet, clashes within our Czech culture over immigration. So, it is much more interesting and much more open to me. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, my boyfriend, my partner – dragged me over to London about twelve years ago, so I’ve been watching it from London. I do come to the Czech Republic, I’d say like three or four times a year. So, it’s still my country and I know very much about it – pretty much everything about it. But still, I do live elsewhere.”

I also wanted to ask you about your trilogy of black-and-white relationships…

“Yeah – the black-and-white animal trilogy. So, it’s Elephants in the Dusk, The She-Leopard, and, well, Pečená zebra is not really translatable – you can call it Roast Zebra, but it doesn’t explain what it is, really. And in this trilogy, I go closer and closer to the Czech Republic. In the first one, there’s an older English lady, a young Senegalese boy, and that’s it. And in the second one, there’s a Czech woman who lives in London and some people from elsewhere, and so on. In the third one, everything happens in the Czech Republic, but some of the protagonists come from elsewhere, mostly Africa. And so, in this way, I got closer and closer to the Czech Republic. And now, the following novel I have written – Třísky – what would you call it, ‘Splinters’?”

‘Splinters’ or ‘kindling wood’, maybe?

Photo: Mladá Fronta publishing
“Something like that. ‘Kindling wood’ sounds so kind, though. So maybe splinters because třísky is not a kind, not a nice word, really. It’s set in the Czech Republic and it’s about a very unexpected love between a Czech woman who is in a wheelchair and a man from Pakistan. … The two main protagonists, Šárka and Tabish, met online in the most romantic way imaginable. She had just – a couple of years before – broken up with a guy who was actually torturing her, who wasn’t nice to her at all. She decided never to have anything to do with men anymore.”

“Tabish was just this lonely man whose parents kind of neglected to find him a bride, and they were both playing this Facebook game, ‘Farmville 2’. At first, they became ‘neighbours’ in the game, and Tabish thought this mysterious ‘Sari’ was a man, and he was doing little things for ‘him’ like watering his orchards and stuff like that. They started talking, and he found out that she was actually a woman – it took perhaps half a year, a year or something. He taught her English – she didn’t speak one word before – and they started talking on Facebook, on Skype, and so on, and decided they were very much in love with each other. The saw each other in Sri Lanka because he couldn’t get a visa before he married her – and they fell head over heels in love with each other. So that was really very romantic.”

“And for the last five years, when they decided they wanted to be together, he has been trying to get a short-term visa for the Czech Republic, and they keep denying it to him, and denying it to him, and denying it to him. It’s a kind of J’accuse about what happens to people who try to come here for love. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will not grant the visa because they say they must make sure that it’s real love, you know.”

“They’ve been together for like nine years now and some of the people who keep saying they have to make sure it’s real love, they’ve gotten divorced twice, perhaps, but they still don’t believe that these people love each other. And they keep ‘proving’ in very funny ways, like saying it’s a fake marriage, and the best proof is they only see each other once a year; the husband and wife don’t live together – you know, after not giving them the visa to live here. It’s a farce, but it’s very sad.”