"Povidky": a new collection of short stories by fourteen Czech women in English translation

Nancy Hawker has just edited a new collection of short stories in English translation by Czech women. It is called "Povidky" and in this edition of Czech Books Nancy talks about the book and the authors included.

"I became involved with the publisher Telegram Books which is publishing a series of collections of short stories by women from various countries around the world. They knew my work from another area and they knew I spoke Czech and could read Czech. So they decided to commission me with this project. I was thrilled, because on the one hand I think it was a very good idea to publish Czech women especially, and short stories by women from different parts of the world, but also because I grew up here in the Czech Republic and that's why I have a special relationship to this country. Also I'm interested in the question of women and women's literature, so I decided to take it on."

And the collection features fourteen different authors. These range from those who remember life before communism and people who were born far more recently. How did you go about making this selection, because in your introduction you claim that you're not aiming at being representative in any literary way?

"The emphasis was on literature published after 1989, but throughout my research I read everything I came across, or everything that was recommended to me from various sources. I'm very grateful for the help of many experts. I came across this problem of continuity and wanting to put together a book that said something about the Czech Republic, not only about literature, and I decided to broaden the scope a little bit. There are a few stories published under communism, and some of the authors were born before '48. Some of them were born during the First Republic and one of them was born under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So it's not only young authors, but I think all of them have something modern to say about today, and that was how I came to this selection."

Also in the selection you feature Roma writers. Could you say something about their inclusion, and why you wanted to feature writers writing not only in the Czech language?

"I think it makes this anthology not so much part of a literary debate, but more a book for the general interested public, because it's about life in this country. I was specifically interested in bringing Roma writers because they are part of this society and they've never been included in an anthology of Czech literature. I had to make a decision, whether Romany and German writing could be included in a Czech anthology, but I think it was worth it because it will be of interest to readers to see the variety of voices in this country."

Here is a short extract from one the stories written in Romany. This is a short story by Erika Olahova, called "A Child". It's about a woman who is married and has not thus far been able to give birth, and then she is left one day in the house alone with her father-in-law:

She was woken by his alcoholic breath and he was crushing her completely with the weight of his body. She couldn't resist in any way, not even by screaming. He had covered her mouth with his huge hand and helplessly she looked into his crimson face ...

When he had finished he stood over her and told her she mustn't tell anyone - anyway, they wouldn't believe her. He slammed the door shut and she could only hear the clock clanging in time wirh the beating of her frightened heart.

Her husband came home about an hour later, didn't even turn the light on, lay down next to her, turned over and soon fell asleep. He did not embrace her or even touch her, as if she were not there at all. She wanted to tell him everything, but had no strength left in her, and she spent the rest of the night scaring into the dark; her thoughts, fear and humiliation mingled with the tears that streamed down her cheeks.

The old man continued to ignore her just as he had before, bur her mother-in-law looked on with a smile as she threw up in the mornings and as her curves grew nicely. The smile rerurned to her husband's dark face and he was kinder and more generous to her. The neighbours finally had something to talk about, while R‚ózka and her mother-in-law prepared the baby's outfits and discussed what name to give it.

One month before the birth was due she had a dream. In it she saw her father-in-law and a child that resembled him. In the dream they were very evil and hurting her. When she woke up in terror, she could still hear cheir fearful laughter. She broke out in a cold sweat; she already knew that she didn't want the child, that it would bring her damnation all her living days.

The story goes on in a very sinister and disturbing fashion. Could you say that the stories had anything in common?

"I think the contribution of women writers to literature is that they take relationships to be a fact of life and they deal with them as such. This is an alternative view to relationships and I think you can see it very clearly in the stories. There is always an element of the relationship between genders or gender roles or expectations of gender roles, and they modify this, or subvert it, or give their specific angle on it. I think you can find this not only in the Czech women's short stories, but as I was reading or working on the other collections in this series, some of the situations between women or with regards to children or other members of the family were repeated in the Palestinian anthology or the Lebanese or Iranian anthology. It was interesting to see some patterns emerging throughout the world, even if we do not believe in women's unity or some kind of women's alternative. There are still patterns that are significant, and this is, I think, why it makes it interesting for everybody to read."

You mention that many of the writers write interestingly about relationships. I think one of the best examples from this selection is the short story "Mininovel" by Alexandra Berkova, who is one of the best known Czech authors. This is stylistically very playful, and the story is told from the point of view of the unborn child:

And Mum said, darling today let's go out for dinner instead of cleaning, our son has a craving for a steak. And Dad said, anything for our daughter, but while we're on the subject, my mother may drop by to see you too. And Mum said, ah. Dad said, be nice to her, she always wanted to find me a bride and we sort of side-stepped her. And Mum said, ah. And Dad said. maybe she won't come, I told her to leave you alone. And Mum said, ah, hm.

And three days later, a fifty-year-old lady came and said, I came to see who's taking away my only son. And Mum said, please sit down, and she said, my son is still a child, you have no right to take him from me. Mum drew a deep breath and the lady said, you're taking away my only son, you're devious, three years older than him and divorced, if I'm not mistaken, but I'm willing to reach an agreement with you, and she took out her wallet. And Mum blushed and said, we won't reach an agreement that way, please, sit down. And she remained standing and said, no need to be ashamed, obviously you've found out what sort of family little Petr comes from, otherwise you wouldn't have picked him, and if you knew who his father was you wouldn't have dared. And Mum said, won't you take a seat, and the lady said, little Petr has only just finished his studies, he has to build a career, I must protect my child. And Mum said, don't you care about Petr's child? And she said, is it really his? And Mum went red in the face and said, I don't know about you, madam, but I - and the lady said, I won't be insulted by some - and Mum said, I apologise for wasting your precious time, and she stood up. And the lady said, I know that litte Petr is not sure either. And Mum said, goodbye and she opened the door.

All of these short stories are in English translation for the first time, I believe, and you haven't just chosen to include fiction in the collection. Why did you choose also to include memoir?

"The two authors I selected for the pieces that aren't actually fiction have an amazing life story. I thought this would be of interest to readers. It also betrays the fact that this book is not only about literature but also about the Czech Republic. I think people will enjoy these pieces of memoirs from Tera Fabianova, who grew up in the '30s in a Roma settlement and of Lenka Reinerova, who is a German Jewish lady, and grew up in Prague - also in the '30s. There life stories are so amazing that in fact today we could read them as fiction, but they are also part of the history of this country.

We will end with an extract from a piece by Anna Zonova, who was born in 1962 in Slovakia. It is about a married couple and is called "One Pistachio Ice-Cream":

[The Pelners moved into our block of flats five months ago.] But she finds the Pelners happier than us.... 'I have the impression yhat they live a full life: she said last week just before we went to sleep.

'What do you mean, a full life?' I said. 'Can you define what you mean by that or describe it more precisely?'

'Mrs Pelnerová sells ice cream from a stall in front of the confectionery shop.'

'I didn't know that: I replied.

'I'd love to be a twenty-four-year-old gypsy woman weighing eighty kilos: she went on. 'I would sell ice cream at a stall. I would make slow, lazy movements, not ungainly, just unhurried, taking pleasure in every step, movement and bow. I would have eight different flavours of Algida ice cream on offer. Chocolate, hazelnut, lemon, strawberry, pistachio, banana, orange and blueberry (that's the one I love best). In the evenings I'd feed my five children and get properly laid by my fifth man, and again in the morning. I would feel happiness. I wouldn't worry about the pain and suffering of refugees from any country, the starving people of Africa, the uprootedness of American Indians or Sudeten Ruthenians. I wouldn't be brought down by unhappy relationships, by my friend's terminal illness, I wouldn't miss orgasm and my thoughts would not turn to promiscuity.'

Her declaration startled me.