Stars in My Heart: Iva Pekarkova and a book about Nigeria not just through Czech eyes

Stars in My Heart

Welcome again to the rich world of Czech writing with Czech Books. Iva Pekarkova is a writer who loves adventure. Regular listeners to Czech Books will know that she's best known for her novel "Dej mi ty prachy" - Gimme the Money - which was inspired by her years working as a New York cab driver. Her first novel from the late eighties, "Pera a perute" - Truck Stop Rainbow - explored the fate of a young hitch-hiker-turned-hooker in Czechoslovakia just before the fall of communism, and now she has just completed a work of non-fiction, a travelogue based on her recent two-month visit to Nigeria. The book offers a fascinating mosaic of life in Nigeria, and it's a great deal more than just the impressions of a European tourist. Its title is "Najdza, hvezdy v srdci" - Naidja, Stars in My Heart. When Iva came into the studio to talk about the book, she began by explaining the title.

"Well, Naidja means Nigeria. It's a more affectionate way of saying it. I got the idea from an internet discussion. This guy says - 'When I hear Nigeria, God only knows where it comes from. The British thought of this word for an area that wasn't really a country, so I don't like the word, but once I hear Naidja, I just feel stars in my heart.' So I named it 'Naidja, Stars in My Heart'."

How did this book come about originally? You have no association with Nigeria at all, do you?

"Well, yes and no. I was always in love with Africa, but I never managed to penetrate it as much as I would like to and I didn't really want to go as a tourist, because I don't believe you can see that much. But my boyfriend now of almost two years is Nigerian, so when we were together for a little over a year, we decided to go and see not just Nigeria, but also my so-called relatives or future relatives there. So I was basically the daughter- and sister-in-law, which was really lovely."

Kenny's mother couldn't be further from the stereotype that we Europeans have of the quiet, obedient African woman, passively accepting her fate. She literally runs around the courtyard - even in that awful heat - constantly nagging Alimele and the children; she organizes who's going to go and help at the farm, at least once or twice a day she explains to each member of the family - in a few well-chosen sharp words - everything that he's doing wrong and where his place is. She's a tiny woman, not much bigger than her nine-year-old grandson, completely disappearing into the wrap she wears. But hidden inside her is more energy than in the diesel-powered cassava mill.

You were given a grant by the Lidove Noviny publishing house to write something about Nigeria.

"Well I did discuss it with them before going there, but I can't say that they really contributed too much financially, but they did want the book and I think they did a good job of putting it together."

Tell me a little about the book. At first sight it looks almost like a guidebook, but when you open it and start reading it, you realize that it's got lots of different levels, hasn't it?

"Well, I sure hope so. I would hardly be able to write a guidebook about Nigeria because it would be a huge, huge task, because you don't read anything about it except these terrible things about where you must not go and what can happen to you if you do. There's no tourist industry at all."

You intersperse your own experiences of Nigeria with all sorts of - some of them very comic - anecdotes and stories that people told you on your travels.

"This was actually the contribution of the Lidove Noviny publishing house, because they said that everybody's writing these very solemn books about Africa, why don't you make it funny? Why don't you intersperse it with little pieces of real life? I even collected some true Nigerian jokes. Then I interested myself in the work of West African writers, who know much more about West Africa obviously than I do, and I borrowed some of their texts sometimes, and put it in the book so it wouldn't just be my take of Nigeria but also the people who actually grew up there."

The book is full of anecdotes that you've heard or you've read or come across during your trip. Could you recount one of them for us?

"I can tell one joke, which is a true Nigerian joke. This guy is walking through the bush when all of a sudden he notices a lion is after him. So he starts running and running. But he can't possibly outrun the lion. He's very unhappy, so he gets down on his knees, puts his hands together and says - 'Oh God, please make this lion a good Christian.' And sure enough, the lion who was about to jump on him gets up again, comes all the way to him, sits down, puts his paws together and says - 'Oh God, thank you for this food, which I will now eat in honour of your name.'"

Until fourteen years ago, under the communist regime, Czechs weren't able to travel; Africa was virtually completely unknown here. In fact most Czechs very rarely even met a black person. Today do you think that there is much more awareness of the African continent in the Czech Republic?

"I think there definitely is. First of all there are many black people living here among us now, which I think is great, because we can learn about the culture through individual people, which I find the best. And also people do travel. Recently I met lots of people who travelled to Africa. But many people still feel that this book fills a space, because most of us imagine Africa as a continent of AIDS and misery, and it's definitely not so. You can find very happy people, people who are much happier than we are here, people who know how to enjoy life, people who live much richer family lives, I think, than for example the Czechs usually do. So I looked at it from this more or less insider's point of view, and I was very happy to have found what I found."

The Czech Republic is a country that's northern, quite grey; Czechs have a reputation for being quite reserved. Nigeria - especially the Nigeria you describe in this book - is quite anarchic, there are people everywhere. From reading your book I have the impression that wherever you go, you're encountering people. It's very open. Life happens in the streets. It's very different, isn't it, from the Czech Republic?

"Actually I did discuss this with my boyfriend, because I experienced exactly what you describe, that wherever you go people will come to you, and not want anything - and say: 'Hello, how are you? You look so good! Welcome!' Even policemen will come - and it doesn't necessarily mean they want a bribe. My boyfriend's name is Kenny, so I said: 'Kenny, how can you live in the Czech Republic? How can you get used to the place here?' But somehow, something in his nature is very outgoing. So basically, wherever he goes, even the people who wouldn't really talk to each other talk to him. So he has this dance and jazz in him somehow, so wherever he comes people do talk to him. So he isn't lonely here, I think. But definitely there is a huge difference between the national character, between Nigeria and here."

"Definitely not. I wouldn't dare to write a novel, unless of course it's about some white person living there, in which case I would have to live there for five years at least. But there are so many really good West African writers and Nigerian writers, that I wouldn't really dare to try and do the same thing that they have been doing for two or three generations. So I definitely am not going to even try."

But have you been inspired by, or do you feel an influence of these Nigerian writers?

"I did feel influenced by them even before I went to Africa because I really love this - I'm not sure if the term for it is magic realism - but it's very close to what I think you would define as magic realism and I was really thrilled by some of that."

There's been a lot of discussion in the Czech Republic about xenophobia - the extent of xenophobia and racism in the Czech Republic. Do you think that this is a serious problem generally in Czech society?

"I think it is a serious problem, but I also know lots of people who face it on a daily basis and they have learned how to deal with it, but it is a serious problem. I must say that my boyfriend is amazing in how he can deal with it. He doesn't even mind. In a small village we entered a restaurant, and this older guy who was sitting there drinking beer basically spits in front of his feet. Of course Kenny could have picked a fight but he didn't choose to do it. Instead he said: 'Dobry den. How are you? It's nice to see you.' Then we walk someplace to a completely different table, and within fifteen minutes the guy was there offering him a beer. So I think some of it is just a very stupid block or whatever, and once you actually start communicating with people they very often change completely."

You've spent a lot of time abroad in recent years. Your novel "Gimme the Money" (Dej mi ty prachy) was set in New York. You've just written about Nigeria. Is there something about the Czech Republic itself that makes you not want to write about it?

"This is a very good question, and I always remember what [the Czech novelist] Zuzana Brabcova says about it. Once when she wrote the book "Zlodejna" people were criticizing her for not using any plot to speak of and no story, and she said: 'There are no stories in the Czech Republic.' I'm not sure if I agree with that 100% but I sure do find them much, much more difficult to find than - let's say - in New York or Nigeria or wherever else I have been. I don't know if it's because I am from here, so I see the stories differently or if the stories really are used up and not so fresh as elsewhere, but I do find it much more difficult to find a good story here."

You speak more or less perfect English. How did you get on with Nigerian English?

"It took me a couple of weeks to learn what they call broken or Nigerian Pidgin English, and I really fell in love with it, because it's a really lovely language, that's really much better in your mouth than on a piece of paper. But still we did put together a little dictionary of Nigerian Pidgin, with some of the phrases in it, and I believe it's the first Nigerian Pidgin to Czech dictionary ever."

And what's your favourite Nigerian expression or phrase?

"Well, there's one phrase I kind of like: 'Carry go', and in fact it means 'Carry your wahala and go' - meaning something like: 'Please, mister, take your problem, the one you brought over here and just leave with it,' which I think is a very nice phrase which expresses what most people are like. You come and try to give them trouble - 'so just please, take your problem, go someplace else, and I just want to be happy.'"