Alina Bronsky, a German writer of Russian origin, immigrated to Germany when she was thirteen, and published her first novel, Broken Glass Park, in 2008 when she was only thirty years old. The novel was very well received by both the public and the critics and was nominated for the Bachmann Prize, one of Europe's most important literary prizes.
Broken Glass Park (translated by Tim Mohr, Europa Editions, 2010), a novel about immigrants, doesn’t display any of the characteristics of the “ethnic” novels written these days in the States, including those about Russians: no picturesque Russian women, no funny and avuncular Russian men, no big families that enjoy eating succulent, “exotic” meals, and generally, no atmosphere reminiscent of My Big, Fat Greek Wedding (which is the ethos of most “ethnic” literature). In Broken Glass Park, all Russian men are drunks, Russian women are idiots because they live with them, and Russian children and teenagers are like all other children and teenagers. What makes this novel a great, enjoyable read is its very well written dialogue and the strong voice of the heroine, Sascha Naimann. One has the impression that the author has written this book very easily, almost as if playing a game, yet at the end you realize that the novel has some powerful characters: Volker (the older man Sascha falls in love with) and his son Felix; Sascha’s two young siblings and the cousin who takes care of them, and of course, Sascha herself.
This interview was conducted several days after the PEN/World Voices festival (April 26-May 2, 2010), where Alina Bronsky was one of the featured authors.
Daniela Hurezanu: You mentioned during the PEN/World Voices “Incognito: Writers and their Aliases” panel that you took a pen name with the intention of creating a public persona different from the private one. This idea was partially motivated, you said, by the desire to protect your family and children, who have the right to keep their privacy even if you are a public person. But you touched upon the main reason when you said: “The practice of naming is a mystery, and to take a pseudonym means to create not only a work but also a writer.” Could you elaborate on that?
Alina Bronsky: The playful handling of the “mystery of naming” wasn’t more important for me than the desire to protect my family and children, yet after almost two years since my first publication is still fascinating. I feel it still represents my work and my personality as a writer in a wonderful way. The release of one’s first book is a huge step for every writer, hopefully to be followed by many other books. I liked the idea of giving myself a new name for a successful start, in the same way other people would buy special equipment or beautiful clothes for their first day at the office.
DH: You are, obviously, bilingual. During the same panel, you also said that German is for you a public language, while Russian is a family language. And when prompted by the moderator, you acknowledged that you have a different character in each language. I am very interested in this because I am trilingual and I know I have a different style in each language. Could you explain in what way are you different in German and in Russian (both as a person and as a writer)?
AB: I’m still the same in different languages, though each allows me, of course, another form of expression. Russian is more emotional, familiar, and rich in nuances; but I also feel more vulnerable when I speak or write in it.German is very precise, it allows more distance during communication. It is perfect for exact descriptions, even of volatile and emotional subjects.
DH: There are many modern writers who have said that their home is their language. What do you think about that? Do you feel at home in Germany or in Russia?
AB: I agree with them. I am not very attached to countries or cities. My home is my family, and I can read and write in Russian and German everywhere. I don’t feel less comfortable in an English-speaking country, even though my English is far from perfect.
DH: Your novel, Broken Glass Park, is written in a voice that is somewhat paradoxical because, on the one hand, this is the voice of a very young woman, but one the other, it sounds very mature. The heroine, Sascha Naimann, isn’t you, obviously, but I assume that of all the characters, she is the one that comes closest to an alter ego. How much of yourself did you put in her?
AB: It’s difficult to say—maybe nothing of myself, maybe everything, like in every other character of my books. The parallels between Sascha and me are rather superficial, she is definitely not me, but she still reveals a lot about me. I assume writers almost always write about themselves, their world, their experiences, the things they are interested in, mostly in an encoded form, and if you don’t have the key to the code, it might be impossible to separate the writer from his fiction.
DH: Sascha Naimann lives in a poor, immigrant neighborhood—what we would call here “in the projects”—and her mother has been violently murdered by her former husband. Did you ever live in such a neighborhood? Are the characters in the book similar to people you’ve met or are they entirely fictional?
AB: There was a short period in my life when I lived in a neighborhood such as the one described in Broken Glass Park. My family and I moved out soon, but I continued to have friends there. That’s why I happen to know something about such places. The characters in Broken Glass Park are sometimes a little exaggerated, but they are still realistic and based on my experience.
DH: I really liked the narratorial distance in your novel—I mean, the distance (the lack of pathos, I would say) the narrator/the heroine has in relation to the world and what happens to her. This detachment, which sometimes morphs into cruelty—like in the scene with the twenty-four-year-old young man she goes on a date with—reminded me of certain young, contemporary Japanese women writers, such as Yoko Ogawa. Who are the young, contemporary writers you read and with whom you identify?
AB: I’m glad you liked it, thank you very much. Unfortunately, so far I haven’t read any contemporary Japanese women writers. Maybe I should. I read a lot, but I don’t identify with anybody. My main motivation is to write books that, as I feel it, haven’t been written before.
DH: Who are the writers and the books that have most influenced you?
AB: I automatically analyze every book I read—what I like or dislike in it in terms of style and content. I was impressed by so many different books, for instance, The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. In terms of style I learned a lot from the Russian-American author Sergej Dovlatov, a master of laconic, yet lively style.
DH: Can you share some of your secrets as a writer? I mean, how do you create? Where does your created world come from?
AB: I don’t really know, I feel like it is somewhere outside, and sometimes I have the chance to see it and describe it. Writing is a great pleasure for me. The most important and difficult thing for me is to wait till an idea ripens like an apple. Then I can just pick it and there is not much trouble with it. It never works when I start to write prematurely … which happens rather often.