Eighteen years ago, I immigrated to the United States on a whim.
I was fifteen years old when I left the Czech Republic. My father was an ardent abuser of the mental and physical variety, and I knew that if I stayed, one of us would end up dead. My mother had moved to Sarasota, Florida, to work as a cleaner in a hotel, and when I visited her and my new American stepfather, I found myself captivated by this new world of shopping malls and seafood buffets, by the hostile sunshine, the pristine beaches, and the smell of salt lingering on the skin.
The biggest point of friction between my father and me had been my love for books. At the end of each day, my father would interrogate me to determine whether I had been sufficiently productive, or whether I’d wasted my hours away with useless, parasitic activities: the reading of books, the writing of short stories. The hundreds of pages I’d covered in budding prose piled up in my bedroom were a waste of time. Real men didn’t write, or paint, or direct stage plays. Men played basketball and started their own businesses selling home security systems or nice cars. This was the only future my father could imagine for me.
Our cohabitation became untenable as I grew older. The beatings, the screaming matches, the two times he almost choked me to death. As I was about to finish middle school (a point at which many a Czech child must choose their preferred fate—a lot of “high schools” require job specialization), the possibility of a new life with my mother across the Atlantic had turned into a necessity.
In a last-minute bid to keep me under his control, my father negotiated my admission into a prestigious writing program in Prague: a private school meant to groom the next generation of the country’s authors. It was a major concession from my father to pay for this luxury, as we had little money to spare. Sitting in the principal’s office, I watched my father hand over the down payment for my first semester in cash, the one and only step I would ever see him take in supporting my singular aspiration. A few weeks later, I visited my mother in Sarasota and called my father to let him know I would not be returning home. He laughed and he jeered. In a country like America, I could only amount to nothing. The Americans would never tolerate my insubordinate nature. I would never learn the language. His final contingency plan—for me to fail at my scribbles in the private school for writers, get the ambition out of my system, and join him in his landscaping business—vanished in a single phone call, as did any semblance of our father-son relationship.
In the midst of this family melodrama, I failed to consider the most important challenges ahead. I was moving to a country I didn’t know, to live among people I didn’t understand, who shared a language I couldn’t speak or write.
My father was right about some things. Though I never returned to beg him for forgiveness, my early years in the United States were far more difficult than I could’ve imagined. In high school, I was afraid to speak at all, earning suspicion and mockery from my classmates. My choice was between taking full courses in English and hoping the teachers might take enough pity not to fail me, or taking ESL classes and spending my formative days learning how to correctly pronounce “apple.” My American stepfather conflated poor English language skills with stupidity and pushed me away from pursuing education, recommending I settle for a solid trade. No, my first few years in America didn’t offer any hope that my father’s prophecy of failure and retreat wouldn’t come to pass. I thought about it many times: the return to the warm embrace of a language and culture that was known to me. I wanted to come home. I wanted to give up on writing.
But I didn’t. Instead, I doubled down on the same parasitic creative activities my father accused me of. I read and re-read the novels in Czech I had brought with me to America—Asimov’s I, Robot; Čapek’s War with the Newts; Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; at the library I checked out the English versions of these novels and read them side by side, so that my birth language and my adopted language lined up next to each other. I compared the differences in syntax, I explored the nuances of vocabulary. I eventually returned to the handwritten short stories I had brought with me from the Czech Republic. I would spend hours translating my work into English, clumsily, with results that are laughable in retrospect. But it worked. Between this literary striving and the slang-speak of television shows and my far cooler high school peers, between being forced to banter with the customers to whom I served ice cream at Friendly’s and getting a B- on my first community college essay—B- in English, what a dream!—my new language began to make sense. It became instinctual. Alive.
My debut novel, Spaceman of Bohemia, is a love letter to the Czech Republic. Written nine years after my move to the US, the novel takes place in Prague, in a literary replica of the Bohemian village of my grandparents, and in outer space. It is a book about leaving behind all we know and love to face a strange, hostile environment where nothing is certain. Within the novel, I tried to capture snapshots of Czech history for non-Czechs and to ponder the future of a nation that has had too many beginnings. Most importantly, I needed to express the fierce love I felt for my country, despite leaving it behind.
I wrote the book in English without thinking twice. It was what I came to America to do—upon my arrival, I accepted that a plan as ludicrous as mine required sacrifices, and one of them was the choice to forgo the legacy of my ancestors, the Czech writers who came before me, and the language in which I’d learned to apprehend the world. To start over at the age of fifteen, to learn English not only well enough to live, to order food at a restaurant, or make friends at school, but to produce sentences that could pass for prose. The reasons for this had nothing to do with national identity, giving up one nation for another, or becoming American or Anglican. I fiercely desired to remain Czech, to write Czech books. But I’d found myself in proximity to the global literary culture connected to American publishing, a culture whose unifying language was English. I wanted to bring Czech books into this world, and to do so, I needed to leave Czech behind. Year by year, slowly but surely, as I worked through service jobs, failed my high school courses, and just barely got myself into community college, my broken English improved. My vocabulary grew, until it became my dominant language, as if by accident. And the manic obsession to make this adopted language mine was replaced by a new, surprising fear—that in the process, I was becoming less Czech.
Little, Brown became Spaceman’s US publisher in 2015, and other countries began to acquire foreign publishing rights soon after. But there was an unsettling silence from Czech publishers. For six months, I forced myself to accept that the book might not be acquired in the home country at all. Writers from small, homogenous nations have a terrible choice to make—either they write for the home audience, or they write for outsiders. The home audience is bound to be suspicious of a book that tries to capture their nation at large, since every person lives in a slightly different country than their neighbor. My country is especially defensive about its image, considering the attempts at erasure of our national identity by foreign powers—the Germans trying to replace our language with theirs, the Russians imposing the status of a satellite state on us, forcing my parents to study Russian in school. Heightened nationalism is a byproduct of this history, and though we’ve made progress as a cosmopolitan EU nation, the suspicion toward outsiders remains.
And I had become an outsider the moment I left the country. Who was I to write about the Czechs if I’d chosen to abandon the homeland? I wrote a book about my home intended for the global reader, for the outsider, while insisting on my status as a proper Czech son, raised on řízek and Karel Jaromír Eben. My nerves were steeled by the Czech educators who’d thrown wooden rulers at my head, and all other cities had been spoiled for me because I grew up among the spires of Prague, a city wherein even the shittiest corner on the abandoned outskirts holds a photogenic spell. I’d suspected since the inception of Spaceman of Bohemia that my birth country would offer the harshest criticism toward my work, the bad-faith consideration of my intentions. Was I being unfair to my homeland, or simply realistic?
At last, my favored Czech publishing house acquired the rights for Spaceman. I was given the opportunity to translate the novel myself—in fact, it seemed to be expected of me. To bring the book into the language of my birth felt like the most intimate thing a writer could do. It felt like the book could unite two identities that had been at war with each other, as if I could prove to myself that I was still Czech despite the undeniable influence of my decade in America. Perhaps doing the translation myself would be a way of proving that my paranoia about becoming disconnected—or about being perceived as disconnected—was foolish.
And yet, I asked the publisher to handle the translation on their own. A humbling moment. Why take risks to appease my ego, this exhausting, needy voice of mine insisting, “I am Czech enough!” instead of asking an expert to do the work. The publisher assigned Spaceman to a translator with a resume of authors such as Arthur C. Clark, Ray Bradbury, and Agatha Christie. When I received the manuscript for approval, I refused to read it for weeks. What if the book didn’t translate well into my native language? What if I could’ve done it better? As the publisher pressed for my opinion, I finally gave in and began to read.
I was shocked to find that the lines on the page were still mine. I’d thought them up in the chaotic mishmash of Czech and English that forms my inner dialogue, then wrote them in English, and yet here they were, transformed into my native language, reminding me of the quirks and favored turns of phrase I’d utilized when I still wrote in Czech. Nothing was stolen away. What a shock to feel so familiar with these sentences, this voice speaking on the page.
The dividing line between languages isn’t as clear-cut as I used to imagine. My English is informed by my Czech, my Czech is informed by my English. As is true for the billions of multilingual people on this Earth, my life is split between my languages and the flow of one affects the other, as grammatical quirks and familiar phrases bleed over. The languages, like identities, are bound to wrestle forever in my head, and I must accept that I will always feel the effects of this war, the insecurity that comes with it, that every word spoken in English is a word stolen from Czech and vice versa, though in the end I should be grateful for the brain’s ability to give many names to a single thing.
The work of the translator is to bring meaning from one shore to the other, regardless of these conflicts of belonging. I’m certain that had I taken on the translation of my own work, I would have folded under the pressure, become unsure of even the most elementary rules of my native language. I will never cease to be grateful to my miraculous first translator, who freed me of this chaos. Of course, by the time my second novel is published, I will be back at the beginning, trying to decide whether I’m ready to translate on my own. At some point, curiosity might prevail over fear.
Despite my concerns, the reception of Spaceman in the Czech Republic was a dream. The book’s release party was held inside the DOX Gulliver Airship, a massive replica of a zeppelin built atop the roof of an art gallery. When I ascended the stairs leading to this wooden structure, I was so captivated by it that I forgot to make myself sick with nerves. I spoke with the audience, mostly a young crowd, about the way the Communist past informs our present and future, and about my hopes for our generation in a country still seeking to define itself. The conversation made me feel at home. In an American review of the book, one critic suggested that retrospective writing about Eastern European Communism no longer holds the urgency it did before the Velvet Revolution. I think about this assertion often. I wonder whether writing about Communism in Europe was sexy only while people were suffering. Is there a time limit on making history relevant to the reader? I found my answer in the faces of my peers.
Today, socialism is regaining popularity as an alternative to the putrid state of capitalist nihilism, and any country that has been remotely involved with the Soviets becomes weaponized by pro-capitalist defenders—look how much those poor people suffered, Bernie lover! Those Czechs who are socialists must guard their opinion carefully, lest they become accused of supporting the Stalinist nightmare that once gripped their country. Meanwhile, on the other side, teenage leftists create TikTok tributes to the Party, dismissing all bad news of its legacy as imperialist propaganda. Inside the Gulliver Airship, in conversation with my generation, I was reassured that between the narrative of the West (our republic was just another victim to the expansion of an evil Soviet empire) and the narrative of the leftist revisionists (Lenin and Stalin were flawed heroes, etc.), there is actual history to be found and considered.
As they say, there is no such thing as a free book launch inside a zeppelin. Following the reception, I embarked on a press tour that pushed me to the limit of my physical and mental capacities. The PR team did their job more than well—the days were packed with interviews with the country’s foremost newspapers, magazines, radio shows. The same newspaper my father read religiously every day. The radio station my grandmother used to put on the radio while boiling water for our morning tea. Even the fantasy magazine I passionately collected as a child.
With this press tour, I was entering a land of the unknown. My formal study and practice of Czech had ended abruptly when I was still in middle school. I’d started over with a new language, while my peers continued to develop their Czech in high school, apprenticeships, and university. I came to face a new neurosis: that in these interviews, my Czech would seem like the language of a fifteen-year-old. There is a lingering pressure in Europe for authors to be scholars of everything, to possess absolute knowledge of, at the very least, any humanist subject. A hangover of the Old World. How could a dropout from Booker High School in Sarasota, FL, square up to this expectation?
While I said plenty of stupid things during this intense media tour, it was never because my Czech wasn’t good enough. It was the fear, which almost drove me to ask for interviews in English only (in retrospect, an idea that is as ridiculous as it is humiliating). Luckily, the worst interview of my career happened right at the outset. A popular online interview series famous for its mock live format (the interviews are recorded in advance, but the producers refuse to make any corrections or cuts, no matter how much the guest begs afterward) was scheduled right after my arrival to the country. I raced in a cab from the airport, lugging an XL suitcase to hold me over for two months in Europe. When I arrived at the studio, I was jetlagged and sick from the airplane food. I met my Czech publicist for the first time. She put a twenty-pound bag filled with gift books into my one free hand, threw a pitiful look at my dirty, bulky luggage, which looked so out of place in the hip recording studio, and left for her next appointment.
I sat in the guest chair and exchanged pleasantries with the moderator, a sharp-suited intellectual who’d given some of the biggest Czech politicians and artists a run for their money with his signature hard-hitting questions. I was exhausted, with sweat pouring down my face and arms, and I kept apologizing to the make-up artist who was trying hopelessly to apply powder to my beet-red forehead. Two minutes before the start of the interview, I checked my reflection in my phone screen and found a man resembling a pickled herring sprinkled with paprika. The show began.
And my Czech didn’t show up. My fear of seeming like a lesser-Czech combined with the rather spartan circumstances of the interview ensured that the switch between languages that I can normally enact so effortlessly in times of need got stuck somewhere in the middle. I stuttered. I substituted English words in the middle of Czech sentences, something my father used to laugh at when watching interviews of Czech hockey players in the NHL. The studio light beamed and sizzled and burrowed deeper into the pores of my skin, and I began to imagine myself as a pig squealing helplessly into a microphone as humans attempted in earnest to understand. In fact, I couldn’t stop talking about pigs. I kept telling myself, please don’t mention pigs again. It wasn’t that I said anything terribly embarrassing—it was the fact that my discomfort was on full display, that I was unable to reset and find my bearings within the language of my ancestors. I pictured my father streaming it and laughing. “I told that little fool. He should’ve never left.” I hadn’t come close to experiencing this kind of panic and terror during my American events, or any of the press tours I did elsewhere—France, United Kingdom, Spain, Germany. Only the homeland can burrow so deeply under one’s skin.
After the first day of interviews, I sat in my Airbnb and ate duck and sauerkraut leftovers in front of the TV. I became aware of the existence of a hit new TV show called “Your Face Has a Familiar Voice.” On the screen, a white actor proudly applied blackface and pretended to be Louis Armstrong, white teeth grinning like some caricature on a KKK flyer. I struggled not to throw up my dinner. I checked my phone to ensure that this show really exists. I turned the TV off and stared at the wall. Maybe, I thought, it’s okay to be a little less Czech. Medium Czech. Just below the line of Czechness so that I couldn’t be associated with this kind of garbage, a homogenous white nation’s catastrophic, repulsive character flaw.
When I return from the Czech book tour, I don’t get out of bed for two weeks. In my mind, I play over every Czech word I forgot during an interview, every question of my belonging that was raised. He went to America with his mother, a man on Facebook writes. That means he’s not an immigrant, as he claims. The implication being, of course, that I’m fully American. Internet detectives, clucking like chickens to pass time. During this cool-down period, I feel fully reconnected to my Czechness. I plot to buy a house in the Bohemian countryside, I check Prague apartment rates. I refuse to read books in English. But then, I walk up the block to my bodega, I greet my Palestinian and Polish and Chilean neighbors in English. I read Lauren Groff and Colson Whitehead in Prospect Park. My American friends invite me to dinner and I feel like I’ve come back to my second family. Assuredly, America welcomes me, and speaking English again ceases to feel strange, ceases to feel like chewing on gristle. New World begins slowly to take over the Old, again. The rhythm of my Czech, all the old words which had faded in my mind then resurrected on the tour, begins to feel secondary. And I’m not sad and I am not happy. At fifteen, without realizing it, I chose to be a nomad of the soul. Neither of the countries which I love has my unwavering loyalty. Leaving JFK inspires the same exact sorrow as leaving Prague’s Havel Airport. Unless the two countries somehow merge, this great tension between two nations and languages living within me is bound to exist until I perish. And I am lucky. Home is an ever-changing aspiration, not a truth or guarantee. And in a world as globally interconnected as ours, writers writing in languages other than their own will likely become a common occurrence unworthy of mention, let alone marketing. Perhaps soon, another Czech author will write a book in English and promptly translate it back into Czech, and my dilemmas of language will seem like folly to those who will treat borders and nationalities like parts of an ancient order that no longer belong.
In 2017, a production company expressed interest in adapting Spaceman of Bohemia into a feature film, with Johan Renck as director and Adam Sandler signed on to play Spaceman.
Adam Sandler was one of the first cultural enigmas I encountered in the US. I emigrated just in time for high school, and to my peers, he was something between a god and a favorite uncle. Every party I went to was likely to have someone quoting Little Nicky or performing a Sandler song. And I didn’t get it. At all. My English skills were barely enough to ask where the bathroom was, and I was many years from understanding whole movies in English, let alone comedies. There is nothing more alienating than watching comedy in a language you don’t understand. American humor struck me as superficial and vulgar. Unlike the comedy I grew up with, there wasn’t philosophical musing behind the jokes, nor existential baggage. Though I’ve shed much of my European snobbishness, I have still only seen a couple of Adam’s comedies. But his dramas, like Punch Drunk Love, sit on my list of favorite films.
And so it goes. One of the men I most associate with the distinct cultural features of being American is bound to play the Czech protagonist in my Czech novel.
Hiya pal. Love the book. Was going to call you to talk about the Czech Republic, were some of the first messages I received from Adam after the producer put us in touch. We proceeded with a series of post-midnight phone calls due to our Hawaii-Brooklyn time difference. I pinched myself to stay awake, flared up my heartburn with sips of Red Bull. It seemed a grave responsibility: to provide a primer on Czech history and culture to a famous actor so that he could convincingly become one of us. You fell asleep u baby? he teased as I stared at my phone screen, overthinking every word, taking far too long to reply. For our first call, I had to smoke a little Indica to calm the nerves, only to find that he was easy to talk to, generous and as kind as they come.
Over the next several weeks, we spoke about the devilish humor and intimidating pragmatism that makes Czechs unique. Adam wanted to know what made Czech characters different from the ones he’d played before. He was worried about the accent, which the director told him he didn’t want him to attempt (to his credit, Johan refused to use mock Eastern European accents when directing Chernobyl, too). But Adam wanted to add a little bit of Czech flair, anyway, and asked me to record his screenplay lines in my accent, so that perhaps he could imitate my pronunciation of a word or two.
It was during this process that I made peace with some of the dilemmas that had plagued me since Spaceman’s release. I didn’t need a signed permission form to represent my country, culture, and language in some official way based on a centralized consensus. A feeling of national identity is unique to each person—a child from a Moravian village will have a very different sense of “Czech” than one growing up in the streets of Prague. This aspiration to become the perfect mascot is a fool’s errand. Leaving the motherland imposes distance, but not amnesia. When Adam Sandler asks me what it means to be Czech, I immediately have one thousand answers, anecdotes, each as right and wrong as those my countrymen could provide. To be a true Czech representing the country in the world, I needn’t be a learned scholar of all things Czech, or a translator of my own work. It is sufficient to be the child of svíčková, growing up alongside Vltava, to be a Czech who resurrects his accent by reading Hrabal out loud before Zooming with Grandma.
In the summer of 2021, despite the challenges of the pandemic, the cast of the movie—now a Netflix project—descended upon Prague. A photo of Adam Sandler strolling through the city, dressed with casual, baggy elegance—the daddy of Gen Z normcore chic—went viral. Flocks of fans descended upon the hotel, and Adam patiently took photos with all of them, dutifully donning his mask, accepting the close contact of strangers despite the dangers it presented. My family members wrote to me with excitement—Spaceman was once again in the news.
I watched this unfold with relief. My goal had been to bring more attention to my country and people, the art we can make. The making of the film fulfilled this goal in ways beyond my imagining, beyond me writing the first chapters of Spaceman of Bohemia when I was still barely an adult, when I wasn’t yet thinking of the implications of writing about home.
A few days before the conclusion of the shoot, Adam sent me a photo from river Vltava, his small boat floating on a beautiful summer day. I’d felt envy when observing my friends living their beautiful lives back home, surrounded by picturesque architecture, traveling by a metro which arrives every four minutes, secured by a generous welfare net and an affordable, competent healthcare system. And here was Adam Sandler, the Spaceman of Bohemia, and a nation was enthralled by him as he walked our streets, making a movie about us. And the whole time, I was in America, writing another Czech book in English.
© 2022 Jaroslav Kalfar. All rights reserved.