Amerike is the theme of the 14th Festival of the European Short Story (or Festival Europske Kratke Price).
On Sunday evening, situated on the roof of The Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, the writers Lionel Shriver, Valeria Luiselli, and Josip Novakovich opened the festival with a discussion called The Americas – Discovery Model 1.1, alongside moderators Masa Kolanovic and Mima Simic.
These three authors have all, in one way or another, written within the context of America. Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico and since then she has lived in multiple countries, including South Africa where she spent some of her childhood. Josip Novakovitch is a Croatian born writer who, after studying medicine, moved to America and then onto Canada. Lionel Shriver was born in the US in North Carolina, and after living in various countries including Kenya and China, she now lives in the UK. So each writer’s perspective on America is influenced by a multi-cultural identity.
Valeria Luiselli, now living and working in New York, said that her literature doesn’t ‘fit’ in Mexico, the USA or South Africa. Growing up with diplomat parents, she speaks of her childhood as being a parade of Mexican tradition, as a child she had to sing at dinner parties and be introduced formerly, now as a writer she embodies the Mexican from her diplomatic childhood. However in her 20s when she started to write a novel in Spanish, she found it difficult to ‘play the linguistic games of the Mexican teenagers’, writing in an uncomfortable tone that she only later learnt to master. Josip Novakovitch, a Croatian Canadian writer, spoke of a similar feeling of displacement when talking about language and literature. In his opinion, ‘pure language’ doesn’t exist anymore. 10% of Americans are immigrants whose first language isn’t English. This, he said, creates an ethnic flavour in literature where different cultures collide and language adopts new meanings. Lionel Shriver, on the other hand, has not written in a language other than English, however she made the interesting point that her American publishers are constantly picking up on the ‘Britishisms’ that she uses. Even when the the language is the same across continents it undoubtedly evolves in differently.
Moving on from language, the discussion then turned to the idea of the American dream. As a concept, the overarching notion of the American dream was largely dismissed by the writers on this panel, particularly by Lionel Shriver who stated: ‘I want to look at an unrealised version of America. I’m looking at the anti-American dream.’ Although this is a strong statement, Shriver’s literature is about the cracks in America’s glorious facade, her award winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin is about a high school shooting, a part of America’s history which unfortunately is no less pertinent today as it was when the book was published in 2003. Josip Novakovitch stated that there are two Americas: the one that we dream of and the one that we hang out in. Inevitably, the one that we hang out in makes for a far more interesting story than the relentless idealised America of film and television. That, he says, is the nostalgic America.
When asked about the location and sites of their literature, all three authors agreed that their work decentralised America from the main metropolitan centres that arguably drive this idea of the ‘American dream’. Valeria Luiselli is working on a story inspired by the large expanses of derelict land that lie either side of the highway in America. And Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother focuses upon a family in Iowa, a place in the very centre of America in the ‘breadbasket’ of the US.
Perhaps the multi-faceted backgrounds that these authors experienced gave them the rather cynical perspective on America, seen from the outside, from another language or another continent. Whilst Josip Novakovitch stated that through the ‘prism of the English language’ it helped him to objectify America, Valeria Luiselli, preferred to look at America from the inside, as an immigrant of sorts who has learnt to use literature as an expression of her identity. The general conclusion of this conversation, after a brief debate about Creative Writing university courses (there are none in Croatia), was that the Americas were a place that has inspired all three writers in different ways. However, the notion of the American dream, or the idealised America, which is arguably centred around the United States, was not a point of interest or inspiration. It is, in fact, in the broken, desolate and decentralised sites that the Americas generate the best writing.