Asja Bakić’s short-story collection Mars, translated by Jennifer Zoble, is slated for release by the Feminist Press in March of 2019. Though she’s a prolific poet, short-story writer, translator, and blogger in the former Yugoslavia, Mars will be her first publication in English. Bakić grew up in a turbulent Tuzla, Bosnia, lives now in Zagreb, Croatia, and laments the limitations that national borders place on literary exchange. The twists and turns in her speculative narratives leave readers suspended in a heady no-man’s-land between Earth, Mars, and the moon; life, death, and purgatory. Bakić speaks with Asymptote’s Assistant Editor Lindsay Semel about translation, Eros in literature, and the proliferation of ideas.
Lindsay Semel (LS): You often participate in literary events around the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe. Can you tell me about what you’re seeing there? What interests or bothers you? What trends are emerging? Which voices are notable? How is it different for you, interacting in virtual and physical spaces as an artist?
Asja Bakić (AB): Well, I am seeing my friends. We all know each other. Most of us were born in the same country in the eighties; the language is still the same if you ask me. It doesn’t matter if I go to Belgrade, Novi Sad, Skopje or Tuzla—it feels like home. The problem is that the crude political divide doesn’t let us read each other the way we should. I try to pay attention to what is published in Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, but I fail miserably. The borders do not let books go through, so you have a Croatian author who must publish their book in the same language three times—for the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian markets, which is ridiculous. We have four versions of Elena Ferrante. Do we really need to publish the same book repeatedly? Wouldn’t it be better if we were to translate and publish different and new voices? That is why I prefer the internet. You find your friends there, you read each other, you comment—it is livelier. The internet is more real nowadays, because it doesn’t try to deny common ground.
LS: Throughout Mars, in ‘Day Trip to Durmitor,’ for example, your narrators are conscious of being writers among writers. I get a sense of competition, or at least a clear distinction between the good and the great. Who do you consider your peers?
AB: I do not feel competition or envy with anybody. I used to when I played table tennis. But literature is not a sport. You do not have to compete. We are all in this together—writers, translators, and readers. We are all peers. I am a translator myself, so I appreciate a good translation enormously, especially because I have had the misfortune of reading some of the best poets and writers butchered by pretentious Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian translators. Literary translations are not lucrative, you get paid about five to six euros per standard page, and that is insulting to writers, translators, and literature itself.
LS: What is it about a book that inspires you to translate it?
AB: I have never translated a book in its entirety, because it is difficult to find a publisher willing to publish a poetry collection. I translated several authors, usually for the Croatian national radio station and literary magazines. Translating Emily Dickinson, Alejandra Pizarnik, Henri Michaux, Emil Cioran, and Jacques Rancière gave me great pleasure. I love translating challenging ideas, especially when they are written in the form of a poem. I have translated Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, and still I don’t know what to do with them. That was challenging, because her language seems so simple and straightforward, but there is such complexity in everything she writes! I would also love to translate Tender Buttons. I think Gertrude Stein is brilliant, but I don’t think people are willing to pay me for it. I translated part of a car brochure once and earned a lot of money. If Stein were a car, maybe then I could find a sympathetic ear.
LS: Does your own experience with translation affect your relationships with your translators?
AB: Not really, because I mostly don’t understand the languages I am translated into, so I’m unable to evaluate the job they’ve done. Literary festivals usually find someone who does the job without consulting the author, and I am mostly okay with that. I hope they get paid well. Jennifer Zoble is an exception, because we met, and I think she did great. I am not a control freak, and I would never impose my own will on the translators, because the text I wrote belongs to them as much as it does to me. Zoble made Mars her own, and I am thankful for that.
LS: In ‘Heading West,’ with nothing else to keep her family warm, a mother burns her carefully curated library, her legacy for her two daughters, book by book. When she reaches for the very last one, the girls beg her to substitute the family photo album. They stow away the book, Zola’s The Belly of Paris, in the backpack they’ll take with them when they flee Europe for Africa. What makes the book so precious to them is the hope embedded in the descriptions of food. Which book would you rescue from the fire and carry in your backpack rather than your own memories? Who is the most dangerous writer and what are the most dangerous words ever written?
AB: I felt hunger as a kid, and there aren’t any books to help with that. But even in desperate times, you need literature to survive. You need culture, even when you are just a hungry child, because it helps you to think and live outside of your miserable condition. It empowers you. I would not be able to choose between all the books I like. I would probably take my Kindle now, and stuff it full of e-books I haven’t read yet. Any writer can be dangerous, for multiple reasons. Are we talking about good kind of dangerous, or are we referring to writers who do the bad kind of damage, ideologically speaking?
LS: Let’s say we’re talking about both.
AB: It still depends, because feminists like Judith Butler or Simone de Beauvoir can seem dangerous to different people for different reasons. The same can be said for Marquis de Sade or Angela Carter. Spinoza used to be considered extremely dangerous. If we are talking about ideas and words that are harmful to all of us, then perhaps we should speak about Holocaust deniers, warmongering authors, idiots who dispute modern science (global warming or vaccines) and equality, and there’s a bunch of them. Too many fools to mention.
LS: I’m fascinated by the way you use eroticism. The more explicit the language, the more distant the character is from the moment. In ‘Asja 5.0’ you even code this tendency into the logic of that universe. But in ‘Carnivore,’ through the filter of the metaphor of hunting, meat eating, vegetarianism, and the reversal of the power dynamic between the man and the women, you build real sexual tension. Partly, I read this as a feminist critique, that certain patterns have become so ingrained in the patriarchy they’ve beaten true intimacy out of sex. But at the same time, there’s a commentary about the craft of writing and the act of reading. Tell me about how you see the role of erotic language in literature and in the human experience of sex and gender.
AB: I think it is very important to know how to write about sex, how to write sex, because it is a complicated topic. Short stories I am currently writing are full of erotica. I am not averse to pornography either. It seems to me that people today tend to underestimate Eros in literature when it’s obvious that the best books are full of it. Denying sex as a valuable experience in literature facilitates bad descriptions, dull writing, prejudices, and much more. On top of that, we need feminist commentary about sensitive subjects, because we mostly read about sex from a privileged, straight male perspective that doesn’t reflect the rest of us. I am sick of it, because it implies that only male writers experience sex worth reading about. Women also lust for knowledge, and explicit literature. Let’s talk about that.
LS: Yes, let’s talk more about that. Tell me about the process of finding your voice when writing about sex. Does the predominance of the straight male perspective in existing reading material act as a departure point, a constraint to be overcome, or is it irrelevant to your writing?
AB: Nothing I ever read is irrelevant, although I can’t always tell what influenced me, what antagonized me, and what didn’t. I find that reading Hervé Guibert helped me a lot. I like his sensibility. His writing is full of emotional depth mixed with explicit sex, and I appreciate that kind of autofiction. I also like to read manga, poems that covey erotic sentiment and longing, romance novels—anything that can relax me and make me think at the same time. Sometimes erotic inspiration comes from the most unexpected places. I read something that has nothing to do with sex, and it gives a wonderful spin to an idea I already had. Sex in literature is interesting to me only when it goes deeper—when it ties together with feminism, everyday life, complicated emotions, pain, when it subverts traditional family values. If written sex is too banal, then it’s unable to provoke any kind of change in language and in people, and I hate it.
LS: How does your facility with other languages affect your Croatian? Do you write with future translations in mind?
AB: I am answering your questions in English, and I am not sure my answers would be the same if I did it in Croatian. Language changes the way we think. Somebody told me that I am a completely different character when I speak French, and I tend to agree. I find I am more expressive when I speak Spanish and Croatian. I am more subdued in English, but not too much. Just a little. My humor changes, the way I tell my jokes. When I write, I do not consider the translation. If I did, my writing would suffer, and I am not willing to make sacrifices. There are ideas that are untranslatable, but they must be phrased a certain way, or they would not be convincing to anybody. On the other hand, learning different languages has helped me so much, because I am able to enjoy originals. It enriched my literary experience considerably, especially because I am a feminist and the books I like to read often aren’t translated into Croatian, and they probably never will be.
LS: Why won’t these books ever be translated into Croatian?
AB: Simply put, there is no money, and no interest. The little money there is goes towards more lucrative projects. Who cares about Catherine Pozzi when you have Paul Valéry? It enrages me, but if I have no money to publish it myself, what can I do? The only way to get to these women to read them is to learn all the languages, or at least find a decent English translation and start from there.
LS: What would you say to young women who feel a hunger for ideas that aren’t accessible to them in their language? In what ways is and isn’t the internet a viable challenge to the limitations placed on the exchange of ideas by dominant culture, politics, and money?
AB: Girls need to stay curious, search the internet on their own—be adventurous online. It helped me when I was stuck, and although the internet changed a lot in a bad way, there is still enough space to roam and find different women authors and their brilliant literature that is hidden away. I wish we had more money in the right hands, because that would solve a lot of publishing issues we have nowadays.
Asja Bakić is a Bosnian author of poetry and prose, as well as a translator. She was selected as one of Literary Europe Live’s New Voices from Europe 2017, and her writing has been translated into seven languages. She currently lives and works in Zagreb, Croatia.
Lindsay Semel is an Assistant Editor for Asymptote. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and works as a freelance editor from her home on a farm in Northern Portugal.
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