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V.B. Borjen is a writer, artist and current doctoral candidate at the Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. He is the winner of the Mak Dizdar award for Levitation Manual, his first collection of poems, released earlier this year. In this first installment of the Hypothetical Interview, Borjen discusses everything from the mother tongue of his soul, his ideas about closing the gender gap, and his reading recommendations. His poem “Momento Mori” was published in Issue One along with his illustration of the text.
EE: How do you describe your work as a writer?
VB: I must admit that although I sometimes write in response to something from the outside, most often I write because it is the only way to stay grounded, focused and composed. Therefore, for me, writing is more of an internal matter. I have met various writers who say that they write because they have something to say, or they like to play with words. Some of them write solely for the sake of social activism. But I live in the mind a great deal, at times so much so that only the act of writing can pull me out of it and sharpen the edges of places, things, times and faces around me. In such cases the hand that writes acts like a hand that controls a kite — that is, my mind. At other times, “reality” can be quite insipid, in which case writing becomes an escape. It all boils down to an inner feeling that creating something authentic and aesthetically pleasant is more relevant for my own existence than other things I could do with my time. And judging by the commentary I receive from the members of my small (albeit diverse and cosmopolitan) audience, the things I write are not complete rubbish and do encapsulate a trace of truth as well. It is comforting to see that, amidst all our differences, there are still so many things we share.
EE: Tell us about your recent projects.
VB: Actually, I just moved to the Czech Republic to start my doctoral studies, so my time is currently divided between preparing for the actual work ahead, dealing with all the technicalities and settling in. I was accepted to the Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University in Brno and will be pursuing a doctoral program called Literatures in English. I am here on a full scholarship in the Erasmus Mundus program, but I also teach an undergraduate course called Practical English. My doctoral research is still only in its conception, but I do know I will be looking at visions of unity/unification of humanity in the late works of Virginia Woolf and Dimitrije Mitrinović – in other words, Great Britain in the years leading up to the Second World War.
Before I left Bosnia, I was keeping busy with my book promotions. My poetry collection, Levitation Manual, was awarded the Mak Dizdar award last year and published this past May. In July 2012 I found an advert for this prestigious poetry contest and decided to give it a go. I selected twenty-two poems, gave them a title and I sent them in. Then, in two months’ time, I received the news that my first unpublished poetry collection was deemed the best of the 44 manuscripts received that summer. Of course, I was immensely happy. It was the first contest I have ever participated in and it proved to be a good decision. At the moment I do not have any plans for the book in terms of translations or reprinting, but I might consider it in the near future.
Apart from promoting Levitation Manual, I have been busy writing new poems, as well as some short stories. Right now, I am working on the last chapter of my novel, The Flux. This I enjoy endlessly. In addition, I try to keep a diary — but I am afraid I am rather inconstant in terms of actually sitting down and writing in it daily. There are some entries that fall ten days apart. Speaking of diaries, it is one of the strangest experiences going back to previous years’ entries. Deep inside the pile of words there often hides quite a different mood and point of view. And back then you believed you were at the top of your mountain eyeing the horizon! It is in such moments that one realizes how silly it is to believe one makes a great progress as one journeys on. For in fact, one really moves in circles. But if keeping a diary reminds one of this, then perhaps there is a tiny spark of hope that one might reach a deeper awareness of what one considers life.
EE: Name an issue of global concern that moves you to create.
VB: Closing the gender gap. We cannot really expect to make the best of our lives as a species if we are still harping on about the same old stereotypes and buying into the story of two different worlds. It hinders us more profoundly than anything else. And I just do not see humans in this way. I do not see intelligent or stupid. I see potential.
EE: Who are your literary icons?
VB: The modernists, of course: Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Colette, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence. I also like Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Gogol, E. A. Poe, Sylvia Plath, Doris Lessing, Julio Cortázar, Mak Dizdar, Miloš Crnjanski, Danilo Kiš, Susan Sontag and Dubravka Ugrešić, to mention but a few.
EE: What are you reading right now?
VB: I have just started what promises to be an outstanding read – Women Who Run With the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. There are at least five other books I have been reading lately (Cortazár’s Rayuela, for instance). I must always read at least a few books at the same time to keep my mind occupied and entertained. Besides, I like to keep the stories spinning in my mind for a while before I let them go. I savor my books.
EE: Do you read in other languages besides English? Or works in translation?
VB: Yes. Well, English is not my mother tongue, though I like to call it the mother tongue of my soul. I read in my native Bosnian, or any of the four B/C/S/M languages. I also read in Spanish. My German is still weak, but I intend to take some lessons next year. In general, if I speak or understand the language a work was written in, I refuse to read it in translation. Similarly, I never read the Russians in English, because the translations to B/C/S/M are much closer to the originals.
Right now I am reading a bilingual English-Czech edition of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple Tells a Story in order to pick up some words and phrases, since I have recently taken up Czech lessons.
EE: Give an example of a person, place, thing or experience that has challenged your perception of the world.
VB: Judith Butler’s works on queer theory, I guess, back in 2009 when I was writing my BA dissertation; then Michel Foucault’s works during my MA studies in Budapest, especially his Madness and Civilization. In terms of literature, Woolf and Joyce have impelled a great shift in my views on the subject and the techniques of good writing. And on a more personal level, I guess my sister challenges my perception of long-standing relationships and marriage on a daily basis, leading as she does a harmonious life with her spouse (my buzzing, over-analyzing mind kills it for me, I guess!)
EE: If you could travel anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?
VB: London; Buenos Aires; San Francisco. Then Iceland, New Zealand, Tibet, and Peru. (Not necessarily in that order.)
EE: What is your mission, your passion – your own personal “that which has yet to be achieved?”
VB: It depends on which types of aims are we talking about. I have some long-term goals, as well as those that are more readily achievable. Right now I want to finish this novel that I have been writing for four and a half years (which might seem too long, but I have written at least two volumes of short stories, three volumes of poetry as well as my BA and MA theses alongside it, and I have worked too). I already have a lot of ideas for my new book. And of course, completing my doctoral degree is on the list of my goals for the next few years. However, in the long run I would like to make a transition from writing as a hobby to writing full-time, or at least part-time (combined with teaching). In between these two currents of goals, I also see a lot of traveling, new faces and many a good read in my future.
So, shall we?