Do you accept the label feminist?
People keep calling me a feminist, but they always elaborate it with a prefix: neo-feminist, post-feminist. They might just as well call me a swallow or a dandelion for all I care. In the Czech Republic—and I guess it’s the same in Slovakia—the term feminist is a swearword. So if people need a label, I tell them right away, yes, I’m a feminist. It makes me very angry when women feel that they have to say they are not feminists and add something to the effect that they’re actually quite fond of men. This is a huge misunderstanding. Whenever I see is a group of people that doesn’t enjoy equal rights—be they women, men or children–I will always be on their side.
Do you think we’ve already entered the post-feminist phase?
Quite the contrary, I think we still have a long way to go. We can celebrate the fact that we have enjoyed universal suffrage for a hundred years now, but women still have to fight to assert themselves. There is this unspoken boundary, this glass ceiling, beyond which the male world doesn’t allow women to go. I’m talking about the highest echelons of power where decisions are taken. It affects politics, the media, businesses, universities, as well as the arts. How many female theatre directors are there? Of course there are a few exceptions. If a woman is happy as a homemaker, I respect that. But I want my idea of a free world to be respected too. I want to practice my profession and I want people to judge me by what I do and how I do it, and not by whether I have a vagina or not.
Do you think we should push for gender equality in parliament?
Most definitely not! Watching parliamentary sessions on TV makes you feel they’re taking place on Mars. The whole party system needs to be overhauled. But who’d have the stomach for a job like that!? Everything has become much more sophisticated and pernicious because men have learned to spout all these clichés about how much they care about women. It’s similar at the university where I teach. Female students are usually the smarter ones but of course it’s the male students whom the professors tend to pick for their assistants.
Why then is female solidarity quite rare?
Isn’t everything driven by commercial considerations these days, especially literature?
There used to be a clear distinction between serious and purely commercial art. What we have today is a weird mix, and you can also see it in the papers. On the same page you find a serious book review as well as gossip about an actress who is getting married. I believe that literature has to be written differently these days. I tried to come up with a new literary form in my most recent novel, ‘Kobold’. At a time when everything—from artificial insemination to your own death—is available for money, the task of the novel should be to expose the way this world really works.
What does Kobold, the character in your novel, stand for?
For me he represents model behaviour, the embodiment of something that scares me. There are some people who are highly intelligent but their emotional intelligence is zero and they have zero social empathy. These people manipulate others and they reach the top at lightning speed. My novel encompasses a plethora of themes, including totalitarianism. However, I understand this term not just in the sense of communist or Nazi totalitarianism. More than anything else I am concerned with totalitarian patterns within the family and in human relationships. While I was writing the book, one of the characters spun off and turned into a separate story. Then I had the idea of including both stories in the same book, run head-to-tail. Readers can choose which story they read first and once they’ve finished, the two perspectives will come together in their minds. This is my kind of response to e-books: I have nothing against them but I wouldn’t like this book of mine to appear in electronic form.
You started experimenting with the form of the novel in your book ‘Smrt, nebudeš se báti’ (Death, You Will Not Be Afraid), an account of the life of the late theatre director Petr Lébl. Didn’t you feel that blending elements of fiction with someone’s biography was morally problematic?
It’s an approach that has been used in literature from time immemorial. As for the moral issue, it’s Lébl himself who is to blame. He was the one who named me in his will, he was the one who wanted me to write a book about him. He knew what I was like, he knew full well that I would struggle with this assignment but he also knew that I would carry it out in a way that would make people talk about the book. So any criticism should, in the first place, be addressed to him. I didn’t have a chance to tell him if I wanted to do it or not. At the end of the novel I say that that if I ever met Petr again, I would slap him in the face and then we’d have a good talk about it. I struggled with this novel for eight years before I came up with a form that perfectly fits the essence of his life. Individual chapters ebb and flow in tune with his bipolar illness. Some chapters drag along slowly, others race ahead at a manic speed. I have included the story of Chekhov’s Seagull in the book because that’s what his life was like. Lébl deserved an original form of biography. As does everyone else, actually.
Some critics complained that his life should have been depicted in a more objective way.
There are countless “objective” biographies of famous people but nobody reads them because their authors did a sloppy job. I set out to write a book that wouldn’t date so fast, one that would really show Lébl’s life, the universe inside him, which has gone forever. It’s a heavy book. Other people may have written about his life without really understanding it. And others still may have just been pissed off because they didn’t find themselves in it. Some people were upset by the mere fact that his life had been laid bare. Suddenly things weren’t just black and white, his life wasn’t just a legend. I crammed into the book everything that made his life so fascinating, the demons he had to fight, everything that had made him unbearable at times but also what had made him such an amazing and gifted person. I wanted to find a form that was completely new. The organizers of the Magnesia Litera contest didn’t know how to pigeonhole the book. First it was nominated in the fiction category, then under non-fiction. Suddenly there was no “correct” label for it.
What would you call the genre of this book?
I call it a documentary novel for lack of a better term. Perhaps it needs a more precise label but I haven’t found it yet. That’s a job for literary scholars, let them come up with something.
You returned to the Theatre on the Balustrade in 2010 when your play Sleep Disorders opened there. Why did you choose three women protagonists – Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ivana Trump?
That was the time when I felt the need to hide in stories and started looking for women writers who had committed suicide. Both Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath fought for their independence and in my play they suddenly meet Ivana Trump. They stare at her in amazement – is this what we fought for? It’s dark humor, of course, a kind of friendly fire.
What does writing mean for you?
As I was writing the play I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a writer, a wife, a daughter, a mother. This was because after my father died unexpectedly, and suddenly all these questions came up and he was no longer around to answer them. So I decided to probe them by means of the play. For the first time in my life I thought about the way my father raised me. I realized that he treated me differently from other women. I was his gifted daughter. He was a wonderful man but also a bit of an egomaniac. He had to dominate every discussion.