Joanna Elmi will be a guest at the Literary Festival to present “Made of Guilt”, the book for which she was nominated for the “Elias Canetti” Award. The live meeting with her is on October 8th, and the answers she gave to the questions in the special interview are an opportunity to get an insight into her personality.
- What will you present at the Literary Festival? Give more details about the book we will be reading, more about the idea why you wrote it, and what you will intrigue the audience with in advance.
In the novel “Made of Guilt” I wrote one of the stories of my generation, the so-called “born-frees”, the first generation after the Changes. This is a story about the upbringing of running outside, of saving oneself from one’s world, because “this country is of no use.” For the confrontation with the world, for which you are late, because everyone is already struggling with problems that do not recognize national borders. Because now all big cities are alike and no country is unhappy in its own way. It is also a story about the home we carry inside us. The great history of the totalitarian regime in Bulgaria and how it shaped our small, personal stories. For the Bulgarian woman as the main culprit and victim, but also the pleasure, the convenience of being a victim, for the transformation of unnecessary sacrifices into sacred feats and a way of life. About broken cities and dreams. Eastern and Western addictions… In meetings with the public so far, there is always at least one person who discovers his story in the book. I don’t know how much this will intrigue anyone, but human stories certainly intrigue me. So I hope to give the stories to the readers in Ruse. I can’t wait to meet you…
- What do you expect from the 16th edition of the literary festival under the motto “The sleep of reason…” (after Francisco Goya “The sleep of reason gives birth to monsters”)?
I look forward to negotiating the world through the all-important Eastern sensibility. If we assume that the West, around which the conversations of the world revolve, is its center, that is, let’s say the solar plexus, then the heart of the world should fall on the left – precisely on the territories listed in the announcement of the festival: Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Poland, Romania , North Macedonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic…Otherwise, the star of my personal program is certainly Andrzej Stasiuk – Kerouac of the East.
- When the future is seen as something distant and well protected, when the consequences of major breakthroughs, revolutionary discoveries, innovations, etc. are not foreseen, what kind of damage can they inflict on the life of mankind? Is this actually grounds for daily anxiety?
There is no protected future, in my opinion no one sees it as such, on the contrary – our entire existence is focused on securing the future. Otherwise the world would not have written the history of its collective hysteria for so many millennia – sometimes with religious fanaticism, sometimes with wars, with greed, all other attempts to subjugate nature and time… And otherwise everything wreaks havoc on the life of humanity. Great revolutions create defeats, great stagnations too. The idea that we can exist without pain is an illusion. Life is not a fragile crystal service that should be kept on the shelf and kept for guests. It’s there to be used, to be scratched, to be defeated – to be lived with, because sooner or later it’s going to break or else. There’s certainly reason to be anxious, but there’s no point in it – it’s too much out of our control. And that which we have power over requires humility and peace of mind to be accomplished.
- How do you perceive artificial intelligence – as a help or a hindrance in your profession? Are you afraid of it?
On the engraving “The sleep of reason gives birth to monsters” we see a man sleeping on his face, above which all kinds of beasts fly, among the forms there are owls and bats. The man is asleep on his desk – there are scattered papers, pens, a hint of some interrupted thought process. The classical interpretation is ecclesiastical, it opposes reason and ignorance, human and beast. Irrationality, evil and corruption win. If for thousands of years we believed in the story that God created man, then in the last three hundred years since the Enlightenment we believe in the story that man created the world. At some point, this plot leads us to a complete denial of the human, of instinct, of emotion at the expense of a cold reason that aims for optimization, effective management, maximum productivity, etc. That is, we observe the slow transformation of man into a unit, into a machine. The artificial intelligence is the pinnacle of this trend. It can be used for good, for example, to be a machine where a person does not need to be one – entering highly specialized documents that are made according to a matrix, let’s say. And it can also be used in the perverse cult of productivity – to write dry, uncreative novels, to translate literature without a thought for language (but cheaply) and to do flat journalism that ignores the nuances of the world at the expense of fast news and primal emotions. In fact, Goya includes a footnote to the work saying that when imagination is abandoned by reason, then monsters are born; when reason and imagination unite, art is born and miracles happen. If the Enlightenment was a reaction to life in the imagination without reason, that is, ignorance, then today we seem to live in the other extreme – reason, insensitivity, imagination, humanity. And in my opinion, this requires a reverse interpretation of “The sleep of reason gives birth to monsters”: the beasts become images of nature (the owl – a symbol of wisdom, the bat – of eternal cyclicity, of renewal and the cat – of independence and intelligence) that try to awaken man from the ignorant dream that he can live outside nature and outside himself as nature. That he can become pure reason, a machine. That he can communicate according to algorithms, mask the obviously cruel with legal jargon, let machines think and create for him. I’m not afraid. I think that if we refuse to wake up, nature will wake us up by force. And this is already happening.
- Book reading and publishing – which takes the lead, what’s far ahead and how should it be made?
I couldn’t write if I didn’t read. But I know that other people do it, and it’s not bad. And in general, I don’t like the word “must”. It and its conclusions belong to another.
- Writers (individuals easily calling themselves writers) are multiplying. What are the pros and cons of the accessibility of book publishing today?
In a unfortunately still unpublished book by George Gissing, “New Grub Street”, the characters resent the vulgarization of writing, the reinvention of writers, the fact that everyone reads and can publish a book. One character aspires to write bestsellers, to be popular and marketable; the other writes the novel of his life, even enters a burning building and saves an inhuman who begs for help, and his manuscript – never published his novel in his lifetime, but it turns out to be a masterpiece; the third published a successful first book and spent the rest of his life paralyzed by fear and poverty, unable to write a second. Gissing’s novel was published in 1891. It’s a good thing that nothing has changed since then. Literature remains one of the few occupations with an unknown end. One of the few ventures where all the “shoulds”, opinions on what is good or not, etc. are completely irrelevant, they remain personal and subjective. And this is wonderful. I hope people read. I hope they also write, because this is one of the ways to survive in the world. The rest is an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Doomed to fail.
- Should the writer, the artist in general, be a factor in politics? Whether your answer is YES or NO, justify it.
If we are not living on a lonely island and are not completely self-sufficient, we are sitting in some kind of political dynamic. Whether we admit it or not. Politics, if we take its true meaning, is the affairs of the city, of communication, of living together. Living together and communicating are impossible without language. Moreover, language defines them. And literature – this is language in its purest form. That’s why I again reject this “must”, replacing it in this case with the simpler “is”. Even an artist’s posturing that he is “not involved in politics” or “not interested in politics” is actually a political position—the position of pretending that art and words don’t matter, that they can’t be used for good or evil , regardless of their intent and message (Orwell, for example, never imagined that his 1984 would become a symbol and even a manifesto of modern conspiracy groups). Goya’s series is also a commentary on the political situation of his time, a satire of Spanish society. Brave (and for me – good) art is always political because it speaks the truth, and in the present, when it is most dangerous and uncomfortable to speak it. It is the essence of freedom. It is no coincidence that artists are the first victims of any totalitarian regime. The artist, who is afraid to speak the truth, finds salvation in the “apolitical”. The scary thing is not that creativity is politics. The scary thing is when it becomes propaganda. The irony is that artists who fear politics often end up in the graveyard of propaganda.