Obreht Speaks of Unique Travels


Jaime Gelman

 “‘New’ and ‘first’ are the words that stick,” Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and Professor of English Jane Pinchin said about Téa Obreht, the youngest author in this year’s Living Writers series.

Born in Belgrade, Obreht published her first, and only, novel The Tiger’s Wife at the age of 26. She was selected for The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” and the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35.” Obreht’s work has also been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Guardian, The New York Times and many other magazines and anthologies. The Tiger’s Wife won the British Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011.

As a charming storyteller who draws you in from the first word, Obreht captivated the audience as she described the research she did for a piece in Harper’s.

“I was sent to Serbia and Croatia to go vampire hunting. For real,” Obreht said. After making several jokes about the underground movement of vampires that arose from “indie” productions like Twilight and True Blood, Obreht explained how she interviewed people in Serbia and Croatia, asking them about the history of vampires in their cities. Some men and women were welcoming, whereas others slammed the door in her face while shouting profanities.

She learned several important lessons from her travels. When one man claimed there were no vampires in his village, but there was a giant rat that ate everyone’s cattle only between Christmas and New Year’s, Obreht learned that every village has its own stories and customs. While having a giant rat might seem strange to Americans, it might be a completely ordinary fact somewhere else.

Obreht proceeded to read from The Tiger’s Wife. The section she read focused on the deathless man, who after drowning in a lake, sat up at his own funeral and was subsequently shot in the back of the head twice by a villager. Yet, the man still awoke after the shooting, politely asking for water from the inside of his coffin, which was nailed shut with a bicycle chain wrapped around it and some garlic strewn on top. This scene, which can be read quite somberly on one’s own, was brought to life when Obreht read it aloud, giving it an entirely new, and quite humorous, perspective.

Next, Obreht read aloud from a new piece of hers, which she called “Slim Pickings.” Written in the second person, the story covers a group of people who go shed hunting, which she explained has taken over real hunting. Obreht described how much she enjoyed writing in the second person and playing with the intricacies of this new form.

“There’s something about the self-addressed that makes the narrator immediately unreliable,” said Obreht.

Obreht answered questions from the audience, many of which focused on some of the major motifs of The Tiger’s Wife, such as folktales and animals. As a child, Obreht loved zoos.

“The ritual typically was to arrive at a new place and within a few days go to the local zoo, if they had one,” said Obreht.

She originally wrote The Tiger’s Wife as a short story, which came to her after binge watching a show on National Geographic on Siberian tigers called “The Tiger in the Snow.”

“The story seemed like an epic poem and the diction was very bad,” said Obreht.

Obreht later decided that the short story was not a big enough vehicle to contain the story of the tiger’s wife, and so she arrived at the full-fledged novel that won her great praise. It can often be difficult for authors to write a second novel after their first one is received so remarkably well. Obreht good-naturedly explained how she was worried that her sentences in the new novel sounded too much like those in The Tiger’s Wife.  Fortunately, her writer friend David Mitchell reminded her that the similarities arose because it was her voice coming through the writing. Ever since then, Obreht has been hard at work on her future writing, which her many fans at Colgate are looking forward to reading.