Seeking truth in family stories
Tea Obreht makes a striking debut
Sometime in the not-too-distant future Téa Obreht plans to move to New York City. “That’s where the action is, I guess,” she says, sounding in the same instant both eager and skeptical.
But for now, Obreht lives in Ithaca, New York, where she has remained since finishing her M.F.A. at Cornell two years ago. In Ithaca’s relative calm she has ridden out the hoopla of being named to the New Yorker’s list of the 20 best writers under 40—and at 25, she is the youngest writer on that list. “Ithaca is a nice environment to write in, and I have a community of writers here, so I have stayed,” says Obreht, who is remarkably composed for a young writer cast suddenly into the limelight. “Besides, changing environments in a situation where the book was in final edits wasn’t something I wanted to do.”
“I was interested in the point [that] a story becomes so important to a person that it doesn’t matter if it’s truth or legend.”
The book in question is Obreht’s stirringly accomplished first novel, The Tiger’s Wife. Set in an unnamed country in the Balkans after prolonged civil war, the story is narrated by a young doctor named Natalia as she travels into the borderlands, where emotions about the war are still raw, to deliver medicine to an orphanage. Early in her journey Natalia learns that her grandfather, also a doctor, has died in a remote village while on his own mission of mercy. Her grandmother asks Natalia to retrieve a packet of his belongings. As Natalia travels deeper into the fraught landscape, she unravels the meaning of the two central stories that ran “like secret rivers through all the other stories of [her grandfather’s] life”—the story of his repeated meetings with the deathless man and the story of his childhood experience with the tiger’s wife.
Like her narrator, Obreht was very close to her grandfather. She was born in Belgrade in 1985 and lived there with her grandparents and her mother until 1992, “when things got pretty heated.” As fighting intensified in the former Yugoslavia, her family fled.
“My grandfather was an engineer and he had connections in different places, so we ended up in Cyprus for a year. Then we lived in Cairo for three and a half years until we were lucky enough to come to the United States. A lot of our family lived in a far suburb of Atlanta, so we lived there for two or three years. And then my mother met my stepfather and we moved to Palo Alto.” The summer before she left for Cornell her grandfather died. “He was always very supportive of my decision and desire to write,” she says. On his deathbed he asked her to write under his family name—Obreht—“and now I do.”
Obreht has been writing since the age of eight. As an undergraduate she “went to the University of Southern California to study creative writing, with the full support of my mother. But she also wanted me to have an additional major so I could get an actual job. So I chose art history!” she says, laughing. At USC, Obreht wrote prolifically at first and then stopped for a year. “In any artistic endeavor when you’re just learning something, there comes a moment in your progress when you hit a wall and the wall is simply there. And the only way for that wall or curtain or whatever it is to dissolve is to wait it out.”
Obreht’s wait lasted until her senior year, when she took a workshop with T.C. Boyle. “I suddenly understood there was this whole thing to be done with structure, how it works and looks and what it feels like to read a good short story and understand what makes it good,” she says. “After that, writing for me was the absolute top priority once again and it has remained so.”
The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht says, began as “a terrible short story that took all kinds of beatings in workshops. It failed but there was something I was really attached to and I wasn’t willing to give up on—the tiger. I’ll say without embarrassment that writing the tiger sections was my favorite part of the process. I write out of chronological order. I skip around a lot. But I wanted to stay with his character and go on this journey with him. So those were the parts that got written first.”
As the story grew, Obreht drew first on things she knew from her own life and from stories her relatives told her. Then in the summer of 2009 she went to Serbia and Croatia “to hunt for vampires for Harper’s” (her nonfiction piece appeared in the November 2010 issue of the magazine). “We ended up bumming around a lot of villages in a car with a tape recorder, getting out and asking, ‘Does this village have any vampire stories?’ It ended up being a much-needed lesson in village life, the way village society functions, the way myths operate in a village setting.”
The result of that research is one of the most powerful aspects of The Tiger’s Wife—the novel’s strong sense of place: not merely place as vividly described locale, but place as the location of layers of often conflicting emotion. In the villages Natalia visits, for example, the recent civil war is never discussed, but the sorrow and distrust it has left behind seem to seep out of the earth itself.
Likewise, Obreht’s exploration of folktales and myths adds powerful resonance—and compassion—to her narrative. “I think when people suffer great tragedy, they turn to myths,” Obreht says. “I was interested in the point a story becomes so important to a person that it doesn’t matter if it’s truth or legend. Sometimes the fact that the story exists at all is moving in itself. I think there’s a lot of that where I come from, and a lot of that generally in the world.”
The final thread in the development of The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht says, was her experience of her
grandfather’s death. “I had tried for a long time not to deal with it and not to think about it and say to myself, ‘I’m doing fine. I’m great.’ Then this story started to come together with this narrator who had a grandfather who had died. . . . Maybe this isn’t the right thing to say because we’re talking about writing. But personally in the process of writing this novel I ended up making peace with the fact that my grandfather was dead. I’m not pleased with this [in the sense of] ‘oh, this is an accomplishment,’ but somehow . . . it became a fact that I could process in a way that I hadn’t thought I could do before. The writing of the book got me there, and I’m happy."
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.