The ‘Othering’ of Animals and Cultural Underdogs
Debut author Pajtim Statovci on Kosovo, migration and cats
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When I first read My Cat Yugoslavia, I didn’t know that it was an international sensation. All I knew was that it was a debut (I’m partial to debuts) written by a then 24-year-old, Pajtim Statovci, who had moved from war-torn Kosovo with his family to Helsinki, and it had a quirky cover. Then I saw all the prizes: the Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize and the shortlist for the Young Aleksis Literature Prize and the Flame Bearer Prize.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel like My Cat Yugoslavia, so thrillingly inventive and alive that I felt small electric shocks of pleasure. (I know that sounds weird.) It’s about a Muslim family who immigrated to Finland, a gay man desperate for love, but settling for a talking cat and a boa constrictor. The novel is about feeling like an outlier, fearing connection, about loyalty, fathers and sons and so much more. I’ve been telling everyone about this sad, joyful, disturbing, wonderful novel and I couldn’t be more excited than to talk to Pajtim Statovci. — Caroline Leavitt
Caroline Leavitt: I always think that to write their books, writers must be haunted. What was haunting you? What was the “Why now?” moment that got you to write My Cat Yugoslavia?
Pajtim Statovci: I started writing it in 2010. Back then I was working in a grocery store and studying comparative literature at the University of Helsinki. One night, after a late shift, I asked myself what am I waiting for? Since I know and have always known that I want to be a writer, and even have some ideas about a story, what is stopping me from starting right now?
So I came home, sat down and began writing the first chapters of the novel, inspired by a field called “animal studies” that I’d come across at the university. The study tries to locate how animals are “othered” — in the same way as ethnic or sexual “others” — by humans who, in a way, steal their voices and their right to represent themselves. We place animals in different contexts, such as literary works, where they are anthropomorphized and interpreted through the human world, for example as symbols of human characteristics, even though we don’t have access to animal consciousness, and we certainly don’t know what it’s like to be an animal. The difference between animal others and other “cultural underdogs” of the society, though, is that animals can’t defend themselves in the same way as humans, so the process of “stealing” is much more complex and much more unethical.
I wanted to play with this theory in the novel by using all kinds of cats and snakes as tools to show how misleading stereotypes are — stereotypes about ethnic, sexual and religious minorities, for example. We don’t know about what’s happening or has happened in someone else’s life, but many times think we do. This is why I wanted to have a human-like talking cat, a pet cat, talking snakes and pet snakes in the novel, just to underline that we’re all different and unique, and we don’t have the power to represent anyone else but ourselves, even if we belong to a “minority”.
Animals have a sort of “reputation,” too, in a similar fashion nationalities have, because they are represented and interpreted in different ways depending on who’s representing them and where. And this is the reason why, according to the field, animals have been and are to this day carefully used in war propaganda, for example. Nations promote their strengths by picking animal representatives from the top of the food chain–eagles, lions, bisons, tigers and horses–and often subjugate those who are not a part of “us” by selecting a culturally despicable animal from the bottom of the food chain to highlight their weaknesses. In Finland cats are domesticated animals whereas in Kosovo they are seen as dirty. Somewhere in the book Bekim says: “Because it’s one thing to tell someone you are Swedish, German, or English and quite another thing to say you are Turkish or Iranian. It’s only very rarely that someone’s home country is of no significance at all.”
CL: What kind of writer are you? It’s astonishing that this is your first novel and you had the courage to just sit down, write it out, and then send it to an editor. Had you written anything before this? Did you have other people look at the manuscript before you sent it to publishers? Did you think it was going to be published?
PS: I worked on the novel for a year-and-a-half on my own, and didn’t have the courage to show it to anyone since it was my first attempt to write a fictitious novel. One late Monday evening in March 2012 I reached a point where I just didn’t know what to do with the 500 pages I had written, how to modify the story, what to cut out and what to add. So I thought it was time to send it to someone. In Finland all the publishers accept manuscripts via email, so I decided to send my story to three publishing houses. At 2 a.m. I filled out a form online, wrote a brief cover letter with my contact information on it and attached the manuscript. Then I went to bed, nervous, covered in shame and regret because now I, of course, suddenly realized what I should’ve done differently.
To my surprise I received a phone call the next afternoon. An editor from a major publishing house called and wanted to meet me. I met them over lunch the day after that, and they offered me a publishing contract. I was in disbelief, and it didn’t feel real to me at all. I’d been prepared to wait 6 to 12 months for an answer.
Later that week another editor from another publishing house called me, and I met with them as well, and when they too wanted to publish my work, it felt very overwhelming, and I started having second thoughts about the novel and myself. Do I really want this? I asked myself. Maybe it was because I was in my early twenties and lacked confidence as a writer, maybe I somehow felt that one can’t just go ahead, sit down and start writing a novel, not without studying creative writing, not without showing the text to someone else, this just doesn’t go like this.
But, after a couple of months, after processing everything and after carefully thinking about it, I made a decision to sign the publishing contract and started working on the novel. So I guess sometimes these things do happen!
CL: There is so much in My Cat Yugoslavia about the feeling of not belonging anywhere or to anyone. Emine, Bekim’s mother, is married by arrangement to a brutal husband who is not a partner. Bekim, as an adult, lives in Helsinki, and though he can’t connect with his family, or other gay men, he depends on his pet boa constrictor and a talking cat he picks up in a bar. But even the cat and the snake in the story can be seen as others, because neither really behaves the way we expect a snake or a cat to behave. I’d love to hear you talk about this, please.
PS: I think Bekim, even though he is terrified of snakes, buys the boa and decides to take care of it because he relates to it. He relates to how people dislike snakes in general, he relates to the fact that snakes are highly misunderstood creatures. And the boa speaks to him because he, as well, is being misinterpreted, always through his ethnic background that he’s learned to become ashamed of. Also, you can interpret the boa as a symbol of Bekim’s history, especially his father. It appears that the boa is like no other boa, it doesn’t want to spend his life placed in the terrarium, a place he’s expected to stay put, doing nothing. And neither does Bekim’s father who struggles in Finland because he’s expected to be something he’s not, something he can never be. In a way he’s a man in a glass box.
Later on in the novel Bekim lets the cat move in with him, a cat that has very strong opinions about migration and is highly disrespectful to everyone around him. The cat says things like: “I hate gays!” And Bekim lets the cat say and do whatever he wants, and take over his apartment. Maybe this is because he feels like the attraction, the occasional love and warmth he gets from the cat somehow means more because he represents everything the cat seems to loath. Maybe he thinks that love from someone like the cat, is a different kind of love, stronger and more powerful, because it has crossed borders and walls.
In life, everyone is “an other.” At some point and in some way that inevitably happens to everyone, or so I think. You’re too old, or too young, or in the wrong place in the wrong time. And so is the cat, even though he wants to be seen as someone in charge, and it becomes clear later on, when the cat begins to gain a lot of weight and starts suffering from depression. Suddenly the cat doesn’t want to go out of the house anymore because he thinks that he looks terrible and ugly, and that people are staring at him because he’s a cat with long dirty claws and greasy fur. Eventually he leaves Bekim saying something like: “A cat in a world like this, no thank you.” So the cat is acting out because he’s in pain himself, too, and feels left out as well because, well, he is a cat living in the world of people.
CL: You grew up in war-torn Kosovo and you’ve said in interviews that you did not want to talk about it when you were a child, that you were so ashamed. Yet, now as an adult, you flawlessly write about it. What changed and why? Was this a relief? Did anything surprise you as you wrote?
PS: In the novel Bekim somehow feels that media has demonized his nationality by always showing only one side of Kosovo and Yugoslavia, by always showing that Kosovo is somehow restless and broken, torn apart by war. And he feels that as an Albanian he represents that world, and starts being ashamed of it. So he lies about his nationality, his name, his history because he feels like the truth is not enough or too shameful for others.
And I can relate to this, of course, because the wars in the former Yugoslavia occurred when I was a child, and the restlessness was in the daily news. Since the media had made it a subject of discussion, I was being constantly asked about it, and in everyday situations as if I was somehow obligated to give an answer. But who would want to talk about war? About the most painful thing inside you?
I noticed how I gradually became the face of my respective culture, and I was seen as a part of the world that I’d left behind, that I didn’t recognize being my world. And when I told people where I come from, instead of interest I many times received pity. Again, like I mentioned when I was talking about how nationalities and animals are not seen equal, I don’t think this would’ve happened if I had moved to Finland, let’s say, from Norway or Denmark. Maybe this sensation of being seen as less fortunate just because of my nationality motivated me to write this novel and inspired me to confront these emotions. Maybe there was a need to prove that I am my own individual, and my relationship to my nationality, to my mother tongue is unique and distinctive, just like everyone else’s. That I am my own language, my culture, my country.
CL: Thomas Wolfe has written that “you can’t go home again,” yet that is what Bekim’s encounters with the cat push him to do, and that is what helps him in reconsidering his father, and leads him to healing. Was writing this novel healing for you in any way?
PS: I find writing in general very therapeutic. I mean, you basically have the whole world in your hands, and you can do anything inside it, create people and make them talk, fight, love, you can go anywhere you like, in space and under the ground, you can travel to the future and back in time. It’s a privilege and I love it and I’m so happy and lucky to get to do what I want.
The concept of home is relatively difficult to me because of my background, and I don’t always know whether to call Finland or Kosovo my home. But I do know this: When I write, that’s home to me, and I only need my laptop and phone to feel at home. So maybe Wolfe’s beautiful thought is about how one’s home is a state of mind, and because we are constantly developing and changing, we can’t access the places that we once called our home.
CL: “Where are you from” is a question that haunts your characters, but do you think that, “Where are you now going?” might be the one they should be asking?
PS: Absolutely. This question definitely haunts my characters because the answer to it somehow strips them from their power to be individuals, representatives of only themselves. We should ask each other more about our hopes and dreams, the places we want to go, because that’s the most interesting part, that’s the part we can have an influence on, that we can change.
CL: I’d also like you to talk about the language of the book. The prose was so dazzling. Here’s part of the last sentence: “I look at his hand, his concave knuckles and his fingers, straight as bullets, and his white skin where the frosted light thickens like brilliant ice.” What comes first for you, the language and images, or getting the story down?
PS: I try to plan the story ahead as far as possible in my mind before starting to write. In the best possible scenario the right words just come to me when I start writing the story. Many times, however, they don’t, and that’s when I know that I need to take a break, and not look at the manuscript for at least two or three days. I don’t want writing to feel like a chore because I like it too much, and I don’t want to be burdened by it. This being said, I might stop for hours, for a whole day even, to think of a single metaphor that feels just right.
CL: What’s obsessing you now and why?
PS: I don’t know if I can say it’s an obsession, frankly, but I am writing a new book, a novel. And as a writer yourself, you know how there are two kinds of days: Days you feel like you can see a slightly faded finish line somewhere in the horizon, and then there are days filled with self-doubt, voices telling you that you can’t do this, you will never finish this. It can be very overwhelming and frustrating!