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“Her writing is like a dresser, where drawers can be opened one by one and their contents displayed”

Interview with Estonian writer Mudlum

Estonian writer Mudlum has met with great success in recent years with the critics responding very positively to her creative approach, and it has been said that her literary style can be described as pièce à tiroirs, a dresser play or novel, “as if the drawers were opened one by one and their contents displayed”.
Mudlum’s novel Polish Boys – which was very successful at home and abroad, winning the EU Prize for Literature among other awards – adopts a multi-strand style and presents interweaving and diverging narratives.
“My stories usually grow upon former stories. The force which started Polish Boys was a story I once wrote at ZA/UM’s blog about Sulislaw Zawisza and the good madam Ada Nosek. It was also included in my first book, a collection of short stories, whose subject matter was mostly based on memories and autofiction,” Mudlum said.
“This is the tale upon which critics remarked that the author is also capable of writing fiction when she aims to do so. The trick was only in using foreign sounding names. For a young author such as myself, it was surprising and quite funny as well. A few years later I wrote about five chapters of a novel in the same style, then the work stopped as it seemed too difficult a task. Before continuing with that, I wrote three other books. I can’t comment on the style too much, it is as it comes and it could most certainly be better.”
Mudlum promotes a non-elitist approach to culture and encourages everyone to write creatively, saying the process can be a useful exercise for people of all backgrounds that helps open up the mind.
“I would encourage people from all walks of life to engage in writing. It is a very versatile and useful tool, it helps you think in ways you usually don’t,” she said.
When she was starting out on her literary career Mudlum was active in the Estonian cultural and literary group ZA/UM, which she said espoused this grassroots approach to creativity and culture that resonated with her.
“One thing that the ZA/UM movement continually stood for and to what we owe those books of mine is a popular, non-elitist approach to culture, everyone is invited to read, write and think. The Slovenian marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek has called the aim of such writing ‘proletarian high culture’ in opposition to both mass consumption culture and elitist small-circle culture,” she said, speaking ahead of her appearance at the 6th EU-China International Literary Festival.
The name Mudlum was the internet handle she adapted in the early 2000s when she started writing, and she quickly began building a following.
“Without noticing it myself, I grew into a writer while writing for the ZA/UM blog, that’s where people started reading me, that’s where the editors of literary magazines found me etc,” she said.
The seeds of Polish Boys were sown at the time when she was involved with ZA/UM, and for Mudlum this book represents something of a coming of age story.
“I was a ZA/UM member from 2010-2014. It is true that the group has inspired the story, but it’s been translocated in time and space and is rather more fictional than the rest of my books. It could be said that it is a fictional history of ZA/UM before it started making the Disco Elysium PC game. It is also a bildungs-novel, the life of some characters is observed since they are infants until their thirties. If there is anything authentic there, then the general atmosphere is rather lifelike, but I could treat the characters rather freely, as the prototypes can be identified by maybe a handful of people. The novel had to be readable also without knowing anything about the background. The groups of young idealists are born in all countries and all times, they are universal,” she said.
Mudlum has written two short story collections to date “and in those a narrative connection exists –characters, places or motives are repeating. Writing a novel is no doubt harder, actually very hard. They are very different forms as a short story is usually finished in one go while years are put into a novel.”
She has returned to the novel format with Mitte ainult minu tädi Ellen (Not Only My Aunt Ellen), which has also been hugely popular and was Mudlum’s second novel to win the esteemed Estonian annual prose award.
“This book is the most well received by readers, it could be rightly called a bestseller in the Estonian sense,” Mudlum said.
“It speaks of very simple things people usually want to avoid – getting old, illnesses, death, also diseases of the soul, addictions, the difficulties in relations between mothers and daughters, the journey towards one’s self. If Polish Boys is a book about youth, then Not Only My Aunt Ellen is a book about the second half of life, or the last third of it.”
At the 6th EU-China International Literary Festival Mudlum and award-winning Chinese author Zhang Lingling will discuss some of their acclaimed works and the writers’ perpetual search for beauty and truth in fiction.