Ivana Šojat is a Croatian novelist, poet, essayist and literary translator who believes strongly that literature can play a role in showing how diversity and differences can be unifying powers rather than divisive ones.
“I believe that we have to, with all our energy, to try to produce mutual understanding because we all have to live on this little globe we call planet Earth,” she said, speaking ahead of her appearance at the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival.
Her latest novel Ezan is set during the Ottoman Empire, in which she examines Islam in the region around the time of the 16th century in part of the book.
The novel was critically acclaimed but “a lot of people were not happy with the topic,” she said.
“I chose that intentionally because we don’t understand each other. We tend to hate everything that is not from our cultural circles, and we tend not to understand all that is different from us. With that novel, I tried to show people that all the others are in fact just like us.”
Šojat was an opera singer and involved with theatre initially and only began writing when she around 30 years old, when she felt she was “mature enough to start to write, to start to think about certain themes that preoccupy me”.
A central theme she visits in her writing is relations between people in general, but especially relations within families, often strained and problematic relations.
“So then I started to write and the themes they just come. I overhear some conversation on the street. I read some article in the newspaper about tragedies that happen every day all around the globe, and then I start to investigate.”
Her latest literary preoccupation is with a witch she learned about who once lived in her own home town of Osijek in Croatia. This witch was burned at the stake in 1748, the last witch to be killed in that way in the region.
“I discovered a lot of things about her and now I’m preparing to write a novel about her. So first I discover a subject and then I start to investigate. And that investigation can go for three four years,” she said. “It’s a hard labour really. It’s not easy because you have to be objective. You have to be emotional enough to start to write about such complicated things, things that involve personal life stories.”
While she often looks to historical events for inspiration, as a writer she always chooses to fictionalise the accounts after completing her research.
“I have to add some things that were not there initially to make the story more alive because if you write only about the facts it’s annoying, it’s boring,” she said. “Let’s be honest, you have to put some personal touches in the story. So that’s why I say that in every novel there is a piece of me, of my personal experience, to make it more human.”
But while she knows the end result will always be a work of fiction, when she starts to write she does not know if it will be a novel or a short story.
“I don’t choose which way it will go. Some topics demand to be to be treated in a larger, massive way, in a novel, and some topics they just contain themselves within a short story. I’m not the one who chooses which way will it go?”
Adding another string to her literary bow, Šojat started writing for children some years ago. With three children herself, a daughter and two sons, they were her initial audience. For one of her sons, for instance, a boy who could never keep his bedroom tidy, she created a book about a dragon who built a nest in Siberia – and the nest was made entirely of clothes and other bits and pieces the dragon picked up from messy bedroom floors.
And for her daughter, who was afraid of the dark when she was a little girl, she wrote a book that centred around the theme of darkness and explained how it was not something to be afraid of. That picture book is now published in China too by Jiangxi Highschool Publishers (《会吱吱叫的黑夜》，江西高校出版社) .
But of all the genres she works in Šojat’s true love is poetry, which she feels in its distilled form stands a cut above everything else.
“Because poetry is the most powerful literature form, I would say, because it punches you. Poetry is a small package of great emotion. If it is written how it is supposed to be written it is powerful, it is almost magic.”
As a student she spent several years in Belgium, where she obtained a university degree in French language and literature, and her subsequent work as a literary translator fuels her own writing and her prolific output, she feels.
“I enjoy every book I receive for translation and it helps me a lot. Each book is a world in itself. Each book enriches me. It brings me not only happiness, but insight and enlarges my horizons,” she said. “I can see more clearly and widely, because I think that each book is at least a window, if not a door to much, much bigger, much larger spaces.”