In 1993, Erica Johnson Debeljak married and moved from New York City to Ljubljana, Slovenia where she became a literary translator (from Slovenian into English), writer, and occasional interpreter of all things American. During the ensuing decade, she published three books in her adopted country: a memoir, a biography, and a collection of short stories. Meanwhile many of her stories and essays appeared in literary reviews in the United States and, this year, her memoir Forbidden Bread was published by North Atlantic Books.
AbeBooks – Looking at your accomplishments, it’s hard to tell whether you’re an American or a Slovenian writer. How do you think of yourself?
Erica Johnson Debeljak – "That’s something I often question, myself, and the longer I live this hybrid existence – in two languages and two cultures – the harder it becomes to answer. It has to with how you define national literatures – whether it is by language, by readership, by subject matter – and the equally controversial matter of how you define national affiliation – by citizenship, place of residence, the secret leanings of the heart. So whether I feel more like an American or Slovenian writer has vacillated over the years. One thing is certain: I always write in English and always will, and I feel a close affinity to writers in the English language. Admittedly, this probably has something to do with the insane complexity of Slovenian as a language."
Abe – What about your audience, your readership?
Erica Johnson Debeljak – "Well, up until now, my primary audience has been in Slovenia, which makes me feel like my home as a writer is here. Slovenia is a small country with a passionate readership where, until not long ago, writers enjoyed the highest symbolic status – far higher than movie actors or rock stars or politicians. But in the beginning of my career, I didn’t really appreciate that. I thought that Slovenians just valued me because I was the odd foreign voice. I thought that to be a ‘real writer’ I had to be published in English in the American market and read by American readers but, boy, that’s a hard nut to crack. Even when you do get published in the United States, it’s such a huge and peculiar and disparate market, it’s hard to feel any real sense of community or connection."
Abe – A lot of your fiction and non-fiction work has dealt with the challenges of raising bicultural children, the particular lonesome fate of the ‘reverse’ exile, but Forbidden Bread seems to offer the lighter and breezier side of this equation.
Erica Johnson Debeljak – "Above all, it’s a love story. First with my husband, Aleš, and then with his country. At the beginning of the whole adventure, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that things would work out. He was a larger-than-life womanizing literary figure when I met him, and Slovenia was a tiny new nation, a former republic of Yugoslavia, trying to get its act together at the perimeter of a hot and horrible war. So trying to negotiate the new language and culture, all the ex-girlfriends, the proximity of war and the quirky leftovers of the dying communist bureaucratic apparatus was a huge challenge and often had the qualities of farce."
Abe – Forbidden Bread is set almost entirely in the 1990s when Slovenia was becoming an independent nation for the first time in its history and at the same was in the transition period from state socialism to democracy, free market economy, and member of the European Union. Do you now feel nostalgic for that time?
Erica Johnson Debeljak – "Oh my god, I think we all do. In hindsight, it seems like the final gasp of some sort of innocent belief in the power of democracy and free markets to improve people’s lives. Now everyone’s incredibly jaded, but back then there was enormous belief in the project and a great sense of hope and future possibility in the former communist bloc countries. At the same time, capitalism and consumerism hadn’t yet kicked in, so people still didn’t work very much, they smoked and drank and partied a lot, and it was a lot of fun. The wars in Yugoslavia, while devastating to those who experienced them directly, lent a bracing sense of intensity and moral clarity to the countries in that region. What with being madly in love, it all made for a very heady combination."