Arts & Culture

Jewcy Interview: Alina Bronsky, Author of “Broken Glass Park”

Since the whirlwind release of her 2008 debut novel in Germany, Russian native Alina Bronsky now continues to storm the book world with Broken Glass Park, published this year in English by Europa Editions. After its original release, the book … Read More

By / June 23, 2010

Since the whirlwind release of her 2008 debut novel in Germany, Russian native Alina Bronsky now continues to storm the book world with Broken Glass Park, published this year in English by Europa Editions. After its original release, the book magnetized national attention and directed it toward a fresh angle of Russian stereotypical caricatures rarely observed by Germany’s nonimmigrant society. 

Murder, homemade cakes, and Soviet mothers project on the reader’s mind’s eye as Bronsky caricatures at a fast-pace the ideologies surrounding the witty, sarcastic, tough-yet-vulnerable teenage narrator living in the Emerald, a modern-day "Russian ghetto" housing middle-to-lower-class émigrés in Frankfurt. Recalling another European hit stateside, Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (originally called Men Who Hate Women in Swedish) is a comparable tainted, young female protagonist ready to take matters into her own hands, determined not to be screwed over again. The setting entraps Sascha in a sort of post-communist mentality hell that seems to be going nowhere while the world revolves around them, as exposed at the book’s launch.

Preceding an NPR interview in front of a live audience taped for Chicago Amplified at the Goethe Institut in which host Susan Harris compares the book to Catcher in the Rye, I sit down with Bronsky on behalf of Jewcy one-on-one. In the German oasis on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, two emigrant women discuss literature in broken Russian. Bronsky in her German-Russian accent and I in my American-encrusted one chat about themes of adaptation, otherness, and survival threaded through the novel (interview translated from the Russian and abridged).

[Bronsky’s next book narrated from the perspective of a babushka and spanning three generations comes out in August.]

Why use a pseudonym?

I always wanted to have a pseudonym, even before writing this novel. While I wanted my book to gain popularity, I myself didn’t want to become a public figure. Of course I didn’t expect to reach great popularity in the first place, but I wanted to hide a bit behind the scenes.

Do you consider this to be a Russian book?

Actually, no. I consider it a German novel, a European novel. I’ve often been asked if I’d like the book translated into Russian, but I’m not really into it. Of course I’m not against it; I’ve never rallied against it. This is really an overall European book in that it opens up borders for Germans where I live. It lets them into a world that they are unfamiliar with. I’m not sure a Russian audience would have the same kind of experience.

OK, but the chess, the overbearing yet comforting mothers, the kitchen full of freshly baked cakes, the abusive men: this is all Russian imagery that a Postcommunist audience could relate to, no?

(Laughing) I see what you mean. To make it palpable to a German audience though, I integrated caricature. Making light of a very tragic story by painting it in a humorous light through Sascha’s voice allows a sort of distance from the harsh reality. This isn’t reportage. Although all these elements do indeed exist in Russian immigrant culture, I found that culture very fitting for caricaturing.

Do you think the main character, Sascha was fortunate to be an immigrant?

I think so. She was able to orient in such a way to be exposed to many perspectives and to escape the undesirable ones. Of course the choice to emigrate was not given to her since she came as a child. I’ve often been asked the same question on how to consider immigration in this book. It’s a very interesting question; for her, yes she was fortunate, but for her family it was obviously a big tragedy living in the Emerald.

Do you relate to Sascha?

Not really. It’s not my autobiography. She carries herself this way because of all the tragic things in her life, and throughout the book she is trying to survive. Several things like details relating to immigration do derive from my own life, but most come from my background in journalism.

What is the significance of Intelligence as her weapon of choice?

Her sharp intelligence does help her survive. It’s apparent that in this "ghetto" she’s a stranger that nobody likes but does respect. The same thing in school-she is very respected because of her intelligence, but friendship does not come her way. It’s sort of her Kapital. This is similar to the Russian immigrant mentality-even if you’ve got nothing, you can always fall back on your skills and brains.

Meanwhile, throughout the book are adages like, "When you know too much you get old and wrinkle faster. That’s a Russian saying." Do you think these are remnants of communist propaganda that seeped into the post-communist citizen’s mind?

Very interesting question. I think that in Russia, how can I explain this psychology? When people lived in difficult circumstances, they tried not to know much to avoid blame if anything came up. I think these things come from deep roots, but I’m not sure. There are many tales of very intelligent women in folktales.

In Germany, however, there are fewer of these. One is the folktale of clever Elsa who thinks too much and thus bad things happen to her. Traditionally, Germans here were conveying through this that women shouldn’t be thinking too hard about their situations. Slavic stories, on the other hand, don’t really have this theme, but rather encourage thoughtfulness. It would be interesting to look into.

Is there something particular in Russian culture that propagates abusive, alcoholic men?

Good question. Why are Russian men so awful? No, of course there are good men in Russia. But I do agree that there is a certain way of raising boys and men that propagates this weakness of character. I don’t want to speak for them all, there are really splendid Russian men. But this behavior is a seed that is really instilled early on.

But, women are probably also to blame, just like Sascha’s mother allows this kind of abusive behavior to continue in her household without taking action. These things happen. Unfortunately this is really a typical story, this tragic episode of a man murdering his ex-wife and her new lover. I used to do journalistic reporting and I constantly came across such stories. Not just among Russian immigrants, but also among Germans and Muslims-this kind of dynamic really isn’t unique to one ethnicity or demographic.

Was the most loathsome human quality for Sascha one that was also her mother’s fatal flaw, passivity?

Sascha’s mother wasn’t weak, but a too kind person. The problem for Sascha is that she sees the quality of a person compromised when they don’t defend themselves or the people they care about from things they don’t believe in. 

On the one hand, Sascha very much loves and respects her mother post-mortem. But on the other hand, she regrets what happened and replays the weaknesses that led to this tragedy.

Who did you write this novel for?

I wrote it for myself. If you asked me while I was writing it, I would have said that I imagined the reader to be somebody like me-how old was I, 27? So she would be not too wise, but a bright young woman. I didn’t think much of it.

But then when the book was published and got picked up by the mainstream, it was being read by everyone-it was really something. At first it was adults, nobody thought it would fly for adolescents or teenagers. I would have readings and the audiences were comprised of people ranging in age from 25 to 80.

Then, teachers somehow gained interest and now it is being assigned as required reading in many German schools.

 Very few books and movies in the past have portrayed a main character with the perspective of a young woman coming out of an abusive family. Recently Steig Larrson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds allow these women to fight back with the skills they gained from their unique adaptation. What do you attribute this new phenomenon to that Sascha is now a part of?

It seems that it couldn’t have been that this was never present, but perhaps never spotlighted. This is more a question of strong women in difficult situations, which has always been present in plots. Definitely though, domestic abuse entering public awareness in recent years might have something to do with it.

What would you like readers to derive from Broken Glass Park?

Really, I don’t ask for much. I’m very pleased that it is being read at all. I don’t think I necessarily have a singular message. I am often approached by adolescents whose lives were changed by the book. I was told of one girl who was ready to quit school, and she was gifted this book. After reading it, she decided to rethink that decision and continued on to finish school.

Teenagers who hate reading but enjoyed reading my book-that is definitely the best compliment for me. They tell me "I really despise reading, but your book isn’t so awful." That is actually very flattering comparatively!

Do you think this story would pan out differently if it was set among immigrants in an American city like New York or Chicago?

I’ve definitely thought about this. This is a story of adaptation. I don’t know how much easier it is in America for men like Vadim, the abusive ex-husband to adapt, but you probably know better than me. But I’m under the impression it should be fairly similar to the Russian immigrant experience in Germany.

This isn’t just a question of immigration to Germany, but also the immigrant experience at large, as well as human experience in success via adaptation.

What is the significance of Sascha’s friendship with Germans outside the influence of the Russian ghetto?

Her friendship with Felix and Volker does much to evolve her character. It is the first time she is exposed to German culture since they are her first German friends who accept her, or her first real friends, truly. It made her perspective richer, as it is said in German. Stepping outside her own traumatic existence, she has to compare her world to theirs, and sees that they are also humans with their own tragedies. This changes her perspective of the outside world.

Sascha’s urge to escape (whether through sex, drugs, rock and roll, or running away) as a means of coping resembles the immigrant experience-would you say this is a valid response to her situation?

I think so. She really puts a lot on herself. She takes responsibility for her family, her younger brother and sister. This point in her teenage life is the first time she chooses to drop it all and let others handle their problems as she leaves for the unknown.

I met a professor who was publishing a pamphlet on the subject of how Sascha’s character and others reacting to post-traumatic stress adapt. He found that this is very accurate to real-life behavior. I really found that interesting because I meant only to write about a unique girl, not a type. But I suppose even this became a sort of caricature.