Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel Kissani Jugoslavia was originally published in Finnish in 2014. The English translation My Cat Yugoslavia came out in 2017. The book was a hit, and the rights have been sold to publish it in 11 languages. In recent years, Statovci has been busy travelling the world to market his book.
“Sometimes it feels unreal. I’ve wanted to be an author since I was a child, and now I get to write for a living. I love to travel, so I’m happy to go wherever people invite me,” Statovci says.
But there is one thing that makes him nervous about travelling.
“I often have to read excerpts from my book to an audience before being interviewed. It’s awful. I’m afraid I’ll find something to fix in the text.”
Statovci’s second book, Tiranan sydän (“Heart of Tirana”), was published two years after his first one, in 2016. And last year, he graduated from the University of Helsinki with a master’s degree in comparative literature. Not a bad couple of years! But the author himself plays down his achievements.
“I wrote my second book simultaneously with my debut novel. Whenever I grew tired of putting the final touches on my first book, I switched to the second. And I’d already written half of my thesis when I signed the publishing contract for my first book.”
A CAT AND A BOA
In his master’s thesis, Statovci explored the animal figures in the short stories of Hemingway and Kafka.
“It can be argued that we exploit animals in culture and art by humanising them. In reality, we can’t know what it’s like to experience the world through the consciousness of an animal. Yet, we associate strong and quite permanent images with various animals.”
These images are always culture-bound, Statovci points out.
“It’s one thing to read or write a short story about a cow in Finland and quite another to do so in India.”
My Cat Yugoslavia features two interesting animal characters, a cat and a snake. Early in the novel, the protagonist Bekim – terrified of snakes – ends up getting a boa constrictor and taking it to his apartment. Later in a gay bar, he meets a talking cat who turns out to be quite unstable and with whom he soon moves in.
The book also describes an old Yugoslavian tradition in which a man tears a cat into pieces at his wedding to demonstrate his strength to his wife and teach her to fear her husband.
Statovci offers no straightforward explanations for what the animals in his book represent. The reader may, however, come to consider whether the talking cat and the cat in the wedding tradition compare to Yugoslavia as a nation. After all, the country was brutally torn apart by a series of wars in the 1990s.
“My animal characters can represent the nation metaphorically,” Statovci concedes. “But they can also represent, say, the protagonist’s sexuality. After all, a cat is culturally highly feminine and a snake is a phallic symbol.”
We associate strong images not just with animals, but also with national minorities: snakes, cats as well as various ethnic groups are all perceived to have certain characteristics, muses Statovci.
“Maybe the protagonist acquires the snake because he identifies with the snake’s status; people don’t usually like snakes very much.”
Bekim believes that he is inferior because of his background and appearance and that he deserves less.
“I think that his shame about his background as well as his self-hatred are also the reason why Bekim never opposes the cat, and even lets the cat physically abuse him.”
Pajtim Statovci himself has often been wrongly labelled. His name indicates his Kosovan roots, but he is Finnish through and through, having moved to Finland when he was just two years old.
“I went to school in Porvoo and have no memories from before I moved to Finland. Finnish is the language in which I am most fluent. It is also the language in which I work and study.”
Statovci is not comfortable with the title of immigrant author.
“When people call me an immigrant or when my books are classified as immigrant literature, I feel like I’m closed out of my community and society. It’s as if I were examining Finland through the eyes of a stranger, which is not true.”
ARE YOU WRITING ABOUT YOUR FAMILY?
Statovci has been asked what it is like to live in a space between two languages and cultures.
“It’s confusing and makes the assumption that my life is split into two because I’m originally from another country.”
Statovci agrees with his protagonist Bekim who states in the book that it is not the same thing in Finland to say that you are from Turkey or Iran as it is to say that you are from France or Germany.
“But my life is not notably different to that of my schoolmates. In upper secondary school, I dreamed of becoming an author, a journalist or a language and literature teacher. My life wasn’t a pressure cooker of cultures, languages and religions, but full and whole and beautiful as such, with all its cultures and languages.”
Academic education was a fairly natural choice for a good student like Statovci, as it was for many of his friends. Statovci is certainly interested in cultural otherness. The protagonists of his books are immigrants, migrants and refugees, but their stories are made up.
“Although my debut novel features a talking cat, a predatory boa constrictor and all sorts of other absurdities, I was surprised by how many people thought that I was writing about myself and my family,” he says.
“But I suppose that’s often the case with debut authors. When I write more books and create new characters, the question of autobiographical elements will hopefully become less interesting.”
I CAN DO ANYTHING
Something about Kosovo and Albania attract Statovci.
“It’s highly likely that I’m attracted by the history of Yugoslavia and Albania because my roots are there, but I didn’t grow up there. The environment and the culture seem simultaneously both distant and familiar to me.”
Statovci believes that he became an author because he wished to learn about his origins.
“To be fair, I also use fiction to try to understand other issues. A novel is a brilliant way to study the world.”
Writing in general is the greatest thing Statovci can think of.
“When I write, I can be anywhere, go anywhere, do whatever I want with my characters, go back in time, or present a vision of the future. The supernatural is completely natural, the impossible possible.”
DIFFERENCE AND HATRED
The protagonists in Statovci’s books are members of not only a cultural, but also a sexual minority. However, Statovci does not make a fuss about their sexuality: it is just a natural part of them.
“I didn’t want my characters to have a negative or complex relationship with their sexuality. They are not tormented about it at all,” Statovci says.
He believes that sexuality should not be kept secret.
“We’re all sexual beings. We are entitled to define ourselves in relation to our sexuality, nationality and religiousness in the way we see fit.”
Ultimately, it is quite strange how difference can bring about such strong hatred in us. One of Statovci’s characters talks about how difference is like a criminal offence.
What is so frightening about difference? How can sexuality or ethnic background make some people so upset?
“In my personal utopia, people would get to know each other without labels. Right now, many people have to carry the heavy burden of differences that they can’t even change.”
SIDING WITH THE UNKNOWN
The fear of the foreign or strange may be a universal phenomenon. The things that we are unfamiliar with and that we cannot explain frighten us, Statovci says.
“For many people, the unknown always derails their sense of the safe and familiar.”
At best, fiction can make readers see things in a new light and even help them understand something they previously saw as strange and unfamiliar. Statovci hopes that his books can help the majority population understand minorities.
“Writing is my way of contributing to the construction of a better tomorrow. If artists and politicians refuse to talk about matters that are difficult to address or require effort, nothing will ever change. Someone must be bold enough to speak so that people can learn and achieve a better understanding.”
The disadvantaged need advocates. Not everyone has the strength to make their voices heard because it takes nerve and strength of character to fight for your rights:
“There are a lot more people who accept the garbage fed to them and resign themselves to their fate rather than speaking up. It takes a hell of a lot to oppose your subjugator and tell people about the wrongs done to you.”
UNREAL REALITY TV
The protagonist of Tiranan sydän changes his identity as often as he likes. In a cycle of pathological lying, he ends up stealing the dreams and even the transgender identity of his partner. The aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible.
“At first, he fails to convince anyone with his mediocre singing, but as soon as the producer finds out he is a transgender person, his story becomes interesting, he is praised and he proceeds to the next round of the competition.”
Statovci is concerned about the current direction of television programmes. Reality TV offers us artificially produced fates and unreal stories.
“Production companies are guilty of flagrant abuse when they invade people’s privacy and turn their pain into entertainment for the masses.”
People are persuaded to appear in the programmes by assuring them that winning a song competition, for instance, will automatically lead to a better life. That’s not true of course, Statovci says.
“They are encouraged to open up and tell everyone about their traumas so that the viewers at home can identity with them. The truth is that the people who make these programmes don’t care about what happens to the contestants once the cameras and lights are switched off.”
What happens to your chances of getting a job once you have, for example, drunkenly embarrassed yourself on television, Statovci asks.
“I can’t think of what need or want reality television fills in us, but it obviously strikes a chord, judging by the ratings.”
BRUISED BY HARDSHIP
In addition to the blissful power of superficial celebrity, Statovci has noted other beliefs that we take for granted but should actually question.
“People often try to make you believe that hard work always pays off. If you just keep trying and are sufficiently motivated, success will come to you.”
Statovci would like to remind people about the power of coincidence. He does not believe that a life of struggle always leads to success. Some people never win, but not for want of trying.
“Finns and other Westerners have fundamentally different opportunities to study and make a living than most people in the world. The majority never get what they want, no matter how hard they work. The idea that motivation somehow correlates with success, regardless of place and individual, is naive.”
Similarly, Statovci does not subscribe to the idea that what does not kill us only makes us stronger.
“That’s bogus. On the contrary, hardship may make us even weaker, sadder and more pathetic,” he says.
“If someone is able to continue their life after a tragic experience, does it mean that they have overcome it or is it just about survival? Does it simply mean that life continues differently from that point on because there is no other direction to take?”
DAYS FILLED WITH WRITING
Pajtim Statovci’s books address weighty subjects. They examine people who do not have a voice in their own community. These are issues that cause anger, sorrow, anxiety and a feeling of being on the outside in the lives of many real people, too.
“Hate speech has only increased in Finland in recent years. But I take in this deplorable phenomenon quite calmly, which I suppose is my attitude to other things around me as well.”
Statovci strives to maintain a serene and peaceful mindset in his everyday life.
“I don’t really have the energy to feel grumpy if a cashier doesn’t smile at me or my favourite product is out of stock. Hate is such an all-consuming, corrosive emotion that destroys motivation and inspiration and I don’t want to feed it in me.”
Statovci’s studies in screenwriting at Aalto University are currently on hold. He is hoping to finish his third novel with as little difficulty as possible, without unreasonable distress. Maybe then he will get to agonise again at marketing events when he is asked to read his works aloud. //
The article has been published in Finnish in Yliopisto magazine 03/18.