I Dreamed of Africa

Téa Obreht, author of the short story “The Laugh” in the 2009 Fiction Issue, describes how National Geographic shaped her writing career.

Tea Obreht
Téa Obreht

Who are your biggest personal influences?

In terms of writers, I definitely have to say I am greatly influenced by writing that I love. Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita), Gabriel García Márquez, and Hemingway. In terms of people that I know, my grandmother and my mother are huge influences on my writing life because they are both massively supportive and always have been of my career.

What do you want to explore with your writing? What themes do you find yourself coming back to?

I am very interested in place, and the influences of place on characters. What inspires me most to write is the act of traveling. I like to explore the idea of common conflict in perhaps a more amplified environment in my writing. Human conflict is human conflict I guess anywhere, but I like to explore the interactions of people with place and how place influences characters’ decisions, and their conflicts with one another, and also with the place itself—that’s something that I enjoy exploring.

What is your relationship to Africa in particular? Had you ever been there before writing “The Laugh”?

I grew up in Egypt, but I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa. It was a huge dream of mine, and continues to be a huge dream of mine, to actually go to Kenya and to Tanzania. But I guess the way the story came about was I had moved to Ithaca, New York, and I had this long-standing, very distant love affair with the African wilderness and it was winter and it was a very cold, horrible winter and I was inundated with National Geographics, both the magazine and the channel. They did a series on the great migration and I was sitting in the snow thinking about Africa and that’s how it came about. I did a lot of research to make sure it was as reasonably authentic as possible, but I had never actually been to Tanzania, or to Ngorongoro, where it takes place.

Do you have any rituals related to your writing? Superstitions you fall back on?

When I hit a block, regardless of what I am writing, what the subject matter is, or what’s going on in the plot, I go back and I read Pablo Neruda’s poetry. I don’t actually speak Spanish, so I read it translation. But I always go back to Neruda. I don’t know why, but it calms me, calms my brain.

I also have Dali’s print The Ghost of Vermeer. It’s on the wall in front of my desk, and it acts like this little window, so instead of looking out of an actual window I look through the window of the picture—the picture is framed like a window as well. It’s this little figure who is looking off into the distance, so I tend to look at that to center myself. And then I feel like the plot will even out once I stare at the picture for long enough.

If you were not a writer, what would you do?

I would definitely teach. I came out of the Cornell MFA program, and I had the tremendous fortune to be able to teach creative writing for a year, and it was really spectacular, wonderful. It was an undergraduate class, introduction to creative writing, so it was a combination of poetry and fiction. It was amazing. Both semesters I taught it the kids were all very enthusiastic about it. They were just thrilled to be doing it. At Cornell especially, the college tends more toward engineering and pre-med and pre-law, and there were a lot of students who had not had the experience of writing creatively before, and they were just jazzed about it. Which made it really wonderful to teach.

What would you say are the most overrated books?

I will say two writers. I have never been able to appreciate their styles fully, and I have been told before that they're wonderful and they are very celebrated writers, but at the same time I have never been able to quite get into them. I don’t have enough experience with them to answer the question, but Thomas Pynchon and Samuel Delaney. But I don’t think it’s a matter of them being overrated as much as I don’t enjoy the styles as much. I didn’t connect with them.

And who would you say are the most underrated writers—writers who you wish would get more attention?

Well that one is easier. Definitely there is an old book from the former Yugoslavia by Ivo Andrić, he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and unless I am mistaken he was the only Yugoslav Nobel prizewinner for literature. He wrote a book called The Bridge on the Drina. I am originally from the former Yugoslavia as well, and I don’t know that he is known here, but that’s a wonderful book. I know that there are translations of it, but he is not very well known and it is a wonderful book.

I also like Raymond Chandler. He wrote hardboiled detective fiction, but it was really literary and he wrote amazing stuff. The Long Good-Bye, which is interesting. He does wonderful social commentary in the context of a detective mystery. And the mystery sort of fails, but the social commentary works.

And another book that I love that I think might be underrated is A Prayer for the Dying, by Stewart O’Nan. It’s a weird book, and sort of very heavy, but wonderful and wonderfully done. It is written in the second person, which is just so strange, and it works. I normally don’t like literature in the second person, but it really works in that book.

What children’s book would you still pick up?

Anything by Roald Dahl. Period. I love Roald Dahl. I grew up with Roald Dahl. And actually his short-story collection for adults, Tales of the Unexpected, I think is underrated, it’s loads of fun.

I actually have gone back to children’s books a lot because my baby brother is eight years old, so it’s my job to keep the books coming. And someone that I loved as a child and I find not a lot of people read in America is Dick King-Smith. He wrote Babe. But he also wrote a bunch of other children’s books that I don’t think get read. I guess he was a farmer forever, and I might be completely wrong about this, but at a relatively old age he started writing children’s books based on his experiences as a farmer. And they’re lovely.

What book is most essential to you? What book do you read over and over?

Love in the Time of Cholera. Also, I absolutely love—and I love them for different reasons, and continue to go back to them—The Old Man and the Sea. It is short and wonderful. But Love in the Time of Cholera is for me the perfect novel, it just does so much for me. I read it for the first time when I was 12, and I have read it basically every year since, in some way or other. And The Old Man and The Sea as a story just works brilliantly for me.

What is the first thing that you wrote that made you realize that you could be a writer?

I was eight years old, we were living in Cyprus, and my mom had this computer that was very old and just enormous and heavy and I was playing around with it and I ended up writing a two paragraph story about a goat. And I remember printing it out and going to my mother and saying, I want to be a writer. And my mother was fixing something in the kitchen and she turned around and said, That’s nice, you go ahead. And obviously it wasn’t really anything. But at the same time, that was the plan ever since then—to write. And then I wrote consistently over the years after that. It wasn’t a particularly good story about a goat by an eight year old. And actually I don’t even have a copy of it, or know what it was about except there was a goat in it. But that was the first thing I wrote.

What book is on your bedside table waiting to be read?

Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. I for some reason had not gotten around to reading him before this, but I am loving it so far—everyone said that I would, and I am.

— Cotton Codinha