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Culture

Writing overcomes the limits of this brutal world, says Book Prize winner

Born to a Hungarian-speaking family in a Serbian part of the former Yugoslavia, Melinda Nadj Abonji moved to Switzerland when she was a young child. Her writing draws heavily on this experience.

Melinda Nadj Abonji at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Melinda Nadj Abonji doesn't write in her native language

Last week, writer Melinda Nadj Abonji became the first non-German to win the German Book Prize. Born in 1968 in Vojvodina, a Serbian province with a Hungarian minority, she moved to Switzerland in 1974. Nadj Abonji's winning novel "Falcons without Falconers" addresses emigration and longing for home.

Deutsche Welle spoke with Nadj Abonji at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Click on the audio link below to listen to the author read from "Falcons without Falconers."

Deutsche Welle: Melinda Nadj Abonji, you've won the German Book Prize for your novel "Falcons without Falconers." Do you consider yourself a German writer?

Melinda Nadj Abonji: I am a German writer because I write in German. I am happy that the Germans have given me the prize because I do not live here and because it is the first time someone with a funny name from Switzerland with a small Swiss publisher has won the German Prize for Literature!

You write in German, but your first language is Hungarian and in "Falcons without Falconers," your characters are constantly struggling to find their place within the new language they have chosen to adopt.

Everything goes through language. I was without a voice for almost a year, because when I came to Switzerland I was living with a Swiss family and this family could not speak Hungarian. I was completely lonely. It was a terrible time for me.

I think this is a very important experience for me because I was always aware that you have to fight for language, that language is never certain. You have to find out what language is, what words mean. If you make mistakes, then people don't understand you. For me, this is a very difficult but also a very basic experience.

It's also taught me that language is something you can play with - in the book this is very important - that language is a field of experience.

When your book begins, Switzerland and Yugoslavia do not seem so very far away. Then war breaks out, and the two worlds become severed from one another. Is this what it felt like living in Switzerland during the Yugoslavian Wars of the 1990s?

Yes, this is the reality. You could not reach certain parts, it was extremely difficult to go to Serbia and people were really isolated. And a lot of things were spread through the media, that the Serbians are the cruelest people in the world, etc.

We had a lot of experts in Switzerland who said “the war is like this” and “the war is like that.” They were so convinced they knew everything about this war and this was extremely irritating for me because I felt I did not know anything, and yet it was a really dramatic time for me and my family because we could not reach our family, we did not know about them because we could not reach them, we could not phone. You had no contact by telephone, no internet, nothing. If you wrote a letter you did not know if it had reached your family or not. It was a terrible time.

At the time I felt I could not write about it. Later, I thought, this is a very big topic, it's a very intimate and terrible thing and I want to go through it again, but in another way. I felt the need to write.

Despite the traumatic events it deals with, “Falconers without Falconers” is a very warm book, full of love and affection for its characters. The figure of the grandmother seems to have been drawn with particular warmth. Can you tell us a bit more about her?

The book is homage to my grandmother. It's homage to my grandmother, to my grandfather and to another grandmother, both of whom I did not get to know. I think this is one of the wonderful things about writing, because you can get near to a figure or a person who you would like to know but you did not get the chance because the brutality of the world did not make it possible.

Interview: Kate Laycock

Editor: Kate Bowen

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