Glen James Brown speaks with Uršuľa Kovalyk, the acclaimed Slovak author who was born in Košice in 1969, to hear her reflections on writing, friendship and privilege.
“The text chooses me rather than the other way around,” says the award-winning Slovak writer Uršuľa Kovalyk. “My writing process is constantly changing.” This fact may explain not just the number of mediums in which she works—she has written plays, short-story collections, novels—but also the sheer number of genres her work encapsulates. Kovalyk blends social-realism, fairy-tale, fable, surrealism, speculative fiction, often in the same story. Reality takes on the texture of dream, of nightmare, and vice versa. Even the most mundane of settings pulsate with tension as the phantasmagorical strains just beneath the surface, itching to burst free.
Kovalyk’s writing process is one of sheer discovery. “It’s like walking through a dark cave holding a candle, with one section coming into view at a time.” To read her is to have a similar experience. Her stories walk a razor wire between control and chaos, the cosmic and the commonplace. They’re also frequently very funny. Kovalyk is that rarest of writers—one capable of continually wrongfooting you whilst keeping you totally invested. However fantastical her worlds may seem, they remain profoundly and deeply rooted in human experience.
Nowhere is this approach to storytelling more prevalent than in her collection The Night Circus and Other Stories, first published in English in 2019 by Parthian Books in 2019. In it, we find a dead woman trapped in the looping film of her own life. An elderly, Elvis-obsessed neighbour bonding with an apricot tree that won’t stop producing fruit. Time stops on a woman’s busy commute. A non-descript sexagenarian who, like many housewives under Communism, wasted their prime in queues for bananas finds her bathroom transformed into a portal to an otherworldly rainforest. The sixteen stories in Kovalyk’s collection feel like snow globes readers can shake up and peer into, each perfectly crafted and self-contained. Yet all in their own way explore reoccurring themes of ageing, forgetting, death. Kovalyk’s characters are frequently reborn or become transmogrified. Why does she find herself returning to these themes?
“These are timeless topics,” Kovalyk says. “They form the basis for our civilisational myths that keep recurring, whether we like it or not. I feel compelled to discuss them from my perspective, based on my own lived experience which is unique to this time and space.”
Kovalyk’s unique time and space is perhaps more interesting than most. Born in 1969 in Košice, to the east of what was then the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Kovalyk grew up under Communism and witnessed first-hand the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and subsequent collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Soon afterwards, Czechoslovakia was dissolved, opening the way for Democracy and free-market capitalism. It’s only natural these seismic events find their way into Kovalyk’s work, but again, it does not happen in the way we might expect.
The Equestrienne, her exquisite, award-winning coming-of-age novel (also published in English by Parthian Books), is narrated by the ghost of elderly Karolína, who is looking down upon the stallion that has just trampled her to death. As her essence fades, she recounts her life from the moment she was born, and how she was saved by her love for her friend Romana, and for trick-riding horses at the local stables. Karolína’s youth was a grimy one filled with stark grey prefabs, unpredictable adults, and illicit Pink Floyd tapes on the edge of a totalitarian society hurtling towards collapse. And yet it’s also a heady, uplifting exploration of female friendship and resolve equal to anything by Elena Ferrante. For Kovalyk, sticking together is the only means of escape. “The girls in The Equestrienne created a wonderful social bubble in the riding school and that helped them to be free even though they actually lived under a totalitarian regime.”
The forcefield the two friends throw up to in the name of personal freedom also dims the clamour of the world at large. The end of Communism is overshadowed by the more pressing concerns of teenage girls—boys, drinking until you puke, and the horrors of soviet sanitary products. Kovalyk explores the public through the lens of the private to compelling effect; a perfectly natural thing to do because we are all at the centre of our own universe. Making sense of ourselves is the mechanism through which we then make sense of the world. “Some of us more, some less, but our internal spiritual journey is a kind of compass, our essence,” states Kovalyk. “I’ve always been fascinated by people able to create something beautiful, good and meaningful around themselves even in the worst historical times, in the midst of wars, epidemics and natural disasters. This, I believe, is our greatest strength as human beings.”
Like marrow through bone, the abiding theme of Kovalyk’s work is enduring female companionship. The women in her work face hardship, attrition, loss, loneliness, grief, and betrayal, but what comes through again and again is the love felt between her characters— love between mothers and daughters, grandmothers and aunties, friends and neighbours. Yet there is never a drop of sentimentality. Zero mawkishness, mush, or melodrama.
“Human relationships in real life are much more dynamic and complex, and they vary with time,” says Kovalyk. This is certainly true of the women in The Equestrienne and The Night Circus and Other Stories. Their relationships thrum with frustration, menace, even violence at times, which the author skilfully harnesses to strengthen not only the bonds between her characters, but the resonances of the stories themselves. Her warts-and-all approach to female dynamics of all stripes rings true and is deeply moving. How does she achieve this? “I try to empty my head of all the stereotypes and cultural patterns that our conservative, patriarchal society has tried to inculcate in me from a very early age. When I write, I strip naked and try to get under my skin, down to the bone, as I seek the truth about my relationships with others, which are by no means ideal.”
Neither is the world in which we live ideal, but submerging herself in its current is a crucial source of inspiration for Kovalyk. Aside from being a successful author and playwright, she is also a social worker in the capital city Bratislava. She has worked for non-profits and NGOs focusing on Women’s Rights and homelessness, and is also co-founder and director of Theatre Without A Home, a theatre group comprised of the homeless and disabled. Being immersed in the social fabric of her city is something Kovalyk requires to function artistically.
“My inner world as a writer and the real world outside are connected vessels. Working with people draws me out of my social bubble as a privileged white woman. My problems are quite laughable compared with those faced by the homeless or people with physical disabilities.”
In this way, her internal and external realities connect much like those of her characters’ as they navigate environments that are hostile, confusing, or simply indifferent. Writing in late 2021, Europe—and the world—feels like it is nearing a precipice. Long-standing unions are breaking down, and the inequality gulf is ever-widening. Fascism, intolerance, and hate are on the rise. We are retreating en masse to our digital echo-chambers that are warping perception to such an extent that we longer agree on even the broadest definition of shared reality. Does art have a part to play in hauling us back from the brink? As a European writer working in the 21st Century, does Kovalyk feel it important to engage with political, historical, or national concerns in her work?
“I don’t feel bound by any obligations,” she says. “My inner voice always tells me very forcefully what needs to be addressed. The writer who exists within me is truly free. Sometimes she stays silent and observes the world, at other times she shouts and writes.”
It is this instinctive approach which suffuses Kovalyk’s writing with such power. While her work bristles with the unexpected, it is never random or inconsequential. More often than not she confronts us with things so familiar we might have lost the ability to truly see them, turning them just-so to the light, making them new and vital all over again.
The Equestrienne by Uršuľa Kovalyk is available now via Parthian.