Wednesday at 7 p.m., New York Times bestselling author Tea Obreht spoke in Devlin 101 as part of the Lowell Humanities Lecture Series. Obreht was born in former Yugoslavia in 1985, and spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt. Her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the prestigious British Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011, making Obreht the youngest Orange Prize-winning author in the award’s history.
Cynthia Simmons, the undergraduate program director of the department of Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures, gave a brief introduction. Simmons said that she had initially wondered how a regular reader, without prior knowledge of the Balkan region, could understand all the implications of Obreht’s novel. After reading the book, however, she amended her earlier opinion. “The themes are significant to everybody-relationships, community, and the dialogue that exists across generations,” Simmons said.
After taking the podium, Obreht expressed how honored she was to be invited to Boston College, and thanked those packing the room for showing up. Waving her hands in excitement, the young author spent the first 10 minutes of her talk describing the evolution of The Tiger’s Wife. She explained that the story began to take shape while she was in graduate school at Cornell-her grandfather’s then-recent death served as an impetus to write, and the snow in Ithaca forced her to continue writing. Obreht laughed that, after growing up in Egypt and attending college in Los Angeles, she was initially excited for seasons, but quickly discovered that the amount of snow left her with no choice but to stay inside and write all day.
“You come to grad school expecting that, well, you come in writing short stories, but some day, one sunny, blessed day, you think that you’ll go, ‘Now I’m ready to write novels,’ and people will rejoice and there’ll be confetti,” Obreht said. “But all of a sudden you’re writing a short story, and it’s like, wow, this is garbage at 25 pages, and it’s not very good at 35 pages, but at 60 pages it’s getting better, and now I’m writing a novel.”
Concluding her discussion of the writing process, Obreht continued on to read two passages from The Tiger’s Wife: one from the very beginning, which set the tone for the book, and another from the middle that concerned a myth central to the story. She read fluidly, her voice slipping from youthful and Californian to soft and slightly accented.
Closing the book, Obreht proceeded to take almost a dozen questions from the audience, on topics ranging from the significance of animals and references to The Jungle Book in her work to how she had decided to structure the novel. One of the most poignant moments of the lecture came when an audience member asked about the significance of myth and folklore for people living in fear, like those in the Balkans during the Yugoslavian wars. “Living in fear is one of the most dangerous states that can exist for a collective consciousness,” Obreht replied. “It leads to the sort of cracked psychology that leaves you open to things you don’t understand, leaves you open to any sort of information. There is the myth that sustains the fear, and the myth that comes after the fact.”
The next event in the Lowell Humanities series is a talk by Brenda Wineapple, who will be speaking in Devlin 101 on April 11.