Interview with the novelist Petra Hůlová

HULOVA Petra_006“Even the most conformist magazines, the ones with the pretty pictures and the homes and gardens features, will tell you that the future of Europe belongs to women. Read it and weep. There is nothing outlandish in this assertion and anyone who gets hot under the collar about it either has a problem with women.” (Excerpt from Guardian article: ‘Dreams and Nightmares of Europe in the 2040s’ by Petra Hůlová, 28 Dec 2010)

Petra Hůlová is one of the most widely-read Czech novelists of the past decade. She published her first novel ‘Memory to My Grandmother’ (published in the USA as ‘All This Belongs to Me’) in 2002 and has published six more since and has been presented with a number of high-status literary awards. 

Hollie Weatherstone interviews Petra about her life and work.

What does ‘being creative’ mean to you?

Ideally, it means to create something just for the pleasure of doing it without thinking primarily of usage and profit. However, ‘creating’ is often not pleasurable at all and ‘usage’ is an important part of the final ‘product’ which actually makes me my living.

Why have you chosen the medium of writing to express yourself creatively?

I haven´t really made a conscious decision about the medium. I began to write while being for a year in Mongolia as a student. I had much free time, no friends, was living in an alien culture, felt homesick and struggled to lift my spirits. So I decided to write. I´ve always admired writers and so I set myself a goal to write three pages of fiction narrative every day and that´s how my first story was written. As soon as I came back to Prague and began to rewrite the text on the computer, I realized the story was just a piece of crap. However, the excitement of creating a fictional world had already captured me, so I began to write again from the scratch and ended up with my first novel, ‘All This Belongs To Me’ (Northwestern University Press, 2009).

What and/or who inspires you?

Anything; my life, people I meet, stuff I read. Earlier on in my career I thought I needed to travel in order to find inspiration and I did when travelling and living in foreign countries (especially Far-Eastern Asia but also in NY) and often set my stories in non-Czech environments. Now I think inspiration is rather a matter of aroused sensitivity, and what matters to me are not so much cultural differences as an original use of language alongside a willingness to be brutally sincere.

Where does your interest in Mongolia stem from?

Before deciding to direct my focus on the more specific area of Mongolian studies I completed an academic year of cultural anthropology. I knew that I wanted to focus on something less general and accidently stumbled across the ‘Urga’ by Nikita Mikhalkov, which is a movie set in inner-Mongolia, an autonomous Mongolian region in China. I instantly fell in love with the place and its culture and thus decided to focus my studies on this region and its culture.

J.K Rowling, Louisa May Alcott and the The Brontë Sisters alongside many other famous female writers use initialisms or pseudonyms as their pen name because they feel that they may not be so successful with a woman’s name, do you think this continues to be a valid concern among female writers?

No, I don´t think it really matters. However, literature of female authors, at least in Czech Republic, tends to be more generalized. You can, for example still find an article in Czech newspaper with a title let´s say: ‘Three new interesting novels by young female authors’. It’s unlikely that you’ll read a male-specific headline although in the younger generation of writer there are currently more female authors than male ones. Nevertheless, the gender seems to be taken as something that makes females a more homogenous group than males.

Having lived and worked in Eastern Europe over the past few years, I have noticed that the struggle for gender equality is often an ignored issue in this part of the world. Why is this the case in your opinion?

I wouldn´t say it is an ignored issue. However our communist past, which pushed the vast majority of women into the workforce but at the same time didn´t lift the burden of domestic responsibilities from them. This made Eastern European women less interested in issues of equal work opportunities (they more or less had and still have them) while they are more concerned in the equal division of household labour and distribution of childcare responsibilities.

You stated in your article in the Guardian that the future of Europe belongs to women, how do you support this opinion?

Hmm… it doesn´t necessarily exclude males from that future, does it? Actually, I’m quite concerned with the frustration men are experiencing losing their status, primarily that of bread-winner. There is a growing frustration among men and a feeling of being made redundant as women’s position in society improves alongside the fact that women are and will always be the child-bearers. We are coming into an age when males need our support and direction. Are we ready for it? I mean in our private lives. We are used to thinking about ourselves as oppressed, but this is the time to adopt another perspective. Or we risk missing the core of what is going on around us.

This month’s issue of the 3rd Magazine is themed around ‘everyday sexism’. Do you have any input or advice from experience for our readers on this topic?

Concerning ‘everyday sexism’… Naked female bodies on billboards promoting everything from cars to carpets is chronically known and an irritating phenomenon we all know about. A woman’s body is considered as something that sells practically anything. It is so common that I no longer get annoyed and have actually stopped noticing it. However, my children are only just beginning to notice it. Just recently I had to face a simple question from my five year old son pointing at such a billboard: “Mum, why is the lady naked?” What can I tell him? Shall I completely lie or offer some evasive answer or explain to him why it is an inappropriate way of advertisement?

More subtle example of ‘everyday sexism’ are the ads for higher education, dozens of private universities promote themselves this way now in Prague public transport. No objection to it until you realize how professions are straightforwardly linked to particular gender. If the poster allures you to study for example public relations there will be a young woman waving at you, same when it is pedagogy and often is case of arts. When the field has to do something with for example IT or business the smiling person will be probably a guy.

If you are interested in reading Petra’s novel ‘All this Belongs to Me’ then click here:

Hollie Weatherstone is young enterprise editor for the3rdimagazine

2 Comments on Interview with the novelist Petra Hůlová

  1. Thanks for this Hollie. It was interesting to hear how different histories affect the culture of a society, although some of it sounds all too familiar. Petra’s answers were for me, well thought out and balanced. I enjoyed her use of language, clear and uncluttered.

  2. “Mum, why is the lady naked?” What can I tell him?
    We need to know what to tell our boys. How about, “Mum, is that you? why are you naked?” Women’s bodies do sell everything from cars to chocolate bars. These images only exist because there is a woman prepared to get naked for that image. Imagine explaining why you got naked to your own son.
    For a time early in my career I was the only woman in the whole of the Uk doing the job I did. It brought me into contact with male engineers on the factory floor. They had calendars prominently displayed in their offices, from Pirelli actually, showing women in provocative poses. The men were a bit embarrassed seeing that I would be exposed to this imagery and would often place themselves between me and the calendar. At the time I quipped that if I looked like the women in the photographs I’d be a model not a boiler engineer. I was wrong. I can now tell my son that I was a success in a male dominated industry rather than having to explain why I demeaned myself on a pirelli calendar.

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