Last October, an editor friend of mine at Two Lines Press invited me to a reading at a bookstore in Oakland. I’d never heard of the author or the book, which made it all the more intriguing. Lidija Dimkovska opened up the evening by reading a few minutes from her novel, A Spare Life, in the original Macedonian. My knowledge of Slavic languages is elementary at best, but there was something about the way Lidija read that captured the audience immediately. Before the talk was over, I’d resolved to buy the book, and started reading later that night.
A Spare Life is about Siamese twins, Srebra and Zlata—conjoined at the head—growing up in Skopje, Macedonia, with Communist Yugoslavia on the brink of collapse. The story is told in long, dreamlike paragraphs, weaving between the girls’ personal experience and the greater experience of life in a time of political upheaval.
In August, Dimkovska and I corresponded via email about living through the break-up of Yugoslavia, her writing style, and where she now feels most at home. [Warning: There are plot spoilers.]
The Rumpus: As I recall from your talk in Oakland last fall, you were inspired to write a novel, in which the main characters are Siamese twins, by a true story. Could you share a little bit about that story?
Lidija Dimkovska: I was at a poetry festival in Stockholm, Sweden. It was a white night there—besides the hotel curtains, it was so light that I couldn’t sleep. So I watched a BBC documentary about twin girls, conjoined at the head, who decided to be separated at a mature age in a public way. The surgical operation was very difficult and they both died. They were from an Arabic country, and they left for home in two separate coffins.
It was a terrible story that I thought I would forget. But I couldn’t, especially the crying of their surgeon, for whom it was probably his biggest defeat in his career, even if it was a historic operation. For many years, I was thinking about the condition of such a life, of the impossibility to be an individual, and one day I decided to write a story with similar personages but put in a context more familiar to me: Macedonia and Yugoslavia. I just wanted to tell their possible story in an environment like my country. It is a story of growing up and of a long period of life and time, from 1984 to 2012—a period that influenced both personal lives and social and political change, locally and universally.
Rumpus: When I began to read the book, one thing that challenged me (because I like to read just before I go to sleep) were the extremely long paragraphs, sometimes going on for several pages. Can you talk a little bit about your structural style?
Dimkovska: When I write, I usually follow my most inner voice, sometimes called stream of consciousness. Every narrator has it, but it depends on how much the author will allow it to become present in the writing. I cannot and don’t really want to control my mind, soul, or heart when I write and must recognize that I don’t think about the readers at that moment of writing. Afterwards it’s too late! But I like when the manuscript keeps its authentic style and form, so even if I have accepted some advice from editors (in Macedonia, my editor never has any objections about my work), I don’t really want to adapt the manuscript to the needs and expectations of the readers. Of course, the night is also a time of long paragraphs of sleep, dreams, subconsciousness, and of our strongest dark (or light) sides. The night is itself a novel.
Rumpus: During your talk, you spoke a bit about the translation by Christina Kramer and the effort to maintain the rhythm of the language. In what aspects of the translation do you think she is particularly successful?
Dimkovska: She is successful in every aspect of the translation but I appreciate most her ability to enter the voices of the characters and narrator in the novel, and to feel, talk, think in the exact way as they do in my mother tongue, Macedonian. Christina simply lived with my book: I think that translating, for her, is an existential situation and a process of love. She recently finished the translation of my new novel Non-Yes, even before we’ve found a publisher. She simply couldn’t resist translating it. In my new novel, there are three voices of narrative perspective, so there is a big risk that they could be lost in the translation. I’m not a native speaker of English, but even for me, her translation is so beautiful. I can hear the voices of every character/narrator. She simply gives life to my novels in English.
Rumpus: A novel about Siamese twins seems to lend itself naturally to multi-voiced narration. Why choose Zlata as a single narrator?
Dimkovska: From the very beginning of the novel, I knew that Srebra would die. I didn’t want her to speak first, and later for her voice simply to vanish. The novel is a kind of memory, and only Zlata, the surviving twin, can say everything she remembers about her life with her sister. As Dubravka Ugresic wrote of my novel, “It is written within the merry old novelistic tradition.” I love that way of telling stories when we have one narrator and we expect everything from him/her.
But of course, I am also open for experiments. In my first novel, Hidden Camera, there are two narrators. One is the writer and the other is the hidden camera in her toy. In my latest novel, I’ve written the narrators in first and second person singular and in third person singular and plural. It is truly a multi-voiced narration that shows many sides of the story. The story in A Spare Life is so personal for the narrator that there was no need to accentuate it in adding a second voice.
Rumpus: As authors, sometimes I think we become more attached to one character or another in our work. Do you have a favorite?
Dimkovska: Oh, it is very difficult to say. I can identify more with Zlata, but I love Srebra more because her story was the really tragic one in the novel. Zlata means gold, Srebra—silver. I personally don’t really love gold, but silver also doesn’t hold a lot of value to me. Still, Zlata is closer to my personal attitudes and wishes even if Srebra, for example, has many of my political attitudes. Actually, I love them both, and Bogdan and Darko, too. I wish they were real so I could meet them in real life and know them better. I tried to imagine them in every detail, and it has really enriched my own being.
Rumpus: Is the fall of Communist Yugoslavia integral to the story, or is it a backdrop?
Dimkovska: The allegory between the conjoined heads of Zlata and Srebra and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia was not my initial idea when I began to write the novel, but in the process of writing, many allusions and connections between them spontaneously appeared, with real references and allusions. I realized that at the end of the 1980s, some republics in ex-Yugoslavia began to long for separation, or more exactly, for their own integrity and identity, more European than Yugoslav. It happened especially with Serbia’s influence and hunger for more and more power and their desire for a leading role in Yugoslavia. The nationalistic politics of Slobodan Milošević became so big that in 1991, first Slovenia and immediately after Croatia separated from the rest of Yugoslavia. My own country, Macedonia, also separated, and thankfully there was a happy end. Macedonia was not involved in the war. Probably for Serbia, Macedonia was not so important since it is a small and quite poor country. So Macedonia became a kind of oasis of peace, as we called it, while in the rest of Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia, and especially Bosnia and Herzegovina) the Serbian aggression was a terrible thing. And of course, the war itself. Zlata and Srebra were lucky to live in Macedonia during the war, but it was a strange luck: They knew everything that was happening in the region, their male friends were the last soldiers in the Yugoslav National Army, refugees from Bosnia were coming to Macedonia, the political situation was very unstable, and fear of the present and future was strong. Zlata and Srebra belong to the generation of people born in the 1970s that experienced or were witness to a war in real life, not just as a school lesson.
Rumpus: Having a love-hate relationship with someone or something is so cliché, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a better example of a love-hate relationship, both between Srebra and Zlata and between the girls and their parents. Is that a metaphor for the relationship between the former Yugoslav republics?
Dimkovska: When you are conjoined at the head with another person, it is so frustrating and so painful that you hate the person who keeps you all the time attached to him/her, but he/she also hates you. Love is also present, of course, but when I imagined how they live day after day, and night after night, I realized that there is no exit, no escape, that only a surgical operation can do something, at any price.
In the last years before the separation of the ex-Yugoslav Republics, the hate (provoked by the political power of Slobodan Milošević) was increasing towards Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. That hate transformed into a violent war with the most tragic consequences for Bosnia. The war in ex-Yugoslavia was a kind of war of ex-spouses, with a lot of hate, anger, and violence. Even today I cannot believe that people who lived together could inflict such horrible pain on each other. But prevailing politics can do it. During the existence of Yugoslavia, the official slogan was Fraternity and Unity. It was not an empty slogan. We believed in that, and we thought we lived like that. But how can you say this about a country with almost twenty-four million people? Personal love or hate doesn’t change the emotional side of a country. But when politics promote hate, it becomes a rule, and populist provocation becomes standard. It has been the same throughout the entire history of humanity.
Rumpus: Having spent time in Lithuania shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Zlata and Srebra’s family apartment feels very familiar to me. Did you grow up in a similar apartment?
Dimkovska: All my generation grew up in a similar apartment, and not only in Macedonia. The Yugoslav, Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, and many other “national” apartments were very similar. Apartments of the working class, with tapestries on the walls, with TV boxes and telephones covered with handmade pieces of lace, with porcelain figures on the shelves, with restricted warm water and heating, etc. The smell of food coming from the apartments was also nationally similar. Of course, the relationship between neighbors was different from today’s neighbors who can hardly say hello to each other. In the socialist blocs, neighbors were like a family.
Rumpus: One scene that really struck me was when Bogdan “adopted” Auntie Stefka. Is that something that really happened in Macedonia or elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia?
Dimkovska: I simply invented that. I imagined that it could be the best option for children without parents to adopt parents for themselves—or, at least, a mother. In communist countries, nothing was impossible. Yugoslavia had socialist, self-directed system, so in this way, children also could have adopted a mother, why not? A child would choose the mother according to his inner desires. Probably she must be beautiful, cheerful, and kind. But a mother, as a grown up, would judge the child from all sides. I just imagined how fine it would be if the children could adopt mothers, of course, mothers who were single, without other children, living in a comfortable apartment, and ready to care for the children.
Rumpus: This novel is rife with tragedy. And yet, as things get worse and worse, there is always an underlying feeling of hope. Is the idea of hope in the face of tragedy reflective of the period in history that Zlata and Srebra were living in?
Dimkovska: Hope was integrated into the Yugoslav socialist society. Compared with the other socialist states (especially Albania, Romania, and the Soviet Union), Yugoslav socialism was a kind of light capitalism—we could travel, we could buy things, we knew what Coca Cola was, we wore Levi’s. We knew what was going on in the West. Everyone could have a normal life, maybe not rich, but decent. Separation of the Yugoslav republics and especially the war was something we couldn’t imagine and even believe. The war was going on and we still couldn’t believe it was happening. Even today, I just can’t imagine that there was war in Yugoslavia. It was the biggest tragedy for me as a person born in Yugoslavia. And because we couldn’t believe that people who were neighbors and friends could kill each other, starve each other, or put each other in concentration camps, we still hoped it was only a nightmare and it would soon end. We would wake up, and everything would be fine. That hope was only in our imaginations. Only after all military actions were over a little hope was born, but it was different in each of the separated republics, now independent states. I think that the biggest hope belonged to Slovenia, which really developed the best after the war. In the other states, hope came with a lot of problems. In my country, Macedonia, the 1990s were a period of hope, but the country is still in a process of transition—from hope to realization.
Rumpus: There is a way that Zlata talks about other ethnicities—Roms, Albanians, Greeks, Turks—in the book that swings between acceptance and tolerance, prejudice and disgust. What is it like in Macedonia post-independence in regards to the mixing of regional cultures?
Dimkovska: We cannot really talk about mixing except in several occasions like the Colorful Revolution in Macedonia in 2016 and in some protests against the former government when people came together to protest the political system. Alternative groups are open for the mixing of regional cultures, but the mainstream, not really. Usually, the life of Macedonians, Albanians, and Roms flow in parallel ways. Only an extreme question or situation can make them cross. But I see hope in the youngest generations, of course, if they didn’t inherit the stereotypes and prejudices of their parents about minorities, refugees, etc.
Rumpus: You now live in Slovenia. Do you ever imagine returning to live in Skopje?
Dimkovska: I live in Slovenia, but at the same time, in a way, I live in Macedonia, too, and even in Romania, where I lived for seven years. My life is not sedentary: I travel a lot because of my literary work and everywhere I am, I feel as if I live there, whether it’s two days, two weeks, or two months. Last October, I spent three weeks in the States, promoting A Spare Life in ten cities. In each of them, I simply lived. Once you’ve moved from your native country, you have a lot of homes, and in moments of weakness and sadness, not one. I am always longing to come back to each one of my homes. But to return permanently to Skopje depends more on my family (my husband is Slovenian, our daughter is Slovenian-Macedonian). The truth is that it is in my own room (inherited by Virginia Woolf) that I am at home.