Monika Zgustová

Writer and translator

'I’ve always felt very european'

I became a writer and a translator, and I now speak six languagesThe book is about women who spent some time in Stalin’s gulag work camps
Monika, where are you from?
I was born in Prague. When I was 16 years old my parents took me into exile. We went to India and then from there to the United States. That is where I studied and lived for over five years. Then I came to Barcelona. That is the simple story!
Tell me about going into exile. Did you know what was going on?
No, I knew nothing. My parents decided they couldn’t live in Prague anymore. After the Russian invasion, things where getting very difficult over there and my father would most probably have lost his job. It was in 1974; we went on a trip to India. It would have been considered a crime to just leave the country, so we needed to go on an organised trip. But on this trip there were 60 people and only four went back! In New Delhi my parents got tickets to New York.
Why did your parents decide to go to New York?
They felt it was a place where everyone could get a job. My father was a world-famous linguist and he knew people there. He also felt it was a good place for us children to be, as everyone is from somewhere else.
How did you adjust to life in America?
It took me about a year to adjust; I missed my grandparents and friends. Life in the States is really different; they do things very differently there. But after that first year it was okay, and I made many international friends at university.
What did you study at the university of Illinois?
Having been there, I was fascinated with India, and so I started with Indian Studies. It involved languages like Hindi, Sanskrit, and literature and religion. Lots of cultural things about India. Then I went into comparative literature. I became a writer and a translator, and I now speak six languages!
When did you move to Catalonia?
I wanted to come back to Europe. I really felt like a European when I was in the United States. I felt I could live almost anywhere in Western Europe. I decided to go back to Europe after I had finished my studies. I was about 22 years old when I decided to come to Barcelona. When I arrived here, I contacted some of the newspapers El Pais, La Vanguardia and I asked if I could maybe write for them about current affairs, and I still write for them now.
You are well-known for books like, The Silent Women, Roses from Starlin, and Winter Garden, to name a few. You have written about 10 novels. Let’s talk about your latest book, Dresses for a Dance in the Snow, which is the English title. Although it isn’t in English yet.
I wrote it in Catalan, and it is being translated into Spanish and Arabic. Of all places, in Syria. This book is about women who spent some time in Stalin’s gulag work camps. About eight years ago I was in Moscow and a friend, who is a writer, told me that there was a meeting of different people, men and women, who had been in these camps. I was very curious, so I went along. I saw many women there, more than men. The women that I saw were very cheerful, the men weren’t as cheerful. I thought, we actually don’t know much about women in the gulags, we know more about men. I was curious to talk to them, so I asked them for an interview, to start with maybe just for an article. In the end, I interviewed nine women and realised I had material for a book.
You say that if these women had another life, they would repeat the experience of being in the gulags again?
It was very hard for me to understand this at the beginning. There were some women who wanted to forget the whole experience, which I can understand more. But, why would you want to repeat an experience that was beyond horrible? But I do understand it better now. The experience was so intense, it was absolute hell. But when they had a positive experience, like a good friendship, it was the best, it was better than we would ever know. It was for life. There are no friendships like this in normal life. And when they were happy, they were extremely happy.
But still the experience must have been horrendous?
Yes, they had to work 14 hours a day, in temperatures that went down to -30 degrees. The most terrible experience for them was when the guards would call on them to build something, putting huge stones on top of one another. Then, the next day, they had to go back and they were told to destroy what they had built the day before. It was torture, and when there was no sense to what they were doing, then that made it very hard to handle. They could withstand most things if there was some sense to it, like building a house or railways. But without meaning, it was very tough. One thing I should mention is that what helped them very much was culture. There were very few books in the gulags but when there was one, they read it so eagerly and it was so important to them. They didn’t have paper, so they invented poetry and wrote it in their heads. They would memorise it and recite it to each other. They could memorise thousands of verses.
Tell me about your latest project that will be out this year?
It will be a book about Gala Dalí. It will be about her most private life. Her relationship to Russia, and a focus on her childhood. We know very little about her. We know what she was like with Dalí, but I want to find out what was beneath the mask.
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