With just one novel under her belt, Téa Obreht, MFA ’08, has become a literary darling. The New Yorker named her one of the top twenty fiction writers under forty, and her book, The Tiger’s Wife, won Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize for female fiction writers. Still living in Ithaca after a stint teaching in Cornell’s MFA program, Obreht contemplates such topics as the perils of early success and the inspirational value of “Frasier” reruns.
With her debut novel, The Tiger's Wife, garnering literary laurels, Téa Obreht, MFA '08, ponders early success, the Balkans' lost generation, and the creative font that is 'Frasier'
By Adrienne Zable
On a drizzly Ithaca afternoon in late summer, Téa Obreht, MFA '08, carries a red umbrella to fend off the rain on the brief walk from her Commons apartment to the Starbucks on East Seneca Street. "I'm always losing umbrellas," she says with the robust, throaty laugh that punctuates many of her sentences. Since her first novel, The Tiger's Wife, was published in March to roaring critical acclaim, umbrellas are just about all she's losing. Obreht has been traveling the globe giving readings and winning awards—including Britain's prestigious Orange Prize and a spot on the New Yorker's list of the top twenty fiction writers under forty.
Critics have been raving ever since an excerpt from The Tiger's Wife appeared in the June 8, 2009, New Yorker as a short story, and the combination of her youth and critical success (not to mention her striking looks) has continued to generate positive press. Her precocity has been mentioned time and time again, in reviews from the New York Times to the Guardian. "The Tiger's Wife, in its solemn beauty and unerring execution, fully justifies the accolades that Ms. Obreht's short fiction inspired," Sam Sacks wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "No novel this year has seemed more likely to disappoint; no novel has been more satisfying."
But the petite young woman in a black T-shirt dress and flip-flops hardly comes across as a literary star. Behind what New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani called "a hugely ambitious, audaciously written work" is an animated, slightly goofy twenty-something who made money in college by choreographing couples' wedding dances and who watches videos of Bruce Springsteen concerts to get her creative juices flowing. "She's extremely good-humored and funny," says her teacher-turned-friend from the Cornell MFA program, novelist and professor J. Robert Lennon. "In person she's deceptively cheerful, and you could be forgiven for thinking that she's not as serious as she actually is."
The Tiger's Wife tells the story of Natalia, a young doctor in Belgrade who struggles to come to terms with her grandfather's death in the aftermath of war in the former Yugoslavia. Along the way, Natalia attempts to separate folklore from reality in the story of her grandfather's life. Her journey through his past and the unnamed war-torn country in which she lives is intertwined with the magical realism of a tiger stalking her grandfather's tiny Balkan village; a deaf-mute girl who forms a relationship with the animal; and an immortal man who helps shepherd those nearing death to their final resting place. The novel's major themes include death, the blurred line between mythology and reality, and the impact of war. And while it is a work of fiction, these themes have featured prominently in the true story of Obreht's life.
Born Téa Bajraktarevic in Belgrade in 1985, Obreht lived in a multi-generational household with her mother, grandmother, and grandfather. (Her father has never been involved in her life.) When she was seven, the family left Belgrade for Cyprus to avoid the escalating violence, and it was there that she realized she wanted to become a writer. "My mom had this enormous laptop computer," she says without a hint of an accent, thanks to the bootleg copies of Disney movies that her grandfather would bring home when she was a child. "I wanted to play with it, so I wrote a paragraph about a goat that has some sort of adventure." She raises her voice by an octave, gasping for effect, eyes wide. "I went to my mom and said, 'Hey, I wrote a story about a goat! I want to be a writer!'"
After a year in Cyprus, her mother's career as an economist moved the family once again, this time to Egypt. In school, Obreht was always a straight-A student, thanks to her strict upbringing and her family's high expectations, and she could often be found in the school library. When asked about a rebellious phase, she throws her head back and laughs. "Like six months junior year of high school, I dyed my hair red." Mostly, her rebellion involved stealing books from the library and eschewing other children in favor of adults. "I was a shy kid," she recalls, "but I always liked the company of grownups. They told better stories."
Indeed, stories and mythology played a significant role in Obreht's upbringing, and lend The Tiger's Wife its folkloric tone. "It's a novel set in the contemporary world with people who are connected to modern society, but it's addressing legends and folklore," Lennon explains. "So Téa had to find a way to incorporate the folklore, both thematically and aesthetically, with the society that we know." The novel's seamless segues between folktale and reality can be traced to Obreht's lifelong appreciation of mythology. "In Cyprus you'd go for a drive to the beach and suddenly you'd find yourself in Pathos, and you'd see a rock in the water with a plaque that would say, 'This, according to legend, is where Aphrodite touched land for the first time,' " Obreht recalls. "And then in Egypt, people's homes were made with stones they'd taken from temples. There was this sense of the old civilization having died, but you were living with it every day—you'd just take it and build your house with it."
The storyline of the man who shepherds the dying was heavily influenced by the regional superstitions passed down through the tightly knit generations of her family. "My grandmother would put scissors under her bed to ward off evil," Obreht says, "and every time I go back to visit I look under there to see if she's taken them away. But no, they're still there." Obreht admits to maintaining some of those beliefs; to this day she can't bring herself to compliment anyone's children, because of the superstition that it will call down the wrath of the devil.