Iva Prochazkova is one of the Czech Republic's most respected authors of children's books and novels for young adults, a writer who spent much of her career in Austria and Germany before returning to the Czech Republic in the 1990s. The author, recognised both in the Czech Republic as well as abroad, learned last month she would receive this year's Friedrich Gerstacker Award, Germany's oldest prize for youth literature. She receives the prize for her book Tanec Trosecniku (translatable as Dance of the Castaways or Castaways' Dance), a fantastical story of a young Roma boy who survives an usual and deadly pandemic spread by the media. That book as well as key moments in Iva Prochazkova's career are the subject of this edition of Czechs Today.
In many ways writing came naturally for Iva even early on: as a student in the early 1970s she dreamed of studying at Prague's FAMU film academy. But despite repeatedly filing entrance exams to university, the future author faced insurmountable obstacles from the Communist regime: her father, the late Jan Prochazka, a well-known scriptwriter on numerous films, had been one of the "undesired" authors of the Prague Spring. After 1968, he was thrown out of the party and any future at university for Iva was blocked. Iva Prochazkova:
"I must have applied six times. I tried to get into a number of schools. Influenced by my father I most of all wanted to go to FAMU, but I also had friends in the theatre so I tried theatre school. Finally I tried to get into the Philosophical Faculty. There, I went through the exams and was approached by a young man, who asked to meet me elsewhere where he revealed he was a representative from the Union of Communist Youth (SSM). I met with him and he told me in hushed tones that he had word from above that if I considered joining I could be accepted at school. But I didn't and I wasn't. Such a step was unacceptable for me."
Having at least finished a prestigious high school, Iva Prochazkova could have pursued a comfortable clerical job, but she chose instead to be hired as a cleaning lady, a profession often chosen by artists or intellectuals on the "wrong side of the regime". The job, which she did ten years, allowed her much greater space for creative work. She could fulfill her duties at all hours and spend her free time writing. The bleak down side was that there was little chance of actually ever getting published. The author still looks back at the 1970s with certain bitterness today:
"It was an active period for people in the underground but I don't look back at this period happily. In some ways it was worse than before 1968. The reason? Before '68, the injustice against people who were persecuted or thrown in jail or killed was obvious to everyone. It was out in the open. But after 1968, the so-called Normalisation period really deformed the nation's character.
"In the 1970s it was fairly possible to get at least some goods, here and there something might get published, and this led to the opinion that 'well, things aren't really all that bad'. People began to lose the need for elementary freedom. The freedom to go anywhere, to leave, to say what they liked, to be friends with anyone they liked and not to have to wonder if they were informers. I think that problems arose then in Czech society of which we're still feeling the effects today."
Her first play in 1975 - Venus' Hill - banned, Prochazkova decided to try writing for children, after the idea was suggested to her by a friend.
"After failing to get my stories published a friend of mine suggested I try writing for children: that area was not as controlled by the regime. I began to write for children and found that I enjoyed it: I enjoyed the playfulness involved and the creativity. At the same time I wanted to make the books interesting for parents reading to their kids, so I included certain references. I wrote a number of books but it only all came together after we emigrated to Austria and later moved to Germany, where the children's book market was on the rise and taken very seriously. Children's books had their own reviewers and so on. That was very comfortable and I jumped straight in, like a fish in water."
Iva Prochazkova and her husband, film and theatre director Ivan Pokorny, had decided to emigrate with their children in the early 80s when they had the opportunity. That changed all their lives and also a major impact on Iva's career. (She writes in Czech but today takes a close interest in her books' German translations). Her plays began to be published in Austria and Germany and her children's book The Summer Wears Donkey Ears in 1984 was listed as one of Germany's Best Books of the Year. Other successes followed: Season of Secret Wishes won the prize for Best Children's Book in 1988. Mrs Prochazkova attributes her success to approaching her subjects with honesty and true interest and not pandering to children or young readers. Trying too hard to be liked, she says, is something that writers shouldn't risk:
"We all know children as readers are impatient and that they don't like overly-descriptive passages and so on, which can lead some authors to try too hard to be entertaining. You have to find a balance. Above all, the style must serve the story: not just entertain.
"Another risk is that of trends: authors have to be wary of jumping on the bandwagon: if something is popular now, whether Spider-Man or Batman or fantasy books, one should not jump aboard just because they're popular. As a writer I also ask myself if a project I've started is really what I want to write about - really write about - in all its aspects."
So far, Mrs Prochazkova, who returned with her husband and younger children to Prague in the 1990s, has been recognised for being both dynamic and original: her books for younger children have not shied from difficult topics, including death like the recent Mysi Patri do Nebe (Mice Belong in Heaven), telling the story of a mouse "after" life.
"When I was a child I myself was terrified of death and my parents - who were atheists - weren't able to soften the edge, to remove my fear. In Germany it is much more common for children's books to take on issues like this.
Meanwhile, Prochazkova's books for teens and young adults have also taken on various issues including the threat of loss of identity or individuality in the information age, as in Tanec Trosecniku, set to receive the Friedrich Gerstacker Award in November. Iva Prochazka says that rather than reverting to a genre like fantasy in which readers 'escape' reality, she instead wants to deal with issues or themes young readers find relevant in the world today.
"In Tanec Trosecniku I came up with the idea of a disease spread through the media. Those infected are those who are most dependent either on the Internet, TV, or the radio. They lose their own opinions and personality and become 'ants' who just repeat what they hear so that in the end they think nothing else. They lose their creativity. Those who survive in this kind of negative utopia are those who are able to resist: individuals who have their own world they protect and remain unaffected."
Naturally, Iva Prochazkova is pleased Tanec Trosecniku has gained
recognition. She says that through the book young German readers will
discover more about the Czech lands, seen through the eyes of her main
character and his Vietnamese friend. Like any other successful author, she
hopes readers both at home and abroad will discover something in her books
they have not encountered before.
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