About The Author
Pajtim Statovci was born in 1990 and moved from Kosovo to Finland with his family when he was two years old. My Cat Yugoslavia, his debut novel, was first published in Finland in 2014 to widespread critical acclaim and won the Helsingin Sanomat Prize for Best Debut. His second novel Heart of Tirana won the Toisinkoinen Prize in 2016. He studies comparative literature at the University of Helsinki, and screenwriting at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture.
Dazzlingly imaginative, My Cat Yugoslavia is a love story of sorts set in two countries and in two different moments in time - 1980s Yugoslavia, where a young Muslim girl is married off to a man she hardly knows with bleak consequences, and present-day Finland where her son Bekim grows up feeling dislocated and isolated. Bekim’s story feature a brilliantly drawn, capricious talking cat. The book, which draws on Pajtim's own experience as a refugee from Kosovo, is a story about the dislocation of losing a homeland, an identity and a childhood, and the legacy of that loss across the generations.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Pajtim about not caring whether he is considered Finnish or Albanian, the importance of writing about those who never make it, who never knock down walls and obstacles and achieve their dreams, and why he chose to make one of his protagonists a talking cat.
Author photo © Pekka Holmstrom
Questions & Answers
You fled Albania with your family when you were a child, how much of the novel is inspired by your own experiences?
My Cat Yugoslavia is a work of fiction – from start to finish, but I do make use of some autobiographical elements. I, too, like my protagonist Bekim, fled Kosovo (which was a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia back then) and moved to Finland with my family at a very young age. Some of the writing about nationality, racism and immigration very obviously stems from my own life and my personal history, as well as from lives of people around me. However, when I am writing I am creating – a world, a structure, an order, people – and when I give my characters motion and the ability to speak, I draw them from inside myself, so in a way my characters’ every motion and every feeling root back to myself, and in that sense the whole novel is filtered through and inspired by an autobiographical experience.
I also relate to stories and get inspired by stories that explore questions of identity and home. I know that this is because of my background, because I was born in Kosovo and raised in Finland, because to me there is no clear concept of home, no certain idea of a national identity. If I’m being completely honest I don’t even care whether I am considered Finnish or Albanian and which definition I get, or what nationality other people think I represent, because to me nationality is somewhat undefinable. My relationship to my home country, to my mother tongue, to Finland is like no other person’s relationship to their home country or mother tongue. It’s not a question of definition, it’s a question of a unique personal exploration. This is what I wanted to say with my novel because throughout my life I’ve been asked about my nationality, my mother tongue, my relationship to Kosovo and Finland as if these things are to be elaborated because of my multicultural background, as if I would have something to say about nationality because I’m someone who has lived between two cultures and worlds. That is wrong because to me it was a single world, I spoke Albanian at home and when I went to school, I switched to Finnish.
The fact that I moved to Finland as a refugee doesn’t make me an expert on questions of migration. But I guess it can make me a more believable storyteller. However, still to this day, I get asked about what we should do about the situation in the Middle East and how we should 'deal with' the people fleeing the area. If I had a solution to these issues that haunt our time and that are impossible to solve for even the most prestigious scholars and statesmen, I would gladly tell it, I would tell the world about it. So I guess I was inspired by my frustration, too. We all are distinctive to the point that we get to define ourselves in relation to nationality, sexuality, religion and gender the way we see fit, and we get to be our own personal cultures, nations and languages.
The novel is composed of two distinct but connected storylines, one set in Albania, and the other in Finland, what led you to this double structure and the very different styles of each thread?
I strongly felt like my protagonists needed me to present them through a dual narrative. After I found the voices of my main characters Bekim and Emine I started writing down their sounds and feelings, imagining their surroundings. Even though they live the majority of their lives under the same roof, I found their worlds to be completely different. They speak differently and about different things because they see the world differently, confront different questions and battles.
The realist narrative portrays characters who are more straightforward in their thinking, unwilling to look outside their cultural bubbles. Bajram, even Emine to some extent, do what’s expected and desirable from them in their realistic narrative. They are surrounded by barriers and rules whereas in the other storyline we have Bekim and the cat who follow no rules. Bekim lives in a shattered reality as an isolated and depressed gay man. He is raised in a chaotic world, and a lot of things don’t make sense to him, such as the war in his home country, such as gay people being beaten up in Kosovo. And therefore the narration also introduces fantastical elements, talking cats and snakes. Perhaps this way Bekim is trying to make the unimaginable possible and the unbelievable understandable and approachable.
Emine’s story barely touches Bekim’s story, even though they are stories of members of the same family. Oftentimes there’s a huge gap between the younger generation and the older generation, especially in families that have migrated from one culture to another. Sometimes there’s no solution to be found, no dialogue, no understanding, and the gap gets only bigger and deeper, and the distance between two worlds on the different sides of it only grows longer, never closing up. I think it’s equally important to write about the fates that never make it, that never knock down walls and obstacles and achieve their dreams. Our confrontations and battles don’t necessarily make us stronger, sometimes what we’ve been through only makes us weaker, sadder and more pathetic.
Did you set out to have magical realist elements in the book or did they just come about as you wrote and does it set the tone for your future writing?
This is closely related to my previous answers. Magical realism bends reality making its borders disappear. I love its attempts to disturb reality, cut it with fantasy. Sometimes that’s the only way to do it, to make sense of reality, to understand war, for example. For this reason I wrote My Cat Yugoslavia in a magic realist mode – because in its sphere of themes (nationality, gender, sexuality) nothing is given a limit.
I will definitely continue writing and let myself be inspired by all works of fiction that speak to me, whether it’s magical realism, fantasy, fables, folklore or historical research. When I find a voice of a character, I don’t chain myself to any expression or genre, instead I’ll just go by the character’s terms and conditions.
You write very movingly about Bekim’s isolation, and he is an outcast in several different ways, do you make a link between his experience as a gay man, and his experience as a refugee?
Definitely. Like you say, he’s an 'other' in more ways than one. Both refugees and queer people are to this day confronted with a lot of racism, prejudice and violence. We still live in a world of discrimination and hatred, we have always lived in a world of discrimination and hatred, only the victims of oppression change. And not everyone is capable of defending themselves or strong enough to revolt against it. Bekim’s father, Bajram, for example, loses his fortitude to fight and gives up in the end. Bekim has barely the will to live, and rarely leaves the house because he can’t bear the cruelty of the outside world.
I also wanted to show the different levels of discrimination and racism and how integral and automatic it often is, with characters that are guilty of doing it and with characters that are its victims and with characters that first suffer from violence and then act in a violent fashion. Bajram, who himself has suffered from racism, ends up acting racist towards Finns and being more and more violent towards his family. Bekim’s mother, Emine, who loathes working Finnish mothers, ends up landing a job herself. The cat in Bekim’s story is ruthless towards Bekim, at first for no apparent reason, but later on starts showing symptoms of being a victim of bigotry. It’s the saddest thing ever when people who have confronted intolerance and hatred end up being intolerant and hateful, but that’s how it goes. What hatred generates and what it calls upon is hate.
Let’s talk about the cat – he’s a brilliantly evasive and shape-shifting character. What is his role in the story?
He has many roles, or so I like to believe. The cat’s shape-shifting appearance and its contradictory nature hopefully gives room for different interpretations and allows many modes of approach. The cat can be seen as a symbol of a certain speech in the public sphere. The cat keeps saying things like 'I hate gays' and 'I hate immigrants' – sadly, there are people who think just like the cat.
The talking cat character is also the thing that pushes Bekim to grow. Initially Bekim lets the cat move in with him even though the cat is highly disrespectful and abusive to people around him. The cat can say and do whatever he wants, abuse Bekim and call him names because that’s what Bekim is used to. The cat takes over his apartment and assaults Bekim time and time again, and Bekim allows him to do it. Maybe this is because Bekim feels that the attraction, the occasional love and warmth he gets from the cat somehow means more because he, as an immigrant and a gay man, represents everything the cat hates. Perhaps Bekim thinks that love from someone like the cat, is a different kind of love, stronger than any other love, and more powerful, because this love has crossed borders and walls. Maybe he thinks that if he can get someone like that to give him love and acceptance, he will be okay. Maybe he needs to feel that it is possible for people, who think in a similar way the cat thinks, to see him as more than a refugee or as a gay guy, to fall in love with him.
However, even though the cat wants to be seen as someone in charge and in power, it begins to gain a lot of weight and starts suffering from depression, too. Suddenly, after miserably failing in life, the cat doesn't want to go out of the house any more because it thinks that it looks terrible and ugly, and that people are staring at its long dirty claws and its fur is greasy. Eventually the cat also fails to get accepted into the university, and leaves Bekim, who manages to get into yet another university, into the same programme for which the cat applied, saying that Bekim cheated and that he got accepted because he’s an immigrant and because they are eager to accept immigrant applicants nowadays because of 'diversity'. The cat also says something like: 'A cat in a world like this, no thank you.' So it becomes clear that the cat is acting out because it’s in pain, too, an 'other', and feels left out as well because, well, the cat is a cat living in the world of people.
So the cat mirrors his own fears and sense of otherness through his oppressive act. He discriminates because he is afraid of being a victim of what he is guilty of doing. I guess for people like the cat it’s easier to battle insecurities and the agony of self-hate by forcing people they love to feel the same way, to drown.
The novel won and was shortlisted for so many awards in Finland, what was that experience like, and is it strange to be speaking to an English-speaking audience now?
It feels very strange, yes. I wrote this novel many, many years ago, and if I’m being completely honest, the whole book feels somewhat old because I like to think that I’ve grown out of it. Speaking about it in a language it is not written in is strange, but what’s even stranger is reading excerpts of your own writing in a foreign language.
That being said, the fact that they even wanted to publish my novel in Finland baffled me because I hadn’t written fiction before it, only consumed it, relentlessly. Everything that has happened in my writing career after that has felt like a dream. The awards, the nominations, the translations, the reviews, getting to talk about my work in public in different countries, everything, and I consider myself very lucky to get to write to an audience because it is my dream and my passion and I love it so much that I wouldn’t know how to be without it. Two months ago I was walking in SoHo, New York City, and saw my book in the window of a famous bookstore, McNally Jackson, then in the window of another one in Brooklyn, Greenlight Bookstore, close to where I was staying. Seeing it next to the works of writers I so admire and look up to was just unreal. Whatever happens from now on, I will have that, and carry the memory of that for the rest of my life, and I know that it’ll always make me smile.
Are you still studying? How do you juggle your studies with your writing work?
I am! But not for long. I’m actually just turning in my master’s thesis on animal representations in some selected short stories of Ernest Hemingway and Franz Kafka. It has taken me quite some time to finish my MA in comparative literature, but I’m almost there.