Tea Obreht Learned English From Bootleg Disney Videocassettes

03/14/2011 2:02 PM |

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It was standing room only fifteen minutes before Tea Obreht began to read from her new novel, The Tiger’s Wife, at Fort Greene’s Greenlight bookstore on Friday. “There’s a lot of you,” Obreht noted nervously in the middle of her introductory remarks, tracing an L shape with her hand to illustrate the trajectory of the crowd—unscientifically calculated to have a 1:6 ratio of men to women, and only growing thicker.

Obreht, the youngest of the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” list at 26, published a raved-about short story called “The Tiger’s Wife” in that magazine in the spring of 2009; the literary world has been waiting for the subsequent novel ever since. It took her more than three years to write. “I used a lot of outline but stuck to almost none of it,” she told the crowd during a post-reading Q&A. (She ended every answer with a chipper “thank you!”) Time Out New York has called it the hottest book of the spring.

“It’s almost like one of our own made good,” a bookstore employee said while introducing Obreht; the staff had grown attached to the book and author since advance copies arrived months ago. But Obreht is not a Brooklynite. “Home for a long time has been Ithaca,” she told the crowd; she left Belgrade when she was seven—the book is largely set in the former Yugoslavia during the wars of the ’90s—for Cyprus, then Egypt, then the United States. She learned English in Cyprus, though said she had begun a little earlier: she used to memorize the dialogue from bootleg Disney cassettes she got from Italy, though she didn’t understand the Bambi dialogue she would recite by rote around the house.

The book is set in the real world, but Obreht said it includes no real places, dates, or people. “To be bound to historical particulars,” she said, “is to bog down the essence of the story you want to tell.” That story was catalyzed by the death of her grandfather; The Jungle Book is an essential and conspicuous intertext, but Obreht said also that Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey was “the most important” book of her youth. It, too, chronicles traveling animals, and probably also influenced The Tiger’s Wife, in a more unconscious manner than the Kipling.

Now that the book is finally done and published—something Obreht said she was still getting used to—she has had trouble letting go. But she has, she said, finally begun to become emotionally attached to a new work that could become her next novel. “I’m hopeful,” she said. “I’m finally hopeful.”