The Austrian Riveter: JULYA RABINOWICH interviewed and introduced by Claire Storey

Julya Rabinowich is a writer, columnist, playwright, painter and interpreter. She was born in St. Petersburg in 1970 and in 1977, her family moved to Vienna in an experience she refers to as having been ‘uprooted and repotted’. Her first novel Spaltkopf was published in German by Edition Exil in 2008, and in 2011 was translated into English by Tess Lewis and published as Splithead by Granta Books. She has written four further books for adults, all published by Deuticke. In 2016, Dazwischen: Ich was released, the first of three novels for young adults. This novel won the Friedrich Gerstäcker Prize and the Austrian Children’s Book Prize. The English translation, Me, In Between, was published by Andersen Press in 2022, translated by Claire Storey. Rabinowich is an outspoken defender of human rights and is a board member of the recently founded PEN Berlin. (CS)

Claire Storey: How did you first start writing and how has your writing evolved over the years?

Julya Rabinowich: I have been writing since I was a child, probably since I was around seven. At the beginning this was a pleasant conversation with myself, like I was playing with reality – which in many ways I still am – but it wasn’t until after I had written Herznovelle (Zsolnay, 2011) that I realised there was a whole other world out there, the world of readers.

In your books, both for adults and young adults, you often introduce a second narrative, displayed on the page in italics. Where did this concept come from?

I started out as a painter so the way the text looks on the page is really important for me. The visual effect separates the different layers of the story more easily, so too the different plotlines. At least for me it does, even as I’m writing it. 

Your first book for young adults was published in English in 2022 with the title Me, In Between. While I was working on the translation, you mentioned that this story didn’t start off life as a YA novel. How did you first conceive it? 

Me, in Between was originally a play, my first to be exact. It focused on Eli, the father in Me In between, and his antagonist, Amina, his sister-in-law. Madina appeared in the background. I was inspired by the stories I carried over from one language into another through my work as an interpreter for people displaced by war and victims of torture. I refer to this process as portraying the speaker’s pain in the listener’s language. But of course, at some point the suffering also affects the messenger, like waves building up to a crash. It got to the point where I couldn’t continue to work as an interpreter, but I could tell people about it and share what it is like to flee from war or experience torture.

The play is a classic Greek tragedy: Eli is forced to choose between two evils. When the play was performed and the young actor cast as Madina delivered her ten minutes, she upstaged everyone! That was the moment Me, In Between was conceived; she convinced me to tell Madina’s story as a novel for young people.

For me, one of the beauties of Me, In Between is that you never mention where Madina comes from. Other than a reference to wearing hijab, there are very few references to her heritage. 

This concept didn’t actually come to me until after I had finished the first draft. Once I had told her story, I realised how important it was for this story to be universal, and so I went back and changed it. Madina comes from everywhere; she is the archetypal young woman fleeing war, a great representative of those children caught between two worlds.

I was excited to read the sequel to Me, In Between and to learn what happens next for Madina. In ‘Us, In Between’ (as yet unpublished in English), we rejoin Madina and her family as they settle into their new life but with the challenges of growing xenophobia and hostility. How can books like ‘Us, In Between’ help young people navigate the current situation?

Perhaps it helps to clarify certain positions: there are those who are attacked, those who stand in solidarity and there are those who remain silent. Those who remain silent are complicit. Perhaps this book will help give people courage and search out allies. Perhaps it will move people to become allies. But above all, I wanted to lay bare the mechanisms that lie behind the escalation: it all begins with tiny steps, before suddenly flaring up. It starts with words, but doesn’t remain just words. We see this so often in the world, how the clockwork is set in motion. Isn’t it about time that we learned from it? Creating divisions between people is easy. Bringing them together is more difficult because it is reliant on compromise. 

How does writing for adults differ from writing for young people? 

I make very little distinction between the two groups, both groups intertwine. Saying that, I do make one difference: I have no wish to completely overload young people with ideas of great peril and hopelessness. That is why Madina tells her story reflecting back on the war; from the start it has to be clear that she escaped. Young people need more hope than adults.

Your writing often features themes of migration, identity, fleeing oppression. Why?
These themes come straight from the depths that call out to humanity and at the same time expose how thin the ice of civilization is beneath our feet. If you listen carefully, you can hear it cracking, even now. 

When you’re working on these intense topics, how do you unwind?

Sadly, I haven’t found a way of doing this, other than shouting about the suffering and courage of other people. This was not a decision; staying silent was not an option.

Are you working on anything new?

Yes, I am. I am finishing the trilogy about Madina. This book is triggered by the war in Ukraine. It is likely to be the most hard-hitting of the three novels. But Madina is on the cusp of adulthood. The plan is to tie up all the loose ends – both the terrible ones and the good ones.

An extract from Dazwischen: uns (‘Us, In Between’) is available to download on the Goethe Institut Litrix website and translation funding may be available to support publication in English.

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