Goran Vojnović is a phenomenon. The 32-year old Slovenian director and writer is author of the biggest best-seller in recent Slovene history with his novel Čefuri Raus! (pronounced ‘che-foor-y raus’), which he has recently filmed. The novel, a first person narrative about the adventures of a first-generation Bosnian immigrant and his family in a diverse, slightly anarchic section of Ljubljana, was a the talk of Slovenia, written in the voice of the streets (full of colourful swearing, a mixed dialect of Serbian, Bosnian, and Slovene), representing a narrative style that was all but non-existent in Slovenian literature, which tends toward a High Slovene language (the language of news anchors, not what you would actually hear people speak), and a literary/symbolic, portentous style – a far cry from Vojnović’s fast-paced, fun, funny, dance-like patter. Vojnović followed Čefuri Raus! with another popular novel, Jugoslavija, Moja Dežela (pronounced ‘Yugoslavia moya deh-djeh-la’), about a road trip in search of a lost father, who turns out to be a Balkan War criminal in hiding. But Vojnović’s first love is directing. His 2008 film Piran Pirano was his first feature, and he has established himself as a leading light among young Slovene filmmakers and writers. He has just finished filming his second feature, the adaptation of Čefuri Raus!, which will be released next autumn. We spoke with Vojnović about writing, directing, and the definition of ‘čefur.’
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Ljubljana, actually in a suburb called Fužine, which is one of the biggest neighbourhoods in Slovenia. Quite small if you compare it to suburbs in big cities abroad, but for Slovenia 15,000 people is a large number. In Fužine there are a lot of people from other ex-republics of Yugoslavia: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia. A multi-cultural suburb, which makes it interesting, a good place for me to find my stories, to learn about different aspects of life in a society which is not as simple as the rest of Slovenia.
For people in Slovenia, Fužine has a connotation to it that is not necessarily positive. What’s the view of this neighbourhood for people who live elsewhere in Ljubljana?
When the Balkan Wars were still on in the 1990s, many refugees lived in Fužine, including some relatives of mine. There were also nationalist tensions emanating out of Balkans. Fužine became a metaphor for problems. People watched too many American movies, and saw Fužine as Ljubljana’s ghetto – with crime, drugs, problems with young immigrants. In a way it was a little bit like that. But Fužine remained a neighbourhood rich with life. It had a socialistic past, where socialists used to [intentionally] put different people into one neighbourhood [to promote diversity]: they’d put together politicians, artists, business people along with workers in one neighbourhood. For years, you could meet people of all sorts there, not just immigrants. Now it’s different. With capitalism things change. And also this image of Fužine changed. But it’s difficult to tell what Fužine was. People saw it as a ghetto, but it wasn’t really a ghetto. It’s interesting, actually at one time the Slovene Minister of Culture lived in Fužine, so you can’t really call it a ghetto.
Your first novel, Čefuri Raus!, might be translated as Southern Scum Go Home! Tell me about how you came to write this book and also explain what the term ‘čefur’ means.
Well, I studied film, and I was writing a lot of things for film. I saw that it’s difficult to write about things that you don’t know very deeply. So I wanted to write about my neighbourhood: people I knew well and I lived with. So I was thinking about putting a story in Fužine, in my own building, with my own neighbours. But I was thinking about a film. Then I thought that there was a lot of literature about immigrant topics – Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureishi – and it was difficult for me, as a young director, to get funding to make a film, but as a young man writing a novel… I especially thought that I could write it in the language that these people spoke. It was disappearing, no one was committing it to paper, and it was very interesting. So I thought, well, that’s an interesting idea. I could help save this language from disappearing without a trace, and I can write about people I know and love and hate, about people I have strong emotions about. So I wrote a novel, Čefurji Raus!
‘Čefurji Raus!’ was a piece of graffiti I saw in Ljubljana. It was common in the 1990s, when Slovenes wanted the foreigners to leave. People from the first or second generation of immigrants, especially those coming from Bosnia and Serbia, despite the fact that they were mostly born in Slovenia. Čefurs are these recent immigrants from ex-Yugoslavia. It’s a very ugly word, like the ‘n’ word in America. It was difficult for us who were called ‘čefurs’ to accept that we were born in Slovenia, but we were being called non-Slovenes by Slovenes. But in a way, some rebel way, we accepted that. We became čefurs and became proud of it. There was a clash among us, of those who accepted and embraced the term ‘čefurs’ and those who still felt offended by it. It was an interesting world in the late 90s, when I grew up. I tried to capture that in my book.
There were other topics, as well, because a lot of čefurs did not have a choice to live in Slovenia or go back to Bosnia, because there was a war still on. So they felt trapped in Slovenia. This also is important for their relationship towards the country they live in. Economic immigrants can always go back – they move by choice to have a better life. But here, people came to escape the war, or to study, or to work for a few years and then, because of the war and its aftermath, they realise they can’t go back or have nothing to go back to, so they are stuck here. So it was [about] a lot of topics, but I wanted to write about people I knew, about my family, fathers and sons, friends hanging out, families living away from their relatives in Bosnia and Serbia, alone in this world. It’s a large topic but very interesting.
I like the fact that you talk about writing this book in a specific voice, or dialect, that I certainly encounter everywhere I go in Ljubljana. It’s how people speak, but it was not used in Slovene publications, literary Slovene. I like that you are preserving this language in a popular novel. How does it differ, in terms of writing, from the High Slovene language you encounter in most literature?
For me, I always admired people who knew how to capture the spoken language in text. In Slovenia, the spoken language is very, very different from what you find in books. I can’t speak to such cases in other countries, but here the language you hear on TV or in books is simply not used, nobody uses it. For me the problem in Slovene literature is that you could never read it and hear your relatives and friends talking. For me it’s important to be able to ‘hear’ my characters. Maybe that’s because I come from a background in film. In Čefurji Raus! you don’t have just a Fužine style slang spoken by the 17-year-old main character, but there are lots of different languages, slang and dialects. His parents speak a mixture of Slovenian and Bosnian. You have a clear Bosnian language, Serbian too. You have some typical Ljubljana slang. I tried to show that people are speaking very different languages, and they are still understanding each other. But sometimes they sound very different. The language as we speak is very important for each character. Take away someone’s speech from him, and he’s not a full character. I always want to give characters a proper voice, dialect, slang, even mistakes they make while speaking. I could be very creative here, and there was no word that I could not use. Of course there are some rules that I strictly followed, when I wrote in the dialect, as I was thinking ‘how will people read this,’ as dialects are sometimes difficult to read. But I could mix words from Bosnian, Serbian, and use them freely. It was still a very artistic way of making language, but a lot of readers saw their own spoken language in the book, and liked it for that reason.
There’s a poetry to it. People compliment, for instance, the way Quentin Tarantino writes swearing. His characters speak in a filthy language, but there’s a poetry to it. In Čefurji Raus! I don’t think a page goes by without someone swearing, but it sounds entirely normal and, frankly, that’s how people speak. It was particularly well-suited for adaptation to a one-man stage play. Some friends of mine saw the performance recently and they said that it worked beautifully. Like a staged reading. Okay, you first had the idea of this as a film, then you wrote it as a novel, and now you’ve just finished filming the novel. The novel was a best-seller here. Tell me about the process of going from film idea, to novel, and now to film.
Okay, you first had the idea of this as a film, then you wrote it as a novel, and now you’ve just finished filming the novel. The novel was a best-seller here. Tell me about the process of going from film idea, to novel, and now to film.
First to reply to your comment about the monodrama. There was some logic to that, because I imagined the book, as I was writing it, as if someone were speaking it aloud. That’s where the rhythm comes from. I always wanted to hear my characters speaking. If he says a bad word, it’s because I ‘heard him’ saying that bad word.
Of course I first thought about a film, but the first script I wrote, or part of the script I began, wasn’t very useful when I wrote the final script for the film (which is in the process of editing). When writing the book, I realised how much freedom I had as a writer. In the film, you have more confines: you have to follow the main story. You can’t stop everything and suddenly tell a side story, which you can in a book. There are rules of the way you have to tell a story. You have 90-120 minutes, and you have to grab the viewer’s attention and not let it go. In a book, you can drift away, talk about Fužine and čefurs and characters’ pasts. It’s difficult to do that in a film. So when I returned to the film format, it was hard, because I had this old context, this broader story, and now I had to bring it back to the main point of the book. People told me that the story itself is less important than how the story was told. There are so many stories besides the main one in my novel, so people were sceptical. But I knew that, inside the main story, there is a lot that I can tell in a different way, to show people things they might have missed in the book. A large number of my readers missed things in my book, and so I thought that the film could bring those aspects to the fore. Now, as I watch the film, I think it will be a nice surprise for readers of the book. Not because it’s different, the story is the same, but film brings things up differently, with pictures and actors, it’s harder to miss what I’m trying to convey. I think it will surprise a lot of people.
When some people tell me what they liked about reading Čefurji Raus!, they say that they had a laugh, and they think that the film will be a comedy. But it’s actually a tragic story, though told with humour. Some thought it was a collection of jokes, but it’s not. The film also starts as a comedy, but as it develops, it becomes more and more serious, and even sad. Early viewers of the film liked it, but were surprised that it was more tragic. I think people will read the book for a second time – but differently – after seeing the film.
Before I started to shoot the film, I thought I’d told this story, and I don’t like to repeat myself. But now I see how interesting it will be, because telling the same story twice is not the same.
It also must be interesting to write a novel with a first person narrator, as if you are the main character, and then in a director’s chair, you are watching an actor interpret your main character, as if you are now creating the same story from a third person perspective.
That is what I like about films. When writing a novel in first person, you’re always behind it all. It’s just your story, and it’s in a way one-dimensional because of it. Film is never one-dimensional. Characters have their own minds, because they are played by actors who give my words meaning. If I choose different actors, my lines will have different meanings. I have up to 100 people working in my film, and each person interprets my story from their own perspective. Every actor, of course, feels that they are telling the story themselves. Film is not for control freaks (which writers usually are!) Your story becomes the story of many people. The director is trying to get the focus of everyone on set so that we are all telling the same story. A strong director with a strong idea, who knows what he’s doing, then everyone tells their own angle of the same story that the director wants to tell, bringing multiple dimensions to it [but within a focused whole.]
Let’s talk briefly about some of your influences. Perhaps you could name some novelists or novels that inspire your own writing, and some directors or films that inspire your films?
I’m sure I’m not the first to say that I don’t knowingly borrow from others, but of course we all do it, whether we realise it or not. I make films and write books very differently from the artists I like most. When I first wrote the story of Čefurji Raus! I was inspired by a book by Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage. He wrote his autobiography in such a powerful way, and I thought that this was how I should approach it, writing about things I know, then I can be powerful. But of course to compare Čefurji Raus! to Of Human Bondage -they are worlds apart! It’s difficult to find a book that would be more different from mine. I also adore Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I’m a realistic novelist. There are no direct connections. Maybe there are more connections with my favourite Balkan writers, like the work of Miljenko Jergovi. He’s also realistic, and we have some topics in common.
What about films?
In film, I like a screenwriter called Abdullah Sidran, whose work helped me. He was like a script doctor, helping me with my script for Čefurji Raus!. He wrote the scripts for Emir Kusturica, and I really like those films. The way he tells the story, that was something I found so familiar, close to me, so I said that this is the way I wanted to do it. For him, there should not be any scene that is strictly there to give you information. You only have 90 minutes. So you watch the film and for each scene you ask, ‘Well, what is this showing?’ If it’s strictly information, then it’s a wrong scene. He also wrote almost autobiographical works, full of black humour and emotion. His scripts and the films Kusturica made from them, like Do You Remember Dolly Bell? and When Father was Away on Business, are great. Otherwise I like very different directors. I like Mike Leigh very much. I like Hou Hsiao Hsien, the Taiwanese director, and Otar Ioseliani, a Georgian director living in Paris. They are worlds apart from my films, but I always say that I enjoy silent films made by Asian directors, with people just sitting in this amazing silence and time goes by without a word – but I don’t know that kind of people. People I grew up with are always talking, passionate, fighting, swearing – they have a problem with communication, but they show this problem with words. So I have to do films about people I know. As a film viewer and as a reader I like different things from what I make. I read Amos Oz’ autobiography recently. I loved it, and look forward to reading another book of his…in some years. But now for something completely different. So I found a Cuban author, Jose Lezama Lima, and his sort of autobiography, Paradiso, is what I’m reading now.
Speaking of something completely different, your second novel, Jugoslavija, Moje Dežela has a very different style from Čefurji Raus!. How did you come to write it, and why does it have such a different style from your first novel?
I didn’t want to repeat the first. I didn’t want to write anything like Čefurji Raus!. I felt that I had told everything I wanted to about Fužine, čefurs, and felt that I could do something else. Fužine and čefurs appear in my second novel, of course, but I realised I should talk about what bothers me, not about what people want to read. Čefurji Raus! was a phenomenon, for Slovenia it sold a huge amount [18,000 copies, the biggest fiction best-seller in recent years], it was a miracle. It’s difficult to find people who haven’t either read it or heard about it. So I thought, whatever I write next, it’s impossible that it will be so successful. So I thought that I could write about whatever I wanted, I didn’t have to worry about it as much. Okay, I thought, let’s do something I’m interested in. I was travelling in the Balkans a lot, I was interested in the story around the Balkan War. Not in the war itself, because I was not directly involved in it, and thankfully no one in my family took part in it as a soldier. But everything that happens after the war, the consequences, and how our generation should deal with it… I started thinking about a story in this space, dealing with this topic: post-war traumas and family. In a way, it took some time for me to get the story together, to figure out how to write it. I didn’t want this serious topic to be dealt with so seriously that no one will want to read it. I’d deal with the topic in a readable way. So my book is part road book, part thriller – the main character is looking for his father, who is in hiding as a war criminal. But inside the story, there are a lot of intimate things, even more than in Čefurji Raus!. My own father was, of course, not a war criminal, and no one in my family was actively in the war. My family members were indirect war victims – nobody died because of the war, but many were forced to move out of their homes. All around ex-Yugoslavia there are a lot of frustrations among people in their new home here, difficulty starting their new lives. Still ten, fifteen years after the war, these feelings still interfere with my family living happily and freely. Some because of their own trauma, some because of society. So I wanted to write a book about this and its world, the world this war created. But if you write that, you have to write it from the start, so it’s also about how it all began, what that world was like before it dissolved.
Will this also be made into a film?
I think not. This book has such a complex story, two stories in different times: the search for his father, and the story of his family’s disintegration at the war’s start. It’s hard to tell it in a 90 minute movie. It would be sad for me to take just one part of this book to be filmed. It works only all together.
It should be an HBO series, then.
It could be like this but, alas, in Slovenia there is no equivalent to HBO.
Goran, thanks so much for your time and I’ll look forward to seeing your next film, Čefurji Raus!, which will appear in festivals in the late summer/early Fall, and subsequently appear in theatres.
Vojnovi will shortly be appearing at several events in England. You can catch him on 8 March, when he appears with another young Slovenian novelist, Gabriella Babnik, in London at the Embassy of the Republic of Slovenia (10 Little College Street, London, SW1P 3SH). On 12 March he will appear in Nottingham at 19:00 at University Park’s Highfield House (Room A1).
Noah Charney is a professor of art history and best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction. He lives in Slovenia.