Téa Obreht: ‘In America, we make progress, then revert in horrific ways'

At 25, she won the Orange prize with her first novel, The Tiger’s Wife. In her long awaited follow-up, she tackles the history of the American west

How do you disrupt the mythology of the American west, with its campfires and cowboys, and its spirit of masculine self-reliance? If you’re Téa Obreht, you add creatures – and people – who belong to the history but not to the myth. You add, say, camels. Inland, the long-awaited follow-up to her 2011 Orange prize-winning debut The Tiger’s Wife, takes place in the late 19th century across Arizona and its neighbouring territories. It braids together the stories of Nora, an anxious homesteader struggling to hold her family together, and Lurie, a drifter who ends up attaching himself to a real-life convoy of camels imported from the Middle East to test their suitability for military service. Obreht stumbled across the surreal story of the camels by chance, listening to the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class. She describes the episode with palpable delight: “It’s about two women who are beset on their homestead by a creature that they can’t identify and which they claim has supernatural powers. They call it a demon horse.” The apparition turns out to be an escaped camel, with a macabre twist that is best saved for the novel. She found the story “wild, and so grotesque and wonderful!” – and her obsession was fired.

The Tiger’s Wife, a novel about the relationship between a young doctor and her grandfather, and about the stories on which both family lore and national identity are built, brought Obreht the kind of success that can be paralysing for a young writer: a New York Times bestseller, finalist for the National Book award, a place on the New Yorker’s 20 best writers under 40 list. But it all happened when she was in her mid-20s – too young and green, she says now, to feel daunted. Since then, she’s been teaching fiction at Hunter College in New York, publishing short stories, and not publishing drafts of two full novels. “All kinds of things interested me, but none of them drew me in enough,” she says. “I was writing more as a way to flex those muscles, but I could feel that my focus on the page and the way I was approaching writing was starting to change. And it frightened me.”

It wasn’t until the camels showed up that she found a way to push forward. “Animals have this unnerving tendency to creep into my work, even when I’m trying to hold them at bay,” she says. Animals come up in conversation too, when she describes her efforts to find a new project as placing “little book turtles down on the racetrack”. If not a writer, she would have become a zoologist or biologist. “On a psychological level, I’m deeply interested in three things,” she says, checking them off on her fingers. “Who people are when they’re alone and no one’s watching; who people are when they’re telling themselves the most palatable stories of their lives; and then who people are with animals.”

All three of those interests are richly present in Inland, which draws on Obreht’s longstanding curiosity about the American west. She has spent time travelling through Arizona and Texas, and owns a holiday home in Wyoming, a vast distance physically and culturally from her Manhattan home and the Upper West Side cafe where we’re discussing the book. Like many visitors, she was “floored” by the desert landscape, but felt a pull stronger than simple tourist curiosity. Despite having no roots or connections there, “it felt like a homecoming.”

Obreht wins the Orange prize for fiction 2011.
Obreht wins the Orange prize for fiction 2011. Photograph: Sang Tan/AP

Born Téa Bajraktarević in Belgrade in 1985, Obreht moved to Cyprus and then Cairo as a young child, with her mother and her grandparents (her father was never part of the picture). When she was 12, her grandparents returned to Belgrade and she and her mother emigrated to the US. Her close relationship with her grandfather underpins The Tiger’s Wife, and when he died in 2006, she adopted and began writing under his last name.

It was through her grandparents’ love of classic Hollywood westerns that Obreht first imbibed the cowboy vision of the American west. As she researched the history, however, she discovered it was “a lot more diverse than anything that is handed down by history or by lore”. As an immigrant, she was particularly keen to uncover the mixing of cultures that went into shaping that quintessentially American landscape, and to put her own spin on the genre’s tropes. The relationship between Lurie and Burke, the camel he adopts, draws on the essential bond between a man and his horse. “It’s for transportation, it’s for shelter, it’s your currency if you need it,” she explains. But the camel also gives Lurie a sense of purpose and identity, enabling him to embrace his Ottoman roots. “His home is the camel.”

Obreht’s sprawling cast of characters are all carefully named, allowing her to tell stories in miniature about identity and origins. Spanish names, historical and fictional, are a reminder that many Mexicans in the southwest were not immigrants, but were made foreign as the border migrated around them. (Modern-day Arizona was part of Mexico for the first half of the 19th century, and did not become a US state until 1912.) Lurie, whose name comes from a garbling of Djurić, later befriends a man based on a mysterious real figure named Hadji Ali, a convert to Islam of Greek and Syrian origin, who travelled with the camel corps and became known as Hi Jolly. His story allowed Obreht to explore the ironies of the era’s shifting global power dynamics, in which a man who had “lived under the heel of the Ottoman empire” finds himself, quite by accident, serving “as part of the fist that holds the hammer of a new empire”.

Although their presence is constant in the book, Native Americans stand somewhat outside its central perspective. Obreht is thoughtful as she considers why she made this choice. “I’m glad to be writing at a time when more and more voices are able to tell their own stories, and I did not feel that it was my place to encroach on that,” she explains. “My interest was to examine the immigrant perspective, but to try to be as honest as possible about what that meant, with respect to incursion and the overrunning of Native American lands.” It’s also a practical question of surviving sources, of what stories were written down and preserved, and by whom.

To research the history of the camels’ presence in the west, Obreht relied heavily on the diary of Edward Fitzgerald Beale, who headed up the camel expedition. Because his was a military record and gave the coordinates of every camp, she was able to revisit all the spots that are accessible by car, which today include “an ultramodernist church” and the Albuquerque Greyhound station. Beale’s assistant, with no interest in proving the value of these curious beasts, barely takes notice of the camels. “He mentions them once, like: ‘All today, the camels were a pain in the ass as usual.’ That’s it.”

Obreht also immersed herself in the newspapers of the time, as a resource for shaping the novel’s language. She stayed away from contemporary fiction about the west by writers such as Cormac McCarthy in case she was influenced by them, especially by descriptions of the landscape. The beauty of the desert, after all, is rooted in its inhospitableness and for Nora, tormented by thirst as she moves across it, stunning vistas are hardly at the forefront of her mind. “Maybe the binary in the novel is: is this beautiful, or is this a pain in the ass?” Obreht says with a laugh.

It’s a disruptive choice to make a woman a central character in a western story, neither a silent wife nor one of the “balcony women” whose business relies on the constant flow of lonely strangers through town. “One of the tropes of the western that really grabbed me was the woman in the corner, just scowling and literally stirring the pot,” Obreht says. In contrast to the men for whom home is wherever there’s a stream of water or a campfire, Nora is fiercely focused on protecting her domestic realm, “this one little patch of life that she is capable of defending”.

In the diaries and letters of homesteading women, Obreht was struck by the “ripples of terror or rage” rising up out of these otherwise fatalistic, even contented accounts of lives haunted by uncertainty and death. Nora’s rage is partly directed at Josie, a young relative of her husband’s from the east, who brings with her a brand of feminine helplessness that seduces Nora’s sons and that Nora herself has worked hard to slough off. Yet there is something universal in her rage, too. Obreht describes how her grandmother, at the end of her life, likewise began to express “things that she, I guess, had been enraged about her whole life but hadn’t given voice to”. Despite feeling that she had lived a good life, “here they were, finally coming to the surface”.

Nora’s story plays out in 1893, a period of profound transition in the west – in many ways, the end of the old west as a remote and mythologised place. “It was after the laying of the Transcontinental Railroad and the massacre at Wounded Knee, which represented, in this nationalistic sense, the end of the Native American resistance,” Obreht says. The railroad is fundamental to the geography of the novel: its title, Inland, she explains, is how people referred to land away from the train tracks – it has nothing to do with the coastline, but marks the distance between places that develop and those that wither in isolation.

The newspaper, too, is an essential source of connection and power. “Back then, your newspaper was everything.” The paper run by Nora’s husband supplies information and gossip, but also has the power to shape politics and history, to privilege certain stories over others. Cattle barons, she explains, bought up newspapers in the effort to assert a moral right to the power they’d grabbed. They spread the myth that their rise was linked to their inherent virtue and strength. “It’s bootstrap narrative at its absolute core, its beginnings.”

Hi Jolly’s tomb in Quartzsite cemetery, Arizona.
Hi Jolly’s tomb in Quartzsite cemetery, Arizona. Photograph: Maurice Savage/Alamy

The telephone has the power to collapse even bigger distances. In one striking scene, Nora and her fellow townsfolk gather to witness the first exchange of words by phone, an almost magical event that makes her wonder if the gulf between the living and the dead might eventually be bridged by some as-yet-uninvented technology. Nora talks to her daughter, who died as a baby, while Lurie finds himself taken over by the “wanting” of people he’s lost. Yet there’s nothing fantastical about the way these relationships are portrayed. They are simply part of the reality of living in a place where people can disappear for weeks on end, where you don’t know whether they’re living or dead. And it’s a consequence, for Obreht, of the fundamental violence of the west. “It feels haunted to be there, and so much of that is owed to this horrific history on which the shaping of this country really sits.”

A novelist can’t predict the world into which her novel is launched, but it’s impossible to discuss questions of borders and history without bringing up the current climate of anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence. Obreht can’t help but be struck by the similarities between the world of her book and today. “I thought I was writing a book set in the west in the 1890s and I didn’t realise how much of it was going to align with this particular cycle that we’ve fallen into now,” she says. “What it showed me was that cultural discourse in this country, as in many others, operates in cyclical ways. We go forward a little bit and then we fall back. We make some progress but also revert in these horrific ways to things we’ve been fighting against for hundreds of years.”

Obreht sees it as part of a repeating cycle of anxiety about who belongs, who is truly American – and as evidence of the power of story. When Nora, unable to communicate with her Apache neighbours, convinces herself that they wish her harm, the result is disaster.

“If what you’re being told by every possible source your entire life is: ‘These people are here to hurt you,’ I don’t think it matters what century you’re in. If you’re 80% of people, you’re gonna flinch.” That’s true regardless of who is threatening you, and is part of what excites her about historical fiction: its ability to illuminate what returns and what endures. “Human cruelty, human frailty, vanity, paranoia - their modalities change and maybe their tone changes a little bit from century to century, but, actually, they stay the same,” she says. “They’re reptilian.”

• Inland by Téa Obreht is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Joanna Scutts

The GuardianTramp

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