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Artist of the Week – Ilija Trojanow

December 18, 2017 by · No comments

Interview by Dessislava Berndt with the author, publisher and translator Ilija Trojanow
Translation from Bulgarian: Dessislava Berndt
Proofreading: Polina Georgieva

The City Church in Wuppertal is known for its high-quality and sophisticated event program, as well as for the good cooperation with other partners.

At the invitation of the Catholic Educational Institute and in cooperation with the bookstore Mackensen and the cultural bureau of the city of Wuppertal , CityKirche Elberfeld (Old Reformed Church) hosted for an evening politically and socially interested people and enthusiasted readers. They had the luck to meet the award-winning author Ilija Trojanow at the presentation of his new book in a conversation with Hubert Spiegel from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The author read and commented – with a lot of humor- numerous stories and pieces from his new title, “After the flight”. If you had to leave your country, you will surely recognize yourself in the book. And, even more- as if the author speaks right from your heart. The topic of “escape” has accompanied him throughout the years and subconsciously has been in his mind for so long, that the book was created in an “eruptive” way and was written in just a few weeks.


And in case you haven’t had such an experience, you should read the book by all means. It is an attempt to share these experiences with others and thus to bring more understanding for this ” certain category of man – the refugee”. Mr. Trojanow has an important voice in Germany and abroad and hopefully it will now be heard by more people through the book and attract more attention in public debates.

Here is our interview with the author, done shortly before the presentation and reading of his book.

Mr. Trojanow, what does „homeland“ mean to you?

Well, that’s why you have to read my new book (laughs): because I actually needed 100 pages to show how difficult the question of homeland is and how complex, multi-layered, kaleidoscopic and fragmentary this question turns out to be for a refugee. So, the question pretty much can’t be answered or summarized in one sentence.

Ilija Trojanow in discussion with Hubert Spiegel, photo: desenze

And it can’t be answered, because at the beginning of each conversation one should first clarify the term “homeland” and ask “what do you mean by homeland?”. That’s an incredibly diffuse term.

Where are you at home then?

That’s easy: In my apartment, with the people I love. But that’s the same for everyone, I think.

Why is the topic of “escape” important for you again? You have already written about that in the novel “The world is big and salvation lurks everywhere” (1996).

First, because this topic is infinite. Second, because those who have been through that are rarely heard in public debates.

Ilija Trojanow in discussion with Hubert Spiegel, photo: desenze

A good many people are talking about migration, flight, refugees, but most of them don’t have personal experience of it, and I think this makes a big difference.

The reaction to the book proves it. I have received more letters than ever, from many, many people with a biography similar to ours. They all told me it had been the first time they had read something that reflects their life experience.

Because I actually believe that someone who hasn’t experienced that, simply can‘t understand certain things. So, the book is an attempt to explain to the others what it means.

Ilija Tronajow in CityKirche Wuppertal, photo: desenze

Many of these phenomena are regardless of the reasons for going to another country. This is not so crucial for the rest of your life, whether you have fled for political, economic or for other reasons.

When you leave your own country and go to another, you are torn between the two. What helped you deal with it?

What helped me was that at some point I adopted the attitude to embrace the situation and not to see it as a problem, but as an opportunity. Also, I need to say that this, of course, has some downsides, but it also gives me many new perspectives and a lot of possibilities that other people do not have.

Ilija Trojanow after the reading, photo: desenze

In that sense, it is quite simple: that is the question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. You can take it as a big profit for you.

What can one say about the man Trojanow?

I don’t know. There is a beautiful African proverb of the Shona tribe from Zimbabwe: “One can always be called a human from the others.” I believe that it is a very profound wisdom. You can’t see yourself.

The book table of book store Makensen, photo: desenze

One of the insights that one gains with time shows that the self-image and the image the others have for you never coincide.

In this sense, sometimes I am surprised by the positive descriptions about me that I hear, and I get terrified with the negative ones, but I perceive neither of them at a conscious level. So, the question should be answered by the others.

You can‘t say, for example, whether you are a funny or a thoughtful person?

I think that as a writer one is always thoughtful and the books show it. There is almost no book of mine written without humor. Humor is very important to me and is a vaccine against despair, against misanthropy.It is all difficult without humor.

So, humor and maybe the desire to travel characterize you?

Yes, but traveling is not a characteristic of mine. People can be quite different, yet to like traveling. That does not characterize a person. For me, traveling is a consequence of my biography. We have moved so many times! I grew up in different countries, on different continents. This is normal for me but has not been deliberately chosen.

And what about walking?

This is a late discovery of mine. I have found that walking is an adequate form of getting closer to the foreign.

Actually, only on foot I can perceive the world as I’d like. It is a kind of cultural technique.

You have won several awards. What does fame and recognition mean to you?

Awards are not always enjoyable. After being awarded, more books can be sold and you are getting prize money, which is very handy, but it doesn’t help me in my work. The work of a writer is always difficult and extremely uncertain, because when you start a new book you don’t know if it will be successful. It doesn’t matter if you are famous and have awards or not.

Every serious artist is putting himself under pressure. To be a serious writer means to have high expectations of yourself. And what I expect of myself is much more than others expect from me.

What gives you a meaning in life?

Human relationships, of course, and writing. I can not imagine a life without writing. That certainly gives me a meaning in life.

How and when did you realize you have to write?

I knew it at the age of 16. At first, that was a yearning. A longing must become a lifestyle and that takes a long time, because you have to find out whether it isn‘t an illusion.

And I was really sure when my first novel “The world is big and salvation lurks everywhere” appeared. I was 30 years old. Then I knew that this was the right thing for me.

How do you choose the topics?

I always have topics in my mind, they just find me. I travel around the world with my eyes and ears open. I have a long list of topics, interests, ideas, sketches. If I could lock myself up somewhere, in a monastery, I would have ideas for 20 books.

The ideas are differently intensive in my mind. When an idea becomes concrete, denser and starts prevailing, then I decide “I’ll write about it”.

What do you dream of?

Metaphorically, I dream of a better world, as other people do.
Personally, I am happy. I am extremely privileged.

Mr. Trojanow, thank you for the interview!


Ilija Trojanow is an award-winning author; his novel “The Collector of Worlds” won the book prize at the Leipzig book fair in 2006.

In 1971, his family immigrated to Germany, where they received political asylum. These experiences of escaping and arriving in a foreign environment have been influencing him to this day. For Trojanow the refugee is a particular type of person, a whole new category.

“After the flight” is not an autobiographical book but it has many personal messages. Trojanow gathers memories, philosophical and psychological views and interweaves them with aphorisms and quotes from texts of world literature.

Trojanow opposes the lowering of the refugee to socio-economic issues and regulatory frameworks. Carefully and poetically he approaches main and existential notions such as homeland, the unknown, the strangers, and reveals the complexity of the process of arriving in a foreign country. “The danger is not that we will be alienated, but that the unknown will disappear.”

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