Téa Obreht, Literary Wunderkind, Turns Serbian Folk Tales Into Fiction Gold

Tea Obreht credit Beowulf Sheehan.jpg
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan
Téa Obreht is only 26, but she's already wracking up literary prizes

​It would be easier to begrudge Téa Obreht's extraordinary success at such a young age if her writing weren't so damn good.

Her debut, The Tiger's Wife -- published last year when she was just 24 -- is the hauntingly beautiful tale of Natalia, a young Yugoslavian doctor, struggling to understand her grandfather's mysterious death. Last year, it landed her on The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 list. This summer, Obreht became the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Orange Prize for fiction.

She brings her precocity to the Miami Book Fair this weekend. Haters beware: she's already working on her second book.

The Tiger's Wife is a mesmeric mix of wild imagination and Obreht's own bizarre biography. Born in Belgrade in 1985, her family moved to Cyprus when Yugoslavia began falling apart in 1992, then again to Egypt, and finally to the United States. It isn't surprising, then, that Obreht makes her native country - now splintered into six nations - the backdrop for her first novel.

But what makes the novel truly special is how Obreht doesn't rely on the war to create mood or drive the plot, instead, layering her story with Balkan folktales like that of "the deathless man" and the titular tiger's wife, weaving them into and out of the grandfather's life like golden threads.

The result is magical. Obreht - a devotee of Gabriél García Márquez - paints tiny towns terrified by an undead stranger or a feral beast as vividly and convincingly as cities in the ever-tightening grip of genocide.

"There is always some anxiety when you're dealing with something that is heavily publicized like a war, with collective memory," she tells Cultist. "I wanted the freedom to deal with the subject matter in my own way."

Success has come fast and furious for the young novelist, still only 26. But Obreht is humble when asked about the reception of her work. "It's amazing to me that people have been moved by it," she says. "For so long, it's just something that you've internalized."

"This has been an amazing ride," she says of the prize-filled whirlwind that her life has become over the past two years. "But at the same time I want to make sure that the primary objective is the same that it was in college: to produce something good. I don't think that replicating [any one person's] career is the objective."

Her success may be the envy of young writers around the world, but Obreht has the skills to back it up. She's resolved to show them off again in her second book.

"I have started working on it," she says, declining to discuss the topic. "The biggest transition has been realizing that the process isn't going to be the same again... I had no idea what I was doing at the outset last time."

"This time, I have more of an idea of how things should work," he says. "But I don't want to write a [second] novel that hasn't shed the voice of the first."

Obreht will speak Sunday at noon in the Auditorium (Building 1, Second Floor, Room 1261)

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