Irena Brežná

Biography

Born in 1950 in what was then Czechoslovakia, Irena Brežná grew up in Trenćín. In 1968, she arrived with her parents in Switzerland, where she embarked on a lic.phil degree in Psychology, Philosophy and Sla

Irena Brežná, 2014. (Wikimedia Commons/Goesseln)

vic Studies at the University of Basle in 1975. The first-generation Swiss author is a professional translator and interpreter in addition to working as a journalist and activist. She undertook psychological research in institutes in Munich and Basle and has published extensively in prestigious German-language publications such as Die Zeit, Der Tages-Anzeiger, Die Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Die Basler Zeitung and Die Süddeutsche Zeitung. During the Cold War, she worked as a Swiss radio correspondent for both the BBC and Deutsche Welle, as well as for the Slovakian Free Europe radio station. In the 1970s and 1980s, she was an active campaigner and coordinator for Amnesty International. More recently, she has won significant acclaim for her literary oeuvre, notably winning the Swiss Federal Prize for Literature in acknowledgement of her outstanding 2012 text Die undankbare Fremde (The Thankless Stranger, 2012).

Brežná has said that ‘again and again she tackles the themes of foreignness and injustice and grapples with alienation and transgression and she lives transculturally as a matter of course’ (cited on the author’s website). This statement is certainly reflected in her literary output to date. Her 1989 children’s book Biro & Barbara (Biro and Barbara, 1989), co-authored with francophone Guinean writer Alpha Oumar Barry, attempts a poetic confrontation with racism. Alienation and physicality are explored in her 1989 text Die Schuppenhaut (Scaly Skin), which was republished after drastic reworking by Edition-Ebersbah in 2010. The themes of being outside, borders and transitions are recurring motifs in her writing.

After Biro & Barbara, Brežná published a series of texts which are more journalistic in tone, reporting on her own experience as a journalist, bringing a personal angle to fact-finding missions with people in conflicted regions of Africa and Eastern Europe. Her 2008 autofictional text die Beste aller Welten (The Best of All Worlds, 2008) throws a critical light on the author’s childhood upbringing beyond the Iron Curtain and reached the SWR bestseller list at the time. Another autobiographically infected 2012 text, die undankbare Fremde, explores the author’s life after immigrating to Switzerland; it chronicles the struggles and challenges faced by the character in her attempt to adapt to a Swiss model of existence. A strong awareness of the importance of language to personal experience imbues Brežná’s writing with a layered perspective that is also recognizable in the work of authors like Emine Sevgi Oždamar, alongside whom she has previously been read. Brežná’s writing is also distinct in its strident critique of the status quo, for example in die undankbare Fremde. Here she both queries Swiss societal norms and argues against their uncritical acceptance. Through this stance she very much positions herself within a wider Swiss creative tradition of critical patriotism.

Bibliography

Prose Fiction

Biro und Barbara [novel] (Berne: Zytglogge, 1989)

Karibischer Bal [novel] (Zurich: eFeF, 1991)

Die beste aller Welten [novel] (Berlin: edition ebersbach, 2008)

Schuppenhaut: ein Liebesroman [novel] (Berlin: edition ebersbach, 2010)

Die undankbare Fremde [novel] (Berlin: Galiani, 2012)

Selected Short Prose and Essays

‘So kam ich unter die Schweizer’ [prose] in Fremd in der Schweiz: Texte von Ausländern ed. by Irmela Kummer (Berne: Cosmos, 1987)

‘Die letzte Sitzung’ [prose] in Die Sitzung: Sechzehn Geschichten: Schweizer Arbeiterliteraturpreis (Berne: Cosmos, 1990)

‘Im Spiegel der Sprache’ [essay] in Asyl und Aufenthalt: Die Schweiz als Zuflucht und Wirkungsstätte von Slaven im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert ed. by Monika Bankowski et. al. (Basle/ Frankfurt/M.: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1994)

‘Deutsch ist eine Art gutgeschnittenes Arbeitskleid’ [prose] in Wie Laub von einem Baum: 29 Geschichten aus der Slowakei ed. by Peter Zajac (Gollenstein: Blieskastel, 1994)

Falsche Mythen [essay collection] (Berne: eFeF, 1996)

‘Der perfekte Tod’ [prose] in Grenzen sprengen: Texte von Schweizer Autorinnen und Autoren ed. by Annemarie Bänziger (Zurich: Wolfbach-Verlag, 1997)

Die Wölfinnen von Sernowodsk [journalistic essay collection] (Stuttgart: Quell, 1997)

‘Brief an meinen schwarzen Sohn’ [prose] in Blickwechsel: Die multikulturelle Schweiz an der Schwelle zum 21. Jahrhundert ed. by Simone Prodolliet (Lucerne: Caritas, 1998)

Die Sammlerin der Seelen: Unterwegs in meinem Europa [journalistic essay collection] (Berlin: Aufbau, 2003)

‘Emigration’ [prose] in Prager Frühling: Mythos und Realität: Erinnerungsbuch 1968-2008 ed. by Helena Becker Kanyar (Basle: University of Basle, 2008)

‘Liebe eines Lektors’ [prose] in Globale Heimat.ch: Grenzüberschreitende Begegnungen in der zeitgenössischen Literatur ed. by Charlotte Schallié and Margrit Zinggeler (Zurich: Edition 8, 2012)

English Translations

None at time of compilation; sample translations of some of Brežná’s works are available online:

The Best of All Worlds [Translation of Die beste aller Welten by Janet Livingstone] at http://bodyliterature.com/2013/05/19/irena-brezna/

The Thankless Stranger [Translation of Die undankbare Fremde by Ruth Ahmedzai] available at http://archive.new-books-in-german.com/129002/Uploaded/SampleTranslation_12spr_Brezna.pdf to download.

Criticism

Horst, Claire: Der weibliche Raum in der Migrationsliteratur (Berlin: Hans Schiler, 2007)

Hrdličková, Jana: ‘Je mehr Heimat ich erwarte, um so mehr Fremde treffe ich an: die Slowakei und die Schweiz der Irena Brežná’ in Wie viele Sprachen spricht die Literatur?: deutschsprachige Gegenwartsliteratur aus Mittel- und Osteuropa ed. by Renata Cornejo et. al. (Vienna: Praesens, 2014, pp. 180-192)

Johnston, Jonny: ‘Critical of Swissness, or critically Swiss? Recent autobiographical fictions by Irena Brežná’ (German Life and Letters, 68.2, 2015, pp. 171-189)

Motyková, Katatína: ‘Die übersetzte Welt von Irena Brežná’ (Studia Germanica Gedanensia, 27, 2012, pp. 176-183)

Kośtálová, Dagmar: ‘Die Migrantenschriftstellerin Irena Brežná’ (German Monitor, 59, 2004, pp. 73-104)

—: ‘Irena Brežnás “Die beste aller Welten” im Spiegel des Intertextualität-Diskurses (Slowakische Zeitschrift für Germanistik, 4.2, 2012, pp. 7-17)

Sandberg, Beatrice: ‘Integration: Kulturgewinn oder Kulturverlust? Migrationserfahrung in Irena Brežnás Roman “die undankbare Fremde” in Leitkulturen und Wertediskussionen: Zur Darstellung von Zeitgeschichte in deutschsprachiger Gegenwartsliteratur ed. by Martin Hellström and Edgar Platen (Munich: iudicium, 2014, pp. 58-72)

Interviews

‘Die undankbare Fremde’ (Bayerisches Fernsehen, 21 March 2013), available online at http://www.br.de/fernsehen/bayerisches-fernsehen/sendungen/lesezeichen/lesezeichen-gespraech-120.html

Teuwen, Peer: ‘Eure Angst hat mich immer erstaunt’ (Die Zeit, 8 March 2012), available online at http://www.zeit.de/2012/11/CH-Interview-Irena-Brezna

Compiled by Jonny Johnston (Dublin)