Interview with Magda Woitzuck on Über allem war Licht (2015)

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Magda Woitzuck (Wien, 1983-) studied Comparative Literature at the university of Vienna. She is author of three short stories published under the title Ellis (2012) and four published radio plays (2009-1015) for Austria broadcasting. She is currently working on a TV series as well as on her next novel. Über allem war Licht (2015), her first novel, is a voyage into the complexity of affectionate relationships where love, sexuality, and violence are entangled in such ways that break down the stereotypes of abused women and abusive men that are circulated, mostly, through the media’s discourse. Magda Woitzuck challenges society’s discourse on domestic violence in empowering women in unexpected ways that erase the guilty/victim dichotomy. Thus, Über allem war Licht constructs an alternative narrative, no less true for being less common. A way out of the common path is what the novel explores and suggests in such a delicate and actual topic.

Über allem war Licht might be made into a film by Austrian director Daniel Hoesl.        

Looking at your versatile career as fiction author (short stories, radio plays, etc.), what led you to the novel?

I always wanted to publish one. Actually this is the third novel I wrote but the first I published. I like short stories too. For me there is a difference if I write a short story, a movie concept, a radio play or a novel. What I really like about novels is the space: I can explore characters. Drama is always told on the outside, characters have to speak so the audience knows what is happening within them. This is different with a novel. In a novel I can create another world and be inside a character. And of course: if I want to I can write hundreds of pages which is not the case for short stories, radio plays, movie concepts or articles. Writing a novel in many ways is the work I enjoy most while working on the first or second draft. But I have to admit: I hate working on the last editing of a novel. If Radio play or novel or short story – each has its back drawbacks and benefits. I just like writing very much.

Your book is mostly being advertised as dealing with domestic violence but is domestic violence the main topic?

No, I don’t think so. The main topic is the evil we do to each other and how we use it to move further in our relationships. Love is also an important topic. Some critic wrote: the novel is one of the most impressive accounts on love of the year 2015. Domestic violence made it simple to represent this evil in an unhealthy relationship. However there are many different forms of violence: physical, psychological, emotional. I’ve always been interested in why people are violent to each other, especially in relationships, and why they stay with each other altough the relationship is bad. I also chose domestic violence because I wanted my female character, Rosa, to face a big challenge and to find a way out of it.

Some readers might find it difficult for a woman in Rosa’s situation to have an affair. What is the role of Rosa’s affair with Milo in your text? Is there anything you wished to explore beyond a common narrative on abused women?

There’s this thing with long-term relationships: I talked to some couples where one partner had an affair and the funny thing is that the relationship mostly improved when the affair started – because the partner cheating is trying to make up for the betrayal instinctively in one way or the other. That is why I chose this construction for Milo, Rosa and Hans. Milo treats Rosa very well, he is the first one to tell her that her relationship with Hans is bad for her. Milo wakes some sort of strength in Rosa. This strength also plays a role in Rosas and Hans’ relationship. While Hans has always dominated her, also in bed, the secret of the affair, the affair itself becomes an inner weapon for Rosa – it changes her inner status as a victim. In bed Hans is treating her with the old brutality, but Rosa now starts enjoying the brutality. Through Milo she found to lust. In bed with Hans her husband is treating her as always, but now Rosa has a secret and this secret gives her an escape place in head and also power over her awful husband which makes her enjoy his way of treating her in bed. When I was in the last editing process I thought I’ll be killed for this book. But one morning I woke up and remembered Alberto Vázquez-Figueroas novel Garoé, where over years the male character rapes a woman he has chained to a wall. He is the only person she sees over all this time. After all these years she suddenly has an orgasm while he is raping her and then everything changes: although chained to the wall she is the one in charge. He had no more weapon, no power over her. He couldn’t harm her any more. This made a strong impression on me: the change of her mindset, on her inside, turned everything around and she stopped being a victim.

Why you thought it would be problematic?

Because I wrote a story about a woman that finally kills her abusive husband but for the wrong reasons: not because he beats her but because he wants to leave her. Hans wants to leave her when he realizes he is not in charge over her any more, he senses something, that might become dangerous for him – and in fact it does become deadly. Anyhow: in my opinion, like in Garoé, we are not speaking of women who acutally have many options. Their way out of the abusive relationship may seem abhorrent, weird, like the Stockholm-Syndrom. So in terms of our societies moral it probably would be considered unhealthy. I would say: unhealthy, but effective.

Do we sympathize with women because they are victims? In other words, is victimization part of the feminine?

Well, I have had this kind of reaction: she’s the victim and when it comes to kill him she does it for the wrong reasons. Our moral gives us a very clear image about how things are supposed to be in a relationship, but we should not forget morality is a human construction. I have talked to a lot of women, there was one, a friend of mine, who had been with a very brutal man. She stayed with him to her death. I never understood why but I also couldn’t see the victim – I made her a victim because my moral told me she was a victim. I asked myself: what is her role in this relationship? Then again I know a man who had been in a relationship with a woman who almost forced him into committing suicide – for some time he actually saw no other way out of his marriage. We should talk about violence in relationships a lot more, a lot of women suffer from some sort of violence (physical, psychological, emotional) – and so do men. Also we live in a society where it is still hard for men to speak openly about weakness, about emotional distress. I think victimization had been part of the feminine for a long time, but I believe it is changing now. It definitely should.

Do you think there is a linkage to 19th century representations of women that exposed the contradictions of the domestic, for example, the madwoman in the attic? Does the abused woman represent the paradox of domesticity today?

In the last couple of years there had been movies and books about women who exploit their bodies, both willingly and unwillingly. Take Shades of Grey – so many years women and men all over the planet have been fighting for equality and now we have a bestseller about a woman subordinating herself to a man. Pure poison, in my opinion. Then again take Nymphomaniac by Lars von Trier or Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, both are trying to tell the story of a woman and her sexuality aside mainstream or morality. So maybe there is a new branch growing in the tree of different figures. Maybe the young woman of 19th whose only chance for some sort of self-determined life was to become a teacher has changed into the woman who breaks out of mainstream morality. And yes, maybe the madwoman in the attic is the abused, silent woman in a marriage.

Has domestic violence replaced the polemics surrounding female sexuality and the politics of domesticity in earlier times? In other words, are some men still scared of female sexuality?

Yes, lots of men are very scared of female sexuality. I asked men, are you afraid? They said yes, of course. Just as example, their penis needs to function in order to use it, so all of the men I talked to admitted they had been afraid of failing in bed at some point of their lives. We also live in a society where we raise boys telling them they need to success in live – everywhere. Yesterday I had a funny situation with my boyfriend: we were watching a couple by a swimming pool. She was very offensive, a clear, self-confident body language saying: come on, lets get in on. He on the contrary seemed stiff, as if he could not handle her longing. Suddenly my boyfriend said: see, this is how it goes – as a man you actually wish for an offensive woman who tells you what she wants, but once it happens you don’t really know how to act and you become intimidated.

Then, issues related to female sexuality seem to be the other face of the same coin. Is this other face social pressure on masculinity?

Yes, I’d say so. Failure in bed is the top layer, but under that there are many other issues. Times have changed. We raise our girls differently, tell them they can have what they want, be self-confident about themselves. But boys are mostly still raised in the same old scheme of manliness. They have to success in every aspect, they are not allowed weaknesses. It’s ok for women to cry, but we still find it weird when men cry. Men are taught to success in every aspect of their life, and that also implies to be in charge. Equal rights, for me, should not mean that women can have everything men can have, meaning by male dominated standards. Equality for me means: there is men and there is women, they are different but should be treated equal.

 Is this situation changing?

 I think it is, and it’s very good.

Would you place your text within this context of change?

Yes. Rosa’s attitude is changing, and also Milo’s. Both have to find a new form for their relationship, listen to themselves.

How is Milo’s attitude in relation to Rosa? Is there an inversion in the representation of gender roles?

He tries to be strong and be the man everybody expects of him but he fails, and he’s aware of it, and feels unsecure: he’s loosing ground. He can’t protect Rosa. When Rosa takes a step and protects herself, gets herself out of the situation he becomes a bystander. A feeling he tries to escape, literally, he goes to the seaside, drinks a lot. But there’s some kind of acceptance at the end of the novel, and a change of roles: Rosa is stronger in the end and comes for Milo. She’s the one to reach out to him and tells him this happened but it’s fine. And he’s able to take the hand she’s giving him. He accepts her help.

When Milo visits his childhood house, now in ruins, carrying a corpse with him, he feels his act despicable. Is the childhood house still a refuge, a Bachelardian house, and a place for redemption?

I wanted to write a short story about a man who buries a dog. The first thing I imagined was this man digging on his yard. This was the first scene I wrote. When writing I realized the situation was to grave, to full of broken dreams so I turned the dead dog into a dead man – and from there on everything evolved. The other thing is that Milo is from another country. My mother is from Poland, and, as people grow older they realize they belong to two cultures, they speak two languages. Something happens with their identity. It’s a life between two chairs and for most migrants it’s an emotionally challenging balancing act. So I brought Milo back to his childhood house. If you have a good childhood, this home will be a haven. For him it is a refuge, he doesn’t know where else to go. He’s also looking for redemption, and this is the moment when he realizes how alone he is: all he had is Rosa and she didn’t want to leave her husband for him.

Uncanny is an adjective that appears many times to describe different homes, and different experiences of homes as in Rosa’s case but also in Milo’s when he visits his childhood home. Are these contemporary experiences of the uncanny?

Actually, the uncanny in Rosa’s case takes the opposite form: for Rosa our „normal“ situation is the uncanny because she doesn’t know what a normal, or a commonly defined homely situation, is. Rosa is used to her role as abused woman, she had spent her childhood with a very abusive and dominant mother. She’s afraid of change because like always a big change first feels as if everything will fall apart. But when the change has come she has to go out into the „uncanny“ which is our „homey“ – a place where there is peace. If the novel was to continue after it actual ending I would give her another house.

And would this new house relate to how she understands relationships in the end?

The new house would be different: with a lot of light and space, which would allow Rosa more room for her inner space. More room for oneself to live in. In the novel, the affair between Rosa and Milo happens in a forest, the murder takes place in the house. Both forest and house are secretive and dark spaces but at the end Rose swims in the ocean. An open place where you can’t hide much apart from under the surface. Some critique wrote: Everything goes from the shadows to the light – something I have not been thinking about when writing it but in hindsight it makes sense.

Is there, then, this kind of mutual influence between architectural form and what it conveys in the inside?

I based the description of Rosa’s home in those typical Austrian buildings from the 70s. These houses are very dark inside: dark woods, dark windows, dark doors. You feel you are entering a coffin; everything is cold. I wondered how it would be for a child to grow up there. But I guess it would be normal for the kid, it would become everyday stuff. And that’s what happens to Rosa: she grew up with her mother in this kind of house. It’s normal for her. She never thought of any other house. So she never thought of any other form of relationship until she met Milo.

Do you mean, then, that Rosa normalised that childhood household (both the space and the people inhabiting it) for a lack of alternative? Would that help to understand Rosa’s love for her husband and the fact that she does not want to leave him out of love rather than fear?

She’s not leaving him because she is afraid of him but because she is afraid of the life without him – she never knew anything else but life with a dominant person. She grew up with a very dominant mother, ending up with a very dominant husband, so she never even thought about going away. Rosa’s mother never taught her to be independent, and neither did she try to release Rosa from her husband. And so yes – she does not leave because she normalized it.

Birds appear in many instances during the novel; particularly, birds in cages, and, already at the beginning of the narrative we have the image of shot up birds, and Rosa washing rests of blood. Do those images represent Rosa’s own life? Is home a birdcage?

I gave Hans this „hobby“ to show he is a man who can’t bear things that are not under his control – like birds eating the cherries of his tree. But yes, maybe. Rosa experiences her space but she’s not making it a home, she’s just accepting it: it has to be clean, full of food, and in order. From the outside her whole life might be considered a birdcage, yes.

Jeden Tag ein wenig blasser, von blau zu violett zu grün und schliesslich zu einem blassen Braun, wie die Druckstelle an einem Apfel’. Here you aestheticize physical violence. Can that be problematic?

I put it in the book very late, in the last editing. I wanted to have something that shows that life goes on, scars go away, things heal up on the surface, but you can’t see in the inside. A soul can heal just as the body can heal, but in the body you can watch the healing process. I don’t know if aestheticizing violence in this context is problematic because I wanted to show something specific, the healing.

Do you think women in Rosa’s situation might feel the novel helpful? Similarly, can literature help to understand the complexities in which abused women live?

After reading my book a female doctor who had worked in a psychiatric ward for a couple of months while studying wrote me an email. In this ward she was confronted with abused women who said it wasn’t as bad. The doctor couldn’t understand why they would not understand they were in a very bad situation. She thought, they were feeling guilty. But after reading my book she understood the complexity of emotions those women live through and got to understand them better in hindsight. For me personally literature has always been comforting – and I am convinced it widened my horizon and made me understand a lot of complex issues and emotions better. I also, like every reader, had moments where I realized reading made it possible for me to change perspectives.

 There’s then first a psychological predisposition to feel guilty?

A lot of women who grew up in abusive households tend to choose partners who are mistreating them. It is because they know how to handle these conflicts: you know how to survive, how to behave. Other things are uncanny. Growing up in an abusive household for instance will probably not prepare you for conflicts taken out with words or other „normal“ ways. Maybe you will not be able to bear love because you have never known it – and humans are afraid of the unknown, it’s uncanny for them. That’s why I gave Rosa that mother. A child for instance will mostly look for guilt in itself when something is wrong with the parent. If parents start using this guilt for their benefit they create a grown person who will always look for guilt in one place first: within themselves.

Any plans for the next novel?

Yes, plans are for it to be published in 2018. I have some rough outline, I’d like to set it in the Renaissance, ten years after the discovery of America. The Renaissance is one of the most interesting epochs. But it should not be a historical novel – more about personal relationships. A man falling in love with a corpse and for this does not want to sleep with his wife. I think humans have always been driven by the same needs, no matter if now or 500 years ago.

 

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