Her Story and History

September 17, 2012—Over the summer, Georgetown’s first-year students read Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife. On August 27, 2012, Obreht visited campus through the Marino Family International Writers’ Academic Workshop and spoke to students about her book and its origins.

A meditation on war and death set in the Balkans, The Tiger’s Wife is a multi-layered story that reads like mythology. It joins three separate plots: one about the mysterious death of the grandfather of Natalia, the young doctor who narrates; another about Natalia’s investigation of her grandfather’s childhood; and yet another about the meaning of the “Deathless Man” who appeared in her grandfather’s oral histories.

The title of the book partly refers to what Natalia describes as her “earliest memory”—a visit to the zoo with her grandfather, which takes a haunting turn when she sees a tiger dismember a zookeeper. As Natalia matures, she notices the effect that the incident has had upon her life.

“Ms. Obreht’s book, with its artful combination of contemporary story mixed with tradition and superstition, is a tour de force,” said University Librarian Artemis Kirk. “Her presentation [at Georgetown] invited our students’ questions, and they in turn showed how intellectually sophisticated they are by asking her about writing and reading about myth and reality.”

Kirk is a member of the Marino Workshop Committee that selected the novel for required reading, after whittling down an original list of nine books.

For the last 18 years, the Marino Workshop—sponsored by Frederick Marino (SLL’68) and his family—has introduced new students to the rigors of a Georgetown education by promoting international authors. The committee hopes that by exposing students to non-American writers, members of the Georgetown community can come to understand historical, religious, and political issues from unfamiliar perspectives.

“One of the most enjoyable experiences in life is to read for pleasure,” Kirk said. “And we are fortunate to live in a society that values the culture of reading. We are also fortunate at Georgetown to have the support of the Marino family, who embrace this culture fully.”

Obreht, who is of Bosnian and Slovene descent, recounted the effect that the Yugoslavia Wars of the 1990s had on her childhood and on her eventual decision to become a writer.

In Yugoslavia, where she was born, conflict raged between independence-seeking republics and the government in Belgrade that sought to retain ultimate authority. Hostilities worsened when ethnic groups in the republics turned on each another, as Serb, Croat, Bosnian, and Slovene leaders fought for autonomy.

Obreht’s multi-ethnic family fled to Cyprus, a small island in the Mediterranean that had its own civil wars between Turkish and Greek factions. But while on Cyprus, Obreht learned how to speak, read, and write in English and found inspiration in the rich past of her new home.

“I realized at that time—on this very small island that nevertheless had an incredible history—that I was very interested in stories. Cyprus was a place where Crusaders had stopped over on the way to Jerusalem, and it had all these castles and Greek ruins and a tremendous amount of history,” Obreht said. “In all this exposure to story and history, I realized that I wanted to be a writer.”

Obreht believes that the art of writing is influenced by lived experiences, especially by our acknowledgement of the impact that history has on us as individuals and as a society.

“The writing process, I think, is inextricably linked to the process of living and absorbing and allowing your world to expand,” Obreht explained. “I wrote this book technically in three years, but I only just realized that I’ve been writing it my entire life.”

The author was also impressed by the intellectual curiosity of the first-years who read her novel. “I am thankful The Tiger’s Wife was chosen as a common read for Georgetown’s incoming first-years,” Obreht said. “I remember the excitement of freshman year very well, and I was very moved by the Class of 2016’s energy and enthusiasm, and glad to be a part of their first moments at college.”

—Brittany Coombs