Writer Irena Brezna receives German PEN award

Brezna combines literary and journalistic elements in her reports and novels. The writer's association recognizes her commitment to giving a voice to dissidents.

1968 was a fateful year for Irena Brezna. Only 18 years old, she fled Bratislava, Slovakia to Switzerland after Prague Spring. She ended up in Basel — and never left.

She has processed and retold her migration story repeatedly in her writing; first in essays and journalistic reports, then in novels. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Brezna gained a reputation for being a sensitive observer of developments in Eastern Europe and a sharp-eyed war reporter in Chechnya.

According to the jury of the German PEN Center, which is now awarding her its prestigious Hermann Kesten Prize, the 71-year-old has “worked tirelessly throughout her life for justice and freedom and gave dissidents and the persecuted in Eastern Europe a voice.”

Writing for freedom

The German chapter of the writers’ association PEN annually awards the Hermann Kesten Prize to people who stand up for persecuted journalists. Previous winners include Günter Grass, Anna Politkovskaya, Liu Xiaobo andCan Dündar.

The award commemorates German writer and former PEN president Hermann Kesten, who fled to the United States in 1940 to escape the Nazis. There, he volunteered to help rescue those who had fled persecution, especially artists and writers.

Since 1985, the €10,000 ($11,300) prize has been given out to deserving recipients fighting for justice.

A sensitive look at Eastern Europe

The award pays special tribute to Irena Brezna’s work as a journalist, reporter and observer of Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. Her reports and literary essays inspired by her travels through Eastern Europe are both linguistically powerful and empathetic.

When Russian troops advanced into the Caucasian mountains at the end of 1994 to bring the Chechen Republic back under Moscow’s control, Brezna set out to report from the conflict zone. Disguised as a Chechen, she provided a first-hand look at the horrors unfolding from within the hitherto little-known country.

“Her eyewitness accounts of Russians terrorizing Chechen towns and villages bring the physical and spiritual destruction wrought by this war home to the reader in a way that he or she will not soon forget,” wrote the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung of her reporting from Sernovodsk, for which she was also awarded the prestigious Theodor Wolff Prize in 2002.

Journalist and literary figure

A convergence of two forms of writing — literary and journalistic — characterizes Brezna’s work. After studying Slavic studies, philosophy and psychology at the University of Basel, she worked as an interpreter for migrants for Swiss authorities, as a Russian teacher and at psychological research institutes in Basel and Munich.

Her first literary attempts were fragments published as an anthology in 1986, followed by stories and a children’s book dealing with European-African relations.

Brezna became a member of Amnesty International and became an activist on the behalf of the disenfranchised and dissidents — and not only in writing.

Brezna’s autobiography, which will be published in 2018, encompasses many forms of writing and a multi-national focus.

Heated debates in Switzerland

After exploring the past, in 2012 Brezna turned her focus to the country in which she lives: Switzerland. Her book The Ungrateful Stranger takes a critical look at the Alpine country’s migration policies and has been translated into several languages.

As one Swiss reviewer wrote: “The Ungrateful Stranger has more of an essay-like character. In it, the author ironically holds up a mirror to the friendly, orderly, modest and democratic Swiss, which does not always reflect a flattering image.” The novel won the Swiss Literature Prize in 2012.

Brezna’s first pieces were in Slovak, but she then made a writing career in German, which she had to learn as an adult.

She prefers not to consider one country her homeland when asked. Instead, Brezna finds her sense of home in language. “In my mother tongue I am conventional; in German I’m inventive again,” Brezna said in an interview. “When I write, I find my way in this world — by helping to shape it.”

This article was translated from German.

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