Writer and publicist, former war journalist, expert in Slavic languages, psychologist, human rights activist and intercultural mediator.
Originally from Slovakia, has been living in Switzerland since 1968.
"Irena Brežná is one of eastern Europe's most important literary voices, even though she left Slovakia for Switzerland forty years ago and writes in German."
Swiss Radio DRS
Interview in English (Podcast)
"The Ungrateful Stranger is an amusing, spirited and wonderfully based tale."
"We left our land behind in the familiar darkness and came closer to the glow of the new. How much light there is! called Mother, as if that were proof that we were approaching a radiant future." That promising future lies in Switzerland, the destination for the narrator and her family. The heroine of Irena Brežná's novel 'Die undankbare Fremde' (The Ungrateful Stranger) emigrates from Czechoslovakia to Switzerland in 1968 – as did the author herself – leaving behind oppressive years under a dictatorship. In her new surroundings she encounters new freedoms, prosperity and countless comforts, but also confronts a certain incomprehension and unfamiliar rules and regulations. While the mother delights in everything, the daughter views most things critically. "I felt like an object my mother had placed in a strange house, like an underage bride of a hundred years ago being forced to marry a country as if it were a forbidding old man." Irena Brežná narrates her protagonist's story from two different perspectives and on two interwoven timescales. First we have the newly arrived young woman, confused, often angry. Then we have the trained interpreter, years older and more tolerant, who accompanies asylum seekers to court or hospital. The experiences of these refugees have been far more painful than her own. The Swiss writer Alain Claude Sulzer has called Brežná's novel "a bitter national education, but ending with a reconciliation."
"The Ungrateful Stranger is an account of the immigrant experience, fuelled by autobiography, which succeeds in conveying a real sense of intimacy and authenticity regarding the immigrant experience. The main storyline charts the struggle to come to terms with an alien culture – a situation which is compared to being a young, passionate woman forced to endure an imposed marriage with a stern and much older man. However, as the narrator matures, she has a growing awareness of those aspects of her new homeland which are positive. Interwoven with the main narrative are a series of ‘mini-dramas’ arising from the narrator’s experiences as an interpreter mediating between immigrants, medical and legal authorities, and social workers. These often very moving episodes highlight the tragedy and vulnerability of those who flee impossible conditions at home and hope, often against overwhelming odds, to make something of their lives in a new country. Brežná’s fluid writing style has a lyricism and lightness of touch which communicate her amusement and bemusement at the collective behavioural traits of the native people in her host country of Switzerland. And her moving depiction of the plight of other immigrants ensures that the serious underlying issues concerning poverty, exploitation and political persecution are not underplayed."
New Books in German
"Her autobiographical novel is a sad and touching yet, at the same time, amusing book. The young first-person narrator experiences the move to Switzerland as anything but salvation as an 18-year-old. She finds the country, paralysed by the Cold War, an unsettling and very strange place. She observes her own attempts to integrate and vividly portrays the peculiarities of Switzerland and the idiosyncrasies of the Swiss. Brežná intersperses the episodes from her everyday life with “minutes” from her job as a translator. This juxtaposition represents the book’s strength. It gives a real background to the accounts of the young first-person narrator who lives in a state of constant confrontation and quarrels with almost everyone. Brežná’s book is not just an enjoyable read but also an extremely interesting contribution to the debate on integration currently taking place in Switzerland. "
The Magazine for the Swiss Abroad
CRITICAL OF SWISSNESS, OR CRITICALLY SWISS? RECENT AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL FICTIONS BY IRENA BREŽNÁ
Recent literature from German-speaking Switzerland is heavily inflected by twentieth-century political and economic migrations. Making use of a Foucauldian analytic framework, this article considers two contemporary texts by the Swiss author Irena Brežná that fictionalise the writer’s own experiences of migration and integration, and enable Brežná to be placed contextually within a specifically Swiss literary tradition. Key themes addressed include the author’s critique of assimilationist societal pressures, a wider problematising of aspects of Swiss democratic traditions, and Brežná’s resistance to performing an expected migrant identity in Switzerland.
JONNY JOHNSTON (Trinity College Dublin) German Life and Letters 68:2 April 2015 0016-8777 (print); 1468–0483 (online)
Readings from the book The Ungrateful Stranger Watch "Auftritte"
Excerpt translated by Katy Derbyshire:
"We left our land behind in the familiar darkness and came closer to the glow of the new.
"How much light there is!" called Mother, as if that were proof that we were approaching a radiant future.
The streetlamps didn't flicker in dull orange like back home, but dazzled like spotlights. Mother was full of emigrant's delight and didn't see the swarm of mosquitoes, bugs and moths buzzing around the heads of the streetlamps, sticking to them, thrashing their wings and tiny legs for their lives, until, drawn in by the merciless gleam, they burned and dropped down onto the clean street. And the glaring light of the new ate up the stars as well.
At the barracks, we were interrogated by a captain with several speech defects. He couldn't roll his r, could pronounce neither ž, l', t', dž, nor ô, and he stressed our name so wrongly that I didn't recognize myself. He wrote it on a form and took away all its wings and tiny roofs:
"You don't need all that nonsense here."
He erased my round, feminine ending too, gave me the surname of my father and brother. They sat mutely and let my mutilation happen. What was I to do with this bare, masculine name? I shivered.
The captain leaned back, self-satisfied:
"Did you escape to our country because we offer freedom to express your opinion?"
We didn't know what that meant. Did we have to tell the man our opinions for him to give each of us a bed and a blanket? Saying what you think breeds discord, it makes you lonely, puts you in solitary confinement. The captain waited in vain for our own opinion, then lowered his voice to a suspicious depth:
"What is your faith?"
I feared Mother and Father would conclude a pact with the devil and bring God into it, but they stayed true to their godlessness and said nothing.
Then the man turned to me: "What do you believe in, girl?"
"In a better world."
"Then you've come to the right place. Welcome!"
He winked at me and sealed my fate with a rubber stamp.
A haggard woman led us along long corridors. Her pitying gaze swept over me. I looked for the unhappy child her gaze was directed at, but the world was empty."
THE BEST OF ALL WORLDS
Fiction: - The autobiographical novel The Best of All Worlds was published in 2008 by Edition Ebersbach Berlin.
In a humorous and poetic way the adolescent protagonist narrates her rather absurd life in a small Central Eastern European town in the 1950s. While her mother disappears into prison, the girl, torn between family and school, seeks her own way. The myth of the socialist hero seems more attractive than her grandmother’s Catholicism or the middle-class, bourgeois life of her father, who is sent to work in bridge construction as a form of proletarian reeducation. Only her brother remains and, with him, the daily threat of physical violence. The girl, who wants to become a heroine one day, develops great powers of survival, despite her tragic circumstances. Her grandfather’s natural mysticism emerges as a refuge, as well as her own sensuality and enthusiasm for change of any kind. The incisively described background events, focused observations and fragmented associative memories provide one with an intimate insight into the ambience of society at the time and have general human significance as well. The narration is carried forward with liberating ease, made possible by the geographical and chronological distance of the author – the “happy dictatorship of the Proletariat” is over, as if it were all a dream, but one whose effects live on in “the heart of the albatross”.
In 2008, the novel The Best of All Worlds was on the SWR Best Books List.
The book was recommended by FAZ journalist Hubert Spiegel in the Börsenblatt Best List.
The literary critic Gabriele von Arnim recommended the book The Best of All Worlds in Literaturclub SF1 on 20 April 2009: “It is a very political, a very poetic book that you must read."
An excerpt of the novel, translated in English by Janet Livingstone, is published here
The Best of All Worlds
Irena Brežná uses the view of a child and comic observer, who watches how the world works and sees how unfit words are to describe it when we take everything literally. And how we feel when suddenly, our basic principles are no longer valid. “The Statue of Liberty comes along with imperfection” and with the acknowledgement of that imperfection, says the author in an interview.
R. von Bitter, Bayerisches Fernsehen, Das Literaturmagazin
“Irena Brežná’s novel of childhood, which is steeped in the years of building Czechoslovak communism, is precise, poetic, heartfelt and unrelenting – all at once.”
Karl Markus Gauß, Literatur+Kritik
“Irena Brežná’s novel is a book worth reading and worthy of loving. We can discover in it much beauty, wisdom and humanity.”
Angela Repka, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
"A poetic evaluation from the era of building Eastern European socialism full of odd and humorous anecdotes. A child’s mind takes the dogma and phrases literally – and thus reveals in them deceit and paranoia. This approach is extremely comic and satirical. It is a book filled with literary utopia.”
Ursula März, Deutschlandradio Kultur
“A bright and blunt girl, misbehaved and stubborn, as it should be when one is young and takes their strength from the earth. The heroine protects this kind of grounding of hers from premature adult complaining, with a rather earthly electrifying voice that rejects idle talk and sentimentality. No, Irena Brežná’s book bears no relation to politically correct, cheap and predictable stereotypes harbored by the West about the East according to some ideological compass. It is much more like the burlesque-sarcastic world-views of authors such as Hrabal, Esterhazy, Cosic, Stasiuk, et al. This cheeky girl, like a modern-day Candide, lays it out for all to see and, without falsely charming talk, presents a variety of themes. This is definitely recommended reading.”
Gerd Burger, Ostbayerisches Magazin Lichtung
“This book is a veritably miraculous parable of dictatorship, which each of us can identify and bring to life with all its images and experiences.”
Matthias Waha, Mittelbayerische Zeitung
“A slim novel about the dark times of her youth in Bratislava. The Best of All Worlds is what emerges in the head of a child, when he or she suffers under totalitarian conditions.”
Hubert Winkels, Deutschlandradio
“It’s always difficult with children’s points of view. In the case of Irena Brežná’s novel, however, it works well, since the child assembles anew for herself the various ideologies that she acquires. Linguistically, it is truly original.”
Caroline Neubaur, SWR-Bestenliste
The Czech version of the novel The Best of All Worlds was published by Paseka, Prague, translated by Jana Zoubkova. The Slovak version in 2007 by Aspekt, Bratislava, translated by Jana Cvikova. The novel was published also in Belarus and in French.
Irena Brežná is a Slovak-born Swiss writer and journalist. Following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 she emigrated to Switzerland, and studied Slavonic studies, philosophy and psychology at Basle University. In addition to writing, she has been an Amnesty International activist and worked as a psychologist and an interpreter for refugees. She has been involved with and supported, a number of humanitarian projects, for example in Guinea as well as in Chechnya, where she also served as war correspondent. She writes mostly in German and has received numerous prizes in Switzerland, Germany and Slovakia for her journalism and literary work, including, in 2002, the Emma Journalist Prize, and the Theodor Wolff Prize for her war reportage from Chechnya. In 2021 the German PEN Centre awarded her the prestigious Hermann Kesten Prize for her writing and commitment to human rights. She has published several collections of essays, short stories and reportages, as well as the novels Schuppenhaut (1989, 2001, Scaly Skin) and Die beste aller Welten (2008, The Best of All Worlds). Her third novel, The Thankless Foreigner, published in 2012, received the Swiss Literature Prize and has been translated into Slovak, French, Italian, Russian, Macedonian, Czech, Hungarian, Hindi and Swedish.
Irena Brežná, born in 1950 in Bratislava. In 1968, she emigrated to Switzerland with her parents. Since graduating from the Faculty of Arts at Basel University (lic. phil. in Slavonic studies, philosophy and psychology) in 1975, she has worked as independent journalist and author and sa teacher of Russian, a translator and interpreter of Slavonic languages and as a psychologist at psychology research institutes in Munich and Basel.
Her work has been published in German in the Swiss press ((Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Berner Zeitung, Tages-Anzeiger, Tages-Anzeiger-Magazin, Basler Zeitung, Annabelle, Bolero, WOZ, Weltweit et.al.) and in Germany (Freitag, Merian, Frankfurter Rundschau, Zeit-Magazin, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Berliner Zeitung, Badische Zeitung), as well as in Slovakia (Aspekt, SME, OS, Kulturny zivot, Pravda). For many years, she has been working as a Swiss correspondent for Slovak Radio Free Europe, BBC and Deutsche Welle. Brežná has written commentary, essays and a radio play for the German-speaking radio stations (DRS, WDR 3). She has won fourtheen awards for journalism and literature in Switzerland, Germany and Slovakia, The Swiss Award for Literature, The Dominik-Tatarka-Award, The Award of the Year from the Slovak Writers’ Society OSS”, The Theodor-Wolff-Prize in Berlin, The German PEN Centre Award (see Awards). She has received several grants from the Swiss cultural foundation Pro Helvetia and from the literature funding scheme Literaturkreditkommission of the City of Basel. Her texts have been published in numerous anthologies and literary magazines, including: Transatlantik, Drehpunkt, Kafka, Salz, Podium, Neue deutsche Literatur, Literatur und Kritik, Entwürfe, Individualität and Poesie et.al.
She continues to be actively involved in a variety of areas on a voluntary basis. During the 1970s and 1980s she campaigned for the release of Soviet political prisoners in her role as a coordinator for the Swiss chapter of Amnesty international. She has helped those who opposed the regimes in Central and Eastern Europe (inter alia the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform) and she assisted in establishing the first Slovak feminist magazine Aspekt in Bratislava. Her other work includes fundraising for Chechen women’s projects, and collecting works of world literature for a library in Mamou, Guinea in West Africa, as well as text books for local schools.
During The First Chechen war (1994-96) and during a short period of independence there (1996-98), she has reported in more than 80 texts on the atrocities committed by russian army and about the freedom fight of Chechen, female human rights activists. She has appeared at events and international conferences, at schools and universities in Germany, Italy, France, Austria, Switzerland and in the U.S.
During the Kosovo Conflict, she worked in the Kosovo advisory centre of the Swiss Red Cross in Basel.
In 1996, she entered a journalism competition in Klagenfurt with a report on the Russian Mafia.
In 2014-2017 she wrote a regular column for SME, the largest daily newspaper in Slovakia.
She regularly addresses the subjects of otherness and injustice and deals with alienation and crossing of boundaries.
Her childhood in Slovakia and emigration are given their first literary treatment in a small book called Slovak Fragments (Slowakische Fragmente), Mondbuch Basel, 1982. The text was written for a two-hour programme on the DRS radio station. Together with the Guinean author Alpha Oumar Barry, she wrote a (French-German) book for young people entitled Biro und Barbara, Zytglogge Bern, 1989, which opposes racism in a poetic way. Her reports and stories about black-white love were published in the collection of stories Caribbean Ball (Karibischer Ball), eFeF Bern 1991. The love story with the title Psoriasis, My Love (Schuppenhaut), a completely revised version published by Edition Ebersbach, Berlin in 2010, tells of the hidden strangeness of the female novelist. Her first literary commentaries from Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism were published in a collection of stories with the title False Myths (Falsche Mythen), eFeF Bern, 1996. Her disturbing war reports about women in Chechnya were published in the anthology She-wolves from Sernovodsk, by Quell, Stuttgart 1997. In her last anthology The Collector of Souls, On the road in my Europe, published by Aufbau Berlin 2003, Brežná not only explores her main topic of home and strangeness again, but she leads us to an Eastern and Central Europe (as well as Chechnya) in the process of reconstruction.
Her texts have been published in six books in Slovakia: Psoriasis, My Love, Archa 1990, Liquid Fetish, Aspekt 2005, The Best of All Worlds, Aspekt 2007, The Thankless Stranger, Aspekt 2014, She-Wolves from Sernovodsk, Absynt 2016, Regards of an Emigrant, Aspekt 2018.
Her commitment to cosmopolitanism, her hope for transcultural identity, her sensual and, at the same time, analytical language open up new horizons.
The transfer from the Slovak language of a silenced emigrant to the German written language can be compared to new lungs which have gradually grown: “My resurrection in German is the only house I’ve ever built. The words are objects I have designed” (False myths).
The collection of stories entitled The Collector of Souls, On the Road In My Europe - Aufbau Berlin 2003,
Can be obtained from the author
The Double Track Book:
On the one hand, literary journalism from the peculiar and thriving European borders – Moldova, Slovakia, Poland, Kosovo, Romania and again and again Chechnya; on the other hand, travel sketches, essays on the topic of forced displacement, alienation, war, political involvement, the right of self-preservation and reflections on writing. The collection is an organic whole, a poetical, absurd coming-of-age novel full of facts written by a novelist and at the same time by the Eastern European countries, who are introduced to the West by a marveling narrator. We become involved in the synchronized process featuring the narrator and the remote areas in their period of transition; we witness the birth of texts, which are happening in Basel. By means of a polished and foreign German language, the author, who is a multilingual personality herself, pieces together East-West fragmentation and creates reality from utopia.
One more short story collection:
Reports from Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism
eFeF, Bern 1996, 191 pages,
Can be obtained from the author
The “iron curtain” has fallen and a Czechoslovak emigrant travels back to her homeland after more than two decades. What she finds there is a cracked shell bursting with nationalism, but also with new hope. She weeps with the victims, but also confirms their participation in the crime. She travels further to visit Crimean Tartars, former Russian dissidents, mafiosi in the Russian Far East and to write reports. She formulates portraits of the Russian nationalist Vladimir Shirinovskij, the human rights activist Sergej Kovaljov and the GULAG reformist Valerij Abramkin, listening to them, commenting and explaining the "Wild East" both as a native resident as well as a stranger. Under the cover of external ugliness, she discovers truth-seekers, warmth and courage, but also the danger of brutalisation, and the beginning of the Chechen war. This subjective view is combined with a matter-of-fact analysis and, in addition to many ideas, conveys the general mood.
2012, commentaries and essays from Chechnya were published in Czech by Paseka, Prague in a chronological anthology covering the period 1996 to 2011. They were also published in Italian by Editore Keller in 2016 and in Slovak by Absynt, 2016.
Unsurprisingly, postwar Chechnya is characterised by heightened patriarchalism. These are the real-life gendered effects of both wars, as Brežná acutely observes in her book’s closing reportage from 2012 (she added more recent material to the Slovak-language version of the 1997 German edition of this volume.) Present-day Chechen society is male-centered, ritualised displays of physical prowess need to be accompanied by arms and, ideally, one should be a member of the Chechen police, army or security forces. Other forms of gainful employment are scarce in the republic. What remains for others is to move to Moscow or anther Russian city for work, despite the fact that they are often face there much racist discrimination and exploitation, and are offensively dubbed bu ethnic Russian racists as ‘black-assed Caucasians’ (kavkazskiie chornozhoptsy). In a deftly legitimising bow to traditional Islam, many women in Chechnya wear the Islamic headscarf or even the veil, and tend to keep to designed female-only spaces, as required by this religion. It is a far cry from the equality of genders as promoted and actually implemented during the Soviet times. This equality was even exacerbated in the course of the war when women could and did enter many places that became no-go areas to Chechen males, by default suspected of being enemy fighters. It was Chechen women who pleaded with Russian officers for the lives of their menfolk. Women travelled unaccompanied across the length and breadth of Ichkeria and Russia in search of their sons and husbands incarcerated in black prisons or concentration (‘filtration’) camps. Alternatively, when the latter turned out to be already dead, some Chechen women, in despair, took revenge on Russians, by turning themselves into suicide bombers. They became known in the western press as ‘black widows,’ carrying out attacks mainly between 2000 and 2013.
Irena Brežná is a renowned Swiss journalist of Slovak origin who covered the Chechen Wars for the German-speaking press, including the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. She is finely attuned to the fate of refugees and emigrants, as her family fled Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Prague Spring in 1968 when the Warsaw Pact’s intervention was already under way. Thanks to her fluency in Slovak and Czech, Brežná faced no problems with acquiring Russian, which was a compulsory school subject in communist Czechoslovakia. In Switzerland she graduated from the University of Basel in Slavic studies, psychology and philosophy. This personal and educational background equipped her for the career of a translator and psychologist working mainly with refugees. Brežná has also been active in Amnesty International and, as a convinced feminist, led women-empowering projects in Guinea, Chechnya and some postcommunist countries. Not surprisingly, her perfectly crafted sparse prose borders on poetic and allows Brežná to effectively convey the tragedy of war as observed through a woman’s eyes. As much as her skills allowed her to cross the previously iron-clad boundaries between a variety of professional careers, academic jobs, or languages, these also let her see more than met the typically male war correspondent’s gaze. Brežná moved further and deeper than Politkovskaya in probing the realities of the Chechen wars. Rather than to stun security personnel with her audacity, as the latter did, Brežná chose to blend in, strove to fall under the FSB’s radar. For the purpose of participatory observation she joined a group of Chechen women and saw for herself what Russian troops did. In the opening reportage, after the spa village of Sernovodsk (on the Ingush border) was ‘cleansed’ of fighters following a week-long siege, the locality’s women, with Brežná disguised as one of them, were permitted to re-enter their houses in order to salvage some movable property. What they (and Brežná) saw was wanton destruction: crockery and furniture broken, living rooms defiled, food spoiled, livestock killed or wounded and left to putrefy, clothes slit and trodden into the slush, a copy of the Quran thrown into a muddy yard.
Review of Irena Brežná’s “She-Wolves from Sernovodsk: Notes from the Russo-Chechen War”