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An Unforgettable Year

USC Dornsife alumna Téa Obreht has won Britain’s Orange Prize for fiction for her debut novel The Tiger's Wife.

Téa Obreht, who graduated from USC Dornsife in 2006 with degrees in creative writing and art history, is the youngest winner of the Orange Prize for fiction for her first novel <em>The Tiger's Wife</em>. Portrait photo by Beowulf Sheehan.
Téa Obreht, who graduated from USC Dornsife in 2006 with degrees in creative writing and art history, is the youngest winner of the Orange Prize for fiction for her first novel The Tiger's Wife. Portrait photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

The past year has been a whirlwind for Téa Obreht.

The USC Dornsife alumna was named one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” and selected as one of the “5 Under 35” by the National Book Foundation. This spring, Random House published her first book, The Tiger’s Wife, and she embarked on a six-month book tour. In June, Obreht was awarded Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize for fiction for The Tiger’s Wife, making her, at 25, the youngest winner in the award’s 16-year history.

“Magical” and “surreal” are words Obreht uses to describe publishing her first book, winning the Orange Prize, and traveling to cities around the world, but these terms also describe The Tiger’s Wife.

Set in an unnamed, war-torn Balkan country, Obreht’s novel focuses on a young doctor named Natalia who confronts the mystery surrounding her grandfather’s recent death while on a goodwill mission at an orphanage. To explore his past, she revisits the stories her grandfather told her as a child: his encounters with “the deathless man” and the tale of an abused deaf-mute woman who befriends a tiger. The book melds truth with myth and present with past, as the lives of Natalia and her grandfather are woven together with the stories they shared.

Obreht’s own life is woven into her debut novel as well. Born in the former Yugoslavia, she was raised in Cyprus and Egypt before moving to the United States. Reviews of her book in The Washington Post and The New York Times praise Obreht’s ability to illustrate vividly the history and conflict in the region of her birth.

“She captures the thirst for consecration that a century of war has left in that bloody part of the world. It’s a novel of enormous ambitions that manages in its modest length to contain the conflicts between Christians and Muslims, Turks and Ottomans, science and superstition,” wrote The Washington Post’s Ron Charles in his review of The Tiger’s Wife.

After graduating from USC Dornsife in 2006, and while preparing for her first year in Cornell University’s MFA program, Obreht’s beloved grandfather died. In the following months, as she struggled to accept his death, she wrote a story about a tiger and a young deaf-mute circus performer. Although Obreht believes this failed as a short story, she did not want to let go of the characters, so she continued writing and expanding the piece.

“The story began to take on a life of its own and diverge more and more from my original outline,” Obreht said.

As the novel progressed, she found herself integrating elements from her own history as well as emotions she was feeling at the time. “I was asking myself many of the questions that are tossed around in the book, particularly about death. Writing the book helped me understand and make peace with whatever there is to make peace with about death.”

Obreht learned to fold stories within stories and mix themes and genres as an undergraduate in USC Dornsife. USC was her first university of choice, and she recalled knowing right away — from her initial tour of campus — that she wanted to join the creative writing program.

During her four years at USC, Obreht double majored in creative writing and art history, and founded the ballroom and Latin dancing troupe Break On 2 Latin Fusion. In her writing classes, she studied with Lecturer in English Vicki Forman, Distinguished Professor of English Percival Everett, Distinguished Professor of English T.C. Boyle, and former USC Dornsife professor Patty Seyburn.

Obreht described feeling humbled by the sincerity and openness of her writing teachers: “They took every word their students wrote seriously, and they were generous enough to treat anything I wrote well as a triumph of intent and anything I botched as something that could be easily fixed with tools to which they had access and were willing to share.”

In her creative writing workshops, Obreht was exposed to new types of literature, discovered the structure and complexity of the contemporary short story and learned how to read her peers’ pieces as a fellow writer rather than a scholar.

Her double major in art history was equally influential to her writing: “Learning about art and learning how the different kinds of mythologies mesh was especially helpful for me in writing The Tiger’s Wife. It was this combination of creative writing and art history that really formed the way I think as a writer.”

Obreht still keeps in touch with her professors and fellow writers from the program. She described the incredible, surreal feeling of coming full circle when Boyle agreed to provide a quote for the back cover of The Tiger’s Wife.

“A novel of surpassing beauty, exquisitely wrought and magical. Tea Obreht is a towering new talent,” Boyle wrote.

Obreht’s sincere amazement, surprise and humility at her early success only increased when she learned — while sitting in a cab in Austin, Texas, on a new leg of her book tour — that The Tiger’s Wife had made the longlist for the Orange Prize for fiction. Since 1996, the prize has annually recognized the best women’s fiction throughout the world.

“Then I found out I made the shortlist, which was so exciting, and in my mind that was as far as it was going to go,” Obreht said. She attended the ceremony in London on June 8, having made peace with herself that the award would go to another of the talented writers on the list.

Then she was announced as the winner of the prize, which comes with a cash award and a limited edition bronze statuette known as a “Bessie.”

“I was just completely floored,” Obreht said, laughing.

Bettany Hughes, chair of prize judges, praised The Tiger’s Wife and Obreht as an exciting new talent.

“Téa’s powers of observation and her understanding of the world are remarkable,” Hughes said. “By skillfully spinning a series of magical tales she has managed to bring the tragedy of chronic Balkan conflict thumping into our front rooms with a bittersweet vivacity.”

After winning the award, almost losing the Bessie statuette when her luggage was misplaced on her flight from London, and giving countless interviews with journalists around the world, Obreht finally settled back into her writing life in New York and took a much-needed vacation. But taking a break from the excitement of her book tour, which she will resume in September for the paperback version, hasn’t dulled Obreht’s creative drive.

She is currently working on her second novel to be published by Random House. While she wouldn’t divulge details, she did say the book is taking her for a mystery ride.

“It’s very hard to hold onto the reins of a novel the way you would for a short story,” she said. “That was something I learned from The Tiger’s Wife, and I’m trying to remind myself of this now as I start the next book.”

For Obreht, it’s all in a year’s work.