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Tea Obreht wins the Orange Prize

June 8, 2011 |  1:03 pm

Teaobreht
The 16th Orange Prize for Fiction, awarded to a book written by a woman, was awarded to Tea Obreht for "The Tiger's Wife" in London Wednesday. At 25, Obreht is the youngest author ever to win the prize. Previous winners include Marilynne Robinson, Ann Patchett and Zadie Smith.

"The Tiger's Wife" was an L.A. Times bestseller. Reviewing the novel in our pages, David L. Ulin wrote:

Obreht can write. She can put a sentence together, inhabit characters with lives far different than hers; she can trace the horrors of a war she's never seen. All that is essential, for "The Tiger's Wife" is, after a fashion, a war novel — it takes place after the collapse of communism in an unnamed Eastern European country that has suffered a bloody civil war. "You'd think that, after the war, they would have had enough real skulls to go around," the narrator, a young doctor named Natalia Stefanovic, tells us about the rigors of her medical training; "but they were bullet-riddled skulls, or skulls that needed to be buried so they could wait underground to be dug up, washed, buried again by their loved ones."

Obreht, who was born in Yugoslavia and brought up in Egypt and Cyprus, knew she wanted to be a writer from a young age. Newly moved to America, she started high school in Palo Alto at age 12 and went on to study creative writing at USC. There she studied with T.C. Boyle, who told The Times, "Téa is right out of the gate great, and she has always been great."

Her writing workshops at USC, Obreht's first choice of schools, were "completely life-changing," she said in a phone interview earlier this year.

There were a lot of people in those classes who were very serious about writing. There was this great sense of equality in the workshop, about everyone’s work being completely valid, and everything about it being valid. The teachers -- in particular Dr. Boyle and Patty Seyburn –- they treated it like it was real. That was amazing, that was wonderful. There was never a sense of oh, we’re playing at writing here. Even if you did something good accidentally in the work, they treated it as if it was intentional, you totally meant to do that. It was very uplifting, it was a wonderful environment to be in, it was very nurturing. And in Dr. Boyle’ class, I understood for the first time I had a revelation about structure, and how things are supposed to work. And I started reading contemporary fiction seriously for the first time. I was exposed to Raymond Carver and Stuart O’Nan and great contemporary American work that I hadn't really encountered before on my own. It was just wonderful.

After USC, the young Obreht went on to get an MFA at Cornell, where she made extra time for her writing, often staying up until 4 a.m.

"I didn't have enough time in the day to write," she told The Times. "I'd write through the night, teach and then go to sleep, write through the night, teach and go to sleep."

The Orange Prize comes with an award of more than $49,000 and a statue, the "Bessie," both endowed by an anonymous donor. In a statement, Bettany Hughes, chair of judges, said: "'The Tiger's Wife is an exceptional book and Téa Obreht is a truly exciting new talent. Obreht's powers of observation and her understanding of the world are remarkable. By skilfully 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."

RELATED:

2010: The Orange Prize longlist, now with extra cheer

Barbara Kingsolver wins 2010 Orange Prize

Book review: "The Tiger's Wife" by Tea Obreht

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Tea Obreht with her novel at the Orange Prize in London Wednesday. Credit: Chris Helgren / Reuters

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