On worthy literary joys
Author of the Week: North Macedonia
About poetry and the contemporary Macedonian literary scene
Writing about the literature of a small linguistic and cultural area is quite the quixotic effort. It is similar to a constant fight against windmills. However trite and worn out this description may sound, after twenty years of doing exactly this, I am yet to discover a more fitting definition. Furthermore, I am yet to discover in myself a passion stronger than the passion with which I engage with literature.
To write about books or to write books in a small cultural space, or to write in a so-called ‘small language’ like the Macedonian, is also a constant small personal struggle. The struggle for space begins from the moment you write something (an essay, review, critique) and then look for a place to publish it.
The media which once dedicated whole sections or supplements to literary reviews are long gone, the number of pages devoted to literature has been heavily reduced or more commonly merged with entertainment or lifestyle sections. The radios and TV stations have zero interest in such content, there is no space for ‘nice things’ in the news. Reporters and camera crews are busy covering the constant political turbulence. It is understandable – literature is non-news, there is nothing sensational to it, it is not a good vehicle for advertising, it does not generate clicks, therefore it is given very little media space. Periodicals and specialised magazines are even more questionable; there are quite a few, yet the reader count is low, as are their print runs – two to four editions a year with limited distribution, of course.
And should you decide to write a book, you find yourself engaged in a battle on several fronts: the personal front – a battle for the time and space to write. Why write when you must make a living somehow? People fight for that coveted room of one's own, but most of us are forced to do something else, work a menial job, leaving us to dream about literature. At the end of the day, one must sacrifice sleep in order to write at least something. Then, one must look for a publisher, and the publisher must look for funds to publish the manuscript. Macedonian publishers mainly depend on the Ministry of Culture and the so-called ‘competition for projects of national interest’. As if everything which is written is of artistic and national interest. There are exceptions, of course, or to be more precise there are publishers who are active and follow European and international funds’ calls for proposals, and people who think more practically and thus manage to discover sources of funding and ensure support and placement for books.
As such, the literary scene has been shaken, and the authors have been stirred, too. A new climate has been created, or rather a new chain which includes more cultural and literary workers: authors, editors, proofreaders, translators, project-managers, publishers, foreign partners, and support foundations. Several representative examples of this are the Creative Europe programmes, the Traduki translation programme, the poetry platform Versopolis, the Pro-za Balkan festival and their Skopje Fellowship programme, the BookStar festival, the publishing house Goten and their translation residence in Skopje (part of the Translation in Motion initiative, supported by Creative Europe), etc.
Throughout the years, all these programmes, festivals and publishers have opened the doors of connection, allowing authors to connect with their translators and publishers in other languages, creating opportunities for direct co-operation, meetings, promotions at home and abroad, as well as residencies. This, in turn, has created a space for discussions and questions about the sustainability of books, the validation of the work done by the author and translator, and the acknowledgement of everyone involved in the creation of a book. The whole dynamic gains additional value due to the fact that Macedonia has no literary agency and literary agents, which makes these kinds of connections valuable. Lastly, this makes it possible for books to reach as many readers as possible, beyond the borders of Macedonia and beyond the Macedonian language area.
It is quite interesting that after the dissolution of the great federation that was the former Yugoslavia – which had a large literary scene, large market and large reading public – these doors seemed to close a little. Translations and promotions happened mostly through personal initiative, friendships and friendship groups, or thanks to the enormous effort of tireless publishers and translators.
At present, I would be remiss not to mention the famous Macedonian poet Igor Isakovski (1970–2014) who was just as good a translator as he was a poet, a tireless publisher and the founder of the cultural institution Blesok. He has translated works from Slovenian, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin and English into Macedonian, and from Macedonian into all these languages. He was a visionary and a pioneer in many areas, including e-publishing, CD-ROM publishing, etc. His translation oeuvre comprises around 60 works, the majority of which are translated from the languages of our former common country.
Consequently, there is the impression that the above-mentioned individual initiatives, programmes and festivals restore the closeness of the not-so-distant South Slavic languages and cultures, but also the integration of contemporary Macedonian literature into a European and international context.
I return again to the personal struggles of an author. If the book passes the Ministry’s competition, the publisher receives funds, the author receives the author’s fee, and voilà – you have a book! But, no, nothing is finished yet. In fact, everything is far from finished. If the publisher does not have a bookshop, the going gets really tough. All of a sudden, you also become a distributor and a bookseller and an accountant and someone who runs to and fro to deliver the book and ask the bookshops to put it in a visible place on the shelf. Maybe not the shop window, but at least not the bottom shelves where they keep old editions, if not on the ‘book of the week’ shelf then perhaps in the ‘suggested reading’ section filled with domestic authors, or anywhere where the employees may remember the title and your name, so that you wouldn’t feel embarrassed when your friends ask where they can buy your new book. You beg publishers or bookshops to advertise it, to mention you in a social media post, maybe take a photograph of a reader buying your book, holding it in their hands, recommending it. Suddenly, while being an author, you also become your own promoter and manager and advertisement agent. As such, you decide you want a promotion event – at some place where you may gather all your friends, fellow writers and potential readers. The book should be promoted and marketed, people need to hear about it. You look for a space for the promo event. If the publisher is not agile enough or sufficiently interested in it, you do it yourself. You look for people to talk about your book, about you, you look for people to read something, say something, sing something. The funds are scant or non-existent. You devise a plan B, C, D.
Seen from a different angle, all of this has stirred inventiveness and creativity in the last ten or more years. Promotions are no longer done in large venues with the stage high above the auditorium; the authors now look for pleasant, intimate spaces. Long forgotten stages are revived, the conventional format of the promo event is being abandoned, there are no more ex cathedra addresses, the audience is now closer to the authors and moderators, things become more tangible, more direct. The fourth wall is broken (to use theatre terminology). Whereas in the past these events were hosted by professional moderators and actors with stern speaking voices, they are now moderated by fellow authors who read poems and excerpts. It is a picture of camaraderie and congeniality; the sharing of the stage and the microphone creates a sense of belonging to a certain poetic or literary group.
The pandemic opened our eyes to how we could change things, teaching us how to adjust, how to discover places for creation and realisation. In the last few years, an atmosphere has been created where literature and books are being celebrated through live performance, especially the works of the youngest representatives of the contemporary poetry scene. One of the key factors that helped engender this atmosphere was the project Astalni Proekcii, a poetry marathon which lasted for 40 months, taking place every first Tuesday of the month at a coffee shop in Skopje’s Old Bazaar. This brought hundreds of young and not-so-young domestic and foreign poets to Skopje, from beginners to established veterans and internationally anthologised authors or poets.
Poetry is also read in the streets and squares. For instance, the group ‘Poetry SLAM Macedonia’ read their verses using megaphones on stages built by the poets themselves. New bookshop-cafés have emerged with their own programmes, which draw even more contributors and creators who pitch, produce, curate, and manage the cultural and literary scene. After attending at least one such meeting things no longer seem so bleak, and if one attends regularly, one gets a sense of not being alone. Throughout 2022, for instance, any time my enthusiasm waned, it was always aroused anew by literary events, festivals, initiatives and more importantly by the people who create contemporary Macedonian literature, who tend and treasure the Macedonian language in a period where there are numerous disputes about its existence.
My most intimate poetic experience of belonging begins and ends with the Struga Poetry Evenings, the oldest European poetry festival which has run for 60 years. Since its inception, the SPE has been a bridge and a focal point of poetry, a home for the world’s most prominent poets of the second half of the 20th century. Every disapproval, every attack, every pessimistic view on what poetry is (‘what are poets for in a destitute time?’, asks Hölderlin) halts or dies down when faced with the imposing list of Struga laureates, recipients of the ‘Golden Wreath’ of poetry: Shuntarō Tanikawa, Amir Or, Carol Ann Duffy, Adonis, Makoto Ōoka, Seamus Heaney, Mahmoud Darwish, Yehuda Amichai, Allen Ginsberg, etc.
Struga is the city of poetry. In actuality, it is the country of poetry. It is greater and stronger than all political and national establishments, more resilient and more enduring than all the scepticism of those who are unfamiliar with the potency and healing power of the verse. It is an honour to be a part of that republic, an honour to work in it, an honour to belong to that time and space, to that chronotope, in Bakhtin’s sense of the word. The festival, which has been traditionally taking place without exceptions for sixty years in the last week of August, honours the poets like no other.
Not far from Struga, in the village Velestovo (four kilometres from Ohrid), another important poetry manifestation has taken place for 34 years to date, the Poetry Night Velestovo, always a week before the start of the SPE. There, Macedonian poetry is celebrated in a rather informal, intimate yet highly creative manner – through the combination of several arts (painting, music, poetry), while also celebrating the poetry from different countries, such as Slovenia, Montenegro, Ireland, Russia, Faroe Islands, etc. This time-honoured festival is yet another immense mapping of the Macedonian language and poetry on both a domestic and an international scale.
Two years ago, the Macedonian capital of Skopje also started its own Skopje Poetry Festival. It takes place in the first week of September and hosts some of the participants of the two above-mentioned festivals. The significance of the SPF lies in its focus on young poets and audiences. This year, one of the programmes – ‘Otskochna daska‘ or ‘(the springboard)’ – had a more competitive character, while the best young poet (aged 16–25) took part in the official festival programme.
The Bookstar festival, which gathers some of the greatest names in European prose, has similar draw. During this year’s eighth edition, people queued for hours to get an autograph and dedication from the Icelandic author of crime novels Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and flocked to the reading titled Brave New Words. The festival awarded the special Bookstar Award to the Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich for her novel War Does Not Have a Woman’s Face.
Autumn brought us even greater things. One of them was the tenth jubilee edition of the Pro-za Balkan festival, a strong network connecting Balkan literatures and authors, as well as various literary professionals – agents, directors and managers of some of the largest publishing houses in Europe and the rest of the world. Focusing on contemporary Balkan literature, it supports and connects authors whose works have a strong impact all over our peninsula. Authors such as Mircea Cărtărescu, Svetislav Basara, Miljenko Jergović, Daša Drndić, Vladislav Bajac, Georgi Gospodinov, Vida Ognjenović, Alek Popov, etc. count among the recipients of the festival’s Prozart Award. This is one of the few events where the so-called ‘curse of small cultures’ is openly discussed, or in the words of the famous Bulgarian writer Alek Popov (Prozart winner of 2019): ‘a rare forum where Balkan is not just an exotic guest and where the great discussion of art moves through the original, living and multifarious world of Balkan prose’.
At this year’s jubilee edition, the award for author’s contribution to the development of Balkan prose was awarded to the Macedonian storyteller, playwright and novelist Olivera Nikolova (b. 1936) – to many the ‘mother of all female Macedonian writers’.
Nikolova, the bard of Macedonian literature in the 20th and 21st century, lives away from the public eye. At the awarding ceremony she gave a modest acceptance speech in which she examined the existence of literature in language and vice versa, the unbreakable connection of a language with books, culture and the world, and the place of the author in today’s civilization. When I read and listen to her, I do not shy from interpreting her words through the prism of the pressures on the Macedonian identity coming from the neighbouring countries, bilateral and international agreements (with Greece and Bulgaria), and the obstacles the country faces in its bid for EU membership. However, even without that particular vantage point, Nikolova expresses (literary and human) truths which will echo for decades to come.
‘I belong to Macedonian literature, and my language of expression, as you know, is the Macedonian language. You won’t be surprised, then, if I say that the language in which we express ourselves is, for us, the most beautiful language in the world. You won’t be surprised if I say that in or language we sometimes find immeasurable joy as well as a frivolous, pointless, ominous danger which complicates life and multiplies misfortunes… or if I say that we are still standing on the shaky ground of history imagining that we have achieved the future of our forefathers dreamt of… Today, when my country and my language are successfully multiplying their echoes, and when we feel content and elated, why shouldn’t we say that we too have been meticulously weaving the lattice of the world alongside all others? The lattice of the world – like some earthly galaxy where all constellations shine equally for everybody. Why shouldn’t we say that we try to believe that this is how it is, and this is how it should be?’, said Olivera Nikolova.
The same clarity, lucidity, and respect for continuity are all in evidence in the works of well-known Macedonian poet and author Gordana Mihailova Boshnakoska (b. 1940), who opened the 61st Struga Poetry Evenings. The youngest participant of the first edition of the festival, she proudly recalled its beginnings, but also reminded us of the obligation that every poet has towards the future: ‘It was then that I saw all the poets who make up the canon of Macedonian poetry. The only female poet was Danica Ruchigaj, beautiful, self-confident, and aware of who she was. Macedonian poetry used to be insular. Now, it is established and accepted, without a doubt, all over the world. The participation in the SPE is a privilege not only for Macedonian poets but also for poets from all over the world. Generations of authors from Macedonia, from all the countries of Europe and other continents, shine in the dark night sky Struga and listen to the echoes of their poems. Those echoes tell us that poetry lives to guide, to open what is closed.’
There is a peculiar joy and privilege in meeting those who have already walked the path you are now walking. It is a peculiar feeling of curiosity and respect but also readiness honestly to recognise the wisdom they impart. We should always recognise the moment when the works of our precursors should be remembered, preserved, archived. Before our generation stands the challenge to remember to note the moments which will be history one day, to preserve and conserve their words in the language in which they were written down and spoken.
After any festival I am overcome by a whirlwind of mixed feelings of joy and sadness, happiness and excitement, a state which borders infatuation and love, an obsession – I contract an infection of the famous SPE virus. I know, I am not objective, I am not fully honest about the things which could be better and different.
Those before us created a space for us. Back in their day, they did what we are doing now – gathered people who recognise the quixotic in authorship, who willingly and joyfully engage in that struggle, who willingly take on the roles of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
The battlefield may seem small, but the battle is far from easy. Nevertheless, you are not alone, I am not alone. I am a contemporary of hardy people who share my enthusiasm; we infect each other with this enthusiasm and keep going. In spite of the attacks, in spite of daily political negotiations and agreements, in spite of international politics, there still exists a world where things are strong and sturdy, and the language in which we perceive and express them is resilient and enduring. All my contemporaries and fellow participants in the events and festivals I mention here use the Macedonian language to write and multiply the joys of literature. There are many other authors whom I may have omitted unintentionally or for the sake of brevity. If I had mentioned all of them, I would’ve used up reams or turned this text into a history of a national literature. And that is not what this text is about. Quite the opposite, these lines are for my mother tongue, my Macedonian language, the language in which we create our treasured literature. It is the language in which we fight the windmills, in which we meet our own Sancho Panza, in which we welcome our brothers and sisters, poets from all corners of the world. In our language we give them a place to stay, a guest room but also the key to our home. There is something elusive and endlessly joyful in having a home and being at home in one of the most resilient media ever created by humankind – the book.
Translated by Gorjan Kostovski
The title of this essay is inspired by the topic of the platform Of worthy literary translators (on the culturological in the literary translation and the societal in the life of a literary translator), organised by the publishing house Skaznuvalka (10 September 2022) as part of the project ‘For Future Adults – A plan for Instilling Reading Habits in Youngsters’, supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union (Creative Europe Books).
 Published in Stozer, 145 (4/2022). Stozer is a review of culture, literature and art, publisher Association of Macedonian Writers.
 Stozer, 145 (4/2022).
Aleksandra Jurukovska (b. 1981) was born in Skopje, Macedonia. She obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degree at the Department of General and Comparative Literature in her hometown. She has been working as a journalist since 2001 as part of the editorial staff for culture and art in several media (radio, TV, portals). Throughout the 2001–2008 period, as a journalist and editor of the Macedonian Radio, she prepared over 200 programs of culture and radio critiques on contemporary Macedonian literature. From 2008 to 2013 she wrote reviews for the daily newspaper Dnevnik.
She is one of the founders of the www.cooltura.mk website and part of the team of the platform for art, science and education www.umno.mk. She has published critique and essays in all the foremost important Macedonian magazines for literature and culture. She writes texts for related Balkan and regional journals and magazines. Her texts have been translated into Bulgarian, Serbian, English and Albanian language. She was a part of the editorial board of “Stozher”, the review of the Macedonian Writers’ Association, being a member since 2018.
She is the author of the books of literary critique Weaving the Text (Silsons, 2015), Two Minutes and Forty Lines (PNV Publications, 2020), and the literary study The Media Exile of Literature in Macedonian Culture (Avant Press, 2018).
On several occasions, she was a moderator at the Struga Poetry Evenings and the head of the festival’s press-center. In 2018, she was the guest-editor of the European poetry platform Versopolis, part of the editorial “Week of the festival”.
Photo by Igor Todorovski