Conversation / 25 September 2016

As a trained writer, I had to rethink fiction

An Inteview with the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić

Dubravka Ugrešić has established herself as one of Europe’s most distinctive novelists and essayists. Ugrešić’s work is marked by a rare combination of irony, polemic and compassion. She worked for many years at the University of Zagreb’s Institute for the Theory of Literature, successfully pursuing parallel careers as both a writer and a scholar. In 1991, when war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, Ugrešić took a firm anti-war stance. Subjected to prolonged public ostracism and persistent media harassment, she left Croatia in 1993. In an exile that has, in time, become emigration, her books have been translated into over twenty languages. She has taught at a number of American and European universities, including Harvard, UCLA, Columbia and the Free University of Berlin. She is the winner of several major literary prizes (Austrian State Prize for European Literature 1998; finalist for the Man Booker International Prize 2009; the Jean Améry Essay Prize, awarded for her essayistic work as a whole, 2012; while Karaoke Culture was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism 2011). In 2016, Dubravka Ugrešić was awarded the Vilenica Prize and Neustadt International Prize for Literature. This interview was made during her stay in Slovenia for the events organized around the Vilenica Prize.

Svetlana Slapšak (SS): When I heard that Dubravka Ugrešić got the Vilenica Prize, I told to myself – “Finally!” Now Vilenica has changed too...and the notion of history is already on the list of topics I would like to ask you. Did you ever regret that you, due to certain circumstances, had to leave the academia?

Dubravka Ugrešić (DU): Well, when I see who is getting into academia, I am not sorry at all! I remember my mom and her wisdom: once I complained to her that they did not love me, and she asked – would you really want them to love you?

SS: I am referring to nine books of the Lexicon of Russian Avant-garde, which were published by a team in which you were one of the authors/editors in Zagreb, before the war: these books have had an enormous impact on literary theory at that time, and also to literature itself.

DU: Definitely, this had a great impact in my case too, my writing has been formatted by the Russian avant-garde and by the theory of formalism. I never left this aesthetic framework, and I still write, exploring this context. There is an ethical part of this, too – the apprenticeship. Nobody has the right - and this is especially painful today, when even teenagers claim the right to their “opinion” - to express their views on the profession or life mission of their choice, without having done the basics with the teachers, acquiring the necessary knowledge and achieving the maturity of arguing, which always comes with due modesty. My apprenticeship consisted of some theory, some translating, some digging out of forgotten authors – that is how I gained the right to my own voice.

SS: Your case was specific: your own teachers later attacked you and even denounced you in the nationalist hysteria in Croatia.

DU: This year, the topic of Vilenica debates was Ethics and Literature. It looks slightly out of fashion at the first glance, but the experience of the transitional processes, which eventually lead even to the loss of morality among teachers, needs to be reviewed and reflected. It was horrifying for me to watch my professors, who were at the top of their field in humanities, turning into immoral monsters. I followed them and served them, and then, suddenly saw them succumbing to a fear that did not have any real reason. I would have understood it if anybody was threatening them with prison or something similar, but there was nothing of the kind. I understand the naked human fear...but in the end, this was just one of the disappointments in a long line of them... The fear which I mentioned is, in fact, the most effective and the most dangerous fear - of not being accepted by a collective, a group. There is something biological in it... Today, it starts very early, with my little niece, who complains that she should not have the “worst” cellphone among others, when the iPhone is denied to her – simply because it is not affordable.

SS: When your novel Štefica Cvek in the Jaws of Life was published, it was a kind of oxygen bomb, which exploded in the midst of pseudo-psychoanalytical novels which avoided any political relevance, and genre-novels, which were doing the same: it was corrosive, ironic, hilarious with its parade of Yugoslav lovers, with their identity and impotence problems. Women adored the novel, it was quickly turned into a popular TV series and a film...

DU: Štefica fell on a different ground, with a criticism that was still able to explain to the public what was important in a literary work. This is definitely lost: literature is understood as someone's story, and everybody has a story to tell. This is a consequence of digitalized communication and of diminishing literature to a consumerist exchange. The old triangle, author-work-reader, remained with the reader as the main power; maybe the turning point was when viewers started making phone calls to the TV...the public took over, with decreasing knowledge. From that perspective, Štefica today still looks like an avant-garde text, which breaks the rules and amazes. Recently, in Poland, a woman made a remark that Štefica was some kind of Bridget Jones! I tried to explain that my novel was written at least a quarter of a century earlier, and that my Štefica could have been mother to Bridget, but I admit, it is very hard to explain. My novel obviously still functions today, but on a simple base - it is a story of a young woman who is searching for love, with a happy ending. The other levels seem to be lost...

SS: I re-read your novel Forcing the Stream of Consciousness, which ironically deconstructed the Yugoslav socialist culture, the other, more disciplined cultures from socialist countries, the Western impact, and the questions of literary authenticity. It can be read in a different key now – therefore my question, about cultural colonialism now, not only as taking over, but also as something that the Balkan authors readily offer and sell...

DU: I just came from a famous spa in Slovenia, from a hotel owned by a Russian, among mainly Russian tourists, and I was watching Russian TV channels: I was spying on them all the time, and concluded that the adaptation to capitalism was not only easy, and done in a couple of simple steps, but also complete. Lifestyle is an easy achievement. In order to achieve that, we lost something much more valuable. I met an older woman, looking like a cabbage dealer, from Baku, who can afford the spa in Slovenia, and who asked for a doctor during her wellness treatment: she was presented to a young woman in white and immediately detected that she was not a doctor: she herself was, in fact, a surgeon and obstetrician of the highest rank...a young woman posed as a doctor, because she accepted the values of the new world, and faking something for a profit was not a problem for her. The transition for me is not so fascinating in politics, but more as an agent of change in human nature, and the new cultural colonization starts in these changes.

SS: In your literary progress, you conquered a new genre which I would be inclined to name “the bitter essay.” This coincides with the changes that occurred in our lives in the 90s, and with a war in Yugoslavia...

DU: As a trained writer, I had to rethink fiction: the new rules and habits of everyday life dictated a certain banality and clinging to cliches. Our reality became kitschy, and it was difficult for me to cope with it – it was quite a physical pain... I had to find a mode of writing which would free me from all this, and essay was the form that provided freedom, allowing me to include my experiences, my feelings, the tiny phenomena of everyday life, the meaningful fragments. Essay was the answer for my daily pains, and it became a comfortable and a comforting way of expressing that. I was still organizing my books around some central topics: for instance, my Reading Not Allowed! is about literature and publishing, my new book Europe Inside is about what is happening in Europe nowadays... I still want my books to have an inner structure, not just to be a heap of essays.

SS: But you never left the novel...

DU: No, I just finished a new novel and I am very happy about it... and it is again completely different from the novels written by “our” writers...

SS: There was this great turn to Slavic mythology in your last novel…

DU: There are these little things that we store, and then they suddenly trigger stories: there was a sentence from Remizov that I remembered – “Grandma Yaga layed an egg,” which haunted me, and had to end in something. I made it to a motto once, and then forgot it. When I started the novel, it developed into three narratives. A memory/memoire, which is a story of my mother, then a fiction on three old ladies who went to a spa – not the one in Slovenia – and then a story told by one of a fictitious people from the first part who becomes the narrator in the third part. Everything turns around getting old, the myths, the symbols, the rich lore about old age was crucial.

SS: And what about poetry? It seems that it lives through a new revival, thanks to Internet...

DU: I never wrote a verse. But for a book of essays on the new culture, based on Internet and the new media (The Karaoke Culture) I had to do a lot of research, especially in what is known as “fan fiction” and its modes, the canon and the intervention. There is not much poetry there, but it is interesting that many fan fiction authors are women, because of their anonymity... Of course, the canon is not what we have in mind: Harry Potter, for instance lives on the Internet in innumerable versions. It seems that these interventions into the canon started with Star Trek. I was looking for the presence of the high literature, and found only interventions in Alice in Wonderland, but they were really not poetry, such position of the canon could be taken by the haiku poetry, because it seems easy for the beginners.

SS: You have a special relation with photography, which is important in several of your stories and novels.

DU: In fact, there are too many photos around, related to prose...there are “novels” consisting of some ten pages and then one-hundred selfies... The photo that I used at the beginning of the novel Museum of the Unconditional Surrender is mysterious. This photo is magical – it allows for the story to spread in a number of different narrative directions, and does not give a clue to any of them. It is contrary to everything that we expect from a photo – to inform, explain, lift a mystery.

SS: What about nostalgia? It could have been a kind of consolation and comfort during the war, but afterwards it became more of a consumerist object.

DU: That was one of the consequences of the Internet: I stumbled on a package of letters from my friends, and the correspondence stopped in 1995, when email was massively introduced. All these letters – intelligent, emotional, explanatory – were replaced by one or two lines in messages, once a year, and that was done in the name of a better communication! It is the contrary that was produced... It became worse: I do not have Facebook, even email is considered too demanding, even if you can always say that somebody's message was lost in spam. When I was writing about the confiscation of memory, I thought that preserving is necessary, because the memory could be lost. But only some ten years later, it all came back on surface – as a therapy for some. Gadgets bring us back our deepest desires and bits of notions that we needed. A friend has a ringtone that reminded me of something - it was the motif from the Czech toons that we had on Yugoslav TV – Lolek and Bolek! You can extract whatever you want from the memory, and use it again. This kind of commercialization, however, does not bring knowledge, so I am against it. We are dealing with small pleasures, which only randomly incite a person to ask for more knowledge. The nostalgia therefore can function as censorship...In a way, the trivia based on nostalgia have closed the file... Yugonostalgia went through all these phases.

SS: Related to this, what about war literature in the cultures after Yugoslavia?

DU: I cannot tell much: it is a calculative context in which rules of tolerance or gain are counted in, including the linguistic barriers – it is impossible to avoid that. The people feel that they control the language, and when the politics of purity started, I started to feel free to love special dialects which I did not care about before... I see the calculation among many writers. I really regret something from the communist times – the law against the trash!

SS: And what do you see in diaspora?

DU: If we think of writers who lived some of the life experience in Yugoslavia, and then moved to a new world, it can be great – the case of Aleksander Hemon, for instance. There are not many examples like this, however. It is very different from the Russian diaspora.