Essay / 18 August 2021

How to Define a Nation When You're Not a Nationalist: A Manual

How I Explained Slovenia to my Foreign Friends

Authors of the Week: Slovenia

This is the first real party I’ve been to since the pandemic started more than a year ago. Most of us have already been either vaccinated or infected and under the spring moon, by an enormous bonfire, we are discovering our newly gained strengths, like teenage superheroes. It’s the night of the equinox. There’s magic in the air. The word that comes to mind is liberation.

I am talking to a friend’s boyfriend whom she will leave shortly after, citing his Mediterranean toxic masculinity. He is Spanish, and even though I am not inclined to regionalise it, I too am struggling with his desire to win every argument he might share with a woman. Like most Europeans who meet on foreign soil, we get swept away into an endless conversation about European politics, unavoidably landing at the question of Catalan independence. He, born and raised in Madrid, claims he is not against it per se, but “a region can’t just decide to have a plebiscite overnight, can it”? As a Slovene, I am well equipped to tell him it has indeed happened before and that my country is in fact a product of such a historical event. I never get the chance to express my complicated feelings about Slovene independence because he is quick to argue that this was of course possible in the Balkans — due to its inherent instability — but that does not mean it could be repeated in other parts of Europe. The fact that we spent almost an hour discussing the Spanish civil war prior to that had no bearing on his deeply ingrained conviction that the Balkans, standing somehow outside of the well-organised Europe, is this unruly, outwardly space where life is stranger than fiction and cannot serve as a point of comparison for the spaces he considers himself from. Nor does invoking the Basque Country. Or Northern Ireland, or Crimea. Or Belgium, if you will. He is both unable and unwilling to see Europe as whole — as an inherently unstable place, where borders were drawn and redrawn in the haste of peace conferences, leaving many disappointed, misappropriated, enraged, and traumatised. For him, this image has been entirely outsourced to the Balkans, Europe’s pseudo-oriental small Other. After all, its naming has become synonymous with fragmentation and lack of fruitful cooperation. As a Spaniard, he uses it as a yardstick of his own level of civilisation. There are other Europeans who use Spain as the same yardstick, I would tell him if he made it possible for me to circle back to my own argument and establish bonds of solidarity in the European South, that would give us all a better fighting chance against the prejudices of the North. But in its immediacy, abstract pride is often an emotion that suffocates all others. I know many Slovenes who feel similarly and have spent their entire lives and careers (be it in culture or in politics) arguing that Slovenia is the last border state of the West, closer to Austria than Croatia and most definitely not a part of the Balkans — this strange, dark, foreign land that we were only attached to because of the historical mistake that was Yugoslavia. This border — between the East and the West, North and South, civilisation and barbarity — is redrawn daily: in conversations, in research papers, in art, on the news, in parliaments. From Jörg Heider to Milan Kundera, there is always somebody eager to prove that if you want to be counted among the rank of the civilised, the safest bet is to argue that your next-door neighbour is in fact the first barbarian. Comparative thinking, it would seem, is more commonly used as a tool of hierarchical differentiation than as a tool of solidarity.

But when it comes to cultural identity, self-identification is only half (and often less) of the equation. It is often the others who tell you where you are from. In the case of Slovenia, as I have learned, the answers differ widely, heavily depending on where the one passing the judgment is from. Statistically, though, the most common reaction is confusion. Some have no idea where it is. Many have ideas, but they are convoluted and unclear, undulating between generalised images of Eastern Europe or the Balkans and something else, even less clear, that many call Central Europe, but become increasingly more confused by the fact that I am not a native German speaker. When tired, I sometimes resort to stating that I am simply from Europe. This satisfies many Americans I speak to and way more than a more specific answer would. But when in the right mood, I like to be really, really specific. This is a comparative game I play, and not many are willing to play it with me, but in the years of leading a transnational existence, I have learned it as a helpful guide in regard to whom I can trust — with more than just the details of my national identity.

Although the expression itself was never explicitly used, most Slovene children of my generation were taught that our cultural identity is inherently a borderland identity. Alpe-Adria, etc. Too many dialects to count or speak fluently. No centralised national cuisine — best proven by my paternal grandparents who grew up in villages some 50 km apart along the Slovenian western border and considered each other’s culinary habits ridiculous. Rapidly changing state-forms and national affiliations. We were taught this fluidity was a token of Slovene exceptionalism. Slovenia was a strange, particular place, too difficult to fully grasp or describe. Some decades later I feel that this narrative was largely mobilised to break historical ties with the disintegrating Yugoslavia, but be that as it may, at the core this unwillingness to settle on a limited amount of easily legible cultural signs is unexpectedly truthful. It’s just that it’s not only true for Slovenia — it lies at the core of any culture, any place, any arbitrary collection of borders that form a state. In Belonging: A Culture of Place, bell hooks writes how confusing it was for her to explain her experience of being from (and very much of) Kentucky to coastal Americans who were not able or willing to integrate a state like Kentucky into their image of America. It’s not that some places are simple to describe, and some are difficult — it’s that some places are more available to us because they, at different times, represented the seat of cultural hegemony and got to be described so often and by so many, and thus we feel they are more available to us. It’s almost needless to say that there are subjects dwelling in both Paris and New York, living in non-hegemonic spaces hiding in plain sight, and whom we know just as poorly as we know Slovenia or Kentucky. Paying closer attention to how film or TV shooting locations are chosen offers some insight on how certain non-hegemonic spaces are robbed of their representation and pushed towards invisibility: when a story takes place in Idaho, it will almost always be filmed in Montana. When it takes place in Missouri, it will be filmed further South. A part of the answer to the question is usually economic (things are done where it’s easy or cheap to do them so money isn’t “lost”), but the other part is the propensity to boil down geography (physical as much as cultural) to simple, well-rounded units that leave little room for vagueness, such as the American South or the Balkans. Since I’ve learned this is true of the US just as much as it is for Europe, my sense of Slovenia as a “complicated” space has lost its connection to essentialism. My mode of “explaining” it to people who ask me about what it really is or tell me about what it really is in ways that seem convoluted, orientalising, or simply wrong, has come to depend on very specific parameters. Sometimes — as often as possible, for that matter —, in an unexpected comparative context I seek out to break the comparative patterns habitually used to make the world appear as a network of fixed (and hence naturalised) relations, like the one between the “civilised” West and the “barbaric East”, or the “rational” North and the “passionate” South. When placed aside, St. Louis, Missouri, where I currently live, Slovenia can be explained as a place of relative privilege due to its low crime rate, the fact that the vast majority of its residents are not burdened by outstanding medical or student debt, and the fact that even in a state of relative poverty your lifestyle will be marginally better that the lifestyle of a middle-class Missourian. But like several other post-socialist spaces, it can also be explained as a space ravaged by neoliberalisation, wherein stable forms of employment are disappearing and the remaining forms of the welfare state are at the risk of collapsing on a daily basis, facilitating growing depopulation and brain-drain. Through its share in the Yugoslav history, it can be explained as an agent of decolonisation both on European soil, and globally through the Non-Aligned Movement, but it can also be explained as the bastion of xenophobic Eurocentrism it is moving towards today. In The Curtain, Milan Kundera often finds himself talking about the kinship he feels toward certain Latin American writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez, claiming what brings them together is that they all belong to the “far edges of the West”. While I too strongly believe that cultivating trans-peripheral kinship is one of the most valuable things a peripheral author could do, I also think our particular location in non-hegemonic spaces gives us the best tool possible against the narrative oppression of Euro, or Western-centrism. Knowing first hand geography is way weirder than it seems at first sight.