Author Dubravka Ugresic On Literature And Her Life In Exile
Dubravka Ugresic’s books focus on what she calls “the literariness of literature.” She’s fascinated by literature and likes to play with form and style, as she did in her 1993 novel Steffie Speck in the Jaws of Life, which references authors such as Gustave Flaubert and romance novels.
She is the recipient of many awards, including the University of Oklahoma’s Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
Ugresic grew up in Croatia when it was part of the former Yugoslavia. She worked at the University of Zagreb’s Institute for Theory of Literature, where she was both a scholar and author.
“I lived like a happy mouse in a huge chunk of cheese,” Ugresic told World Views.
But when war broke out, Ugresic’s world changed. She was critical of the wave of nationalism that spread across the former Yugoslavia. Her writing reflected her opposition to nationalism and war.
“I was accused by media and by my fellow writers, by my colleagues at the university, of being a traitor and being a witch,” Ugresic said.
To Ugresic, the nationalism that rose during the early 1990s in the former Yugoslavia was a form of fascism, even though most people did not want to describe it as such.
“If you have concentration camps as we had in Bosnia for instance, if you have extermination of Serbs in Croatia and the opposite in Serbia. What is that then? Fascism,” Ugresic said.
Ugresic fled Croatia. She left her job and the security of everybody life in exchange for nomadism in exile. She lived for a while in Germany and the United States before she settled in Amsterdam. She continued to write about the situation in her home country.
“I became quite obsessive about writing about what was happening because I think it is important that this is not about Croatia,” Ugresic said.
Instead, she saw patterns between what was happening in Croatia and in other eastern European countries, such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Even though some of her work is political, Ugresic emphasizes that politics is not the main preoccupation in all of her writing.
“Literature and [the] concept of literature of literature is my main thing. And I'm writing fiction and writing novels,” Ugresic said. “I'm writing short stories and this [politics] is not the only that I'm writing about.”
Suzette Grillot: Dubravka Ugresic, welcome to World Views.
Dubravka Ugresic: Thank you.
Grillot: Dubravka, you're from the former Yugoslavia and obviously experienced war and conflict there but you're a writer now and you've written about these experiences. Can you just kind of take us back to what those experiences were and how that led you into the world of writing literature about this part of the world.
Ugresic: First of all I am I was a happy writer. Because I studied literature, I started as a very young writer. I published my first book where while I was a freshman No not freshmen but the second second year. I was a little born a literary person I would say. And then after finishing my studies I immediately got the job at the university. So I was working at the Institute for theater of literature. And I only know I lived like a happy mouse in a huge chunk of cheese and my references were literary. And my first books, were some of them are translated into English like "Lend Me Your Character" or "Fording the Stream of Consciousness." All those books were very literary. And what interests me as a former student of comparative literature was so called literarinessof literature.
Grillot:What do you mean by that? They were very literary.
Ugresic: For instance my short novel "Steffie Speck" or "Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life" is just sort of a parody on romance novels. And it is a sort of experimental because it deals with lot of graphic you know markers and signs. The short story collection "Lend Me a Character" or there was a first edition in English and the title was "Life is a Fairy Tale and Other Stories." I'm playing with well-known classical stories let's say with "Alice in Wonderland." So I'm playing with those that highly literate patterns as Gogol's story "The Nose" or let's say Tolstoy's story "The Kruetzer Sonata" or and so.
But then what happened is that I'm in Yugoslavia fell apart and there was a unexpected raise of nationalism. The war started all of that happened in 1991. It lasted until 1995. And in the meantime because I could not resist but to write about that thinking that people will understand that. But they didn't. And soI was accused by media and by my fellow writers by my colleagues at the University of being a traitor and being a witch.
Grillot: Because you weren't supportive of the nationalist movement.
Ugresic: I was not supportive of nationalist movement. And I think that it was in fact a form or fascism but somehow nobody nobody recognized that there's fascism. If you have concentration camps as we had in Bosnia for instance, if you have I mean extermination of Serbs in Croatia and the opposite in Serbia. What is that then? Fascism. If you have a vocabulary of fascism then it is a form of fascism. If you have attempt of historians, of politicians, ideologues to link Croatia -- now Independent Republic of Croatia -- to that Croatia Nazi puppet state from the Second World War. So how can you call all of that?
Grillot: So when you were exploring these things and you said it happened in 91 and ended in 95, I mean, this has happened obviously very quickly and it lasted a short period of time. So how did you how did this happen? I mean was this kind of an undercurrent that was there that was just kind of the lid taken off to reveal this underlying nationalism?
Ugresic: Now nobody understood. I think that that somehow very smartly and foxily, all the ideologues of all those politicians of those newly formed states which hatched from former Yugoslavia meaning Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. So all they played on that, you know, background of expectations and interpretations that people would understand simply in that way. Soviet Union as a communist empire fell apart. So Yugoslavia is a communist country fell apart for the comprehensible reasons because of repression, [what] the Serbs did to Croats or let's say because of dictatorship or because of need, a liberation movement, need for democracy and then but it wasn't quite like that. In Yugoslav case, because Yugoslavia was not part of a communist bloc. It was a little bit different. It was open. It was this and that. So I'm not going to explain all of that. But I think that they, those ideologues, they worked on that background. They wanted to be understood as a victim of communism which was not entirely, I would say, the case. The best is to see what are the results of all that war.
Grillot:So as you are writing about these things and the result of what happened there I mean how did that influence what emerged in your own work and how has that been received? I mean obviously you mentioned the writing that you had done before was not well received because you didn't agree with what was happening. You didn't take that party line I guess. So how has your writing been received now and especially given that you said this was our choice? More or less saying your fellow Yugoslavs, your fellow Croats, or your fellow you know country people, citizens are responsible for what happened here?
Ugresic: Yes I think they are. But I'm not accusing anybody because it is extremely dangerous. And then it is not fair to accuse people because majority of the people in such situations they try to stay alive. So that's why they are compromising with situation. They are always compromising with the situation in order to stay alive or to protect their children or to protect their jobs or to protect their status or social status or whatever. In fact, the biggest fear of human beings is a fear of exclusion. And this is a very fertile terrain for fascism: To be or not to be excluded. Just not to be excluded. That's what was happening on a psychological level. I decided to bear the consequences of my opinions and I simply I left. I left in the pretty old age.I left Croatia and my job and security of everyday life. I exchanged for nomadism for exile for not knowing where I am going or what I'm going to do else. And the only idea which in fact kept me somehow let's say in my intellectual shape was the idea to survive as a writer and to continue writing. It sounds a little bit pompous when I'm talking about that. But that's how it was. So I first spend a year in Germany then I spent the year in the States as a Bunting Institute fellow then I got something in Amsterdam in Netherlands and I moved there and somehow bit by bit after a couple of years I decided to settle in Netherlands and now I live in Amsterdam. That's the story.
Grillot: This is such a challenging story, Dubravka. It seems to me that you know the work that you're doing and obviously the things you love to write about and how that is how you're displaced from your home in this way. How has this ultimately led to the work that you're doing? Tell us about some of the work that has resulted from this experience.
Ugresic: And then of course with all of that, I mean, I simply realized that I can't prolong with my concept of developing this literariness of literature. That life was so strong that somehow it penetrated into all my ideas about literature and not ideas about the literature but it became my … I became quite obsessive about writing about what was happening because I think it is important that this is not about Croatia. I mean, Croatia is just the example which was closest to me because I knew the whole landscape and the environment. It is not about former Yugoslavia. I think it's a story which concerns almost every almost every country in Europe, at least, or former East European countries because we see patterns now in Hungary, in Poland, in the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, in the former Soviet Union. In all those states. In Albania and in Bulgaria. So it's not it's not it's not just a reference from a little Croatia.
Grillot: You're seeing how this experience is generalizable beyond just the Balkan area, and beyond Europe too. I mean, you know, you have a book called "Europe in Sepia." You've obviously written primarily about Europe. But you're seeing this happen or you're envisioning that these are struggles and you know you call it life was so strong. I would imagine being life was so difficult and challenging that you're seeing that more broadly.
Ugresic: And if you put that into a global context then you get also in that reading of those patterns you get additional meaning.
Grillot:So is the mission then, finally, Dubravka, is the mission then to write about these experiences and generalize in a way about the human condition, about the experience in a global context? To shed some light on human condition?
Ugresic: No no it's not my attempt to generalize. No no nothing like that, you know. Literature and concept of literature of literature is my main thing. And I'm writing fiction and writing novels. I'm writing short stories and this is not the only that I'm writing about politics. It’s more than that. My new book, I just finished the manuscript, is mostly about literature and about nomadism or migrations. So I can say that, no, I wouldn't agree with that I am only you know inspired by political events.
Grillot: Well, Dubravka, thank you so much for sharing this perspective on your writing and your work and I know I for one will look forward to reading more of what you've written. So thank you so much for being here today.
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