Dubravka Ugrešić: “Who am I, Where am I, and Whose am I?”
The winner of the 2016 Neustadt International Prize for Literature
Ugrešić delivered the following comments upon receiving the 2016 Neustadt International Prize for Literature on Friday, October 28, at the University of Oklahoma. She will be the focus of a cover feature devoted to her life and work in the January 2017 issue of World Literature Today.
I have given a lot of thought to what to say on this very special occasion. A part of me wanted to tell you something about myself, while another part of me was dead set against it. Why? Because I studied comparative literature, and in the courses I took on literary theory and literary criticism I learned that the only thing that exists between the interpreter of a text and the text is the literary text itself, not its author. That was a time of far-reaching, important schools of literary theory (formalism, structuralism, semiotics, deconstructivism). And they all dealt with texts. The autonomy of literature was, for my generation, sacred, a border never to be transgressed.
Today we live in a different time, a time of the democratization of everything under the sun and of literary taste, among others things; at this moment of ego-boldness, selfie-culture, constant exposure to the manipulations of digital media as well as the ever-present possibility that by using digital media we, too, are manipulating others. Today there are millions of anonymous or semi-anonymous people who will with equal flair instruct us on how to do our nails, though they aren’t pedicurists, how to boil an egg, though they aren’t cooks, and what to think about Hegel, though they are not, indeed, philosophers. This is a time of emancipation and self-liberation—simultanously shameless and truly democratic—a time in which everybody can if they want to, and everybody wants to now that they can. We live, in short, in a karaoke culture.
If you hear in what I have said a tone that sounds opinionated and judgmental, that might just be because I was born in 1949. Like all the Europeans of my generation, I grew up in the shadow of the Second World War. In Europe this shadow persisted for a long time, and some of the more recent events have shown that it never, actually, ended. My father at the age of seventeen—and may I remind you that Holden Caulfield is seventeen in Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye—joined the Partisans and the Yugoslav antifascist resistance movement. In other words, I was born into and grew up in a world that was divided into the good guys and the bad guys. Only the year of 1948 was a bit confusing. That year Tito sent his famous No to Stalin, and Yugoslavia was forever tossed out of the community of Communist countries. I was born in 1949 as a sworn No-sayer. Tito’s No to Stalin meant Yes to the importation of American movies. My childhood top-ten list included Greek myths, legends about valiant partisans, and—Hollywood movies. My mother had a voracious appetite for Hollywood movies, so we often went to see the same film two or three times.
My mother also had books. She was fondest of novels with women’s names in the titles: Rebecca, Armance, Carrie, Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Emma, Tess of the D’Urbervilles . . . She had a sincerely feminist heart. She didn’t care whether the author was a woman or a man as long as the protagonist of the novel was a woman. I tried to meet my mother’s standards and find my way onto her list of favorites with two titles, the novel Steffie Speck in the Jaws of Life and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. It seems that Steffie Speck, as a “constructivist” parody of a romance novel, did not catch her fancy. Mama liked only true, grand, passionate stories. She never had the opportunity of reading Baba Yaga: by then she was already ill and dying. I say these words to honor her memory, because without her I would not be standing here today.
I studied comparative literature and Russian language and literature, and after my studies I stayed on at the university to work. I was utterly dedicated to literature, not only as a writer but as a scholar, a literary historian, a translator, and an editor. Whoever wants to become a “master” at something must first pass through an apprenticeship. That is a topic for another day and has to do with the ethics of the vocation of writer. I truly believe that one must earn the right to a literary voice of one’s own through apprenticeship.
I lived in Yugoslavia, a country of six republics, where Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Albanians, and other ethnicities lived; a country with three official religions, two alphabets (Cyrillic and Roman), and several languages: Slovenian, Macedonian, Albanian, and the official Croato-Serbian, the name for the language spoken by Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Montenegrins. Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991; the war that raged through both Croatia and Bosnia began that same year. In 1993 I left everything, my job, my family, my city, and went out into the world, although I wasn’t sure I knew where I was going. I was driven foremost by bitterness; I couldn’t understand how my fellow countrymen, people who had grown up during and after the Second World War, people who had learned the coordinates for good and bad, suddenly were summoning the spirits of their past and saluting their dead fascist leaders with arms raised high. I wondered how it was possible that out of all the available identities, people in a specific constellation chose the worst possible blood group, ethnicity, nationality, state.
I wrote about it, and immediately in the eyes of my deranged countrymen I became an “enemy” and a “traitor.” I experienced everything I had read about only in books, having been so sure that such things could never happen again. In the blood-group countries, completely besotted with destruction, I no longer had the right to a voice. I left, found myself in a temporary shelter under the roofs of cordial universities, spent a year in Berlin, another in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a year in Amsterdam, a year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a half-year at Harvard . . . finally settling in Amsterdam. And I have continued to write in my mother tongue, which has since differentiated into four languages yet, meanwhile, remaining the same language despite all the earnest efforts of the nationalist linguist ideologues. Nobody since the bloody and brutal dissolution of Yugoslavia has become any smarter, stronger, more reasonable, richer, more progressive, or any happier for it. The people are poorer, their freedoms and rights are fewer than before. Today they are more enslaved and more corrupt than ever before. There is, however, not merely the democratic principle of a pursuit of happiness, but also of a pursuit of unhappiness, as the unhappy example of Yugoslavia confirms.
I have addressed all of this in one way or another in my essays and my novels, including the novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. My mother was a big reader, she was hungry for books, and in The Museum of Unconditional Surrender I made up an episode where my mother converses with famous writers. Allow me to quote a passage from it:
“Even what was mine, and only mine, I remember so little of it,” says my mother.
“A normal man doesn’t remember what he had for breakfast. Things of a routine, repetitive nature, are meant to be forgotten. Breakfast is one; loved ones, another,” says Joseph Brodsky.
“Then what is the sense of it all? If I have no future, and I can find no base in the past?!” asks my mother.
“As failures go, attempting to recall the past is like trying to grasp the meaning of existence. Both make one feel like a baby clutching at a basketball: one’s palms keep sliding off,” says Brodsky. [. . .]
“When I really think about it, the only thing I clearly remember is fear. As a child the thing I was most afraid of was gloves turned inside out. That innocent object provoked horror in me,” says my mother.
“Actually, my moments of horror are brief, and what I feel is not so much horror as unreality,” says Peter Handke.
“You know, the first horror is growing old,” says my mother.
“Horror is something that obeys the laws of nature: horror vacui in the consciousness,” says Peter Handke.
“That doesn’t mean anything to me. I have the feeling that everything would have been different if I had been born a man,” says my mother.
“For a woman to be born into such surroundings was in itself deadly. But perhaps there was one comfort: no need worry about the future. The fortune-tellers at our church fairs took a serious interest only in the palms of the young men: a girl’s future was a joke,” says Peter Handke.
“No one can accept the fact that his own life is a joke,” says my mother.
“Life is well ordered, like a necessaire, but not all of us can find our place in it,” says Viktor Shklovsky.
“Perhaps the problem really is that I was born as a woman,” says my mother.
“Human females are incomprehensible. The human routine is awful, meaningless, sluggish, inflexible,” says Shklovsky. [. . .]
“Sometimes I am horrified at the banality of my life. Some people do have lives which resemble a well-thought-out story. I was always jealous of people like that,” says my Mother.
“There is no reason why a well-thought-out story should resemble real life, life strives with all its might to resemble a well-thought-out story,” says Isaac Babel.
“It’s all of no importance now, in any case. Now I no longer know who I am, or where I am, or whose I am . . .”
My mother’s words “Now I no longer know who I am, or where I am, or whose I am . . .” capture in the simplest possible way the dominant thematic preoccupation of all the books I have written since emigrating. In all my books I write about ruins, or memory, the personal and the collective, as well as about the official historical fabrications written by the victors that are included in the textbooks in order for them to become the unquestioned canon. Everything I write seeks answers to the question “who am I, where am I, and whose am I?” For myself today I can say that I am post-Yugoslav, transnational, or, even more precisely, postnational (a term apparently introduced by Eliot Weinberger). I have to say that postnational literature is on the rise, as is the number of postnational writers in the Republic of Letters.
My sincere thanks to the jury. I am particularly honored that among the names put up for nomination are so many brilliant women writers, and that most of the nominators were women. My thanks to wonderful writer and translator Alison Anderson who nominated me. Thanks to Robert Con Davis-Undiano for our correspondence this last year as well as sixteen years ago, in 2000, when I was a nominator and member of the jury. Thanks to Judith Pender and the students of the University of Oklahoma’s School of Drama for their fine staging of my story, “Who Am I?” Thanks to Rilla Askew for her invitation to take part in her creative nonfiction writing class, to Daniel Simon and World Literature Today not only for our exchange of emails over the last year but for their invitation to publish one of my texts in WLT, as well as to the entire team of WLT who made the effort to ensure that my trip here was an effortless pleasure. Thanks to the university, students, and lecturers; to the publisher of my essays Chad Post; to my translator Ellen Elias Bursać; to Emily Johnson, Dragana Obradović, and Alison Anderson for wonderful scholarly essays written about my work. I thank you all for your hospitality, and, last by no means least, my thanks to the Neustadt family, unflagging donors and promoters of world literature. I thank the Neustadt family and all of you, really, for making the town of Norman, as if in its wildest dreams, the epicenter of world literature.
October 28, 2016
Translation from the Croatian
By Ellen Elias-Bursać
Dubravka Ugrešić is a European writer, author of several novels and volumes of essays that have been translated into over twenty languages. Recipient of several prestigious literary awards, including the 2016 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, Ugrešić was born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, then in Croatia, and now lives in the Netherlands.
Ellen Elias-Bursać has been translating essays and fiction by Dubravka Ugrešić and other Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian writers since the 1980s.