“Do we have any other choice? We wanted freedom, we got the freedom of a game, and we even thought the game was the freedom to just clown around. We wanted individual freedom and achieved the freedom of imitation.” -Dubravka Ugrešić, Karaoke Culture
In a long ago period during which I spent my life devoted to studying the (parts of the) former Yugoslavia – its history, its literature, its music, its politics, its divisions, its being knitted together haphazardly and unraveled again, its personalities, I naturally read everything I could get my hands on from writers there. Naturally this included the modern ‘classics’ like Krleža and Andrić (which, now how can we place geographically, and do we need to? As most writers and residents of former Yu will tell you, you may have been born in what is now Croatia, or Bosnia, but you had relatives from all over and these divisions were more artificial – and often economic – than political or ideological) but also contemporary fiction and poetry along with the slew of critical thinking and journalistic angles on the breakup of the Yugoslav union. I don’t want to be as crass as saying that this exercise – that the reaction to and observing of the war – ‘separated the wheat from the chaff’ in terms of writing ability. But in looking at the breadth of it now, I read Dubravka Ugrešić’s writing – whether essays or fiction – with joy, with attention, not being able to put the books down until I finish. Meanwhile, some of her contemporaries, notably Slavenka Drakulić, I still read (whether descriptions of life in Yugoslavia before its end or perspectives on its demolition) but not with as much zeal. Perhaps it is a matter of style or tone, but Ugrešić (for me) is the better writer by far.
It would also be crass for me to say something about how Ugrešić may have written about the dissolution of Yugoslavia and what the world did or did not do in response, may have written about the experience of leaving, may have written about the peri- and post-war damage to her own career that came at the hands of supposed friends and colleagues who didn’t approve of her criticisms or at least who chose to remain silent so as to not make waves – but her writing never felt forced, like she felt she had to unveil all of these things as a self-exploitative act. (What else could a writer of the place and time do, though, than write about what they saw, what they knew?)
She has always been keenly aware, and keenly vocal, about forging an identity as a ‘writer’ without the adjectives that are inevitably attached. Many would argue that we need to know that she is a woman from former Yugoslavia, who left during the war, and thus she will always travel through literary circles as THAT woman, with THAT voice and THAT perspective. But do others get saddled with this, in equal measure, responsibility and limitation?
My point was, though, that Ugrešić always feels relevant and transcends geopolitical events in a way that, for example, I don’t find Drakulić does. But then, Drakulić has made a career on writing about geopolitics and the issues inextricably tied to the former Yu. It’s not that this is not valid, it is just that I prefer Ugrešić’s writing. And I don’t feel that there is any reason we should lump them together; I choose these two writers – and lump them together – primarily because I started reading them both at the same time. They are contemporaries, and both left Yugoslavia as it fell apart – Drakulić to Sweden and Ugrešić to the Netherlands. In the cases of both women, they left largely because they were denounced by the Tudjman government in Croatia as “witches” (along with a handful of their contemporaries) and began getting threats that were not related to the war itself but to the frenzied, unquestioning nationalism that rose up on all sides in the convoluted breakup. One could argue that Croatian nationalism was never too far under the surface for many.
I’m not out to malign Drakulić – in fact, this is not meant to be about her at all. She’s fine. I like her. This instead is meant to ask why, at least in superficial treatments of a writer like Ugrešić, we veer toward easy categorizations. We put her into a specific box, representing a specific country, region, gender, point of view. Is it that we just cannot understand things unless we categorize and contextualize them? I guess labels are required – or else how would we discover these writers? On a larger scale, how could we find anything? We have, as Ugrešić herself has written about at length in Karaoke Culture, access to more information than ever – but we are also more deeply beholden to the technologies that allow us to find/discover all this information. We have some modicum of control – SEO and keywords and all those little tricks, but ultimately a search engine is going to be the gatekeeper, and our search terms are the terms of victory or surrender. Without categorization, I either discover Ugrešić – or I don’t.
Constructing the category
Ugrešić has written about this at length elsewhere: the construct of a ‘category’ in which certain writers, from certain places, will always live. In Karaoke Culture, she specifically writes on “the profitable exotic” – the exilee, who is all the more interesting by adding on other sub-categories, such as Croatian, ex-Yugo, post-communist, woman, etc. But then she asks: is everyone subject to these same categorizations? (In a search engine, sure – but in terms of framing the context or lens through which the reading is filtered and interpreted?):
“Exile is literally a change of context. Exile implies the personal experience of every exilee, which would be difficult to subsume under terms that are stubbornly endorsed by literary critics from both worlds, the writer’s home base and the host environment. The terms—émigré, immigrant, exile, nomad, minority, ethnic, hybrid literature—discriminate, but they are also affirmative. With these terms the home base expels the writer, while the same terms are used by the host environment to relegate the writer to an ethnic niche, and at the same time affirm his or her existence. The home base makes assumptions of monoculturalism and exclusivity, while the host environment make assumptions of multiculturalism and inclusivity, but both are essentially working with dusty labels of ethnicity and the politics of otherness. Even if I were to write a text about the desolation of frozen landscapes at the North Pole, I would still be chiefly labeled as a Croatian writer, or as a Croatian writer in exile writing about the desolation of the frozen landscapes at the North Pole. Reviewers would promptly populate the frozen wasteland of my text with concepts such as exile, Croatia, ex-Yugoslavia, post-communism, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Slavic world, Balkan feminism, or perhaps Balkan eco-feminism, while journalists would ask me whether I had the opportunity while up in the frozen wasteland to run into the Yugoslav diaspora, and how I perceived the situation in Kosovo from that frozen vantage point.”
“…an English writer writes his or her version of a visit to the North Pole, Englishness will not likely serve as the framework within which his or her text is read. This attitude of the host environment to writer-newcomers springs from a subconscious colonial attitude—just when the larger literary world is doing its best to reject this—in a market which relishes any form of the profitable exotic, what with the always vital relations between the periphery and the center.”
“The real center of power is America, or rather Anglo-American culture, whose cultural domination marked the twentieth century. We are still looking to that center with equal fascination today. Anglo-American culture is the dominant field of reference, while, at the same time, it is the most powerful, if not the most just, mediator of cultural values. In other words, if certain Chinese writers are not translated into English, it is unlikely that any Serbian or Croatian reader, with the exception of the occasional sinologist, will ever hear of them.”
And will any of this mean anything at all one day in the not-too-distant future when culture – all culture, not that divided by geopolitical lines – is something akin to the fast-food, digitized “karaoke culture” Ugrešić observes, or that, for example, tv shows like Black Mirror threaten? This is a topic I will come back to.