Constructing category – Ugrešić

Standard

“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.

Random thoughts and cookie dough

Standard

Grooving on loud music at 5 a.m. Hot Chocolate – Every 1s a Winner (not a whiner!)

I am going to make a bunch of cookie dough today and stick it in the freezer to bake next weekend. Time before the holidays is short. Must bake!

I am thinking about ways to give my 2014 the best possible chance for success, and more importantly, happiness and fulfillment. PLAY WITH BABY TIGERS! Build a treadmill desk! Knock down the superfluous upstairs walls! Fall in love with some lovely Parisian (even though s/he won’t have a Scottish accent!) and host next Thanksgiving in Paris! Go to more live shows – have more music in my life in general! Build my business up (either the web-based one or the bakery tank idea)! Find the perfect shade(s) of pink lipstick! (And I’m a sucker for the reds!) Learn more about wine! Finally take a real vacation somewhere far away that I often dream of! Get a Roomba! Take more walks in the forest, as gave me such joy two years ago! Enjoy every minute of being at home! When I worked at home, no matter how much I worked then, it always felt like I was on vacation – or at least that vacation did not matter. I was relaxed and organized. I miss that. I don’t know that all these things are possible, probable or even that they would contribute to elusive happiness. But they are fun ideas – it’s giving me some joy to think about it right now.

Soundtrack to giving in to the joy of now. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

 “And one day we will die and our ashes will fly
From the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see
Love to be in the arms of all, I’m keepin’ here with me”

-Neutral Milk Hotel

More randomness

A friend posted an article on her Facebook wall that encouraged a return to some old-fashioned dating practices. When I reposted the article on my own Facebook wall, I stated that I might not need all the old-fashioned stuff (“I want all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas…” Liz Phair, “Fuck and Run”), but one of the points touched a nerve – that we should call what we’re doing by what it is. Calling dating/courting/a relationship “hanging out” is an act of clinging to a juvenile and awkward period of not knowing who you are or what you want. I am almost 40. I might not want, as the letter says, to define a relationship as “exclusive” or a “Greg Brady-going steady” thing, but I am not “hanging out”. I don’t know when the shift happened between steps progressing into a relationship to this casual, non-committal, “we’re hanging out” vibe (and yes, it does seem like a “vibe” more than something grounded in reality).

As I lament the winding down of my vacation, I watched a handful of movies – mostly not memorable. But it was entertaining to rewatch a few – I am not normally someone who watches the same movies over and over, but I decided to watch Wall Street again after… 20+ years. Charlie Sheen had a sliver of talent then, beautiful, hopeful, full of vitality – all flushed away long ago to give way to the troll/demon he seems to have become. I loved all the “high-tech gadgets” that look so laughable now – the briefcase-sized cell phones and the two-inch-screen portable tv. Let’s not overlook Daryl Hannah’s ridiculous wardrobe or the unthinkable way she decorated the Sheen character’s apartment. Oh, the 80s.

A few weeks ago, a few women in my office and I took our young Spanish intern to lunch for his birthday. The women and I are all in the late-30s age bracket; the intern was turning 24. On our walk to the restaurant, the intern was questioning me about how I manage to walk around outside without covering my legs or wearing a real coat – +5C is cold for him. I don’t “winterize” until -20C. I did explain that I don’t keep my house like an icebox, saying, “In my house, the heat is on.” My three similarly aged female colleagues and I, in unison, burst into song, as if on cue, “The heat is on… it’s on the street…” Way to date ourselves, relics of a bygone era! The intern had never heard the song, apparently, but when we got back to the office, he wanted a full education in 80s music and all things American because I am, in his words, “his American bible”. Hmm.

As if it were not abundantly clear already, I am one of those nerds who holds on to details. While my colleagues could not remember who performed “The Heat is On”, I could immediately “(dis)credit” Glenn Frey and rattle off his career history with The Eagles (who blighted – yes, I exaggerate – 70s music about as much as Frey and his Eagle partner-in-crime Don Henley inflicted their solo careers on 80s music). I suppose “The Heat is On” was only as popular as it was because it was also associated with the Beverly Hills Cop film franchise, which is also a quintessential part of 80s pop culture. While schooling this intern in 80s horrors for the ears, I also managed to share the dubious 80s songs/hits of Starship while also sharing the history of how they came about – rising from the ashes of the drug-addled remnants of other related 60s and 70s has-been bands, much like a lot of the stuff that filled the 80s music charts. All supposedly reformed (in both senses of the word) and “Just Say No” – HA. (Starship managed also to supply one of the worst songs, as well as churning out mediocrity for much of the decade – for one of the era’s worst movies – “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from Mannequin – highlight of Andrew McCarthy or Kim Cattrall’s careers? Almost no 80s movie could have been complete without Andrew or James Spader, who was in both Mannequin and the aforementioned Wall Street. Both also figured prominently in the 80s classic, Less than Zero, which was also a very true-to-life vehicle for the then very messed up Robert Downey, Jr. And both McCarthy and Spader were in 80s teen favorite, Pretty in Pink – along with Jon Cryer – who has not done much other than that and, of course, the role of the aforementioned Charlie Sheen’s brother on the dismal and crass TV show, Two and a Half Men.)

Nothing can make someone feel old like imparting all this “popular culture” knowledge – when the “popular” culture her reference points are attached to were popular 20 or 30 years ago.

The same young intern came and said to me, “Did you know they had a war in Croatia not that long ago?” when we were talking about football (my beloved Iceland was playing Croatia for a chance to get into the World Cup at the time. They lost, but at least my Icelandic underdogs gave it a go). Yes, Croatia did have a war, young man, when you were in diapers and learning to walk. I was there (well, in Bosnia anyway) monitoring post-war elections.

I can forgive a young boy for not knowing “The Heat is On” – but a major war that took place in recent history within Europe…? God save the Spanish education system?!

Then again, that is what life is for – you do learn something new every day. Sometimes totally useless stuff. I, for example, learned that Liverpool named its airport after John Lennon. I sort of doubt Lennon would have liked that (not that I know what he would have liked). I wonder what Yoko thinks. (Yoko’s Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland somehow strikes me as something both of them would have approved of more than an international airport that seems to primarily take British tourists to get drunk and sunburned in Spain.)

Anyway, I started that tangent to say that I was watching movies. I rewatched Brokeback Mountain again – this is probably the third time I saw it, and I am still moved by Heath Ledger’s performance. Actually all the performances were outstanding, especially when contrasting it with Wall Street, which I watched immediately before. Even the secondary characters in Brokeback seem to have some depth and reality – you can feel for the wives of the two main characters. They are more than just one-dimensional props. The girlfriend and wife – all secondary characters – in Wall Street are hollow.

I went in an entirely different direction after that – watching Rêves de poussière, a film from Burkina Faso – the cinematography was beautiful, the story simple and arresting.

As the remaining minutes of vacation tick by, I do laundry, get middle-of-night, belligerent phone calls and wonder how a drunken person I have not seen in a decade or more (but have known now for 20 years) thinks he misses me. How do you miss someone you have not seen in more than ten years? Especially when that feeling has always been a one-way street. You don’t. You’re smoking nostalgia, you’re drinking a memory of something that never was. It’s imaginary.

“What a beautiful face I have found in this place
That is circling all ’round the sun and when we meet on a cloud
I’ll be laughing out loud, I’ll be laughing with everyone I see
Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all”

-Neutral Milk Hotel