“The invisibility in which we live next to one another is appalling”
Perhaps the only thing more painful than leaving a beloved country behind is to realize that one’s former country no longer exists. Emigres from the former Yugoslavia find themselves in this perplexing, and bewildering predicament: are they now merely Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian? If, like author Dubravka Ugrešić, you were exiled for rejecting nationalism (“the ideology of the stupid”) where does that leave you?
Ugresic. a former professor of Russian avant garde literature at the University of Zagreb, was driven into exile in 1993 for her public opposition to the Serbian/Croatian war and its destructive tide of ultra nationalism. Branded a traitor, public enemy and witch, she emigrated to the Netherlands; in the ensuing decades she has published numerous collections of essays and several novels. Unlike say the Tibetans, Ugresic’s crime was not demanding an independent national identity, but rejecting the chauvinism and inhumanity that such movements can engender.
Like Ngugi, Ugresic sees connections between authoritarian nationalism and capitalism, noting wryly that “I opposed the war, when I should have accepted the thesis that war is just business, a way to make money by other means.” In her most recent essay collection, The Age of Skin, (translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać) she hints at the connection between individualistic consumerism and cruelty:
…”and when the victims are many, there’s no place for them in human hearts of average emotional capacity. it bears remembering that in this society of ours, rooted in an overweening happiness, empathy has been jettisoned. everyone is preoccupied with their own life, their own little existence. and as long as people stare obsessively at their reflection on the smooth screen, there will be no room for the lives of others, there is simply no room.
Ugresic is also keenly aware of the misogyny of highly militarized, nationalistic cultures. Tagged as a “witch” for criticizing Croatian nationalism, she turns to a famous witch of folklore to lampoon male fear of female intransigence. in her novel Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, (translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson) she wonders if
…they would finally stop bowing down to men with bloodshot eyes, men who are guilty of killing millions of people, and who still have not had enough. For they are the ones who leave a trail of human skulls behind them, yet people’s torpid imaginations stick those skulls on the fence of a solitary old woman who lives on the edge of the forest.
Yet it is in her novel The Ministry of Pain (translated by the late Michael Henry Heim) that Ugresic speaks to the experience of exile from a country that may never have existed. Her protagonist, Tanja Lucic, is like her creator, an exile from the fall of Yugoslavia, teaching literature in Amsterdam to Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian compatriots who have enrolled merely to obtain student visas. As they grope towards an understanding of their new reality, Tanya encourages them to create their own literature of “Yugonostalgia” as a catharsis. But when the writing exercises bring up challenging and traumatic memories, ethnic tensions arise and their community begins to fray. Tanja becomes more and more anxious about her own identity:
Even the most basic questions gave me pause. Where was I born? In Yugoslavia? In the former Yugo-slavia? In Croatia? Shit! Do I have any biography?”
…and is no longer even sure of what language she speaks.
Does “Serbo-Croatian” still mean anything when the Bosnians and Albanians also refer to it as “our language”? Language was our common trauma…Language was a weapon, after all: it branded, it betrayed, it separated and united.”
Eventually her students rebel and complain about Tanja’s teaching tactics, but their true grievance is that she has “forced them to remember what they were yearning to forget”. Having escaped from a world of violence and torture, Tanja must admit that she has now become the torturer, and that she is slowly driving them, and herself mad:
The breakup of the country, the war, the repression of memory, the “phantom limb syndrome,” the general schizophrenia, and then exile—these, I was certain, were the reasons for my students’ emotional and linguistic problems. We were all in chaos. None of us was sure who or what we were, to say nothing of who or what we wanted to be.
For more about Dubravka Ugrešić see
Dubravka Ugrešić’s website
Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.