sharp-tongued dubravka ugrešić on european t.v. & literature

ugrešić on her life as a literary exile (pretend to be a cleaning lady), and the concept of european literatures (it’s like the eurovisionsong vision contest on t.v.!)


In Nobody’s Home (her fourth work of nonfiction to be published in this country) Dubravka Ugrešić writes, "I have been on the road ever since [1991 — when the former Yugoslavia descended into war], changing countries like shoes."With hardly a touch of jetlag, Ugrešić’s essays latch onto matters of ethnic, national, and transnational identity. In surveying topics such as her former countrymen’s wont to line their conversations with curse words, or the condescension she has met with as a Croatian woman, Ugrešić lays into an assortment of au courant stereotypes (e.g., "…I put up with it when people explain to me how to use an iron, or when waiters in restaurants deliberately avoid setting my place with a knife…. I usually write ‘cleaning lady’ in the box under OCCUPATION; it’s what is expected of me. Because my cosmopolitan countrywomen are known far and wide as excellent housekeepers in EU apartments, houses and public lavatories." 

—from The Barnes & Noble Review

 

 

What is European in European Literatures?

European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest


By Dubravka Ugrešić


To the question of what is European in European literatures,

I have only one answer, the shortest variant of which would be: 
                               Mr. Bhattacharaya, an Indian who lives in America.   

Na pitanje što je danas evropsko u evropskim
književnostima imam samo jedan odgovor čija bi
najkraća varijanta bila: to je Mister Bhattacharya, Indijac
koji živi u Americi.


The concept of European literatures — as it is generally used by EU
politicians, cultural managers, publishers, old-fashioned university departments, and often by writers themselves — is not very different from the concept of the European competition for the best European song.

Let us recall, the Eurovision Song Contest is the favorite annual TV entertainment of many Europeans, and the hottest point of mental unification of Europe. The Eurovision Song Contest is a grandiose (grandiose European-style) presentation of European pop-music kitsch. But nevertheless, there is greater enjoyment to be had from things other than the pop music itself, ranging from costumes (this year the Cypriots were the best!) to spectacular performance (this year the Irish used so much smoke on stage that they nearly started a fire!). Enjoyment is to be had in the method of voting (Croatia, ten points! Belgium, two points!); picture postcards of various countries, linking up with studios in Tallinn and Dublin; then “politics” and its transparency (everyone knows that the Croats gave the Slovenes the most points, and vice versa); the participation of new European representatives (Hey, this year we’ve got Bosnians!); the absence of all non-participants (The Serbs will never sing in Europe, not in a million years!). And as far as the actual music is concerned, one expects the Turks to bring something of their oriental musical kitsch, the Swedes to defend the colors of West European musical kitsch. The greatest European TV show also has an educational function (viewers learn the names of new states: Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia!), a political-ideological function (OK, we’ve taken in the Estonians, but we won’t have the Turks, singing with us is quite enough for them!); and, incidentally, of course, it makes a financial profit. There are sometimes excesses, such as the Diva (Viva la Diva!), the Israeli transvestite, but excesses within the framework of the mainstream are always welcome.

European literary life, with its literary representatives, whose names are always (always!) backed by the name of a state, frequently does not differ greatly from the show described above. It’s true that there is less of the spectacular. However, TV broadcasts of the annual Booker Prize ceremony increasingly confirm that literature too is a spectacle. The winners leap onto the stage (Canada, ten points!) and pronounce words of gratitude in the manner of pop-singers. It is true that the judges’ speeches are more eloquent, which is understandable — after all words, and not musical notes, are the writer’s craft. If we take into account the commercial effect of the Booker performance, and also the principle of exclusivity (the Booker is awarded only to books in English), then all of that combined supports our initial comparison, however unjustified, malicious, and inaccurate as it may seem to some.

The Participation of G. Drubnik in the Whole Thing 

Some thirty years ago, in 1971, an issue of The New York Times published a spoof article about Gregor G. Drubnik, a Bulgarian writer who had ostensibly been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature that year. The article was full of discriminatory epithets, such as the remarkably stupefying quality of Drubnik’s works, and it was supposed to be highly amusing. The very idea that some Bulgarian could ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature brought a smile to everyone’s lips. Had I come across that article at the time it was published, I too would have laughed. At that time I was studying comparative literature, and I was full of myself. I read European and American writers, wrote student essays on Proust and Joyce. I read well-known and less well-known Russian writers, I studied literary theoretical schools at a time when, it seems, literary theory was at its height. I was convinced that I was in tune with the great literary world. It was also a time of a great publishing boom in the former Yugoslavia, a lot was being translated, and I followed every accessible foreign literary innovation. When in 1982 I found myself in America for the first time, the choice of translated literature in the bookshops seemed to me modest. Of course I could not admit that to anyone. No one would have believed me, and besides, only a few years later, the picture of American bookshops, as far as translations are concerned, changed radically for the better. And my conviction that big things happen only in big places remained unshaken. At the beginning of the 1990s the situation was to change: both Zagreb and Belgrade bookshops would become terribly empty, in terms of both local and translated literature. At that time my books began to set off into the world, and somewhat later I myself followed them. In my conviction that I was communicating masterfully with the big literary world, whatever that meant, I forgot the possibility that this world was not communicating with me nor was it unduly interested in communication.

When my novel was published in England in 1991 one critic ended his review with the question: But, still, is this what we need? It was only later that I realized what the critic’s sentence meant. As I traveled I did not notice that I was dragging with me the label Made in the Balkans. And if someone comes from the Balkans, he or she is not expected to perform cultural mastery in front of us, but to conform to the stereotype which WE have about THEM, the Balkans or about the places where all of THEM come from. I had, therefore, forgotten where I came from and where I had landed, or in other words, I had overlooked the established codes between the cultural center and the periphery. I was expected to confirm stereotypes about the periphery, not destroy them. As far as my literary mastery was concerned, I could have chucked it in the bin since it appeared simply to irritate my foreign literary surroundings. It turned out that Drubnik’s cold-war phantom shadow had not quite disappeared during those thirty or so years. With time the number of labels that others stuck on me and my books only increased. In addition to the label Made in the Balkans, there were new ones: the collapse of Yugoslavia, the fall of communism, war, nationalism, new states and new identities. My texts communicated with the foreign reader weighed down with voluminous baggage. I often seemed to myself like a traveler dragging several suitcases in each hand and trying at the same time to retain a certain elegance. Unlike me, my West European colleagues traveled without luggage, and all that the reader saw was them and what they wrote. While in my case the luggage buried both me and what I wrote. The situation changed radically in my local literary landscape as well. There too labels appeared, there too it suddenly became crucial for an understanding of my writing to know whether I was by nationality a Croat or a Serb and what my mom and dad were. 

Some ten years ago I had an elegant Yugoslav passport with a soft, flexible, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came and — without asking me — the Croats thrust into my hand a blue Croatian passport (it had resolutely rejected red, the Communist color, but the hardness of its cover reminded one of the old Soviet pass for the Lenin Library). The new Croatian authorities expected from their citizens a prompt transformation of identity, as though the passport itself was a magic pill. Since in my case it did not work very well, they excluded me from their literary, and other, ranks. With my Croatian passport I abandoned my newly acquired “homeland” and set off into the world. Out there, with the gaiety of Eurovision Song Contest fans, I was immediately identified as a Croatian writer. I became the literary representative of a milieu that did not want me any more and which I did not want any more either. But still the label Croatian writer remained with me, like a permanent tattoo. At this moment I possess a passport with a red cover, Dutch. I continue to wear the label of the literary representative of a country to which I am not connected even by a passport. Will my new passport make me a Dutch writer? I doubt it. Will my Dutch passport ever make it possible for me to reintegrate in Croatian literary ranks? I doubt it. 

What is actually my problem? Am I ashamed of the label Croatian writer? No. Would I feel better with a Gucci or Armani label? No. So what do I want? If by the will of some criminals, and then by the ostensible majority will of the people, I lost the label Yugoslav, why now — again not by my own will — should I wear the label Croatian? What’s more, if the Croatian cultural criminals angrily stripped the Croatian label from me (because I publicly snarled at a time when, according to them, I should have kept quiet), why do others, people who are in any case completely indifferent, continue assiduously to stick this label on me? 

And why am I so sensitive to labels? Because in practice it turns out that identifying baggage weighs down a literary text. Because it continues to be the case that an identity tag alters the essence of a literary text and its meaning. Because an identity tag is a shorthand interpretation of the text, and regularly wrong. Because an identity tag opens the way to reading into a text something that is not there. And finally because it is discriminatory, discriminatory for the literary text itself. Because I come from the periphery. An American writer, I imagine, does not have this problem. 

Why do some of my colleagues, unlike me, find it important to retain their identity tag? Because identifying writers according to their nationality, according to the country to which they belong, is implanted in literary and also in commercial communication. Because that is the easiest way to travel from the periphery to the center. Because for many people an identity tag is, at the same time, the only way to communicate, not only locally, but also globally, to be accepted and recognized as a Bosnian writer, as a Slovene writer, as a Bulgarian writer. Because a label is the fundamental assumption of every market, including, therefore, the literary market as well. Because identity and trafficking in identity is a well-tried market formula that has enabled many writers from the periphery to move, justifiably or not, into the global literary market. 

Europe As Far As India 

Having learned from the American commercial and ideological example, and then from the international success of Indian, Caribbean, Japanese, African, or Chinese writers who live in Great Britain, the cultural bureaucrats of the European Union, and all those who are concerned with culture, “culture buffs” in other words, all endeavor to adapt to the situation. 

The culture of the EU is, on the one hand, worried about globalization, which is another name for American cultural imperialism. And while the Americans themselves use the term imperialism without much embellishment, the Europeans beat about the bush. They are afraid of being accused of excessive anti-Americanism, like the French, who become animated every few years over the protection of their cultural products, but equally over what has been taken from them, over their lost cultural primacy.  It turns out that anti-Americanism is not culturally, or politically, or strategically, or financially profitable: besides, in the American cultural industry, it is not only American sellers who earn good money, but also European buyers. 

European “cultural identity,” whatever that means, is “threatened,” on the one hand by the omnipresent American cultural industry and, on the other hand, by the East Europeans, who are waiting to enter, carrying their cultural bundles in their hands; and then also — and this is the most painful point of the European cultural subconscious — by émigrés from the non-European cultural circle, whose number is growing dangerously with every passing second. And where, really, do these numerous Moroccans and Algerians, all these Chinese and Arabs belong? How should they be classified? According to their passports? According to the language they use? According to the cultural circle to which they belong? Proud of its ideology and practice of multiculturalism, for the time being the cultural bureaucracy of the EU perpetuates its well-tried formula — Me Tarzan, you Jane — that is, the formula of recognizing different cultural identities, stressing regional and other variations, and, of course, integration, although no one knows what that is supposed to mean. To everyone, therefore, his place of worship, to everyone her burka. And as long as the Moroccans lay out on their counter something Moroccan, whatever that means, and we display something of ours, something European, whatever that means, everything is all right. That is, on the whole, how cultural products are exchanged, that is how the global market works, that is the established mechanism driving the dynamics of cultural life. And everything would be all right if there were not nonmainstream individuals, dysfunctions in the system, which subvert canonized concepts regarding culture, about what it is, and what it ought to be. These individuals outstrip the conceptual apparatus of cultural promoters, managers, and the cultural bureaucracy of the EU. These individuals outstrip the conceptual apparatus of critics and interpreters, university departments, teachers, and readers. No one knows what to do with them and where to place them. And really, what are the Dutch to do with Moses Isegawa, an African writer who lives in Holland and writes in English? What are the Dutch to do with me? I live in Amsterdam, but do not write in Dutch. What are the Croats to do with me? I do write in Croatian, but I don’t live there. What are the Serbs and Bosnians to do with me? The language I write in is BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, the neat abbreviation dreamed up by translators at the Hague Tribunal). What are the Dutch to do with a Moroccan writer, who, instead of writing profitable prose about the cultural differences between the Moroccans and the Dutch, which everyone would understand, has undertaken to recreate the beauty of the Dutch language of the nineteenth century, which present-day Dutch writers have forgotten. What are the French to do with an Arab who aspires to be the new Marcel Proust, and what are the Germans to do with a Turk who aspires to be the new Thomas Mann? There are similar examples, the only problem is that their number is growing. 

Among the dysfunctions in the existing literary system I have my favorite example, my hero. I met him at a book fair in Budapest. Joydeep Roy Bhattacharaya was born in Calcutta. He left Calcutta when he was twenty and took a degree in philosophy in America. He lives in New York and teaches at one of the neighboring universities. Joydeep has written a novel that attracted a fair number of positive reviews. The subject of his novel is Hungary and a circle of Hungarian intellectuals in the nineteen-sixties. The Hungarians promptly translated his book. One Hungarian writer, an intellectual, complained to me, that, er, the novel was indeed concerned with Hungary, but in an Indian way. It would be better if he wrote about India, was his brief comment. 

Joydeep is a young and attractive man. And very photogenic. His American publisher brought out his novel in the secret hope that Joydeep would have second thoughts and write something about India. Something like The God of Small Things, only from a male perspective. My mother, to whom I showed Joydeep’s book with his photograph on the back cover, instinctively took the American publisher’s side. Why doesn’t he write about India, she sighed, he’s better-looking than Sandokan. 

As I talked to Joydeep I was astonished at his knowledge and passion for the former Eastern Europe. “It wouldn’t occur to me to change my mind,” he told me. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “The novel I am writing is set in Dresden, in the nineteen-fifties. After that I’ve got a novel about the battle for Stalingrad, written from a female perspective,” he added. 

As I said, Joydeep is my hero among my writer colleagues. In a world in which an identity kit is something like a toothbrush — that is, something one cannot do without — he has chosen the most difficult path. He has thrown his identity kit into the garbage, in the name of freedom of literary choice, in the name of literary freedom. Joydeep is absolutely conscious of the consequences of his symbolic suicide. “At home,” in India, I presume, they don’t like him, and it is debatable whether they have ever heard of him. People in the places he writes about complain because they are firmly convinced that only they can write about themselves, that only they have the copyright to their subject matter. American and British publishers tolerate Joydeep’s Eastern European “virus,” because they look forward to his recovery, to the moment when Joydeep will return thematically to the place he belongs, India. 

To the question of what is European in European literatures, I have only one answer, the shortest variant of which would be: Mr. Bhattacharaya, an Indian who lives in America.

—from The European Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4, 465-471 (2003). Translated by Celia Hawkesworth. Later published in a slightly different version in Ugrešić’s Nobody’s Home (2008).  

 

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