R.I.P. Dubravka Ugrešić

I return to her The Museum of Unconditional Surrender again and again. A classic in the canon of books dealing with being forced to live in exile. But there are so many other books: Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Culture of Lies, Thank You for Not Reading, The Ministry of Pain. She was identified as a “Yugoslav” writer, which – of course – became incredibly problematic for her after Yugoslavia broke apart and various monstrous genocidal nationalisms rose up around her. She now had no home. She had been born in a “country” that no longer existed. Suddenly, how you identified was of paramount importance. Differences erased: sameness prized. She was against the way things were going. She was against the wars in the Balkans. To say her stance was unpopular is to misuse language. It’s important to be specific with language. She’s in the Orwellian continuum. She received death threats. And in early 1990s Croatia/Serbia/Bosnia, death threats weren’t just idle words thrown at you across the internet. She was in fear for her life. Her “shunning” from the cultural community was violent and extreme. She felt she could no longer live in Croatia. She was in too much danger.

She said in a recent interview, “The majority of my fellow writers consider ethnic labelling as something unquestionable and ‘natural.’ For me it’s a form of cultural violence. I was not allowed to choose the nation with which I was associated as a writer, or whether I wanted to belong to anyone at all. I was forced to belong. When I expressed skepticism towards the very idea of belonging, I was attacked by my cultural community and expelled from it.”

She fled to the Netherlands, where she lived for the rest of her life, in a state of dislocation and exile. How does someone like Ugrešić “identify”? Again, the problems with language. When people bristle at “identity politics”, they’re often being disingenuous, granted, but her situation shows the dangerous end-game (or at least one of the potential end-games, in prioritizing “identity” and how one “identifies”.) Her identity was fluid. This was common in the Balkans. Bosnian, Serbian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Yugoslavian … if you were a MIX, and most people were, what were you supposed to do in the upheavals that followed? Ugrešić said NO to all of it, came out against the war, and her refusal to submit to ideological/national groupthink- a submission REQUIRED of her – makes her a shining example of holding on to your individuality, in the face of real-life danger. She was an inspiration.

Writers forced to leave their homeland often struggle with writing forever afterwards, separated from the wellspring of place. Museum of Unconditional Surrender is all about that.

There’s a reason her name was bandied about year after year for a potential Nobel.

She said once, “I feel like I am smuggling neglected Central and East European literary values into World literature.”

That’s exactly what she did.

From The Museum of Unconditional Surrender:

But, nevertheless, the same year when the names of the streets changed, when the language and the country and the flags and the symbols all changed; when the wrong side became right, and the right side was suddenly wrong; when some people were afraid of their own names, when others, apparently, for the first time weren’t afraid of theirs; when people were butchering each other, when some were butchering others, when armies with different insignia sprang up on all sides, when the strongest set out to obliterate everything from the face of their own country; when terrible heat waves laid the land bare; when a lie became the law, and the law a lie; when people pronounced nothing but monosyllabic words: blood, war, guts, fear; when the little Balkan countries shook Europe maintaining rightly that they were its legitimate children; when ants crawled out from somewhere to devour and tear the skin from the last descendant of the current tribes; when old myths fell apart and new ones were feverishly created; when the country she had accepted as hers fell apart, and she had long since lost and forgotten her first one; when she was seared by heat in her flat, as it radiated from the baking concrete and the concrete sky; when the panic-stricken light of the television flickered day and night; when she was racked by the icy fever of fear–my mother, despite everything, kept tenaciously to her dogged ritual visits to my father’s grave. I believe that it was then that she looked for the first time at the moist gravestone and suddenly noticed the five-pointed star (although it had always been there, at her request) and perhaps for the first time she had the thought, feeble and exhausted as she was, that it might be possible to paint out the five-pointed star carved into the stone, and then she thrust the thought aside in shame and kept the photograph of my father in his partisan uniform in the album–as her own. It was as though it was then, suddenly confronted with the little star above my father’s name, that she really accepted her own biography as well.

When she got home she sat down in her baking flat as in a train; she sat there with no defender or flag, with no homeland, virtually nameless, with no passport or identity card of her own. From time to time she would get up and look out of the window, expecting to see scenes of the war-destroyed country, for she had already observed such scenes. She sat like that in her flat as in a train, not traveling anywhere, because she had nowhere to go, holding on her lap her only possession, her albums, the humble dossier of her life.


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