Between Reader and Writer: An Interview with Dubravka Ugrešić

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This time last year, I was living in Berlin, where I spent an inordinate amount of my time sleeping. The days in fall and winter there look far too much like night: the sun rises late and sets early and doesn’t really do much shining in between. The sheer number of hours I spent in bed was something I felt perpetually guilty about, until one day, a friend sent me an excerpt from a novel she was reading, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, by Dubravka Ugrešić:

In Berlin people sleep more than in other cities in the world. I don’t know myself how to cope with this excessive sleep. I wake up, have a coffee, smoke a cigarette and fall asleep. I wake up again, make another coffee, and before I have finished drinking it I am already drifting irresistibly into sleep. Sometimes I worry that one day I shall simply not wake again. I told an acquaintance, a Berliner, about it, I ought to go to a doctor, I said, I sleep all the time.

‘Didn’t you know?’ she said. ‘Everyone knows that people sleep a lot in Berlin!’

And just like that, I no longer felt like I was wasting away my Fulbright funding in bed, but rather having an authentic Berlin experience.

Ugrešić’s novel thus became a sort of leitmotif for my year in that city, and I paid homage to it in my first essay for the MQR blog, around the time I was preparing to leave. But Ugrešić herself had been living in Berlin in the early 1990s under very different circumstances than my own. The country of her birth, Yugoslavia, was embroiled in a violent Civil War, and Ugrešić was labeled a “Yugo-nostalgic sicko” and a “witch” (as well as many other derogatory things) for taking a public anti-nationalist stance. She left her position at the University of Zagreb and began a life in exile, though Amsterdam, and not Berlin, would ultimately be where she took up residence. Already a well known writer before she left Zagreb, her fiction and essays since that time take on questions of nationalism, of nostalgia, of memory and forgetting, and of the place of women in our society. She is the winner of this year’s Neustadt Prize.

This past October, Ugrešić was in residence at Columbia University, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet her then. The artist was present, and now that she is not, it has been my pleasure to continue the conversation with Ugrešić over email. The following interview is the result of that correspondence.

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This October, while teaching a course at Columbia, you asked students to introduce themselves with their name, and an answer to these two questions: What problems do you have with contemporary culture? And what books are you reading? So, may I start by putting those same questions to you?

Let me introduce myself: my name is Dubravka Ugrešić, and I am a writer. I was born and raised in a small country of Southern Europe, in Yugoslavia. One morning, I woke up and found myself in Croatia, an even smaller country, in a different time and political environment that perhaps most closely resembled 1941. As life is not a movie, and I am not Woody Allen’s Zelig, I decided to leave this country in order to stay sane. Now I live in the Netherlands.

The problem I have with contemporary culture is that today everything is treated as a product. Culture is a huge and shiny supermarket. As all products are announced as “brilliant,” the risk inherent in buying those product falls entirely to me. In that respect, I often miss “my butcher” and “my baker” and “my vegetable lady,” people I could rely on. These days, shopping and consuming—including consuming culture—have become more difficult. In such a context, I behave like any other cultural consumer: I buy books randomly, because I’ve heard of the author or the title, or I know the publisher’s taste, or a friend recommended something to me.

In the most recent issue of Music & Literature, you are quoted as saying: “A careful reader only feels comfortable in the text when the author feels comfortable in there too: it’s a secret communication between them.” In your work, you foster a real intimacy with your reader. But, if the Internet has turned readers into “consumers,” who might first come to your work at a far remove from its original context, do you feel that digital technologies have estranged you from the kind of reader you most hope to reach?

I had in mind a specific honesty that is a pre-condition for the intimacy between a writer and a reader. This doesn’t mean to be truthful (nobody really cares whether what you describe actually happened or not; that sort of a truth is not the job of literature, after all, but the work of police reports, and hopefully, good journalism). What I mean is that the writer should feel comfortable with herself or himself as a narrator. A careful reader is able to recognize that. At least, I recognize such things.

And yes, digital technologies have estranged many readers from traditional literature, but have also brought some readers back to literature. These technologies might give birth to a new literature entirely. I haven’t bumped into any successful examples yet, but you just never know what could result from new technologies.

How is the intimacy that you seek to cultivate with your reader related to the intimacy you share with your translators, on whom you depend as a transnational writer writing outside of a major language?

Writers write because they want to be loved. Gabriel García Márquez said precisely that in one of his interviews: “I write in order to be loved.” I liked this sentence so much that I wrote a novella that plays with the semantic consequences of Marquez’s poetic statement.

I depend on the love of the chance reader. That sounds like a sentimental line from some ambitious romance novel, but that’s how it is. I can rely only on the chance reader wherever she/he is coming from. In that respect, yes, I first of all depend on my translators.

I am perhaps one of those chance readers, bumping into your work when I lived in Berlin last year. In the essay “Nostalgia,” you write that Berlin, where you were living in exile in 1994, turned out to be the “ideal cutting desk for the montage of memories” that would become The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. Was there something specific to living in Berlin during the period of German reunification that was particularly poignant as your own former country was violently splitting apart?

Berlin was a perfect background, a city as metaphor, a link to different historical periods and meanings: Fascism, World War Two, then the city’s division into two parts (a Communist one and a Capitalist one), then Reunification… Within Berlin there is an artificial hill, called Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Mountain, that is built out of the rubble of a Berlin destroyed by bombing. So, against such a background I could easily project my feelings, fears, obsessions, my status of exile (in a city that has a rich history of cultural exile), the Yugoslav war, the appearance of a new Fascism in Croatia and Serbia, and so on and so forth.

By the way, I recently took a boat tour around Manhattan and learned from our guide that American ships during World War Two, carrying supplies to England, needed the same ballast for the trip back. So, the ships would carry rubble from the bombings of London and Brighton back to New York and unload it on the East side of Manhattan. That rubble made Manhattan bigger, and many housing projects were built on top of it – on top of the ruins of London and Brighton.

I had never heard that story. That is totally bizarre, and particularly apt when one considers that it was also the Americans who built on top of that hill of rubble at Teufelsberg: an NSA listening station.

Even if this story was perhaps invented by a tourist guide with literary ambitions, it sounds very good to me. It’s a story about interconnectedness. It’s a perfect metaphor for history, but also for this very moment.

As a woman who writes, I have been very grateful for the vocabulary you’ve provided and the room you’ve made for us to talk about the lack of gender parity in the publishing world. In what ways do you think you have been most successful in drawing attention to this issue?

I think that the women who draw attention to this issue are not terribly popular, because the men—who still hold the power in our culture—don’t want to hear such things. However, if you belong to a discriminated community, it’s your duty to draw attention to that discrimination.

You have remarked often on your admiration and deep respect for two male figures I also treasure, the Czech author Bohumil Hrabal and the UCLA professor and translator, Michael Henry Heim. Could you give us the names of a few literary ladies who have had a profound impact on your life and writing?

I must admit that men had a profound impact on my life and writing. It’s simple: the history of literature consists mostly of male writers. That’s why I, and my generation of women writers, should be aware of the fact that our understanding of literature, culture, and the world has been shaped by male writers, artists and philosophers. I personally started to publish very early and didn’t encounter any problems, the opposite in fact. However, that ease with which I achieved a place in literature (then Yugoslav) didn’t make me blind: I was quite aware of the inequality of positions.

As concerns the literary ladies, I first think of the Croatian 19th century author Ivana Brlić Mažuranić. She wrote some of the best fairytales in the whole world of fairytales, and she had a great impact on me when I was a little girl, and later. Even now I often read her fairytales. They belong to the highest level of classical literature. Although she borrowed a lot from Russian folklore, her tales are unique and uniquely beautiful. Later, some other female writers came into focus for me, Virginia Woolf among them. Today, if we mention a couple of female Nobel prize winners for literature—such as Svetlana Alexievich, Alice Munro, Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison—we become aware of how the general literary landscape has changed tremendously with them. Even a quick look at their names and oeuvres proves how diverse, interesting, and powerful literature written by women is. Thanks to that generation of women—who are building a contemporary woman’s literary canon—many young women writers have managed to be recognized early, as debut writers, like Zadie Smith, or the charming Valeria Luiselli, a writer I am reading at the moment.

And what about Lena Dunham? In class you introduced yourself to us with a confession. You told us that you had just read Dunham’s memoir Not That Kind of Girl on the plane from Amsterdam to New York, and said: “I must tell you one thing: I liked it.” What did you like about Dunham’s book?

It has intelligence, juvenescent energy, a pleasant bluntness, humor and honesty. I also liked Dunham’s excellent little movie Tiny Furniture. Dunham, together with some other young women, such as Miranda July, are forging a new American, feminist-oriented cultural scene.

Towards a conclusion, in the essay “Soul for Rent!” you announced that you’d be renting out your soul to keep afloat financially during the recession. You instructed prospective clients—perverts and smokers need not apply—to send their contact details to your editor. So I’ve been dying to know: did you receive any inquiries?

No, of course not; the soul has a negligible market value anyway, almost like Albanian chewing gum. But this bitter and funny little piece is a sort of homage to Woody Allen and his hilarious story “Whore from Mensa,” constructed on a simple inversion. It’s a story about a group of talented young women, studying literature and completing their PhDs, who work in a sort of intellectual brothel. They offer their clients intellectual services, a lecture on Franz Kafka, for instance, or Moby Dick, or, while we are at it, a short introduction to transnational literature (that last one is my invention!). The story was published in The New Yorker forty years ago and it’s still vital, maybe even more vital, today than when it was written.

Hmmm … the female PhD selling her intellect as “erotic capital” (to steal a favorite phrase of yours, used in an entirely different context!). That’s a path of employment I had not considered.

Thank you so much, Dubravka, for answering these questions. I’d like to close without a question, just an open space, for you to have the last word …

I can’t have the last word. I am a writer, remember? Generals and prophets usually have the last word. But literature is about ongoing narration, another chapter, another sequel, another conversation …

 

An extended version of this interview will appear in print in the Spring 2016 issue of the Harriman Magazine of Columbia University.

Image (c) Željko Koprolčec.

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