„Sometimes the overproduction of knowledge leads to illiteracy”

Interview with the writer Dubravka Ugresic, winner of the Neustadt Prize (2016)

RD&CS:-What is a woman beyond her social definition?

DU: A beast?! Ha-ha…

RD&CS: – The word “woman.” What weight, what dimensions (length, breadth) does it have, psychologically, historically, socially, aesthetically, phenomenologically and hermeneutically, in your life? Take from that string of adverbs whatever ones suit you best.

DU: -I wasn’t aware of differences, or better to say I was, but on Me Tarzan, you Jane-level. As a girl, or teenage girl, I was sort of a “blind”. When one is young – and I was young in BG (before Google) time -things are pretty “misty”. Only later I was able to recognize that „my culture”, “my education”, “my mind” is male, generally and statistically, because 99% of my cultural background has been produced by men: books, visual art, music, films, architecture, taste, sense of beauty, philosophy, politics, and soon and so forth. I noticed that the only territory where the women were dominant has been children literature, although my favorite children books were written by men: Louis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh.

Children writer Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić has written the best pieces of literature one can find in Croatian literature. I know that now, but I was not sure about it before. It took me a long time to realize that. I had other idols among my male fellow writers. As you know in every cultural milieu – call it state, country, national literature, regional literature, or just a cultural circle – there are struggles and battles, there are canonizations and re-canonizations, there are people in charge for “entry visas”, “cultural officers” who would give you the visa to enter a literary canon or stop you for this or that reason. Sometimes such struggles are visible, but mostly they stay invisible, even to those who are interested in cultural matters. However, some “senses and sensibilities” often enter into your mind and mindset from the back door. For instance, I got it from my “mother’s library”. My mother was a passionate reader. What she liked the most were books about women’s destinies, and especially those with women’s names in their titles, such as Madame Bovary, Camille, Clarissa, Ana Karenina, Armance, Lucy Crown, Tess of d’Urbervilles, and so on.

My mother was a passionate movie goer too and she would always take me with her, especially when I was a little girl. Later I would go by myself and watch the movies I would like to watch. My mother knew the lives and destinies of famous movie stars by heart. She used to tell me about their lives as she would retold me a fairy tale, or the content of the novel she read. She would always express her empathy. It was a call for me to sympathize with women’s lives, that they were, in my mother’s opinion, incomparably harder than men’s. The rest of “knowledge” came later, from other sources, from books, from life experience, with ageing, and so on and so forth.

RD&CS: – When you were a girl, what famous woman did you want to become and why?

DU: – When you are a little girl you have your little girl’s idols. Btw. “creative industries”understood that simple fact better than anybody else.When I was ten years old my idol was Minou Drouet. Today probably nobody knows who Minou Drouet was, but when I was a child she was the most famous girl in the world. She wrote books, she sang, she played guitar and piano. Every country wanted to have their own Minou Drouet. I remember the Yugoslav example, Sanja Zemljar. She also soon disappeared from the public focus, and  was the same age as Minou Drouet. The last child global star was Zlata Filipović, a girl from Sarajevo, who wrote “Zlata’s Diary”. She was a product of the book industry which wanted to have a global bestseller in Ana Frank’s style. I met Zlata Filipović in Dublin a couple of years ago: she is an intelligent and talented young woman, a documentary film maker. She obviously tries to stay away from the world’s fame she shortly experienced as a child.

When I am confronted with my sweet niece’s (my brother’s daughter) idols, “youtubers”, “influencers”, who are 15-een and are already the authors of the books with the titles “How I became famous”, or “My life so far” -I remember my fascination with Minou Drouet. I am trying not to be harsh with my niece and to escape being “educational”. I also try to remind myself that she lives her teenage years in a totally different time, where she is exposed to seductive products of “culture” designed for “kids”. She lives in the paradise of plenty, I lived my childhood in the absence of shiny cultural products. I consumed what was available: mostly the books and movies for adults. I was ten years old when I read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, simply because the local untrained librarian, a volunteer, thought that the story about the guy who becomes a bugmust could be a thrill for a girl of my age. Paradoxically, we get some knowledges because of an absence of knowledge. Sometimes the overproduction of knowledge leads to illiteracy. I think that today we are witnessing this strange process, the paradox of illiteracy.

RD&CS: – In the entire history of humanity, from ancient times to the present day, what injustice against women have you found the most disturbing?

DU: The most disturbing, in my opinion, is the European witch-hunt or witch-purge. How many women were executed nobody really knows. Popular sources like Wikipedia bring the number of approximately 40.000 – 100.000 executed “witches”. The number of brutally tortured women nobody knows. This colossal mass murder is nevertheless the most unexplored territory of European history. As far as I know, Catholic church never apologised for this crime. No organization, forum, a group of citizens ever tried to bring Vatican to trial for the brutal purge of women, for public murders and public torture.

Another most disturbing injustice done to women is a global network of prostitution, sex-slavery and sex-trafficking which has a long history and was never broken. Every year one million women all over the world are recruited to prostitution, they say. For instance, every year some 12.000 women from Nepal “migrate” to India to work in prostitution industry, but the case which really made me sick is the report about little girls. Little girls, age 5 to 10, from Nepalese villages are sold by their parents to “dealers” for silly prices. The girls are then resold to Indian brothels as “healers”, because there is a belief among Indian men that the intercourse with a virgin may heal AIDS or syphillis. After their first sexual encounter, such girls are thrown away from brothels and nobody cares about them.

These days, in Trabazon, Turkey, there is the biggest market for female flesh, particularly East European one. Women from Russia, Moldavia, Ukraine are sold on Trabazon market like cattle, they say. Btw. in Russian slang telka (heifer) is a discriminatory word for a young woman.

RD&CS: – Do you experience your writings and your creations in complete freedom?

DU: Yes and no, it depends from which side you look at the “artistic freedom”. I write freely, I write whatever I think it is worth to write about. My body and my age sabotages me, meaning that I would never be able to write about my experience of life in Sahara, for instance, although I would like to. A view might get a bit distorted when you start crossing the borders, when you really do not belong, neither you want to, to any national literature; when you truly believe that the writers should be the citizens of the Republic of Letters; when you believe that translators, publishers, critics, librarians, agents, editors, readers, your fellow writers are your “natural”allies. Writer’s life is full of unexpected events, paradoxes, misunderstandings, surprises, disappointments, discoveries, failures, like any other’s life. Is anybody’s life completely free?

RD&CS: – How are you seen by the general heterogeneous public? As an artist like any other, or a woman artist? As a breach in the world of masculine art? Or something else?

DU: This is the most interesting part of a writer’s public life. How I am seen tells much more about the people who read me than it does about me, myself. In Croatia, for instance, I am still excluded from school curriculum. Believe it or not, there are quite a lot of illiterate and also literate people who would protest against writers, theatre directors, film directors, artists because the image of contemporary Croatia represented in their works does not match the opinions of hyper-patriotic protesters. However, I can’t complain because everywhere else I am seen as a writer. The best readers and great funs rarely show their face. Sometimes you bump on them when you travel, and these are the most rewarding moments of my “professional” life. In last couple of years I had a great privilege to visit United States several times. Last Autumn I visited several places in US, because two of my books appeared in US, a new novel “Fox”, and a reissue of the old book of essays “American Fictionary”. Meeting some of my American readers was one of the best experiences of my writer’s life.

I have a deep respect for my readers, wherever they might be. First of all, I have a name which is difficult to pronounce and memorise, consequently only the readers who really like my writing will know me. They would not mistake me for a woman-writer from Croatia, Romania, Russia, Poland or Slovakia, as many false fans would do. I deeply respect my true reader, and this is not self-flattering promo, but the way I understand literary communication. Italo Calvino, in one of his essays, said that literature is not a school, in other words that literature must rely on readership that is more educated and sophisticated than the writer her/himself. He also said that it doesn’t really matter whether such reader exists. What matters is that an author writes for a reader who knows more than an author her/himself. I am trying to follow Calvino’s attitude. It’s a call to raise the literary standards. That is what makes us writers.

RD&CS: – How is an “ambitious, talented, strong-willed, courageous” woman currently presented in Croatia?

DU: Still as a witch! Or a bitch!

RD&CS: – Over the last two centuries, from one ethnic group to another, according to you, has the male perspective always remained the same?

DU: No. It changed and it is changing constantly, mostly in favor of women’s writting. Not everywhere, of course.

RD&CS: – Often, when women complain about the lack of recognition, rights, prospects, importance and visibility that contemporary society accords them, whether in the area of family, politics, economics, science or art, voices of “more or less emancipated” men or women, reply loud and clear: There is no difference (more or less) between men and women, and there never has been. What is your own experience, your truth? And that of people close to you (friends, family, etc.).

DU: If we rely on theory of cultural memes, then women inherited a long and humiliating history of exclusion (from education, from literacy, from power, from art, from politics, and so forth). I met many men (and women too!) who do not read women-writers. Seeing a text written by a woman writer, many men get sudden attack of dyslexia. They are simply not able to read it. Solidarity among women-writers can change such constellations a lot. I find American readers the most gender-emancipated, for instance. The contemporary reception and acceptance of women writers has been established by many factors: by American academia, by Women studies, Gender studies, by organizations which “control” the gender equality in representation of books written by women authors in US media (VIDA, for instance), by new publishers, editors, critics, literary historians who are open to follow the principles of equality, by PEN activities, etc. True, things are not perfect, but people try to make them better.

Women should admit that they are not always the best allies in that battle. Women who carry the memes of harsh historical exclusion sometimes behave like people suffering from PTS. One can find a lack of solidarity among women writers, critics and academics. Women sometimes tend to sabotage themselves and each other. Before accusing men-writers for indifference toward their female colleagues, for the lack of respect and visibility, for discriminatory policy of some publishers and editors, women must open an honest talk about themselves, I guess.

Before accusing men-writers for indifference toward their female colleagues, for

the lack of respect and visibility, for discriminatory policy of some publisher and

editors, women must open an honest talk about themselves, I guess

Before accusing men-writers for indifference toward their female colleagues, for

the lack of respect and visibility, for discriminatory policy of some publisher and

editors, women must open an honest talk about themselves, I guess

RD&CS: – To what extent is the difference between the sexes perceptible in your cultural journey? And what have you experienced as influences from pre-established cultural roles (in the course of your education, your evolution and your personal affirmation)?

DU: I was born in a society where sex equality was an important part of its ideological package. Women in Yugoslavia were active participants of partisan resistance movement during the WW2. After the war they were invited to build new socialist society (which meant also the new relationship between the sexes). They were enabled to emancipate themselves, to study, to “urbanise” themselves, to get out from the slavery (Kitchen, Kids and Church). Things were not perfect in reality, but men and women got re-educated. Ideological emancipatory machine was extremely important for women and it brought a new and powerful working class: educated women. I studied comparative literature because I wanted to, I did everything I wanted to, my parents supported me. I was still a student, 21 years old, when I published my first book, and the apparently book got a major prize for children books in Croatia. It was a tremendous push to my self-esteem. As I said, things in reality were not perfect, but official ideology gave women the wings. The real trouble came with the fall of Yugoslavia, with nationalism and with greedy and unstoppable church, in other words with the “democratization” of new little states that hatched from former Yugoslavia.

RD&CS: – In the ontological status of the work of art or scientific discovery and of their reception by the receiving public, are there signs specific to female art, or in the science proposed by women, if we really accept the existence of a female art or scientific work that is eminently female? So many theories for and against, close to or notwithstanding circulate in the world. What would be your opinion on this delicate or absurd subject?!

DU: I can’t talk about the sphere I don’t know much. I don’t have any references, figures and real knowledge. I know about the language researches, e.g. are there any differences of using the language between men and women. Apparently there are, though it seems they are minor. Besides they probably changed in the meantime.

RD&CS: – Have you felt throughout the course of your life, from one movement/place to another, a lack of appreciation of the woman and of the female of the Being in search of personality?

DU: Societies, men, women, personal experiences are all different. Experiences of men and women of different classes and races are all different. We should not generalise: not all the Croats are the same, not all Croatian women are the same, not all the Muslims are the same, neither all Muslim women are the same. We got a toy to play (not my favourite, I must admit) and that is The Holly Identity. And we will play with it until we get bored.

RD&CS: – Why are people still ashamed/afraid/frosty when it comes time to talking frankly about the role of women in the lives of men?

DU: That important issue is more and more present in contemporary film, art, literature, in academic researches, in literary genres, such as memoirs, biographies and novels.

RD&CS: – Please name 10 exceptional examples of women who have obliged humanity to talk at length about them! From the margins in the international scene, women authors, artists, politicians, scholars, musicians, photographers, revolutionaries, provocatrices, women who have left a real mark on their time, and on ours, with a wave of a magic wand of destiny.

DU: I won’t, because mentioning one automatically means leaving out the other. One can find an attempt to repair “historical damage”on the book market, for instance the books for teenage girls with biographies of the most famous and inspiring 100 women in the world. It’s useful as the self-esteem booster, but it might do more damage than good: apparently these most famous and inspiring 100 women share the territory of US and UK. There are hardly any inspiring women coming from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, South America…

RD&CS: – What would you like to un-do about you and for you as the Woman that you are?

DU: I would probably like to have long, silky hair. And lot of it! Ha-ha!

RD&CS: – Can we accept that starting at a certain age one no longer wants to be considered a woman but rather the gift/power of a mysterious being (the Heideggerian being perhaps?!)?

DU: I bought a broom long time ago when I realized which “mysterious being” is usually associated with the woman of a certain age.

RD&CS:- And we try for more. Do you have moments when you feel more a man than a woman?

DU: I think that we have to be able to shift the gender mentally, for a while, for educational purposes. However, there are many different women and many different men. Maybe we should do more gender experiments, to be able to collect more reliable results. Biologist might tell us something about it, I guess. For now, I can move into a mentality of a man who has more or less the same education, who shares the same cultural references, who is more or less my age, and who has similar life experience. My options of trying to feel like a man, but most of the women too, are heavily reduced. I certainly can’t know how to feel like a male member of some tribe living in Amazon jungle. Or a female member.

RD&CS: – Louis Aragon wrote: Woman is the future of man. Is it just to make something beautiful in poetry and in song? And vice versa?

DU: We can play with it endlessly…

RD&CS: – Isn’t a woman a man like any other! say the biologists, geneticists, clinicians, and even grammarians. There’s no doubt in their minds… And to calm the turbulence, we should all watch the film: Man is a Woman, a French film directed by Jean-Jacques Zilbermann, in 1998, in Paris.

Let’s keep open-minded and positive, since it’s better to believe that the old fogeys who wanted to preserve their rules, traditions and prerogatives are very much from the time of caning and mourning, and we don’t owe them anything! Since they have died out we are no longer the same! At least, here, in our space of life. Farther and even farther, and more complicated or always the same. A question or a pacifist/warrior/constructive thought to move across time and barbaric convulsions?

DU: Yes, in “our space” things are better. In some other spaces things are unthinkable worse. Recently a 19-year old girl, a student from Bangladesh, has been burned because she reported she’d been sexually harassed by the teacher or dean of the university. And she died, because she “lied”.  All in all, I really do not know how to answer your question except that all the options are open. The climate catastrophe is the worst among the options that are in front of us, though it might have one positive side effect, and that is that all gender issues we talked about will be irrelevant. But before that happen misogyny (misandry too, if we can find it) should be defined and widely popularized as a serious behavioural disorder. People should be taught how to recognize the symptoms, how to ask for a help, and how to stop it or/and how to control it. Act of misogyny should be treated by the law as any other act of intolerance: as racism, as sexual harassment, as violence, as sadism… Here is an interesting comparison. In most of the European countries the act of desecration of a national flag is treated by law almost the same as a rape. In Croatia one can gets the same three years of prison for burning the national flag and for raping the woman. Desecration of a flag is treated as much more serious criminal act than rape. Women are raped every day,  flags are rarely burned. How do I know? Because all the media in the world will immediately report about the case of desecration of a flag. Raped woman is not the news.

Interview by Rodica Draghincescu and Constantin Severin, April 2019

Over the past three decades, Dubravka Ugresic has established herself as one of Europe’s most distinctive novelists and essayists. From her early postmodernist excursions, to her elegiac reckonings in fiction and the essay with the disintegration of her Yugoslav homeland and the fall of the Berlin Wall, through to her more recent writings on popular and literary culture, Ugresic’s work is marked by a rare combination of irony, polemic, and compassion.

Following degrees in Comparative and Russian Literature, Ugresic worked for many years at the University of Zagreb’s Institute for Theory of Literature, successfully pursuing parallel careers as both a writer and as a scholar. In 1991, when war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, Ugresic took a firm anti-war stance, critically dissecting retrograde Croatian and Serbian nationalism, the stupidity and criminality of war, and in the process became a target for nationalist journalists, politicians and fellow writers. Subjected to prolonged public ostracism and persistent media harassment, she left Croatia in 1993.

In an exile that has in time become emigration, her books have been translated into over twenty languages. She has taught at a number of American and European universities, including Harvard, UCLA, Columbia and the Free University of Berlin. She is the winner of several major literary prizes (Austrian State Prize for European Literature 1998; finalist of Man Booker International Prize 2009; Jean Améry Essay Prize, awarded for her essayistic work as a whole, 2012; Vilenica Prize 2016; while Karaoke Culture was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism 2011. She is the winner of the 2016 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Ugresic lives in Amsterdam.

About Constantin Severin

Constantin Severin (constantinseverin.ro) is a Romanian writer and, as a visual artist, the founder and promoter of the award-winning concept known as archetypal expressionism. He is the author of eight books of poetry, essays, and novels, and his poems have been published by major Romanian and international literary magazines. He is one of the editors of the French cultural magazine Levure littéraire.
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