Power of the Word II > next story

V. Glossary

My homeland was called Yugoslavia. But its borders did not coincide with the borders we learned in school. My homeland was somewhat larger, stretching from Triglav in Slovenia to the Black Sea. Because that's where we went every summer to visit my grandparents.

Among the Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Albanians, Macedonians, I felt Yugoslav, and that's how I described myself in myidentity documents: a citizen of Yugoslavia, mixed, anational, unspecified, nationally indifferent . . . There were people like that living in Yugoslavia, Yugoslavs, and it didn't bother anyone at the time. Or at least that's how it seemed.

A few years ago my homeland was confiscated, and, along with it, my passport. In exchange I was given a new homeland, far smaller and less comfortable. They handed me a passport, a "symbol" of my new identity. Thousands of people paid for those new "identity symbols" with their lives, thousands were driven out of their homes, scattered, humiliated, deprived of their rights, imprisoned and impoverished. I possess very expensive identity documents. The fact often fills me with horror. And shame.

My passport has not made me a Croat. On the contrary, I am far less that today than I was before.

I am no one. And everyone. In Croatia I shall be a Serb, in Serbia a Croat, in Bulgaria a Turk, in Turkey a Greek, in Greece a Macedonian, in Macedonia a Bulgarian . . . Being an ethnic "bastard" or "schizophrenic" is my natural choice, I even consider it a sign of mental and moral health. And I know that I am not alone. Violent, stubborn insistence on national identities has provoked a response: today many young citizens of former Yugoslavia, particularly those scattered throughout the world, stubbornly refuse any ethnic labels.

In my language there is a word for "love of one's homeland": domoljublje. I don't feel that love. All the more since "homeland" is on the whole synonymous with "state." All the more so since people take them, homelands, from me and give them to me if it occurs to them, and still ask me to love them unconditionally. Any forced love, including that of one's homeland, strikes me as perverse.

Nationalism is the ideology of the stupid. There is no more stupid and tedious ideology than nationalism. Nationalism as a religious and therapeutic refuge is the option of those who have nothing else. Blood is only somewhat thicker water.

Nationalism is often only a nicer name for fascism. The "Yugoslav" war was a fascist struggle for new national and state borders. The winners are power-mongers, mafiosi, criminals, war profiteers, national tycoons, and the losers the now ethnically cleansed peoples.

The most stigmatized set of ideas and ideological practice, which serves today as an enormous bank for laundering a bad conscience, both personal and collective. The phrase "it's all the fault of communism" relieves millions of people who lived in it and participated in it of all responsibility. Combined with nationalism, it becomes even more effective. I hate all Russians, said a Romanian. Why? Because they were all communists.

The therapeutic function of communism lies above all in its officially declared death: life can really now start again from scratch. Dead communism is an effective therapy; it offers people an irresistibly agreeable sense that they were both victims and the righteous who helped to shift the heavy iron curtain a millimeter or two. The process of passing from a worse to a better life resembles an improvised waiting room and has a pleasant name: transition. Transition is for many an exceptionally exciting time of (criminal) freedom.

National history:
History really is written by the victors. As the victors are always men, there are no women, children, or losers in history. The men swiftly occupy the academies, publishing houses, universities, ministries of culture and education, and similar useful institutions which will transform their victory into one, coherent, national history. National history is the hyper-revised biography of the nation. The authors of the new histories relate to history as to gossip, that is, they know that it takes far longer to deny or refashion gossip than it does to create it. And they know that few people are interested in later revisions. So gossip, myths, and confabulations often become great national truths.

The language I write was called until recently Serbo-Croat (or Serbian and Croatian), and it was the language spoken by Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, and Montenegrins. Today people are trying to force me to recognize Croatian as my mother tongue, and Serbian and Bosnian as—foreign languages!

I like the irony of the recently coined abbreviation for the divided language: BSC. That is the term used by officials of the Hague Tribunal in their internal communications for the language spoken by the recently arrived war criminals. BSC: Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian.

Language is an instrument of communication. I do not "buy" the thesis about language as the "national essence." All the more so since several hundred thousand people sacrificed their lives for such an "essence." When they need them, the national language and national literature are abundantly manipulated by the state-makers. I refuse to serve affairs of state.

A nation's writer:
My Croatian passport does not make me a Croatian writer. It is easiest and most profitable to be a national writer, particularly if the nation is small. I have chosen a less profitable way: I do not wish to belong to anyone, not to a people, nor a nation, nor a national literature. If I have to belong to someone, then it's to my readers. Wherever they may be . . .

A writer's nation:
I refuse to be a writer of "my nation," especially of a nation which destroys books. Over the last few years, tons of books, dozens of libraries, many schools have been destroyed. Dozens of writers have been thrown out of the school curriculum and literary life. The literary map has changed just as the map of the former country has: writers are now divided according to ethnically cleansed cantons.

Izabel Skokandic, the unqualified director of a small library on the island of Korcula, recently threw dozens of books into garbage dumps. There is not much to choose between the director of the library and the better-known poet-general Karadzic-Mladic (who destroyed the national library in Sarajevo).

At the beginning of 1998, Izabel Skokandic executed several members of "my family": Oscar Wilde, Ivo Andric, Branko Copic, Mark Twain, Jack London, Victor Hugo, Ivana Brlic-Mazuranic . . .

The experience of exile, just like the experience of my homeland, is one of my earliest experiences. As a child, obsessed with a secret passion, I used to get up in the night and in the dark turn the buttons on our first "Nikola Tesla" radio. Those solitary nocturnal navigations through the sounds of different languages are among the most exciting experiences of my life.

Today, living in exile, I do not "buy" the thesis that every exile is traumatic. On the contrary, I consider my decision to possess only a suitcase one of the better ones of my life. Repressive homelands are far more traumatic.

Besides, I remember the film The Wizard of Oz. Interpreting that film as a story about home and flight (ie., about exile), Salman Rushdie says: "So, Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that "there's no place like home," but rather that there is no longer such a place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began."1

A milieu which destroys books has no mercy towards their authors either. Several years ago, my (national) culture milieu declared me a "witch" and burned me on a media pyre with undisguised glee.

At the same time, the university professor of literature with whom I had worked for some twenty years on the culture of "challenging" (the professor's term), suddenly rejected "challenging" as a method of intellectual and artistic thought. He opted for the culture of the no-conflict collective. Instead of writing about the smell of the recent conflagration, he wrote flattering articles about the "dignity of Croatian literature." As a "witch," I was thrown out of local literary life.

Today, from the perspective of my nomadic exile, I can only be grateful to my former cultural milieu. I invested my own money in the purchase of my broom. I fly alone.

1. Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz, London, British Film Institute, 1992, p. 57. back

Dubravka Ugresic is the author of many books, including five translated into English. Her book of essays, Culture of Lies, from which this essay and the previous are reprinted, won the Charles Veillon Prize in 1996. Since 1993, she has lived in self-exile and currently resides in Amsterdam.