The girl who didn’t make it to creative writing school: Dubravka Ugrešić on Scheherazade

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Ugrešić with Ane Farsethås and Kari Jegerstedt at LitFest Bergen 2019. Photo: LitFestBergen

“What did you do in Norway?” everyone asks. It’s always hard to summarize a few chaotic days and nights in Bergen. But this Q&A goes some way to explaining. My interview with the Neustadt International Literary Prize-winning writer Dubravka Ugrešić, titled “Who Is the Enemy?”  just went online at the tony online site for Music & Literature. It’s here

This was my favorite passage in the interview:

CH: You write about the fox as the totem for the writer—adhering to the convention of the writer as dangerous, edgy, shape-shifting. But aren’t most writers’ lives rather boring? I think of what Philip Roth said: “Literature takes a habit of mind that has disappeared. It requires silence, some form of isolation, and sustained concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing.” It’s not exactly gripping stuff—which is why it’s so hard to make a good movie about writers or the life of the mind.

What could be duller than Proust’s life? Most of us live lives that are rooted in our heads, and it’s isolated and isolating—what can be more boring than that?

DU: Yes, but there is something else, too. I’ve suggested that Scheherazade is the fox, Scheherazade is the writer who didn’t go to creative writing school. It’s too expensive, and she would have had to pay twenty thousand euros for two years. But she passed at the school of a thousand-and-one nights, okay? She gave as a fee, as a “scholarship,” her own head. So we can’t spit and be cynical about that. It’s a serious thing, to tell a story under such circumstances.

I’ve chosen the fox as a symbolic representation of a writer. The fox is rich with meaning. In the Western cultural tradition, the fox is mainly a male creature. In Eastern cultures, the fox is mostly a female creature. In Slavic folk culture, the fox is also predominantly female. The fox is not a superior creature: she is a loser and a loner, wild and vulnerable. The fox is one of the most popular hunting targets: her skin, her fur, has a commercial value, a detail which makes the fox a deeply tragic figure. The fox is betrayed more often then it betrays. Representations of the fox differ from culture to culture. I was raised on the fox’s representation in Aesop’s fables and Western European medieval novels. In Chinese, Korean, and Japanese mythology, the fox is a semi-divine creature, a god’s messenger, a demonic shape-shifter that passes the borders between realms—human, animal, demonic. The fox is also seen as a cheap entertainer, a liar, a cheater, a little thief with a risky appetite for the “metaphysical bite,” a thief with a constant desire to grab a “heavenly chicken.”

CH: Let’s go back, for a minute, to Scheherazade. I can’t disagree with your comments. And yet, “storytelling” has become this all-purpose cliché for the very complicated art of writing.

DU: I am irritated by these global buzz words that appear and disappear. However, they are in a way coordinates, or traffic signs, that regulate “intellectual traffic.” They do not mean much. They are just little helpers, and, yes, a sort of intellectual affectation. Most often such little structures are put into wide circulation by the global marketplace. The majority of participants in literary zones do not know anything about literary theory—or literary narration, for that matter. Nor are they obliged to know. That’s why such little inventions, like storytelling, help an ordinary participant to feel more comfortable in literature.

Read the whole thing here.


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