The Neustadt Prize, offered by the University of Oklahoma’s World Literature Today, is considered the “American Nobel,” and is often a harbinger of the Swedish award.
Ugrešić is the author of several works of fiction and essay collections. She went into exile from Croatia after being labeled a “witch” for her anti-nationalistic stance during the Yugoslav war. She now resides in the Netherlands.
Here’s what she had to say about that:
Ten years ago I held a Yugoslav passport, with its soft, pliable, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came, and the Croats, without so much as a by your leave, shoved a blue Croatian passport at me. The Croatian government expected a prompt transformation from its citizens, as if the passport itself was some sort of magic pill. Since this didn’t go down easily in my case, they excluded me from their literary and other ranks. Croatian passport in hand, I abandoned both my newly acquired and formerly demolished homeland and set out into the world. With impassioned, Eurosong-like glee, the rest of the world identified me as a Croatian writer. I became a literary representative of a place that no longer wanted me. I, too, no longer wanted the place that no longer wanted me. I am no fan of unrequited love. Even today, I still, however, haven’t shaken free of the labels.
Again I hold a passport with a soft, pliable, dark red cover, a Dutch passport. Will this new passport make me a Dutch writer? It may but I doubt it. Now that I have a Dutch passport, will I ever be able to “reintegrate” into the ranks of Croatian writers? Possibly, but I doubt it. What is my real problem? Am I ashamed of the label of Croatian writer that still trails after me? No. Would I feel any better with a label like Gucci or Armani? Undoubtedly I would, but that’s not the point. Then what is it that I want? And why am I, for God’s sake so edgy about labels?
Why? Because the reception of literary texts has shown that the luggage of identification bogs down a literary text. Because it has further been shown that labels actually alter the substance of a literary text and its meaning.
Not surprisingly, then, she considers herself a “post-Yugoslavian writer.” Clive James wrote of her: “For her, Yugoslavia lingers in the mind and heart as the dreamed reality, whereas Croatia is the living nightmare. Tito’s iron hand at least kept the ethnic minorities from each other’s throats. … She comes from one of what Kundera memorably called the Kidnapped Countries, and she has given it its voice, which is the voice of a woman. The woman carries plastic bags full of the bad food and the thin supplies she has queued for by the hour while the men sit around in the square scratching their crotches and dreaming up their next war.”
As he points out, there is much to discomfit Western readers. For example, when she writes: “Proudly waving its own unification, Europe supported disintegration in foreign territory. Emphasizing the principles of multiculturality in its own territory, it abetted ethnic cleansing elsewhere. Swearing by European norms of honour, it negotiated with democratically elected war criminals. Fiercely defending the rights of minorities, it omitted to notice the disappearance of the most numerous Yugoslav minority, the population of a national, ‘nationally undetermined’ people, or the disappearance of minorities altogether.”