The Exile As a Condition of Interpreting

Writing about Dubravka Ugrešić in the context of the East European Literature created in exile, Borbala Zsuzsana Török points that she “went into voluntary exile in 1993 after a violent media attack on her and other women colleagues during the Croatian war and independence. The main accusation against Ugrešić and her peers was their refusal to identify with the new nation-state,1 with her expected role as a woman patriot, and with the war waged in Croatia’s name” (2009, 589).

Trying to find the exact term that would define her position of living outside of the country where she was born and spent the first fortyfive years of her life, Dubravka Ugrešić writes: “I myself am neither an émigré nor a refugee nor an asylum-seeker. I am a writer who at one point decided not to live in her own country anymore because her country was no longer hers” (2003, 130).

This approach towards defining the own position of dislocation, that begins with three negations (neither an émigré, nor a refugee, nor an asylum-seeker) does not represent an attempt of escaping the categories, because the very title of the essay, published in 1999, wherefrom this quotation is, The Writer in Exile, already marks that Ugrešić her condition would name a condition in exile. With this approach, she includes émigrés, refugees and political asylum-seekers in the category of exiles, but also in that category she includes those who because of a personal reasons, and by their own choice, have decided to leave their country. In her essay Ugrešić underlines the contrapuntal character of the exile, because of it is “a restless process of testing values and comparing worlds: the one we left and the one where we ended up” (2003, 128).

This recalls Edward Said’s notions on the contrapuntal perspective of exile in Reflections on Exile: “Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that—to borrow a phrase from music—is contrapuntal. For an exile, habits of life, expression or activity in the new environment inevitably occur against the memory of these things in another environment. Thus, both the new and the old environments are vivid, actual, occurring together contrapuntally. There is a unique pleasure in this sort of apprehension, especially if the exile is conscious of other contrapuntal juxtapositions that diminish orthodox judgment and elevate appreciative sympathy” (2001, 186).

Ugrešić goes a step further in analyzing and interpreting of what Edward Said names as contrapuntal quality of exile. In the case of the writers in exile, she discovers a double contrapunting. The first contrapunting develops on the level of juxtapositing of the exilic reality with the reality of the home-country, while the other in contrapunting of the exile itself—the reality of exile gets its own simultaneous dimension with the writer’s attempt to interpret that reality in her/his own text: “A writer explores the theme from a position of double exile: as an actual exile and as a commentator on his own ‘condition called exile’” (2003, 128), thus referring to Joseph Brodsky’s essay The Condition Called Exile, in which he tries to point not only to the disadvantages, but also to the advantages of being a writer in exile, one of them being exilic estrangement that leads towards a specific relation of the author with the language, that thus becomes protective shield and nourishing capsule.

In an interview for the Croatian weekly newsmagazine Feral Tribune in 2002, Ugrešić notes that the experience of exile is not frozen in time, but that it changes as the individual that is experiencing the exile is a subject of transformations. It is an experience that undergoes changes, and it itself is a transformative process, a process of becoming by being elsewhere. This perspective on exile recalls the words of Madan Sarup, that “(e)xile can be deadening, but it can also be very creative. It can be an affliction, but it can also be a transfiguration,” and that the experience of exile reminds us that “identity is to do not with being but with becoming” (1996, 6).

This volatile feature of exile finds its fascinating fictional form in Ugrešić’s novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, where it is represented as immeasurable experience, although it is connected with measurable facts, but those facts speak of transience and fluidity: the stamps printed in the passport, temporary addresses , experiences with various bureaucratic procedures for obtaining visas (1999, 119). Despite the insisting of some theorists that exile can be defined only under strict circumstances, i.e. exiles can be persons that were physically deported from the native country, or banished by law, or escaped from political persecution, prison, etc., Ugrešić insists that exile “is usually a voluntary choice.” The politically unbearable situations are a challenge, when people do have a choice, and they choose either to adapt to such a situation, or to defy and fight against it, or to leave their homeland. According Ugrešić, “most people stay and adapt to the circumstances. The exile is a person who refuses to adapt” (2003, 136). Thus, in the case of Dubravka Ugrešić, and looking through her interpretation of her exile, the choice of leaving and staying in exile is something that belongs in the realm of ethics.

Goce Smilevski

Goce Smilevski was born in Skopje, Macedonia. He is an author of several novels and theater plays. His novel Freud’s Sister won the European Union Prize for Literature and is being published in more than thirty languages.

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