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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.