As part of a course at the University of Oklahoma sponsored by literary magazine, World Literature Today, I had the incredible opportunity to meet award-winning author Dubravka Ugrešić after studying several of her novels and essays (graciously provided to us through a WLT book scholarship, I might add).
Ugrešić’s works we read included Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Ministry of Pain, Europe in Sepia, Lend Me Your Character, and pieces from The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. Ugrešić’s writing is nothing like I’ve read before. Her novels are like a puzzle, which are left to the reader to put together. Luckily, I was debriefed before jumping into each piece and knew what to watch for. Admittedly, I was on Google every couple of pages or so researching textual references and metaphors, which are uniformly sprinkled through her writing.
I found Ugrešić’s themes particularly fascinating. Nostalgia, folklore, and memory are relentlessly pursued by Ugrešić, but with an emphasis on women’s roles and perspectives. If interested in reading some of her work, I recommend starting with Ministry of Pain, following with Europe in Sepia, and ending with Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. 🙂
During the Neustadt Festival at the end of October, I had the privilege of listening to Ugrešić twice (besides her keynote speech), once in a more intimate setting and once at a banquet. I couldn’t believe how funny she was! My classmates and I conducted an interview with her in a cozy, covered patio. A small excerpt of the interview can be found here http://lithub.com/the-american-nobel-at-norman-oklahamas-neustadt-prize-festival/# on the Lit Hub website.
I also interviewed novelist and translator, Alison Anderson, who was one of the festival guests. Here’s the transcription of my interview with Anderson:
Q: You nominated Ugrešić for the Neustadt prize. Why, specifically, did you choose to nominate her?
A: Because she has accompanied me in my life as a reader for over twenty years. So, I’ve kind of followed her in her career since she left Yugoslavia in the 90s, and every time that she’d have a new book out I would order it or rush out and buy it. And she’s a comfort to me, because I’ve seen the world become not a very nice place compared to how I imagined it would be when I was your age. Even though she criticizes and she finds fault and she’s pessimistic, it’s a comfort to know she’s out there and writing about these problems, that I’m not the only one who sees these problems. Sometimes they’re very trivial, and it’s a kind of solidarity among people maybe of my generation.
Q: I particularly found comfort in how [Ugrešić] described nostalgia, and that’s a big theme in Ugrešić’s work. Do you agree with Ugrešić’s descriptions of nostalgia?
A: Yeah, I do. I do differently because I don’t have a real nostalgia for a country that no longer exists. Sometimes she calls herself a “Yugonostalgic.” But I do have nostalgia for what I hoped the United States would become or what I hoped Europe would become when I was much younger. Or just maybe for even countries in the 19th century sometimes. So, I can identify with some of the good and bad things about nostalgia.
Q: Can you describe nostalgia in one sentence?
A: A longing for the past. A longing for what is no longer there.
Q: Out of all [Ugrešić’s] novels, do you have a favorite?
A: The Museum of Unconditional Surrender.
Q: Is there a particular reason why?
A: Because it’s very poetic. It’s very beautiful. It has its nostalgia without being sentimental. Yeah, I like it both for the way it’s put together and for the themes.
Q: What do you think is the most important theme in Ugrešić’s work?
A: Hmm. That’s a hard one because her work has evolved, so it’s been through different themes. I think integrity is important. It depends on the essays. Other times it might be equality. But equality you’d have to define, and that’s a lot to go into.
Q: Do you think there’s something for everyone in Ugrešić’s work, or do you think her work is written for a specific audience?
A: I think there are may be some people who want to control their lives and who want to have cut and dry ideas, people who are narrow-minded that might not get it, unfortunately. But I think people who are open, people who are willing to do some research if there are some issues she’s talking about that they don’t know, but they’re curious to find out about, whether it’s about Yugoslavia or whether it’s about a dead Russian author or something in literature… I think anybody who’s open and curious. She refers to a lot of current events and a lot of literary history that require research. I had to do some research. She’s stimulating. She’s very stimulating.
Q: In your opinion, as a translator, do certain meanings sometimes get lost in translation?
A: Certain meanings… I can’t answer for correlation. I know that for French, I don’t think meanings so much, nuances certainly. Sometimes you have to approximate; you have to try and find the closest thing, but it might not be what their original word was in Croatian or Russian or French. But if it works for the American reader and brings them that much closer to understanding those other cultures, that’s what we try to do.
Thanks for reading 🙂