Croatian Writer Dubravka Ugresic on Nationalism, Exile, and Lots of Skin

The Age of Skin, by Dubrakva Ugrešić

I was so excited for this book, because I don’t think there’s much Croatian-language nonfiction translated into English, and by a woman no less. Dubravka Ugrešić was born and raised in the former Yugoslavia and is now Amsterdam-based. She’d previously been a writer and journalist in her native Croatia but was harassed and ostracized for her outspoken anti-war beliefs, ultimately forced to emigrate. She’s a prize-winning author and essayist and this is her latest collection to come to English.

These essays were written between 2014 and 2018, although most at the earlier end of that spectrum. I haven’t come across much writing exploring the ex-Yugoslavian diaspora within Europe, or in exile. The way Ugrešić writes about this is revelatory, but it’s also not singularly focused. She uses her experience being forced out of her homeland, and the cultural heritage preserved in her life abroad, as a lens to examine the recent surge of populism across Europe, and of course, in the United States, although that’s less of a focus here.

Still, the mechanisms affecting it are the same, as she lays out in passages like this:

Where lies the appeal of fascism and its many forms, soaking into Europe like ink into a dry blotter? It lies in the fact that fascism requires no qualifications, no guarantees, no certification of any specific education or knowledge. Fascism’s appeal lies in belonging to a like-minded group of people, in acceptance, in the violence of one gang over another, in the easily stoked feeling that we’re better than others, we’re finally better, and being better — surprise, surprise — doesn’t take much, only the same blood group and a willingness to do violence to those who don’t share that blood group with you.

There’s something I admire so much in writers who take concepts that we know inside out and distill them into something so clear and powerful like the above. She does it often in these essays with ideas around politics, culture, and notions of place, belonging, language, and immigration, while looping in lower-brow cultural references as well. It is, in a word, perfection.

In the title essay, perhaps the best out of a book of consistently strong pieces, she writes about the many significances of skin, including linguistically — the differences or lack thereof between “skin” and “leather” in several languages, and what wearing leather signifies culturally and economically, in the former Yugoslavia, for example.

From there she bounces to the scientific stigmatization of fat people — something she identifies as having “found support in branches of science such as demography and ecology, medicine and socio-economics.” She uses cultural references — like that a fitness instructor, “full of righteous indignation as only fitness instructors can be,” criticized the singer Adele during an American tour for sending a bad message to young American girls — I suppose that daring to be successful while fat is condemnable? It highlights the repulsiveness of such messages, and the stomach-turning reality that we’re culturally fine with shaming people whose body sizes we deem unacceptable.

Funny how prevalent that is in the United States, which, as Ugrešić points out, has more skin in the game, as it were: “Fat is distributed unequally: the people of the United States comprise only five percent of the world’s population, yet account for one third of the human biomass.”

From there the essay moves to Lenin’s embalmers, and suffice to say I was already hooked. This is what I love in essay writing, and it’s something that Elisa Gabbert does beautifully too — this ability to weave in myriad, often disparate topics and have them all make sense together. Ideas about aging, class, immortality, and personal value are explored through the lens of skin, organs, and, to a different extent, body size.

It’s often bitingly funny, and always deeply incisive. In “Good Morning, Losers!” she examines the notion of success in career or entrepreneurial endeavor, including the frustrating comparisons we draw to peers, with some linkage between Communism and capitalism. This is something I found so interesting, and was a different way to consider the near-frantic Western drive towards financial success and mythologizing of the self-starters. “How is this possible, I wonder, where did I stray off the beaten track, where have I spent all these years, in what fog?”

Her view on all this is a somewhat cynical but oddly reassuring one, with a bluntness I recognize from Russian writers. In “Don’t Take It Personally,” she outlines some philosophy: “Don’t take it personally. Because all this isn’t happening just to you, it’s happening to everyone, people have trouble talking about it, the humiliation is too far widespread, so why acknowledge the little slights, though, to be frank, they’re the ones that hurt the most.”

If you think you’re sinking, don’t take it personally, the people who are preventing you from clinging to the life raft are only on it themselves briefly, because they are better at shoving away the wretches who are drowning, including you. But I tell you, don’t worry, soon enough they, too, will find themselves in the cold, dank water, someone else will push them overboard soon enough, unless they’re kept on board to serve as food.

This is writing that packs a punch, and in doing so imparts subtle warnings about nationalism, economic structures, and the dark ways we treat each other and ourselves.

Because many of these pieces are from 2014, they address Europe’s refugee crisis. An immigrant herself, her perspective on this is a rich and valuable one: “They, like millions of others, lead parallel lives. These are people with no voice yet they are motivating, advancing, and sustaining European life. They are invisible Europe.” In this essay, “Invisible Europe”, she looks at the paradoxes she says are rife within the continent — of the bureaucracy and bad taste for refugees even as they help power western European countries’ economic engines, as they’ve done for many waves and cycles of refugees past.

She highlights specific experiences, sort of snapshot moments from fellow ex-Yugoslavians and Eastern Europeans, Turks and Bulgarians, putting a personal face on the treatment of refugees in Europe. It’s stark and straightforward in its tone. There’s nothing warm or uplifting, rather the bare reality that things are not as rosy nor as black and white as common narratives may simplify them.

“The Scold’s Bridle” is a chilling, impacting piece on the lesser value placed on women’s rights, in which she notes that, in rape sentencing, “According to Croatian law, the perpetrator is to be sentenced for ‘desecrating a woman’s honor,’ (to use the patriarchal phrase) for just as long as one would for desecrating the Croatian flag.” This essay felt like it took the air out of the room.

These are beautifully written, insightful, haunting, always thought-provoking and sometimes hilarious. Clearly one of the strongest, smartest voices in European nonfiction today, and I can’t believe this is the first I’m reading her.

The Age of Skin: Essays
by Dubrakva Ugrešić
translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac
published November 17, 2020 by Open Letter
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
Bookshop.org

16 thoughts on “Croatian Writer Dubravka Ugresic on Nationalism, Exile, and Lots of Skin

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  1. This sounds very important. I have some Croatian friends, although we’ve never talked about the war, and I knew a Bosnian guy for a while who ran a local charity shop and edited his thesis on the war, he was definitely horribly scarred by it. It always serves as a reminder to me of how close to the surface dispute and war are. I’m not sure I could read this right now but it’s really good to see it talked about.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good point, it’s always so close to the surface. I thought of that often when I lived in Vienna, where there’s a huge population of immigrated former Yugoslavians and they live together quite peacefully, considering how recently this horrible conflict was. My husband’s family fled Serbia when he was a child due to it, and two of his closest friends in Vienna were Bosnian and Macedonian. It’s fascinating how it reshaped much of Europe for a second time in the 20th century.

      If you’re hesitating to read it because it seems heavy, it’s surprisingly not. It’s very thoughtful and doesn’t focus on the war so much as the diaspora and other cultural topics. It’s really wonderful!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Author has been based in Amsterdam since 1996…
    I live here in NL, why have I never heard of her?
    I will definitely read this book before my 31 December 2020 deadline …..my project!
    How do you get all these new books?
    …grâce à maison d’édition?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As an immigrant, maybe she counts as a kind of minority for your next-year project too, if you don’t get to it so soon?

      Yes, exactly, this one was a digital ARC from the publisher. Are you registered on those sites to apply for them? Otherwise I mostly use the library, and try to put a hold request in for new books as soon as I find out about them, since there tends to be a long list for newer ones!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I coincidentally read two essays by this woman at approximately the same time I read your review, and I had the same reaction: “I can’t believe this is the first time I’m reading her.” My lack of familiarity with her work might have something to do with the fact that central Europe is more or less ignored in America. I remember first feeling this way years ago when I first read Kundera and Klima and Hrabal and all those other first-rate Czech novelists and essayists whose works aren’t well known here… I thought Ugresic’s negative take on the breakup of Yugoslavia into sub-states was fascinating. For example: “Why does an old woman in Sarajevo light a candle for Tito every year on the anniversary of his death? It’s because she believes Tito emancipated women in Yugoslavia by allowing them to stop wearing the hijab. Today, the old woman’s great-granddaughter is back to wearing a hijab and disapproves of her great-grandmother’s “emancipated past.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This seems like powerful writing. The passage you quote about the appeal of fascism makes sense to me, reminds me of something I read about why people join the Klan in the US. The quote about rape and dishonouring the flag is chilling.

    Liked by 1 person

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