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How Literature Helped A Former Yugoslav Refugee Find Her Identity

Jan 20, 2017

 

War broke out in the former Yugoslavia when Dragana Obradovic was only eight years old. Her family fled the region as refugees. By the time she was in her 20s, she felt a void about her childhood in the Balkans: She was old enough to remember the war, but too young to grasp its significance. Obradovic began asking questions about her own identity.

“I turned to Slavic studies primarily in an effort to solve some biographical questions,” Obradovic said.

Obradovic’s generation faces unique questions about identity. She was born in Yugoslavia, but that country no longer existed during her formative teenage years. Instead, Yugoslavia had splintered in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia and, later, Kosovo.

“We had no access to a stable identity. We still felt a loss for Yugoslavia. But it was this very idyllic childhood period,” Obradovic said. “When I started reading this literature I wanted to know: Did I actually have a right to call myself a Yugoslav?”

Some writers of her generation have written about the experiences of children during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Sasa Stanisic has written in German about war from the vantage point of a child. Obradovic finds similarities between her own experience and these types of writings because children have “a figurative interpretation of the events,” and do not fully understand what is occurring.

“Child narrators in war literature are very useful for a writer,” Obradovic said. “Not understanding can throw into relief some types of insights about war.”

Children, Obradovic said, have ways to rationalize things, and that can help them not feel the horrors of war as profoundly as adults.

“For instance, ‘Oh it's the siege. So we don't go to school. Oh, so we play all day indoors,’” Obradvoic says. “These types of mechanisms of rationalizations I think are very common with children.”

Obradovic also wanted to learn how literature responds to the traumatic breakdown of social values during war. Obradovic, who is now a literature professor at the University of Toronto, told World Views that Yugoslavia had a growing movement of playful, postmodernist literature in the 1970s and 1980s. When Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s, these same writers were now chronicling heavy social matters.

“I was interested in how suddenly these literary identities of postmodernism could grapple with issues of genocide, with war, when these writers had really in a way internalized and kind of closed literature off from having a very important social role,” Obradovic said.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On identifying as Bosnian:

I absolutely identify as Bosnian. And I think ... there is a certain pressure on people to identify ethnically as Serbs, Muslims or Croats. But I do belong to a growing number of people who just say, no, we refuse all those three labels and we want to create a trans category of just being Bosnian, of being from there and therefore not essentializing who we are and what our lineage is, and sort of making and forcing that as the primary point of identification. … There is growing disenchantment precisely with these ideologies and nationalist ideologies that have forced people into these categories.

On literature after Yugoslavia dissolved:

I think one of the things that happened after the breakup of Yugoslavia is that this collective identity of Yugoslav literature suddenly became Macedonian literature, or Bosnian literature, Serbian literature. And the splintering created, I would say, an academic but also a literary environment, where suddenly people were nationalized even though their writing may not actually ... fit comfortably within what is perceived as a particular national literature. And this meant that actually the study of literature had to go through a period of an intense politicization and I think the pressures of the 1990s have disappeared now.

And one of the things that I'm really encouraged by is the work that scholars and writers do to bring back together these regions because the languages are mutually comprehensible. So in a way it benefits everyone to have a broader conversation between Serbian writers and Croatian writers and Bosnian writers, and to pull these audiences together and to share what have shared -- the experience of the past 20 years of transition which have been pretty difficult for all of the countries concerned.

 

And I think that type of … rise of a very particular capitalism, intersecting with post-war trauma, has in all countries engendered a lot of disappointments. Lot of people lost social security. A lot of people saw their lives completely dismantled. The loss of so after the after the war. And I think this kind of bitterness about what came is bringing people together again and they're sharing the experiences of this particular economic moment

On optimism for Bosnia:

I spent some time in the region actually last year and so I got to meet the newer generations. ... The younger generations who, for example, have no experience of Yugoslavia. So unlike my generation ... who had that idyllic childhood, they came after the mess. But their understanding, the forging links with their neighbors, is an important step towards finding a place in an intensely globalized world. And that is something that I perceive as actually very fascinating because they don't have recourse to that identity. They don't see themselves as Yugoslav but they're not afraid to collaborate and to establish these types of working relationships, creative and intellectual.

Suzette Grillot: Dragana Obradovic, welcome to World Views.

Dragana Obradovic: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

Grillot: Dragana, you're from Bosnia and obviously work in the field of literature. You're a young scholar, a young teacher and professor. You must have been very young at a time when the Yugoslav area was falling apart. And kind of how that perhaps influenced your interest in literature and working on the literature of the region.

Obradovic: Sure. I was actually eight when the war started. So yes I was very young and I have a very specific experience of the war which is that of a child. And when I after we were refugees I never really we never had a family situation in which we talked about the war and what we had experienced. And when I started studying I started studying English literature, English and French literature, and it was only when I was maybe in my early 20s that I started asking questions about my identity and where I had come from. We had maintained very strong links with Bosnia and our family. There was lots of family there still. But I had never developed that sort of intellectual curiosity about the region until then.

Obradovic: When I turned to Slavic studies it was primarily in an effort to solve some biographical questions and because I think what I was lacking as a child having experienced the war was a bit of a broader optic on the issues. And I didn't have the language to intellectually talk about these things. And I started reading at the suggestion of some friends and various writers who really made me think about precisely this question of intellectual engagement during war, questions to do with how does literature respond to such a traumatic breakdown of the social values of everything that's been known. And in particular because I had focused a lot on in my studies as an undergraduate and as a Master's students I had worked a lot in post-modern literature and I was really curious to discover that while there was this big burgeoning of post-modern playful literature in Yugoslavia in the 70s and 80s, and when the war came in the 1990s these writers suddenly were dealing with really heavy social matters. And I was interested in how suddenly these literary identities of postmodernism could grapple with issues of genocide, with war, when these writers had really in a way internalized and kind of closed literature off from having a very important social role. And so that's where the ethical question actually came in. What grammar did they find for discussing these social breakdowns and how did they use that grammar of postmodernism to create a new ethics of literary engagement? So I think that's that's sort of the short version of my it my path to his work.

Grillot: Well this is so interesting and leads me I think in many different directions. I'm curious as to what you meant by that - having experienced the war as a child you had a broader optic on it. And then you had that experience, very important experience, of being a refugee.

Obradovic: Yeah I think one of the things that I have when I think about the experience of childhood during war it can seem, and there are actually other writers from the region who've now written about this, such as Sasa Stanisic, who is a writer who works in German, who wrote a book entirely from a child's point of view during the war. And I find a lot of correlates between my own experience and that insofar as the child has a figurative interpretation of the events that are happening and the limited understanding is something that in my mind I wanted to overcome when I was an adult. I wanted to understand what precisely was happening in those years. And in literature, it was part of my education of that - sort of, what were the big questions of politics of governance of geopolitics of that time. I was interested in discovering all of that. But often      So I guess that's something that when I think about those years I really did have a very you just made me very very limited understanding of what was happening and in a way of rationalized understanding. For instance, "Oh it's the siege. So we don't go to school, oh so we play all day indoors." And these types of mechanisms of rationalizations I think are very common with children.

Obradovic: And so the horror in a way is perhaps not as as profoundly felt. But what I felt as I as as I grew up and I started to work on this literature was I felt an absence of a certain type of identity that in a way I think children of the war -  this generation, my generation and a little bit older so it was kids who were born in the early 80s  - felt that we were born in Yugoslavia and our formative years, our teenage years, were in the post Yugoslav period where everything was splintered. And so we had no access to a stable identity. We still felt a loss for Yugoslavia. But it was this very idyllic childhood period. We had not been formed in it as adults. And so that's the absence that I felt actually in my early 20s and when I started reading this literature I wanted to know did I actually have a right to call myself a Yugoslav? I wanted to explore those questions. And in literature, in particular, much more so than other intellectual and academic texts answered those questions because it was about those existential crises that people faced. And it was about the perhaps also the effect of the war that war makes us of war and loss and the loss that it engendered makes us feel so many different things. So yes.

Grillot: It's, again, you're raised so many important issues. This personal search that you were on and I imagine many others like you that came not only from Bosnia but another war torn countries at a time when you're really trying to grapple with not just the loss of what you knew but even by trying to figure out what it is you do know and who you are and, you know, how to reconcile all of that. The question that you ask do I even have the right to call myself you know a Yugoslav or Bosnian? I mean do you did you say in Bosnia and let's I want to ask you about Bosnia because Bosnia is probably one of the more complicated cases in the region in the sense that you know you have still I guess a U.N. protectorate and in some ways, you've got a triple government - you have, you know, it's supposedly shared governance between Serbs and Croats and Bosnians. And so it  - doesn't that even complicated even more in the sense that the resolution is ... I mean, the war ended, but were things really resolved to the extent that you … Who do you identify with what do you identify with in this still very complicated picture that is Bosnia today?

Obradovic: Oh it's so fraught. It is absolutely fraught. I think as you pointed out there is this complexity to the governance that makes Bosnia in so many ways a frozen nation, that its constitution and its legal structures are so immovable and so inflexible in part because of the Dayton and Gruman Benoit in entirety. That it's so difficult to actually … For me when I look at the changes that have been happening in Bosnia since the end of the war, So from '94, '95 to the present really the last, it's the years of transition, rather than the immediate post-war reconstruction - it's the years of transition that have been just so solid and frozen and in a way fossilized.

Obradovic: So for example one of the things that's really hard in Bosnia at the moment is to reopen lots of museums and art galleries because there is a lot of wrangling over who gets to administer the funding for the art galleries and museums. Is it the federal government or is it the government that belongs to the two entities or is it the local municipalities. And so what ends up happening is that black hole, that legal black hole, keeps expanding and people have been without museums and galleries since actually before the war. And one of the things that's encouraging is that there have been a large growing number of citizen initiatives to put pressure on the government to open up these cultural institutions. And this is where the sort of the civic resistance is really important in Bosnia.

Obradovic: But it is a completely devastated system culturally and one of the things that we also see happening is that, for instance, the Bosnian government does not even offer enough funding to the film industry for one movie to be made per year. And so the Bosnian film industry has to rely on this European co-operative model of funding that I think is, in a way, common to a lot of countries in the region. But it's just it just portrays - It's sort of a micro portrayal of actually how difficult it is to produce culture for instance in a place like Bosnia. And that I think is part of my frustration with looking at the region and looking at Bosnia in particular.

Obradovic: I absolutely identify as Bosnian. And I think we though there is a certain pressure on people to identify ethnically as Serbs, Muslims or Croats. But I do belong to a growing number of people who just say, no, we refuse all those three labels and we want to create a trans category of just being Bosnian, of being from there and therefore not essentializing who we are and what our lineage is and sort of making and forcing that as the primary point of identification. It's absolutely not important for me and I when I go back to SOTA when I do often there is a group of friends that I know who feel the same way. And there is growing disenchantment precisely with these ideologies and nationalist ideologies that have forced people into these categories and channeled them through not just oh you are Serbs so therefore you are orthodox but force them through particular school curricula and there are people who are resisting particularly those imposed ideologies.

Obradovic: But it is hard when I go back there too to see how depressed the climate of lack of cultural funding is going to change. So that's so my aim my disenchantment is that I hope that the sort of the civic initiatives that are that are brewing in the region really do help people, not necessarily overthrow, but dislodge that type of absolute power that the government seems to have at the moment.

Grillot: So this seems to be your focus now as your forthcoming book is about the literary dissolution of Yugoslavia. So not only did Yugoslavia dissolve but it seems to me you're suggesting that the literary tradition of the region did as well. And so can you tell us a little bit about that - how the literary world has dissolved. And then, is that related to this kind of civic resistance, these civic movements, kind of trying to bring them back together? Is that how you are feeling about this?

[00:16:59] I think one of the things that happened after the breakup of Yugoslavia is that this collective identity of Yugoslav literature suddenly became Macedonian literature or Bosnian literature, Serbian literature. And the splintering created, I would say, an academic but also a literary environment, where suddenly people were nationalized even though their writing may not actually be would fit comfortably within what is perceived as a particular national literature. And this meant that actually the study of literature had to go through a period of an intense politicization and I think the pressures of the 1990s have disappeared now. And one of the things that I'm really encouraged by is the work that scholars and writers do to bring back together these regions because the language doesn't mean that languages are mutually comprehensible. So in a way it benefits everyone to have a broader conversation between Serbian writers and Croatian writers and Bosnian writers and to pull these audiences together and to share what have shared the experience of the past 20 years of transition which have been pretty difficult for all of the countries concerned.

And I think that type of … rise of a very particular capitalism intersecting with post-war trauma has in all countries engendered a lot of disappointments. Lot of people lost social security. A lot of people saw their lives completely dismantled. The loss of so after the after the war. And I think this kind of bitterness about what came is bringing people together again and they're sharing the experiences of this particular economic moment and in a way that people are really struggling to find jobs.

Obradovic: Unemployment in Bosnia I think is officially at 43 percent but unofficially who knows. There is, for instance, no free health insurance anymore and so all of these things are maneuvering people towards much more impoverished lives. Writing about these kinds of experiences, it's what is bringing Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Slovenian, Macedonian writers and filmmakers and artists much closer together. And in fact that's why I also wrote that article on the question of the headscarf in Bosnia primarily because it's one of the film ostensibly deals with war but it asks questions about what comes after war and how do the most disenfranchised the subjects of this country i.e. orphans how do they make and how do they exist in this environment.

Grillot: Well it sounds to me like you have a rather optimistic approach here. That they're bringing we're bringing people back together and in a cultural and literary sense because they've not only lost their political and economic and social environment in the dissolution of Yugoslavia but their culture as well and it sounds to me like you're thinking very positively and optimistically about how that is changing. Is that correct?

Obradovic: Yes. I do have more optimism than I did before. I spent some time in the region actually last year and so I got to meet the newer generations. I think that's what it is. The younger generations who, for example, have no experience of Yugoslavia. So unlike my generation who has at least had who had that idyllic childhood they came after the mess. But their understanding, the forging links with their neighbors, is an important step towards finding actually a place in an intensely globalized world. And that is something that I perceive as actually very fascinating because they don't have recourse to that identity. They don't they don't see themselves as Yugoslav but they're not afraid to collaborate and to establish these types of working relationships, creative and intellectual. So yes from that perspective we're optimistic though the background, the economic and the social background, is still extremely impoverished. Yes.

Grillot: Well, Dragana, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing your story. I appreciate it.

Obradovic: Thank you.

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