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Dubravka Ugrešić Looks for Home

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As her native Yugoslovia became embroiled in war in the early 1990s, Dubravka Ugrešić left. She thought she was leaving for a short time—just a brief visit to Amsterdam. She wound up staying away longer than she planned, as she writes in the opening pages of American Fictionary: “Every day I would set off for the station and then postpone my return to Zagreb with the firm intention of leaving the next day…And then I suddenly decided I would not go back.” Ugrešić remained in Amsterdam until the time came for her to travel to Middletown, Connecticut, for a guest lectureship at Wesleyan University. She would eventually return to her homeland a year or so later, but only briefly, eventually being forced into exile in Amsterdam for her anti-war and anti-nationalist stances.

American Fictionary, out last year from Open Letter in an excellent updated translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać, is a collection of essays written while Ugrešić lived in Middletown. The brief pieces run the gamut of topics, from the American obsession with the organizer, to what it means to be an Eastern European Writer, to the mythical image America has of itself, even to a diatribe against the muffin (“A muffin is an infantile form of mush, a hodge-podge, the muffin is a treat for the poor and the amateur, the muffin is not just simple, it’s crude”).

Ugrešić writes as a poignant critic of American consumerism, of American individualism, and of the American pursuit of perfection. She sees in American cultural obsessions a commitment to the pursuit of tidiness. Though she recognizes an absence in her American subjects—“No American with a smidgen of self-respect knows who he or she is: that’s why every American has a shrink”—she keenly observes that they do everything in their power to mask it. We Americans hide our chaos in our organizers. “Chaos is divvied up into little piles, stowed away in shiny plastic compartments and closed with a zip-lock. Zip! There. No more chaos. No more darkness.” She longs to do the same with her own personal wreckage:
I don’t know where my former home is or where my future home will be, I don’t know whether I have a roof over my head, I don’t know what to think of my childhood, my origins, my languages. What about my Croatian, my Serbian, my Slovene, my Macedonian? What about the hammer and the sickle, my old coat of arms and my new one, or the yellow star? What to do with the dead, with the living, with the past or the future. I’m walking, talking chaos. This is why I buy organizers.
This sense of a lost home, and the disorientation Ugrešić experiences in its wake, is at the heart of her work. Reading American Fictionary with some knowledge of what’s to come for Ugrešić is harrowing—the return home that Ugrešić occasionally anticipates in these essays will not come to fruition; her homeland will not take her back.

“I shudder at my homeland,” she writes in “Life Vest,” the last original piece in the book, written as she finally flies toward Zagreb. “I shudder at the thought of the new country where I’ll be a stranger, whose citizenship I have yet to apply for, I’ll have to prove I was born there, though I was, that I speak its language, though it is my mother tongue.” Ugrešić imagines a certain kind of homelessness—one in which, though living in her native place, she has to go through the motions of acquiring legitimate legal residence. What she ended up with was exile. As she writes in “P.S.,” her addendum to American Fictionary included in Open Letter’s new edition, “I imagined that my work on the essays for my American fictionary would be my way of sketching my homeward trajectory. Soon enough the opposite proved true: the essays were, instead, an introduction to a different sort of fictionary, to the exile on which I embarked in 1993, only a year after I’d returned from America.” Ugrešić has been based in Amsterdam ever since.

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There’s a passage in Fox, another recent work of Ugrešić’s published by Open Letter (and translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams), that suggests how Ugrešić might conceptualize the idea of home today. In the passage, an anonymous reader bequeaths the narrator, who closely resembles Ugrešić, a home in Kuruzovac, a remote town in Croatia. The gesture is rife with symbolism, of course, in part suggesting that insofar as Ugrešić has found a home to replace the one she lost, she’s found it in her global community of readers.

The narrator spends several idyllic days in the home in Kuruzovac, days that include a brief love affair with a mine remover who was squatting in the home when she arrived. The landscape of the region, the purple lilacs that abound, prompt memories of her childhood, of how, “when we were little girls, we carried flowers around in the thumb crease, holding our hands out before us like tiny trays bearing crystal goblets.” The morning after she arrives at the home, she goes out to the porch: “The air was redolent of lilacs. Down the steps I went and picked a lilac cluster. Back on the porch, I sat on the bench, broke off a tiny goblet-like floret, and poked it into the crease alongside my thumb. I sat there, thumb out before me, elbow propped on knee, taking care that the floret didn’t tip over—and breathed in the new morning. I cannot remember a morning that seemed newer.” The passage seems to harken to this one from American Fictionary, where Ugrešić recounts a stay at an inn in Norman, Oklahoma:
When I came out in my pajamas one early October morning onto the veranda, I sat on the porch swing and sipped at my warm coffee…the wail of a train’s whistle cut through the stillness, a sound I hadn’t heard since my childhood. This was an auditory reminder that trains passed through the town but didn’t stop. Enchanted by the air, as sweet and fragrant as an overripe melon, I felt as if here, on this porch…I could stay forever. That veranda is my “homeland.”
Similarities abound between these two depictions of a homeland—home is found in a middle-of-nowhere place, away from the forces of power and war that might like to force her out; the feeling of having found some sort of home comes on the heels of recollections from her childhood, perhaps the only time when she felt she truly had a home. As Fox’s narrator leaves Kuruzovac, though, the reality of what home has become in her life reemerges, and she faces the true nature of her world: “The world is a minefield and that’s the only home there is. I must accustom myself to this fact.”

I feel melancholy when I read Ugrešić—for the ways in which she calls out the foolishness of American culture and what we choose to value (observations as sharp today as they were some 25 years ago), and for seeing what was lost for her and so many others divorced from their homeland. There’s a palpable sorrow in her writing, culminating in moments where the wound feels especially raw. “At the end of every year I secretly wish for all my friends and acquaintances to live at last in peace with themselves.” Reading these essays, I find myself wishing that for Ugrešić—that she might find herself calmly reclining on that verandah in Norman, Oklahoma, at some version of peace with herself.

Best Translated Book Awards Names 2019 Finalists

The Best Translated Books Awards today named its 2019 finalists for fiction and poetry. The award, founded by Three Percent at the University of Rochester, comes with $10,000 in prizes from the Amazon Literary Partnership.

In the past seven years, the ALP has contributed more than $150,000 to international authors and their translators through the BTBA.

This year’s BTBA finalists are as follows—and be sure to check out this year’s fiction and poetry longlists, which we announced last month.

Fiction Finalists

Congo Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament by In Koli Jean Bofane, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Democratic Republic of Congo, Indiana University Press) 

The Hospital by Ahmed Bouanani, translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud (Morocco, New Directions)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (Martinique, New Press)

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, (France, Feminist Press)

Moon Brow by Shahriar Mandanipour, translated from the Persian by Khalili Sara (Iran, Restless Books)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Germany, Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan, Grove)

The Governesses by Anne Serre, translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (France, New Directions)

Öræfï by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Deep Vellum)

Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac and David Williams (Croatia, Open Letter)

Poetry Finalists

The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn by Tanella Boni, translated from the French by Todd Fredson (Cote D’Ivoire, University of Nebraska)

Moss & Silver by Jure Detela, translated from the Slovenian by Raymond Miller and Tatjana Jamnik (Slovenia, Ugly Duckling)

Of Death. Minimal Odes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Laura Cesarco Eglin (Brazil, co-im-press)

Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi(Korea, New Directions)

Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika (Albania, New Directions)

The winners will be announced on Wednesday, May 29 as part of the New York Rights Fair.

Best Translated Book Awards Names 2019 Longlists

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Celebrating its 12th year of honoring literature in translation, the Best Translated Book Awards named its 2019 longlists for both fiction and poetry.

Announced here—with a write-up tomorrow from BTBA founder Chad Post at Three Percent—the lists include a diverse range of authors, languages, countries, and publishers. It features familiar presses—Ugly Duckling Presse, Coffee House, New Directions—along with presses appearing for the first time, such as Song Cave and Fitzcarraldo.

Nineteen different translators are making their first appearance, while last year’s winning team of author Rodrigo Fresán and translator Will Vanderhyden returns. The lists feature authors writing in 16 different languages, from 24 different countries. The books were published by 26 different presses, the majority either independent or university presses.

Thanks to grant funds from the Amazon Literary Partnership, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000. The finalists for both the fiction and poetry awards will be announced on Wednesday, May 15.

Best Translated Book Award 2019: Fiction Longlist

Congo Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament by In Koli Jean Bofane, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Democratic Republic of Congo, Indiana University Press) 

The Hospital by Ahmed Bouanani, translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud (Morocco, New Directions)

A Dead Rose by Aurora Cáceres, translated from the Spanish by Laura Kanost (Peru, Stockcero)

Love in the New Millennium by Xue Can, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (China, Yale University Press)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (Martinique, New Press)

Wedding Worries by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Paul Norlen and Lo Dagerman (Sweden, David Godine)

Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, (France, Feminist Press)

Disoriental by Negar Djavadi, translated from the French by Tina Kover (Iran, Europa Editions)

Dézafi by Frankétienne, translated from the French by Asselin Charles (published by Haiti, University of Virginia Press)

Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Argentina, Open Letter)

Bride and Groom by Alisa Ganieva, translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio (Russia, Deep Vellum)

People in the Room by Norah Lange, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle (Argentina, And Other Stories)

Comemadre by Roque Larraquy, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (Argentina, Coffee House)

Moon Brow by Shahriar Mandanipour, translated from the Persian by Khalili Sara (Iran, Restless Books)

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Germany, Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan, Grove)

After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (Mexico, Coffee House)

Transparent City by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Angola, Biblioasis)

Lion Cross Point by Masatsugo Ono, translated from the Japanese by Angus Turvill (Japan, Two Lines Press)

The Governesses by Anne Serre, translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson (France, New Directions)

Öræfï by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Deep Vellum)

Codex 1962 by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland, FSG)

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Poland, Riverhead)

Fox by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac and David Williams (Croatia, Open Letter)

Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama, translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai (Japan, FSG)

This year’s fiction jury is made up of: Pierce Alquist (BookRiot), Caitlin L. Baker (Island Books), Kasia Bartoszyńska (Monmouth College), Tara Cheesman (freelance book critic), George Carroll (litintranslation.com), Adam Hetherington (reader), Keaton Patterson (Brazos Bookstore), Sofia Samatar (writer), Ely Watson (A Room of One’s Own).

Best Translated Book Award 2019: Poetry Longlist

The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn by Tenella Boni, translated from the French by Todd Fredson (Cote D’Ivoire, University of Nebraska)

Dying in a Mother Tongue by Roja Chamankar, translated from the Persian by Blake Atwood (Iran, University of Texas)

Moss & Silver by Jure Detela, translated from the Slovenian by Raymond Miller and Tatjana Jamnik (Slovenia, Ugly Duckling)

Of Death. Minimal Odes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Laura Cesarco Eglin (Brazil, co-im-press)

Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi (Korea, New Directions)

Negative Space by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika (Albania, New Directions)

Scardanelli by Frederike Mayrocker, translated from the German by Jonathan Larson (Austria, Song Cave)

the easiness and the loneliness by Asta Olivia Nordenhof, translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied (Denmark, Open Letter)

Nioque of the Early-Spring by Francis Ponge, translated from the French by Jonathan Larson (France, Song Cave)

Architecture of a Dispersed Life by Pable de Rokha, translated from the Spanish by Urayoán Noel (Chile, Shearsman Books)

The poetry jury includes: Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Katrine Øgaard Jensen (EuropeNow), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Aditi Machado (poet and translator), and Laura Marris (writer and translator).

For more information, visit the Best Translated Book Award site, the BTBA Facebook page, and the BTBA Twitter. And check out our coverage from 2016, 2017, and 2018.

A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

The year began with Mexican beaches and ceviche and morning yoga during a much-needed sanctuary from Chicago winter and the latent anxiety that was plaguing me. This was an ideal setting to engage in the drama of someone else’s fucked-up life and fraught desire—perhaps I was seeking catharsis of some kind? Well, if so Elizabeth Ellen’s auto-fictional novel Person/a, provided it. Person/a is a tale of a once-requited turned unrequited love cum obsession, accompanied by a crumbling marriage (no surprise) and self-imposed isolation. The novel includes emails and chat sessions and text messages and almost like a preface, rejections to Ellen’s manuscript queries. It’s all so wonderfully messy and unnerving, it feels like it shouldn’t hold but it does. In an age where I Love Dick has been subsumed by the mainstream, Person/a still reads as raw and suppurating. Fleur Jaeggy’s I am the Brother of XX didn’t fare as well at the beach. No fault of the book that the sun was too adamant, the breeze too gentle for its dark melancholia, its haute cynicism. It’s better read on a bleak winter day, when the air is already laced with desperation. I am not sure how one writes so beautifully about melancholy, how to make envy so alluring, and yet Jaeggy’s a master.
 

Obsession runs through yet another favorite — Lynne Tillman’s Men and Apparitions is an obsessive’s compendium. The sprawling novel contains anthropological disquisitions on photography and our cultural inundation in images, and ends with the narrator Zeke’s attempt to delineate the new masculinity belonging to the sons of second wave feminists. Zeke’s survey on the “New Man” ends the novel, with questions Tillman had posed to male subjects accompanied by a selection of answers. Tillman’s choice to open the novel to a survey of voices conjures a conversation from Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, where the narrator argues that novels are not very good at conjuring our contemporary reality and that documentary fiction, such as Svetlana Alexeivich’s “novels in voices” seem to do a much better job.
 
Despite my skepticism about any dog-centric story (the dog here being the narrator’s inheritance from the titular dead friend), The Friend became my constant companion for a few short days. Nunez plays with the conceit of the novel in a way that brings the “truth” of the main narrative into question, it’s a wonderfully surprising turn, and that’s as much as I’ll say to avoid spoiling it.
 

Many of the novels that stayed with me hijacked my expectations of what a novel is or can do. Dubravka Ugresic’s novel Fox was sly enough to seemingly shift forms while reading. I knew it was a novel going in, and yet by the time I was in the thick of it I questioned this until I was assured the book was definitively nonfiction. But then there were moments that gave me pause — such as when on a butterfly hunt, Nabokov’s companion’s skirt flies up to reveal a butterfly resting on her pubis. What’s true and what’s not?  Fox is cunning and places this ambiguity at the forefront, for the novel is  concerned with what makes up a narrative and, specifically, how stories come to be written.
 

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is nothing like Fox in its material — confronting a deep-seated ambivalence and desire about becoming a mother — and yet both books retool the novel’s form. Heti engages with the I Ching as a dialogic partner as she delves into an inquiry about whether Sheila and Miles should have children, and with uncanny results. (Incredibly, Heti notes that the answers from her coin tosses have not been manipulated.) If you aren’t subsumed by the desire to have children, if you’re female and an artist and that window of opportunity is closing, how do you decide? Heti’s commitment to exhausting the question illuminates fears wedged in the crevices of my own mind, such as how can you be both writer and mother without some type of neglect or resentment towards one or both roles? (which I know isn’t true, and yet…)
 

I picked up Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks while visiting family in a small coastal town in Oregon, a town serendipitously much like the one where the book is set. Being there I felt even more subsumed by the lush language and descriptions of the coast and dense forest, and was in awe of the nearly mystical powers possessed by herbalist abortionist whose power is derived from her knowledge the natural surroundings. Also, I was delighted to learn that ‘red clock’ means ‘womb’.
 

Delight is  just the word I’d use to describe reading Sabrina Orah Mark’s story collection Wild Milk, whose tales are surreal and playful and seem deceptively simple despite their profound linguistic and imaginative play. Rita Bullwinkell’s collection Belly Up is just as playful and profound, though her stories delve deeper and darker. They floor me with unexpected turns, slippages into the surreal, and their vast emotional registers.
 

I’m a little late to the party, as everyone’s championing Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel, but I just encountered her Find Me this summer. I read it twice, and became obsessed with its own obsessions with memory and loss and what’s inaccessible, its esoteric theories about immunity to the ongoing epidemic, and the fracturing effects of trauma and absence. On Joy’s ever-meandering bus ride, all seems like a dream: the bus is never heading where she thinks, she keeps getting deterred on her way. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for life, or perhaps she’s she lost her mind? I love that both readings seem plausible.
 

Unlike Joy, Sequoyah in Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking knows where his mother is (she’s incarcerated); though like Joy he’s suffered abuse and has been shuffled through the foster system. He’s so tender and adrift, but finds connection in his relationship to his older foster sister Rosemary, and their shared Native American heritage. They’re all so flawed and awkward and completely alive on the page.
 

The dead do talk in Shelley Jackson’s Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children. It’s an enigma of a novel about a boarding school for stuttering children whose impediment, or rather, gift, allows them to effectively speak the dead’s voices . The novel is a linguistic and imaginative feat, as well as a gorgeous object to behold. Interspersed between chapters is documentation of artifacts, images, and illustrations, which only an imagination as wonderfully freaky as designer Zach Dodson could pull off. Is it a cliche to say it’s enchanting? Though Riddance’s main obsession is with a murder mystery, at its core it’s also a philosophical consideration of translation and writing, and the voices that exist beyond the grave.

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3 Books by Women from the Balkans You Should Be Reading

Women writers from the Balkans rarely reach an English-reading audience, but this year is a notable exception. Three books from the post-Yugoslav space have appeared in the last few months, ranging from a literary journey by master novelist Dubravka Ugresic to the family sagas of first-time authors Sofija Stefanovic and Tania Romanov. While the country of Yugoslavia fell apart over a quarter century ago, these works show that its narratives of loss and belonging are still relevant and alive.

Fox, by Dubravka Ugresic (Open Letter Books)
Dubravka Ugresic opens her latest novel with a bold question: How do stories come to be written? Her search for an answer starts in the world of Russian avant-garde in the 1930s, which has fascinated for her decades since her student encounter with the little-known works of Boris Pilnyak, Doivber Levin, and the OBERIU collective. The journey further involves literary conferences in Italy and England, Nabokov’s West Coast road trips, and Ugresic’s visit to an unexpected inheritance among minefields in Croatia. Hugely personal and autobiographical, this is the story of a writer in self-exile who, at the onset of the Yugoslav wars, “refused to be a Croatian woman,” “refused to be a Serbian woman,” and settled in Amsterdam—but no longer had a home. The search for the key to storytelling is also a search for a path home, ever elusive and mostly unsatisfying, yet fun: “the moment a story slips an author’s control, when it starts behaving like a rotating lawn sprinkler, firing off every which way; when grass begins to sprout not because of any moisture, but out of thirst for a near source of moisture.”

Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, by Sofija Stefanovic (Atria Books)
In 1988, Yugoslavia was still a relatively stable country, where Dubravka Ugresic won the prestigious NIN Prize for her novel Fording the Stream of Consciousness, and 5-year-old Sofija Stefanovic attended an elite French kindergarten. But Stefanovic’s forward-thinking father sensed trouble on the horizon and convinced his wife to relocate to Australia, leaving behind a comfortable life in downtown Belgrade and lots of extended family and friends. This was the beginning of endless journeys between two distant parts of the world, with the news of Balkan conflicts constantly playing in the background and fueling arguments between the author’s parents, whose hearts and minds never moved out of their troubled but beloved hometown. Their children, however, were left searching for a home between the schools of suburban Melbourne and gatherings of the Yugoslav diaspora, the most curious one of which promised the title of beauty queen and a free ticket to the old continent. Both funny and poignant, this is a story of growing up between different cultures under challenging historical and personal circumstances.

Mother Tongue, by Tania Romanov (Travelers’ Tales)
While born in Yugoslavia in the same year as Ugresic, Tania Romanov was forced to leave the country much sooner. Her father was a Russian, a son of czarist emigrants who found refuge in the Yugoslav Kingdom of the 1920s only to lose it during Tito-Stalin split in the late 1940s. But Tania’s mother Zora was no stranger to relocation. Her family had moved across the Balkans when she was an infant because of Mussolini’s annexation of their native Istria Peninsula on the Croatian Coast. With engaging descriptions of the geographical setting and seamless insertion of historical information, Romanov narrates this gripping story of displacement, of a family separated by ever-changing borders, of years spent in refugee camps. This is also a story of perseverance and attachment. The one thing Zora always held onto was her mother tongue, which she managed to pass onto her children despite being the only person who spoke it with them for decades, as they eventually settled in a predominantly Russian community in San Francisco. If language is the only homeland, then Tania Romanov has three, and this book is about the one she left early but never lost.

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