Interview with Slavenka Drakulic
Natasha Sardžoska, (Macedonia, 1979) poet, journalist, interpreter, translator (FR, EN, IT, ES, PT, MK), is currently a PhD candidate, researching nomadic artists from the ex-Yugoslavian countries at the Karls Eberhard Universität Tübingen, Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle, Università degli Studi di Bergamo in the frame of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate Cultural Studies in Literary Interzones. She is living now in Stuttgart.
Slavenka Drakulic, writer and journalist, was born in Rijeka, Croatia (in Former Yugoslavia), in 1949; she has lived on the Croatian Cost, namely in Zadar and Split, then in Zagreb and currently lives between Zagreb, Vienna and in Sweden. ”The result of this change of cities is the feeling of being uprooted, but on the other hand I gained the ability to adjust to every new situation”, she says. Her books (How We Survived Communism; Balkan Express; Café Europa; They Would Never Hurt a Fly – War Criminals On Trial In The Hague; A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism; Holograms Of Fear; Marble Skin; The Taste Of A Man; S. – A Novel About the Balkans; Frida’s Bed) and essays have been translated and published in many languages. She also writes for the New York Times Magazine, Süddeutsche Zeitung and The Guardian.
During the interview, we have discussed the concepts of borders, mobility, memory, regional identities, liminal frontiers, nomadism and migration in the post-Yugoslav Balkan context.
Slavenka’s official website: http://slavenkadrakulic.com/
1. We were born in a country that no longer exists. How do you feel about and live this belonging to a space that is in continuous capture, a space that no longer exists on the map yet it exists in the cultures and the imaginary of people?
I do not feel so dramatic about that. My grandmother was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She lived in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and, then, in the new state of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia – and so, she lived in three different states. She was born in one and died in another. And these things happened to many people.
But, in my view, the problem people are facing is memory. I am speaking about the memory of the people of my age (I was born in 1949). What people remember does not necessarily correspond with history and how it is interpreted today. I see this as a problem. What we learned in schools, as history, was the official history. That is to say you were not supposed to speak about certain things or events, like the number of people killed in Jasenovac, the Croatian concentration camp where – we learned at that time – about 600.000 people perished, which was a number ten times bigger than it was in reality! To my sorrow, this double standard still continues. Now, again, you are not supposed to have memories because your personal memory is different from the official version of history. At least the people of my age have this sense of uneasiness because their past and memory seems somehow illegal now…. The young people born after the collapse of the Berlin Wall do not know much about their own history, which is one of the topics in Museum of communism, my latest book.
2. Are you nostalgic for a certain space?
It depends from your age. If you are young, you do not remember your life at home. If you are older, you are nostalgic not so much for the space, but for the language. I would explain the feeling like this: when you walk on high heel shoes and then you come home and put on your slippers, it feels so good! My mother language is like slippers.
3. What does it mean to you personally the concept of a border? How do you experience the border crossings? Have you ever witnessed and experienced a traumatic or a strange border crossing?
Every border crossing was and still is traumatic for me. If you travel from the socialist country to the West, you can feel that. Perhaps we were lucky in Yugoslavia, we did not need visas. But the suspicion remained. You were always a suspected criminal, e.g. a customs officer treated you as if you had hidden money, or you had smuggled something. Today, if I travel with my Croatian passport – I have also a Swedish citizenship – I would be able to bring in the country goods worth 150 euros. However, nowadays you can buy the same things in Zagreb. This is global capitalism: you have the same things everywhere. You don’t need to smuggle any longer. Yet the suspicion at the border crossing back home – going in or out of the country – is still there….This makes me feel bad, I really hate borders.
4. Borders are mere definitions nowadays in Europe. But in the Balkans they are for sure a very delicate concern. What was the border, according to you, between Europe and Yugoslavia and now between Europe and the newly created ex-Yugoslav states? What has changed?
As soon as you would cross the border between Europe and Yugoslavia – and at that time it was the border with Austria – you would notice disorder typical for Yugoslavia: in Yugoslavia, in toilets at the border crossing there was always lack of toilet paper, broken seats, no lock, no soap: a total disaster. Today, of course, toilets have changed. What else has changed? Airports, highways, border crossings or uniforms: they all look alike today on all sides. In terms of looks and smells you feel the same on both sides, but the real border is the change of a language.
4. Are borders permeable and liquid? If yes, then, when the border is liminal, what is then the impact on the identities and the cultures of people inhabiting the borders?
The identity of people living nearby borders is a very interesting topic. An anthropologist from the University of Lund in Sweden concluded that these people acquire different identities. They usually speak the other language because of their commercial, agricultural or personal deals across the border. They also acquire food and habits from the other side of the border.
In my book Café Europa I write about the peninsula in Croatia towards the border with Slovenia and Italy. It is Istria. The results of the 1991 census revealed very strong feelings of regionalism in that region. A citizen could not declare his regional belonging as nationality, for example, that you are an Istrian instead of Croatian. Yet many declared themselves as Istrians. They prefer regional identity over the national one. This was their form of rebellion against nationalist propaganda, but also an authentic expression of their multiplied identity. Their local dialects are a linguistic mixture of Slovenian, Croatian and Italian words.
Some authors like Edgar Morin think that people can identify themselves with no more than 100 km around them, that is to say with their region. The Alpe-Adria project, for instance, is uniting Slovenia, Croatia, Italy and Austria (although not politically) and working on different cultural and economic projects because they belong to the same region, culture, have the same food and could better understand each other. This identification of people with their region is very strong and it is interesting as a possible antidote to nationalism. We can learn a lot from the people with multiple identities, inhabiting the borders.
6. »L’espace du voyageur serait ainsi l’archétype du non-lieu« (Marc Augé). Given that we do not know which cultural imprint the nomad carries within, can we say that the nomad is a « non-lieu », a non-space in motion? And which space is the boundary of their life deprived of many cultures?
The concept of many identities and imprints is interesting; living in many cultures makes you rich as a person. But, nowadays, we witness the fear of globalization and one aspect of it is the re-appearance of nationalism. By that I mean the populist use of nationalism by right wing and even center parties. But, speaking of globalization, there is a kind of justified “nationalism“ of small cultures, small languages, because they are afraid their language could disappear. And it is a fact that many languages disappeared over time. The challenging question is how to preserve such languages and a culture without using nationalism as an argument? This is a big question for the European Union.
7. The world we are living in builds and destroys “mini Berlin walls” (Bauman) each and every day. What elements from the Balkan cultures do you associate to this? Do you think the Balkan states are facing nowadays new cultures-in-making?
What Europe suffers now is the fear of immigrants, of Muslims. And Balkan people live in fear from each other.
Attali, Jacques, L’homme nomade, Fayard, Paris, 2003.
Augé, Marc, Pour une anthropologie de la mobilité, Payot, 2009.
Augé, Marc, Les non-lieux. Seuil, 1992.
Bauman, Zygmunt, Il disagio della postmodernità, Mondadori, Milano, 2002.
 Interview was originally published on Ciberlegenda magazine web page: