“Humanity is Not an Abstract Concept.” Lana Bastašić on Palestine Solidarity, Dubravka Ugrešić, and More

John Freeman talks to Lana Bastašić, the Bosnian Serb author of Catch the Rabbit, about Palestine solidarity, missing Dubravka Ugrešić, and rejecting the “White Christian zookeepers.”


John Freeman: We first met in Sarajevo, when you were reading in Bosnian and all I could do was nod, but it sounded good. Our mutual friend Aleksandar Hemon then put us in touch and I read a story translated into English and my instinct was right. I loved your stories. It’s a pleasure to publish a second one in Freeman’s final issue. I’m curious if you’ve ever had that experience—of an affinity making itself known beyond language, and what affinities mean to you now?

Lana Bastašić: Somehow your question made me think of the opposite situation in Crnjanski’s masterpiece A Novel of London, where the exiled Repnin says his neighbors thought he and his wife were constantly arguing and they “only loved each other in Russian.” Of course literature is different from quotidian chit chat and fiction writers are arguably not the best performers of their own work. I suppose what one could hear when one cannot hear, but can only listen, is not only rhythm and intonation, but also an intention. A seeking.

I’ve recently heard a poet read in Arabic and this intention to reach out was there. The understanding that is asked for is not the enlightened Western one, but to be accepted also in the darkness, to leave room for the unknown. Later on I read his poems in English and felt like I’d already known them. Since I am a sound creature more than a visual one, a single line spoken with that kind of intention could draw me in faster than any juicy plot summary or loud blurbs.

JF: I recently listened to Mahmoud Darwish read his poem “I am from Here” in Arabic and realized how important sound is—especially when it comes to repetitions. Especially things which have to be restated, but shouldn’t have to be. I am from here! So often writers not from the West are asked—on panels, in work, or how they talk about it—to explain their humanity. You’ve written recently to say you’re going to refuse to enter into those conversations anymore, especially as someone often asked—by appearing on war or genocide panels, as someone who grew up in the Balkan wars—to reify the idea that your war means others won’t happen. Or your war means the present assembled have no guilt. I wonder if I may ask you what that refusal has made possible for you—in terms of time, new modes of public thinking, new kinships.

LB: I remember participating in one of these panels somewhere in Belgium. They got five Bosnians to talk about war and reconciliation. I realized that what we were offering was a cheap catharsis, a reassurance that bad things happen in a different, less civilized world and these sympathetic Belgians can leave the event feeling like good, civilized people. The panel was taking place in a country that as late as 1958 hosted the last human zoo: a live display of people from Congo in “native conditions” for the amusement of white Europeans.

It struck me that we were also, in a way, a Bosnian human zoo for them. In order to speak we first have to prove that we’re one of the good ones. The tame ones. Tame not only in nature, but also in language. They will purchase a ticket to hear about our barbarism. I no longer wish to accommodate such interests especially where the people paying me are unwilling to take the same hard look at themselves. I think it is crucial for writers who exist on the barely translated margins of English, German, French, to create new connections and roads without the White Christian zookeepers showing us to our assigned cubicles. It is possible.

JF: Two of the pieces you’ve given to Freeman’s are short stories—one written in Bosnian, the other in English. In the second, the story in this new issue of Freeman’s, a woman and her partner are getting divorced and the narrator wonders when it went wrong. She thinks back into the relationship and one of the blinking lights is this feeling—one of implied barbarity, that she is a savage—comes up for the character as part of her everyday life. Talking to a therapist, talking to a lawyer, talking to her soon to be ex-husband.

I think one reason the story is so powerful is it reveals how these frames you just mentioned do not only emerge on panels or in the news. They seep into everyday life. We’re in the middle of a period of radical change—this violence against Palestinians isn’t new, but the scale of it is historic, and as a result surely some of your friendships are changing. Is there anything you can say about this change, and how opinions are not simply opinions, but ways of framing you as a person, and what this means for you as a person who must live within a socialized literary environment?

LB: When I was a preteen, right after the war, I watched the movie Clueless with some friends. For some reason we were all really desperate to see this rich American girl kiss Paul Rudd. Then this scene came up where the two of them are watching the news. It was about the war in Bosnia. The joke was that Alicia Silverstone’s character didn’t know where Bosnia was. I could feel something inside me clench into a fist. We were the punchline. Then the scene ended and the American romcom moved on. I think that’s when I realized what we were to the world, just something that came up on their TV screens when/if they turn them on. They cared more about Paul kissing Alicia. Maybe that’s why it is impossible for me to see Palestine today as simply something that’s happening to someone far away.

It’s more than just an opinion on a conflict in the Middle East. It is the question of how we relate to the human condition. To what extent have our privileges uprooted our lives from the context that makes those privileges possible? I’ve had people tell me that as a writer I should only think about writing, but this to me is the ultimate triumph of neoliberal capitalism: a voluntary, almost self-congratulatory blindness to that which doesn’t concern my job. Literature to me is inseparable from humanity, but it seems like we need to be reminded that humanity is not an abstract concept. It means people.

JF: One of the best people I’ve ever met, but did not know well, was someone close to you—the writer Dubravka Ugrešić. I always found the way she lived within absurdity and refused to perform herself, her endless intelligence and moral clarity, these qualities felt to me nearly holy aspects of a life lived with deep purpose. She died last year and I wonder what she means to you now, if she ever told you anything worth repeating about life in exile, and which books of hers you send to people when they haven’t read her yet?

LB: There’s a fox that walks by my building in Berlin almost every night and I like to think it’s Dubravka come back say I told you so. Almost everything I’ve experienced in the last four months: feminists suddenly going quiet when it comes to Muslim women, writers not standing up for their censored colleagues, institutions that once praised my work disinviting me from their events, etc.—she told me it would happen. It happened to her as well and she chose a life of permanent outsiderness without ever feeling sorry for herself.

Her moral compass had an unbreakable needle. She taught me that uprootedness can be a home in itself and that I should be wary of belonging to any group completely. She was an accomplished woman with an opinion and this earned her the title of a difficult person. I always tell people to start with her essays, like The Culture of Lies for instance. She had this remarkable ability to present the reader with seemingly disparate details and then rearrange them in such a way that they’d reveal an interconnectedness. Almost like a master diagnostician noticing a pattern among minor symptoms. I miss her terribly.

JF: You’re currently living in Berlin; you previously have been stationed in Zagreb, Sarajevo, Barcelona, and have been published in many countries, including Italy. You talk about being a perpetual outsider, which I often think for a life of the mind is a good thing, a clarifying position, but a painful one personally. Where do you find—even living against the chant of times—something close to solace. A dog park? A park? A street at night?

LB: Dog parks, definitely. But I think mostly people. I think I’ve always (consciously or not) been looking for my people. I’m approaching forty and the older I get the more certain I am that the love story of my life will be my friendships. I’ve been lucky enough to find them in different places. The outsiders, the lovers, the poets. The aching idealists. Those who still haven’t given themselves over to cynicism and bitterness. Those who can still cry. Those who still care. (And yes, some of them are dogs.)


This dialogue was originally published in La Lettura by Il Corriere della Sera.
It is featured here courtesy of Il Corriere della Sera.

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