I was going to write a completely different letter but then life happened. Or death. Same thing.
I was in a bookshop in Berlin eating a cinnamon roll (because you can do that in bookshops now) and reading bell hooks when I heard that Dubravka Ugrešić had died. I found out in the worst possible way – through social media – although I’m not sure if there is a right way to find out your friend has passed away. I move around too much to have somebody close to me show up, look at me gravely, hold my hand and say, “I’ve got some bad news.” There is nobody in this city I have known long enough to let them hold my hand. So I just sat there with my stupid cinnamon roll, holding in my hand a book about love, and feeling outright rage.
I remembered that my sister, who is a psychologist, had recently made me download an app which helps you find the right expression for each emotion while you’re feeling it. She had told me that I might find it helpful to pin down my feelings with precise words. And so I opened the app and scrolled around the “high-energy unpleasant” category. Words floated across my screen in red and orange bubbles. Shocked. Terrified. Overwhelmed. Anxious. Frightened. Furious. None of them worked. I needed a single word for: my favourite Yugoslav author is dead and she also happens to be my close friend and the only woman role model I ever had in this profession, and I am pissed at her because we were supposed to meet in two months. But language failed me. Again.
Then I looked at the bell hooks book I was still holding in my hand. The word love in lowercase. Dubravka wrote about love, about writing to be loved. When my stomach ached, she made me mint tea. When Europe ached, she wrote. And since she was so many things at once and, at the same time, none of them (Yugoslav, Croatian, Dutch, post-this and post-that, “witch”, woman, writer), I thought that she was the closest I have ever come to defining what European really meant.
Pure Croatian air
I have always had a difficult relationship with identity tags based on geography. My first passport was Yugoslav and my mother still keeps it in an old shoebox together with a typed list of post-Chernobyl instructions for parents. In Croatia we were Serbs and so we had to leave because of what Dubravka herself described in her essays as “pure Croatian air”. Right around the time that she was being excommunicated by her fellow University professors and journalists for speaking out against nationalism, we were settling in Bosnia for much the same reasons. I was “the Croat girl” in Banja Luka because of my Zagreb accent.
My father corrected my vocabulary at the table as if our holy Serbhood depended on me using the right word for the spoon. Years later, when I moved to Belgrade, I was suddenly “the Bosnian girl”, my old Zagreb accent long gone and replaced by clipped Krajina vowels, which my university professors and many colleagues looked down on. Wherever I went, I was someone else and the language I spoke betrayed my foreignness. Finally, when I moved to Barcelona in my mid-twenties, I simply went for "Yugoslav” when somebody asked me where I was from. It wasn’t out of nostalgia, I just didn’t feel like giving a 30-minute lecture on Balkan history to anyone. But I never once said “European”.
I was never a European, because it wasn’t Europe they wanted. They wanted “the Bosnian girl”
While in Spain I quickly came to a realisation that I was anything but European. My friends were full of fascinating Erasmus stories and changed the subject when I admitted that the programme never existed for Bosnian students. This Europeanness of theirs was full of loaded words which I couldn’t relate to, but instead found my own definitions while unpacking them. “Backpacking” meant having a functional passport. “Millennial” meant there was electricity in your household. “Interrail” meant Hogwarts express. At some point I turned down an invitation to a party titled “I miss the nineties!” and decided to blame a headache instead of lecturing a bunch of backpacking millennials on a bloodshed which happened in my country in that era.
The Bosnian girl in a Spanish bookstore
In my late twenties, Europe was just a series of could-have-beens which made me feel bitter and cynical. I could have had a better college degree. I could have seen the world. I could have grown up to miss the nineties. And even if I did care about it in a sort of unspoken sour-grapes kind of way, it seemed to me that this Europe – white, Christian, wealthy – didn’t care much for me. It knew nothing of my grandma who survived a lightning strike at four years of age, adored Maria Callas and Mexican telenovelas, and had to carry a written permission in order to go to the market because her name was Muslim. Some of the men who asked for her documents used to be her students at a local primary school.
This Europe was the one that would soon start paying me to talk about the war. It seemed to be all that it wanted to hear: gruesome stories. I was “the Bosnian girl” in a fancy theatre in Belgium talking about “the aftermath of war” to the people who needed 150 years to remove the statue of King Leopold II. I was “the Bosnian girl” in a Spanish bookstore talking about “the aftermath of war” to the people whose dictator had died peacefully in his bed after restoring the monarchy and still had beautiful flowers on his grave. I was “the Bosnian girl” sitting in a bohemian salon of a Tuscan baroness talking about “the aftermath of war” to the people who would soon let Giorgia Meloni take over their country. I was never a European, because it wasn’t Europe they wanted. They wanted “the Bosnian girl”.
Another thing that I soon realised was that Bosnian stories were best told in either German or English. Bosnian authors writing sad war stories were beloved as long as they wrote in a “big language”. Ideally, they grew up abroad. Ideally, they had no accent. I watched these authors win awards, get grants, and travel the world. And even though some of them are truly exceptional writers and in my opinion deserve all their fame and glory, my could-have-been Europes soon came back to haunt me. What if we had left Croatia for the UK? For Germany? For France? What if I had been a backpacking millennial writing sad war stories on an interrail between Berlin and Prague? Bitterness is a hard wall to tear down when it sprouts from a lack of privilege.
And yet Dubravka taught me that bitterness, while always present to some extent for us post-Yugoslavs in Europe, can win battles but never the war. Writing is communicating. Communication is Love, with a capital L. There is no place for bitterness there. No place for cynicism. She taught me that Europe can mean what I want it to mean, and through my own personal process of defining it, it can perhaps grow, and stretch out to receive its “others”. Language, in other words, can un-other you.
And yet Dubravka taught me that bitterness, while always present to some extent for us post-Yugoslavs in Europe, can win battles but never the war. Writing is communicating. Communication is Love, with a capital L
I have built my own sense of Europeanness very late. I have built it on a European idea of love as the ultimate weapon against cynicism, and of a radical embracing of difference, as Alain Badiou put it. It is a wish to communicate, to connect, even if you don’t have the privilege of getting an Interrail ticket in your twenties. Write, Dubravka told me. Instead of whining about your could-have-beens, sit down and write.
Against all the celebratory self-help market-driven obsession with me, myself and I – fuelled by powerful algorithms designed to guide us directly to tailor-made products – I believe there is still room left in Europe for getting outside of our bubble. There is still room for sitting on a pavement early in the evening and talking in bad German to the Turkish woman who is just closing her shop for the day and wants to get home to watch a reality show. And I think her name sounds like my grandma’s. And I also think that Dubravka would love her.