Arts and Culture

An Interview with Nathan Rabin

Nathan Rabin is a freelance pop culture writer, the original head writer at pop culture news site The A.V. Club, and the author of five books. His most recent, 7 Days in Ohio: Trump, the Gathering of the Juggalos and the Summer Everything Went Insane, details Rabin’s trip to the 2016 Republican National Convention, combined with his visit to the Gathering of the Juggalos, an annual music festival organized by horrorcore rap group Insane Clown Posse.

Rabin spoke with Utne Reader about his experiences, the connections he discovered between these two seemingly disparate groups, and the importance of empathy in writing about pop culture. 

Read Utne’s review of 7 Days in Ohio here.

Nathan Rabin

Abby Olcese: When you first started working on this project, what connections, if any, did you think you would find between Trump supporters and Juggalos and how did that stack up with what you did find?

Nathan Rabin: I had three sort of overarching conceits between these two groups of people. One was the idea of a family reunion, like (in the case of the Gathering) there’s this group of people who are sort of far-flung who have this intense passion, but who are in very different places when they come together once a year for this great bacchanal.

The other conceit I had was that (The Gathering and the Republican National Convention) were both these kinds of vulgar populist spectacles. Like, Donald Trump is very effective at playing to his base, and very effective at “talking to the common people.” He kind of has this very weird persona, though, and I’m fascinated by the way he communicates.

There are even commonalities like wrestling, which was a big link for me. Donald Trump kind of has the personality of a wrestler. He talks like a 1940s New York Tough Guy, which is crazy, because he’s like Little Lord Fauntleroy. Like, even his hair looks like fake gold.

The third part was that I had my own family reunion, those four days I spent with my brother, who I hadn’t seen in about 17 years.

I had a bunch of different ideas, and I was very happy with the way things turned out. I was sort of hoping that the RNC would, more than ever, look like some sort of dystopian version of Hollywood Squares, and be kind of weird and fringey, and I wanted Insane Clown Posse and the Gathering to be more political and more pointed, and “how can we make a serious and positive change in society.”

I sort of catapulted myself into this situation, I didn’t have a lot of preparation, or even a lot of access to the Republican National Convention, and mostly found myself wandering along the fringes. But, I definitely had some expectations, and it worked out beautifully. There were a lot of things going on, and I just wanted to be part of it all.

AO: You mentioned your brother. He plays an important role in the book. What is your relationship with him like now, since the book’s come out?

NR: That’s the strange thing about writing about real people, like I never go and say, “Hey Vinny I’m going to be writing about you, is that OK? What’s off limits?” And it was kind of unspoken, like there were moments when I definitely talked (to him) about writing about him, about him being someone who I wanted to make part of this story.

There were some parts that were off limits, and those parts were, mainly, other people in our family. He’s pretty open and honest about his own pain and his own struggles, but when it comes to other people that gets tricky.

So, I think he’s happy with it, he’s liked many of the pieces related to it, and shared it. It’s really weird because he’s hung out with me twice, and been illustrated twice, he’s on the cover of the book, and an illustration for an article that ran in MEL Magazine.

But, he wrote this Facebook post referencing it kind of obliquely, where he referenced me as The Robot and himself as The Demon. I think what he was referring to is that I dealt with the traumas and rejections and horrors of my childhood by going inward and becoming really analytical, and writing. Like, I love writing, not just the physical act of it, but also the fact that I’m always thinking about what I’m going to write...That’s how I have fun.

So, I think he was kind of perplexed, because we had this experience together, and I was kind of internalizing and intellectualizing and he was, you know, drinking, and having a more physical, visceral experience. I think I had as much fun, if not more fun, I just have a different way of doing things. For me, overthinking things is a form of pleasure, and writing things and working is a form of pleasure, and for him that seems weird, like, “Stop writing and start having fun.” But for me, if I wasn’t working, I wouldn’t be having fun.

AO: Something I thought was interesting about the book was the way that you showed the appeal of Donald Trump and the appeal of ICP as both coming from a place of brokenness and dissatisfaction with life. Can you talk a little about the differences in the way that Trump addresses that pain, versus the way ICP addresses it?

NR: People become Juggalos or Trump supporters because they’re disenfranchised, because the establishment and the things that are being offered by the mainstream are incredibly unsatisfying, and belong to this world of elites—people who have money, people with power.

With Trump it’s maddening to me because he’s such an insider, but paints himself as such an outsider. In The Art of the Deal he says he’s a maverick capitalist, that there are all these sad shells of men who are tied to their board of directors, their stock price, tied to going public, but (he’s) this Ayn Rand objectivist hero who can avoid everything. Yet, at the same time, a lot of his book is devoted to him seeking tax abatements and working with minor politicians to try and get better terms for his various deals. So it’s very much this paradoxical playing both sides.

And then with Insane Clown Posse, there’s a lot more of a legitimate appeal, where people genuinely hate Juggalos, and sort of the hatred of them is classist in nature, like these are the white people who it’s OK to say are terrible, and nobody’s going to get in trouble for making fun of Juggalos.

So, yeah, I think there’s definitely this populist “us vs them” dynamic at play (in both groups), but with the Juggalos there’s a lot more to it, and a sense of righteousness, and a factor of “we just want to be accepted, we just want a place at the table, we just want to not be considered gang members.” whereas the Trump supporters want to project that anger onto other people. ICP’s anger and rage is directed towards people at the apex of culture and society, at the Donald Trumps and billionaires of the world.

With Trump, the opposite is true. You’ve been fucked over, and the people who are fucking you over are Mexicans, your enemies are transgender people, your enemies are African-Americans in the inner cities. “You’ve been fucked over, poor white America, by non-white America. I, the hero of capitalism, will be your voice.” And that’s incredibly galling and hypocritical.

They’re both really populist appeals, but appeals that head in opposite directions, with opposite goals.

AO: Another thing I’ve found interesting in following your career as a whole is that you tend to be drawn toward these areas of popular and now political culture that have real negative or polarizing connotations. What attracts you to writing on these kinds of topics?

NR: There’s something inherently fascinating about extremes. I think also that a lot of my career has been colored by low self-esteem and insecurity, so I feel like if I go to places that nobody else will, and write about things that nobody else wants to, there will be value there.

And I also think a lot of my career has been dedicated to finding value in things that our culture considers value-less, and Insane Clown Posse, boy, there are few things that our culture considers to have less value than Insane Clown Posse.

And with Donald Trump it’s kind of the same thing as well. There was part of me that thought “What if I have a road to Damascus moment and I change? And I go there and think ‘there’s something here?’” And granted, I had a very strong hunch that this would not happen, that there were many reasons that Trump is someone I despise with every fiber of my being, but there was a one percent chance that I’d go there and think “Oh my god, he’s right! He’s right!”

So yeah, I think I am driven to writing about extremes, partly because it’s more interesting to write about, but also because I felt like an outsider. I felt like someone who didn’t belong and was on the fringes for a long time, so it made sense for me to seek out subject matter in popular culture that reflected that feeling of not belonging, of being forever on the outside looking in.

AO: Since you’ve spent so much time documenting unpopular areas of popular culture, are there other parts of popularly maligned culture or fandom that have caused you to think about those groups differently, or even the role of criticism in determining what society as a whole thinks of as good or bad?

NR: I think it’s made me more empathetic. I remember getting a review of my first book, The Big Rewind about three months after it came was incredibly negative, and basically took me to task for being too mean-spirited of a writer, the reviewer dubbed me “the snarkitect,” which I thought was hilariously ironic, that this person calls me snarky and glib, and then treats other people as targets for their cheap, facile cleverness. I thought “oh, this feels terrible, to get a review like this.” It was in the Washington Post, which really hurt, because it’s a paper of record.

I never want to hurt somebody. I never want it to be personal. There are some exceptions, like, I just reviewed the Tucker Maxx movie, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and he’s a terrible person. I have no compassion for him whatsoever.

The same thing with Trump. I have no compassion for him because I think he’s a sociopath. He does not think other people have value, he does not value other people’s lives or ideas, he’s horrifically sexist and racist. You don’t have to be tolerant towards hate. You don’t have to be tolerant towards discriminating against other people. In fact, those are things you should not be tolerant of. Those are things you should stand up and fight against.

So, there are people that it’s hard to empathize with, and people I’m incapable of (empathizing with). But what I tried to do with this book was to empathize with people who are attracted to this message. People who saw something in (Trump) that could fix their brokenness. I tried to be empathetic towards people who had lost a lot in their lives, and turned to Donald Trump as this larger-than-life figure who kind of came out of nowhere with this bold plan to change everything.

I have a complicated relationship with white America, particularly white male America. And so much of Donald Trump’s thing is that he’s the voice of the oppressed, of poor white, middle class Christian America...In many ways I fit the demographic of someone who would be his supporter. I grew up in a group home. My mother abandoned me. I recently got laid off from a job after working in my field for 18 years, then realized that I wouldn’t be able to get a staff position or a salaried position in my field. (My wife and I) pay out-of-pocket for our insurance for our baby.

So, I should have every reason to stand up and say “No...I’ve worked really hard, I’ve done everything that society told me I’m supposed to do, and yet I’m still struggling.” But, Mexican immigrants are not responsible for my problems. Muslims immigrating to America are not responsible for my problems. The world is shifting in ways that aren’t always in our favor, and that can be scary, but that doesn’t entitle you to go looking for scapegoats.

It’s complicated, and I think that’s one of the things that gets people fascinated and horrified about Insane Clown Posse… because they’re white, and the overwhelming majority of their fans are white, although they have a lot of black Juggalos and latino Juggalos and lesbian Juggalos. I think people are confused by that, and it’s easier to be critical of them as hip hop artists because they’re white.

They’re kind of a release valve for our country’s hostility and anger towards poor people. When the FBI put Juggalos on their list, they were criminalizing poverty, and having eccentric taste in music, or eccentric taste in clothing and hairstyles. In the keynote speech that Violent J (of Insane Clown Posse) gave, he said something that I thought was really interesting. He said, basically, that our fans are being profiled by the FBI, and being targeted, and we’re alone in speaking out against this.

Other bands aren’t standing up for (them). You don’t see Eddie Vedder standing up and saying it’s wrong and un-american for the FBI to be targeting people based on their hairstyle and their tattoos and the music that they listen to...Even people like Jack White, who’s worked with them in the past, and understands their appeal. They’re going it alone, because despite the advances that they’ve made, it’s still an invitation to mockery to say that you stand behind Insane Clown Posse, and that you feel there’s something important that they have to say.

AO: How much truth do you think there is in the larger cultural representation we’ve seen of these groups?

NR: The fact that the representation of Insane Clown Posse in popular culture remains so overwhelmingly negative, that’s pretty damning. There was a moment, again, in the (Insane Clown Posse) keynote address, where they were talking about the FBI designation of the Juggalos as a gang. When that first happened, I thought this was great for ICP. This gives their brand more of an element of danger. They’re literally outlaws now, there’s a David and Goliath dynamic at play.

But, the more they talked about it, it was more like, no, this is something that they hate. This is something that they feel de-legitimizes everything that they’ve worked towards. (This year) was the 17th Gathering, and it’s amazing that it’s lasted 17 years. Like if it were a human being, it’d be able to get into R-rated movies by itself. But they’re being depicted over and over again as sub-humans, cretins, the worst kind of white people in the world.

I do a column (for Splitsider) called Pod-Canon where I write about the best podcasts, and I was listening to an episode of the Dana Gould Hour...and Dana Gould is a brilliant guy. The entire episode was about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and going to see it as a 53-year-old man in 2015, and what an intense emotional experience that is for a variety of reasons...It was really lovely and profound. And then, for absolutely no reason, it just went into five minutes of bashing Juggalos. Talking about it like they’re all on meth, and blah blah blah...and I was so disappointed. Because if anybody’s going to get it, it’ll be you people who are so empathetic and smart and incisive when you’re talking about films and music that you love.

(Being glib and sarcastic) is really easy to do. I’ve spent the last three or four or 5 years trying to get people to at least respect what Insane Clown Posse has accomplished on a cultural and business level, and it’s still an upward struggle. I once wrote an essay for the A.V. Club about why Phish was a necessary contribution to popular culture. Then, VICE did an article that said Phish sucks, and they’ve sucked for 30 years, and they’re sucky and their fans are sucky. (The VICE article) literally had 10,000 likes on Facebook. And I just think, this is garbage, this contributes absolutely nothing to the culture, and yet it’s so popular. People just want to have their opinions validated. They just want to hear that they are correct. That’s kind of depressing to know that kind of negativity will always be popular. And to go the opposite route, to say that this thing that everyone says is terrible has worth, that will be the harder road to hoe.

In terms of Trump, his supporters are being depicted as the worst people, as racist, as sexist, and I gotta say, if the shoe fits, wear it. If you support someone who is unqualified, is hugely xenophobic, who has a history of saying unconscionable things...There’s a limit to empathy, and I think I discovered that.

Nathan Rabin’s new book, 7 Days in Ohio: Trump, the Gathering of the Juggalos and the Summer Everything Went Insane, is available now from Amazon

Book Review: 7 Days in Ohio — Trump, The Gathering of the Juggalos and the Summer Everything Went Insane

Most people might not immediately think to equate Donald Trump’s supporters with the Juggalo Family, the devoted fan base of horrorcore rap duo Insane Clown Posse. But most people aren’t Nathan Rabin (read our interview with him here). This past summer, Rabin, a freelance writer and former A.V. Club head writer, spent a week split between the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, and the 17th annual Gathering of the Juggalos three hours away in Thornville.

7 Days in Ohio 

The result is the e-book 7 Days in Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of the Juggalos and the Summer Everything Went Insane, an odyssey that starts as a journey through three “family” reunions--Trump supporters, the Juggalos, and Rabin’s attempt to reconnect with his emotionally troubled half brother Vince at the Gathering. What it becomes is a meditation on tribalism and the importance of knowing your experience matters.

Rabin is far from an objective chronicler (he’s a professed ICP fan who can’t stand Trump). However, his understanding of the Juggalo Family, and being part of a fan community that doubles as a lifestyle choice, gives him a unique perspective on the people he encounters at the RNC.

Both the convention and the Gathering are circuses, to be sure (one political, the other literally involving performers in clown makeup). As Rabin demonstrates, both are also groups whose supporters share a sense of disenfranchisement, a feeling which has come to manifest itself in counterintuitive ways. The Republican Party, once the party of Morning in America, has morphed into inspiring volatile levels of hatred in its supporters. The Juggalos on the other hand, despite being categorized by the FBI as a “loosely-organized hybrid gang,” proclaim faith, humility and their members’ inherent value to society.

While 7 Days in Ohio includes plenty of details from the Gathering, Rabin moves fairly quickly through his time at the RNC. While his thoughts about the ways the two groups express the broken soul of the country are great, his encounters with attendees and supporters in Cleveland are less personal, and feature less interaction, than his encounters with fellow Juggalos at the gathering. It reads less like insightful ground-level perspective and more like a general overview.

7 Days in Ohio may not be a great work of scathing political journalism. It is, however, an emotionally insightful appeal to understand how profoundly broken people seek community. Any group repeatedly told that their needs or experiences don’t matter, Rabin reminds us, will make strides to ensure they are heard. The Juggalos’ antics, though questionable in taste, aren’t meant to cause harm or do permanent damage. The same, the writer argues, might not be said of Trump’s camp.

7 Days in Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of the Juggalos and the Summer Everything Went Insane is currently available through Amazon.

Film Review: Klown Forever

Drafthouse Films describes their newest release, Klown Forever “as though Lars von Trier were directing an especially mortifying episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.” While it may not be quite that bleak, the rest of that description is pretty much right on the money. The film—a continuation of Danish TV comedy series Klown and a 2010 spinoff film of the same name—is filled with bad judgment, appalling behavior and anxiety-inducing comedy that alternately makes you want to laugh hysterically, or cover your eyes. It’s a painful movie, at times shockingly inappropriate. It’s also very, very funny.

Klown Forever reunites viewers with writers and stars Casper Christensen and Frank Hvam, five years after their exploits in the first Klown film. Frank is married, with one young daughter and a newborn son. Casper, his best friend, is still a hard-partying king of impropriety (in one early scene he’s caught bedding the family nanny at a christening party). The growing rift between the two men threatens to destroy their friendship when Casper unexpectedly moves to L.A., and a lonely Frank visits, hoping to convince his friend to return to Denmark. Misadventures, dick jokes and celebrity cameos ensue.

Both Casper and Frank exhibit different, but equally ridiculous, forms of arrested development. With his inflated ego and utter lack of responsibility, Casper actively seeks experiences where he can narrowly escape trouble, dumping the consequences on others. The bespectacled, weak-willed Frank makes an excellent straight man, as a new father who knows he should change his behavior, but can’t quite do it. He still isn’t ready (and may never be ready) to give up his best friend’s influence on his life—even if that influence is about as wholesome as nuclear waste.

But even through the ill-advised hookups, immaturity and foul humor, there’s still a poignancy about Klown Forever and Casper and Frank’s connection that rings true. One of the film’s running bits is that the pair are co-authoring on a book on friendship, but neither man bothers to read the other’s contribution until they’re living on different continents. Klown Forever is about that feeling—the feeling of growing apart from a close friend, and finally realizing the importance of that relationship just as it’s about to dissolve.

Make no mistake, Casper and Frank are not good people, and their lack of tact or taste—as well as their inability to keep it in their pants—is where Klown Forever derives all of its humor. But, for all their nastiness, there’s a sort of sweetness to the men’s relationship that redeems them. After all they’ve been through, and after all they’ve done with and to each other, each man is the only possible best friend the other could ever have. In their own relationship crossroads, Casper and Frank take the path we always knew they would, and that’s a great thing—even if their sticking together poses a massive hazard to everyone else around them.

Book Review: Mr. Green Jeans

In today's fast-paced world, many people feel disconnectedMr. Green Jeans from those around us, as well as from the earth and Mother Nature. Many of us are learning to reconnect with the planet, teaching others as we go along our journeys after catching glimpses of a not-so-wonderful future on a possibly dying planet.

In his debut novel Mr Green Jeans, Chris McGee offers a different take on the fight to save the world, introducing Jack and Lake Creek in this cli-fi (climate fiction, a term coined in the last decade for fiction focused on climate change and the resulting natural disasters) eco-novel. In what may be termed a mid-life crisis, Jack – teacher by day, eco-warrior by night – begins his journey to save Mother Earth by toppling a few billboards along an interstate highway in Missouri, leaving the signature "Mr Green Jeans." After a close call, he tells his wife, Lake, about his nocturnal adventures, and learns she's eager to join the fray. After strategizing, the couple hops into a van (painted green, of course) and take their message on the road.

Instead of continuing the fight against eyesore billboards, they go a more positive route by hanging canvas banners from billboards, buildings and highway bridges – banners containing messages from Mother Earth urging all to take action against climate change and a variety of institutions and beliefs threatening the Earth's well-being.

While the couple believes they are on this journey alone, they are, in fact, supported by family, friends, fellow eco-stewards, and even a few members of the media. Their travels take them from their home in Missouri throughout the Midwest and Great Plains and finally into an embattled Southwest region near Phoenix.

Mr Green Jeans allows one to go along for the ride as Jack and Lake spread the word that the planet is in pain and, while we humans are undoubtedly the cause of that pain, we are also the only possible solution. The novel is well-written, keeping one's attention as Jack and Lake struggle to outrun their opposition, all the while attempting to remain anonymous as their message goes viral on social media platforms.

The ups and downs and close calls experienced by these dedicated and likeable eco-stewards bring the reader to the edge of the seat, as we feel Jack and Lake's sense of urgency and accomplishment, and the hope they are helping the planet and making a difference in the larger picture of today's standoffs between environmental activists and those urging growth at any cost. At the end of the novel, the Creeks see their lives change forever; that may also hold true for the reader.

As an aside, this is the first in a series of books planned by the author to feature Jack, Lake and friends. I, for one, look forward to reading the continuing journey of these eco-stewards.

Whether you are among those taking a more involved approach to helping the environment, or you are contemplating a plan of action, or you simply remember the activism of your youth, you will appreciate the message and the characters of Mr Green Jeans. And you'll have a fine time reading this thrilling and enthralling example of the cli-fi genre.

Coping with Climate Change

Josh Fox, who made Gasland, joins Pacific Island activists in handmade canoes surrounded by sharks below and police boats above in one scene of his new documentary, How To Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change. As they try to obstruct a ship carrying coal, a major source of greenhouse gases, Fox’s canoe capsizes. He tosses his camera to a comrade who catches it, saving the day’s video footage and typifying the film’s motif of hope, defiance, and humor amid gloom: The island is being submerged in water as the ocean rises because of climate change. But Fox joins the activists in singing and dancing as they celebrate delaying a coal delivery for one more day.

The film follows Fox to activist enclaves from the Amazon to the Arctic, places where environmental destruction is rampant and insidious. In China, metropolitan areas look perpetually foggy with smog, and industrial spills poison the Amazon River around which forests are denuded. Fox also tours global warming disasters close to home, as coastal cities become vulnerable. He points to a house where a woman drowned when the Atlantic Ocean overwhelmed her in her living room in Queens during Hurricane Sandy.  He interviews a man in whose house the only item left intact was his Santa Claus suit. 

However, Fox also interviews Aria Doe at the Action Center nearby, a grass roots organization to assist the low income community with food, education, and other support. She was there, she said, “Because I knew no one else was coming.” 

In a post-apocalyptic scene, Fox showed her alone in a large empty space at the Action Center, and then, in a similarly vacuous space, a man singing.

Activists singing and dancing recur in the film, signaling the value and vitality of community organizing despite grim forecasts. Fox notes his own despair in response to predictions that 30-50 percent of species will be lost along with disappearing forests. “What will climate change not destroy?” Fox asks. “People who got back up from despair.”

Josh Fox

Those are the people whose efforts Fox documents in the film’s international tour of global warming damage, and those are the kinds of people for whom he will hold screenings across the U.S., he said at the East Coast premiere in Sugar Loaf in March. The auditorium was full of ardent anti-fracking activists, who allied themselves with Fox when he made Gasland.

Fox recalled Gasland’s beginnings near his Pennsylvania home at a meeting of seven activists in Damascus, trying to prevent gas drilling there. Barbara Arrindell, cofounder of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability was well informed, but he realized she needed help informing the public.

“So I did a YouTube video,” Fox said, “and now here I am, three movies later.”

As for being an organizer, Fox said, “I can’t organize a sock drawer. I don’t have one. You need to do what you love and do best that’s needed. When I started making films, fracking was at my door, and I didn’t know what to do.”

At the screening he announced an online kickstarter campaign that would fund showings of How To Let Go in dozens of places on the East Coast and then across the country, where groups of environmental activists invited him. He would be touring until the end of 2016, bringing along activists from the film, such as Aria Doe.

In Sugar Loaf and elsewhere, cards were passed out that audience members could fill out to request an evaluation of their homes.for renewable energy. He encouraged activists to set up home showings of How To Let Go.

Everywhere he went, he said, “I saw a huge build-out of pipelines and power plants. It’s an enormous crisis how much the U.S. has sold out to oil and gas. It’s an unintended consequence of Obama’s energy policies. But we have plans for renewable energy for every state in the nation.”

He noted the way persistence can pan out.

“I knew a guy who talked to everyone he knew about a film he wanted to make,” said Fox. The result was Red Violin, an ambitious, award-winning film.

He announced a dance marathon protest of the nearby CPV gas power plant construction in Wawayanda, and local activists took the stage with him. They decried losses, celebrated wins and pointed out opportunities. Some of those avenues, pursued, would be fruitful.

“Fifteen of us picketing the CPV power plant seemed uphill,” said actor James Cromwell, referring to regular Saturday morning protests there. “But now there’s a full audit spreading exponentially,”

“There’s a federal investigation of undue influence in power plant approvals.We need to make noise over the next two months,” said Pramilla Malick, Cromwell’s cohort activist and picketer at CPV.

Malick had publicized findings about problematic health effects for miles around gas infrastructure, including pipelines, power plants, and compressors, as well as drilling sites.

By May, the federal investigation would appear on the front page of the New York Times.

An Interview with Dubravka Ugrešić

Dubravka Ugrešić is the 2016 winner of “America’s Nobel,” the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Born and raised in the former Yugoslavia, Ms. Ugrešić was a prominent critic of the Yugoslav Wars and the nationalist, anti-Serbian political sentiments that were popular in her homeland of Croatia. Her politically-charged writings eventually led to her exile in the Netherlands in 1993, where she has continued to live and write to this day. Her fiction and essay works frequently focus on themes of war and refugee, analyzing both the trauma and freedom experienced by those displaced. Her representative text for the Neustadt Prize, ‘The Museum of Unconditional Surrender,’ is one such work that reflects upon the shattered life of an exile. She is based in Amsterdam.

This interview was conducted by World Literature Today.

Dubravka Ugrešić

Q: Thank you so much for speaking with us, and congratulations on your winning the 2016 Neustadt International prize for Literature. How did it feel when you got the news?

DU: Thank you. To be honest, the experience of being a finalist for a big literary prize is pretty complicated. Writers are not proud to admit their vulnerability in such situations, often ashamed of the childishness of hidden hopes. That’s why I disconnected myself from both phone and internet. I wanted to avoid the “bad news” when told that I did not win. As such, when I heard the jury’s decision, I got very happily confused.


Can you speak about your background, namely wartime in the former Yugoslavia? From your current perspective, how you do view the way that you were treated when you took a public antiwar stance and how does that experience apply to today’s world?

That time changed me a lot. It was a unique experience that shattered my old political and moral beliefs, views and references, and my current perspective those events remains the same as it was then.

Some of my former contemporaries remain dedicated fascists, and others are just a little bit fascist as it suits them. It turns out that nationalism benefits some people very well, which I think is an insight into some of the political rhetoric we’re seeing on the rise again now.

Given this, I would not alter a word in my book of essays “The Culture of Lies” – the book I published twenty years ago about the dismantling of Yugoslavia, nationalism, and the war. Today’s reality just proves that I was right back then. Very little has changed. 


What is the greatest challenge you have faced in writing narratives about that time?

My greatest challenge as a writer has been to find the proper words to reach not only those who share similar experiences, but to have those who do not also come to identify with my work.

My concerns are often “aesthetic” it seems: how to write about such dark times while avoiding the traps of journalistic pamphleteerism – of false moralism and false emotions – as well as simplifications. I want my readers to understand what I am talking about in a real way, with all the complexities of the issue good and bad.


The stories you tell about refugees is one that is currently timely. What reflections do you have about people being uprooted and living in exile?

The story of refugees is a basic story of the human condition. It’s the oldest tale of mankind that constantly repeats itself throughout history, the tale that has been told and retold zillions of times. In a world structured by Christianity, the very first story is that of Adam and Eve – man’s first exiles.

Mankind has always been on the move, traversing far and wide in a search of a more secure shelter, a better life. They say that being uprooted is an exceptional condition, but I dare to claim the opposite. From an historical point of view, being “rooted” is, in fact, the exceptional condition. The sad thing is that many Europeans today, stricken by the “refugee crises,” are not in a position to accept that fact. And so the stories repeat themselves again.


For readers who are exposed to your work for the first time, what do you hope they will take away from your work?

Remembrance. I hope to be remembered by readers because I wrote something powerful but also pleasurable, and it connected with the reader.

In fact, this is the secret ambition of every writer. The writers I remember are my “family.” They go where I go and are always with me. To be remembered, to be a part of a reader’s personal “spiritual” baggage, to be part of her/his literary family – this is the biggest achievement of a writer.


What books are you reading, or have you read recently, that are making a connection with you?

I’ve recently read Japanese writer Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, who I discovered though something I am working on myself at the moment. His works explore cultural identity and traditional vs. changing modern culture in Japan, and it is a thrilling literary discovery for me. I am enjoying his third book at the moment.


I imagine that exploring cultural identity is of strong interest to you, especially given what that means to an exile or refugee in a new land.

Oh yes, and the idea can be explored in many ways. For instance, I am looking forward to visiting Oklahoma (to serve as the guest of honor at the 2016 Neustadt Festival.)

“Oklahoma” stands in my imagination as a piece of “Americana,” this huge American cultural narrative constructed by media, literature, films, and TV. It will be interesting, as it always is, to compare reality with this pre-formed “cultural text.”


Speaking of the Neustadt Prize, you are the first European female to win the award. Does the fact that you are a woman winning the prize, as well as a non-native English speaker winning a U.S.-based prize, hold special significance?

I think that the Neustadt Prize has an incredible record: 23 recipients over 45 years covering pretty much the whole world. The nomination process is very good, where writers nominate fellow writers. It results in winners who are consistently among the most impactful and respected writers of their era.

This year has been particularly noteworthy because the majority of finalists were women writers from different parts of the world (Croatia/Netherlands, Canada, China, Mexico, Scotland/Sierra Leone, the UK, and USA). I’d like to note that there is a nice addendum to add to this: women writers on the jury nominated other women writers, which is not often the case. I am glad to see this and believe it is worth celebrating.


So do we. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

It was a pleasure.

This interview was conducted by World Literature Today, which is associated with the Neustadt Prize for Literature.

Video Premiere: Atoms and Void – “Waves of Blood”

Atoms and Void

Utne Reader is proud to premiere the music video for “Waves of Blood” from the adventure-prone Atoms and Void.

Inspired by the late 80’s and early 90’s Talk Talk albums Sprit of Eden and Laughing Stock, Arlie Carstens long dreamed of creating music “that has a distinct sound and vision but that is not the work of a specific group of musicians; something that’s not a ‘band’ necessarily.” To help actualize this dream, Carstens invited his friend Eric Fisher to join as his songwriting and production partner. Over the course of several years and locations, from Seattle to Santa Monica, from Mexico City to New York, the duo recorded songs onto any device they could get their hands on.

In keeping with the spirit of Carstens’ original vision, the pair enlisted the help of additional instrumentalists including Nate Mendel (Foo Fighters), Morgan Henderson (Fleet Foxes), Rosie Thomas (Sufjan Stevens), among others, to record their debut album And Nothing Else. Despite having their laptop stolen in Toronto and another’s hard drive crashing in Seattle, Atoms and Void pressed on to see their ambitious project through. And Nothing Else will be released on May 20th available in limited edition pink and marsh blue-green vinyl. Preorder the album here.

And now, enjoy the black-and-white, slowmo spilling of milk in the music video for “Waves of Blood.”

Every month, Utne Reader presents free, downloadable music gleaned from current and upcoming releases on independent music labels. Check out this month's Music Sampler.