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.
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.
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.
In 1972, documentarian Les Blank (Burden of Dreams) was hired by rock musician Leon Russell and producer Denny Cordell to film Russell and his band on tour, and in his recording studio in Northeast Oklahoma. Over the course of the next two years, Blank recorded Russell, his entourage and surroundings, resulting in A Poem is a Naked Person, which Blank considered to be one of his best films.
Russell, however, wasn’t happy with the finished product. That, coupled with a falling out between Russell and Cordell, kept Blank’s film from being shown, with the exception of non-commercial screenings, at which the director was required to be present. Between 1974 and Blank’s death in 2013, underground screenings hosted by the director were the only way to see the film, an impediment that only added to its cult reputation. Thanks to Blank’s son, Harrod, and the Criterion Collection, A Poem is a Naked Person has finally received a wide release on DVD and Blu-ray.
A Poem is a Naked Person truly lives up to its poetic name. It’s a free-flowing film that cuts between concert recordings, interviews with Russell, his bandmates and friends, and slices of life from Russell’s neighbors in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma. Watching it feels a bit like discovering a pressurized vault, filled with perfectly-preserved historical artifacts. While Blank certainly captured a particular moment in Russell’s career, he was clearly more interested in capturing the spirit of a time and a place. The director manages to do so perfectly — shifting from ecstatic concertgoers on the road to pretentious hippie artists to the catfish noodlers in Russell’s backyard.
But these shifts aren’t arbitrary. Each one draws a parallel between subcultures. In one section, Blank shows a service at an African-American church, where congregation members dance and jump and hug each other much like the fans in Russell’s audience. Another scene documents a bad acid trip, followed a few minutes later by a middle-aged skydiving instructor nonchalantly chomping a beer glass — each sequence positing that perhaps these groups might not be that different from each other, despite what they might think.
A fascinating mix of 70s style, drug-culture weirdness and old-fashioned country charm, A Poem is a Naked Person wasn’t the concert film that Leon Russell wanted. Fortunately for us, it’s something much better: a sort of video photo album, a wild and fun exploration of the contradictions and overlaps of influence contained in Russell’s music, and the musical culture he was part of. Criterion’s edition of the film is filled with updated interviews and Q&A sessions with Blank, Russell and other players in the film, which provide valuable context on the documentary’s creation, and subsequent legal woes.
Cultural historian Peter Guralnick’s latest music biography, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll (How One Man Discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and How His Tiny Label, Sun Records of Memphis, Revolutionized the World!) has a cumbersome and author-admitted hyperbolic title, but it tells a riveting story. Phillips is remembered today as the man who launched the legendary Sun Records and careers of the aforementioned artists and many others not named in the title. But Guralnick has gone beyond simply recounting names and hits to tell the life story of the musical icon.
Born in Florence, Alabama, Phillips saw firsthand the racial injustices of the Depression-era South. The black kids he played with and worked with in the fields were not afforded the same opportunities he and his white friends and family were. Yet from a very young age, Phillips recognized the power, the true majesty of the songs his community mates sang in the fields and in their churches.
Guralnick tells the full story of Phillips’ childhood, including his numerous health problems, dedication to his deaf and mute aunt, and early jobs including working at a funeral home, blessed with the gift of convincing grieving family members to trust him with the care of their recently deceased loved ones.
But it is when Phillips moved to his adopted hometown of Memphis that the story picks up steam for those craving details on the formative years of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. As a young man he began a career in radio and married his sweetheart Becky, also an up-and-comer in the radio business. Guralnick shares stories of Phillips’ struggles financially and with mental health before he decided to take a risk and open the famed Memphis Recording Service.
In the musical mecca of Memphis, he continued to hear music that moved him. Blues artists including B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf—the musician Phillips always claimed moved him more than any other—were among the first to record in the new studio. When Elvis Presley first showed up at Sun in 1954 to make a record, Phillips knew he had something special on his hands.
Guralnick points out how Phillips was originally dedicated to recording black musicians and had some fleeting success with Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s Delta Cats. But when one “hillbilly” after another showed up at Sun, he had many more hits and experienced much more financial success. That didn’t sit well with everyone, as Guralnick illustrates, including the artists and people who criticized him for having the gall to associate with black musicians.
The book’s most moving chapters are those that tell the stories of Sun’s heyday. Phillips saw the writing on the wall and realized the days for independent labels were numbered and sold the label as a young man. But Guralnick tells Phillips’ story to the end, including his years continuing to launch and expand radio stations and involvement in later years in telling his own story, through documentaries and plans for an autobiography that never materialized. Guralnick states in the intro that he was friends with Phillips for 25 years. The book’s few weak points include somewhat clunky transitions from first to third person narration when Guralnick decides to share his own perspective. And later chapters about his friendship and dealings with Phillips sap some momentum from the narrative. But to his credit, the author doesn’t let his friendship turn the work into a hagiography, and includes Phillips’ faults, infidelities, and rocky personal and business relationship with his older brother Jud.
Overall, Guralnick has masterfully captured and documented the life of a true American legend, a man whose passion for music and love of life has touched the lives of people the world over.
Cover courtesy Little, Brown and Co.
Utne Reader is proud to premiere the song "One Three Nine" by North Texas-based folk artist Jacob Metcalf, from his debut album Fjord.
Venturing out from the confines of his two longtime bands, Fox and the Bird and Dallas Family Band, Jacob Metcalf offers a collection of ornate, cinematic folk songs on his debut full-length solo album, Fjord. Fans of The Low Anthem, Andrew Bird, and Sufjan Stevens should find a lot to like in Metcalf’s reflective and textured songs.
Metcalf sums up his take on the song “One Three Nine”: “[It’s] my account of an isolated night and day in a foreign airport. It plays out kind of like a sitcom. There's a scene of slapstick at the top, centered around my western fascination with the east, but the personal comedy subtly shifts focus onto a broader tragedy that hints at our fundamental inability to connect with each other. The song ends with a crash after a jaded and self-protective refrain, ‘Sometimes we hit; sometimes we miss; it's all the same.’" Fjord will be out via self-release on limited vinyl and digital formats January 2016.
For more new music that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Music Sampler.
Utne Reader is proud to premiere the music video for “El Paso” from Brooklyn-based Mexican brass band Banda de Los Muertos.
Banda de Los Muertos began when Brooklyn residents Oscar Noriega and Jacob Garchik became fascinated by the intricate arrangements of brass band music from the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Noticing that there wasn’t a traditional Banda in Brooklyn, the two men enlisted their musician friends from the jazz world to help fill that void.
Their eponymous debut album, released last month via Barbès Records, is a tribute to the early years of the genre but also reinterprets that tradition. The songs on the album look back to some Mexican standards – such as Jose Alfredo Jimenez’ “Tu Recuerdo y Yo” or “Tragos Amargos,” made popular by Norteño star Ramon Ayala – as well as Banda classics such as “El Toro Viejo” or “El Sinaloense.”
“El Paso,” the song for which the new video below was made, is a cover of the Marty Robbins classic.
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.
Photo by Heather Byington
Utne Reader is proud to premiere the song "The Far End of the World" by Brian Carpenter and The Confessions from their new album, out October 2.
Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Brian Carpenter has collaborated with many well-known musicians and bands over the years, operating on the avant-garde fringe of jazz and Americana. His debut album with The Confessions is a further exploration into the darker side of Americana that would be a fitting soundtrack to an episode of True Detective or a David Lynch film. True to Carpenter's avant-garde nature, the album frames sung lyrics and beautiful melodies with layered ambiance that makes for an unpredictable, but fascinating listen.
Of the title track "The Far End of the World," Carpenter offers this explanation:
"I was coming out of a rough period of separation and DJing radio shows on Friday evenings at WZBC Boston College. I've found DJing at night on the radio to be a very lonely endeavor. You're the lighthouse keeper except you're not saving lives. You're the only one there and you’re broadcasting out, but is anybody listening? I'm usually playing songs that have some meaning to me or what I'm going through. But there is no good feedback to tell you if anyone is on the other end except for that rare phone call from the insane person. So I guess that’s where all the radio language comes from, i.e. 'If you’re still out there, I’ll play it for you.' It’s all part of that feeling of separation."
Here's the premiere of "The Far End of the World," from the album The Far End of the World, out October 2 on Accurate Records: