Dubravka Ugresić

The Female Voice of Europe

11 minutes to read
Odile Heynders


Invited by the Nexus institute Dubravka Ugresić, gave a master class at Tilburg University. Ugresić is one of the interesting European voices on nationalism and consumerism, critiquing sloppiness of thinking and the superficiality of the public debate. This is a voice that we should take seriously in the context of the Trumps, Farages and Le Pens performing the star role on the stages of politics and governance. Odile Heynders has examined Ugresić's work in her book project on writers as public intellectuals.


Dubravka Ugresić, an exilic intellectual

Dubravka Ugresić was born in the former Yugoslavia in 1949, earned her degrees in Comparative Literature and Russian Language and Literature, and worked at Zagreb University pursuing parallel careers as a writer and a literary scholar. In 1991, when the war broke out in Yugoslavia, she took a firm anti-nationalistic stand. She started to write critically about nationalism (both Croatian and Serbian), the stupidity and criminality of war, and soon became a target of nationalistically charged journalists, officials, politicians, fellow writers and anonymous citizens. She was exposed to harsh and persistent media harassment and chose to leave Croatia in 1993. 

Ugresić moved to Amsterdam and is still based there, though she accepted over the years several teaching jobs in the United States (Cambridge) and Europe (Berlin and Budapest).[1] After her leave to Amsterdam, Ugresić published several articles in European newspapers such as Die Zeit, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Die Weltwoche and the Dutch NRC Handelsblad, discussing and explaining the political movements in the former Yugoslavia, and severely criticising the politics of ethnic cleansing

In Intellectuals and the Public Good, Creativity and Civil Courage (2007) sociologist Barbara A. Misztal underscores that if democracy is to serve people by protecting them and developing a sustained commitment to transparency and justice, it requires the active public participation of intellectuals in expanding the democratic imagination and civic sensitivity of citizens. Misztal considers creativity and courage as the essential conditions for the public prominence of intellectuals. Civic creativity provides ideas on how to democratise and humanise late modern society. It has to be understood as the ability to think freshly, originally and innovatively. Courage is based on taking a moral stand and is linked to taking a risk in being non-confirmative. Ugresić certainly is a courageous and creative intellectual who has opposed the nationalist, silencing forces and who also after her migration to the north of Europe, has kept an interest in the democratisation of the Balkan region.

I myself am neither an émigré nor a refugee nor an asylum-seeker. I am a writer who at one point decided not to live in her own country anymore because her country was no longer hers. 

Ugresić can be characterised as European exilic intellectual and female intellectual. Both characterisations put an accent on a somewhat different role that the public intellectual can perform. Exilic intellectuals have been of all ages, but the 20th century in particular has seen many examples: Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno or Thomas Mann, on the move from Europe to the United States during the Nazi regime in Germany can be taken as representative. But we could focus as well on Armenian intellectuals, spreading over Europe and the Middle East after the genocidal attacks by the Turks, such as female author Zabel Yesayan who escaped to Bulgaria and later the Soviet Union, or we could point at intellectuals such as the novelist Milan Kundera who went from Prague to Paris because of the communist suppressive regime in his native country (when someone like the playwright Vaclav Havel stayed and openly criticised the governors, accepting the consequences of imprisonment).

Typical for the exilic intellectual, as Edward W. Said has argued, is that she finds herself in a median state, neither completely at one with the new setting nor fully disencumbered of the old, beset with half-involvements and half-detachments, nostalgic and sentimental on one level, an adept mimic or a secret outcast on another. Said evidently also described his own experience as a Palestinian-American intellectual in exile, when he added: ‘the intellectual as exile tends to be happy with the idea of unhappiness, so that dissatisfaction bordering on dyspepsia, a kind of curmudgeonly disagreeableness, can become not only a style of thought, but also a new, if temporary, habitation’ (Said, 1996,  p. 53).

Although Ugresić emphasises that exile for the writer is an exceptional life circumstance, and that neither émigré, asylum-seeker or refugee is the adequate characterisation for this state of being,[2] it could be argued that in the 21st century the exilic intellectual cannot really be distinguished from the migrant intellectual, the difference being that exile implies the state of being barred from one’s native country for political or punitive reasons, whereas the migrant moves from one place to another in order to find work or better and more humane living conditions. There is a permeable line between being explicitly banned by a dictatorial regime and being threatened and obstructed in one’s freedom by nationalist fellow citizens, or fleeing for economic reasons from a place in which one cannot establish a comfortable, healthy or happy life. Ugresić left Croatia because of nationalist restrictions and threats. 

The female intellectual is time and again neglected and even considered as none existent.

In an article in Globus, which appeared in 1992 under the headline ‘Croatia’s Feminists Rape Croatia’, she was considered to belong to a group of ‘Five witches’ who were presenting themselves as political dissidents and revealed the rapes of Bosnian women, while underlining press censorship in Croatia to international human rights monitors.[3] They were not explicitly banned, but put in a box of unwelcome people daring to critique in public their country and government. Either exile or migrant intellectual, the idea behind both concepts is that one’s intellectual authority is always connected to personal experiences in regard to what it means to live in a specific nation under intimidating circumstances. The exilic or migrant intellectual is striving to critique national and cultural codes and repertoires, and adapts to a transnationa­­­l discourse pretending that ultimately she does not fit in a specific nation anymore, that she indeed no longer has a ‘Yugoslav’ identity.

Dubravka Ugresić, The female intellectual 

The female intellectual is time and again neglected and even considered as none existent. Two explanations can be given for this disinterest. 

  1. First, the gender bias in society has overlooked the activities and output of female intellectuals, focussing on the dominance of the male public lecturers, commentators and writers. 
  2. Second, there seems to be a certain unwillingness of women to participate in the conversation about intellectuals, and to perform the role of the intellectual appearing in the media as a convinced, provocative and encouraging speaker. This, as is argued by some theorists, has mainly to do with an aversion to universality and to the role of the intellectual as educator or as someone fighting down opponents, while being hard, outspoken and radical (McKee, 2005, p. 36).  

Feminist activist values are often considered as anti-elitist, communicative, and compromising, while rational discussions are dismissed as sterile, dispassionate and disembodied (Showalter, 2000; Haydari, 2013). Ugresić can be considered a female intellectual in her foregrounding of personal voices while criticising political comfort positions, stereotypes and intellectual parochialism. She frequently uses the viewpoints of women to characterise the transformations in Europe.

The Ministry of Pain (2005) for example, is a novel about a professor of literature Tanja Lucic, who teaches at Amsterdam university after having left Croatia and struggles to feel at home in a new life and a new city. The novel is fictional but depicts situations and scenes that can be synchronised with Ugresić’s life. The narrator, preparing to tell a fictional story, in fact suggests that (parts of) reality will automatically break in. This strategy of underlining the fictional character of a realist novel could be considered a regular strategy of a novelist (in particular of writers of popular fiction), but in Ugresić’s case, the novel being published after she had written essays such as The Culture of Lies (1998) and Thank you for not reading (2001/2003), we have to be more attentive. This author has repeatedly claimed that reality is not real, is at the least chaos and homelessness, and involves a continuing process of (re)construction and fabulation. Reality is not the story of Yugoslavia, neither the current life in Amsterdam, but a complicated blurring of stories, voices, perspectives, and histories.

In the digital era, identity even is replaced by reference. Google me, baby, and I’ll Google you back’

Every personal narrative in the East-European reality and history is connected to the narrative of someone else, told from someone else’s perspective, and every once in a while left over narratives from others suddenly come to the surface. The protagonist in The Ministry of Pain, who has got a teaching job in Servo-Kroatisch (Serbo-Croation) at the university, discusses with her students their experiences as refugees, coming from Serbia and Croatia to avoid military service, to escape war zones, or just to enjoy the generosity of the Dutch authorities with welfare and accommodations for Yugoslav refugees. If one didn’t have a refugee visa, one could prolong one’s stay legally by enrolling in a university programme. All the students in their own language variants have stories to tell; accounts of Serbian grenades splitting a Sarajevo flat down the middle, reports of getting temporarily shelter in a tourist hotel on the Adriatic coast, in short: stories of inhabitants from a devastated country. The student voices address violence, loss, and (be)longing. They live in Holland now, but do not feel at home. Amsterdam indeed, can be considered a melancholy Disney land on a child’s scale, shop-windows in the red-light district displaying live dolls for grown-ups and kindergarten-like coffee shops. Amsterdam could never be home, and could be changed easily for any other city. Coming from a land that does not exist anymore, disturbs one’s self-image and the capacity of belonging.

The positive consequence is a rational trans-nationalism, the negative one is a perpetual feeling of homesickness. This is told in the novel, but the point of course is, that these ideas and opinions are representative for Ugresić as citizen and culture critic as well. In her essays and columns similar opinions are presented, representing the author as traveller, exilic writer, cosmopolitan, and as ‘permanent temporary’ inhabitant of Amsterdam. Every identity that has been accepted is transformed some time later, when circumstances appear to have slightly changed. As Ugresić writes in an essay from 1999: ‘I myself am neither an émigré nor a refugee nor an asylum-seeker. I am a writer who at one point decided not to live in her own country anymore because her country was no longer hers. (…) Exile is that dream of transformation’ (Ugresić, 2003, pp. 130-131).

A combination of voices

Ugresić’s public intellectual voice thus switches registers and often reveals personal feelings of nostalgia and of loss and homelessness. In other passages though, it sounds like a political voice, sharply criticising the nationalist context in which people were forced to take a new identity. Even celebrated Yugoslav writers were given new identities: Danilo Kis and Ivo Andric are indeed now considered as Serbian writers. In many passages the author’s voice is grumpily ironical, even cynical, because after the war and having travelled to new places, circumstances have not substantially improved, and identity still is not something that is fixed and durable. In the digital era, identity even is replaced by reference: ‘When I catapult myself into cyberspace, they [the references in a book about the war in the Balkans] will all be references on my web page too. (…) we are references. (…) Google me, baby, and I’ll Google you back’ (Ugresić 2003, p. 49).

Reading Ugresić’s work implies listening to a polyphony of voices within the writer’s voice.

This brings us to the voice of the  culture critic who is quite annoyed by Western consumer culture, and who has a strong opinion about literature in times of neo-liberalism and digitalisation. In Thank you for not reading, Essays on Literary Trivia (2001, English 2003) Ugresić emphasises her inner struggle between two creative impulses; she is ironical and ephemeral, but at the same time a moralist and seriously concerned with the perversion of the mass market. The essays are written ‘under the mask of an East European grumbler confused by the dynamics of the global bookmarket’ (2003, p. vii), and they are accurately criticizing Western market-oriented literary culture, that is, the world of agents, scouts, book-proposals and low-income writers. Significantly, in its market focus, and in being realistic, optimistic, joyful, sexy, didactic and intended for the broad reading masses, today’s literature, so Ugresić argues, is becoming more and more socialist realist. Most contemporary books, indeed, infect the reading public with the virus of the belief in a bright personal future, which is at the same time a bright collective future. So, the irony is that seventy years after the birth of socialist realism, East-European writers have lost out because they ‘lacked the self-confidence to stand up for their own art, and threw the old, hard-working socialist realist writers in the trash without learning form them the skills they need in the literary marketplace’ (Ibid., p. 27). The world is turned upside down.

It is the combination of voices that makes Ugresić’s public intellectual performance singular, marked by the amalgamation of irony and moralism, culture critique, an interest in new online phenomena (as illustrated in Karaoke culture, 2011), and the negotiation between the self as a historical identity and transforming identity positions. Literature is the place where all these different voices and identities can come together, but it is exactly the place of literature that is becoming more and more invisible and irrelevant, as Ugresić argues, since the market and consumerism have become dominant. The market indeed wants to sell books promoted by powerful arbiters such as Oprah Winfrey or Amazon.com, while the traditionalist defenders of literature are silenced. Today the literary writer is buried in the field of the trivial, Ugresić laments. Thus, the only privilege Ugresić wants to keep, the only identity she cares for, being a writer, seems to be not really relevant anymore. Just as the characterisation ‘intellectual’ does not any longer suit her, now that intellectuals are becoming influenced by the market as well, as ‘stars’ and ‘fast thinkers’ producing banality. Ugresić underscores the argument of intellectual decline, by stressing that ‘simplification has become a kind of unwritten rule of public discourse, the lingua franca of public opinion’ (2003, p. 165), and that intellectuals have become entertainers, now that the Homo sapiens has evolved into Homo scaenicus.

Reading Ugresić’s work implies listening to a polyphony of voices within the writer’s voice. With self-reflection, sarcasm, critique and humour Ugresić shows that her position as an author in a westernised consumerist society is the position of the stranger who does understand the codes and attitudes. This position is influenced by biographical experiences, having left a socialist country and entered neo-liberalist society in the early 1990s, but it also is a conscious construction of facts and circumstances, the fabrication of an acted self, and the conscious use of a disruptive style. We need her voice(s) in order to keep thinking.



[1].   See for more biographical information her website http://www.dubravkaugresic.com/, date      accessed 4 January 2015.

[2].   She writes: ‘I myself am neither an émigré nor a refugee nor an asylum-seeker. I am a writer     who at one point decided not to live in her own country anymore because her country was no    longer hers’ (Ugresić 2003, p. 130)

[3].   See http://www.meredithtax.org/gender-and-censorship/five-women-who-wont-be-silenced  and        http://womenineuropeanhistory.org/index.php?title=The_Five_Witches, date accessed 4 January 2015.



Haydari, Nazan (2013), ‘Building Solidarity through Relationships: The Politics of Feminism as an Intellectual Project in Turkey’, in Peter Thijssen, Walter Weyns, Christiane Timmerman and Sara Mels (eds), New Public Spheres, Recontextualizing the Intellectual (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate), pp. 145–63.

Heynders, Odile (2016), Writers as Public Intellectuals, Literature, Celebrity, Democracy (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan)

McKee, Alan (2005), The Public Sphere, An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Misztal, Barbara (2007), Intellectuals and the Public Good, Creativity and Civil Courage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Said, Edward W. (1996), Representations of the Intellectual, The 1993 Reith Lectures (New York: Vintage Books).

Showalter, E. (2000), ‘Laughing Medusa: Feminist Intellectuals at the Millennium’, Women: A Cultural Review, 11, 1–2, pp. 131–8.

Ugresić, Dubravka (1998), The Culture of Lies, Antipolitical Essays, Translated by Celia Hawkesworth (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press).

Ugresić, Dubravka (2001, English 2003), Thank You For Not Reading, Essays on Literary Trivia, Translated by Celia Hawkesworth with the assistance of Damion Searles (Dalkey Archive Press).

Ugresić, Dubravka (2005), The Ministry of Pain, a Novel, Translated by Michael Henry Heim (New York: HarperCollins Publishers).

Ugresić, Dubravka (2011), Karaoke Culture, Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Rochester: Open Letter).