Ellen Elias-Bursac on Nobody's Home

The always amazing CALQUE is starting to post a series of translator’s introductions on their website, with one of the first being a piece by Ellen Elias-Bursac on Dubravka Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home.

In her work published before the outbreak of war in 1991, three collections of short stories and a novel, Dubravka Ugrešić’s poetic was one of a cosmopolitan post-modernism. The virulence of the nationalist rhetoric was antithetical to everything that mattered to her, nor was she of any use as a voice to the rising regime. The essays that she wrote at the start of the war, sharply critical of the harnessing of literature and culture to the nationalist cause, quickly made her a scapegoat in public life. Her telephone number was even published four times in the press as active encouragement for people to hound her, which they did. [. . .]

The essays in Nobody’s Home are wry, and peppered with little stories. In fact the stories and anecdotes she uses to make her point take her essays to the brink of fiction. For instance in a short piece, “Identity”, the narrator claims a powerful allergic reaction to the word “identity”, probably due to over-exposure. Her community as it embarks on war calls on her to commit to an identity. She refuses to change her self-definition from “Yugoslav” to “Croatian” or “Serbian” or anything else. Ironically, to flee these demands she needs a passport, yet another label. And she cannot get away by simply being a writer; she is quickly labeled by the rest of the world a Croatian writer. In quick succession she juxtaposes four identity-related stories: a hairdresser whose identity it is to cut hair in the nude, Madonna with her mantra Express yourself!, a Japanese bestseller with the sentence: Come let me introduce you to my mother who used to be my father!, and Linda Evangelista whose sentiment: I have no Identity! was referring, it turns out, to a perfume. She concludes that people hold on fiercely to their identity precisely because they know that it can easily be changed, and she calls for a shift to the notion of: integrity. While identities, as she explains, are interchangeable like passports, integrities are not. [. . .]

Nobody’s Home takes the reader on a transnational tour of the world, showing us the mingling of people and places. In a New York nail salon the essayist watches the Vietnamese proprietor instruct his fledgling Mexican beautician how to do nails. She watches Europe flit by through the windows of a train like a slide show of attitudes, prejudices, and nostalgia. When she sets the beeper off as she is leaving a store where she’s been shopping in Stockholm, the kindly saleswoman suggests it might be her cellphone or an iPod. When it is neither, she tells the protagonist: “Relax, all the foreigners are beeping.”

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