Interview with Jasmina Vrbavac, a literary critic and author of the programme “Babel”, has been conducted by Svetolik Jozić
For starters, Jasmina, tell me what is your process of awakening like and what associations come to your mind? And what woke you up, what is the first moment/encounter that made you engage into literature?
The initiation must have happened in the past life since everything I remember is my grandfather reading out loud to exhaustion. By the time I started going to school I had been constantly sick (nothing dangerous, it was just an endless string of tonsillitis, bronchitis, and all the childhood illnesses etc…) Some tattlers could say I had gotten sick on purpose so that I could stay in house and read all day. Since my grandpa (all the others would give up much earlier than grandpa who couldn’t say no to his granddaughter) would fall asleep while reading, I decided to take the matters into my own hands when I was 4 and I learned how to read using the magazine issues of Politikin Zabavnik. Fortunately, I already had an extensive inherited library with the fairy tales from the whole world including our fairy tales I loved the most, then there were Schwab’s Gods And Heroes of Ancient Greece, four Disney’s books, collections of all Serbian writers’ poems for children, Emil and the Detectives, Lassie, Heidi, Black Beauty… and the mandatory Karl May and Jules Verne, Sienkiewicz, Mark Twain, Hardy, Chaucer, Victorian novels… Even though I didn’t get sick as much as I used to, I made a best friend from the first day of school ,whose library was even bigger than mine, so we, having a passion for reading, shared and discovered many books. By the end of the 4th grade I somehow read (each book at least three times) the introductory literature so I moved on to my parent’s library for adults. I have read all kinds of books from that library and I didn’t fully understand them all in the beginning, but the true feelings of amazement were evoked by Dostoevsky and Kafka. My uncle’s brother, who is six years older than me, gave me two books with Borges’s stories in my 8th grade as a gift and that was a tipping point again. It continued with discovering realism, then The Magic Mountain, The Alexandria Quartet, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Nabokov, Edgar Allan Poe… Could one study anything except for literature?
Do you love going to flea market from time to time? Does that vivid image of the flea market remind you of today’s literature, there is so much, some of which belongs there and which doesn’t, but finding a real tomato is really hard. Some say that there hasn’t been a real tomato at the counters for ages now. Do you believe in the syntagm “a real tomato“, have you come across such tomato, whether in literature or at the flea market? Are there overlaps that „a real tomato“ is just a myth?
Thank god, I go to the flea market once in two or three days, since it is close by. I keep on searching for the real tomato tirelessly and I stumble across one every now and then. But, I am searching for real cucumbers, melons, real apples and eggs, home made cheese, clotted cream and pie filo, I’m also searching for a real red bell pepper, organic grapes and natural meat. Don’t we all search for something “real“ every day? “Real“ friends, job,vacation, furniture made of “real“ wood, clothes made of “real“ cotton and wool, finally “real“ emotions…It’s the search that lasts forever, that has meaning and delight. The moment we finally find one real book doesn’t mean it will make us full. There are many, many real books… The real book is a myth as much as we need that myth in order to persevere in the constant search for new real books. And so, as I’m writing this, I already lost every desire to put quotation marks on the “real“ adjective, because “real “is either – real, or it isn’t. There are no quotation marks when it comes to the real.
Since we have the world literary scene, as well as the Serbian one, and there’s constantly innovation in those domains, do we have Serbian literary criticism besides the world one and how much is Serbian literary criticism “lively“, and suppose we say“under the watchful eye of Serbian criticism”, how much is that eye watchful? Would you change anything there, counteract, awaken, deepen?
Serbian criticism is lively and healthy to the same extent as literary criticism exists anywhere. It is, however, less and less visible in the media that are available to the wide range of readers, but critics, not only do they exist, but it seems to me that there are more and more people interested in engaging into criticism. But, criticism can no longer be viewed as the one from the times of Skerlic, not even from the time of Vava Hristic or later Jeremic etc… Literature no longer has that social-economic function that it used to have. During his high point, Skerlic even said to a Isidora Sekulic that it is not appropriate to write the way she writes – sadness, melancholy, grayness… Back in the day, everything was subordinated to the “function” of literature, and so even critics were some kind of switchmen and spotlights. Didn’t readers once devoured Mihailovic’s words because he was writing about Goli Otok, and Kis, since he spoke about gulags? At the same time, it doesn’t mean that those weren’t amazing books, but to the media in which critics published them and to readers who read them, then read books by Cosic or Selenic, what was interesting was exactly what could have been provocative, disruptive, subversive and potentially censored in the social-political context. Critics shed light on the latter books along literary-theoretical context, and this exact thing was the one that brought fame to both sides. There is no such thing anymore, Andrew Baruch Wachtel wrote a book on the literature of Eastern Europe whose significance plummeted after the fall of the Berlin wall. With the literature role changing in society (which happened a long time ago in western countries of liberal capitalism), literature has received as much as it always had – that percentage of readers, aficionados and devotees, while the rest who saw something that has always existed in literature besides the literature itself – have fallen off. The same case is with criticism today. It exists and wholeheartedly writes for professional magazines, but unfortunately, much less for the limited space of daily and weekly newspapers, as well as radio and TV. Daily press redactions are currently weighed by chasing circulation in order to make a basic living. In that battle, it seems like it is believed literary criticism isn’t something for people to make a basic living from, and we have yet to assess how much is the interest in criticism real, but for now in the other media – the Internet may have not fully shown its potential, but it is truly enormous, since there are dozens of quality Internet magazines and blogs already (Libartes, among others) and it is obvious that there wouldn’t be such magazines without real interest. Therefore, work still lies ahead of the new, young critics, and it’s them who establish and conquer new areas from whom I personally expect so much.
Always current, always questioned, and always talked about is the NIN award. As a jury member, how difficult was it for you, and how easy was it for you to be where you are now? And would you share some interesting moment regarding the selection itself for our readers? There are less tattlers concerning Mesa’s award, I guess people wear out, or maybe they are less current (and I don’t think less significant, too). Which ones are actually awarded nowadays – is it writing experience? Is it literary watch on stage or is it the very quality and perhaps innovation?
As a jury member, I wanted to view NIN award ostentatiously but very responsibly, in the manner in which it is awarded – as the award for best novel of the year in which it was published. Therefore, I removed myself from all gossip as much as possible because it was very stressful and it was a great life lesson, how to stay far away from all effects in a situation where there wasn’t a specific pressure, but there were hundreds of them in public, on social networks, in the atmosphere of gossiping and assuming. They were, by default, based on personal impressions, experiences or assumptions without a real backing of novel reading. Only the jury reads all the books and only the jury has the greatest insights possible. Picking the best novel out of, I’d say, at least a dozen of solid novels, is not an easy task. First of all, because rare are the years when a masterpiece comes out. A book such as The Bridge on the Drina doesn’t pop up every year…And when there aren’t any masterpieces, every one of those dozen solid novels has a fair shot. Personal tastes and ratings come to play afterwards, so it’s normal there are disagreements in the jury, and later in the wide literary audience, too, minor or major, depending on the jury’s decisions, since everyone sees their candidate among those dozen novels as unsuitable. Therefore, I used to read two or three novels which I myself was hesitating between, the weekend before the decision, because once the decision day comes, it is about the small differences, chiseling and measuring in grams, so it’s good to have as many arguments for and against as possible, firstly to justify the selection in front of yourself, and argumentatively, in front of the jury colleagues, and after that, in front of all the ones who are interested in the arguments.
The Nobel literature prize award ceremony is coming up. A few years ago Bob Dylan was awarded the award, last year there wasn’t an award due to the scandal (but what literature would look like without a scandal). What is your view on this, did the literary criticism fall asleep or wake up (that is to say, fell from grace) in some new direction? Do you “root“ for anyone at the moment and why?
Lest we forget Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the award after Bob Dylan. Well deserved in all the ways. Perhaps the Nobel committee’s greatest “sin“ is occasional “cross over“ from literature itself and giving the award to writers who were, politically or socially influential, such as for example, the decisions when Svetlana Aleksijevic received the award or even (though a much more quality writer) Herta Miller. I believe László Krasznahorkai, David Grossman, Olga Tokarczuk, Don DeLillo (even though it is such a shame that David Foster Wallace is never going to receive it), Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Ian McEwan, even an enfant terrible, Michel Houellebecq, and personally I would like to see Serbian writers as well – Radoslav Petkovic. Basara or Albahari. I’m assured that the books by some Serbian authors can compete with the world’s greatest books.
How did you come up with the idea of Babel? Cultural contents intertwined with different voices, is that where the title came from?
Let’s go back to your first question. Borges meant a lot to me. The programme was named by his short story “The Library of Babel”. I believe everything that exists, everything that ever happened, says Borges, every moment, every breath, every wink, every dream – and finally everything that’s yet to happen in the Elliot time system which contains both the present and the future, in other words, the absolute, to the limits of absurd, has been written in the books which “Babel Library” contains. With this title, I wanted to underline how wonderful and how realistic is that there is absolutely everything in books. If we can read them.
And the last question for you: did literature, art, even an individual’s life, as well as the one of masses of individuals in a crack, lost its identity in that crack or is the identity just stuck on the other side of a cracked mirror?
Identity is always in a crack. Somewhere in between. Always building up, with changes. Identity is a never fully defined thing. People are in agony because they believe it is necessary for life to have a clearly bounded identity which will tell us exactly who we are and what we are. But, it’s a big trap. And prison at the same time. I don’t believe anyone could ever have a permanently bounded identity. By growing up, we change the identity of the child, teenager, student, adult… From a child we become parents, from young to old, from employee to retiree…It’s impossible to remain in the same identity. Life is a process, an evolution. It’s normal for us to evolve and change identities. The things would be extremely bad if we weren’t ever-changing, but people are afraid of changes, they feel safer in one fixed identity of nation, gender, religion. For example, some believe that the identity of “aged Belgrade people” may bring some absurd respect and value. But, just that little spreading of the perspective will reveal that “aged” refers to the last two generations and the origin is fickle just like everything else. Or, some are, however, convinced that the identity of a honest person is forever secured, and then a little lie, which undermines that identity, is revealed. Some believed that the identity of a Yugoslav will forever be pinned like a badge. And then Yugoslavia dissolved and many people were abandoned like fish out of water. The runaway identities of Anthony Giddens were in need of finding themselves. By writing about the books written in the end of 20th and in the beginning of the 21st century, I wanted to highlight that mankind is in search of identity more than ever. That stage with the beginnings of globalism has commenced. All identities are limited and slippery. People from our old country personally felt it in the worst possible way. Some people just start to realize that, while the third group are de facto creators of the idea that it is possible to have a global identity, as long as mankind, in some next stage, starts perhaps to think a man’s identity as a human being, despite all differences, is the only identity possible and that every other endeavor leads to crack. Once we realize we are all human, above all, and once identity is not a measurement for respecting the other, that’s when we will be able to feel safety and that we ourselves will be unique and respected regardless of the identity. Literature is keeping up with what is happening so it itself is in a imaginary crack which is actually more productive than ever. Free from literary genres, even the clamps of topics, publishers, editor, everything that the 20th century introduced as the only modus vivendi, literature is starting to breathe in new air and it is yet to expect shifts which can’t necessarily hurt it but they can generate something new, even though it will in fact be old: a great literature where we might hope for the least at this very moment.
Jasmina Vrbavac, born in Belgrade, where she graduated from the Faculty of Philology at the University in Belgrade, and finished her master’s degree at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts. Employed as an editor at the cultural editorial of RTS, where she has been designing, editing and leading the “Vavilon” monthly show on contemporary literature since December 2000. Aside from Vavilon, she has also edited hundreds of other shows on culture: Metropolis, Vidik, Tv feljton, Kulturni centar etc. She writes and publishes literary critiques in most of Serbian literary journals and the “Politika” daily press. She has published the following books: Sacrificing the King, the Myth in Ljubomir Simović’s Plays, and two books from selected literary critiques and essays – Three and a half and Identity in the Rift. Her short stories are also included in themed short story collections of Serbian authors: Mystical Woods (Serbian erotic short story), edited by Vasa Pavković and Dejan Ilić, Radio B92, Belgrade, 1996. And On the Track Serbian crime short story), edited by Vasa Pavković, Reč Library, Pančevo, 1998. Prizewinner of the Sterija Theatre Award for dramatics and the Milan Bogdanović Award for literary critique. She cooks, washes, cleans, skis, and rides the bicycle, loves and pets all animals in her apartment and outdoors, along with her husband and two children.
Interviewed by Svetolik Jozić, a man who seldom reads the newspaper. He was born once upon a time. He writes, thinks, exists, and works. His life’s dream is to give birth, to anything, to prosetertainment. He lives with his own parrot and he doesn’t have it easy
Translator, Ivana Tubić is 23 years old and was born in Belgrade. She is a English language graduate and she is currently studying for her master’s degree at the Faculty of Philology. In her spare time, she listens to pop music, works on drawings and engages in translation. A huge fan of Rihanna, and her life is colored in glitter and shades of coffee.
Translated edited by: Dejan Mujanović