Perspectives | Feminism

Balkan Bombshells: Tick, tick, boom!

By - 20.02.2023

A collection of stories that caused a storm.

The day has come for the weighing-up.

there is no gauge meet, it burrows in the breast

without ceasing, without finding its level

not grief but an oath, and in the clouded eyes

unsummoned rises the tempest.

The Tobacco Gatherers, Kosta (Kočo) Racin

I don’t write confessions. And I don’t write poems. Although as an author of non-fiction and fiction I’ve chosen to speak almost exclusively in the first person, I’ve never published something or spoken out about something personal. To me, writing is first and foremost a political act. The maxim of my life and of my public presence is a quote from Helene Cixous: “How great a transgression it is for a woman to speak — even just open her mouth — in public.”

A tempest swept in at the beginning of the year. I could even say it broke out against my will. Two extraordinary writers I hold in great esteem — Selma Asotić and Rumena Bužarovska — criticized a collection of stories by authors from Serbia and Montenegro under the title “Balkan Bombshells,” by London-based publisher Istros Books. They called it a “sleazy joke dipped in sexism and Western stereotypes about the Balkans” and “a disturbing manifestation of the exploitation of women’s voices and the exoticization of war and suffering in the Balkans.” I thought it over, not for too long, and then I spoke up.

I’m not sure about other women, but I dislike storms. I’m afraid of thunder. But that’s just me. Politically, I believe I must shake off the discomfort and speak. As I write this, I feel as if I need a reason to speak out, but I don’t need one. It’s as if I needed a reason or justification to speak about a defeat I suffered recently, but I don’t. The defeat — the title and cover of the “Balkan Bombshells” book — is coming out this February.

The abyss and the opportunity 

When I was contacted through the publisher by Australian translator Will Firth, I obviously celebrated. To be an author writing in a language of a minor culture is beautiful, yet hard. We, the speakers of small languages, always rejoice when somebody speaks our language. Still, I don’t feel comfortable speaking with foreigners in Serbian. There’s this unpleasantness when they speak a mixture of Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Bosnian, convinced of their erudition, while I stand there, too polite to correct them and too overwhelmed with gratitude for them bothering to speak my language. It’s like accepting a gift I wasn’t seeking.

I felt as if I had to justify my desire for the most normal thing in the world, to be involved in the work on my own text.

Will Firth is a well-known translator of many literary works from Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian and Montenegrin (BCSM) into English. Among his translations are some famous writers. Of course, I was honored by his desire to work with women writers — to translate and edit a collection of stories by authors from Serbia and Montenegro. I mentioned that it would be good to involve authors from other countries that emerged from the disintegration of Yugoslavia or other authors from the field of our “common language.” I had the impression he thought the same, and the reasons why it wasn’t feasible (for now) were of an administrative nature.

Out of my works the translator chose my story “The Abyss,” a logical choice because it had received an award. Mr. Firth was surprised that I wanted to go through the translation when he was done with it. I felt as if I had to justify my desire for the most normal thing in the world, to be involved in the work on my own text.

The business model — the author is dead

The whole project, which months later will create conflict in the literary scene, suggests a simple business model. The translator finds women authors willing to give away their texts free of charge, applies for money to finance his work, finds a publisher who sees potential and everyone is happy. The authors get their English-language publication, the translator gets his money and credit for arranging the publication, and the publisher obtains the rights to a new edition without any effort or money required on their part.

This is normal in unequal power relations, and in effect normalizes the exploitation of the people without whom publishing wouldn’t be possible — the authors. That is, the women authors — because we all know women’s work is often invisible, unrecognized and unpaid.

Young authors wrongly believe that, if they give their work over to somebody, the recipient will be grateful and will fight for the author's interests. The opposite is true.

I can’t be certain whether the work is unpaid because it’s invisible and only partially recognized in literary circles, or perhaps it’s not recognized because it is unpaid, with money being the real value in capitalism. I would love to talk it all over with Silvia Federici. Young authors wrongly believe that, if they give their work over to somebody, the recipient will be grateful and will fight for the author’s interests. The opposite is true. When somebody gets content without payment, they treat the work carelessly.

A series of indecent offers

What followed was somewhat tiresome and predictable. Having agreed to participate in the collection despite knowing the aforementioned, I expected a series of other indecent offers. In the first email, we, the authors, were informed of the happy news: the London-based publishing house Istros Books “agreed” to publish the book. That’s when we first saw the working title “Balkan Bombshells.” I thought that the title was inappropriate, but I kept quiet. All other participants in the email correspondence remained hidden in BCC.

But soon after, when a rejection letter came from the ministry about project support, I suggested changing the title because then feminist organizations could support the collection. Will rejected the suggestion. He underlined and capitalized the word “PUBLISHER,” saying how she (not him personally, but the publisher Susan Curtis) “wasn’t open to a different title,” was putting “marketing over feminism,” and noted that she “wouldn’t budge a centimeter” on things. He added that “maybe the project was preordained to fail because of it.”

When the collection found financing from the English PEN Centre and from Arts Council England, as well as a spot at the spring 2023 London Book Fair, we received an email with a list of stories and authors, instead of a contract. We were sent a short statement about ceding our exclusive rights. Once again, I asked them to change the title, but none of my suggestions were taken into account, so I left.

What women want — ask us

I wrote a letter to the other authors with one intention — to inform them directly about my decision and open the space for conversation. There were more than a dozen contributors, so of course we weren’t all in agreement about everything. We talked about the treatment each of us received, about previous experiences collaborating with publishers and we exchanged phone numbers of lawyers. We mapped the needs of the authors from the region so that they would know their rights, so they could act in unison and communicate with each other.

This was especially painful, but to all of us living under capitalism the logic was clear: if you don't want to, there's someone who will — if it bothers you, you're free to go.

None of the women said they approved of the collection’s title, though there were some who kept quiet. For those who spoke up against the title, their attempts to change it were futile, though not all of them rejected the idea with the same fervor. And that’s normal. We aren’t the same, our beliefs differ. Before all of this Marija Pavlović and Jasna Dimitrijević abandoned the project. Following our discussion, Ivana Bulatović, Ana Vučković Denčić, Milica Vučković, Ana Marija Grbić and Dragana Mokan also left.

We were gathered there under unclear criteria, but the absence of a central concept to the collection allowed people who left to be replaced by another. This was especially painful, but to all of us living under capitalism the logic was clear: if you don’t want to, there’s someone who will — if it bothers you, you’re free to go.

When the cover of the soon-to-be-released book was revealed, I saw that it was more horrifying than the title. It featured a bomb modified in a way to resemble a woman’s body. A bomb with the curves of a woman. The accompanying text read that what the anthology’s authors have in common, apart from being “females” (not “women”), is that they can’t make a living from their writing, and perhaps they will never be able to. This from the pen of someone who withheld fees or royalties — it was the ultimate cynicism. I thought how terrible it was, but it was no longer my concern. The readers will decide, or they won’t. I didn’t think about it again.

Those who leave and those who stay

More than 10 years ago, I left another, more significant project, Četiri lica Omarske (The Four Faces of Omarska). It was an artwork and initiative that created a counter-monument to the Prijedor genocide. At some point, it seemed to me that the work of the Monument Group and the FFO Group was futile, that we couldn’t make things better, and that the value we were creating in our work wasn’t contributing to the well-being of the people we were working with.

At a similar crossroads Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin fell out after many years of working on the revolutionary film “Ici et Ailleurs.” All the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters with and for whom they recorded footage were killed off by Hussein’s troops. That’s when the seminal work, titled “The Therrorized — Godardian Pedagogy,” was written by Serge Daney. I mention him to shed light on the rationale — when there is some — for those staying (Godard) versus those leaving (Gorin).

Speaking about the film, Daney emphasizes the media’s obscenity — the crime of taking from living people and the magic of exhibiting work elsewhere for the pleasure of the viewer. The only beneficiary of this transfer is the author of the work (the film), who is a criminal and a magician at the same time. 

Daney says that symbolic debt can’t be repaid. Godard says that films can be divided into pornographic bourgeois films, or militant revolutionary ones. There is no third type. The decision about for what reasons the author takes lies exclusively on the author. More precisely, Daney — and Godard himself — view the whole of Godard’s creative work as “a painful meditation” on the topic of restitution or the process of reparations. When, who, to whom and why.

Bomb pickers and other attempts

Because I’ve been involved with films, and especially with the ethics and politics of film, I know that only a handful of people have watched Godard’s revolutionary undertakings. It doesn’t matter. Many more people watched “The Time of the Gypsies” or “Underground” by Emir Kusturica, “No Man’s Land” or “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker” by Danis Tanović, “Before the Rain” by Milcho Manchevski, “Serbian Epics” by Paweł Pawlikowski, “Grbavica” or “Aida” by Jasmila Žbanić, “Hive” by Blerta Basholli, or they’ve came across artworks by Milica Tomić, Flaka Haliti, Šejla Kamerić, Marina Abramović. 

These artists have all approached the Balkans differently, with less or more exploitation, with better or worse receptions, and winning more or fewer awards. 

But if the focus of a story is the reparations that Godard dreamed about, then the best representative is the little Balkan man from the film “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker” who won the big Silver Bear prize at Berlinale in the heart of Europe. Yet, Nazif Mujić of Svatovac, located near the Bosnian city Lukavac, who plays himself in the film ended up selling his Berlinale statue for 4,000 euro due to a difficult financial situation. A few years later, when he passed away, his relatives and friends collected money to pay for the funeral. There was no happy ending.

Regardless of the fact that I’ve been working my whole life, at the moment I’m writing this, I’m unemployed and don’t have health insurance. All our lives more closely resemble the lives of tobacco gatherers from Kočo Racin’s poem than the lives of Australian translators who, Prometheus-like, take our free texts to a British (and global) audience.

Can’t we, or shouldn’t we, demand ethical behavior from those who benefit from our work?

Even if the state of affairs was less colonial, and even if Will Firth was a Balkans-based book editor, and even if we were the first ones on a quest for world fame, and even if I believed I would never see the lights of London’s Book Fair in any other way, I would have still rejected that cover and that title.

But why is the decision to refuse it mine? Can’t we, or shouldn’t we, demand ethical behavior from those who benefit from our work? Why are they exempt from being obliged to treat others ethically, while we, the authors, are faced with a fait accompli, left to our own devices to figure out how to move forward?

I’m screaming, I won’t stop

In the storm that broke out at the start of the year — when a huge number of women authors from the entire Balkans slammed the collection of stories — we, the rebels, garnered support from women authors, critics, media outlets and organizations. The publishing house made several additional wrong moves. Most importantly, they accused us of not standing in solidarity with women authors — in fact, we were criticizing the blatant sexism, orientalism directed at these exploited women authors. This of course created divisions and strengthened our animosity, as represented in the words of the poet Ruth Stefanović:

Women authors, stripped bare, are screaming from their Facebook profiles: WE WILL NOT BE OBJECTIVIZED!

Try to zip yourself up, and maybe it will work out for you.

She wrote, I repeat:

(the words echo like a chorus in my head)
Try to zip yourself up, and maybe it will work out for you.

Try to zip yourself up, and maybe it will work out for you.
Try to zip yourself up.

And what if I don’t want to? I don’t want to zip myself up and keep quiet. Stripped bare, I continue screaming: WE WILL NOT BE OBJECTIVIZED — while, as every woman author of the periphery, every woman working in the world, I sell my body and soul for different prices in the pornographic world of bourgeois art. Until, as Godard suggests, we become militant artists.

At one point, Jessica Stoyadinovic, better known by her stage name Stoya, deeply aware of the exploitative nature of art and of “adult movies” in particular, said that the only thing we can and should strive for — in such power relations — is mutual exploitation.

But who can measure the degree of exploitation? “On cold scales with bronze they weigh it, but can they gauge its weight.”

Feature image: Kosovo 2.0.

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