Introducing Dubravka Ugrešić’s ‘American Fictionary’

For October’s Babbel Book Club pick, we have a series of essays about the United States, Yugoslavia and being caught between worlds.
American Fictionary

Welcome to October! As we head into the transitional period of fall, we stand with one foot in summer and the other in winter. It’s fitting then that for this month we choose a book about living somewhere in the in-between: American Fictionary. The book’s essays were written in the early ‘90s by a Croatian writer who was forced out of her home country because of war and violence. She ends up in New York, where she wrote about her experiences. Needless to say, the book is still strongly relevant 25 years on.

We’ll start with an overview of the book. But first, if you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join!

The Book

American Fictionary comprises a series of columns written between October 1991 and August 1992, with a few new additions added by the author this year for the second publishing. Most of the columns were written in New York, where the author moved for a time after leaving Yugoslavia. The book was written in Croatian and originally translated into English in the ‘90s with the title Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream. Now, it’s been re-released by Open Letter, and it feels like it could have been written this year.

The essays in this book were written as discrete columns, and so they cover a lot of ground. Each column focuses on one concept idea, which is why it was given the title of Fictionary. One of the first essays is “Refugee,” in which Ugrešić reflects on having lost her home country, and it is a heart-rending piece. Not to say every essay is an introspective or historical piece; the one titled “Bagel” is a hilarious commentary on various breakfast foods (spoiler: Ugrešić really hates muffins). As the title implies, many of the essays are commentaries on American culture, like networking and Coca-Cola. The driving force between the whole collection, however, is Ugrešić grappling with her identity now that her home country has been consumed by war.

The Author

Dubravka Ugrešić is a Croatian author who has published both fiction and nonfiction throughout her career. Her novels include The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg and Fox. She’s won a number of literary awards, including the 2016 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and she continues to publish essays in European and American publications.

Ugrešić was born in what was then Yugoslavia in 1949. She studied Russian language and comparative literature at the University of Zagreb in Yugoslavia, and then went on to become a writer and a scholar. War broke out in Yugoslavia in 1991, causing her to leave the country. Her strong anti-nationalist stance made her a media target at the outset of the war — she has been labeled a “witch” by some — which is why Ugrešić remains an exile from Croatia. Shortly after American Fictionary was completed, she moved to Amsterdam, where she still resides.

The Translators

Celia Hawkesworth is a translator and writer who has done work on a number of Croatian books before. Her involvement with the language and literature of Croatia started with a trip to Zagreb, Yugoslavia, in 1955. She’s written a book on the culture of Zagreb, and besides American Fictionary has also translated Ugrešić’s the Museum of Unconditional Surrender. She currently lives and works in London.

Ellen Elias–Bursać is an American translator who works on South Slavic literature. One of her most interesting credits was working on the English Translation Unit for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which were trials held in the Hague to prosecute the crimes of the Yugoslav Wars. She is also a contributing editor for the translation magazine Asymptote and vice president of the American Literary Translators Association.

The Language

Croatian is one of those languages that makes the difference between “language” and “dialect” a bit blurry. It’s considered one variety of Serbo-Croatian, which is the language of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina — all of which were part of Yugoslavia before the Yugoslav Wars. The languages of Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Bosnian are all different, standardized versions of Serbo-Croatian. There are also a number of dialects, one of the biggest being Shtokavian, which served as the basis for the development of Croatian. All of the languages are mutually intelligible, but Croatian has been treated as its own language since 1990.

As of today, there are about 6.6 million speakers of Croatian in the world, with 4.1 million of those speakers living in Croatia. It’s counted as an official language in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the European Union, and it’s a recognized minority language in Serbia. Despite not being a huge language, it is still vital in Croatia and the surrounding regions.

Discussion Questions

Here are some discussion questions to start thinking about as you read American Fictionary. We’ll be posting a few of these in the Facebook group, so members can chat about them further!

  1. To start with, how much do you know about Yugoslavia and Croatia? Did you know any details of the Yugoslav Wars before this book?
  2. Have you ever read any other books that followed the dictionary format of American Fictionary? Did you like the way it organized the ideas?
  3. In many of the essays — but especially “Homeland” — Ugrešić talks about the loss of her homeland and finding a new one. What do you consider your homeland? Were you born there, or did you have to find it?
  4. One of the biggest criticisms of the United States in the book is that everyone is almost compelled to feel happy all the time, even when they’re not actually happy. Do you think that’s disingenuous?
  5. When you were reading, did any of the essays feel out of touch with the present? Did any of them feel even more relevant to today?
  6. If you were writing an essay about a specific American item/phenomenon, what would you pick? What would you say about it?
  7. Did any of the essays stand out to you for personal reasons? If so, which ones?

Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the Croatian language. Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.

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