One of the great joys of ageing is the way your mind becomes like a massive filing cabinet, much of the time simply a jumble of drawers and labels and yellowing manilla folders. But then, a miracle happens and you make a connection between an idea you are having and a perfectly apposite reference somewhere back in the mists of time, but handily at your fingertips.
I have recently finished an essay for a collection that will be published in 2020. The perfect image came to me from a book I read for an interview with the writer Dubravka Ugresic who was a guest of the Sydney Writers Festival in 2010 where I interviewed her about her book Baba Yaga Laid an Egg.
So thank you Dubravka Ugresic and thank you Baba Yaga! And here’s the interview if you’d like to familiarise yourself with two very interesting women:
Dubravka Ugresic was born in Yugoslavia, a country that now doesn’t exist. And after the break-up of her birth country and the Bosnian war in which she was called a traitor and a witch by a nationalist sector angry at her anti-war stance and her criticism of both Croatian and Serbian nationalism, she left in 1993 and made her home in Amsterdam.
Twice exiled, you might say. Dubravka is a writer of fiction and short stories and essays and literary criticism and journalism and blogs. She’s written screenplays for children’s television and was a prize-winning children’s author. As a literary scholar and a graduate of Zagreb University, her interests were in Russian avant-garde culture and literature, and she translated fiction into Croatian from Russian and edited anthologies.
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, is one of the series of books published by Canongate retelling the myths of the world. Baba Yaga is one of the most terrifying myths of female power. She’s a hag, a witch, and she lives in a shack built on chicken legs.
In Dubravka Ugresic’s book, there’s a memoir-like first part following a writer like Dubravka, her difficult relationship with her mother, her journey to Bulgaria in 2007.
The second part is set in a spa, a wellness centre, where three old women go to recover their youth and die. In the third part, written like an essay, all the Baba Yaga myths are told and explained, and then Dubravka even does a literary scholar’s critique of the first two parts of the book. So really it’s a book with everything in it.
Baba Yaga is not very well known in non-European parts of the world. I asked Dubravka Ugresic to tell me about her.
Dubravka Ugresic: First of all I don’t believe that you don’t have in mythology that myth about old hag because all the countries, all the cultures simply have it. Maybe we should ask a specialist in Aboriginal mythology whether they have something like an old hag, but I’m sure they do. So Baba Yaga is just a Slavic name for an old hag, old Greeks know it, all mythologies have it, they have it in three sometimes, like those old ladies who are in charge of your personal destiny and destiny of the world, like Parcae or Moirae. So that symbolic figure of an old woman is really somehow in the core of every mythology and every culture.
Baba Yaga is, among Slavic people in Slavic mythology, is interesting, especially Russian version because it is the most developed one, because of her looks and very picturesque way she’s described. She lives in a little cottage, a wooden house which is very small, and it’s on chicken legs, and it turns around itself, it doesn’t have windows and doors, you have to guess which side is which. Baba Yaga lives in that little cottage, and she’s very skinny but she has enormously long breasts. So those breasts she sometimes hangs in…there was a sort of a log or wooden thing in Russian traditional cottages where they would hang all sorts of things, people, peasants, so Baba Yaga keeps her breasts hanging…
Ramona Koval: This is when she’s asleep, when she’s in bed…
Dubravka Ugresic: When she’s in bed, yes. And she has one wooden leg or made of bone, and she is, I would say, quite mobile because she flies, and she flies in a mortar, helping herself with a pestle, and she wipes her traces with a broom. But the broom doesn’t say that she’s a traditional witch, she’s not, because she doesn’t hang with other witches. She’s a very strong personality, she lives alone. She’s very good in horses. She smokes tobacco or chews tobacco. And she is surrounded by animals, pets, like cats, and she treats them badly. She’s an extremely capricious lady. Sometimes she can be good, sometimes bad.
And her relationship towards men and women are different. So young girls passing by or bumping into her in the deep forest and young men who are on their way to be kings and rulers and rich men and who are on the way to their happy end, so if they bump into Baba Yaga they’re treated differently I think, better than young women.
Ramona Koval: So she’s a sexual being?
Dubravka Ugresic: I would say yes, she’s a sexual being like many other old women figures in mythology. But it is always for the sake of something else, not the sex itself. Her symbolic figure…there is a play between sexes because it is not quite clear…she could be a hermaphrodite too. For instance, in Russian movies, beautiful Russian moves from the ’40s, black and white movies, Soviets then, when they did filmisation of Russian fairytales, and those were the best then done, Baba Yaga was always played by a man, not by a woman. So it’s a tricky creature.
But through her, her character, although it is within fairytale it is quite stereotyped. I mean, she doesn’t have a story, she is an episodic character, but through her, through all those details you can read much more, and this is what I did in my novel. You can read a woman, a womanhood, you can read history of treatment of women, you can read culture and relationship of culture towards women and the place of women within culture. You can read ageing and the problem of ageing. You can read many things…
Ramona Koval: What is this connection with birds and feathers and claws?
Dubravka Ugresic: It’s pretty evident because Baba Yaga lives in this little house which is on chicken feet. So that means that that could be…and that house is so small that she is the house, in fact. So that could be also remains of an old myth about a goddess of fertility. And there are some folkloristic interpretations that Baba Yaga was first called Golden Baba, ‘Baba’ in Slavic languages means ‘old lady’, so that she was a Golden Baba, that she was a goddess. And the goddess represented as a bird or as a hen in fact because hen or black bird and black hen especially they’re charged with many symbolic meanings, because hen itself is a creature which is between heaven and earth. Hen can’t fly but nevertheless it’s a creature with wings. And that’s symbolic of nestling the eggs is also very important here, and that’s why in fact I stressed all of that with the title, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. And also there is another detail which tells you that she could be in fact a sort of human version of that goddess of fertility which could be represented as a bird, half bird, semi-bird, a hen or whatever, is that in fairytales Baba Yaga has one daughter but sometimes she has 41 daughters, which could be only in fact eggs, she could give birth in fact only as a hen.
Ramona Koval: She eats children or she’s a cannibal sometimes?
Dubravka Ugresic: She has an enormously big appetite in fairytales because Vasilisa Prekrasnaya or Vasilisa the Beautiful maybe you’ve bumped into such a story, it’s a Russian fairytale…so when she comes to Baba Yaga then Baba Yaga orders her to prepare the dinner, and that dinner is so rich that it could feed ten healthy people. But of course she threatens that she will eat children and especially boys, she likes to eat boys not girls, but she never does that in fact because instead of baking little boys she has been baked at the end. So it is just…
Ramona Koval: It sounds a little bit like Hansel and Gretel, the Baba Yaga figure, there’s the cottage and she threatens and she goes into the oven at the end, that’s where it comes from.
Dubravka Ugresic: Yes.
Ramona Koval: In your novel, you begin…we’ll go to the beginning now because we’ve dealt with the last bit of it now…there’s a fantastic opening, it’s called ‘At First You Don’t See Them’ and you start: ‘You don’t see them at first, then suddenly a random detail snags your attention like a stray mouse; an old lady’s handbag, a stocking slipping down a leg, bunching up on a bulging ankle, crocheted gloves on the hands, a little old-fashioned hat perched on the head, sparse grey hair with a blue sheen. The owner of the blued hair moves her head like a mechanical dog and smiles wanly. Yes, at first they are invisible.’ Then they just get more and more menacing, and suddenly you’re afraid of this whole army of old ladies.
Dubravka Ugresic: Yes, but do you know what, it depends on your look. I believe that women which are pregnant suddenly are seeing only pregnant women on the streets, or if you are young you see only young people, you never see old people. But then if you allow yourself to that special look then you will start noticing old people, and I did that because of my mother and because I was observing her and her ageing, and in millions of detail, I mean physically how her body changes. Of course now I’m seeing how my body changes too, and then I was noticing what she can do, what she can’t anymore. The way she talks, that also changed, the way she’s having little conversations with me. So you start…if you are close to your parents then you start noticing other old people and then you learn the ABC of ageing, I would say. I learned that through my mother.
Ramona Koval: In that first part, it’s narrated by a Slavic scholar like yourself. Her mother is a little bit difficult sometimes, she’s a clean freak…
Dubravka Ugresic: All mothers are a little bit difficult.
Ramona Koval: Only to daughters.
Dubravka Ugresic: Yes, that’s why Baba Yaga’s story is perfect for that.
Ramona Koval: The daughter is trying to help her mother but the mother is annoying her and the mother is keeping her place extremely clean and throwing away her daughter’s things because her daughter lives somewhere else, but the daughter is having a little war too I think because the daughter is bringing things in to her mother’s house, like this second-hand wardrobe she finds and she just delivers it in her mother’s flat. And you know that her mother doesn’t want this wardrobe and you know that the daughter knows that the mother doesn’t want it, but it sort of becomes a silent conversation between them.
Dubravka Ugresic: Mothers, they are supposed to be…this is also a big myth of our civilisation, that mothers are supposed to be generous and mothers are supposed to live your life, a life of their husbands or their children or their grandchildren, and their house is always somebody else’s house, it is shared. So I noticed in fact that the old ladies, they like their own space. They are annoyed with somebody else who comes to occupy their space. They want their children to be independent finally and to leave the house.
So very often when you watch those sitcoms and then you hear the sentence, let’s say the old lady says, ‘Oh I can’t wait for my children to leave the house, then I will finally rearrange the whole house and paint it and live independently and freely.’ So somehow it sounds to our ears indecent, like old people they don’t have rights to their independent life. What do they need freedom for, after all? Who needs freedom? That’s for us young people.
So the older you are as a daughter or as a son…but I think that daughters are closer to their mothers and that there is a sort of special relationship. The more you understand that in fact it was not capriciousness of my mother, for instance, not wanting my things, or that was also not lack of love for me or towards me, but it was defending her integrity, her space. People are territorial and old people have rights to be territorial too.
Ramona Koval: And in this first section a young academic who is interested in the work of the literary critic who has got this mother, wants to visit her, and the literary critic actually introduces her to the mother, almost like ‘I’ll get somebody else to look after my mother’.
Dubravka Ugresic: In fact the first part of the book, it’s not autobiographical but I would say that many things are truth in that, especially the character of my mother. I did that story because, first of all, I wanted very much to have three totally different narratives. So the first one is sort of almost with documentary precision I am describing little scenes involving my mother and me, more as an observer than as active characters. So the second part is totally different because it uses the devices of classical fairytale but it is a modern short novel with three old ladies in a Czech spa, and adventures. And the third narrative is a so-called pseudo scholarly narrative, but it is also very literary because its so-called author is in fact the character which appears in the first part. So for me it was very important to see how three different narratives talk…
Ramona Koval: And they do talk very well with each other.
Dubravka Ugresic: …how they are in dialogue, what they do to each other. Although each part could be read separately, but together they read differently, they enrich each other. So, to answer your question…what was your question?
Ramona Koval: I’ve got another question. There’s something in the first part that the literary scholar says: ‘If there’s something I couldn’t abide it was folklore and the people who studied it. They were closest nationalists. From the legend of Kraljević Marko comes Serbian Arkan and Croatian Ante Gotovina, the war criminals.’ Which is a funny thing to find in a book which is devoted to the retelling of a folklore myth. Tell us about folklorists and the kind of people who study folklore, especially in the Soviet Union.
Dubravka Ugresic: Generally speaking, there is a well known thing and there are researchers and books and everything about, let’s say, folklore during the Nazi era in Germany, so Nazis were extremely keen to all sorts of mythology, using it in literature or opera or all sorts of researches of mythology, Germany mythology, trying to ground themselves or to find the roots in that part. So my aversion probably comes from that first stamp, and it is true in fact that folklore is very much used and abused by usually nationalistic policies, governments or states or whatever.
Ramona Koval: How do they use it?
Dubravka Ugresic: They use it as…the funny thing is that the result is all the same. Let’s say, the former Yugoslavia, its policy was, as you probably know, it was brotherhood and unity between the people, between first of all six republics which were Croats, Slovenians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Serbs and so on. And then the folklore was a symbolic representation of those communities, ethnicities, republics, political structures or whatever, people, and I spent all my childhood watching first live then on TV those folklore dances representing…so the spirit of those people who lived together. And it was all about that, and even in school I learned national songs of Slovenians and Bosnians and everybody. I had a pretty rich repertoire.
And now after the divorce of Yugoslavia the folklore also got divorced. Now Croats are dancing their little regional dances or whatever, and Serbs are dancing theirs…it is something which is basically beautiful and nice, it is totally politicised and it is abused in that. And then it is always that in practice you can abuse heavily one ethnicity and then take its so-called identity as yours. For instance, Serbs, definitely like anybody else in Europe, Romanians do that, Albanians do that, Bulgarians do that, everybody in Europe hates Romas, Roma people or Gypsies. So in Serbia, for instance, it is very popular to beat anybody who is Roma and homosexual, and if it is a Gypsy homosexual then you will get it twice. But nevertheless, when represented in the world, then Serbs will take Gypsy music as their own music, or the same as, for instance, Emir Kusturica, a well known movie director, he became popular in fact using and abusing heavily exactly Gypsies or Roma people. So you have a lot of stories around that.
Ramona Koval: Was it a surprise to you that the break-up of Yugoslavia happened? This idea that Tito had, I guess, of everybody together and brotherhood and everyone supporting…and suddenly it’s not there anymore?
Dubravka Ugresic: It was a big surprise, and people today are lying, they’re showing off, they would say, ‘Oh I always knew that it can’t function. I always knew that it was an artificial state.’ Like states are natural. So of course for me it was a surprise, and even when the war started I did not believe that people are so crazy that they’re simply going to destroy everything they built together.
Ramona Koval: So you left in ’93. What were the circumstances before you left, what happened to you?
Dubravka Ugresic: I got Baba Yaga.
Ramona Koval: You were Baba Yaga.
Dubravka Ugresic: I was proclaimed witch, so I was not Baba Yaga but a witch.
Ramona Koval: What did you do?
Dubravka Ugresic: Not much because there was such a frenzy, such a crazy hysteria, national collective hysteria that it was easy to do…you could do anything and be proclaimed as a public enemy. But also I must admit that women were the first target. So there was a well known Yugoslav actress Mira Furlan, and maybe some of you who are TV fans you could remember her from an American TV science fiction series called Babylon 5. So she played there, and then she also played a little role in an ongoing American TV series called Lost. So if you are TV fans maybe you will remember her.
So Mira Furlan was the first witch because her sin was that her husband was Serb and a Croatian Serb, and when the war started she played at the Belgrade Theatre although she was an employee of the Croatian National Theatre. But then in former Yugoslavia that was the most natural thing…I mean, actors from Melbourne playing in Sydney, so what’s the big fuss about that? But then it was. And she got attacked in the newspapers, it was ugly, vulgar, disgusting attack by all the media and finally…she responded, she wrote a beautiful anti-war letter for the newspapers but nobody read it, nobody commented on it. And then she left in 1991, she left for America and she lives there.
Then it was the case of so-called five Croatian witches, five of us have been attacked, each of us separately, but then the media got tired and they decided to make the long way shorter, so they simply fabricated the case of five Croatian witches. And we were then attacked…
Ramona Koval: And what did you do, what was your crime?
Dubravka Ugresic: What I did, I first wrote an article in 1992 for Die Zeit, a German newspaper under the title ‘Clean Croatian Air’ or…it was a funny article about…at that time you could buy in Zagreb, in Croatia, you could buy cans, very much like Coca Cola cans, but empty. So those were the souvenir cans, and it was written on them ‘Clean Croatian air’, meaning now there are no Serbs anymore so we can breathe easily.
And I wrote about that Mr Proper or Mr Clean, about that spirit of fascism which sprung up in Croatia, and I also mentioned what that Mr Proper or Mr Clean cleaned in Croatia, and that was in fact truth, that was reality. For instance, libraries were cleaned of…blessed by Croatian Ministry of Culture, so they were cleaned of books written by Serbs or books written by Croats who were communists or even books…at one point for a short time books were separated by a little sticker, so Croatian books had a sticker in Croatian national colours like Croatian coat of arms, it has squares, black, red and white squares, so that you could immediately in the library see by that sticker which book is Croatian. So Shakespeare and the others, they didn’t have any sticker.
But then because it was blessed by Croatian Ministry of Culture, some local librarians they even went on book burning and there were cases of book burning in Croatia. So I was writing about that, I was writing in that little funny article I also mentioned other things, how many Serbs they lost their houses because they were simply chased out, or forced to sell houses for peanuts and leave.
Ramona Koval: So when did you notice that you were then branded a witch?
Dubravka Ugresic: I didn’t. I innocently wrote about what I’ve seen around me…
Ramona Koval: And the response?
Dubravka Ugresic: And then the response was that media noticed that article and then I was attacked in the Croatian media and from there on it started, the whole hysterical media attacks, and finally the peak of all of that was that I was proclaimed a witch and a traitor and so on. And after a year of that media harassment, I decided to buy a broom, which I did, and I flew away, happily.
Ramona Koval: And now you live in Amsterdam. In a cottage with chicken legs?
Dubravka Ugresic: No, unfortunately not.
Ramona Koval: So you thought it was an article that was funnier than they thought it was.
Dubravka Ugresic: Yes, an obviously wrong sense of humour.
Ramona Koval: This book Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, it is very amusing. There’s a fantastic whole middle section which we haven’t spoken about, about these women in this Czech beauty spa, and all the treatments that are given.
Dubravka Ugresic: Yes, I never tried those treatments. I thought that I should do this so-called field research and go to a Czech spa but I didn’t do that. Nevertheless, I have a rich imagination and so everything is imagined.
Ramona Koval: But it’s everywhere, you just need to look at television and newspapers and magazines to find out all the ways in which…
Dubravka Ugresic: Yes, that there is a chocolate treatment, for instance, and so on.
Ramona Koval: Or you can get injected with foetal cells from who knows where and who knows what, and people do it.
Dubravka Ugresic: People do that, yes, people do that because this myth about immortality is very much alive.
Ramona Koval: It’s a fantastic book and I recommend it to you all. It’s called Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, it’s published by Dubravka Ugresic, it’s part of the Canongate retelling myths series which has got some marvellous myths in it, and this is a great contribution to that. .
- Dubravka Ugresic
- Author of novels, short stories and screenplays
- Baba Yaga Laid an Egg
- Dubravka Ugresic
- Canongate Books Ltd