What Have We Learned

What a ride this has been.

When we first conceived of this project, it was in the Before Times – the now barely recognizable pre-pandemic world. We hoped we could meet at UNC-Chapel Hill and planned a collection of essays that would bring together a group of ex Yugoslavs who felt they had something to say about how our past informed our present. In the Now Times – the isolation and slow boil of the global pandemic, the wave of social movements demanding long overdue reckoning with racial injustice, and the unchecked authoritarianism of many of our governments – this project has taken on an entire new meaning. The claustrophobia, danger, and uncertainty of our current moment have only made many of our insights and memories from the Yugoslav past that much more acute and important. For some of us, all of this feels like one long Groundhog Day – leaving one political catastrophe to wake up in another. Maybe “we” brought this all ourselves, maybe this is our literal baggage?

We discuss this new context to, once again, articulate what the purpose behind this undertaking was, what was the outcome we were trying to explain, what was – forgive us – the dependent variable of Yugosplaining.

Maja Bajevic, ‘We are the last ones of yesterday, but the first ones of tomorrow.’ Michel Rein, Paris. © Florian Kleinefenn, 2014

The aim was twofold: first, to use the authors’ lived personal experience of Yugoslavia as a way of explaining our lived political experience elsewhere. Second, to reclaim the narrative of our own lives rather than be made subject to outsiders’ accounts.

Decades after its demise, Yugoslavia continues to act as an open wound. We live what Saida Hodžić wrote in her essay – “if home is a wound that splits open the world, the world neither stays open nor heals over.” Therefore, this series was not designed to explain what Yugoslavia was, what it meant to whom, who it included or excluded, or how it came apart or why. It was, instead, designed to explain our current moment – that world split open – through the experience of our past. In that sense it was designed to be forward, not backward looking. This project was not a reevaluation of Yugoslavia, or an exercise in Yugonostalgia, or a longing for some mythical multicultural, anti-colonial past to contrast it with our nativist and xenophobic present. It was not meant to rehabilitate Yugoslavia’s problems and deficiencies, or recast its history. It was a project born out of a shared realization that we have, individually, and collectively, lived through some of this turbulence before, and that we – perhaps – have some wisdom to impart.

In some ways, this project accomplished more than it had set out to do. Not only did it raise the issues as warning signs based on the Yugoslav experience, but it connected a generation or two of post Yugoslav scholars out there in the world who have finally found each other through this venue. As Larisa Kurtović put it, in reading the interventions of various of our authors, “it was astounding to discover that there is a home out there, not a place or a time, but a group of people, whose words are always exactly those we need to hear.”

“As we wrap up the discussion and begin thinking about where to take this project next, we would like to use this opportunity to invite more explicit and more critical reflections on Yugoslavia itself, trying to at least identify some ‘blind spots’ of the Yugoslav project and hence of our own Yugosplaining,” wrote Edin Hajdarpašić in an email as we approached the end of this series. An outstanding case in point is the issue of Kosovo and the treatment of Albanians in Yugoslavia – before, during, and after socialism. Opening up the past and present dynamics around Kosovo would necessarily have to engage with the longer history of anti-Albanian bigotry that preceded socialist Yugoslavia, a state which did relatively little to truly confront that problem, allowing it to fester despite encouraging the aspirational brotherhood and unity of all nationalities. To the extent that Yugoslav history is still overwhelmingly read as Yugo-Slav, it continues to rest in narratives that leave no space for critical interrogations of the complex and intertwined relations between its political center(s) and its so-called peripheries.

And so, we would like to invite others to further engage in this project. We would love to continue building upon the network of authors, and are especially interested in hearing from current graduate students or recent PhDs who might have also recognized themselves in these essays. We wish to encourage anyone who’s ever been ‘splained: do not wait too long to speak out or talk back. You own your history, no matter how messy it might be.

In our view there are two important things that this project has revealed – first, as we have heard over and over in messages and responses to the series, this was a moment of recognition. “We are not alone,” we learned, and many of our readers echoed. Second – “we have a past.” That past is complex, beautiful and violent; we all relate to it differently and it evokes a broad range of emotions – but it is our past, and it is a starting point for thinking about our present and our future.

Finally, these essays loudly speak to the fact that Yugoslavia – as a historical political project – should not be ignored, bracketed out, temporized, explained away with its own exceptionalism, allowed to reconstitute itself (in whatever form) without critically examining – and relating to – this multiplicity of its own histories. Hence, Yugoslavia also carries a message for our friends and colleagues in the countries we now find ourselves in – believe in your exceptionalism – at your own peril; ignore your past – at your own peril; do not listen to Others amongst you – at your own peril.

Many people reacted to the symposium on Twitter, Facebook and via email, and we wish to thank them for their comments, criticisms, and, of course, support. We are heartened to see instant interest in “translation rights.” The much-trafficked essay by the Yugoslawomen+ Collective is thus now slated to appear in both Albanian and BCMS at Kosovo 2.0 as well as in Macedonian at Okno. We are likewise looking forward to discussing aspects of this project (in BCMS) at Al Jazeera Balkans and (in French) at Le Courrier des Balkans. This is all to say that “Yugosplaining the World” has already proved to be more popular, more widely shared and read than we had ever hoped – and we are so very grateful for your engagement.

Our final expression of our gratitude goes to the contributors without whom this symposium would not exist. We owe special thanks to Srdjan’s colleagues at The Disorder of Things, especially Paul Kirby, who let us take over the blog for a month.

Aida HozićJelena Subotić, & Srđan Vučetić

One thought on “What Have We Learned

  1. Pingback: Vjekoslav Perica: Emigracija iz druge galaksije | radio gornji grad

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