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Dubravka Ugrešić Was Conferred a Doctor Honoris Causa Degree of Sofia University

At a solemn ceremony taking place in Aula magna of the Rectorate, the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić was conferred the honorary degree of a Doctor honoris causa of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. The proposal for awarding the honorary title of the oldest high school in Bulgaria came from the Faculty of Slavonic Philology.

The ceremony was opened by the Dean of the Faculty of Slavonic Philology Associate professor Dr Boyko Penchev who said that it was a special honour for him to introduce the European writer Dubravka Ugrešić.

Dubravka Ugrešić was born in Kutina, Yugoslavia, now Croatia. On her mother’s side her origin is Bulgarian.

“Disgusted politically and aesthetically by the rising in all parts of former Yugoslavia nationalism, refusing to identify herself in terms of the newly delineated national identity borders, in 1993 Dubravka Ugrešić went in exile. Physically she lives in Amsterdam but a better definition of her would be “a citizen of literature” associate professor Penchev said and added that she had read comparative literature studies with a special focus on Russian literature at Zagreb University, specialized at Moscow University, translated and introduced Russian authors and has been giving lectures at prestigious universities in the world on Russian literature and culture.


In the Dean’s words, such an academic past is present positively in her literary works where the erudition and self-reflection stand out.

Associate professor Penchev mentioned that at the end of the 80ies of the last century Dubravka Ugrešić published in the then Yugoslavia two novels which won the love of the reading public and the respect of the critics. These were the novels Štefica Cvek in the Jaws of Life and Forcing the Novel River“, for which she was awarded the NIN Prize for 1988. According to him, in those novels in the regime of the grotesque and intellectual play the theme of a special hybrid nature of an intellectual is put forward, the latter being ambivalent between art and politics, between audacity and conformity. In the 90ies and afterwards Dubravka Ugrešić published other novels and collections of essays which consolidated her status as a writer with a special trademark in the field of world literature. These were the novels The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, The Ministry of Pain, Baba Yaga Laid An Egg, Fox; American Dictionary – a collection of essays, The Culture of Lies, Reading Is Forbidden, Nobody Is at Home, Europe in Sepia and others.


Associate professor Penchev pointed out that most of Ugrešić’s books were translated in Bulgarian, and her first novels came out in magazine formats and later in a book form.

Translated in more than 20 languages, her works were awarded prestigious distinctions. Dubravka Ugrešić is the laureate of a number of prestigious literary prizes, amongst which the NIN Prize (1988), annual prize for Best European Book of Essays Charles Veillion (Switzerland) (1996), the Dutch Verzetsprijs Prize (1997), the Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1998), Heinrich Mann Prize of the Academy of Arts in Berlin (2000), the Italian Feronia Prize (2004), James Tiptree JR. Award (2010), Jean Améry Prize for Essays (2012), the International Neustadt Literary Prize (2016), Vilenica Prize (2016), etc. Her works were nominated in the list of finalists for highly reputable literary prizes such as Strega (2003), Angelus (2007), Man Booker International Prize (2009 г.), etc.

“There are not very many good writers. However, few are the intellectual writers of the calibre of Dubravka Ugrešić who would take the risk of upholding a civic position which can easily excommunicate them from a certain community. Dubravka Ugrešić is one of the few voices left defending the still fragile liberal idea that man is not a function of either the nation or the market“, associate professor Boyko Penchev said. He added that way back at the beginning of the 90ies she diagnosed populism, even before the word had gained today’s currency. The pain with which in the early 90ies the writer describes the annihilation of the common Yugoslav past and identity, the chasm along the lines of nationalist territorization would, in fact, turn out to be also a tragic premonition of the fate of Europe today.


“I wish Dubravka Ugrešić’s books did not have such a high degree of relevance, for it would have been better if we could talk of nationalism in terms of kitsch but within a historical framework, as a curious episode of the past,” associate professor Boyko Penchev said and expressed his sadness that the messages, the warnings, the pain and the nostalgia of her works were becoming ever more relevant and important.

“Dubravka Ugrešić is the writer of the exile and the exile is not a simple legal or police category: it is a spiritual category“, the Dean of the Faculty of Slavonic Philology stressed and remarked that in her books the Croatian writer turns to man whose place in the world is questioned. Literature itself, real literature has so far done this – it has posed the question, “Who am I, in fact?”.


In his speech, Associate professor Penchev remarked that Dubravka Ugrešić’s books talk of the internal exile in each one of us, of that insecure, at times slightly nervy, at others inspired spiritual being that refuses to be given a simple national and social label.

Finally, he expressed the pleasure of Sofia University, an institution whose foundations are based on the ideas of reason, tolerance, and intellectual predisposition to complex thinking, to confer its highest honorary degree to a thinking writer of the calibre of Dubravka Ugrešić. On behalf of the Bulgarian reading public he expressed his gratitude to the work of the Bulgarian translators of the writer – Jela Georgieva, Rousanka Lyapova, Lyudmila Mindova, the publishing houses “Fakel” and “Kolibri” which are Ugrešić’s publishers in Bulgaria. He remembered the late Malina Tomova, who left us too soon but her small Stigmati Publishing House published Dubravka Ugrešić’s first books in Bulgarian – The Culture of the Lie and The Museum of Unconditional Surrender.

“Today is a feast for all Dubravka Ugrešić’s readers, for all those who love and believe in the mission of good literature“, associate professor Boyko Penchev said in conclusion.


Dubravka Ugrešić was conferred the Doctor honoris causa degree by Alma mater’s Rector Professor Dr habil Anastas Gerdzhikov.

She opened her speech Sorbonne Sweets or My Universities with the story of her mother, who, in 1946, had left Varna for Yugoslavia by train, carrying with her some books, some clothes and several small apples. Years afterwards she would describe her journey in one sentence == “Everything was in ruins!”

“In my postwar childhood, deprived of any toys, my mother’s books served as toys. The leafing through a book and the scribbling in pencil in the white margin was my earliest child entertainment“, Ugrešić noted and added that her education started with her mother, included Hollywood films and her books. “When I started going to school, the package became bigger, and the desire to learn was supported by the ideological propaganda of the time – with the socialist slogans which declared that “knowledge is strength”, with the legends about the communist leaders who spent all their time studying, and with their portraits“, Dubravka Ugrešić said. She talked about the legends of that time which claimed that Tito played the piano and his comrades spoke many foreign languages and had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. “The Sorbonne was a word, which I rolled in my mouth like a green mint candy but it took me long before I could properly pronounce it: the Sorbonne“, Ugrešić remarked.


In the words of the writer, for her mother the world, which was far from being the ideal place, could become better due first and foremost to knowledge, education and the arts. It was those values that Dubravka Ugrešić inherited from her mother. She recalled the time of her first visit to Bulgaria, her encounter with her relatives, the fast process of learning followed by fast forgetting of the Bulgarian language. “In fact, very often the children from the neighbourhood would occasionally remark “Bugarica! Bugarica!” (“A Bulgarian girl!”). Later I came to realize that the fear of ostracization from society is one of the worst human fears. Similar fear is present in the gregarious animal species.“


She drew attention to her university years when she read Russian language and literature at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb. Ugrešić pointed out that that happened more as a result of an administrational misunderstanding than due to her own will and added that at that time reading Russian for a degree was not popular and the very word “Russian” sounded like a stigma and voluntary ostracization from the intellectual community. She recalled the euphoria of her university years and her encounters with the various artistic tendencies and cultural idolatry: “Later I came to realize that things in culture can vanish, they can change, arbiters of taste change too, and so do taste and literary fashions. The articulation of culture at the time of my university studies was more vibrant that ever and schools in the theory of literature were proliferating: postmodernism, feminism, postcolonialism.“

After her graduation Dubravka Ugrešić continued with an academic career at the same Faculty, at the Institute of the Theory of Literature, at a time marked by the pleasure experienced in literature and the defense of its autonomy. She drew attention to the change which had taken place in the field of literature and the arts after the fall of the Berlin Wall: “The teachers who vociferously had been declaring the autonomy of literature and the arts, very quickly willingly offering their intellectual services and support to the new authorities, the Serbs – to the Serbs, and the Croatians – to the Croatians.”


Later she was to realize that the occasional hints “Bugarica! Bugarica!” (“A Bulgarian girl!”) in her early childhood and the administrational mistake due to which she had to read Russian literature at the university, were, in fact, formative. Ugrešić remarked that more deeply her formative years as a personality began in 1989 and the fall of the Wall , in 1991 and the collapse of Yugoslavia, and in 1993 when she left Croatia: “I left for the world with a paltry amount of capital of several books, at an age when wiser people are looking forward to their retirement. That was an intensive and formative course, and those were “my universities.”.

In her speech she drew attention to the quick transformation of society – former communists turned into anticommunists, atheists into believers, people who were reasonable till that moment into mad nationalists, psychiatrists into murderers, writers into servants of the new regimes. Having realized that there was only consensus or lack of it, getting out of the circle or remaining in it, resistance or adaptation, Dubravka Ugrešić turned in her resignation from the Faculty of Philosophy at Zagreb University and emigrated “blemished as an enemy of the people, a traitor and a witch.”.


“When I left for the world, I got the idea that, in fact, I am following my mother’s steps. She had left her country for another because that was what her smitten heart told her. I left the country because I couldn’t anymore breathe in the unbearable amount of hatred, madness and lies: all that consumed all the oxygen in my lungs at a very high speed. When she travelled first through Yugoslavia, my mother was left shattered by the ravages of war. “Everything was in ruins,” she used to say, stressing on “everything”. At the end of her life, as an act of undeserved punishment (for no one deserves such a thing), in front of her eyes she watched over and over again the same landscape. Again everything was in ruins!”, Dubravka Ugrešić remarked.

In her speech she drew attention to the new time we live in – the historical period is measured in BG (before Google) and after, she pointed out and posed the question, “Have we already become new people, too?“. The digital lifestyle and the present time of extremes which we cannot strictly stick to, were the focus of her speech. “We walk gazing at the screens of our phones, we live in a culture of compromise and consensus, we all agree with each and everyone.“

Dubravka Ugrešić also drew attention to the peculiar state called resignation syndrome, attested for the first time in Sweden and occurring with children of refugee families with unsettled status who spend several years in the host country or refugee camps waiting for their new ID papers, always under the threat of being deported.. Some of these children show symptoms of refusal syndrome and refuse to eat, move, communicate with the others and gradually fall in coma. “They are like blotting paper; they absorb their parents’ stress and in order to protect themselves, they hybernate“, Ugrešić pointed out. The Swedish example is not an isolated case: similar cases were found in the camps of Australian refugees in the Pacific island of Nauru, and the first resignation syndrome was attested in the Nazi concentration camps but was not formally diagnosed and identified, Dubravka Ugrešić pointed out.


At the end of her speech the writer expressed her gratitude of being conferred the honorary distinction of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohredski”; she thanked the Department of Slavonic Literature and the Department of the Theory of Literature, her Bulgarian translators and publishers who had made her books accessible to the Bulgarian readers. “The award touched me deeply. I feel as if I am receiving the high honour instead of my mother: it’s as if I am doing it by proxy. Because in her naïve and firm belief that the world was not an ideal place but could become better due first and foremost to knowledge and the arts, she deserves the honour more than I do“, Dubravka Ugrešić said in conclusion.