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I Am a Genius from Uzice

[title chosen by a publisher]

 (Translated from Serbian)    

What she sees on the streets of Belgrade; the galloping headlong plunge of an empire and its collateral damage; eviscerated Hollywood films and her forbearers from Solotusa — we’re speaking with the most famous woman from Uzice in America

    VESTI, UZICE, Serbia
   Octobar 29, 2005,
   Number 2946   

— What impressions do you have of Serbia after having spent the summer here?

— The horror of things, which is easier to see indirectly. I used to come every year, sometimes twice a year. Now, this summer, I recognize that people are hungry; old women are no longer ashamed to pick food out of garbage cans. You have to leave the city center and the cafes on Knez Mihailova behind. Silicon breasts, prostitution, the girls look like Barbie Dolls or as if they came from another planet. Faces have changed, as well as the conversations you have. This does not resemble the country that I knew and loved. Now it’s a colony. Everyone says so. This is worse than ’93 and ’94, not to mention ’99. I see a lack of hope that things will get better, and I see depression. Health, education and universities will be reserved only for those who have money. How is an ordinary worker, who is already  hungry, going to pay for education of his children? I saw everything in three days. I booked an airline ticket and had to wait because I couldn’t get one right away. Otherwise I would have left sooner. It was too painful to see my country this way. The elevator in the building where I stayed did not work, and I’ve got pain in my legs. Those who live on the first and second stories don’t care, as if it were not their problem. They don’t need an elevator. Everyone is looking out for number one. All this was terribly painful for me. It is not the same country; it is some other culture. All of the newspapers are the same, bankrupt of ideas, not to mention television, which is just brainwashing. I repeat, Serbia is a colony and people are always telling me that.

Nadja Tesich was born in [Serbian town of] Uzice. She has been living and working in America since she was fifteen years old. She received her university education in America, and took a doctorate at the Sorbonne. She studied Slavic Studies in Paris, and she took a degree in Directing and Screenwriting from New York University.  She taught French literature at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and she taught Film Studies at Brooklyn College. She made films (she played the lead role in Eric Rohmer’s “Nadja in Paris”), she wrote screenplays and directed. She published English-language novels in America: “Shadow Partizan” and “Native Land.” Her short stories have been published by various leading American literary journals, and her dramas have been produced by several prestigious theaters in New York. Her brother, Stojan (“Steve”) Tesich (1944–1996) was one of the best known American authors of stage plays and screenplays, and was also an Oscar winner.

Nadja was and continues to be one of the most engaged critics of U.S. foreign policy toward Serbia. She lives in New York, Paris, Uzice and Belgrade.


 — You are also a fierce critic of the American way of life.

— It’s easier for me in America, because I live, as Malcolm X says, in the belly of the beast. America never had any social justice, but now it’s much worse. Aside from that, I am not emotionally tied to a giant country that is conquering and destroying the world, and is spreading its own culture as if it were an infectious virus. It is in the final stages of galloping imperialism, and we’re experiencing Dickensian capitalism in Serbia. If I ever return, I won’t live in Belgrade. I’ll go to the provinces, instead.

— Someone made the wonderful observation that when our expatriates talk about Serbia, they regularly have a shortfall of information and a surplus of emotion. It seems as though you’re not lacking either of the two, but it is difficult to come to terms with your observation that things are worse now than they were under Milosevic.

— I always had, and still have, more information than I need, because I am in contact with other people in the world. I visit regularly and I don’t restrict myself to my family and friends. Instead, I wander around, buses, markets, the suburbs. I was even a journalist who had to justify everything that was written. I am a political being but not a politician, which means that I want to know who is doing what, who holds the broadest powers, [whose scope] goes beyond the Balkans. I have my own vision of the world, but chiefly my point of view depends on what I see and hear. Now there is no difference between my eyes and what people say. If people had said that things were going well, that things were better, I would be delighted, I could see for myself without anyone having to tell me. Everything can be seen on day one. I have less emotions than the majority of people in Belgrade, because I am not crying about anything, but they are crying about something all the time. They have their own reasons and one can see it by the misery in their faces. Let’s turn the question around.  What is better now? You can buy anything you want, even expensive clothing from outside the country, as well as food and restaurants... But who is it for? Maybe for five percent of the population, while half of them are on the edge of hunger, while those in the middle have “something” to eat and they don’t go out at all. During the Milosevic era, two newspapers were government controlled, while everything else was independent. It’s the same thing with television. That meant a dynamic of thinking, of contradictions, but now — zero; the newspapers are largely yellow press and nonsense-- the ideas have disappeared. There used to be some spirit, people were not neutralized, conquered as they are now. I saw the best theater I ever saw in my life in Belgrade at that time. It was unbelievable. It’s all worse now. The Union of Writers was, during the sanctions, full of people. We went to the villages and we were well received, but now not even advertising notices are permitted to announce who is coming  or giving a reading. Since someone was always putting me up in a spare room when I lived in Belgrade, I was able to see the generosity of people during the sanctions. We shared newspapers, coffee, whatever. You just knock on the door. That has vanished. Streets have vanished, as if the revolution had never taken place. A person would say that this was a country that belonged to kings and princes. In Paris, you can see the history of the country in its streets, namely, monarchy and bloody revolution, Danton, Robspierre, metro stations that are called Stalingrad, streets named after their “partisans,” those who fought against fascism, who were not as numerous as in my country, to tell the truth... And what about us?

— In what area do you see a chance for achieving what we might call “the dream of of a small or the ordinary man” in Serbia?

— I admit that I never gave any thought to dreams, nor to the “ordinary man” because, as far as I’m concerned, all men are born of mothers who suffer terribly giving birth, and all of them will one day die. That is fundamental. I don’t distinguish people according to race, class... All of us need a minimum of security and love from others, work, food, doctors, school, leisure, respect for our person and our work, no matter who we are. That is more important than money, because money is abstract. A child does not want money. An abandoned infant, unwanted, often dies no matter how well it is fed. Now we live with one single measure of value — money. And what can money buy? Things, people... Money,as the main idea is imposed by Americans who live unnaturally. Among us, in a small and devastated, bombed, suffering country, the same values are now applied  — we are not copying Europe but America. If someone wants ten houses, they buy them and live the way they want to.  Those with money should have to pay high  taxes, so that those who only want an apartment can have one, and everything else they need with that apartment. I am against great class differences because they upset me. Man, with or without money, is a human being. It’s a pity that those who have money frequently forget that they are human beings and become in some way like machines. I call them humanoids... What does “little” mean and what does “ordinary” mean? This is an elitist term. No one is small or ordinary for himself or for his friends, while the dreams of either children or adults do not depend on money. Who is “great”? How is that measured? My childhood was full of cherished great “little” people — railroad engineers, tailors, cooks, and it was the same thing in Belgrade. Society functions because of these people. What would happen if all the “little” people went on strike tomorrow?

— Not infrequently, the bogeyman of globalization and the new world order crisscrosses Serbia. Is that fear justified?

— Of course it is justified. How is a small country that has been bombed, put under sanctions for years, going to compete on the world market? Globalization is good only for the wealthiest and most powerful countries. America is in control of the world media, and it dictates what is going to be seen, what will not be seen, what people are going to think, and what they are going to wear... If CNN announced that it was good to eat shit, certain admirers of America would start eating it right away. Globalization destroyed not only the economy but the national culture as well, because great powers have greater means to impose themselves, while colonies copy them because it is beautiful and modern to do so, because it comes from their powerful brother. I am in favor of a certain type of globalization which is not a one-way street, but allows getting acquainted with different cultures, art, solving health problems, attempts to save the planet. We saw the new world order in the spring of 1999. Who knows what else it has in store for us? Harold Pinter, surely the greatest living writer, called me (or rather his office called me) in the spring of 1999 to tell me that his greatest fear was that they (USA) had gone out of their minds. The new world order destroys, bombs, and at the same time preaches, sells, what else but democracy. But it isn’t worth anything any more. The whole world sees everything. They overstepped all bounds. Who still believes in the “American Dream”? Maybe a minority in Belgrade, maybe in Albania. And they’ve come to their senses in Prishtina, it seems to me. All together, in US,  we are moving at a speed which is not normal for a human being. The stress is horrible, more than enough economic problems, and the largest industry is the arms industry. This new century will belong to the Chinese, that‘s  for sure.

— What were your experiences on September 11?

— September was wonderful that year, full of unbelievable sunlight, blue skies with no humidity, no fog, just as if it were not the end of summer. And besides that, for no reason at all, I felt a terrible nervousness in my entire body all day long, despite the fact that I was in excellent physical condition. I was not the only one. A few of my American friends, largely artists, felt the same thing. I was, as usual, practicing the easiest ballet exercises along the Hudson River, while at the same time I was thinking of a far away dream — a third Serbian uprising, and even more distant, a liberation movement for all the Balkans- --what a man once told me at the Kalenich market. Here is a good advice to anyone who wants to take it: the mind and the body must follow the same direction. That day I injured my knee because I was doing one thing and thinking another.Pay attention...

 The same night or it was morning already, I was dreaming a strange dream when  my late brother’s wife woke me up: “Turn on the TV!” I saw some airplane cutting a building in half and destroying it. I thought it was a big-budget Hollywood production, because I taught not only screenwriting and directing but also production. I worked on Hollywood productions. For me it was all very simple: pay the owners of the building, which has already been written off and has to be demolished, and then you film it with three, four or five cameras. I finally put it all together sometime that afternoon. My first question was cui bono? Who benefits? I tried to calm people down in my building because the hysteria was widespread. I live in Upper Manhattan, far from everything. Finally on the third day, the chemical stench reached us for a short period of time. On the second day, people gathered at a well known monument for firefighters two blocks away from me. And I went there with some flowers because I always held firefighters in high regard. Distraught people were crying. I told them that it was difficult, that I understood because my country was bombarded during the entire spring of 1999. They were looking at me — which country? When? why, we didn’t know... One man said: “We didn’t do anything; NATO did it.” They either knew nothing or they forgot instantly, including even university professors who where there.

 Now, five years later, no one believes the official version of the Sept. 11. There are far too many details that don’t add up. The “Patriot Act” was quickly instituted — anyone can be taken off to some secret jail, who knows where or for how long, without recourse to an attorney.

 An artist died in the World Trade Center towers who had spent years portraying himself as Jesus Christ, but he painted planes instead of arrows.

— You taught subjects at several American universities that were related to the art of filmmaking. What is film first  --- entertainment, industry, business, art...

— Film is business. I stopped watching films altogether after 1990. Why bother - first you you pay a lot of money for a ticket and then they abuse you with murders and gunfights. Susan Sontag understood what was going on and she wrote about it in the late 1980s. Exceptions exist, largely from Europe and Iran. The theater is also business, just as books are. Who is your novel written for? they ask you. For women? men? homosexuals? There are two sections in bookstores, artless novels that sell or those others that are called literature, largely by dead authors. Look, there I am, and in good company. It’s all disappearing. Theater barely exists. Film killed theater and now television is killing film. Now I am told that the internet is the most important thing. What does that mean? Absence of communication with others. Everyone has got a computer or a mobile telephone. It’s horrible. There is censorship as well as self-censorship, which means you don’t write about what you ought to be writing about, what you love, rather you must think about what is going to sell, which means neutralizing your self and not giving your best. Poets are an exception, because they never were connected to money.

Because I don’t want to come across as some kind of pessimist, I must say that even this will pass, because the human spirit finds emptiness intolerable, and it will wake up.

— It is not well known that your two novels published in America discuss, among other things, Uzice.

— I wrote the first novel accidentally, not thinking about it, in an artists’ colony where I had won a studio space to finish a screenplay. Before that, I had written neither short stories nor novels; I was competing in the film category for dramatic screenplays. Over the course of three weeks that  remained, I started to write the novel “Shadow Warrior,” which takes place in Uzice. It was unbelievable, that feeling that someone was whispering to me, dictating the novel, and I wrote it without proofreading it, very quickly, because I was afraid that “it” would disappear. It was the one and only time that I experienced what Proust would describe as the return of time lost. I was able to experience what had once taken place, the smell of the river, warm rocks, everything was fragrant...  That led me. I was crying while I was writing because it was overwhelming, and afterwards I cried when I finished the first version and it all disappeared forever. The novel is the point of view of a child on the world which reveals itself every year. There was no distance or nostalgia; everything was alive, dramas, experiences, as if it were all taking place right now, today, yesterday, tomorrow, which is how children think. This is not a novel about only one individual, but about families, streets, the whole city. I could have been published by large commercial publishers if I had wanted to change the second half of the novel so that it took place in America. But that would have destroyed the structure of my novel and the answer was “no.” I finally found an old publisher who published poetry and he published the book as I had written it. The novel received good critical notice. The New York Times compared me to Chagall. When I returned to Uzice the same year, and I realized that life is one thing, and art is another. Because of my first novel, I had a chance to meet [Danilo] Kis, who wrote to me from Paris that we shared identical themes. He was already sick when we finally met. I recall asking him, we were sitting in the cafe “Select” in Montparnasse, and I asked him where life was the best for him. I asked him this for my own benefit because I had questions about myself. “I’m sure I led the happiest part of my life in Belgrade.” So what are you doing in Paris, I asked him? He remained silent, then he looked at me and said: “Well, maybe it’s better that I’m not always in Belgrade because I, now,in Paris  can think about how happy I would be there.” He had the contradictions of a Westerner, while I was, in that respect, much simpler. I never wanted to live in New York, and once I got home, I forgot all about America.

— Is “Shadow Partizan” an autobiographical novel?

— My heroine, Ana, is not me. She is much more normal than I was at that age, because I had experience with childhood with my son and I learned a great deal about children. But, in any case, that is where my point of view of life is to be found. A Russian friend of mine says that the novel is “luminous and festive’, because everything appears as though you are seeing it for the first and last time.  Children are lighter, and they don’t think in that fashion. I was buried in my bombed out house, and I still remember that, as well as the fact that I was going to die soon, because I could no longer breathe nor move. I was lucky because my mother saved me at the last minute. We were both wounded. Afterwards, an operation on the ground without anesthetics... I was a lively child who started speaking at nine months, I recall inviting  my neighbors to come to my first birthday party. I became different after the bombardment. Silent, somehow a different child, as if I had really died in that house. I felt better outside, with trees. We had open fields near us. I spent hours watching the leaves, the clouds, the sky. Afterwards, books, the Uzice Library was small, but I read all of its books, all of Maksim Gorky, for example. It is interesting to note, and I don’t even understand it now, that I only read adult books. I was interested in “seeing” what was described. I had to see the forest, or the house, or the sunset and people’s faces. I wouldn’t continue unless I could “see” them. I was always first in my class. I don’t know why. I was ashamed of it because it separated me from the others. I had girlfriends, but I did not understand many things from ordinary life — jealousy, envy and the like. I loved the village children, and there were many of them at the time. In school, they were wet, frozen stiff, and timid. I loved them and I went with them to far away villages because they were simply the most beautiful and their silence pleased me. I was different from the beginning, while my girl friends were thinking about sandals, hair and hairstyles and movie stars, I started thinking that Tito was making mistakes, but I didn’t mention it to anyone. To whom could I say so? I thought that American aid and the arrival of American movies was dangerous at that time, and that we had to develop our own culture. I was a fifty-year-old in a child’s body. I was a genius from Uzice, ha, ha ha... The novel is full of life, joy, laughter and tragedy. All of the emotions are in it. The Greek chorus of women who drink coffee and discuss who beat up whom, who is getting engaged and getting married, what is going on in politics. The second novel is also connected to Yugoslavia, and it had to be thought out in order for it “to pass.” Like you’re living under Stalinism. Zika Pavlovic, my best friend, said that there is no difference between Western dictatorship and Stalin’s. They only have different styles.

— How contemporary are your brother Stojan’s (Steve’s) drama’s today?

My brother actually foresaw the times that were coming and said that he did not want to experience them. He succeeded. He died in 1996. He wrote the best plays at the end of his life, without compromises and every year it got harder and harder to produce them. Every well written drama that carries the essence of a human being is always contemporary. Of course, Stojan’s plays are contemporary, just as my first play, “After the Revolution,” is.

— Do you often speak of the part of your childhood spent in Raca?

— My brother and I went to Raca every summer. Grandfather Stojan, after whom my brother was named, was not our real grandfather, but we called him that anyway. He was my father’s uncle, brother of his mother, who died giving birth to her second child. I resembled her, at least that’s what Deda used to say. She was blonde. And he, like my father, was born in Solotusa. Deda had no children of his own, so that my father ended up being like his child, because they loved one another a great deal. My father enjoyed being with him more than he did with his own father, who had a different nature, and  loved songs, cafes, Gipsy music that followed him down the street. I didn’t know him, but I knew of him. He had three sons from his second marriage, and I stayed in contact with Dragan, a relative, who was son of my uncle Svetozar, in Bajina Basta. Deda Stojan was different from the others, silent, serious, he read newspapers every day and he read books. He was a beekeeper, grafted fruit and roses. No one was rich in that part of Serbia, in the mountains, but I think that he was one of the wealthiest, and definitely a well respected man. Except that  he looked simple in his peasant clothes; everyone who came to him for help received it simply and unceremoniously. Deda was deeply religious in practice. I was lucky to know him as well as my mother’s aunt who lived with us in Uzice and whom we called Baba Pava. She was quiet just like him. And deeply religious in her relations with others. She helped everyone. My first teacher was from somewhere in Krajina, a Partizan fighter. There was no difference between her and Deda Stojan and Baba Pava. I was fortunate to know them; they were human and pure.

Interviewer:   Zoran Jeremic  

The original - in Serbian

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Copyright Nadja Tesich 2006

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Last revised: February 22, 2006