Self-Disclosing Days

Jenny Turner

‘Courageous, poignant, superbly written in blood’; ‘brave, funny, wise’; ‘sensitivity, intelligence, grace ... belies the huge internal struggle that leads to its poise’. Holograms of Fear, Slavenka Drakulic’s first and largely autobiographical novel, is one of those tight, solipsistic, well-written memory-rambles about which there is nothing much to say. Ostensibly the story of the author’s kidney transplant, it is in fact, as is sadly the convention with all too many ‘literary’ novels these days, a self-regarding show-tour of the fascinatingly sensitive inside of its author’s own head. But women in general, and feminists in particular, are meant not only to love this sort of stuff, but to find it personally and politically useful. And this presumably is why North American feminist figureheads of the stature of Barbara Ehrenreich, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan have given it their impeccably feminist imprimatur.

As North American feminist figureheads of great stature, Barbara Ehrenreich, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan are all closely associated with New York’s Ms magazine, the flagship journal of international sisterhood; Slavenka Drakulic is Ms magazine’s East European correspondent. But to say that the Ms pantheon puffs Drakulic because she is one of them is in itself not interesting: everybody knows that the one indisputable achievement of the contemporary women’s movement is that it offers professional women the sort of networking and back-scratching opportunities their male cohorts get from clubbability and the Masons. What is interesting, however, is the impression one gets that the Ms pantheon isn’t puffing Drakulic’s books just because she is one of them, or even because they feel sorry for her that she has had a hard time of it what with living in Yugoslavia and having had a serious kidney disease. These women actually seem to believe, in line with the great feminist ‘the personal is political’ trope, that because Drakulic’s novel is deeply personal it must in some way be deeply politically useful as well.

Used slackly and sentimentally, the trope becomes a big, baggy repository for all sorts of slovenly thinking and self-deceiving bad faiths. It allows, for example, for the tiresome assumption that to engage in personal disclosure in a book, no matter how boring or silly your self-disclosures turn out to be, is somehow ‘braver’ and more ‘honest’ than writing a book which is interesting and clever. Gloria Steinem’s own recently-published Revolution From Within, for example, was, as most reviewers pointed out, a boring and silly ragbag of personal revelation, friends-of-friends-type anecdote and casual bedtime reading in the literature of self-help – 12-point programmes somehow taken to prove that sexism and racism, Emily Brontë and Auschwitz and Steinem’s own romantic dalliance with a politically incorrect millionaire all have to do with lack of ‘self-esteem’. But Gloria is so kind to everybody, smiles so sweetly on the cover, has exposed herself as such a well-meaning and vulnerable little thing that it is hard not to be kind to her in return.

What Steinem’s writing persona seems just too nice and sweet to understand, however, is that all this be-nice-to-me-I’ve-had-a-real-self-disclosing-day stuff only works within the context of an unspoken feminist etiquette, and as such is as potentially dishonest, exploitative and even cruel as any other form of discourse. Like the British House of Commons with its Mr Speaker through whom all insulting remarks must be addressed, Ms-type feminist etiquette demands that aggression, irritation, dislike, any feeling that seems a bit unsisterly, be mediated, sublimated, and signalled by diverse highly conventionalised means. The best that can come out of such an overmediated forum is a sentimental wall of sisterliness that uses many words to express very little of much interest or originality. At worst, it is an etiquette open to manipulation, abuse and filibuster in the hands of skilled operators pursuing their own hidden agendas. Women who go to feminist meetings will know exactly what I mean: newcomers ignorant of the etiquette generally spend a long time saying nothing, for fear of exposing themselves as incompetent in the conventions, and so feministically unsound. And by the time they’ve learned the lingo, they’ve generally learned how piss-easy it is to use kind and sisterly words to manipulate people, to guilt-trip them, to show them up and put them down.

Which leads us, by circuitous but, as I hope we will see, necessarily so routes, right back to Slavenka Drakulic. Drakulic’s novel may be just a mediocre first novel, slightly interesting on what it is like to recover from a life-threatening illness, mostly uninteresting on everything else. But the essays she has collected in How we survived Communism and even laughed are a different matter: an almost too rich and fascinating document of what can happen to international-feminist etiquette in the hands of a writer with secret agendas of her own, agendas which, in many cases, the writer herself doesn’t appear to recognise.

As Barbara Ehrenreich dutifully points out, How we survived Communism and even laughed is both ‘the first ever grassroots feminist critique of Communism’, and ‘one of our [sic] first glimpses into real people’s lives in pre-revolutionary Eastern Europe’. Both good reasons to take the book very seriously indeed. But Drakulic’s book is also, as its British reviewers remarked, easy to dismiss as the outpourings of a sentimental, self-pitying, sanctimonious and self-deceiving woman who thinks that being a feminist allows her carte blanche to write and think as sloppily as she likes. In itself this is probably a fair comment, though one which could just as easily be applied to Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan or anybody else, including you and me. But what makes Drakulic interesting is that she’s a foreigner talking in the language of Western feminism, and so using Western feminist rhetoric with less sleight-of-hand than do Western writers to the manner born. As such, her book is not only about Eastern Europe, but also about how inadequate feminist language is in getting to grips with the awkward realities of our changing world.

How we survived Communism ... opens with a manifesto of feminist intent, promising an interest in ‘trivia’, because ‘trivia’ is what ordinary women’s lives are all about. ‘The trivial aspects, the small everyday things, were precisely what I wanted to see: how people ate and dressed and talked, where they lived. Could they buy detergent? Why was there so much rubbish all over the streets?’ In theory this all sounds perfectly straightforward, but in practice it isn’t. As an East European writing about Eastern Europe for an English-speaking (i.e. primarily US) general interest audience (i.e. one that may not be au fait with the Granta school of ex-dissident writing), Drakulic is involved in a delicate intercultural bridging operation. This perhaps explains the bogus air that hangs around her book’s very title, with its unconvincing invocation of ‘we’ its soggy emotive use of ‘survived’ and the upbeat bit about laughter. Drakulic is gamely trying to knee-jerk in time with Ms magazine-type feministical correctness, because this seems to her to be what her readership wants and expects a woman writer to do.

‘I wanted to take all these fragments of recent reality, as well as my own memories of life in a Communist country, and sew them back together.’ Drakulic makes it easy for herself to sew together whatever she likes, as everything is already part of the same thing anyway. She locates herself and her writing within a strange and slippery historical framework: ‘The end of Communism is still remote because Communism, more than a political ideology or method of government, is a state of mind.’ Bulgaria, Russia or Slovenia, Catholic, Muslim or Orthodox, state journalist or state rubbish-collector, 1961, 1971, 1991: all cats are just as grey when languishing under a mysterious poison-cloud Communist ‘state of mind’. East fuses with West, time fuses with place, subject fuses with object. Though few general-interest Western readers know or care enough about Eastern Europe to want to be bothered with such things as diversity, complexity or change, a neat little package with a handful of simple, grabbing truths in it is the sort of book everybody can buy and linger over. Timothy Garton-Ash has done it several times already, so why shouldn’t she?

Warsaw, Sofia, Budapest, Prague, all cities in which women make soup and grumble about their menfolk in their overcrowded apartments, blur into a single East European patchwork of crumbling tower blocks, milkless cafeterias, overdarned stockings and miserable mustn’t-grumble stoicism. The acquaintances to whom Drakulic is ostensibly giving voice and to whom she dedicates her book similarly blur into a sort of all-purpose Rentaslavenka figure, darning her thrice darned stockings, dyeing her hair bright red, spending her evenings in hopeless pipe-dreams of how pretty and feminine she could be if only she lived in the West. Presumably Drakulic writes so boringly and depressingly because she herself is bored and depressed by the everyday lifeworld of Eastern Europe. Not that she admits to it. ‘For me,’ she says, ‘these women are the most beautiful in the world because I know what is behind the serious, worried faces, the unattended hair.’ This is just a horrible orchestration of phoney emotion. All this slumming it round kitchen tables, all this ‘sorrowful talk, as old as the smell of soup’, all this we-this and we-that – one little word used so often to cover up huge gaps in sympathy and comprehension – it is all just utterly fake. When Drakulic talks about a girl she knows who jumped the Berlin Wall, about a woman friend who killed herself, about her own mother even, the intimacy feels forced, as though she is showing off about it.

The upshot is that Drakulic’s written point of view comes to look very like that adopted by Western travel-writers, the sort who, labouring under the misapprehension that because they have ‘travelled’ in a country more than mere ‘tourists’ do, because they have sometimes even stayed in local houses and broken bread, they have become experts in that country’s affairs. Foreign outsiders on this sort of trip perhaps can hardly be expected to be other than ignorant, thoughtless and hidebound by their own cultural preoccupations. But why should Drakulic feel she has to imitate them? In a book which professes to be about how material deprivation in Eastern Europe is dealt with from day to day as routine, is it necessary to observe that the jam jars, bottle-tops and so on that people collect knowing that they are bound to come in useful some day are things that ‘normal people’ throw away? In a world in which material deprivation and insecurity, political repression, even war are experiences known to most countries, what on earth does she mean by ‘normal people’?

What Drakulic means, of course, is Westerners, and rich ones at that. And in a way, why shouldn’t she? All she is doing is absorbing and reproducing Western media industry assumptions. One gets so used to reading feature-pages which assume that, if you’re intelligent enough to read them at all, you must also be a homeowner who finds endless copy about restaurants and school fees interesting, that after a while one forgets to notice how bizarre is this equation of intelligence and curiosity with worldly wealth. But it is bizarre. And it takes a citizen from a poor country attempting to cater for this tacit norm to make you realise how very cruel it is as well. Drakulic’s anthropological little adjectives aren’t intended to describe or evoke, but to judge. They function as sneaky little signals, dropped into the text to remind us that although the writer may be from this miserable place, she herself is not of it. This isn’t the language of any sort of edification, but the language of shame. Drakulic is ashamed of her family, her friends, her country, that they can enter the media paradise of the Western world, a realm which defines handsomeness and intelligence according to wealth, looking ugly and stupid. All she can do in such circumstances is to bracket herself off.

Every time she opens a copy of Time or Newsweek, she finds herself treated to yet more stories about what a mess her country is in, how it has always been in a mess and how it will always be in a mess, with little interview boxes about how all her countrymen ever dream about is slaughtering Serbs, getting a job in McDonald’s or winning an audience with the Pope. And she knows Westerners well enough to know that few of us have enough grip on international affairs ever to question how or why such demeaning rubbish is constructed. It’s no wonder that Drakulic comes to writing with the feeling that she has so much to prove.

The most illuminating parts of How we survived Communism ... are not those that deal with Eastern Europe in itself, but those that see Drakulic dealing with her felt relationship to her readership head-on. Here, for example, is Drakulic on the subject of a certain North American feminist who invites her to contribute a paper to a book she’s editing – Women in Eastern Europe: A Critical Theory Approach: ‘How easy, how incredibly easy it is for her; she even has an editor! ... I can imagine her, in her worn-out jeans and fashionable T-shirt, with her trimmed black hair, looking younger than she is (aerobics, macrobiotics), sitting at her computer and typing this letter, these very words that sound so absurd that I laugh even more.’

The political climate which gave Drakulic the chance to write a book like How we survived Communism ... in the first place – the collapse of Communism as a ‘system of government’ in Eastern Europe, as ‘a political ideology’ worldwide – are part and parcel of a widespread retreat, in which Western feminism is itself very much involved, away from ideas to do with social collectivity in general. When Vaclav Havel and the other Charter 77 boys wrote their articles about Eastern Europe in the Eighties, it was open to them to mediate their ideas through collectivist concepts like ‘civil society’, ‘popular rapprochement’, ‘democracy from below’. With Eastern Europe thrown with the rest of the world onto the mercy of the free market, such mediations come to seem irrelevant as everybody scrambles to get and then protect their own private niche. Whatever you ever thought of things like the globally transcendent value of feminist testimony, it is clear that such a concept can have no market currency unless you grab it for yourself. This is why Drakulic’s sisterly rhetoric seems even more insincere than sisterly rhetoric has seemed before. All it is really about is Drakulic clinging to her own niche and bleating: ‘Me, me, look at me!’

International-sisterhood-type thinking is premised on the conceit that the affinities between all forms of violence and injustice, from consumer capitalism to state socialism, from bottom-scouring toilet paper to fur coats, are simple and obvious and easily commensurable. This is not and has never been the case. And in the great confusion and suffering it manifests, Drakulic’s book suggests also that nice kind feminism in its own way is also a medium capable of enacting its own special forms of violence and repression. If Gloria and her merry band really and truly care about the psychic and political fate of their international sisters, they’re going to have to give up the gush and puff and acknowledge that sisterhood on its own means virtually nothing.