Redeveloping Identity in the Developing World

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After decades of war and economic depression, the new century has brought a new literature to the surface of the Balkan Peninsula. With the fall of former Yugoslavia, writers previously kept imprisoned, in exile or in hiding have slowly reemerged to the point of international recognition. In the years following the Croatian War of Independence, these voices have been instrumental in the establishment of a new national identity, and Portland's own Ooligan Press has been a part of it, publishing three Croatian translations and marketing them for over a decade.

It was ten years ago this summer that Ooligan Press at Portland State University published its first Croatian translation in partnership with the Croatian Ministry of Culture, and the press has since revised and edited three novels from the country that continue to provide a strong link between the Publishing Program at Portland State, and the literary community of the capital city of Zagreb. While these works have already been recognized and renowned throughout Eastern and Middle Europe, Ooligan Press translated them into English for the first time in their entirety. Each work is unique in format and style, but all share a common motif in symbolic representations of the post-war experience.

The first installment, The Survival League, by Gordan Nuhanovic, is a series of short stories depicting diverse, often humorous social situations in which a host of characters struggle with new challenges in the confusion of a shell-shocked and uncertain populace. Nuhanovic’s history in punk and new-wave music in the ‘80s, and journalism in the war-torn ‘90s, allows for clear and trenchant details to compliment his more humorous or overtly political reflections. Although some common themes run through the collection, each story has its own unique approach to the unpredictable nature of the post-war period.

Following The Survival League was the publication of Zagreb, Exit South, by Edo Popovic, a novel made up of numerous day-in-the-life characterizations against a tumultuous backdrop of post-war depression. Popovic draws on his own experiences in addressing the tensions between new freedoms and new problems in a postmodern, globalized society. The book specifically examines the often absurd and contradictory nature of a new, primarily proletarian class of artists and writers (sound familiar?).

The final book in the series, American Scream/Palindrome Apocalypse, by Dubravka Oraic Tolic, consists of two epic poems drawing on war themes and national identity politics throughout history. Both poems are densely layered with comparative imagery and historical references as well as the symbolic play on words. While the palindromic elements of the second poem do not translate directly into English, the Croatian version was published by its side for visual effect.

Rarely do epic poems receive international recognition and attention among today’s readers, but American Scream/Palindrome Apocalypse is a controversial attack on the dangerous repercussions of a global pop-culture out of touch with its history. For Croatia in particular, the postmodern sensibility is emphasized by its post-war and post-communist implications. For the most part, new structures have risen from the destruction of the old paradigms, yet in some sectors an absence of structure remains, and that sense of dissolution is translated into art and literature as a new, universally significant aesthetic.

For some of Popovic’s characters, the new government and new world mean nothing more than a change of company ownership, represented in one scene by the disappearance of a popular brand of domestic beer. For others, “democracy” and globalization amount to westernization, for better or worse. While it is clear that there are uncertainties in the choices and directions of a new Croatia, the expression of those uncertainties is no longer obstructed by any war or regime. Whatever becomes of their country, Croatians will have a voice with which to address it, and that voice is beginning to spread well beyond their borders.

This partnership between Ooligan, which is a student-run trade press, and the Croatian Ministry of Culture, tasked with promoting the country’s art and culture in international markets, has been a success for over a decade, and it continues to provide a model for small press startups interested in English translations of popular titles throughout the world. These authors, having written themselves into the history books of their homeland, were able to reach new readers through a small academic nonprofit with big dreams, and it was because of this relationship that Ooligan was able to grow as quickly as it did, becoming the thriving hub of academic and literary achievement it is today. Pick up a new edition of these great novels and join us in celebrating over ten years of success since their publication, giving students and Portlanders a first-hand opportunity in experiencing the unique nature of contemporary Croatian literature.


Jay E.

Jay E.

Portland, Oregon, United States

Freelance Writer, Editor and Private Tutor with extensive experience in multiple fields, I use my background in small-press publishing and non-profit advocacy to support the free expression of ideas through new media, new writing and new enterprises worthy of quality creative...

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