Prize-winning author equates selection to 'luck'

Dubravka Ugresi

OKLAHOMA CITY — Dubravka Ugresic admits she’s like most fellow writers — insecure.

So despite an already impressive collection of writing accolades, Ugresic said she found herself “pleasantly surprised” to find out she had won the 2016 prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Still she equates her selection as a matter of “luck,” she wrote via email from Amsterdam where she resides.

The panel of nine international authors who selected the Croatian-born novelist, though, would beg to differ. Ugresic, the 24th laureate and the first female European winner, will be honored later this month at the University of Oklahoma when she visits the state for the first time to claim her award and participate in events that will honor her life and work through theater, panels and readings.

“I know of no other writer who has been so adept at translating an experience of war and exile to the observation of the foibles and shortcomings of humankind, to leave the reader feeling, if occasionally somewhat despondent, nevertheless bemused and comforted by her humor and often vicious attacks on the very same things we have all suffered from or protested against as we try to go about our daily lives,” wrote juror Alison Anderson, in her nominating statement.

The Neustadt award, a biennial honor sponsored by the University of Oklahoma, is sometimes considered America’s version of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It honors the best poet, fiction writer or playwright in the world. Many of the winners and finalists have gone on to actually win a Nobel Prize, the organization says.

It also comes with a $50,000 cash prize, which Ugresic said would help pay her expenses while she writes.

Her latest book, which also happens to be her favorite, will be published in the Netherlands next year.

Ugresic’s work often highlights the plight of refugees and living in exile — hot-button issues in today’s political climate. They’re also issues Ugresic understands all too well, being a Croatian exile herself.

After the 1991 war broke out in former Yugoslavia, Ugresic said she found herself ostracized for her anti-war stances and criticism of Croatian and Serbian nationalism, so she left the country two years later.

“At one point, my country left me — that’s how I found myself in exile,” she said. “Will I return to Croatia? I might. Or not. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

From the moment Ugresic left the country and her job at the Croatian University of Zagreb, she became a freelance writer, making her living using her words.

Occasionally, she said she’s invited to teach — mostly in America.

“I like to communicate with students,” she said. “I like to know what and how young people think and how do they see the world around them.”

Her writings, many of which have been translated into 20 languages, including English, are usually inspired by “some detail, a tiny thing, a phrase, an expression on somebody’s face, a sound, a spot, a scent, a memory,” she said trailing off, adding that aspiring writers should always be “passionate readers first.”

Still, Ugresic might come off as a bit eccentric at times.

Ask her how old she is and she’ll respond: “Writers are supposed to be ageless, don’t you think so?” She hasn’t even given festival organizers her age.

Ask her about whether she has a spouse or children, and she’ll point you toward “a little essay” she once wrote about how people from different countries do “the small talk,” as she puts it. She deftly sidesteps that question, too.

Ugresic also stresses that when she gives her keynote speech on Oct. 28 — the final day — people shouldn’t read too much into her message.

“I am not a prophet, a priest, an angel, a politician or a policeman to deliver a message,” she said. “I am just a writer.”

The Neustadt Festival is free to the public. It runs Oct. 26-28.

For more information about the schedule of events, visit www.neustadtprize.org.

Stecklein is CNHI’s Oklahoma reporter.

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