By Daniel Petrick, 9 December 2020
The North Macedonia portrayed in Rumena Bužarovska’s short stories is a bleak place. Brutish and vainglorious, the men treat their wives and mistresses as unfeeling scullery maids. Suffocated by the patriarchy, the women take their misery out on each other. Taught by their mothers that better things aren’t possible, the women convince each other of the same.
This grim portrait clearly rings true for Bužarovska’s local audience. Her two most recent books, My Husband and I’m Not Going Anywhere, are bestsellers across former Yugoslavia. When My Husband came out in Macedonia in 2014, it immediately sold out. Still popular six years later, it has just about maxed out the limits of success in the minuscule Macedonian-language literary market. Translations coming out of Zagreb and Belgrade have caused a similar stir; Bužarovska’s only equals in sales at her Serbian publisher are the internationally ubiquitous Michel Houellebecq and Elena Ferrante. Now with the recent translation of My Husband into English (Dalkey Archive Press, 2019), a global audience can read the cynical and grotesque stories that have been making Balkan readers grimace and laugh.
My Husband is an exploration of North Macedonia’s patriarchy through 11 female narrators’ stories. Though embedded in a specific local reality, the stories could be taking place just about anywhere. “Patriarchy is the same everywhere,” Bužarovska tells me, “it’s just that it has its own local idiom and characteristics in each place. I simply tell the universal story of it through this local Macedonian prism.”
“I don’t like sentimentality, so every time I think that something is too sentimental I make it grotesque instead”
Focusing less on the vileness of the titular men, which is taken as a given, the book centres on the consequences of patriarchy on women’s intimate lives. Constantly victimised and guided by sets of unexamined cliches, Bužarovska’s narrators are revolted by their own impotence, and in turn by the weakness of others. At times, they unwittingly work more effectively than men to reinforce the chains that imprison them.
Bužarovska’s exploration of the grotesque owes a debt to Flannery O’Connor, writer of the American South, whom Bužarovska — translator and professor of American literature at the University of Skopje — is translating into Macedonian. “I don’t like sentimentality,” Bužarovska says, “so every time I think that something is too sentimental I make it grotesque instead.” Dark humour sells in the Balkans. “The meaner I am, the more successful I am,” Bužarovska laughs. “So I said, okay, in the next book I’m happy to be even more cynical.”
In the story Father, a young woman struggles to adjust to motherhood. The new mothers among her friends smile beatifically while discussing their babies, whereas our narrator thinks her son’s face looks like “an elderly man gasping for breath.” She develops a crescendoing headache across the months as she confronts the unutterable fact that she is revolted by motherhood. Reminiscent of the most violent and shocking of O’Connor’s stories, in the final paragraph, the young mother suddenly relieves her headache in an everyday but cold-blooded act that made me almost drop the book. Yet, Bužarovska’s portrayal of her narrators’ vile acts blames the culture that produced these people just as much as individual cruelty.
Often based on real people and experiences, Bužarovska’s dialogue and characterisations evoke a deep recognition for her regional readership. The narrator’s husband in the first story of the collection was based on experiences she had working at a poetry festival dominated by self-obsessed and petty men. “At one point I just said ‘Oh my God, can you imagine falling in love with an asshole like this and being their wife?’” Bužarovska recounts.
Writing these stories is more than catharsis. “It is revenge,” she says.
“You are taught as a woman to always be nice, and you get taken advantage of because of it. I cringe when I think of the things I’ve endured,” says Bužarovska. “I’ve been nice my entire life, but I’m not nice anymore.” Writing these stories is more than catharsis. “It is revenge,” she says.
In the final story, The Eighth of March, two senior professors make disparaging and invasive comments to a young colleague, called Irena. The senior colleagues later abscond together on an ill-fated tryst, where they suffer mortifying gastrointestinal issues. “The things that are said to Irena are things that have been said to me,” says Bužarovska. “So I poisoned them in the story as a form of revenge. It’s the least I can do.”
But her books go beyond personal dilemmas. Though her characters don’t think better things are possible, Bužarovska does. This implicit subtext in her stories was front and centre when she helped to bring the #MeToo movement to North Macedonia. The campaign started with Bužarovska and six of her friends inviting around 100 women “to all share an experience of sexual harassment with the hashtag ‘segakažuvam’ which means ‘I speak up now’”. “It was not about names, it was not about having one single culprit, but pointing out that this is a systemic problem,” the writer says. The women shared their stories on social media at the same time, on the same day, and the hashtag quickly went viral, inspiring others to speak out. “It hit really seriously,” Bužarovska says. “It was great because it wasn’t just the same feminists who always talk about these things — all these other women joined in too.”
About a year later, they led a second round, similar to the subsequent Croatian #MeToo movement called #zeneujavnomprostoru (or “women in public space”). “It was about how we walk, harassment on public transport, or how we hold keys in our fist out of fear,” says Bužarovska.
While the first round drew ugly backlash across social media, the second one did not. “By then, people on social media got more sensitive to this issue, so we didn’t get any kind of hate, relativisation, or derision of our stories,” the writer explains. She feels like her initiative played a key part in making sexual harassment to be taken more seriously. “We saw we had achieved something and changed society. Not fully, but…”
Though Bužarovska is cynical about North Macedonia, she isn’t convinced that anywhere else is much better. This is the theme of her most recent book (not yet available in English), I’m Not Going Anywhere, a collection of short stories about Macedonians who think that real life is lived elsewhere. The author is trying to fight a stance she often sees. “There’s this narrative of ‘I’m going to leave because this country does not deserve me’,” she says. The book’s stories follow Macedonians who make it to Phoenix, Melbourne, or London, and find failure, flubs, and isolation. Those left behind dream of escape, while naively fetishising everything that is Western.
I’m Not Going Anywhere is in part a response to reactions of the grim and cynical stories of My Husband. “I consider the stuff that I write to be hyperrealist,” says Bužarovska, “but if I was writing from America, or Germany, or the UK, I don’t think my writing would have been any less bleak. I don’t think Macedonia is that horrible. I just write literature and literature is bleak.”