It is said that writers like Milan Kundera do not exist any more. Not because there are no longer any writers of his stature, but because Kundera was internationally well known for what he represented as a dissident voice as much as for his writing. Stalin’s famous line that ‘writers are engineers of the human soul’ illustrates their importance to communist society.

It was believed that books could help build and strengthen the national identity and educate the public. As long as they played by the rules, socialist writers had a comfortable life. However, that very belief in the strength and importance of a writer’s words meant that dissident writers were persecuted with the same zeal as the regime’s writers were celebrated. The communist state feared writers who were not complicit with its ideology.

Yet, in the post-socialist and post-war climate of the former Yugoslav countries, the situation has changed significantly. Vladimir Arsenijević, a prominent Serbian writer whose novel In the Hold received a prestigious literary award in Serbia in 1995, and has been published in English by Harvill Press, argues that since the fall of communism and disintegration of Yugoslavia it has become more difficult to define freedom of speech and pinpoint instances of its abuse.

Under Slobodan Milošević’s regime in Serbia, writers experienced the loss of their social role and status; they could neither be literary heroes (celebrated by the state) nor literary dissidents (suppressed by the state), and so the very definition of free speech, hence its practice too, changed dramatically. The fact that the state made no official attempts to curb free speech is hardly evidence that true freedom of expression existed. Milošević actively promoted the media climate in which ‘everyone could say whatever they wanted’. Yet, in such an atmosphere of noise, as Arsenijević calls it, no words were actually being heard, only meaningless chatter. Milošević’s regime devalued the writer and their work to the level of semantic insignificance, and since their words could not hurt the state any more, there was no need for overt censorship.

The practice of free speech has become an extremely challenging issue in countries that underwent drastic socio-political changes, such as the former Yugoslavia. It is not enough to look for legislation that protects freedom of expression any more, but to understand the overall context from which literature emerges. Arsenijević shows that specific examples of free speech practices and its curtailment need to influence how this global issue is formulated on an international level. Such reflections can further improve the kind of help that the world can offer to many more writers in new contexts, who now experience difficulties in voicing their opinions.

Andrea Pisac: Your novel In the Hold won a prestigious Serbian literary prize, yet despite this recognition at home for an anti-war novel, some international free speech organisations identified you as a persecuted writer at the time. How would you explain this and were there any concrete attempts to censor or suppress your writing?

Vladimir Arsenijević: The novel was published in the summer of 1994 and won the NIN prize the following year. It is important to understand what went on in the Balkans at the time: 1994-95 were the years when the war in Bosnia came to an end (even though it was a tragic end) and when Slobodan Milošević changed the role he played in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Within the space of a few months, Milošević turned from being a ‘Balkan slaughterer’ into a peacemaker who supported the Dayton agreement.

This change of circumstances was supported by the international media and was eagerly followed by the regime’s media in Serbia too. Only in this very short period of time – never before and never later – was it possible for me to appear on state-controlled TV, radio and print media as a celebrated Serbian writer. This is because it was necessary for Serbia to present itself as a country where all sorts of freedoms were possible.

In a sense, my writing and my position as an oppositional writer were misused by the regime. I knew very well that this was the case and I wasn’t being naive about it. I had a plan to misuse the misuse of my writing too! However, these circumstances changed very quickly. The state regime shifted towards a more rigid nationalistic model again and things I used to say in my interviews – the way I saw the role of Serbia in the war – soon became a threat to people in power. In 1996,I already noticed that invitations to appear in the state media became less frequent and by 1997, the only public output available for me was the media of the so-called ‘Second Serbia’.

This was the oppositional media that heavily critiqued Milošević and the state regime, such as radio B92, the magazine Vreme (Time) or the daily paper Naša Borba (Our Battle). I have never been officially told I was blacklisted nor have I ever received such information from people who had access to state secrets.

So, it was very surprising for me when, in 1998, I was invited by the International Parliament of Writers to take up a residency in Mexico (City) – a city of refuge – as a persecuted writer. Though I eventually accepted the residency in 1999, during the NATO bombing of Serbia and Montenegro, my position was the following: it was true that I was not allowed to appear in the state media, but since I never really wanted to be part of the state regime, I never felt that was a big sacrifice for me anyway. Serbia as such was a terrible country to live in, but it was also a totalitarian country without any structured governance, rather there was an overall chaos where all sorts of things were possible, even certain freedoms, yet that was more an accident and less a guaranteed right.

These spaces where the regime ‘forgot’ to rule slowly became populated by the oppositional media and various citizens’ associations, which together engaged in an intense exchange of ideas criticising the state regime. This battle of ours wasn’t prominent enough because the horrors produced by the state regime overshadowed its efficiency, but it was a consistent effort from the beginning of the 1990s till 2000 to overthrow Milošević and his dictatorship. Finally, when Milošević was arrested, we realised that all of us who were joined together against him were so different, ranging from ultra-nationalist chetniks to the lesbian and gay population. Even though our political views were different, we fought with the same means and the same goal.

When I explained the Serbian context to people in Mexico City and later published my views in Reforma – a widely read daily paper – I was heavily criticised by a distinguished Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa, who believed that I ‘didn’t suffer enough and only misused the generosity of the International Parliament of Writers’. I found her comment shocking and hilarious at the same time. I was under the impression that had I been tortured or imprisoned then I would have got more points as a persecuted writer and I found that deeply insulting and hurtful. It seemed to me that those people in Mexico were almost disappointed that I didn’t describe Serbia as a more dangerous and terrifying place.

Yet I never claimed that Serbia was a country where writers were not endangered. I only said that writers are no different than other people and that all of us living there at the time were endangered in the same way, regardless of being for or against the state regime.

The whole population suffered the consequences of that regime – economic sanctions, inability to travel anywhere because of the visa regime against Serbia and utter poverty. All of us were slyly forced into the situation where we had to pay for the perverse project that the Serbian state regime was trying to achieve. That alone was punishment enough for all the citizens of Serbia.

The fact that writers had never been officially sanctioned by the state did not speak in favour of free speech in Serbia, it merely reflected the utter neglect for what writers and other intellectuals had to say about our social reality. Milošević was right when he concluded that if you allow everyone to say whatever they want, eventually you will create an atmosphere of such noise that nothing will make sense any more. Though we could speak out, our words in such noise carried no meaning.

Andrea Pisac: Do you think that Milošević’s plan to create an atmosphere of noise was a well thought through plan?

Vladimir Arsenijević: Personally, I believe that everything Milošević was doing was more a matter of chance than a well thought through plan. It was part of his character. Here in Serbia, when we theorise about Milošević, we are still not able to say what lay behind his activities. His strategy changed constantly: first, he was a big saviour of the socialist Yugoslavia, then he wanted to preserve Yugoslavia in any shape or form, then he propagated the Greater Serbia and the protection of all Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.

He was a deeply contradictory and aggressive person who just wanted to destroy things. There was a fundamental difference between him and Tudjman in Croatia. Though Tudjman’s means were brutal and autocratic, his political goal was very clear and, in some perverse way, Tudjman was a successful politician. Croatia today is recognised within its post-World War Two borders with a smaller Serbian minority – and that was his political goal. When I said that Tudjman was a successful politician in an interview in Serbia once, I caused an outrage. Of course, I emphasised the word ‘perverse’. But it still didn’t come across well!

Andrea Pisac: Was Milošević consistent in his goal to devalue the status of writers from their position under the communist regime? Back then, writers did have power to comment and even change social reality up to a point.

Vladimir Arsenijević: Milošević despised intellectuals. That attitude of his always emerged in the way he spoke about his values. However, he was very clever to use nationalistic writers to jump start his political career. In other words, there was a period which preceded the Balkan conflicts – in the mid-1980s – of great nationalistic sentiments and deep economic crisis. The Serbian nationalistic fervour was supported by the Serbian Society of Writers and the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

At that time, the Serbian minority in Kosovo demanded that their status be resolved and their political influence secured there. The result was the issuing of the famous ‘memorandum’ – a document that tried to explain the political situation in Yugoslavia and at the same time offer a solution to the problems. It campaigned for an independent Serbia and a strong position for the Serbs in Kosovo. Milošević, by being friends with nationalistic writers who drafted the memorandum, seized power in Serbia.

But soon after, his love for writers waned and he turned his back on them, because they kept supporting Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadžić and Biljana Pkavšić, whereas he had a different agenda at the time. So, his love-hate affair with writers was very unpredictable. He basically needed the freedom to take up any character he wanted in order to achieve his goals, and this constant inconsistency was the only rule of his political agenda.

Andrea Pisac: During the media chaos that you have described how was it possible for a writer like you to exercise your right to free speech and to try and foster social and political change?

Vladimir Arsenijević: Very few writers exercised the right to free speech at that time. There was a peculiar resistance to even write about what was going on. My novel was published in 1994, but the crisis started in 1989 – for five years there was not a single book that reflected our social reality. Writers were very indecisive. The older generation of writers, the ones who called themselves post-modernists, claimed that such social reality was aesthetically of no interest to them, that it offered nothing worth writing about, that it gave no space for literary experimentation. They spoke in a very derogatory way about the wave of realist prose that came about in the mid-nineties.

After my book came out, more writers realised the potential of reflecting everyday realities — some maybe only for the literary fame and a bit of cash because those books sold more. It was journalists and some independent intellectuals (Teofil Pančić, Stojan Cerovic) who spoke out much more about our dark reality. I read more newspapers and less literature at that time. I don’t think it is literature’s duty to reflect everything that goes on around us, but it is extremely important for literature to remain sensitive to big social upheavals and changes that take place in societies. And we did live in times of huge upheaval.

Apart from nationalistic writers, such as Dobrica Ćosić, whose work expressed an open invitation to ethnic hatred and indeed was a reflection of the perverse social reality at the time, I am afraid that most other writers didn’t do their best to take up the challenge and represent other voices that were definitely present.

Andrea Pisac: How can you explain such indecisiveness and reluctance on the part of non-nationalistic Serbian writers? Was it part of a bigger social malaise?

Vladimir Arsenijević: In a way, we were politically immature as a society. We were brought up in Tito’s era which tried to make us into ‘political idiots’ – without any ability to reflect the reality around us, let alone to think we were able to influence it. The nineties caught us unprepared and we were unsure where the responsibilities lay. The majority of people in Serbia felt victimised by the state as it was and they saw no reason and no possible way to take responsibility for the terror that was being perpetrated by the regime in their name.

I am not saying that most people opposed the regime (because somebody had to vote for them in the first place) but for us, who did oppose it, it was more important to make our own position clear than to try and assume partial responsibility for what our own country was doing.

This is why we wanted so much to build up the numbers of people who were in opposition (regardless of the disparate views among us), so we could achieve a critical mass and overthrow Milošević. Being against him was sometimes the only thing that joined us together. We used to march the streets and squares of Belgrade, sometimes even for weeks and months and without any results. We were gutted that no international media output (BBC, CNN or print media) ran stories about our struggles, so we felt very frustrated about everything. Taking partial responsibility on ourselves for what the state was doing almost felt like being an inverted nationalist.

Let me explain this. I have always refused to be identified by my national identity – I am only a Serb by accident, that’s my premise – so taking the responsibility for what the state was doing felt like being dragged into the nationalistic narrative again, as in feeling part of that nation. This was the logic of us writers and intellectuals at the time. We wanted to defend ourselves, not take responsibility for what Milošević was doing.

Andrea Pisac: Is there any kind of overt or covert censorship in Serbia today?

Vladimir Arsenijević: No, I don’t believe there is. I haven’t noticed that publishers are wary about what they choose for publication. And on the state level, I don’t even know who would be in charge of such prohibition. I would say that there is a lack of good will to publish books that deal with issues that are not popular for the general public. One example of this is that there is very little Kosovan literature being translated and published in Serbia. In the last ten years, there has been only one collection of poetry by Dzevdet Bajraj, translated from Albanian and published by the publishing house where I used to work as an editor. I am currently working on another translation from Albanian. However, I don’t think this is a matter of censorship, but of extreme neglect for what is being written in Kosovo, with a single argument that such books would not sell well.

Andrea Pisac: You have lived through difficult times in Serbia and you also received help from international organisations. In your opinion, what would be a good way in which international free speech campaigners could help writers from Serbia or other post-socialist countries?

Vladimir Arsenijević: I would say the help needs to come about with a little more knowledge of the particular context the writer comes from, with a little more sensitivity and with an honest wish to help the other and not only to help in order to satisfy one’s need to help. For example, when the Kosovan writer Dzevdet Bajraj and I went to Mexico, I had a feeling we were there as two museum exhibits whose role was to prove that some organisation was doing their job.

I also had to find my own way to Mexico without any of their help, so I fled the country illegally. All men between the ages of 15 and 56 were forbidden to leave the country because of military duty. It was difficult. But Dzevdet had an even more difficult time fleeing Kosovo – he risked his own life to cross the border between Kosovo and Albania.

My point is that if there isn’t concrete logistical help to get the writer out of the predicament in their country where they are persecuted, no other help in the way of residency makes much difference. It is of very little help if someone tells you: ‘You just get to Frankfurt and the rest will be okay.’ If a writer is tortured, imprisoned, persecuted how will they reach Frankfurt? I am not saying that any other help apart from the logistical one is not welcome, because Dzevdet is still in Mexico today, having a much better life than he would have ever had had he stayed in Kosovo. But this was purely a matter of his own endeavour or pure luck. He never received any help to save his own skin in Kosovo. History tells us of very noble examples when people risked their lives to, for example, save Jews from persecution.

They did it for purely altruistic reasons – because someone needed their help. Many times, the help from international organisations is limited in all sorts of ways. I know they have their own restrictions, but these are then reflected in the kind and amount of help the writer can expect from them.

It would also be much better if there weren’t so much emphasis on the amount of horror the writer had suffered before they reached safety. Sometimes, I had a feeling that the more someone suffered, the more family members they had lost, the more accepted they would be. This is very corrosive for the writer who indeed had suffered so much. Lastly, I think the way international organisations shift their focus from one region to another is detrimental to the consistent support they could offer to writers. One year it is Serbia, the next it’s Sierra Leone. And very often the help you have received in a previous year runs out only because your country does not make headlines any more.

I believe Yugoslavia came as a huge challenge to the international community, because nothing seemed black and white any more as it used to be perceived during the Cold War. And this is just proof that help can be effectively issued once the particular context of a country is researched and understood. The most important thing is never to impose pre-set values and concepts from one culture to another, but to observe the reality of a certain context so that appropriate help can be given to those who need it most.

Vladimir Arsenijević is an award-winning novelist, translator and editor. His novels include In the Hold (Harvill Press).

Andrea Pisac is director of Writers in Translation at English PEN. She is the author of two short story collections: Absence and Until death do us part or Hall you first.

Index on censorship, Time for a revolution?, Volume 38, Number 3, 2009.

Pešč, 05.11.2009.