Nobody’s Home

Known as something of a writer’s writer, Dubravka Ugresic began her career with a series of postmodernist fiction in the 1970s and 1980s. This gained her some recognition in her childhood home – Yugoslavia – but it wasn’t until the outbreak of war there and her subsequent anti-nationalist stance that she began to achieve wider international fame. Unfortunately, Ugresic’s uncompromising eye also led to a media witch-hunt in Croatia and she decided to leave the country in 1993.

This is all pertinent to *Nobody’s Home*, Ugresic’s new collection of essays, not least because the majority of the pieces reflect on the dangers of nationalism along with its micro-persona, ‘personal identity’. Ugresic is also now writing through the frame of the ‘writer-in-exile’, an interesting position for a woman so leery of national tags; interesting, too, in an increasingly porous and globalizing world. As she moves from country to country, she finds herself party to the migration of the world. And how to understand terms like ‘exile’ and ‘nation’, when nobody’s home?

Cogent and lucid, the essays are shot through with instances of individual colour (goldfish at the Moscow bird market, small girls in Zagreb pasting flower petals to their fingers), which often turn them into something quite beautiful. But she also betrays a weakness for generalization and is not above using the national stereotypes she’s keen to condemn. For posing thorny questions, though, she remains hard to beat. Take her friend, for instance, as cited in her essay on literary labelling: ‘an Indian man born in Calcutta, who lives in New York and writes about Europe’. Now, how to compartmentalize him?

Girls of Riyadh

Girls of Riyadh book cover

*Girls of Riyadh*, 25-year-old Rajaa Alsanea’s début, caused a stir when it first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2005. Flagged by the Government for inflammatory content, the novel’s offences included its subversive depiction of women and its encouragement of ‘vice’. With public denunciations reaching a feverish pitch, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the novel went on to do a roaring trade on the local black market and soon found a US publisher.

It’s not difficult to see where the controversy came from. Billed as a Saudi Sex in the City, *Girls of Riyadh* lifts the veil on the lives of four young women. Sadeem, Lamees, Gamrah and Michelle, all members of Saudi Arabia’s privileged ‘velvet class’, career around Riyadh, encountering love and heartbreak and inviting us into a way of life which, while stereotypically Middle Eastern, also contains many touchstones. OK, Sadeem and her friends aren’t supposed to drive. They can’t open bank accounts. They wear traditional clothes. But they also listen to Britney Spears. They steal their father’s Dom Perignon, get around the law by driving cars with tinted windows, check their horoscopes, indulge in plastic surgery and spend thousands of dollars on designer dresses. It’s not quite the life of an ‘average’ Western woman – but Carrie Bradshaw, anyone?

It’s a shame that *Girls of Riyadh* is, ultimately, a flawed piece of writing. As a cultural peephole it works very well. As a novel, the sentences are clunky, the dialogue is wooden, and the imagery and set pieces are clichéd. Characters, meanwhile, exist less as rounded people than as ciphers through which to explore female issues.

For insight into a normally invisible part of Saudi Arabian society, *Girls of Riyadh* is fascinating. Just don’t expect finely crafted fiction.

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