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Borders are the New Black

Date: 02/01/2016
Pedja Jurišić

In 2015, more than one million refugees and migrants made the perilous trip to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. In October alone, to beat the onset of winter and closing European borders, their number rose to nearly a quarter million, a record, and more than the total for all of 2014, as per UNHCR figures. No coherent European policy has emerged to deal with the crisis and there is little hope that one will develop. To fill this void, nations have mostly sought to ensure that the refugees are someone else's problem, providing safe passage north, to Germany and Sweden, or barring entrance entirely. No land, it seems, wants to be the last to shut its doors.

The immigrants’ religious and cultural background, as well as their sheer number, are said to be unassimilable into European society. Their values are said to be contrary to  European values which, after decades of being put forth as universal, are suddenly being regarded as both culturally specific and very, very fragile—a...

The Work of Art in an Age of Digital Reproduction

Date: 01/28/2016
Una Tanović

The artist Anur Hadžiomerspahić has 5000 friends. He’d like to have more, but Facebook caps the number at five thousand. It’s a generous allowance, considering studies in evolutionary psychology have demonstrated that human beings, like our primate ancestors, can only maintain approximately 150 complex social connections at any given time. Facebook, of course, isn’t overly concerned with evolutionary psychology; the company cites “back-end technology” as a reason for the limit. And yet the social network and the parameters of its algorithm do shape how its users think about the social world.

Sixty-eight years ago, George Orwell warned against the dangers of Newspeak:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall...

Favorite Things

Date: 01/07/2016
Tanya Jayani Fernando

In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry says that when we find something beautiful we have the urge to share it. I sent a link to a beautiful performance to Massachusetts Review editor Jim Hicks, and he thought of “Favorite Things,” a blog series where artists, scholars, and friends of the performing arts share a piece and allow others to encounter it, perhaps for the first time, perhaps again.  

Through beauty’s encounter, Scarry argues, we begin to imagine life otherwise—as just. She offers us Homer, Dante, Leonardo, Matisse: art for the ages. A century earlier in What Is Art?, though beauty is not the category Tolstoy uses, he is adamant that a work attains the pinnacle of art only when it soars through the ages in its call to a common humanity.

Tolstoy reminds us of art’s value. He indicts bourgeois society and those who both create and are heralded by its institutions: artists who become the demi-gods of its firmament. Art should not...

For They Become the River

Date: 01/02/2016
Maria Nazos

Martìn Espada’s newest poetry collection entitled Vivas to Those Who Have Failed presents a series of poems that speak to hope and despair, of a world where bullets melt into bells, and of a future in which poets provide spiritual clarity.

More concretely, the collection borrows from the elegy and...


Date: 12/31/2015
Erri De Luca

Once upon a time, I came across the following scene: A small child wishes his grandmother happy birthday, and then says, “Cheer up, Grandma, most of it is done.” This comment inspired the title of my last book to be published in Italy: The Most and the Least.

Most is a life counted out, as it happened; least is what has yet to happen—it corresponds to that interim adverb for time, ancora (a word in Italian that can mean both “still” or “again,” and, more to the point, “yet”). By its very nature, ancora has no fixed expiration. For me it’s an adverb that advises—that I should still keep at it a bit longer, write a bit more, keep meddling with the world, climb. Even now: ancora is the most affectionate exhortation not to put things off. At my age, ancora is the best possible greeting to give people of my generation, or myself. I took leave of the time governed by most when fifty years went by, reasonably...

On Writing for Justice

Date: 12/16/2015
Jules Chametzky

A review of WRITING FOR JUSTICE: Victor Séjour, the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and the Age of Transatlantic Emancipations, by Elèna Mortara. Lebanon NH: Dartmouth College Press. University Press of New England, 2015. 

The title of this book and especially its subtitle attest to the ambition and historic sweep of the subjects and stories Elèna Mortara has undertaken to tell in this extraordinarily interesting and thickly researched work. There are two main narratives, that of the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara, born in Bologna in 1852, then part of the Papal States, who—at the age of two, when he seemed about to die—was taken secretly by his family's maid to be baptized, while his parents were away. In 1858, when the story came out, Pope IX had the child abducted and brought to...

The World According to Trump

Date: 12/09/2015
Jim Hicks

To most people, the idea that lectures in literature classes have policy implications will seem laughable. Such people, I’m fairly sure, haven’t spent a good deal of time in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And they certainly don’t know its history.

As for me, given recent headlines, well, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a friend, Djordje Slavnić. He died just a few months ago, another late casualty in a war that ostensibly ended twenty years ago. (What I’ve just said will make little sense to the vast majority of people in this country—those who have no direct connection to any of our wars. The others will need no explanation.) Yesterday, for example, I felt compelled to tell my students what Djordje once told me about one of his professors at the University of Sarajevo, a man named Nikola Koljević.


Registration at the Border

Date: 11/18/2015
Erica Johnson Debeljak

Refugees under police escort to Brežice last October.
(Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images, from The Guardian)

During the month of October 2015, Hungary closed its southern borders and refugees crossing Serbia were diverted through Croatia and Slovenia. Each day some eight thousand refugees began entering Slovenia, a country with a population of less than two million. Upon entering the Schengen zone in Slovenia, refugees were gathered at three collection points—Dobova, Rigonci, and Brežice—where they were required to register before continuing their journey onward to Austria and Germany. On October 20, a fire erupted at the Brežice collection...

The Absence of Power

Date: 11/14/2015
Jim Hicks

   Jean Jullien, "Peace for Paris" (from @jean_jullien on Twitter)

Every discussion about the Middle East today, understandably, turns sooner or later to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Talking heads may not have yet sounded this particular theme in connection to what happened in Paris on Friday, but it shouldn’t take long. The US war in Iraq, and the long agony of Syria, are surely fewer squares away on the geopolitical board game, but I/P is still just a hop, skip, and jump. What will tie it all nicely together, as usual, is religion (from the Latin, re-ligare, “to bind”).

It might easily be assumed—and perhaps is dreamed today by the most delirious of religious radicals—that the key aim of...

Hanging with Dubravka

Date: 10/29/2015
Ellen Elias-Bursac

It was already great that Columbia's Slavic Department and the Harriman Institute, at Radmila Gorup's prompting, invited Dubravka Ugrešić to teach a month-long mini-course this October.  And then Aleksandar Bošković, who teaches Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian language and literature in the Columbia Slavic Department, decided to share the joy: he organized a two-day conference dedicated entirely to Ugrešić's work, bringing together scholars from University College London, the University of Rijeka, York University, the University of Michigan, and Eastern Michigan University to talk about her novels and essays. Even better, Ugrešić herself was there to give the keynote. It's not often that a writer is present at a conference dedicated to their work; the panelists agreed they were fine with her hearing them present their papers, so we had the additional pleasure of her comments, notably in a lively discussion on the configuration of "nostalgia" in the post-war period.