Women writers from the Balkans rarely reach an English-reading audience, but this year is a notable exception. Three books from the post-Yugoslav space have appeared in the last few months, ranging from a literary journey by master novelist Dubravka Ugresic to the family sagas of first-time authors Sofija Stefanovic and Tania Romanov. While the country of Yugoslavia fell apart over a quarter century ago, these works show that its narratives of loss and belonging are still relevant and alive.
Fox, by Dubravka Ugresic (Open Letter Books)
Dubravka Ugresic opens her latest novel with a bold question: How do stories come to be written? Her search for an answer starts in the world of Russian avant-garde in the 1930s, which has fascinated for her decades since her student encounter with the little-known works of Boris Pilnyak, Doivber Levin, and the OBERIU collective. The journey further involves literary conferences in Italy and England, Nabokov’s West Coast road trips, and Ugresic’s visit to an unexpected inheritance among minefields in Croatia. Hugely personal and autobiographical, this is the story of a writer in self-exile who, at the onset of the Yugoslav wars, “refused to be a Croatian woman,” “refused to be a Serbian woman,” and settled in Amsterdam—but no longer had a home. The search for the key to storytelling is also a search for a path home, ever elusive and mostly unsatisfying, yet fun: “the moment a story slips an author’s control, when it starts behaving like a rotating lawn sprinkler, firing off every which way; when grass begins to sprout not because of any moisture, but out of thirst for a near source of moisture.”
Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, by Sofija Stefanovic (Atria Books)
In 1988, Yugoslavia was still a relatively stable country, where Dubravka Ugresic won the prestigious NIN Prize for her novel Fording the Stream of Consciousness, and 5-year-old Sofija Stefanovic attended an elite French kindergarten. But Stefanovic’s forward-thinking father sensed trouble on the horizon and convinced his wife to relocate to Australia, leaving behind a comfortable life in downtown Belgrade and lots of extended family and friends. This was the beginning of endless journeys between two distant parts of the world, with the news of Balkan conflicts constantly playing in the background and fueling arguments between the author’s parents, whose hearts and minds never moved out of their troubled but beloved hometown. Their children, however, were left searching for a home between the schools of suburban Melbourne and gatherings of the Yugoslav diaspora, the most curious one of which promised the title of beauty queen and a free ticket to the old continent. Both funny and poignant, this is a story of growing up between different cultures under challenging historical and personal circumstances.
Mother Tongue, by Tania Romanov (Travelers’ Tales)
While born in Yugoslavia in the same year as Ugresic, Tania Romanov was forced to leave the country much sooner. Her father was a Russian, a son of czarist emigrants who found refuge in the Yugoslav Kingdom of the 1920s only to lose it during Tito-Stalin split in the late 1940s. But Tania’s mother Zora was no stranger to relocation. Her family had moved across the Balkans when she was an infant because of Mussolini’s annexation of their native Istria Peninsula on the Croatian Coast. With engaging descriptions of the geographical setting and seamless insertion of historical information, Romanov narrates this gripping story of displacement, of a family separated by ever-changing borders, of years spent in refugee camps. This is also a story of perseverance and attachment. The one thing Zora always held onto was her mother tongue, which she managed to pass onto her children despite being the only person who spoke it with them for decades, as they eventually settled in a predominantly Russian community in San Francisco. If language is the only homeland, then Tania Romanov has three, and this book is about the one she left early but never lost.