My mother said, “just imagine this situation we’re in is a massive black cloud falling from the sky, and be like a net. Allow it to pass through you.” I pictured a net through which a black cloud is squeezed, dispersing into many pieces; I imagined holding my breath as it passed, careful not to catch the noxious substance myself.
Sofija Stefanovic was born in Belgrade, Serbia, then part of Yugoslavia, in the 80s. The region soon began experiencing instability, economic troubles, political upheaval, and of course, eventually war. Her parents emigrated to Australia before the biggest troubles began with the intention of acquiring citizenship as insurance, in case the situation in the Balkans got worse. So they actually emigrated twice – that initial jaunt for citizenship, and again when their worst fears came to pass, this time permanently.
They settled in the suburbs of Melbourne, and Sofija grew up with both the memories of childhood and family in Belgrade and the immigrant experience to a new country, with a different culture, language, and people. It’s a not uncommon experience, but there’s something special about her telling of it. She has both a light, much-needed sense of humor plus a sensitivity to much of what life throws at her, the combination making her impossible not to like.
The book begins with her participation in a silly beauty pageant, with the aim of crowning the Miss Ex-Yugoslavia of Melbourne. She’d been roped in through a family friend, and as she observes the women around her, also immigrants from that once-troubled region where ethnicities and nationalities warred against each other, now all together backstage getting glammed up for the contest, she considers how far she’s come and what it all means, especially the identity that comes with her roots.
This includes the massive culture shock she experiences. As one small example, she describes the wonders she felt in the Singapore airport, where they transited en route to Australia: “Everything I knew up until then had been confined to crumbling, socialist Yugoslavia. It was my home and I loved it, but that’s because I’d never been to the Singapore Airport.”
The narrative skips back and forth between Australia and Serbia, as the family themselves do, touching on life back in Serbia, their new feelings about their adopted country, and how they themselves are adapting. She peppers in detailed scenes and anecdotes from her Serbian family, and her recounting of visits back home in her late adolescence were compelling – uncomfortable, strangely sentimental yet disconnected, a reverse culture shock. Even as Australia wins her over, the memory of her homeland lingers.
Much of her observation comes from this childlike perspective but with an adult sense of humor and understanding, and it all just works so well together. This is helped by her writing just being so wonderfully funny. Here she describes their initiation into the weird world of Australian creatures, after first thinking someone was spying on them from the bushes of their home: “Dad discovered a cat-sized, bug-eyed creature with a curled tail sitting on a branch, breathing as loudly as a human pervert might.”
The publisher likens the memoir to novelist Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure, also a memoir of immigrating to an English-speaking country from a communist one in upheaval. It’s similarly snarky, smart, and both dark and sensitive in turns – I really liked that book too, so if you also enjoyed it, this one is your next must-read.
Stefanovic’s memoir may have affected me more though, maybe because of the female perspective and the kind of things – serious and sad but also hilarious – that are part of that. Including her detailing of teenage romances and dramas from this perspective. Often I hate this topic in books, but it didn’t bother me here – I’m not sure there’s anything she writes about that doesn’t come off as charming and interesting.
That includes, although more interesting and less charming, the political situation in Yugoslavia. This is such a complex area, and this is far from a history book, but I learned so much so easily about the region and the conflicts, more than I can remember learning elsewhere about these topics. My husband and his family also fled Serbia when he was a child because of the war, so I have some understanding about it from their experience. But she tells it here so accessibly, it’s really a wonderful thing that she’s done – to make this history so clear and readable for many readers who may not know so much about this time or region. I kept reading sections aloud to my husband and even he was impressed.
Sections like this, where she wrote about her mother feeling lucky to live under Yugoslavian communism, so different from Iron Curtain communism: “She’d grown up counting her lucky stars that she wasn’t born in a country like Poland or Hungary, which had ended up behind the Iron Curtain.” My husband’s mother is from Poland, and they’ve told me about the differences in the atmospheres of Poland and Serbia, and Stefanovic provides an excellent picture of these kind of political and cultural elements to anyone who hasn’t had the benefit of such personal stories.
I can’t stress enough how interesting it is to learn from these kind of perspectives she shares on what life was like and how her family made difficult decisions that they hoped would be for the better. That history is integral to immigrant identity, shaping mindsets, how they handle problems, their perception and assimilation into their adopted countries, everything. I think it’s also important in the ever-ongoing debates about immigration happening worldwide. Personal accounts like this shed revealing light on motivations and backgrounds.
And, bonus, she loves nonfiction:
I loved reading fiction, but more and more, nonfiction spoke to me: I knew that telling stories like my grandma Xenia had told me was a powerful way of showing the world to people.
She’s our kind of people. Hilarious yet often movingly serious, sensitive coming-of-age within the immigrant experience, with surprisingly readable historical and sociopolitical asides and a smart, beautiful voice at the heart of it all. Verdict: 4.5/5
Miss Ex-Yugoslavia: A Memoir
by Sofija Stefanovic
published April 17, 2018 by Atria (Simon & Schuster)
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.