Storyteller Sofija Stefanovic’s ‘Miss Ex-Yugoslavia’

By Jessica Au
A vivid account of growing up in a time of war, between two worlds

In the popular imagination, to have grown up in the former Yugoslavia – in Zagreb, Belgrade or Sarajevo – during the 1990s would have been to come of age during a time of war. Even so, for those who were born there, the story must necessarily be different: muddier, deeper. As Sofija Stefanovic describes it in her memoir, Miss Ex-Yugoslavia (Penguin; $34.99), the former nation was also “our great transnational experiment”. Tito may have been a dictator – one whose elaborate funeral was repeatedly screened on television years after his death – and somewhat of a joke among educated intellectuals. But he also created in Yugoslavia a unique civic project. “This was our special place in the world, and there was much to love about our distinct mixture of openness and peculiarity,” writes Stefanovic. “[Y]oung Russians travelled to Belgrade to stock up on their illicit copies of Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs. The English came to enjoy our beaches, where liberated Yugoslavian women sunbathed topless. We were inexpensive, laid-back, built on hope.”

By the time that hope had disintegrated into nationalist conflict, Stefanovic had left Belgrade not once, but twice. The first time, she is five, and the family have decided to head to Australia. The decision is not entirely unanimous – Stefanovic’s father, an engineer, is curious about the capitalist West and the possibilities of betterment and reward. Her mother, a psychologist and academic, and part of Belgrade’s intellectual set, is more sympathetic to the socialist endeavour and rightly fears cultural isolation. In 1991, a fated year, they return to Yugoslavia, just as pieces of the federal republic begin to separate like chunks from an iceberg, and the family leave for Australia a second time.

Why write the self, and what about it is worthy of scrutiny? In part, it’s the author’s drive to turn over some aspect of her past, and integrate it with her present, what Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir calls the “psychic struggle”. It is this struggle that can give a book its energy and structure, its voice and its peculiar truth, and create emotional investment for the reader. Stefanovic, whose first book was the brilliant Penguin special, You’re Just Too Good To Be True, writes in Miss Ex-Yugoslavia with journalistic clarity, but what of this sense unique “you-ness”, that Karr writes of? Recent history stitches the book together, but Stefanovic’s real attention is on family anecdotes and growing pains. She knows the young Sofija to have a writer’s soul: she thinks in story, and she’s precocious and performative, yet she struggles to express herself. Twice alienated, she’s reflective too of the strange pressures of code-switching, finally mastering the languages (both spoken and cultural) of one country only to be pushed into another. Yet one senses that there’s more to be mined here, more “you-ness” to be had.

Another of the rewards of memoir is connection: when the writer is able to delve into their own psyche with such a level of self-awareness that we feel a jolt of recognition, despite ourselves. Miss Ex-Yugoslavia follows a conventional form: birth, childhood, adolescence and emancipation, all book-ended by the local beauty contest that gives the book its name. Throughout, the voice stays rooted in the present, and there’s little of the sense of the long duration or shifts in time, self-doubt or precariousness, that can give memoir its rich and varied texture. Parts of the book grew out of the Moth, a live storytelling event held in cities worldwide, and some of the anecdotes, perhaps fashioned for these audiences, feel vivid but compressed.

It’s no easy thing to look inward – other narratives, from the stories of nations to the stories of others, will always get in the way – and it’s not that Stefanovic doesn’t offer us interior glimpses either. Rather, it’s a question of balance, and of being in dialogue with a genre whose authors are increasingly unafraid to know their struggle and use it.

Jessica Au

Jessica Au is a Melbourne writer and an associate editor at Aeon.

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