Miss Ex-Yu­goslavia

Sofija Ste­fanovic

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

In 1982, Sofija Ste­fanovic is born into a sta­ble and peace­ful Yu­goslavia. Mar­shal Tito is dead but the guid­ing prin­ci­ples of Brother­hood and Unity that have held the repub­lic to­gether for 40 years are hold­ing firm. With a dot­ing ex­tended fam­ily, and par­ents who have en­joyed the so­cial­ist repub­lic’s free ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem to be­come pro­fes­sion­als – her fa­ther an en­gi­neer and her mother a psy­chol­o­gist – her early child­hood is happy.

Then, in 1987, Slo­bo­dan Miloše­vić rises to promi­nence on pro-Ser­bian rhetoric and her fa­ther per­suades her mother to leave. And so be­gins Sofija’s life in Aus­tralia, as a newly ar­rived im­mi­grant and as a mem­ber of a grow­ing Yu­goslav com­mu­nity. There fol­lows many years of trav­el­ling back and forth be­tween the eastern sub­urbs of Mel­bourne and an in­creas­ingly be­lea­guered Bel­grade.

In Mel­bourne, Sofija’s Yu­gosla­vian iden­tity is a mixed bless­ing. At times, she iden­ti­fies strongly with her home­land, find­ing new friends at a “Yugo night” in the city with whom she dances to Croa­t­ian new-wave hits from the ’70s. At oth­ers, she wants des­per­ately to be a “nor­mal” Aus­tralian girl un­trou­bled by con­flicts on the other side of the world.

As per con­ven­tion of the com­ing-of-age story, the years fly by while cer­tain piv­otal mo­ments are re­lated in de­tail. Some of these are more en­gag­ing than oth­ers. Ste­fanovic’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a writer has been mostly for stage, as a reg­u­lar at The Moth, and through host­ing Women of Let­ters in New York and This Alien Na­tion, a night ded­i­cated to sto­ries of im­mi­gra­tion. No doubt many of the sto­ries in her book have been ironed out in front of live au­di­ences be­fore be­ing com­mit­ted to the page and some may have worked bet­ter in this con­text, where colour­ful char­ac­ters and good sto­ry­telling in­stincts are enough.

But the best mem­oir has some­thing to say about the form it­self. Some­thing about the func­tion of sto­ries in our lives, about sub­jec­tiv­ity, about mem­ory. Think Nadja Spiegel­man’s I’m Sup­posed to Pro­tect You from All This, or To­bias Wolff ’s This Boy’s Life, both of which tell grip­ping sto­ries while rais­ing ques­tions about our im­pulse to tell these sto­ries in the first place. Without this ele­ment, mem­oir can feel a lit­tle light, a lit­tle too un­re­flex­ively con­ven­tional. Miss Ex-Yu­goslavia suf­fers from this. But it is also a book full of good sto­ry­telling and mem­o­rable char­ac­ters, some of whom, such as Sofija’s sple­netic par­ents, for which you feel great af­fec­tion by the book’s end. SH

Vik­ing, 288pp, $34.99

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