Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 7, 2018

Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, by Sofija Stefanovic

I came across this interesting memoir via Non-Fiction November, when I read the review at What’s Non Fiction. 

Sofija Stefanovic is based in New York, but like me, she’s an Australian with roots elsewhere.  She was born in what was Yugoslavia and is now Serbia, and migrated to Australia to escape the growing instability in the 1980s.  Her father loved it here, but her mother missed home, so (having prudently acquired Australian citizenship first) they went back, only to find that things were worse than before.  And so they returned, to join the community of Yugoslavs in Melbourne, whose numbers were by then swollen by refugees fleeing the violence.

To deflect any sense that this is another misery memoir of discrimination and not belonging, Stefanovic begins with a droll chapter about a beauty pageant that she has organised.  The competitors are all from the now separate countries that used to be Yugoslavia:

The idea of a beauty pageant freaks me out, and ex-Yugoslavia as a country itself is an oxymoron — but the combination of the two makes the deliciously weird Miss Ex-Yugoslavia competition the ideal subject for my documentary film-making class. (p. ix)

She is herself a competitor, but she is struggling with the ‘look’.

It’s 2005, I’m twenty-two, and I’ve been living in Australia for most of my life.  I’m at Joy, an empty Melbourne nightclub that smells of stale smoke and is located above a fruit and vegetable market.  I open the door to the dressing room, and when my eyes adjust to the fluorescent lights I see that young women are rubbing olive oil on each other’s thighs.  Apparently, this is a trick used in ‘real’ competitions, one we’ve hijacked for our amateur version.  For weeks I’ve been preparing myself to stand almost naked in front of everyone I know, and the day of the big reveal has come around quickly.  As I scan the shiny bodies for my friend Nina, I’m dismayed to see that all the other girls have dead-straight hair, while mine, thanks to an overzealous hairdresser with a curling wand, looks like a wig made of sausages.

‘Dodi, lutko,’ Nina says as she emerges from the crowd of girls.  Come here, doll.  ‘Maybe we can straighten it.’ She brings her hand up to my hair cautiously, as if petting a startled lamb.  Nina is a Bosnian refugee in a miniskirt.  As a contestant she is technically my competitor, but we’ve become close in the rehearsals leading up to the pageant.

Under Nina’s tentative pets, the hair doesn’t give.  It’s been sprayed to stay like this, possibly forever. (p. viii)

This jaunty style is maintained throughout the book, transitioning into a more serious tone only when the author explains the political chaos that was the catalyst for her family’s migrations, or when there is personal tragedy.  The story covers her childhood, teenage years and early adult years, adjusting to the differences between a crumbling soviet society and a liberal democracy.  These differences are exemplified by the differences between her constantly-warring parents: her father is a skilled IT professional, whose ambitions flourish in Australia.  Her mother, thanks to the soviet education system and its opportunities for women, is a multilingual professional psychologist-counsellor, and part of an intellectual elite.  She doesn’t adjust very well to being a housewife with limited English in Australia.  All those of us with a cherished network of female friends can imagine how hard this must be.  My own mother lost her networks over and over in my peripatetic childhood, and in most places we lived, there wasn’t a language difference to make things even harder.

Stefanovic makes the point that this is a memoir, not a history, and she also explains how tiresome it was that Australians, through the limited lens of the media, often assumed that Serbs were all supporters of the Serbian leadership in this fraught period.  Her parents were activists against Serbian nationalism, perhaps at some risk to themselves.  Nevertheless, readers who know nothing about the dissolution of Yugoslavia should be aware that Miss Ex-Yugoslavia does not tell the full story.  To understand why NATO intervened in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, and in Kosovo in 1999,  necessitates mention of ethnic cleansing, which is briefly acknowledged, and genocide and mass rape, which is not.   These omissions are authorial choices, made perhaps because of the light-hearted style of the memoir, and implicitly justified by its opening chapter which celebrates ex-Yugoslavs overcoming the hatreds of their history to live peaceably among one another in Melbourne.

I was, however, surprised to read that Bentleigh West Primary School in the 1980s was ‘not used to‘ teaching children for whom English was a second language.  As it happens I taught at that school in the early 1980s, when there were regular ESL classes taught by a specialist ESL teacher.  We had a large community of Greeks, nearly all of whom arrived in Prep, with not a word of English because they spoke their mother tongue at home.  When I refresh my memory with the class photos, I see Italian names as well, and I’ll never forget the Japanese boy who bonded with me over a collage of Japanese consumer goods, because they were the first words we had in common.   It is my recollection that although most of the teachers were of Anglo background, there were at least two who spoke another language at home, and that under the leadership of a dynamic principal the school was a welcoming place for students of all backgrounds. (I myself organised a whole school celebration for Greek Independence Day in 1982.   The night beforehand the Ex and I were up till midnight cutting up lamb for souvlaki for a school of 300+ students!)  So while I don’t dispute that Stefanovic may have had some unhappy experiences, or that the class teachers may not have had much or any training in teaching ESL students, her generalisation about the culture, experience and expertise of the school strikes me as inaccurate.

But this is a minor issue in an otherwise authentic-seeming book, which I enjoyed reading.

Author: Sofija Stefanovic
Title: Miss Ex-Yugoslavia
Publisher: Viking, Penguin Random House, 2018, 264 pages
ISBN: 9780143785453
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Miss Ex-Yugoslavia


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa, That must have been an interesting moment when you saw Bentleigh West Primary School mentioned! It does sound like a very eclectic mix of students there. Perhaps the author should have talked about her individual experiences there, rather than saying what the staff were or weren’t used to.

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    • Hi Andrew, she does a bit of that too, but there’s a kind of mythology about migrants in schools and how terrible it all was, as if somehow teachers were responsible for the homesickness that made them miserable. The truth is that teachers had been teaching an influx of non English speaking migrants since the 1950s, and had actually done a surprisingly good job of it, because those children were entering the professions by the time this book was written, and indeed there were two of those teaching at that school. I suspect that you couldn’t be a teacher in metropolitan Melbourne without being experienced with ESL kids.
      This author was a child whose grandmother had to go to school with her before ever they left Yugoslavia because she cried all the time, and you know, #SadTruth despite the best efforts of teachers, other children do not usually want to play with weepy kids who are in tears all the time.
      And that old trope about changing children’s names? I remember the journalist Jana Wendt claiming that she’d been turned into ‘Jane’ at school, which was a surprise to us because she was in my sister’s class and had always been known as Jana…

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  2. I read the beginning of this post days ago and have been looking forward to getting to the end. It sounds like a terrific memoir, though I’m glad you were able to pull her up where your experience intersects with hers. I’ve mixed with ex-Yugoslavians since I started work, and I’ve always wondered where that extreme nationalism came from.

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    • LOL I feel the same way when I see those yobboes draped in the Australian flag on Australia Day…

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  3. Reblogged this on LIVING THE DREAM.

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  4. […] Lee (Allen & Unwin) Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic (Penguin Random House Australia) see my review Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin (Brow […]

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