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
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 5, 2018 as "Sofija Stefanovic, Miss Ex-Yugoslavia". Subscribe here.