When I lived in the UK, we didn’t talk about my friends’ heritage like we do in Australia. I don’t know if my social circle simply lacked ethnic diversity or if there’s something in Australia’s recent immigration, the arrival of Europeans just 200 years ago and the influx of the post-war ‘new Australians’, that makes us all from ‘somewhere’.
I grew up in conversations about multiculturalism where everyone’s background seemed central to their identity. The guys of Italian descent would make their online messenger name ‘Italian Stallion’ or ‘wog boi 666’, girls would fetishize the Islander boys (David Fusimahloi apparently looked like Usher) and the password to all my logins was ‘Latvia123’.
There were students who came from Eastern Europe, who had vibrant cultural customs and like my family, spoke another language at home. But after the Balkan war, they were no longer ‘Yugoslavian’, no longer from a country that was central to their identity.
Yugoslavia-born writer, Sofija Stefanovic calls these people ‘Yugo-nostalgics’. She describes them as the people who believed in the dream of Marshal Tito’s ‘Brotherhood and Unity’.
“I identify as Serbian,” Sofija says.
“I might have called myself Yugoslavian before the war, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the independent nations today and I choose to live in the present.
Even though I call myself Serbian, I still feel like the people of the former Yugoslavia are my people.
Even though Sofija calls herself Serbian, she feels that the people of the former Yugoslavia, which ever republic they come from, are still her people.
Although Sofija admits that it’s strange to come from a country that no longer exists, since the 1990s she’s had a lot of time to get used to it. However, it still causes her distress when it feels like aspects of her childhood have been disintegrated by warfare.
“Parts of my hometown, Belgrade were destroyed by a NATO-led bombing campaign. Sometimes, I get sad thinking about such happy parts of my childhood no longer existing in that respect. I am a very nostalgic person, so you will often find me crying while clutching objects I had when I was little or listening to Yugo-rock ballads.”
Sofija reflects on the memories of Yugoslavia; the quintessential Eastern European image of excess smokers, her 'social butterfly' mother’s charisma and the final years living in her home country, as it became war-torn.
I remember a lot about former-Yugoslavia and have many childhood memories; the smell of Lucky Strike cigarettes and roasting chestnuts on the street.
“I remember a lot about former-Yugoslavia and have many childhood memories; the smell of Lucky Strike cigarettes and roasting chestnuts on the street. My family and I used to go to Croatia for holidays, where my great-Auntie Olga owned a house in a little cobbled town called Cavtat."
Sofija says that her father was interested in computers and explains how their family was able to get one after he and a family friend went halves in its purchase. “I remember my mother saying, ‘why would you want a computer!?’, and he told her everyone would have one one day, to which she laughed.”
“My mum liked to have parties and would invite lots of people, my dad would go to bed early and read. He is the only adult I knew who didn't smoke.
However, once the war started Sofija’s parents’ became focused on other things.
“Eventually the war started and all the adults became obsessed with it. There was hyperinflation, and sanctions and embargoes from the West. People were lining up for bread. The mafia and war profiteers were strong and there was a lot of corruption. And more and more, you'd see people sifting through trash containers.
“My classmate's dad died in the war, and my parents wouldn't let me go to the funeral because the dad was a Serbian nationalist and my parents were anti-Milosevic. My parents cried and argued a lot. And our living room started to become always full of people smoking and shouting about politics.”
As a proud Serbian, Yugo-nostalgic, Australian-raised, now US-resident, Sofija makes a generous effort to express her European nationality and cultural identity.
“I speak Serbian with my family, I shout at sporting events, I eat food from my childhood. I have found a restaurant in New York, where I’m living, and I speak my language with the owners and consume delicious grilled meats.
“I talk about where I’m from a lot. I like talking about it; about the war, being a kid from Yugoslavia, being a new immigrant. I think a lot of older people who come from my country can’t express themselves as well as I can, so sometimes I feel like it’s my role to ‘blab’ about where I come from, how multi-dimensional it is and how it goes beyond news headlines.
“If and when I have children, I will speak to them in my mother tongue, sing to them – probably out of tune, and tell them lots of stories about where I come from. I would encourage them to identify with that part of themselves too. Serbian and former-Yugoslavia.”
I talk about where I’m from a lot. I like talking about it; about the war, being a kid from Yugoslavia, being a new immigrant.
My parents never really encouraged me to learn Latvian. When I brought this up with my Mum, she admitted it was a flaw in parenting but in their defence, she told me how things were different when I was little in the 1980s. “Latvia wasn’t even Latvia,” she said, “It was under Soviet rule. I mean, we didn’t even know if it would exist in the future.”
The potential absence of my heritage, made me think about how our bookshelf would look as it facilitated non-flags, how my grandparents’ hometowns would be described using the word ‘former’ and how I could have accessed my email account.
Author of You're Just Too Good To Be True (Penguin) and Women of Letters NYC host, Sofija Stefanovic says, "I grew up like any other ex-Yugo kid in Melbourne; we didn't speak English at home and our parents were always upset", in Episode 3 Season 2 of True Stories | SBS Podcast