I moved to the United States from Romania in 2001, and it took a family tragedy for me to understand that I cannot straddle the world and have two homes half a planet apart. Now that I’ve learned the limitations of living in the real world, where the laws of physics apply no matter what we dream of or how hard we pray, there’s this feeling of anticlimax to being uprooted. Maybe my roots are now deeper into this American soil than they were out of the Romanian one sixteen years ago. Or not.
Reading how other immigrants deal with their sense of being uprooted is a fascination of mine, because people are so different. Here is award-winning and renowned writer Josip Novakovich and his short story collection Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust (Harper Perennial, 2001). Novakovich moved to the United States at the age of twenty from Croatia. In an interview for the Harper Perennial paperback edition, Novakovich says:
“I imagine I will never be free from being drawn back to Croatia, though, or from the impulse to flee it once I am there. That exilic impulse is part of me wherever I am—I’d always like to be elsewhere. It’s a symptom of a cultural schizophrenia—my bicontinental disorder.”
Although he confesses in the same interview that he didn’t write the stories with a mission in mind, and that if there were a common drive to all these pieces, it would be his “antipathy towards war,” in most of the stories included in Infidelities, Novakovich concentrates his attention on this idea of non-belonging, experienced by and exposed through his characters.
In exploring this theme, Novakovich draws from his own experience as an immigrant to America. In “Spleen,” a woman in her thirties and a fairly new immigrant to America from her native Bosnia, is haunted by the memory of the man who had tried to rape her during the Yugoslavian war of the 1990s. She feels more at home with her Eastern European fellow immigrants than with the antiseptic, civilized Americans of Cleveland, yet the undercurrent of her emotions when she is with her folk, especially with men, is not that of love, but that of cold fright, which she tries to overcome by explaining and rationalizing her feelings. In “Night Guests,” an Italian immigrant arouses the suspicions of an Ohio cop by drinking fancy coffee and wearing Italian knickers.
Novakovich explores this theme of non-belonging through multiple angles, not only from the one of an immigrant to America. This theme, he tells his readers, is universal and the traumatic Yugoslavian war of the early 1990s is a good example on how alienation can be seen even in settings that are supposed to be evocative of comfort and belonging. In “Neighbors,” the story unfolds not on a bicontinental stage, but a binational one, with Marko, a Serb living in Croatia during the Yugoslavian war, finding himself all of a sudden not belonging to the place where he grew up, discriminated against and almost driven out by the ethnic cleansing efforts of the time. In “Hail,” a Buddhist, Haris, is singled out for execution as a suspected traitor by his Bosnian Muslim platoon. The theme of being different and not-belonging here takes on the spiritual level. Haris is heard praying to “foreign gods” (when he was repeating a Buddhist mantra). He is saved by the competing Serbian army and, even in that circumstance, he can’t remain true to his own religion; he has to become the executioner of his ex-comrades or share their fate. In “The Bridge under the Danube,” in a similar kind of religious discrimination, a couple of Baptist Serbs is clubbed down by a brigand of Orthodox Serbs on the streets of Novi Sad, in Serbia. It seems, Novakovich makes the point, that hate and discrimination can get as sophisticated and complex as the human imagination will ever allow.
Novakovich has a very keen eye for the differences between the ever-elusive groups (ethnic, religious, national) that know so well how to exclude rather than include. His remarks from the point of view of an immigrant to the United States sound particularly accurate, as in:
“when she modestly brought her knees together, as if to close herself in, it looked so elegant that I thought, She must be Russian. Americans don’t do things that consciously—or self-consciously” (p. 212) – “59th Parallel”
“Perhaps I had adopted the American subconscious concept of personal space, which is about an arm’s length” (p. 7) – “Spleen”
“I had kissed a few Americans, and nonsmoking immigrants, who before they kiss, regularly chewed mints, so their mouths were cool, slightly antiseptic. (…) this was a European kiss, old style, with a nicotine bite to it, and an undertone of hot peppers (p. 11) – “Spleen”
I recognize most of the cultural nuances, yes, but that ache I used to feel in the pit of my stomach in the first years of living in America—that’s gone. It might be a good thing, accepting things as they are, or it might be a great loss of which I’ll have only a vague memory. Either way, does this mean I’ve crossed the Vale of Tears and made it to the other side?
And now that I finally arrived somewhere, a large part of these United States around me has decided to say no to immigrants, to close the borders to some, and to hunt down people like me, people who’ve come a long way and speak English with an accent and will struggle, some for the rest of their lives, to figure out where home is.