The Book of My Lives

by Lisa Beiswenger, PhD candidate in Anthropology, GAA for The Global Mobility Project

On Wednesday, October 11, I joined Dr. Dragostinova’s History 4650 class.  On this day, the class was visited by Tomislav Longinovic (University of Wisconsin), Scholar-in-Residence for The Global Mobility Project, to discuss Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives.  Both Longinovic and Hemon were born in Yugoslavia and watched from the United States as their homeland dissolved into war.

The students, Longinovic, and Dragostinova touched on many themes in their discussion.  After briefly explaining Longinovic’s personal journey to America, they discussed the value of memoir in providing a unique personal narrative that offers context to statistics and cold data that come along with global mobility and immigration.  This book provided the unique perspective of describing the experience of war vicariously through friends, family, and through the television screen.

Next, they discussed the atmosphere of Yugoslavia prior to the war.  Following World War II, Yugoslavia was set up as a federation of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Two autonomous provinces were established within Serbia: Vojvodina and Kosovo.  In the 1950s, Josip Broz Tito, Prime Minister of Yugoslavia (1953-1963) and later President for Life (1963-1980), was ejected from the communist block by Stalin.  Unlike Stalin, he believed that politics should not dictate aesthetics, and thus abandoned socialist realism which demanded that all writers and painters followed certain guidelines.  Yugoslavia allowed writers to write whatever they wanted.  Also in contrast to other countries in the Communist bloc, uncensored American movies were permitted, presenting audiences with additional perspectives.

In the 1960s, joint ownership of companies allowed foreign capital into Yugoslavia.  This and other economic reforms led to high unemployment forcing workers to leave the country to find other employment opportunities, leading to student demonstrations in 1968.

Throughout the following decades, revolution continued on the margins and became mainstream.  Young people were trying to present alternatives to Communism.  It was part of the youth subculture that moved as the culture changed.  These youths, took political symbols and played with them out of a desire to provoke without necessarily thinking about the consequences of toying with such powerful symbols.  One example was the band Laibach, an avant-garde music group which was part of the Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) collective.

Following Tito’s death in 1980, federal government was left unable to cope with economic and political challenges, including increasing nationalism and a demand for more autonomy by the republics within Yugoslavia.  In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia broke up along its republics’ borders leading to increased ethnic tensions and the Yugoslav Wars.

For both Hamon and Longinovic, watching the war from a distance took an emotional toll.  Footage from the war-torn country showed areas that should have been familiar but were left unrecognizable.  Ultimately, reading the account from Hamon and hearing the experience of Longinovic demonstrated how the past and present can meld together into multiple lives.

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