Fatherland by Nina Bunjevac

Nonfiction – print. Liveright Publishing, 2015. 160 pgs. Library copy.

In 1975, Bunjevac’s mother, Sally, flees to her birthplace of Yugoslavia with toddler Nina and Nina’s older sister, Sarah, in order to escape her abusive marriage. Her husband, Peter, assumes that demanding Sally leave their eldest child, Petey, behind with him will force Bunjevac’s mother to return with the girls, but Nina ends up staying in Yugoslavia until her father and two of his friends accidentally blow themselves up. Only then does Nina learn that her mother took her daughters and ran because Nina’s father, a Serbian nationalist who had been forced to leave Yugoslavia in the 1950s, had become involved in a terrorist organization determined to overthrow the Communist Yugoslav government.

I cannot proclaim enough how much I loved, loved, loved the way Bunjevac allows this important revelation to inform the structure of her memoir. The book begins with a visit from her elderly mother long after she and Nina have returned to Canada before delving into the events of Nina’s childhood and the move to Yugoslavia, which are presented as a child would view them: her mother is that crazy lady who shoves a large dresser in front of the window every night as she tucks her children in bed; her father is the gruff man who often yells at his wife and children; and her grandparents are the keepers of knowledge who hush when she enters into a room.

The arrival of a telegram announcing her father’s death shifts the story to the past allowing Nina to learn more about her father’s history in Yugoslavia including his marriage to Nina’s mother and, later, his emigration to Canada where became involved in a terrorist organization dedicated to the Serbian nationalist cause.

Then, the panels with scenes of Nina’s childhood are repeated with the knowledge only an adult who knows the kind of person her father was can have: the dresser her mother moved every night was to prevent someone from throwing a Molotov cocktail into her home in retaliation for her husband’s actions. I’m afraid I’m not explaining this correctly but it was so very clever, even if it did mean the story ended rather abruptly.

The one drawback to this memoir is its presumption of a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the reader. While I have read about and studied the Bosnian Genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the past, even I found myself wishing Bunjevac had done a better job meshing her personal, micro-level story with the larger conflict.

Her explanation that her father joined a Serbian terrorist organization because he hated the Communist Yugoslavic government seemed very simplistic given what I do know of ethnic tensions in the region. Maybe a few more pages dedicated to the history of the region and the lasting influence of the ruler, Tito, would have helped fleshed things out?

Still, well-worth a read in order to experience the clever way Bunjevac reassess her own experiences with new knowledge. And the recent publication date for this graphic memoir leads me to hope there is a chance for a follow-up.

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