A profile of Nina Bunjevac, author of the graphic novel and New York Times best seller Fatherland.
Fatherland by Nina Bunjevac is a graphic memoir of the ideological and political faultlines that run through three generations of a Serbian-Yugoslav family. Drawn in black and white pointillism, the text explores how individual choices are caused by historical circumstances through a posthumous reconstruction of the life of the author’s nationalist, anti-communist father Peter. As the narrative acknowledges, his is an enigmatic portrait that remains only “semi-complete” even as it details his childhood traumas, his orphanhood, eventual exile in Canada, and his turn towards political extremism. This troubled life—given its counterpoint in the figure of the staunch communist Momirka, Bunjevac’s maternal grandmother—is the pivot from which Fatherland evolves into an exploration of historical contingency, nationalism, and the tyranny of ideologies.
Multiple translations as well as an appearance on the New York Times bestseller list have consecrated Fatherland’s success. It is a success Bunjevac herself attributes to a mix of factors: “I think it’s a combination of having a good publisher, the rising popularity of graphic novel genre, and having been born at the right place, at the right time.” Equally important, however, is Fatherland’s objective stance to volatile themes of extremism and terrorism. The graphic novel is poised very carefully between witnessing the destructive role the father’s politics had on the family and understanding his own devastated childhood.
Born in the village of Bogićevci in Croatia in 1936, Peter lost his mother to tuberculosis and his father in Jasenovac, a death camp run by Croatian fascist forces. Exhibiting symptoms of trauma after the war, Peter’s grandparents sent him to military school hoping that it would instill discipline and order into his life. Sometime in the mid 1950s, Peter expresses his support for Milovan Đilas following Đilas’s (hushed) fall from grace. Peter is imprisoned on false pretenses of espionage. Released after three years, he realizes he has no future in Yugoslavia. It is, in Fatherland’s storytelling, a childhood and adolescence that never even had a chance of existing.
Peter eventually made his way to Canada from an interment camp in Austria in 1959. New information has come to light since the publication of Fatherland that situates his arrival within a more insidious narrative of Canadian business interests and anti-communist migrants. A senior producer at CBC radio contacted Bunjevac with information that the nickel mining company Vale (formerly Vale Inco) that employed her father was among the corporations who used to recruit anti-communists from Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Bunjevac adds: “They would hand pick them from these internment camps, because they needed people who hated communism to help them keep the unions down back in Canada. That’s why my father got to Canada so quickly. That’s why he had a place to stay and a job and everything. If anything, that part of the story is about capitalistic exploitation.”
Her father eventually gravitated towards a group called “Freedom for Serbian Fatherland” (Srpski Oslobodilački pokret Otadžbina, or SOPO) while residing in Ontario in the 1970s. SOPO is described in the graphic novel as “the first secret Serbian terrorist organization” that was loyal to the Chetnik leader Draža Mihailović and that gave prominent leadership roles to Orthodox priests. Though the Yugoslav political emigration to the West totaled around 230,000 individuals by the 1970s, historians estimate that only one percent of this number were members of organizations propagating terrorist methods. [FN 1: Srđan Cvetković, Između srpa i čekića: Oblici otpora komunističkom režimu u Srbiji 1944-1991 (Belgrade: Institut za savremenu istoriju, 2013), 237-238. Also M. Bošković, Antijugoslovenska fašistička emigracija (Belgrade: Sloboda, 1980), 65-67.] They represented, in the lexicon of the Yugoslav State Security Services, the “extreme” or “hostile” emigration among whom Chetnik and Ustaše supporters were the most numerous. The young men of SOPO were Serbian nationalist émigrés united in their aim, says Bunjevac, of taking down the Yugoslav government, namely through “propaganda literature in the diaspora, then attacks on the homes of prominent Yugoslavs and diplomatic folks. The third way was to infiltrate military in Yugoslavia.” The peak of their activity occurred in the early 1970s with attacks on Yugoslav consulates and embassies in North America.
SOPO was disbanded after a 1977 plane hijacking in the US, orchestrated by Nikola Kavaja, a pivotal figure in Serbian nationalist diaspora circles, and his associates. The members of SOPO were arrested and put on trial. [FN 2: Srđan Cvetković, “Terorizam i jugoslovenska politička emigracija,” Istorija 20. veka 2 (2014), 186-7.] While the role of the political diaspora still remains an under-researched part of Yugoslav migration history, it has spawned its own myths and legends. Bunjevac believes that after Tito’s death, stories about SOPO and other members of what she calls the “unfriendly emigration” were popularized: “They were our Cosa Nostra or something like that, our bad boys on the outside. SOPO in particular was popularized all throughout the 80s, by current affairs magazines, and eventually made into heroic figures. It was your typical propaganda war. I watched it morph into a real war over a decade.”
Bunjevac’s father Peter had also died in 1977. He had lost his life in a bomb explosion in Toronto, Ontario while preparing explosives with other members of his saboteur unit. Yet the circumstances behind the incident are ambiguous. In an interview with the CBC after the publication of Fatherland, Bunjevac discusses various rumors that the explosion was not accidental but organized by the Yugoslav secret police, theories mainly propagated in the Serbian diaspora. It is one of the many residual mysteries of her father’s life. However, Bunjevac herself seems clear on what it was that SOPO offered her father, both politically and ideologically: “The way back home. The only thing that stood in the way of his return home was Tito’s government. He would have faced imprisonment for desertion if he was to go back. And so, I believe that one of the major reasons he joined SOPO in the first place was to fight his way back to the old country.”
If the graphic novel is primarily an attempt to grapple with the lacunae of the father’s biography against the backdrop of contested history in pre and post-World War II Yugoslavia, then it is also about Bunjevac herself. There are sporadic clues in the graphic novel to her own position as an artist and daughter—communicated through images of hands that are learning to draw, of hands that are turning the pages of a family album. Bunjevac posits the idea that her own biography is imprinted in the structure of Fatherland, particularly evident in the book’s fragmented and temporally disrupted features. The organization of the material embodies, she says, “constant reflection and constant journeying to the past…thinking, rethinking your life, your life circumstance, finding yourself wherever you are, readjusting yourself.” In the midst of all this displacement—geographic, historic, domestic—there is nonetheless a fixed identity, a centre, that prevails: “I only belong to one tribe. The displaced children of SFRJ. I can’t call myself anything else. I’m sorry, I grew up in Yugoslavia.”
For all its narrative fractures, the visual impression of Fatherland is of a symmetrical, neatly organized world split into equal portions of four or six illustrations. This division of the page moves the narrative along, says Bunjevac, in a way that mimics film, which inspired her more than comics: “It’s like composing a film: you don’t want to have the narrative running the entire time, and you don’t want to have the dialogue the entire time. It’s about finding the right rhythm. There were certain dialogues that were crucial in the story; I started by constructing those, but not necessarily from the beginning to the end or in the right order. I started from the middle and then worked my way left and right, knowing what the beginning would be, knowing where the ending would be but not really knowing exactly how to arrive there.”
The opening and closing chapters of Fatherland move the storytelling into a symbolic register, eschewing the more pervasive documentary tone. It seems that the figurative mode – with birds as the recurring motif—is where the space of mourning the father is created, a mourning otherwise complicated by his political identity. Bunjevac sees the symbolism as a way out of pathos: “I wanted to avoid sentimentality in this book because the story is already so heavy; I used symbolism, and focused on creating atmosphere with the visual elements instead. This way the reader can relate emotionally in their own way, without being spoon-fed a bunch of sentimental dribble.”
There is, indeed, ambiguity and open-endedness to the last few pages. The final sequence depicts a boy and a woman in a vertiginous fall through dark tunnels. This enigmatic epilogue could represent the father in his youth, traumatized and orphaned, or the son that Bunjevac’s mother had to leave behind in Canada. Generational distinctions are thus collapsed and multiple deep losses of the family are considered alongside each other. These are also pages that translate Bunjevac’s own feelings about her father and the impact of her discoveries about him: “I felt like the earth opened and I fell in and I fell in and I kept falling…I left that part silent, like a minute of quiet mourning and reflection.”
Taking her own politics out of the book was important for developing what Bunjevac calls “a peaceful and non-judgmental approach” to the themes of terrorism and radicalism: “I keep telling people, this book is really about the forgotten victims of terrorism which are the families of the terrorists and how it affects their lives. Hate is a heavy burden. Fear is a heavy burden.” Fatherland has had a particularly poignant impact for readers in France, a country she refers to as the “Mecca of comics” in a recent strip published for the National post. Appearing in French two months before the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Fatherland’s exploration of one man’s radicalization now has a far more localized resonance: “I’ve been told by people that this book has helped them understand the world that they find themselves in presently – they were all referring to the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the aftermath. I think that the book’s been doing well in France because every French person I spoke to – now, the people I am referring to are almost all in the industry – kind of saw the shooting as a sign that there must be something wrong with the French society that people born and raised in France would commit acts like this [of the shooters]. So they go ok, we have to do some soul-searching, where have we failed as a society that our own citizens would turn against us like this?”
Fatherland launches in Serbia at the end of May and it will certainly generate plenty of debate and perhaps even rebuke. While working on the graphic novel, Bunjevac had already anticipated critical responses to her representation of contested World War II history: “I had to be careful as I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers – that was not my intention. I had to tackle issues like Jasenovac in a responsible and informed manner. It was very important to explain the history behind the characters as to explain their actions and the choices they’ve made. I anticipated reactions from special interest groups in regards to my portrayal of Draža Mihailović and the Chetnik resistance as fascist collaborators. A few weeks ago I received a letter from the Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) chapter of Ravna Gora. They were quite upset.”
What remains to be mined of her family’s history? Bunjevac responds: “What I need to write about is the remainder of my childhood in Yugoslavia, and my grandmother, because I was not very fair to her in this book. Both she and my grandfather had such a big influence on my upbringing. I need to write about my return to Canada, experiencing war from the distance, and coming to terms with the fact that the country I grew up in no longer exists.” Indeed, our conversation ends on the subject of Momirka, her grandmother who was a medical attendant in World War II. A picture of Momirka and Jovanka Broz, Tito’s wife, hangs in Bunjevac’s apartment: they are walking on Knez Mihailova street in Belgrade, a serendipitous encounter of two women years after they first met on the Syrmian Front. Bunjevac describes Momirka as the “moral authority” in Fatherland, a woman who possessed a deeply entrenched “sense of justice, dedication to the goal of all inclusivity, of brotherhood and unity.” In uttering these words, Bunjevac is less describing a memory than articulating a vital blueprint for life—perhaps one that is especially relevant in the years after Yugoslavia.