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Nina Bunjevac Explores the Life of Her Terrorist Father & Yugoslavia’s History

by  in Comic News Comment
Nina Bunjevac Explores the Life of Her Terrorist Father & Yugoslavia’s History

Of Nina Bunjevac’s comics, many which have appeared in publications around the world, one story, “August 1977,” was selected by Scott McCloud for inclusion in the 2014 volume of “Best American Comics,” and inspired her latest book. “Fatherland” tells the very personal story of Bunjevac’s father, of her family, and the history of the Balkans in the 20th Century.

“Fatherland” also presents a look at how families remember and handle loss and guilt and pain. More than just a recounting of events, Bunjevac tells CBR News that its story represents her coming to terms with the life and beliefs of her father, who was part of a terrorist organization, and the ideology that did not just scar her family, but has torn apart the former Yugoslavia.

CBR News: I’m sure that you’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but where did the idea of making a book about your father come from?

Nina Bunjevac: The idea to do “Fatherland” came from my eleven-page comic “August 1977,” which was published in my first collection of comics, “Heartless.” When the book came out in Serbia and Croatia, there was a lot written about it. In this story, I look at the last three hours of my father’s life. It’s a symbolic rejection of his ideology, drawing parallels between his beliefs, his actions and what is going on in present-day Serbia, specifically with the rise of neo-Nazi groups and ultranationalist groups. “Fatherland” came as an attempt to explain why I did that. “Fatherland: A Family Story,” follows my father’s life, his involvement with the organization Freedom for the Serbian Fatherland and my early childhood, up to the age of three.

“Fatherland” opens very casually with you drawing and your mother dropping by unannounced, and then it goes into family history, the history of the Balkans. Why did you decide to structure the book in this way?

It was an accident. I worked on the script for “Fatherland” for eighteen months, and as soon as I started pencilling, I abandoned the script. [Laughs]

I went, “I can’t work this way.” The script is 120 pages. It begins heavy, it ends heavy. There was a lot of accusatory overtones. The way I usually work on comics is, the structure comes to me without me really thinking about it. The book was done in the way that the information came to me about who my father was. It was a very organic approach. I followed my gut more than my intellect, I would say. I can’t really say anything more than that because I didn’t really give it more thought. You have to understand that the story of my father has been a mystery to me for the longest time. When I was growing up, nobody would talk about him. My grandparents were very influential in my upbringing and did not like talking about him. I learned not to ask questions, but I became a master of overhearing conversations. I was under the impression that my father had died in a car crash. I didn’t find out the truth until I was 15 or 16, when I came back to Canada. The information that came to me about my father was a collection of anecdotes and memories from my sister, my mom, my grandmother, my father’s Aunt Mara.

Not to oversimplify, but the book starts with you talking about your father and his death, and then you go backwards into your family history and the Balkans. At the end, you’re relating many of the same events from the first part, but in a way that offers a fuller portrait of what happened.

Exactly. I think that in this way, the book portrays my confusion. I kind of treated the reader the same way. The story begins with my mother leaving my father, and she is living with this sense of fear. You don’t understand if this fear is founded in reality, but you see that it tears the family apart. You don’t really find out what happened until the very end.

You make it very clear that you feel a lot of sympathy for your father, even though you don’t approve of his choices or his ideology. In a similar way, your grandmother does not seem a sympathetic figure, but you have a lot of sympathy for her.

Yes. The funny thing is, when I started working on the book, I wanted to be more sympathetic to my grandmother. I felt this incredible guilt because I was very close to her and she was very instrumental in my upbringing. At the beginning, I was a little bitter about my father, and as I was working on the book, it was like some sort of exorcism. I understand that he didn’t have an easy life. Nobody in my family had an easy life. I tried to remain very neutral, politically and ideologically, and just show the facts.

This is how one person’s radicalism can influence not just history, but his or her family. If you look at the political climate in Milosevic’s Serbia in the 1990s — and still to this day — my father’s ideology became mainstream. The book was really written, originally, for people from the former Yugoslav republics, to show them how ridiculous and silly radicalism can be and really, yield no positive results. The historical facts were inserted in there to inform Western readers of the political climate surrounding the characters that influenced their decisions. I’m looking at the world the way it is today, and it seems more relevant. I hadn’t thought about that when I started.

Your father and his compatriots were these radical nationalists who blew themselves up while building a bomb. You can’t ask for a better metaphor.

I know, right? There’s something about dying of a bomb of your own making, or by your actions. There’s a part near the end of the book that I really want to point out, which is that my father did regret becoming a part of this organization. People seem to overlook this. The nature of the organization did not allow him to step away from his mission or to leave the organization, or he would have been killed.

Your father is very emblematic of his generation, in a sense, while your grandmother is emblematic of hers. They made all the sacrifices, went through so much, and just saw things go downhill.

My grandmother died in 1994, and I can just imagine what was going on in her head, watching her much-hated deceased son-in-law’s ideology becoming prevalent in Serbia. If I’m sympathetic to anything in this, I’m sympathetic to her cause. One of the periods in Yugoslavian history I’m most proud of is the Communist resistance in World War II. Basically, everybody was equal. Male, female — it didn’t matter what gender you were, or where you came from. That part of our history is being suppressed in Serbia in this day and age., as well as in Croatia, which is very sad, because it shows you that when you’re unified, it shows the power you can have. These are guerilla fighters who were hungry, sleeping in ditches, and they managed to win against the Axis Powers.

Your grandmother has this incredible story of being hungry during the war and how they stopped to rest under a fruit tree but none of them would eat the fruit ,because that would be stealing from the farmer.

And so the little kid ate ants from an anthill. When you hear something like that, you understand why she was the way she was.

I know that families have a tendency to gloss over a lot of unpleasant facts from their history. As you say and show in the book, you became a master of overhearing, but was it hard to find this information when you put your book together?

It wasn’t, because later on my mom became more susceptible to sharing information. For years she suffered from depression and didn’t really like talking about that part of our family history. I managed to actually get a lot of information from her and from my sister. Mara, my father’s aunt, was very helpful in giving me information about his childhood. I have a lot of old family photographs which I scanned in, and you can really find amazing things when you do that. I don’t remember those years of my early childhood, but I look at photographs and facial expressions of my sister and my mom, and so much was visible in those expressions. All of that helped me piece together the story.

Mind you, I don’t claim this is a complete picture of my father, but I do believe that it opens a dialogue. I hope that I achieved what I wanted, which was to show, hey, if somebody is inclined to become radicalized or to become a hero of whatever the cause is, look, the true victims of this are not the people you’re about to attack. It’s actually your family.

You mentioned photographs, and earlier you said that you remember things in images. I was curious, because there are a number of images in the book which feel like you’re reproducing photographs. To what degree did you do that, or were you just trying to give that effect?

I used the photographs as the basis, sort of like a chassis. I’ve used the images as a kind of blueprint for character design, for the atmosphere. I would say that probably about 15 percent of the book was from photographs. For a lot of the images, from World War II for example, pictures of Tito and the photos from the concentration camps, of course I used photographs. Also because, as I mentioned earlier, there is a tendency for revisionism in history in Serbia and Croatia and people are forgetting these valuable lessons of the past, I wanted the book to have a little bit of the feel of a textbook.

Again it’s an overview of the history, and it certainly doesn’t go into details. I didn’t want to explain more than was necessary in order to understand the actions of the people in the book, my family members. I wanted to show the parallel between the history of the region and the history of my family. I wrote it in a way so that if somebody challenges me on the history, I can go, you cannot dispute it, because this is how my family and the history are so intertwined that negating one will be negating the other.

The personal is political.

Exactly. It always is. Especially in the Balkans. [Laughs]

You mentioned that you are working on second book, which would be more about you growing up in Yugoslavia in the 1980s.

I want to draw a parallel of the 1990s in Yugoslavia with what it was like being in Canada at that time. How the Serbian community in Toronto specifically perceived things — because I naturally gravitated to the Serbian community when I moved back. We received the news from Serbia, on the one hand through satellite transmissions of Milosevic’s TV stations — which were fraught with lies and propaganda — and then from Western media sources that were wasting no time in demonizing Serbs generally. That was devastating because there was no empowerment for any sort of opposition in the country. People who probably would have stood up against Milosevic’s regime did not have any support from the West.

I also want to touch upon life in Yugoslavia. People assume that Yugoslavia was another country behind the Iron Curtain, but it really was not. It was a socialist country, but we grew up with Western influences. I touch on this in “Fatherland.” I remember being eight years old and [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was playing in prime time Wednesday night. [Laughs]

We had the best of two worlds. We had a socialist country that gave us free medical care, free dental care, free education, free enrichment programs. On the other hand, our borders were open so we could travel all over the world. It was a really unique situation. It’s funny that a lot of people begin to learn about Yugoslavia when the war started. It’s really unfair, I think. That’s why I’ll be working on the next book, to be a little bit more fair to my grandmother and to explain what a wonderful influence she was in my life.

She comes across as cold, but it’s also very clear what she went through and why she was that way.

Imagine joining the partisans at the age of sixteen, sleeping in ditches and climbing trees and staying there overnight because the enemy troops are moving throughout the area. She was left behind because she had to pee. Things like that. Yes, she was much hated by a lot of people. She was a very strong woman. For some reason, she took me under her wing, and she was the first person to introduce me to comics and books. She encouraged me to write and draw.

As you say, people who visited Yugoslavia in the ’80s had a very different perspective on the country than those who visited in the ’90s — many of whom said, these people have always hated each other and always been killing each other. You take issues with this idea in “Fatherland.”

We’re talking about ethnic tensions that do not have really deep roots. If anybody says that the war of the ’90s had anything to do with ethnic belonging, they’re lying. They had nothing to do with that. They had to do with special interest groups and privatization. In 1995, when thousands of Serbian refugees left Croatia and fled to Serbia, the men were forcibly mobilized. Serbian refugees were treated terribly in Serbia, which just shows you this had nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with how do we get territory, who gets ahold of this natural resource and that factory. Just follow the trail of money. The sad thing is, there are a lot of people who understand this, but nationalism was used as a fuel.

My father was born in Croatia. He would have been one of these Serbian refugees that would be forcefully mobilized by paramilitary units. He died for Serbia, but Serbia would probably have shit all over him if he had been alive and gone back. It shows you how silly everything is.

I think that creative exchange is very important between all of these countries. My Croatian publisher will also publish the Serbian edition of this book, so we’re trying to bridge the distribution between the two countries in publishing. It’s the same language, essentially. When Yugoslavia broke apart, you had a potential readership of 22 million people, which broke down into several different markets of up to 5 million, max. In the sphere of publishing, these gaps are being bridged, and I’m really happy about it. Mind you, creative exchange never did stop in the underground comics in the former Yugoslavia, which continued all throughout the war of the ’90s in spite of mainstream politics, and it continues to this day.

I’ve known and read cartoonists from the former Yugoslavia for a long time. Is there a tradition and a culture of comics there, from when you grew up or earlier?

There is a huge tradition that dates back to 1880, to be precise, in Serbia. We’re talking proto-comics and not many local artists, primarily German illustrators. We have two so-called Golden Ages of comics in Yugoslavia. One was in the 1920s and ’30s, where we had a really rich production of comics in Serbia and Croatia. This was disrupted by World War II. They resurfaced in the 1950s, but in the ’70s, we had not only a very rich domestic production of comics and lot of people working for French and Italian publishers. One was also able to go and buy Disney comics, Franco-Belgian comics, Italian comics, DC and Marvel superheroes. We’re seeing the development of underground comics in the 1970s and ’80s, which continues to this day.

During World War II, in some of the liberated territories, partisans were producing zines featuring comics. These were usually one-offs, because these liberated territories sometimes would be taken back within a month or a week or whatnot. There were woodcuts showing young partisans fighting the fascists. Communist resistance did see the potential of comics. We’re talking also about a very unique comics scene, influenced by many different parts of the world and many different styles. I was talking about the history of Yugoslavian comics at Stanford last week, and I said, every time there’s a Golden Age, there’s a fucking war. [Laughs]

One of the books that influenced me the most was Alexander Zograf’s “Regards from Serbia,” which came out in 2006 from Top Shelf. That was the only comic that gave a unique look at the lives of regular people in Serbia during Milosevic’s reign. We didn’t get enough of those voices. We didn’t hear those voices during the war.

I was going to ask if you had a model for what you were trying to accomplish in “Fatherland.”

There were influences, for sure. One of them was “Maus” by [Art] Spiegelman, of course, because it’s a family story. The model was more books by Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic, whose books I came across in 1999. She lives in exile now in the Netherlands. She was outspoken about her anti-nationalist views in Croatia and faced constant harassment. She wrote a bunch of papers on writers in exile and fragmentation. An exiled writer will write in such a way that it resembles his lost sense of belonging of through the process of recalibrating and finding your place and revisiting the past and going over and over everything.

There’s also the Croatian writer Miljenko Jergovic who wrote the book “Father.” In this book, he rejects the ideology of his paternal grandmother. There is that tendency to revisit the past in former Yugoslavian countries to rethink the legacy of our fathers and grandfathers. It’s not a particular book that influenced me, but it was the post-1990’s movement in literature of the former Yugoslavian republics.

And Spiegelman, of course. Can you say anything bad about “Maus?”

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