The land of Croatia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, has rarely, throughout its history, been without the pains and horrors of war. Because of perpetual religious conflicts and Communistic oppression before becoming an independent state in 1991, many Croatians fled to the United States where their contributions to United States literature have incorporated their own unique expressions of communism, independence, and suffering.
Throughout Croatia’s history, it has been part of several different countries as it has been captured through various wars. These owners include Rome, the Byzantine Empire, Hungary, Venice, the Ottoman Empire, Austria, and Yugoslavia. This constant shift of “ownership” may be responsible for some of Croatia’s recent attempts to develop its own distinct identity. This search for individualism can be seen by efforts on the part of the Croatian government to establish a “Croatian” language as opposed to “Serbo-Croatian,” which affiliates Croatians with Serbs (Jaksic). Religion, however, plays a more central role in Croatia’s recent history than nationality. When Croat and Slavic tribal federations established a myriad of small states between the Roman Catholic Frankish Empire and the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire, the states closest to each empire adapted the respective religion. The central conflict in Croatia’s recent history has been between the Croat’s Roman Catholicism and the Serb’s Orthodox Christianity. When Croatia was declared an independent state in 1991, prompting aggression from the Yugoslavian state, the dominance of Roman Catholic Croats in the country worried Serbs. Much of Croatia’s Serbian population fled, leaving Croatia nearly 90% Roman Catholic (“Croatia”). It’s reasonable to presume that these conflicts have influenced the mental attitudes of today’s Croatians and those tied to them (e.g., Croatian-Americans), creating a somewhat pessimistic worldview. Even those who have not been direct victims of violent acts have probably suffered the anxiety of knowing that such an attack could occur at any time.
Records show that the first immigrants from Croatia left Dubrovnik, Croatia in 1526 to settle in America. Larger degrees of immigration began to take place in the 1880s. This immigration likely took place in an effort to abandon a land that had become infested with outbreaks of fighting and heartbreak. As Croatians began to immigrate, Croatian colonies in the United States were formed along the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana and in California because their climates were similar to Croatia’s, allowing the immigrants a better chance of finding work in fields they’d had experience with, such as fishing and fruit-growing. Residence in the United States allowed the immigrants a chance to live a life antithetical of the one they’d lived in Croatia, with little thought of the conflicts over religion and ethnicity that they’d left behind. Later periods of Croatian immigration would see the immigrants residing in industrial areas such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Detroit, where the immigrants could find jobs as workers in mills and mines. Such immigrants contributed to a steelworker folktale of “Joe Magarac,” a giant made of steel who was “to steelworkers what Paul Bunyan was to woodsmen” (“Croatia & USA”). The legend of Magarac can be seen as an early manifestation of immigrant story-telling, illustrating to some degree the creative aptitude of Croatian-Americans.
Croatian Americans have formed hundreds of organizations in the United States, including the Slavonian-Illyrian Mutual Charitable Society, The Croatian Fraternal Union, and the Croatian Catholic Union. In 1991 when Croatia faced aggression after freshly receiving its sovereignty as an independent state, 35,000 Croatian-Americans from all over the U.S. rallied in Washington D.C. to show their support (“Croatia & USA”). The zealousness of these Croatian-Americans is a demonstration of the kind of pride that all Croatian-Americans feel toward their heritage. Those more artistically inclined may choose to express this pride and/or concern for their homeland through the written word.
It is human nature to relieve stress by expressing the cause of it. One way to do this is through writing. Josip Novakovich, one of the best known Croatian American authors, was born in Croatia and moved to the United States when he was twenty. His success may be attributed to a unique writing style due to the fact that English is not his primary language, not to mention a unique perspective resulting from experiencing both Croatian and American cultures.
In “Turkish Coffee,” published in Novakovich’s collection of short stories Yolk, Novakovich explores the psychological and physical traumas that can be induced by living in a country that has as divided a history as Croatia’s. Novakovich begins his story by describing the narrator’s Uncle Ivo:
Ivo was kind, and he did not preach and forbid like the rest of our family. As a boy, in the last world war, he had walked fifty miles to tell his sister–my mother–that her husband was alive–for a year she had not known it (169).
This passage lets us know right away that Ivo, while later being described as a Vesaljak, or Jolly Man (170), has experienced hardships at the hands of war that are not typical of many people in countries like the U.S., and are apparently not familiar ground for the narrator. Later on in the story, however, an event occurs that pulls away the curtain of Ivo’s facade of joyfulness:
[Ivo’s daughter] Maya’s application to the school of aviation was denied–no woman in Yugoslavia had become a pilot before–with the explanation that her nerves were weak. . . . One morning she jumped from the sixth-floor balcony and crashed to the pavement of the Square of Flowers.
A year after her suicide, my wife Jeanette and I visited Zagreb. . . . Most of the cheese, bread and grapes in the refrigerator were green with mold. . . . Through smoke, Ivo asked me what I’d become in the States. I delayed answering . . . Ivo said, “Nothing, what else would you become?” . . . I asked him whether he knew any new jokes. No, and he’d forgotten the old ones. . . . He had an ulcer, and one night he had fallen over the kitchen threshold and nearly bled to death so quietly that he had not woken
He’d seen one mad Croatia and two intoxicated Yugoslavias collapse. . . . He expected nothing good to come out of the Balkans, and that included me. I was nothing. His family was nothing. He was nothing (171-172).
The text suggests that Maya’s suicide is ultimately a result of her failure to be accepted into the aviation school. Her death is apparently extremely distressful to her parents, who seem to stop caring about life, as suggested by the fact that “most of the cheese, bread and grapes in the refrigerator were green with mold.” It’s as if the couple has neglected food and, consequently, their health over their sorrow. When asked whether he knows any new jokes, Ivo responds no, and that he’s forgotten the ones he used to know. This suggests that the Jolly Man that the narrator knew has more or less died. The fact that Ivo nearly dies from an ulcer further illustrates the stress that Ivo finds himself under when faced with the death of his daughter.
Novakovich doesn’t limit Ivo’s woes merely to Maya’s death, however. He suggests that Ivo’s sorrow was perhaps present all along, beneath the “Joyful Man” facade, when he states that “He’d seen one mad Croatia and two intoxicated Yugoslavias collapse.” This sentence suggests that Croatia’s nationwide problems as a whole contributed to the problems and emotional damage in Ivo’s own personal life.
Charles Simic, a famous poet, was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (“Charles Simic” 1). While Belgrade now is technically part of Serbia as opposed to Croatia (Yugoslavia n.pag.), Simic’s experiences and inspirations are similar to those of Croatian-American immigrants. Following is Simic’s poem “Talking To Little Birdies”:
Not a peep out of you now
After the bedlam early this morning.
Are you begging pardon of me
Hidden up there among the leaves,
Or are your brains momentarily overtaxed?
You savvy a few things I don’t:
The overlooked sunflower seed worth a holler;
The traffic of cats in the yard;
Strangers leaving the widow’s house,
Tireless and wearing crooked grins.
Or have you got wind of the world’s news?
Some new horror I haven’t heard about yet?
Which one of you was so bold as to warn me,
Our sweet setup is in danger?
Kids are playing soldiers down the road,
Pointing their rifles and playing dead.
Little birdies, are you sneaking wary looks
In the thick foliage as you hear me say this?
What is most striking about this poem are the lines: “Or have you got wind of the world’s news? / Some new horror I haven’t heard about yet?” Keeping in mind that Simic was born in the former Yugoslavia, an area full of continuous conflicts, it goes to reason that perhaps Simic was speaking of messengers that brought word of bad news overseas. Many Croatian-American immigrants were forced to leave behind loved ones, and every mention of some new outbreak of fighting near those stranded relatives can leave one feeling incredibly paranoid. The first stanza seems to suggest that the query as to whether the bird has “got wind of the world’s news? / Some new horror,” is posed after the bird’s sudden, uncharacteristic silence (“Not a peep out of you now / After the bedlam early this morning.”). Many explanations for the bird’s pause in singing are considered–a stray sunflower seed morsel, cats patrolling the yard, strangers who may be having scandalous relations with a widow–but Simic shifts the poem towards the explanation that bad news has caused the silence.
Following is another of Simic’s poems, “A Book Full of Pictures”:
Father studied theology through the mail
And this was exam time.
Mother knitted. I sat quietly with a book
Full of pictures. Night fell.
My hands grew cold touching the faces
Of dead kings and queens.
There was a black raincoat
In the upstairs bedroom
Swaying from the ceiling,
But what was it doing there?
Mother’s long needles made quick crosses.
They were black
Like the inside of my head just then.
The pages I turned sounded like wings.
“The soul is a bird,” he once said.
In my book full of pictures
A battle raged: lances and swords
Made a kind of wintry forest
With my heart spiked and bleeding in its branches.
The latter part of this piece of poetry contains a good deal of war-like imagery: “a battle raged: lances and swords,” and “with my heart spiked and bleeding.” This imagery is explained to be the images contained within a picture book that the narrator is looking at. Working back from there, the poem reads: “Mother’s long needles made quick crosses. / They were black. / Like the inside of my head just then.” Knowing that the narrator was reading this picture book full of images of weapons and bloodshed, it makes sense that the blackness the narrator says he has in his head may be a result of the violent images contained within his book. This “picture book” may be symbolic of the Yugoslavia region during the havoc that Simic lived probably at least partly through. This poem is, perhaps, an exploration of how youth may react when faced with images of violence, either within the confines of a fictional picture book, or simply by looking out the window. With this blackness, this hate, entering their own minds, they’re influenced to repeat the actions they’ve seen or heard about.
Croatia is a nation with a pleasant culture and rich history–unfortunately, that history is also tainted with innumerable wars and conflicts taking place throughout history. War almost inevitably leads to the suffering of innocent people, whether through the loss of loved ones during battle, or the displacement of refugees, or of economic strife. Immigrating to a country such as the United States alleviates the direct physical nature of such burdens, but fails to immediately heal the psychological and emotional strains that such loss can engender. Writing, however, can prove to be a therapeutic practice, and fortunately, the expression of such stresses has led to some great literature, such as the short stories of Josip Novakovich, or the poetry of Charles Simic. As Croatia begins to attempt to establish a peaceful democracy, one can be certain that the beautiful expression of new Croatian-American immigrants will not cease. However, because these burgeoning Croatian-American immigrants will not (God forbid) experience many of the hardships that past migrants have faced, their works will not contain the depth of analyzations of human sorrow as those who escaped Croatia’s tyranny and experienced a free life in the United States of America.
Bierlein, Stacy. “Interview with Josip Novakovich.” Other Voices. 16 March 2004.
“Charles Simic.” The Academy of American Poets. 16 March 2004.
“Croatia & USA – 1996 and Beyond.” Croatian Embassy. 25 March 2004.
“Croatia.” Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 25 March 2004.
Jaksic, Bozidar. “Nationalism and Language: A Balkan Experience”.
04 May 2004. .
Novakovich, Josip. “Turkish Coffee.” Yolk. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press,
Simic, Charles. “A Book Full of Pictures.” Plagiarist.com Poetry Archive. 16 March
Simic, Charles. “Talking to Little Birdies.” Boston Review 16 March 2004.
Vilfan, Joe, Ed. Yugoslavia. Mladinska Knijiga, Llubljana: Mladinska Knjiga