Diaspora Voices is an occasional series of conversations with ex-Yugoslavs living abroad. In this installment, a Canadian and an Australian with Croatian Serb heritage share stories about longing and belonging.

With Nina Platiša and Nik. Featuring music by Nina Platiša.

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Episode Transcript

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[JINGLE]

PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your emcee Peter Korchnak.

In the Diaspora Voices series on this podcast, people from the countries of the former Yugoslavia who live abroad or their descendants, share their stories, with minimal intervention from me. After all, these are not my tales to tell.

Today’s guests both reached out to me on social media. Both are descendants of Serbs from Croatia, living on opposite sides of the globe, and they both offered diametrically opposed stories.

Before we get to Nina’s and Nik’s stories, I want to acknowledge a few people who made it possible for me to share them. Thank you, Amira and Sonja and thank you Natasha, Nika, and Pontus for your kind and generous donations and pledges.

Remembering Yugoslavia relies on the individual support of generous listeners like these who put their money where their ears are. Join them! If the stories you hear on this podcast resonate with you in some way, if they enrich your life, or you learn something from them, be like Amira, Natasha, Nika, Pontus, Sonja, and many others and make a contribution now to support the show.

Go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate (or follow the link in your podcast listening app). Whether you choose Patreon or PayPal or a paid subscription to the podcast, every little bit helps.

[SOUNDBITE – “Za Klavir No. 25” by Nina Platiša]

My first guest is a diasporan in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Nina Platiša was born in Belgrade in 1991 after her family had fled there from Croatia. She is now a music composer and songwriter.

In sharing her story, Nina also shared news of her new album of original piano compositions called Za Klavir (For the Piano). You heard an excerpt from No. 25 at the top. The two are closely intertwined.

NINA PLATIŠA: It is inspired and rooted in some of the traditional Balkan folk music that has been around since my childhood and musical journey.

PETER KORCHNAK: After living in Serbia for a few years, Platiša’s family sought a better life abroad.

NINA PLATIŠA: There were some people who had already come to Canada and [in] Niagara Falls specifically, there’s a large diaspora community from former Yugoslavia Niagara Falls. And because there were people who had come from my parents’ village in Croatia already there, they were willing to sponsor us to come. And because of that community already being in place, it was obviously enticing to come to a place where, you know, there are people who had been through the same thing and who had already sort of got a bit of their bearings, and could help us throughout the process of relocating.

PETER KORCHNAK: In your writing, in your ebook that accompanies the album and other pieces, you write about the influence of your parents and of the Yugoslav or former Yugoslav music, or music from the former Yugoslavia on your own musical journey. So what does music mean to you? What did music do for you? What kind of music are we talking about? And how did you end up being a pianist or piano composer, piano player.

NINA PLATIŠA: I don’t remember why we started piano lessons, I can’t remember if it was my sister who wanted to learn first, or if it was my parents who just wanted to encourage us in getting into a musical instrument. But I started playing when I was about six or seven. At the same time, my sister did as well. So we were both taking lessons from a Russian piano teacher in St. Catharine’s, her name was Nina, as well. So we kind of started together and then over the years, as interests change, and we had to commit to certain extracurriculars, I stayed with piano.

I always loved music and I don’t think I was able to explain that until I became older and really started to think about the purpose it had. But some former Yugoslavian music, for example, or just knowing the purpose that music served in our home. Every weekend, when my parents were home, we would listen to Goran Bregović’s Underground soundtrack, or Bijelo Dugme, or Djordje Balašević, you know, a lot of kind of music from back home. And that was a way for—I realize now—that was a way for my parents to feel the comfort of home and the sounds of home in this new place that they were meant to call home. It was a way of adjusting, a way of feeling like they had a sense of belonging. And that’s kind of what I found in piano, this sense of belonging in music in general.

When we were younger, in I remember being in the car in the backseat with my sister and my mom would be driving us home from an activity or whatever it was. And she was started singing a song like “Sve ptičice iz gore” or “Tamo daleko.” And so we would learn these songs and sing a capella, you know, traditional oral music had served people and who were working outside and farms and whatnot.

I compose on the piano, but I also create music that is more kind of electronic-based and contains lyrics. But the kind of throughline is understanding, finding a way to understand myself in music, all of the influences and inspirations that have got me to where I am today. And a lot of that is Balkan folk music.

Music has always kind of been a way to connect with community, to feel like we had a sense of belonging, and especially when we weren’t able to be where where that music had come from.

PETER KORCHNAK: Issues of identity idle at the forefront of Platiša’s life.

NINA PLATIŠA: Growing up here, so much of the diaspora community is mixed, and a lot of my family is mixed, you know. It’s not that we are one or the other, and I don’t see myself as, you know, feeling exclusively Serbian or exclusively, whatever, you know. I definitely feel more Yugoslavian than anything.

And it’s funny, my mom is in the process of getting some of her citizenship again, you know, which they hadn’t had since they left. And I found her Yugoslavian passport. And I’m in there as like with having a visa, because we were going to the States at some point. So this was the passport that she had when we came to Canada. And I found this picture of myself. I’m, I don’t know, four years old, I think at this point. And it says Yugo, nationality Yugo. And it’s the only it’s the only identification or piece of documentation I have to say that. It’s made me so emotional to see that because I just thought, okay, you know, this is real, and you know, growing up, you’re constantly asked to identify where you’re from, or like, you know, what does that mean, and to come, like you say from a country that no longer exists, you’re always thinking about identity, and what does that mean, and what belongs to you? Do you belong there? It’s like, you go there, and you don’t feel like enough, you know, there, but then you come back, and you totally feel displaced here as well. I think it’s part of what music does for me, it makes me feel like I belong wherever it is.

PETER KORCHNAK: What role did music play in the diaspora in Niagara Falls and other places where you’ve where you’ve lived in Canada?

NINA PLATIŠA: One of the other activities that we participated in when we were children, probably the earliest activity that we were a part of, was dancing in folklor. So dancing the kolo, learning kolo. And that came from that was based in our community center, which was part of the church in Niagara Falls. This was the earliest kind of memory of music being a part of it, and it was incorporated with dance. We had on folk costumes—these were not specific to any particular place, it was what we had available to us, but the music was, you know, traditional kolo music. And as children, we would attempt to do some of the moves. But that was the thing that really pulled a lot of the children together. And they had different levels, so every kind of generation had kolo dancing.

Dancing kolo was a great way for us to meet everybody who had come over. It was a way for my parents to sit around with the other parents who are watching their children, you know, attempt these kolo steps and connect and try to understand the new network and community and how people, you know, were finding their way through these difficult times. And, doing that in a way that is surrounded by children surrounded by music surrounded by art really in this community center is kind of a light lighter way to deal with really difficult things. So that was really interesting and a wonderful way to kind of see people find their feet and help each other you know. Those were the ways in which we found some furniture and things that we needed, hand-me-downs for clothing. And that that community was really strong, you know, for quite a long time. We lived in Niagara Falls until I went into grade six, so quite a long time, and it’s something I come back to often in my memories.

And I think that music is really ingrained in me. Those sort of intervals and the way that those melodies come about some of the way that the music is constructed, it definitely comes through these piano pieces, I notice.

PETER KORCHNAK: Platiša’s family first went back to Croatia and Serbia in 1999, after the NATO bombing campaign. She’d then spend summers with both sets of her grandparents. This way she not only improved her language skills, she was exposed to traditional music.

NINA PLATIŠA: Narodna muzika was always around my grandparents, older generations listened to a lot of that, it would be on the radio. It would also be on TV. But a lot of my memories are, you know, from like the 90s and early 2000s, are musicians like Dragana Mirković, and Dara Bubamara, and Ceca, you know, so a lot of that kind of pop music was around in addition to music from like Bjelo Dugme, which we still loved, Djordje Balašević, Riblja Čorba. So whenever we would come back to Serbia and Croatia, one of the things that we were instructed by our parents to do is, you know, buy certain cassette tapes and bring them back. There was always that sort of throughline again, bringing back what we couldn’t access in Canada necessarily. And oftentimes, that thing, what we had to bring back was music.

PETER KORCHNAK: Platiša’s instrument of choice, or perhaps heritage, is the piano.

NINA PLATIŠA: I am classically trained in piano, and I was trained through the Royal Conservatory of Music here in Canada. I finished that when I was about 17. But I did not always love practicing. And by the time I finished, it felt like a chore really, to be doing a lot of this theory and to be practicing for hours and hours, that I really took a break from music for about a year until I started to go to university. And I happened to choose the wrong program for me, but I had to stick with it. So it was theater production I was studying. But the way I kind of spent my time between classes and felt better about everything was to find these studios in our school that had pianos. And so I would just play some of the repertoire that I had learned, and it sort of grounded me. I then had somebody asked me if I can compose my own music. And when I responded, No, they asked, “Well, how come?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know, I don’t know why, it never really occurred to me, you know, nobody had ever suggested I compose anything.” It just wasn’t kind of on my brain. And so that night, I wrote my first song. And after that I wrote quite a bit, but it took me a long time to find the confidence that I could make maybe a living from it, that I could really put out my own music, that it would in some way, be successful in whatever way that was meant to be.

And so for, you know, over 10 years, I worked for a lot of arts organizations in administrative roles and things like that, until, every job I would take, I would begin to feel unhappy, and then I would switch the job and then for a short little while, I would feel happy again, and then I would be unhappy again. So when I finally decided to make music, my life and my main career path in whatever way that meant I enrolled in a pedagogical training for piano, so learning how to teach elementary levels of piano. And through that journey, I started to study a lot of Béla Bartók’s work, specifically the albums for children. Dimitrij Kovalevski, Russian composer also composed a lot of pieces for children, which were heavily featured in the Royal Conservatory of Music’s pedagogical training for children. So when I started to look at those kinds of collections of works, it inspired me to think about how I might make a collection for children. And it was sort of these little baby steps that led me to creating an album for solo piano, which I had never kind of intended to do. Before that I had mostly focused on creating music where I would sing and play at the same time.

So this was really heavily inspired by I think Béla Bartók’s teachings and his influence. Well he was really the, the father of ethnomusicology, which is the study of music from the culture on social aspects of the people who make it, and he had actually taught Marko Tajčević and Josip Štolcer Slavenski, who are Yugoslavian composers. I had only really found out about these composers, after I had already composed the majority of my collection. But once I started to listen to them, I realized how many sort of shared sounds we had, this kind of Balkan sound, whatever that means. After dissecting a little bit of it, I noticed that, you know, there are scales that we share with a lot of Hungarian music or Transylvanian music. And it must be because of the influence of the Ottoman Empire on these regions. So it was really interesting to me, I think, to start from a place where I really wanted to teach and I still do teach piano for elementary grades, but it kind of grew into this curiosity of trying to compose and put my finger on what is this kind of Balkan sound? What is the sound that feels really innate to me. And that somehow relates to music from this region as well.

PETER KORCHNAK: Bartók field-recorded music in Hungarian villages in the early 20th century, and what he heard inspired his own later compositions. The same went for Tajčević and Slavenski in the Balkans. A lot of Yugoslav popular music borrowed elements of traditional folk music.

Platiša’s album stands on the shoulders of those ethnomusicologist giants.

NINA PLATIŠA: The way that I present it all the time is, it’s a collection of, you know, original composition in a classical contemporary world with like elements of Balkan folk. But really, when I started composing it, I noticed how much all these other influences from music that I listened to throughout my childhood like R&B, especially from the 90s, and I used to listen to some metal music and rock and screamo. And, you know, club music, trance music from the 90s, you know, there’s such a huge array of music that I enjoy, it doesn’t matter what genre music is, from, if it makes me feel something, I’ll enjoy it. So I sometimes kind of chuckle to myself when I play some of the songs and I kind of think, oh, yeah, I feel like hip hop artists could sample this song.

I see it in some way as an effort to bridge several timelines and generations. And I think it shows that this sort of Balkan feeling or Yugoslavian feeling can be found and preserved in music, it’s not something that is lost forever. It’s not something we necessarily have to be nostalgic about, we can have it and we can have it now. And it can come in new ways, new shapes, and new forms. Many of the pieces are intended to serve for, like different moments in our lives, so for celebrations, for weddings, I imagined playing them perhaps at a funeral and slave.

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[SOUNDBITE – “Za Klavir No. 6” by Nina Platiša]

NINA PLATIŠA: When I was composing them, oftentimes I had a specific image in mind are this sort of way that they would serve my community or people from that area and other people. I mean, of course, I want it to be attractive and listened to by by people outside of just the Balkan regions.

And something that I really wanted to do, and something that sort of evolved naturally was when I was creating the book that contains all 27 notations and annotations and descriptions of the making of the project, I realized the main purpose of me making this project was for, I think, for my family and my grandparents, especially to be able to enjoy it. So I realized that I had to not only write it in English, but also in our language so that they could read it and understand what I was talking about and what I meant to communicate, not only in a written sense, but luckily, the music has no lyrics. So I think it communicates pretty well as well.

PETER KORCHNAK: Earlier this year Platiša took Za Klavir to the city of her birth.

NINA PLATIŠA: Recently, when I was able to perform Za Klavir in Belgrade now I performed at the Legat Slavenski, so it’s a place that’s dedicated to the music of Josip Štolcer Slavenski. It’s a small venue, but the sort of reception that I got there, it just felt really inclusive, it was just such a wonderful way to finally spend time in the city that I was born in. I got to be there on my own, a friend of mine and I were sharing an apartment. And it was the first time that I could drive myself around, I had a rental car. And it was like, I finally had this freedom. And I could go and visit my grandparents and I drove to Croatia later to see my grandma. It was just sort of one of the best trips I ever had, feeling like I was finally presenting this work that was really dedicated to this place that I had come from, and longed to live in really my whole life long to have more in my life, and to be able to kind of share that there was so special and so meaningful to me.

PETER KORCHNAK: Za Klavir (For the Piano) is more than an album. Funding from Canada’s Council for the Arts enabled Platiša and a crew of diasporan and diaspora-adjacent collaborators to create—

NINA PLATIŠA: —six different videos to support six different songs by six different artists. My collaborators created a piece of video work that was directly inspired from a piece of their choosing from the album. So my collaborators included Katarina Šoškić and Pavle Nikolić, Marija Strajnić, Igor Drljača, Charlie Carrick, Martin Edrelin.

The artists were given pretty much complete freedom to create whatever they wanted to in a way that was suitable to them and the conditions they were working in. So this was still during the time of COVID, so they could work with whatever tools or materials they had. So it’s really interesting to see how all of these videos ended up working together or contrasting with each other. And two of the videos actually referenced the kolo and traditional dancing.

PETER KORCHNAK: In the end, the music is more than just music. It’s memory manifested.

NINA PLATIŠA: I find it really interesting to see other artists or musicians and cultural makers who are from different diaspora communities, and especially from like former Yugoslavia, it doesn’t matter where they are based right now, it’s interesting how much former Yugoslavia inspires us, and this idea of brotherhood and unity, this idea of a collective community without borders, finding a sense of belonging and feeling like, we can be connected through this sort of shared history, cultural or musical or artistic. And the influence of Yugoslavia, I think, is very much alive in all of the creatives from the diaspora communities as well as people who are in former Yugoslavia and living there. And we all sort of carry these different perspectives, we still have these sort of shared elements and connective tissues, which I find really fascinating. And it’s wonderful to see how art can connect us all.

[SOUNDBITE – “Za klavir No. 2” by Nina Platiša]

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PETER KORCHNAK: Today’s second diasporan storyteller spoke with me from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Nik asked to be identified only by his first name; he said that, though his story is quite notorious in the ex-Yugoslav diaspora circles down there, he had to contend with additional privacy concerns.

Nik’s story begins with his parents.

NIK: My mum is Croatian Catholic. Her parents were born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and they then too had various locations where they lived in the former Yugoslavia. My dad is Croatian-born, however he’s Orthodox. He was born in the Slavonia region of Croatia. He’s a proud Orthodox, he would consider himself a Serbian now after the war. His grandparents also were born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. So we pretty much straddle the Croatian Bosnian border.

PETER KORCHNAK: Nik’s grandparents had emigrated to Australia in the 1950s and 60s. Their offspring met and fell in love and married in the 1980s.

NIK: That is a mixed marriage. And when they married in Australia, their marriage was forbidden. They got married just around when Tito died, before the fall of Yugoslavia. And it looked like at that time period, that that was frowned upon. Their parents didn’t necessarily agree to it. However, buckled, I guess, towards the end, when they realized that it was gonna go through. They had a wedding that had limited guests from both sides because there was a lot of vocal dissent around that marriage.

I’ve looked at footage of my parents’ wedding and there are Croatian and Serbian flags, I believe, I feel like the Serbian flags outnumbered— if there was any Croatian, there might have been one.

PETER KORCHNAK: Nik was born in Australia in the late 1980s and grew up pretty much Australian with two siblings, as Yugoslavia was disintegrating.

NIK: We had little idea that there was a war going on until later on when I was a little bit older. I didn’t understand that there was a separation, I guess, because of my age, and I guess, because of the fostering of my parents being a mixed marriage. But I also feel like they wanted to foster me away from the heritage of the old country.

The 90s when I was around the end of my primary school years, I started to then realize that some of my friends were identifying as a different country rather than Yugoslavia. I wasn’t til that I hit my teens that I started to realize that there was a war and that things split up. But I was sheltered from it, I had no idea that that are all occurred. My grandparents never spoke about it. My parents never spoke about it. There was things on the media here that was here and there.

I didn’t understand there was differences in religion, either. My parents never really discussed the difference between Catholic and Orthodox.

My mum was very distant with the Croatian community. One percent of our cultural time with the old Yugoslavia was with the Croatian community and the 99 percent of the time was with the Serbian community.

And I started to realize those differences around then. With a Serbian aspect when we grew up, going to church and going to folklore and going to school, I guess, to learn the language, I was very receptive to it. I liked the folklore aspect, because it meant going to new places and meeting new people. But the church aspect, the religious aspect I never really enjoyed. Often I would run out of church with my grandmother trying to find me hidden behind a tree, because I didn’t understand the language, what those chants and praises the priests were saying, it meant little to me.

I could understand but I was pretty fearful to speak because different, I guess, at this time, the early 2000s, the differences in language were starting to appear. And the older I got, the more I got to see these differences.

I started to get interested in learning about why, like why did this all unfold. And my grandparents spoke very little about it, I guess it was to mask what’s happened. And I guess they had internal struggles as well. It wasn’t till probably close to their deaths that I started to see much more Serbian propaganda or memorabilia around their house around you know, you know, pictures of the Serbian eagle, for example.

My parents never really said there was any differences between Croatia and Serbia. I never got into a discussion around it.

PETER KORCHNAK: As is common in the Balkans, the family went with the father’s religion and nationality.

NIK: We kind of accepted, I guess, in the 2000s that we would identify as Serbian. It still didn’t sit well with me because we went to Europe for the first time around the early 2000s. And we went to Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, and Montenegro, and I felt like it was at home. I couldn’t pick the differences between them. If anything, they were all the same experience. I didn’t see that there was a difference. So it was quite unusual to me, because the food, the culture, everything was the same. And visiting those places, pretty much equally, I didn’t feel out of place.

It was interesting, because we were visiting some of the family that were there during the war, and friends, and not once did I notice many of the differences over there. I noticed more differences growing up in Australia than over there when I was on holidays.

Nationalism is very unique, I would say, outside Yugoslavia. I can’t speak for any other country but where I grew up, and people hold that nationalism pretty in high regard. Whereas when I was over there, there was no differences beyond the flag for me. We spoke to relatives and family and it was all the same.

PETER KORCHNAK: Nik’s experiences created some identity challenges for him.

NIK: When I went down that path of, who am I? and identity, and I think I struggle with that still today. I probably would say, if I was to sum it up very shortly to a person I met for the first time, that I’m Yugoslav. But I realized that that word is being less used in the next generation and a few people that are not privy to what happened don’t understand what Yugoslav is or Yugoslavia.

Yeah, I’d say that my identity is difficult to say what I am and, you know, who I represent.

One of my early experiences when I was a child was, I went to an English class within my school to learn English. However, I was born here. So they put me in a class to learn English. I believe I spoke reasonable well English at that age, but I was chucked into that class, I don’t know if that was because of my name, or surname, or what happened, I got no idea.

And that was the same with religion. And I was chucked in various different religious classes, from Greek to Macedonian to Protestant to XYZ, but like, I couldn’t tell you how many times I went to a different scripture class because religious— religion classes here were segregated. And I didn’t know where I fit so I fit between the cracks, basically.

So I never really felt connected. I probably was in conflict to that age, in the 15-16 age group, where I didn’t know whether to just abandon being Yugoslav and just being Australian and just ignoring that past.

PETER KORCHNAK: Then, in college, Nik met a girl. She was Bosnian Muslim.

NIK: The first conversation I had with my wife when she asked me who I who am I and what am I, beause she could tell by the name, I didn’t know what to say, I was like taken aback. I said, I was Serbian. Obviously, her being Bosnian, she asked me a bit deeper, you know, where from and so on. And I said, Look, I struggle with that.

I felt that I was closer to her culture than any other culture, especially with language. And her language and what I grew up with were so similar. And it turns out that the region that she’s from and the region that my grandparents are from and my parents is so close, so that probably helped with the dialect issue.

We basically were friends for a period of time. And I mentioned to my parents, you know, that I met a Bosnian Muslim girl. And basically, they were okay at the beginning until it things became serious, we were boyfriend and girlfriend. And pretty much they wanted us to separate.

During that time, my wife as well kept our relationship a secret. Her family came about 30 years ago from Bosnia, and they were there during the war. And she was a bit sheltering our relationship from them as well. She was worried that they wouldn’t approve of the relationship, especially when my first interaction with her was that, I’m Serbian, was, yeah, she wasn’t really too pleased with it, I’d say. But basically, we started to date and my parents, I guess, were probably the ones that I was communicating more with about our relationship. And basically, they said to me, you know, that relationship can no longer go on, that we have to separate, which we did for a period of time. And we went in secrecy with our relationship for the next year. So we rekindled after saying that we broke up, I guess, love is love, we stayed together, and basically, best decision I’ve made and we went under secrecy for about a year until my parents found out. And my parents basically were very upset.

PETER KORCHNAK: By Nik’s telling, you could say it seems to have come down to the opium of the people.

NIK: I guess religion was probably the most heated conversation at that time. I was a bit confused because my mum being Catholic and my dad being Orthodox that I thought there would be a bit more understanding, especially when they had mixed marriage themselves. And when they were getting married, there was a lot of hostilities around them, and they went through a bit. I thought that might be just a green light to give me support for what I was doing.

So basically, my parents made me decide them or her. Yeah, I basically said to them, Look, I’m gonna have to go with my girlfriend at the time.

And basically, I was shunted from home. I had one bag of clothes, I had a few hundred dollars, and I left. I know most people would perceive Australia as a wealthy and, and pretty much a promising country. But I basically had to defend [sic] for myself.

For myself, it was very difficult. I had friends that supported me at the beginning. Ironically, the friend that helped me at the beginning identifies as a Serbian, he had no problem with it, and his family. And basically, they met my current wife, or girlfriend at the time, and they were fine with it. And then I basically went on this journey where I had to defend [sic] for myself and rent. I basically for about two to three years lived like that where I was renting, I was working extremely hard and finishing university to get things going for my life.

Yeah, we dated for about two to three years before I met her parents by chance. Basically, she had a conversation with her mom and her mom was very worried about how their family might react about me having a Serbian or different, Orthodox last name and first name and identifying as Serbian, but with the Croatian heritage.

And it took me a short period of time to win them over. And when I won them over, it was all happy. It was all support. Yeah, they opened me with open arms, I think just with the nerves of them being in the Bosnian war at the time, and coming to a new country.

And there’s so many mixed marriages within their family too, and distant friends and so on. And yeah, they came around and they took me under their wing. And basically, after two and a half years of dating, we got engaged. And my father-in-law organized a wedding in Bosnia, he wanted to go back, and we all wanted to go back and do something special, mainly because I didn’t have much family that was representing and supporting me.

When the wedding was going on. I guess it was a bit of a whirlwind. And I was a bit I would say, upset that I didn’t have my family there in there. Were supporting this mix marriage, even though my parents are from a mixed marriage. I just, it baffles me still today and baffles me why they reacted like that.

But basically, we went to Bosnia and got married. And yeah, we had an extraordinary wedding. It was in Gradačac, which is a symbolic castle, it was the best thing that we were ever done. And we got married and we’ve been married now for 12 years, and we’re was stronger as ever, we’ve stuck together, we’ve got four kids together. So we’ve got big family, and we’ve been happy as as ever.

PETER KORCHNAK: Nik hasn’t had any contact with his family for 15 years.

NIK: They still have their strong feelings about, you know, why we got married and how that was never going to work and how, I guess, a Muslim and Orthodox can’t get married.

We meet each other in passing, we’ve been at funerals together, and we’ve seen each other, but I don’t think that can ever be repaired.

I’m grateful for obviously them bringing me up. But I just don’t understand why there’s these external forces that seem to be more important to them, then, I guess family.

PETER KORCHNAK: It’s not just his parents and siblings that rejected Nik.

NIK: Everyone with my surname has basically yeah, shunned me away from the family. Extended cousins, uncles, aunties. Anyone with the Orthodox background or religion within our family has basically turned their shoulder away from me.

The way it is now, my parents don’t tell people that I’m their son. So like, if they meet someone else, they’d only have two kids, not three. They pretty much have erased me.

So my family’s quite big. And I’ve been to Bosnia, and I tried to rekindle that side of my family. I thought, “You know what, let’s see if they’re different.” I knocked on their door and basically, they just closed the curtains.

I’m at peace with that, to be honest with you. It’s been 15 years, Peter, it’s been a long time, it’s almost half my life.

So it just makes makes it odd that my kids actually don’t know who they are. They’ve got no idea, they don’t understand. And we tried to get the kids to understand. They’ve been multiple times to Bosnia and Croatia, we were trying to, you know, explain the differences. More recently, we just were over there for two months. And we tried to explain but they’re still too young to understand. And they don’t understand really, why my side of the family haven’t come to the party yet.

PETER KORCHNAK: The question is, why. Why would parents renounce their son?

NIK: That’s a good question. That’s something that I do think about daily.

I’d probably say they probably struggled with what happened in the 90s as well, and their identity. My mum basically converted, I think, got baptized in Orthodox Church and went full Serbian. And maybe that hasn’t sat well with her. And maybe she doesn’t want that for my wife, I’m guessing or maybe me, she’s probably thinking that I’ll change religions or go down a different path.

My dad is quite high up in— was high up in the Serbian community, and I think embarrassment was the other thing. He was running a lot of community events, and most people would know him. And I think he was slightly embarrassed with the whole situation.

And I think, also, I don’t think their relationship would have been easy during the fall of Yugoslavia.

It wasn’t till I was a lot older than I realized that their wedding had a lot of guests not turn up and a lot of guests angry about their marriage. So I think their reaction is basically they didn’t want me to go through maybe what they went through, which I understand.

I think they were just disappointed with my choices because they probably had it hard and they probably didn’t want their son to go through it. So yeah, I’d probably say that bit of the reaction was for them to go, “Hey, we went through a difficult time we don’t want you to go through it,” and that was probably the litmus test to see if I would stay with my girlfriend at the time and yeah, it just love is stronger than any other force really.

PETER KORCHNAK: Certainly that could be part of it, an attempt to protect a son from the world’s ills. But a part of me has a hard time accepting that as a full explanation for disowning that son, their own child. I speculate on additional reasons for such dramatic and traumatic actions. I think of examples from my own circle and stories I’ve heard and historical records of parents rejecting their child for their sexual orientation or for the choices they made, in career or relationship or lifestyle.

Be that as it may, perhaps there is some good that’s come out of all this. Religion and nationality play a different role in Nik’s own family than in his parents’ and extended family’s.

NIK: Religion to us is personal. We don’t think it should be something that distinguishes you and separates anyone.

We go seek different churches, different mosques and so on. I’ve been to different funerals in three different types of religious settings. I respect it, I don’t follow anything. If anything, we follow the Australian festivities, calendars or religious calendar when Easter, when Christmas is on. My kids are privy to when it’s on. My wife’s family celebrate this lemme…. side of things in terms of when Bajram is on and Ramadan and so on, but they don’t participate it as much as what other Islamic type followers will do. For example, you know, when Ramadan’s on we just sort of like the end of it. We acknowledge that it starts, but the kids are just in for the festivities. And that’s how we want them to grow up, knowing that there is different religions and different festivities, and they can make their choice when they’re older.

PETER KORCHNAK: In the post-conflict societies of the former Yugoslavia, there’s much talk about reconciliation. Even though division in this case came all the way down to family level, perhaps there’s a way to make peace. But then again…

NIK: I don’t want to reconcile, I think, anymore. And I think there’s been a few opportunities where, at the beginning, I tried to with them. And as time went on, we grew further apart. And my wife is quite hurt still, and I’m bit hurt, to be honest about the whole thing still. I’m at peace at where I’m at now. And that sounds strange, because, you know, it’s your mum and dad, and you’ve got, you know, people with the same surname in the community as you and you don’t talk. But I’m at peace because I’ve forged my own life. And I’ve had to defend my own life and had to create my own life with the new beginnings, with my wife, and we’re quite successful. Today, we’re quite happy. And basically, we’ve had a pretty good going in our lives. I’m just worried about, you know, if it ain’t broken, that, you know, don’t touch it. I’m pretty scared on if I open that box, how that might influence our family dynamics.

I think that’s why probably we will never reconcile because their high emotions and desire for Serbia, post ex-Yugoslavia is pushing me away. And I don’t think that it would add any benefit to my family as we speak. We’re on divergent paths, and we just separated so far apart over the many years that the main question here is identity really isn’t it, how they identify and how identify we’re a different generation apart, right.

You know what? There was a time period where my parents found love and I found love and I guess love probably beats anything in the universe. And I guess when you find it, you want it and you do whatever you can for it.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Za Klavir No. 25” by Nina Platiša]

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PETER KORCHNAK: You know how occasionally two movies come out at about the same time about the same subject? Twin films they’re sometimes called. Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, and Armageddon and Deep Impact, in the 1990s. The Prestige and The Illusionist in the aughts. Or more recently, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour.

In the weeks after Nina and Nik contacted me, I heard from half a dozen other first and second generation diasporans with Croatian Serb heritage wanting to share their story. An unprecedented influx, to say the least. Perhaps it’s because they are, or feel to be, the most neglected and overlooked among the refugees and exiles of the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, as one of the storytellers speculated. That may be so, but it doesn’t explain the timing and the sudden multitude. Perhaps it was the anniversary of Oluja, Operation Storm, that saw the expulsion of Serbs from swaths of Croatia, that triggered it. But I’d have expected a spike in stories around the military campaign’s 25th anniversary, back in 2020. I just don’know.

What I do know is that I’ll get to those additional diaspora stories in the coming months. Until then, if you’re an ex-Yugoslav diasporan, no matter the generation, no matter where you are, please get in touch. Folks from Kosovo, North Macedonia, and ethnic, sexual, or any oppressed minorities anywhere, to the front, please. Your stories matter, your stories are important. I look forward to sharing them with my listeners.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo” by Peter Gantar]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this Diaspora Voices episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

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Outro music, the Roland Go: Keys rendition of “Jugoslavijo,” by Peter Gantar. Thank you!

I am Peter Korchňak.

Ćao!

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