Thursday, April 19, 2018

What is it like to be an immigrant kid in Yugoslavia? The divine Sofija Stefanovic talks about Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, about being an introvert who writes a memoir, and so much more, including, "What is Smoki and why should we eat it?"

“Sofija Stefanovic’s beautiful memoir Miss Ex-Yugoslavia depicts the elegant transit of a girl becoming an artist. This is a story we yearn to know: How does a girl lose her childhood, family, and nation, yet nurture her memories, dreams, and art? Stefanovic hits all her marks, and she keeps us in her thrall.” —Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist

As soon as I saw the word Yugoslavia, I knew I had to read this book. Sofija Stefanovic's Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, a memoir that is both funny and strange (in the best way), is also a brave and moving look at belonging to a country--and trying to belong to yourself.

Sofija writes, tells stories with The Moth and hosts This Alien Nation and Women of Letters New York. Find her working at The Wing. Thank you so much, Sofija!

I always want to know what is haunting a writer to write a particular book. Since this is a memoir, I’d want to know what the why now moment was, what made you feel, oh okay, now I feel ready to write my life?

I’ve always told stories about my life, and imagined writing them but never had the guts to actually do it. I moved to New York City a couple of years ago and I knew no one. This was quite liberating, and gave me the confidence to go on stage at a Moth storytelling event – I figured if it was terrible, I knew no one so it wouldn’t matter. The audience was so nice and encouraging that it made me think: hey, maybe people are interested in the stories of a Yugoslavian immigrant kid living in Australia. So that’s when I sat down and started writing; funny and dark anecdotes about my life and the themes that interest me: immigration, belonging and finding a place in this world, striving to be an artist.

 “An outsider looking for home” seems to be to be the perfect job description for a writer.  We find our homes in our pages, in the questions we ask that our prose answers, in a way.  So, how did you change when you finished writing this?

I feel like writing my coming-of-age story helped me to grow up. This book is a goodbye to my childhood, which is a funny thing to say, as I’ve been an adult for a while now! But truly, the stories and questions of my childhood are the ones I’ve been going back to, that have been haunting me for a long time: what is my identity? Where is home? What role does ethnicity play in my life? How does one become an artist? And it’s not that I’ve answered questions,  but I’ve explored them in depth, and now I can go on to nutting out other issues on paper!

The book is absolutely hilarious, even the face of many terrible, horrifying things going on. And it’s also incredibly brave and honest. You’re a storyteller, so sharing your life out loud is in your genes, most likely, but that said, was there ever any moment while you were writing this, this that you felt—no, I can’t write this, I can’t say this about that person.

I often ask myself “Why did I write a memoir, when I’m an introverted person?” I really sometimes wonder why memoirists write, when it’s like hacking off a part of yourself and sending it out into the world, vulnerable and squishy. And I’m a people pleaser, so I am terrified of people not liking it. So yes, there are always moments where I think: “I can’t say this”, or “what if people don’t like it?” But in the end, this is a collection of thoughts and memories – there’s a messiness to art, and not everyone will like it. So I have to think: some people will like it, others will not, and that’s fine.

There’s a part in the book where you talk about life being a series of people traveling away from and toward one another—which is sort of your relationship to your homeland, right?  That love/hate relationship—is it still going on?

I was born in Yugoslavia, before it collapsed, so that country, literally doesn’t exist. I don’t feel like current-day Belgrade is my home: when I go back there, I feel like an outsider. I have learned, as time has passed and I’ve grown up, that the “home” I’m always searching for is in my mind – it’s my memories of childhood and it’s the way I feel when I’m with my loved ones. It’s not a physically tangible place.

Can you talk about what it was like to write this book? Did you have rituals, like two candy bars every hour, to keep going, or an IV of coffee? Did you know the shape of this book before you even started or did it seem to come organically?

I knew I’d follow a pretty straightforward chronological structure, starting with my birth (which was really fun to write, because I obviously don’t remember it, so I got to use my imagination a lot). For the rest of the chapters, when I was trying to remember a time in my life, I would try to relax as much as possible, access my memories by listening to music, or talking to my mother and then just do as much stream of consciousness writing as possible. Then I’d go back and structure it into a more coherent narrative. I found Mary Karr’s book The Art of Memoir very useful.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I want to write fiction! I think I’ve had enough writing about of my own life right now, so I’m very keen to sink my teeth into something different and new. I’m still quite shy about it though. I’m just thinking of scenes and writing them free-hand in a notebook. When starting a new project, I find sitting at a computer intimidating, so I’ll just “doodle” in my notebook like it’s no big deal, and as I doodle, hopefully my confidence will grow and I’ll be able to translate it into something more serious.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Maybe: what is Smoki and why should I eat it?

Ah yes. In the prologue, where I find myself part of a weird Miss ex-Yugoslavia beauty competition above a fruit and veg market in Melbourne, Australia, I mention Smoki, the most delicious ex-Yugo snack ever. Smoki are puffy, crunchy peanut-flavored snacks and you can find them online. I did – and I ordered a truckload to help me write. They were my Proust’s madeline, if you will, taking me back to my childhood with every delicious mouthful.

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