'Mixing It Up
Review Notation: Mixing It Up

APRICOTS FROM CHERNOBYL
by Josip Novakovich

Published by Graywolf Press


I began to write stories in the States out of nostalgia when I dodged the Yugoslav Federal Army and could not go home. Nostos-algia, the Greek components mean return + pain: the pain that drives you to return. But I could not return, because in addition to the politics, time banned me. I missed the times and places and people of my boyhood. I thought I could stay in touch at least with the people and the place, if not the time. I wrote a long letter a day, under the illusion that I was reaching beyond the ocean and plugging my spirit into my native soil, through that bit of a tree, the page, which contained traces of being rooted in a moist black soil. In return for the long letters, if I was lucky, I'd get a few postcards.

I thought I might just as well give up on the lousy lot of my friends and brothers. But by then I was addicted to remembering through writing, and so I wrote to the wall in front of me. I described the places of my childhood in more than a hundred pages, and my fingers walked and ran, barefoot, as I used to in summer days...

--Josip Novakovich, from his essay "Revising Memory"


The yearning in Novakovich's collection of essays envelopes land and sea, language and thought, faces and facades, with a bitter humor almost sweet at its core. Although writing in a time when xenophobia has become an absolute madness in Western nations all over the world, this author's clever sleight-of-hand turns each bruising of the psyche into an opportunity for ripening, like the "stunted apricots" in the title essay of this book. Novakovich is, above all, an ascerbic optimist.

Having fled his homeland in the former Yugoslavia, leaving behind kin and community, the author here significant portraits of what is lost, what is remembered, and what remains. Within those moments of fresh clarity of the past are the instances of repeated culture shock that never seem to lose their harsh edges. "Almost whichever border I cross," Novakovich reports, "the police take out their books and search for my name among the names of terrorists, murderers, rapists; and, not finding it, they look at me as if meaning, 'All right, not yet, but we'll catch you some day!'" And yes, this treatment is most certainly racially-motivated: "Whenever I am tired -- and after bumming through Europe for two months I certainly am--" we learn, "I think I look very much a Slav. These 'free-world policemen are like dogs trained to smell us out, which in many cases quite literally should prove possible! I am the only one dragged into the police station, while others admire what a free country Switzerland is, where nobody even bothers so much as to look at your passport" (from "Crossing Borders"). A variance on the theme of immigration purely from hardship, Novakovich takes a broader stroke at the issue of passage:

Many people enter illegally, through fraud -- buying passports, green cards, copying visas, or plainly crossing the borders where they are least attended, risking a not-so-gentle treatment by the U.S. border patrol. People are driven by poverty, or by the desire for wealth, or by hardship of one sort or another, greed of one sort or another, to move to another country and seek a new life. Even where life is not hard materially, it may be hard spiritually. You can run into many Dutch, Swedish, German, Japanese, and other immigrants in the States and other countries. It's not that materially they didn't have good chances at home, but they just needed a throwing away of their strict upbringing in a country where different customs rule -- a breakthrough into a new life, through borders not as obstacles but as thresholds to imagined freedom.

--from the essay "Crossing the Border"


Insights here take into pointed regard the changes cultures of many European and U.S. cultures. The humor, anger, nostalgia, and wisdom of this first collection by Novakovich mark a splendid entry into U.S. multicultural literature. A necessary book for the shelves of every informed reader.



Review by Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo

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