By Sofija StefanovicNon-fictionPenguin Random House Australia

Miss Ex-Yugoslavia

Sofija Stefanovic was born into a country destined to collapse. With Yugoslavia on the brink of war, her family was torn between the socialist existence they’d always known and the pull of stability on offer in the distant land of Australia. Surrounded by conflict and uncertainty, it’s no wonder that Sofija had so many questions as she grew up: which Disney movie would her life mirror? How did Yugo rock songs compare with the Tin Lids? And can you become the centre of attention when English is your second language?

Sofija’s family spent her childhood moving back and forth between Australia and Yugoslavia, unable to settle in one home. The war that had been brewing started to rage, and the pain and madness it caused stretched all the way to Melbourne, where Sofija found herself part of a strange community of ex-Yugoslavians. Then, as the Yugoslav Wars moved towards their brutal conclusion, her family faced their own private and desperate battle. Suddenly the world was turned upside-down all over again.

By turns moving, hilarious and beautifully candid, Miss Ex-Yugoslavia captures the experience of being a perpetual outsider – and learning, in the end, that perhaps you prefer it that way. It is a story about not quite connecting with your old country, while not quite being embraced by your new one. Featuring war lords and their pet tigers, baby-sitters clubs and immigrant beauty queens, this extraordinary memoir announces a bright and compelling new Australian voice.

Portrait of Sofija Stefanovic

Sofija Stefanovic

Sofija Stefanovic is a Serbian-Australian writer and storyteller based in New York. She hosts the popular literary salon, Women of Letters New York, and This Alien Nation – a monthly celebration of immigration. She’s a regular storyteller with the Moth, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Guardian.com, and Elle.com, among others.

Judges’ report

Miss Ex-Yugoslavia is a deceptively simple account of Sofija Stefanovic’s journey from the collapsing state of Yugoslavia to her new home in Australia. The author grew up moving between Serbia and Australia, never quite at home in either, and her book is a moving reflection of the immigrant experience.

Miss Ex-Yugoslavia is very readable, and captures Stefanovic’s personal journey while explaining the complex politics of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the brutal civil wars that followed. The book manages to combine memoir, humour and analysis without becoming maudlin or pontifical. In a year when many of the books we read were personal narratives, Stefanovic’s stood out for the vividness of the writing and the interweaving of her journey into adulthood alongside the constant uncertainty as to which country, if any, she really belonged.

Extract

I wouldn’t normally enter a beauty pageant, but this one is special. It’s a battle for the title of Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, beauty queen of a country that no longer exists. It is due to the country being ‘no more’ that our shoddy little contest is happening in Australia, over 12 000 kilometres from where Yugoslavia once stood. My fellow competitors and I are immigrants and refugees, coming from different sides of the conflict that split Yugoslavia up. It’s a weird idea for a competition – bringing young women from a war-torn country together to be objectified – but, in our little diaspora, we’re used to contradictions.

It’s 2005, I’m twenty-two, and I’ve been living in Australia for most of my life. I’m at Joy, an empty Melbourne nightclub that smells of stale smoke and is located above a fruit and vegetable market. I open the door to the dressing room, and when my eyes adjust to the fluorescent lights I see that young women are rubbing olive oil on each other’s thighs. Apparently, this is a trick used in ‘real’ competitions, one we’ve hijacked for our amateur version. For weeks I’ve been preparing myself to stand almost naked in front of everyone I know, and the day of the big reveal has come around quickly. As I scan the shiny bodies for my friend Nina, I’m dismayed to see that all the other girls have dead-straight hair, while mine, thanks to an overzealous hairdresser with a curling wand, looks like a wig made of sausages.

Dođi, lutko,’ Nina says as she emerges from the crowd of girls. Come here, doll. ‘Maybe we can straighten it.’ She brings her hand up to my hair cautiously, as if petting a startled lamb. Nina is a Bosnian refugee in a miniskirt. As a contestant she is technically my competitor, but we’ve become close in the rehearsals leading up to the pageant.

Under Nina’s tentative pets, the hair doesn’t give. It’s been sprayed to stay like this, possibly forever. I shift uncomfortably and tug on the hem of my skirt, trying to pull it lower. Just like the hair, it doesn’t budge. In my language, such micro-skirts have earned their own graphic term: dopičnjak, which literally means ‘to the pussy’ – a precise term that distinguishes the dopičnjak from its more conservative sub-genital cousin, the miniskirt.

Though several of us barely speak our mother tongue, for better or worse all of us competitors are ex-Yugos; we come from Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. I join a conversation in which Yugo girls are yelling over each other in slang-riddled English, recalling munching on the salty peanut snack Smoki when they were little, agreeing that it was the bomb and totally sick, superior to anything one might find in our adopted home.

The idea of a beauty pageant freaks me out, and ex-Yugoslavia as a country is itself an oxymoron – but the combination of the two makes the deliciously weird Miss Ex-Yugoslavia competition the ideal subject for my documentary film-making class.

I feel like a double-agent. Yes, I’m a part of the ex-Yugo community, but also I’m a cynical, story-hungry, Western-schooled film student, and so I’ve gone undercover among my own people. I know my community is strange, and I want to get top marks for this exclusive glimpse within. Though I’ve been deriding the competition to my film friends, rolling my eyes at the ironies, I have to admit that this pageant, and its resurrection of my zombie country, is actually poking at something deep.

If I’m honest with myself, I’m not just a filmmaker seeking a good story. This is my community. I want outsiders to see the human face of ex-Yugoslavia – because it’s my face and the face of these girls. We’re more than news reports about war and ethnic cleansing.

‘Who prefers to speak English to the camera?’ I ask the room in English, whipping my sausage-curled head around as my university classmate Maggie points the camera at the other contestants backstage.

‘Me!’ most of the girls say in chorus.

‘What’s your opinion of ex-Yugoslavia?’ I ask Zora, the seventeen-year-old from Montenegro.

‘Um, I don’t know,’ she says. ‘It’s complicated!’ someone else calls out.

As a filmmaker, I want a neat soundbite, but ex-Yugoslavia is unwieldy. Most of my fellow contestants are confused about the turbulent history of the region, and it’s not easy to explain in a nutshell. At the very least, I want viewers to understand what brought us here: the wars that consumed the 1990s and their main players Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were the three largest republics within the Yugoslav Federation.

Like many families, mine left when the wars began, and like the rest of the Miss Ex-Yugoslavia competitors, I was only a kid. Despite the passage of time, however, being part of an immigrant minority in Australia, speaking Serbian at home, being all-too familiar with dopičnjaks, I’m embedded in the community. Yugoslavia and its tiny-skirt-wearing, war-prone people have weighed upon me my whole life.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist