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Postgraduate Profiles: Senja Andrejevic-Bullock – Rewriting the Serbian Migrant Experience


This post comes from Senja Andrejevic-Bullock, currently a member of staff in Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire and a PhD student whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries. Our Professor in Soviet History Melanie Ilic is on her supervisory team. A more detailed profile for Senja is available here

My current main piece of research is a practice-led Creative Writing PhD, which at its core has a creative text – a novel – while the critical section will be written using, as the main methodologies, auto-ethnographic research, reflective practice and close reading of the selected texts. 

 

Some background: Former Yugoslavia had been a country proud of its literary traditions and the 1990s wave of emigration included many writers. It is, therefore, notable that there is only a very limited body of literature giving an account of their experience of immigration. Furthermore, most of these ex-Yugoslav writers who have published in English language are of non-Serbian origin. The critical section of this thesis will be the first study devoted to exploring the literature produced by emigres from former Yugoslavia, and additionally, evaluating how they have been portrayed by native English writers, using the example of Graham Swift, whose novel The Light of Day (2003) features an important character of a Croatian refugee in England. 

 

The 1990s were a time of harsh conditions for all immigrants in the UK due to a change in how they were perceived and some changes in the law. This affected all of ex-Yugoslav emigres, but overall conditions which affected the Serbian immigrants, however, were additionally and significantly shaped by the contemporary political climate and the media discourse. This has been explored by writers including Vukovic and Brdar (2006), who have written about ‘the process of demonisation of Serbs carried out by the Western media in the 1990s.’  This issue has since become widely acknowledged in academic, literary and journalistic circles, including in works by Harold Pinter (2000), David B. Macdonald (2009), Daya Kishan Thussu (2000), Phillip Hammond (2000), and Edward S. Herman (2006), to name just a few.

My contention is that this hostile media discourse produced an environment in which my own creativity as a Serbian writer living in the diaspora, potentially able to write and publish in English, became severely diminished. To write fiction is to empathise, to go inside the (imaginary) minds of others, but it became impossible to empathise with anything even remotely Serbian. To write or to speak about Serbia (legitimately) was to condemn it universally. The distinction between the acts of paramilitaries and the behaviours of ordinary citizens of Serbia was entirely lost in the media representation of the war. For example, Misha Glenny, the BBC correspondent and the author of several books about the break-up of Yugoslavia, writes about ‘a world where people are motivated not by rational considerations but by a mysterious congenital bloodthirstiness’ (1999, p.661).

This reliance on a mythological ancient hatred which is somehow coded into the Serbian national DNA, as an explanation for what was in fact a complex socio-geo-political breakdown of the post-1945 federal Yugoslavia, created a cultural climate in which to be a Serb living in the West meant to be living apologetically. On the contrary, to be an emigrant from one of the non-Serbian ethnicities of the former Yugoslavia, meant to be freely exploring those experiences of war, emigration and the effects on one’s identity and sense of self. Through the writing of my novel and using an auto-ethnographic approach, I am going to examine the impact of this media and literary discourse on my creative process. This will include asking the following questions: How have stereotypes of Serbian national character, produced through literature and the media, influenced my characterisation? To what degree has the hostile media environment necessitated the writing of this novel as a piece of historical fiction as opposed to a contemporary piece? What are the complexities of integrating auto-ethnographical elements into a work of fiction, when writing within the context of belonging to a minority that is often negatively stereotyped?

The creative text which is at the core of the PhD is going to be a novel called Jealous Moon Above Serbia, or possibly just Jealous Moon. It is envisaged as a piece of accessible literary fiction, which tells the story of Serbian criminal underground in London in the 1990s; it’s a story of strip clubs, drugs, champagne and human trafficking, and how, many years later, the protagonist struggles to preserve her newly found ‘English’ respectability when she is suddenly confronted with her own past. It is not a novel about the war, but it does ask many questions about the war, and it is intended to make the reader question the prevailing narrative around humanitarian intervention and conflicts in other sovereign states.

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