The Real Deal

The Myth of America in the Eyes of Post-Yugoslav Writers

Week of The Festival: Goran's Spring, Zagreb and Split, Croatia

Just ushering “America” presents a mighty, yet irritating smack in the back of one’s head. It has never been just a geographical term, obvious from the fact that America is almost synonymous with the USA. Nowadays, just as love or freedom, this term still invokes very specific and universal meanings, yet at the same time it has become a vague cliché. It is very difficult to write anything innovative or interesting about America, but it’s hard to resist trying. The USA is a political and cultural territory very much shaped by its own American fictions, myths and dreams. It’s a glitch escaping both mystification and realism, thus presenting a big challenge for writers around the world. 

Croatian and other ex-Yugoslav writers are no exception. This region’s relation to the USA, its space and culture, has been very strong, especially during the 20th century when many people fled to the States because of wars or poverty. In addition, despite official tensions between the USA and Yugoslavia, American popular culture has been continuously present and important for young Yugoslavs since 1960s, influencing domestic popular culture and creating ambivalent bonds between American capitalism and Yugoslav socialism. For those reasons, contemporary literary texts about America, whether they are nostalgic or critical, often present an unusual image of America which tells us a lot about America, but also about Yugoslavian history, post-Yugoslavian present and human identity that is not limited by national borders. 

To understand how contemporary writers write about America, I have chosen to focus on three very different books written by regional writers. Zoran Pilić, a Croatian writer, wrote a short prose collection Kad su Divovi hodali Zemljom (When Giants Roamed the Earth, Fraktura, 2017), inspired by American pop culture, migrants and contemporary American prose. Maša Kolanović, a Croatian writer and scholar, wrote an illustrated hip-hop epic Jamerika (I-merica, Algoritam, 2013), a delirious bricolage inspired by her family story, American pop culture, US cities and Marxist criticism. Finally, Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American writer, wrote a non-fiction text, The Book of My Lives (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013) about his relation to hometown Sarajevo and his new home in Chicago. Hemon’s book is also specific because it was originally written in English, for the American audience. 

These three formally different books often share the same ideas, motives and even formal devices, thus pointing out how writers used popular and intimate fragments to create an “America of their own” which became a formative force in the lives of their characters. 

America before America

The characters in all three books eventually migrate to the USA, but we find out that even while living in Yugoslavia they had a strong image of the USA constructed by popular culture. Pop culture has helped these characters imagine the “cool” and “free” America, but also served them as a model to create their own everyday lives and creations. So domestic pop culture was influenced and complemented by the American one, not really opposed to it. 

Hemon writes about his teenage years in Sarajevo, shortly before the war in Yugoslavia. As a young journalist and writer, he was very fond of American pop culture. That was not uncommon: Hemon states that you would have to be blind, deaf, numb and comatose to avoid the American culture in Sarajevo of 1980s. He names Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Charles Bukowski, J.D. Salinger, Public Enemy, Sonic Youth and other famous icons of the American underground. Even though these artists don’t belong to the strictly commercial and most popular sphere of American culture, they enabled the main character to develop his own clear and attractive understanding of America (and to learn the language, of course). He admits that, although he loved American culture, he didn’t really care about ever going to the USA or not. However, he decides to apply for a one-month stay in the USA and is awarded a grant. During his stay, the siege of Sarajevo begins and Hemon remains trapped in America. His new life unexpectedly begins, but itcannot be only ascribed to the destiny. His knowledge and fondness of pop culture led him to picture his own America, but it also enabled him to connect with the real territory. The imaginary pop cultural America surprisingly served as a bridge to the real United States.

Kolanović goes even further, suggesting that not only does pop culture allow you to construct an imaginary America, but also to experience the real America. Her main character and narrator is a childish woman going with her parents to New York to visit her brother who is working in a bank. Kolanović’s work of art uses hip-hop rhythms, Pop Art images and arich variety of pop references to suggest how the main character feels the life of New York City: not only what she sees, but how she deals with the city speed and bizarre images, how she is shocked by the contradictions between glitzy symbols and glooming poverty. Her text and images are so immersed in the pop cultural sphere that it seems the main character wouldn’t be able to describe (or even experience) the real America if she were not previously familiar with American pop culture. On the other hand, Kolanović uses these very symbols to point out their own emptiness and she frequently collides them with images of poverty, individualism and social isolation. So the writer suggests that you can’t access the real America without knowing and appreciating its pop cultural language, but also ironically turns this language against itself and reveals its rotten core.

Finally, Anton, the main character of Pilić’s opening story Iowa is so obsessed with America that it becomes ludicrous. He is strangely fond of the Iowa State (not really one of the pop cultural pillars, to say the least). Influenced by Kerouac and Steinbeck, he develops very detailed plans of travelling through the USA — plans that, we are keen to believe, would never be fulfilled. On top of that, he believes he is a reincarnation of John Lennon. This outline shows Pilić’s humorous attempt to depict how absurd one’s idealisation of America can get, but the narrator also suggests that Anton needs this idea of freedom. His sad family story and lack of perspective encourage him to use pop culture to create an alternative utopian America. Unlike Hemon’s and Kolanović’s characters, who imagine America regardless of their relation to their hometown, Anton’s attraction to America mirrors his empty life in Europe. In the end, without many details, we are led to believe that Anton does end in Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, his dreamland. While Hemon and Kolanović show how popular culture can become a bridge to the real USA, Pilić in Iowa retains this exclusively imaginary quality of American popular culture, without real America in sight. That is about to change in his following stories that take us to the real world of migrants in USA. 

The real deal

All these characters eventually end up in the USA, but their early impressions are very negative and out of touch with the pop cultural image they had in mind. Hemon states that, unlike Sarajevo, Chicago was not built to bring people together but to keep them apart. While he felt that Sarajevo had no distinction between the private and public sphere, in Chicago he couldn’t reach other people. When he moved to Chicago, without any social connections, he felt very lonely. 

Kolanović’s character is more privileged: she arrives in New York as a tourist and her brother is a rich banker, living on the 63rd floor of a skyscraper. However, she also feels this loneliness and class distance that is maintained by the distance from the top of the skyscraper to ground life. When she comes down to the Underground, she is shocked to find out a poor and socially isolated city layer (as expressed through the poetic show starring Karl Marx). She is heavily affected by numerous homeless people in New York and Los Angeles (and, even more so, by other citizens casually ignoring them). Homeless people are “stars” of a rather large poetic sequence (p.133 - 139) accompanied by photos that, unlike all other images, invoke sadness and empathy rather than laughter and irony. Seeing that the book is dedicated to homeless people, it is fair to say that under the hood of Kolanović’s poetic and playful American imaginary there is a bitter criticism of the American individualist society and politics.

Pilić’s characters in other stories are also not enamored with America. They are migrants who came to the USA because of the war in Yugoslavia and it seems that their life remained elsewhere. They keep coming back to their miserable memories of Europe, “a space bounded by its very own lead-coloured sadness” (p.147). In America, they live like robots, reduced to their work and elementary needs, unable to create any connection with their new home. Unlike Hemon and Kolanović, Pilić is not critical of USA. He is simply focusing on characters who are still in limbo, unable to let go of their European past and accept their new American life. 

But Hemon’s and Pilić’s characters have to remain in the USA and live there, so they have to put their prior stereotypes and dreams aside in order to create bonds with local people and spaces. They do so by developing their own local mythology or, as Hemon puts it, “soul geography” of the city. They create it from scraps of pop culture, everyday life and people who surround them. Hemon describes how he used walking and daily routines to learn about the city. He didn’t fall in love with Chicago through universal and popular narratives, but through living in the rough neighbourhood Edgewater with its marginal inhabitants: other migrants, poor people, drunks, drug dealers… With this material, he managed to create a web of meanings that enabled him to connect to other people and spaces, to ultimately establish a feeling of being home. Hemon presented this web in his text “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List”: these reasons have mostly to do with nature, architecture, small details and marginalised people.

The main character of Pilić’s story When Giants Roamed the Earth slowly learns about baseball in order to connect with his Venezuelan girlfriend and her compatriots. Again, he uses popular culture and fan routines to connect with people in his new country who are also migrants. The unfamiliar sport becomes an integral part of his personal mythology, with his love story intertwined with the success story of the San Francisco Giants. Eventually his relationship falls apart, but his relation to the new country remains firm — titles won by the Giants become a focal point in his nostalgic narration while his life in Bosnia remains unfamiliar and hazy. 

Basically, these characters (regardless of their artistic ambitions) use storytelling and fiction to create a new vision of America and to relate to it. These “personal Americas” are a melting pot of myths, ideologies, fantasies and details they encountered in their daily life. They are more complex, ambivalent and specific compared to the prior, stereotypical America constructed mostly from pop culture. Therefore, even though characters realise that the “American Dream” is a fraud, they find out that they have to keep dreaming in order to adapt. Their new dreams are, however, quite unambitious — these are not stories of success, but just a way to belong to a community of other migrants. 

Keep dreaming!

In all three books we are faced with partial, personal, contradicting and inaccurate visions of America. The characters arrive to the USA with certain ideas, stereotypes and feelings of familiarity, they get disappointed and then reluctantly accept they have to develop new myths and ideas. Paradoxically, that tells us a lot about America, its fictional and real layers, its inhabitants who struggle to adapt to this new territory.

Ultimately, Hemon, Kolanović and Pilić didn’t write these books only to talk about America, but also to talk about ourselves and the ways we assign meanings to our lives and connect with other people. The image of America is very compact and strongly shared between people who will never cross the ocean. However, once people actually come to the USA and start living there, their vision of America become more diverse, intimate, surprising, interesting and familiar only to people in their community. In Chicago, Hemon humbly spots “the enormous amount of daily life in this city, much of it worth a story or two” (p.96). This America is not only worth a story or two, it is crucial for these people’s lives. 

The article was commissioned and edited by Marko Pogačar