Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The saga of being an immigrant is neither a touching one nor a difficult one

Josip Novakovich
Photo via Nowhere Magazine
Earlier this summer, I read, loved, laughed (and cried over) Josip Novakovich's new collection of personal essays so much that I immediately wanted to talk to him about it. Josip was very kind to agree and we emailed back and forth for most of the summer. The whole thing was going great until a little over a month ago, Nathan Deuel reviewed Shopping for a Better Country in the LA Review of books and described Josip Novakovich as "one of the most forceful and original essayists in the English language." The dread set it.

Of course, Josip's work has received similarly high praise many times over (see awards and reviews: 123). That's not what surprised me. What dawned on me as I was reading Deuel's review was that because I have known Josip forever and because I met him when I was just a kid, really, I kind of never recognized how special that friendship was. And now that I am really thinking about the conversation below as a conversation with Josip Novakovich, the Writer as opposed to a conversation with Josip, my Friend, I am pretty terrified. His work has meant so much to me over the years and I am so excited to share this conversation with you that I am overcome with anxiety. Are my questions stupid?!

Then, just this morning, I got a quick note from Josip, following up on our last email exchange: Just seeing an experience in a new light is great, he said. We think our experiences are frozen in time but they change as we change, even the past ones.

Pretty much.

I hope you enjoy the conversation!

You say that your "saga of being an immigrant is neither a touching one nor a difficult one" and yet your word-choice... you call it a "saga"... suggests that it may be otherwise. You also mention that you don't lose sleep over trying to define your nationality yet "the problem is there". Why is immigration, even of the non-traumatic kind, such a saga? Does the "problem" ever get resolved? Were you hoping that your book would help YOU reach some sort of resolution and did it?

You are right– I seemingly contradict myself by saying that immigration was not a touching and difficult saga. Well, it went on for a long time, so it was a saga– long time in the making, long time and execution, and with long time consequences; it changed my life, changed me, turned me into different identities (foreigner, Croatian-American, American, Croatian, depending on the vantage point, on where I was at the time), which was both confusing and liberating. It's hard to take immigration lightly, but I did compare mine with some forms of immigration by exiles, who had suffered at home, didn't speak English, and had to adjust quickly and suddenly in the States, and in that light, mine did not impress me as traumatic.

I know that one's main responsibility as a reader is to try to read with clear, open mind and without pre-conceptions. Maybe I am a bad reader, maybe my own story is too similar to yours, but I was expecting your entry into parenthood to make being an immigrant more complex, even dramatic for you. As I kept reading, I got the impression that it actually made you calmer about the whole thing, less conflicted. Is that what happened or did the push-and-pull just get quieter?

It's both– after a while you get used to how America functions– of course, never fully, hardly anybody does, it's a strange country. I should speak for myself– I couldn't keep being surprised and indulge in culture clash reactions of either feeling superior, or inferior, or delighted (like Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad). . . And it was enough to visit my homeland, to be reminded of the absurdities there. And then, having kids here, born in American hospitals, going to kindergartens, etc., did create some roots for me in this country. I could even learn lullubies, and read Good-Night Moon, and other children's classics, which I was missing before. Through parents children inherit citizenship, and the other way– through children, parents may become naturalized.

You mention that it's not the "patria" but rather "the act of leaving" that gives us expats a real sense of identity; of a NOMAD home, but still, a HOME. How do you think that influences us in other aspects of our life: our work, our romantic partnerships? You find striking parallels between one of your friends' polygamy with women and with countries? 

Well, I can carry the metaphor further. The Hebrews, when they were nomads, were also practicing polygamy, looking for the promised land and the promised woman. For Jacob, it was the second woman, Rachel, after Leah (although he wanted Rachel first). Well, I am partly kidding, but there's something in our archetypes, our cultural sources of psychology, that drives us to another land, beyond the horizon. . . maybe it's more fertile over there? The oranges are sweeter? It's possible to resist that pressure stemming from our collective psyche, but it's also somehow right to indulge it, and see where we end up. Indulging that deep impulse gives me a sense of both leaving home and coming to a home from imagination, stories, dreams, literature. Never to leave one place, for me, would begin to feel like I was in a gulag, that I was an exile, even if initially it was home. If I'd had to remain in my hometown all my life, without going anywhere, I would have found that painful and highly alienating. I would have turned myself into a very strange man, a stranger, in my own town, even a foreigner, to simulate travel to the promised land.

Speaking of women, I really enjoyed reading about your Hungarian friend and your history of attempting to maintain a romantic relationship over the years but never managing to do so and finally, years later, finding out she had Croatian roots... it all suddenly clicks! Oh, you say, now it makes sense! I never got along with Croatian women! I laughed so hard upon reading this because that's exactly how I feel about Bulgarian men! (Thank you, by the way, for noticing that Bulgarians are the friendliest people in the Balkans!) I'd love to hear you speculate as to why you and Croatian women don't mesh!

I think I imagined that they knew me too well, whether they did or didn't, and I had misgivings about that, as though trying to date in the family, a cousin or someone close anyhow. I guess I feared them a bit as though being with them would be incest. And I could not reinvent myself with them, I imagined, and after being raised a Baptist and communist, I needed to reinvent myself to free myself of the double repression. Many Croatian women were raised very strictly as the country was full of fear--fear in the war, fear after the war, fear of the new war to come, fear of communism, fear of anticommunism. . . That has changed, but my generation was such, and women were raised to be strict, cautious, and skeptical. Not much free love there in my day. All my childhood friends seem to have married their first loves and they are with them, nearly all, still, to this day. I know I generalize but because of my generalizing and projections and expectations, I found it too complicated to try to date a Croatian woman when I was a young and single man. Seemed easier with Hungarians, unless it turned out that they were Croatians in disguise. . . or with Americans and Germans.

Parts of your book read like apologies (for example, for not paying for yourself when you were younger and your friends feeling exploited) and others read like settling scores (Friendship Addiction). Which is harder to write? Which is more fun?
Well, I was not really apologizing or settling scores, although writing could be a good means of doing both. I think I understand what happened 30 and more years ago now much better than at the time when I had only one perspective, that is, Balkan. I came to the States with 50 dollars in my pockets, and the money went fast, and it was not easy to get money--I painted houses, and did odd jobs, and the first summer after college, I considered myself poor, so when I visited friends in Seattle who seemed to come from rich families (they did), I thought it was natural that they would buy groceries and that they would pay for gas and I would delight them with my great insights from a socialist perspective. Well, years later, when I had visitors from the Balkans who did exactly the same to me as I did to the Seattle crew, I understood that no matter what, the nobles oblige of a poor intellectual immigrant was actually unsavory and untenable unless both parties agree to such a "symbiosis." So I revised the story of my visit to Seattle with the new perspective, by now not only Balkan but also American. It does help to get the stereo vision from two cultures, in order to behave and to perceive things with more complexity and less ideology, to adapt to a particular situation and to be fair.

As for friendship, I think American pragmatism also helped me re-evaluate what I thought were the high moments of my childhood and young adulthood– namely, that friendship was the best one could experience, the purpose of life, the ultimate. . .  And in the States, when I thought I'd struck a good friendship, and the new friend would rush off to some class or exercise program or yoga, which clearly all were more important to the friend than our friendship, I had to balance my view of friendships, and then I began to see, almost cynically, how some of the high moment of friendship were a waste of time, corruption, and invitation to failure. With friends, who needs enemies? Friends make you waste your time, induce you to indulge in vices, etc. Of course, that's an extreme view, and I used it partly jocularly, and partly to balance the other view I had, which indeed made me sacrifice many potential achievements. So in both cases, it's fusion of Balkan passion/idealism and American rationalism and pragmatism, with the result that I could put a new spin on the old stories. Strangely enough, perhaps for me it was also a fusion of Balkan cynicism with the American cynicism, to produce a satirical vision of many social phenomena. Namely, extreme pragmatism is sort of cynical to idealistic values–American can indeed be quite reductive  . . . reduce us to the basics, like dogs.


  1. I can see I will have to read these books! Thanks for posting the correspondence. :)

    (I've lived in the US nearly all of my life and I'm often surprised...maybe it's what happens if you live here. But OTOH it would never occur to me to think of leaving a friend for a class or appointment as putting the class above the friend. That is a new perspective to me!)

    1. I really like this particular collection because it gives you a good taste for the variety of topics and styles Josip works in. The last book of his that I read is another short story collection, Infidelities, it's EXCELLENT too. But so are all of his books.

      If the friendship comments caught your interest, you would really enjoy his essay Friendship Addiction where we goes into more detail on the impact of his friendships on his work. It's pretty awesome.

      I don't think that Americans are necessarily more pragmatic re: friendships but I do think that Americans are less likely to linger the way we, Eestern Europeans simply LOVE to do! When I go back home, I look forward to seeing everyone but I also get so exhausted because a lot of the socializing takes place over drinks or coffee and lasts for hours on end.

  2. How lucky that you know Josip Novakovich. I have to say that while reading this conversation, I thought I have to read this book and I stopped in the middle to buy this collection of essay on kindle. I'm looking forward to reading the book thanks to you!!

    1. Josip comes to Bulgaria a lot to teach writing workshops for the Elisabeth Kostova Foundation. You should apply for one of their summer writing courses. I've heard they are really, really good!

      Let me know what you think of the work, ok! Have you read anything good recently?