Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: An Escape From Impending War Into the Unknown

Posted May 6, 2018 6:36 p.m. EDT

When she was 22, Sofija Stefanovic was a contestant in a pageant to determine the “beauty queen of a country that no longer exists." The competition for the title of Miss Ex-Yugoslavia was held in Australia, the country to which Stefanovic’s family had moved when the author, born in Belgrade in 1982, was 5. “It’s a weird idea for a competition — bringing young women from a war-torn country together to be objectified,” Stefanovic writes, “but in our little diaspora, we’re used to contradictions.”

Having lived through the mounting political tensions in Yugoslavia, which led to a decade of war, Stefanovic had to adjust to life in a calmer but very different place. In her new memoir, she writes about the trials of immigration with seriousness but also a disarming humor. Below, she discusses the onstage performances she delivered that inspired her to write the book, her admiration for the creativity of certain revolutionaries and more.

Q. When did you first get the idea to write this book?

A. I’ve always told anecdotes about my childhood, being an immigrant kid in Australia during the Yugoslavia wars and trying to fit in, but I never thought they would appeal to a larger audience. When I moved to New York City about four years ago, I went to a Moth story slam, where you put your name in a hat and if it’s drawn out you tell a story in front of a bunch of strangers. In New York, you can be whoever you want and no one bats an eye, so I thought, what the hell? It went really well, and people were receptive to it. I thought it was cool that people identified with the themes of cultures mixing and nostalgia. I was spurred by that. I was hoping to write when I moved to New York, but the performance part I hadn’t done before. That was exciting and really rewarding, because despite being introverted I really like being onstage. Being a writer, you’re isolated and alone. When you’re on your computer all day, no one claps for you at the end.

Q. What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

A. As a child, there were a lot of things I couldn’t control: my parents moving us, English as a second language, the wars back home. I was really obsessed with Disney films and books that had classic narrative arcs — a beginning, middle and end. In the ones I liked the most, an outsider hero set out to do something amazing. I found, writing this book, that I still have a pretty strong need for narrative and to make sense of the world. I can’t just say, “This happened, and that’s it.” I have to dwell on it, and come up with the beginning, middle and end, to calm myself down and find some order in chaos. The problem is, as you’re growing up in the real world, it’s not actually neat. I keep asking these questions that don’t necessarily have answers, because it’s real life.

Q. In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

A. At the beginning I wanted to interview people and do a kind of documentary glimpse into Yugoslavia. I intended to examine the immigrant experience and the wars that broke up the country. I still examine the immigrant experience, but through my personal lens, the child who was born in a country that was about to collapse and then suddenly had to face this whole new place. The older I get, the more realistic I am as to what I’m good at. I think a personal lens works better for me and it rings truer. I really admire documentary filmmakers — I studied documentary film — and I wish I could be objective and academic sometimes, but it always ends up being, “This is what happened to me, and this is what it says about a broader thing.”

Q. Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

A. Otpor, the student protesters who finally brought down Slobodan Milosevic. There had been opposition to Milosevic during his time in power. My parents were part of the movement. Finally, when the people were exhausted and Milosevic had been in power for so long and there had been all these wars, these students got together and started a revolution. It was based on nonviolence, which is fascinating to me. They would dress up turkeys and release them into the streets; they would flirt with cops to get them on their side. Through their creativity, and their being really organized and professional, these students, some of them who were in high school, managed to bring down Milosevic. I was in Australia while it was happening, but these were people my age, or even younger than that. I was a bit listless at the time, an adolescent thinking, “What’s the point of anything?” And then you see these young people who changed so much, who brought this fresh energy and wit to bring down Milosevic, who was the reason my family came to Australia.

Q. Persuade someone to read “Miss Ex-Yugoslavia” in 50 words or less.

A. It’s the story of an oversensitive immigrant kid whose family moved from socialist Belgrade to Australia, and who had a hard time fitting in forevermore. If you’ve felt like a fish out of water, you’ll identify, and I hope it will make readers laugh and feel compassion for immigrant stories.

Publication Notes:

‘Miss Ex-Yugoslavia: A Memoir’

By Sofija Stefanovic

257 pages. Atria Books. $26.