by Catherine Rankovic
If Serbia itself had been known to produce anything, it was trouble. The one fact Americans seem to know about Serbia is that in 1914 a Serb shot and killed the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, igniting World War I. Because the established narrative of European history doesn’t mention that the Arch duke planned soon to annex independent Serbia, and that with or without the assassination the war was spoiling to happen, Serbs are thereby entitled only to a sort of permanent embarrassment.
I also found it difficult to take pride in the Serbian peasant culture my father and his peers transplanted almost whole to urban industrial America: the folk dances; the cabbagey, buttery food meant to fuel hard labor in the fields; the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith which never appeared among the choices on questionnaires. I always checked “Other,” fearing that in case of emergency I’d be taken for an atheist. One of my childhood’s most humiliating moments occurred when I was twelve, the most horribly self-conscious of ages, when my mother shepherded the four of us, all dressed in our colorful, sequin-bedecked Serbian folk dancing costumes of velvet and wool, to a suburban Sears store to have our portrait taken as a crowd of curious, enviably normal Americans hovered round. Among the lesser embarrassments were my father’s thick accent, the “broke English,” as he called it, of which he was also ashamed, our celebration of Christmas by the Julian calendar, on January 7; the countless Serbian” aunties” who seized us, crushed us to their terrifying bosoms, suffocated us with kisses and food and produced fantastical needlework they began to donate for my hope chest when I turned sixteen, and their vigilant and unwanted matchmaking in hopes I’d marry a Serbian boy; that when Serbs talked, it always sounded like-I soon refused to understand or say more than polite phrases in the language violent arguing. In short, an inelegant, unsubtle crowd. And early on, certainly by age four, I had decided I was not of the. tribe. My father, half playfully, would drill me:
“What you nationality?”
“American.” (Said loudly, and often accompanied by a joyful interpretive dance.)
“Serbian.” “American!” “Ti Serbianka!”
‘‘]a Amerikanka! ]a Amerikanka!”
If he was hurt or disappointed, he never let on. The full force of American culture, applied to a tiny and late-arriving American minority – after a century of immigration, there are still fewer than a million Serbian-Americans – was irresistible, although my father attempted to resist by prohibiting the playing of rock or jazz records in the house and, for a long time, the wearing of blue jeans. On the other hand, America offered certain advantages. He never saw me go hungry or barefoot, suffer through an air raid, or loaded into a boxcar for transportation to parts unknown – though he did one day advise me that should I ever find myself in that situation, the way to get breathing room was to scratch and pluck at imaginary head lice. “You gottet everything,” he’d respond when we’d complain. My three sisters and I, who defined the word “everything” by American standards, did not of course think so.
Whenever faced with proof that I was half Serbian, the task always seemed to be to get out from under the cloud of it, since to Americans it meant nothing or worse. Serbs assured me we had a proud and brave history, a rich and worthy culture, but I saw it reflected nowhere except among Serbs, and they, I felt, were grossly if naturally prejudiced in their own favor.
Later came the insight that if Slavic cultures were anything to Americans, they were funny. Ha-ha as much as strange. I suppose all foreign cultures and peoples are at first perceived by the natives as comical, but upon achieving a certain degree of assimilation most American ethnics or sub groups are granted, sometimes under pressure, their dignities and accomplishments and tragedies: in short, their right to respect and, incidentally or not, to the dissemination of information that counters the stereotypes. Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Croats, Russians, Slovenes, Serbs and many more are still lumped together as “Slavs,” except when they fight, and the average American has been fed, and has swallowed, certain images of Eastern Europe and its inhabitants that do not quite amount to an idea: fur hats, potato dumplings, wooden Maruschka dolls, barbaric dances, Siberia, the KGB. We speak languages nobody studies in school. We have backwards alphabets. Okay, so our embroidery and Easter eggs are nice, but we smell of onions and have unpronounceable names. I mean, who could take us seriously?
Where Slavs are known, they are known for their oddities. Catherine the Great had sex with horses (untrue). Nikola Tesla, Edison’s friend and peer, couldn’t eat fruit salad without compulsively calculating the volume of each cube of fruit (true). Famous Slavic-Americans tend to be joke figures: Bela Lugosi, the Gabor sisters, polka king Frankie Yankovic and his son Weird Al, Boris and Natasha. Or they’re traitors: Private Eddie Slovik, and Vietnam veteran and pioneering antiwar activist Ron Kovic, considered by some a traitor in his way. In films and fiction, dim-bulb or devious characters are frequently given Slavic names: Igor, Joe Palooka, Gertrude Slescynski (a.k.a. Eve Harrington, the conniving young actress in All About Eve), Stanley Kowalski, Sergeant Bilko, Dave Kovic (the dim-bulb elevated to the United States presidency in the 1993 film Dave). And of course there are the ubiquitous Polack jokes which do not spare the Polish pope. Some, such as comedian Ernie Kovacs and film director Jim Jarmusch, both Hungarian Americans, have used the Slav stereotype to brilliant advantage; others, such as actors Karl Malden (nee Mladen Sekulovich) and Charles Bronson (ne Buchinsky) have ducked it, almost, by changing their names; still others, by not changing their names, sacrifice superstardom, like John Malkovich who remains a cult actor, and television journalist Maury Povich who would perhaps not be as much of a joke had he changed his name. I very much doubt that Teodor Josip Konrad Korzeniowski would hold the same place in English literature as does the Anglicized Joseph Conrad. In fact, Slavic surnamed American authors are few, and besides Nabokov who’s known primarily for the Lolita scandal, and William Jovanovich, known primarily as a publisher, I can’t think right now of a single Slavic-surnamed modern novelist who wrote or writes in English. As a writer, I too have been tempted to change or eviscerate or Anglicize my name, which has proven to be a fertile source of taunts and puns (“Rankobitch”) and misspellings (“Rankowitz,” “Wrancovic,” “Rankovian,” “Ron Kovic”). Unspellable, un pronounceable authors don’t sell a lot of books. Yet despite our strangeness, we’re not considered “ethnic” in the currently fashionable way. One can read contemporary memoirs and novels about growing up African-Ameri can, Hispanic-American, a hyphenated Chinese, Italian, Jew or Filipino, but though American Slavs together comprise a vast and well-established population, I haven’t found any specifically about growing up as any sort of Slavic-American. Consider, finally, that the fictional Count Dracula is the most famous Slav of all time, and the fascinating fact that mirrors will not reflect his image.
The essentially comic Slav stereotype became entrenched and ran its course unopposed during the long Cold War, when it seemed essential to populate an evil communist empire with inhabitants who, though Caucasian, were not quite civilized, banging their shoes on tables and such, and being physically rather too squat, swarthy, hairy, squinty-eyed and shabby to be quite human. Not unlike the stereotype of American Blacks, stereotypical Slavs or shall I say “Lower Slobovians” or “Vulgarians”?-like bright colors, hard drink and unhealthy food. We are undisciplined, not too smart, and given to spontaneous and indiscriminate violence and anarchy. If strictly trained, we might become good athletes. If we have a culture, it is crude and elemental, primitive, like Zorba the Greek’s. And, as with American Blacks, if we aren’t being amusing, we’re a threat. At one important point, though it’s merely philological, African-Americans and Slavs do have a genuine connection. The word “slave” derives from the word “Slav,” with good reason: 500 years, for Serbs, of bondage to the Ottoman Turks. You can read in The Joy of Sex about lovemaking “South Slav style” : “mock rape.” “A misunderstood people,” says an ad for an old, remaindered book, The Serbs, written by an Englishman. I ordered it. It might be selling better now.
It is just such a notion of Slavdom that permitted Rolling Stone to send humorist P.J. O’Rourke-now, that’s a funny name-to Bosnia to report on the current civil war, and O’Rourke’s opening observation that “The unspellables were shooting the unpronounceables.” One cannot imagine such an observation being publicly made, and printed in an ostensibly liberal magazine, about warring Palestinians and Israelis or Tutsis and Hutus, not to mention English and Irish. Yet it is even more unimaginable that Serbs and Croats, the famously troublemaking Serbs in particular, would be worthy of anything less than contempt-bordering on demonization-of the kind that permitted Vanity Fair, among other publications, to portray Serbs as a tribe of congenitally bloodthirsty lunatics and conclude that they must confront what they’ve done to themselves. It was just such an ignorant idea of Serbs that made early reports of Serbian responsibility for the World Trade Center bombing quite logically believable; that feeds the myth of Serbianrun “death camps,” a myth publicly discredited by The New York Times and the U.S. State Department; and that makes American bombing of Serbia seem to some like a neat solution to a messy problem. I am not saying that Serbs aren’t responsible for their share or more of the sickening atrocities reported from Bosnia: emphatically, they are, and this shames me, as it should all Serbs. But I am saying that reportage of the war has been heavily weighted against Serbs until recently, when reports emerged saying that Croats and Bosnian Muslims were engaging in atrocities also. Though this hardly comes as a relief, it does begin to add shades of gray to an enormously complicated conflict too often reduced to simple black and white.
To be continued – part three of this four-part series will be published on FEMigration on June 28, 2021
Author Bio: Catherine Rankovic’s books include Fierce Consent and Other Poems (WingSpan, 2005) Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions and Obsessions (Andrews McMeel Universal, 2003), Island Universe: Essays and Entertainments (WingSpan, 2007), and Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis (Penultimate Press Inc., 2010). She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where she taught from 1989 to 2010; she now teaches poetry and creative nonfiction writing in the online MFA program at Lindenwood University. Her essays and poems have appeared in Boulevard, Garbanzo, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Natural Bridge, The Progressive, River Styx, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Umbrella, and other journals, and the anthology Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (Penultimate Press, Inc, 2008). Her awards include the Missouri Biennial Award for essay writing, first place in the Midwest Writing Center’s annual Mississippi Valley poetry competition, and an Academy of American Poets award. She is a professional book editor and her website is www.BookEval.com