First we meet Marijana, the daughter of a farmer who imagines a fantasy encounter with “A Man Worth Waiting For,” someone to sweep her off her feet, knowing well that the first facsimile of a “hard-working young fellow with house, land and cattle”—be that a forester with a cabin in the woods—who asks for her father’s permission to marry her will be sufficient to send her packing. Dreams will be put aside. Then we find ourselves in the midst of a feminist folkloric horror tale, followed by excerpts from an emotionally charged diary. And these three pieces, by Bojana Babić, Marijana Čanak and Marjana Dolić respectively, simply mark the beginning of a journey through some of the rich fictional landscapes envisioned by contemporary Serbian and Montenegrin women writers.
Anthologies can have many points of origin. This collection, Balkan Bombshells is, as compiler and translator Will Firth admits, the “fruit of happenstance.” The idea of an anthology was first suggested during a month-long stay in Belgrade afforded by a travel scholarship. An initial selection of short prose pieces by women from Serbia was made with the support of the KROKODIL Centre for Contemporary Literature and the organizers of the Biber contest for socially engaged short fiction. However, to ensure he’d have sufficient material for a book-length project, the scope was expanded to include the neighbouring, historically linked, country of Montenegro where Firth had many connections. The resulting multi-generational anthology of Serbian-Montenegrin prose is a collection of seventeen powerful pieces from both established and newer authors, many of whom are appearing in English for the first time. All of the writers are working in the language formerly referred to as Serbo-Croat(ian) that is now often described with the acronym BCMS (Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian).
The stories gathered here, several of which are excerpts from longer works, feature a variety of voices and styles, a diversity that is highlighted by the organization by alphabetical order rather than region or theme. Many of the pieces afford snapshots into the lives of women caught in difficult situations, facing the dismal options available to them in working class communities or chafing against the traditional values of their parents. There is humour, Jelena Lengold’s “Do You Remember Me?” being a notable example that also calls attention to the loneliness of middle-aged city dwellers, and tales that are disturbing, strange and sad. As one moves through the collection there is a welcome, often unexpected freshness to each piece, perhaps because most of the authors are, as yet, not widely known outside their home countries. Three, including Lengold have been published by this collection’s publisher, Istros Books, but there are many I would love to see more from.
There are so many strong entries, but I was especially impressed by the metafictional “Zhenya” and the two more explicitly political pieces. Lena Ruth Stefanović’s smart and funny “Zhenya” begins in a backward village in Russia (the author studied Russian literature in Belgrade, Sofia and Moscow) but becomes, in the end, as the narrator/author openly imagines a possible future for her protagonists, as the most decidedly Montenegrin:
First, I’ll send them to my motherland, Montenegro, to warm up after the Russian winter. I’ll ask my parents to welcome Zhenya and Vova and to treat them as guests in our hearty, homey way.
Then I’ll send them on an excursion to Bari to pay homage to the relics of St. Nicholas, and maybe I’ll go along myself.
Along the way, a Russian flavoured fable is transformed into a vibant commentary about the evolving identity and literature of the people of Montenegro.
The most political offering comes, unsurprisingly perhaps, from the most established of the authors, Svetlana Slapšak, a writer, editor, anthropologist and activist with over seventy books to her name. Her story, “I’m Writing to You from Belgrade” is set in Toronto, where an immigrant family learn of the death of Slobodan Milošević. The protagonist and her husband respond to the news:
‘There will be no relief,’ Milica said. ‘But I’m afraid there will be fear because he died without being brought to justice…’
‘What difference does that make to us?’ Goran said after a brief silence. ‘The country we once lived in no longer exists. We have to tend to our memories so they don’t disappear in a puff of smoke, and that’s very hard here. Do you sometimes feel we’ve sailed to a distant shore, from which there’s no return?’
Later, while her daughter and husband debate the news, Milica reads a long email from a friend and former lover who is passing through the altered remains of their former homeland, observing the immediate response to Milošević’s death on the ground. It’s an incredibly effective, well-written approach to the complex emotions of exile raised the distant tremors of history and politics.
Finally, my favourite piece in Balkan Bombshells is political in a smaller, infinitely human manner. “Smell” by Milica Rošić is a short poetic tale about memory, the pain of war and the spiritual bond between three generations of women, Alma, Almina and Ina, or as the narrator runs her name together with that of her mother and daughter—Almaalminina. Grandmother and granddaughter never knew each other, the former died enroute to the border during the war long before Ina was born. A sudden and natural death, but one that leaves Almina with no option but to ask the soldiers to abandon her mother’s body in the forest. It is an action perfectly aligned with the character of her pragmatic mother, but one with its own lingering pain. “I cried like the rain” is her sorrowful refrain. But there is an unspoken, innate thread binding Ina to Alma without her mother’s direct intervention. Such a beautiful, poignant little tale.
So often anthologies, with all the best intentions, run the risk of collapsing under their own weight. This collection, even with seventeen contributors, only runs to 143 pages, offering just enough to give a reader an entertaining and intriguing introduction to a wide range of Serbian and Montenegrin women writers who will, with luck, reach a broader audience in translation over the years to come.
Balkan Bombshells: Contemporary Women’s Writing from Serbia and Montenegro is compiled and translated by Will Firth and published by Istros Books. More information about the authors included, see the publisher’s website.