We Spoke With the Artist Who Made a Graphic Novel Memoir About Her Father’s Violent Past As a Serbian Nationalist

In Fatherland, Nina Bunjevac talks about her father's sordid past.

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Jun 12 2015, 6:43pm

A page from Fatherland. By Aidan Johnston

Until the moment it's on your doorstep directly affecting your life, we have the tendency to contemptuously treat war like it's just a pile of puke on the sidewalk; we acknowledge it, tisk-tisk at it, then mindfully tip toe around it to safely continue on with our day. But for Canadian born artist/writer Nina Bunjevac, the chance to avoid such a mess never came and, from childhood, she was inextricably bound to her father's sordid, war torn history as a Serbian nationalist.

Rather than simply step over this blotch on her family's past, Nina chose to stop, look, and contemplate what caused it. In 2014, she released Fatherland, the critically lauded autobiographical comic that pieces together a childhood and family fractured by archaic politics and conflicting ideologies. 37 years earlier, Nina's father died in a Toronto garage when a homemade bomb preemptively exploded. It was a device that had been constructed for terrorist attacks against supporters of the Yugoslav communist leader Tito and Yugoslav missions throughout Canada and the States.

At the time of her father's death, three-year-old Nina and her sister had been moved back to Yugoslavia to live with their grandparents by her mother, whose brave instincts for survival led her to secretly flee with the girls and escape her husband's dangerous association with the fanatical group Freedom for the Serbian Fatherland (FFTSF). She was tragically forced to leave her son Petey behind. Through a minimalist black-and-white style that give her stoic illustrations the photographic quality of an old family album, Nina recounts her family history in two parts; the early memories of life with her paranoid and emotionally stifled mother, then delving back in time to reveal the path that led to her father's extremism after his exile to Canada.

Both a personal tale filled with pathos and an illuminating historical account of Yugoslavian peoples and politics; Fatherland succeeds in dissecting how hatred is transferred from one generation to the next, and the strength of a family who rejected it. After touring through the Balkans for the release of both the Croatian and Serbian editions of the book, Nina is back in her current home of Toronto where she's currently exhibiting new sculpture work at the AGO. We caught up with her to discuss Canadian identities, autobiographical comics and the time she saw a terrorist chilling on a patio.

VICE: What was it like investigating the story of your own family history? How much did you know before you started?
NINA BUNJEVAC: I knew a lot of information about my father and his involvement with the organization Freedom for the Serbian Fatherland. Up until the age of 14 I'd been told that my father died in a car accident, so anything new, I had overheard from people. I think it was when I was 16 and had come back to Canada that the whole story started making sense. I started meeting some friends of my father, and his Aunt Mara, who is mentioned in the book. So I got a lot of information about his childhood, mostly through stories from women in my family: my sister, my grandmother, and my great aunt. When I sat down to write about it, I realized that even though I thought I knew a lot, there were certain gaps left in the story. For example, I wanted to know about the structure of FFTSF, so I did a lot of research regarding that. After Tito died, a lot of current affair magazines would publish texts about FFTSF, and there was a Croatian equivalent called Otpor. There's a lot of stuff archived on the internet that hasn't really made it into history books because nobody's really writing about this right now. I knew a lot about history and have always been interested in it; I just needed to make sure I mentioned the most important things.

Did you piece the truth of your father's history together through stories or were you explicitly told?
Well, the first time that my brother came to visit us I was 14, and at that point I knew there had been an explosion, but I didn't understand what it was. At 16 you could've told me he was a Croatian nationalist and I would've said, "All right," like I didn't know. Nationalism to me was a foreign thing. We didn't really hear about my father because my grandparents were communists who were trying to shield us. But I think that we should've known, that knowledge is very important to defend yourself and know what you're getting into and who's trying to scoop you. As soon as I moved to Canada at the age of 16, I didn't know what the community was like, especially around the church, which became my community. That to me was completely foreign; seeing pictures of Mihailović who was the Chetnik leader.

After all these years, what made you return to the tale of your father?
I didn't go back to the Balkans until 2007, after I'd connected with the Serbian cartoonist Aleksandar Zograf after reading his book Regards From Serbia. That was the first time I heard a voice come out of Serbia that spoke about regular, normal people in Serbia during the sanctions and NATO bombings of 1999. When the war went on, the media just focused on demonizing Serbs. So this book, which tells you about the power of comics too, was daily diary entries during the sanctions and bombings in comic form. It was through Aleksandar that I connected with the comic's scene in Croatia and Serbia, and then I discovered that during the war underground artists had kept collaborating in spite of mainstream politics. So you hadStripburgermagazine from Slovenia publishing stories by artists from Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia. I discovered the level of activism involved, and learned what life was like for people in Croatia and Serbia in the 90's. Shortly after one of the many Belgrade pride fiascos, I realized that these ultra nationalist groups had the same ideological blueprint that my father did. In my book Heartless, one of the last stories is a short comic which is a symbolic look at my father's last three hours and it's also my rejection of his ideology. I realized this is a topic worth exploring and that sharing the story could bring a lot of good. The target audience was people from former Yugoslav republics, but as time went on, terrorism became more and more of a hot button issue so now I see that people can relate from other places, which is completely something that I didn't think about or count on.

You always see terrorism in the headlines, and of course it's villainized so you don't hear the human side of it. There's usually a lack of context for how this person was created and what the situation was that manipulated them. Was this something you were trying to show?
I worked on the script for a year and a half, and as soon as I started drawing it, I abandoned the script. In the script I was not as neutral as in the book; you can tell that I'm a lefty, that I didn't agree with my father's ideology. So I wanted to let the story develop without being judgmental. That new approach worked because once you remove the judgement you can actually analyze the story and characters. By removing my ego from the book I accidently happened to uncover the portrait of a terrorist. You don't hear about the families of these people. Why don't we about the families of these people? All I'm hearing is displacement, they were poor, they were homeless and so on.

What made you decide to tell this story as a comic?
My background is painting, sculpture, and graphic design. I didn't start doing comics until like 2005, so my first book was a collection of comics I did over eight years. I never thought I would do it full time. It was just a risk I took by quitting work and staying home all the time to work on Fatherland. I wanted to use that format, I love the way it was used in Maus and I love that autobiographical voice in comics. I saw a trend and every story I saw was exciting.

What do you think has led to the prominence of this autobiographical genre within graphic novels?
I think it was Maus, and Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Kurtz as well. It was realizing that comics can be used to share different types of stories, not just what we're used to with fantasy and superheroes; it can be used for educational purposes. Nobody could've done it like Spiegelman did [with Maus], because of the story, it's universal, and the approach was unique, it was very personal.

Spiegelman used a lot of iconography, metaphor and more cartoonish elements, but in Fatherland it's a much more stark and realistic depiction of people and events.
What I found interesting is when I heard Spiegelman talk about how the Polish people were depicted not as pigs but as people wearing pig masks, and he wanted to make sure that was visible with the straps in the back of the mask. Now I hear that some people who see themselves as representatives of the Polish community see it as an unfair representation of Polish people and as an insult. A Serbian Chetnik organization sent me a letter also. Before I went to Serbia they claimed that I'd published "untruths" about General Mihailovic, and that he was collaborating with the axis in World War 2 and that had been debunked and they would like to educate me. What really bothered me is that they said I was putting a "blemish on Serbian people as a whole" and that really pissed me off because who the fuck are they to call themselves the representatives of Serbian people? When I arrived in Belgrade three weeks ago, Mihailovic was exonerated in a court, which means by the time that his trial happened in 1946, there was some kind of a technicality in his trial and now he's been rehabilitated which is ridiculous because he was the supreme leader of the people who were collaborating with the enemy. But even though they know it's wrong, they want to keep fighting it.

It's so hard to rationalize with any of these groups who are clinging to these old suppressive ideologies.
That was my response to them. You're stuck in World War Two.

It seems like a lot of extremist groups are defined by an inability to let go of the past.
It is inability to let go. It's the grudge. The Balkans have the tradition of blood revenge which means if someone kills somebody five generations ago, then ten generations later there will still be someone looking to kill that person. This runs deep in the land. I don't understand why they're so stuck in the past, I'm stuck in the past but I mean that's the nineteenth century Romantic Movement; travelling, Croatian poets and sculptors. These are the things I cling to in Serbian history, but not World War Two, not the nationalist movement.

Now that people are only an email or a comment thread way from expressing offense, are you always prepared for people to take issue with your work?There's always a chance that someone might take offense. Good criticism comes from understanding a piece of work, bad criticism comes from not understanding it or, worse, from not having it read. I guess the best approach is not intentionally wanting to piss someone off.

Was there a catharsis in finishing the book? Did you let go of anything that writing the book had stirred up?
I realized that certain things didn't bother me as much. It was very calming and satisfying that I could actually finish it to begin with. It was difficult, I was afraid of offending my mom and my sister and these little things.

How did your family react to it?
My mom's very proud, and my sister is, too. I don't have contacts with my brother though.

What has the reception been in Serbia and Croatia?
In Croatia the response has been wonderful. The ministry of education ordered 185 copies of the book for the libraries immediately. It was really flattering because they actually contacted my publisher. There were so many amazing reviews. In Serbia I've had positive feedback, but the book just came out so it's still early, we'll how it goes. The important thing is the Serbian edition is the first book that was published as a joint effort between a Serbian and Croatian publishing house since the war. It was nice because the book made it home.

Were you nervous for its release in Serbia?
I was a lot more nervous back when I exhibited the pages from Heartless because it targeted a specific group, and the group was called Obraz (which means "the cheek"), which is ultra right wing and nationalist. These are people responsible for the Belgrade pride bloodshed and numerous minority attacks. This was in 2011 when I had a show at the Centre for Cultural Decontamination. The leader of the group was released from prison the week I'd arrived, so they were preparing me what to do if they came. What they told me was just smile, smile because they don't know what to do when you smile, they only know how to return aggression. Luckily none of them showed up, but I ended up seeing the leader on the terrace of some restaurant in Belgrade. He looked so little and so fragile and so unhappy. That's when I realized there was nothing to be afraid of and changed my approach from accusatory to more understanding. So this time I wasn't afraid, I knew I was surrounded by people who wanted good things to happen.

Are you planning another book? How do you follow up something so personal?I'd like to do one more, the next book will pick up where his one left off and bring us up to the present. Then I'm done with autobiographical. I have some ideas for more sculpture and installation work. I'd like to make more of the dolls that I have on show at the AGO. Maybe animation will be the next step after, I'd like to try stop motion.

Where do you identify as your homeland now?
I think I've got a mobile home. It really is where my people are. I have a lot of friends all over the place. I've felt at home in Paris, Zagreb, Belgrade and Rome. There's one place in Croatia in the Adriatic, in the province of Istria, and it's the only place that was not touched by war in 90s. People there are wonderful and very friendly and I feel most at home when I'm over there. For many years I felt like I didn't belong anywhere and now I'm changing my attitude.

Fatherland is available now & her exhibit "Out of the Fatherland" is on at the AGO until August.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Follow Aidan Johnston on Twitter.

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