More than a Game

About the Summer, Simplicity and Strawberries
Rohmer made a movie about her in Paris, Coltrane and Che gave her smile superiority and sorrow, her brother Stojan, Steve, the only Serbian Academy Award winner claimed that she has never made rotten compromises and thus sleeps in peace. She studied French literature in America, completed her doctoral degree on Proust at the Sorbonne, taught scriptwriting, directing, production and propaganda at the Brooklyn College. Still, she is mainly and entirely a poet

By: Branislav Matić

She was fifteen when, shortly after World War II, she moved from her hometown of Užice to Chicago with her mother and brother Stojan. Reunion of the family, meeting her father whom she hadn’t met before. She later described ”the horror of the first years” in America in her literary memoire Dying in Chicago. A month after her arrival, she wrote to the Yugoslav consulate, ”asking them to save her”. However, since she was underage, they could not help.
She graduated from college in the US and completed her doctoral degree at the Sorbonne. She taught French literature in Vietnam for a while, and then at the Rutgers University. She was professor of scriptwriting, directing, production and propaganda at the Brooklyn College in New York. She is the author of the novels Far from Vietnam, Shadow Partisan and Native Land, which found great success in America. She wrote dramas After the Revolution, Harvest, What Remained. Her works, although published in many countries and editions, have never been published in Serbian language. Same was with the works of her brother Steve Tešić, the only Serbian Academy Award winner (for the movie script for Four Friends, 1981).
This winter in New York, watching from afar into my eyes that she remembers, she speaks for National Review.

Childhood. First memory: the Germans, the bombing of Užice and my house. I am little, tiny. Buried in the ruins. In the last moment, my mother saves me after seeing my little shoe sticking out under the ruins. I am wounded. A surgery on the ground, without anesthesia.
We are sleeping in someone’s house. Pillows instead of windows. The Germans want to kill me, a bayonet is under my throat, but grandma Pava saves me – she spoke German.
Then begins the real childhood. The four of us in a small apartment. I was claustrophobic for a long time and became different. Still, I was the best student in my class and best pioneer – I helped the peasants in reading and planted flowers.
However, it was wonderful. Not a single car, simplicity and solidarity, everybody helping everybody. Sleighing in winter, the summer on the river Djetinja. Clean air, the scent of the village around us, glowworms, stories.
The summer at my grandfather’s in Rača. Wonderful. A mill. The clean river Rača, you can drink its water. We are barefoot, my brother and I. Everything is there, the fruit, the oxen, the bees, everything. We ride a black horse without a saddle, we fall asleep on it, and it knows where to go.
The beauty of the natural in everything.
I worked as everyone else in the village – with the sheep, wheat harvest, picking corn, collecting plums.
I read a whole library in Užice. It was wonderful. Those times.

Mother had her reasons for wanting to go to America. I did not. Never. I am fifteen. After the bombing and everything, I am calm and happy. The professors like me, as well as my friends. I like them too. I am an A student. I was never interested in America, not a single bit. All this was so artificial and unnatural – just like Esther Williams dives and comes out of the water with impeccable lipstick and hairdo, as if she has just been to the hairdresser’s. Furthermore, the material things weren’t important to me, as they are not now. I wore a black uniform, like the others, and didn’t mind. I loved the river, grandpa, my city and my country (I still love it).
The departure was like a funeral. My friends and professors are seeing us off. I am crying. They kiss me. As if I am going to some German concentration camp. Then the whistle blows, and the train leaves.
The beginning in America was terrible. We all lost a lot of weight because of tasteless food, polluted air and solitude. It would be a long story or a novel.

Paris. I have been in Paris in different periods and each of them was different. (None of these Parises exists, globalization leveled everything.) For the first time I have the sense of freedom because I am not in America. The beauty of the city, the scents of coffee and bakeries. I live everywhere. Sartre, Camus and Simon de Beauvoir are the most important. I am 21. I return to America to teach French language and literature. Father died.
A year later I am in Paris again, and I stay there two years, I think. In the Students’ City, where I live, Eric Rohmer accidentally finds me. I didn’t know who he was then.  We talked, I was then working on my doctoral thesis on Proust in Paris, and Eric chose me for the role in his movie Nadja a Paris. Later he also liked to talk with me, and we remained friends until his recent death. I met the whole ”new wave” then, Godard, Polanski, all of them.
Then again back to America, again I am professor of French literature.
However, after a while I return to Paris, for many reasons. I was also there in 1968. My son was also born in Paris, this is where I got married, accidentally, between two barricades on the street, and I am now getting a divorce. C’est la vie.

Life, journeys. From the beginning, many people from my country have asked me, like they do now, about my journeys and about Paris. They always imagined loads of dollars because I come from America. It wasn’t so at all. I worked in America, so did my brother, and I also worked in Paris. I arrive to Paris with a small suitcase with only the most necessary things. I meet Eric Rohmer, who will make a movie about me, in sneakers and jeans, without any make-up, with a two centimeters long hair (because it’s more practical and cheaper). This was never important to me – the clothes and my appearance. This has never distracted me in anything – neither with the students, nor with the workers, nor with the Parisian aristocracy. I was always only me. I traveled everywhere, inexpensively. I hitchhiked. In North Africa and Italy people thought I was a boy. These are long stories, my friend. All in all, I haven’t sold myself anywhere, because I wanted to sleep in peace. And I still sleep in peace.

Music. I was told that everything I write is music – the poems, the novels, the theater, the scripts. For me, music is everything natural and human. The murmur of the trees in the wind, the purl of the river, the waves of the ocean, rain, silent snowfall, crying or joy of children, lightning, people quarrelling, tears, firefighters, police, bombing, screaming, whispering, different languages, weddings, birth. Everything. I was also working on sound working in a Hollywood movie. I hear too well.
I will not speak about classical music, because I like everything, from all countries.
I accepted jazz physically. Coltrane, Ellington, etc. Coltrane is in my first play. Its name is ”Alabama”, and it is about a black church full of children burned by the racists. The spiritual music of the black people comprises everything. Prayer and cries and passion and rage and wish for freedom. Their churches are amazing. If I am an American at all, it is because of the black people, who are deeply religious and humane. Far more than the white. So, firstly, it is the music. Secondly, my first boyfriend played the contrabass and became famous. It wasn’t easy for us, he was a mulatto and the pressure of the environment was huge. We are still friends.

Revolution. The answer to this is easy: revolution comes when it has to. When people are sick of everything and have nothing to lose, have nothing. I saw the Cuban revolution. These people here, where I live, lie that it is a dictatorship. In the past, masses of both children and adults used to die of hunger and diseases. Now, surprisingly, they are all healthy and educated. In 1999, they knew the truth about the events in Serbia better than the Europeans did.
My memory of the Cuban revolution: I am standing at the seashore. It is tempestuous, waves, storm. I am afraid to go in. I see children playing in the sea. Without fear. A girl, about eight years old, comes out of the water, kisses me, takes my hand and takes me to play with them. And I enter the sea without fear.

Che. It is difficult for me to say something short about him because I know everything. I had been thinking about him even before I knew him, before I even knew his name. In my play After the Revolution he is a picture on the wall. He is in my play Far from Vietnam. The chapter is called ”Love”. He was educated, he graduated from medical school in Argentina, he was a revolutionary, idealist, pure. In Cuba, in the villages, his picture stands besides the picture of Christ, the first great revolutionary. He lived like the common people. The material things were never important to him.
Guevara is the symbol of a permanent revolution. He appears anywhere there are poor people and no justice. In our country, in the spring of 1999, in Belgrade destroyed by bombs, students were carrying his picture.

First novel. I wasn’t thinking of writing it, but suddenly I heard a name and it was the key, it opened the door. It is hard to describe. I reentered my childhood with all the sounds and scents, as if I was living it again. I wrote quickly, without corrections, so I wouldn’t lose it. I put everything on the floor, by subjects, like a, b, c, d… I constantly cried from joy because time can be repeated. And I ended it in a month. Then everything disappeared and has never repeated again. Then I also cried, but from sorrow. As if someone else was writing.
Of course, in the second version I changed the details and became a writer.
The novel is called Shadow Partisan.
It has the rhythm, even in English, of the Užice kolo dance.
Here in the US, the novel was awarded with two money prizes which I spent for the Serbian cause. It was not published in Serbia because I did not accept terribly bad translations. While returning to Užice, I saw that life was like a documentary without a beginning or end, and that my novel is literature. They compared it with Chagall’s paintings.

Stojan. Stojan, or Tole, or Steve and I were like twins. We always loved each other, from the very beginning, and by chance took the same path. Here, in New York, we used to meet in a quiet restaurant, just the two of us, to speak about everything that is happening, in our lives and in the world. Forgive me, I cannot speak about him any more, it hurts.

New York. My New York does not exist, it has never existed as Paris once existed on the left bank of the Seine or previous Belgrade. My brother Stojan also never had his New York, he had his study. One should not forget that this city has a bigger population than the entire Serbia. Turmoil. All languages, all nations, all colors. Rapid changes. For example, my son Stefan lost half of his friends already in elementary school. Their parents set off to some other places on business.
Now it is much more difficult and much worse. Many shops are bankrupt, theaters are closing down, people are moving, new people are coming and going, when they lose their job, they lose they apartment, everything. Depression. The stock exchange is wildly going up and down and only money, money, money, the only ideology of this country.
Only a few friends are still here, and tomorrow they will be gone too.
My New York is my apartment with many books. (These days I am again reading Mount of Lament. Wonderful novel.) I go to an old bar, it’s a real miracle it still exists, and write there. People from the whole world are there. I am like a fly on the wall, I don’t talk, but listen carefully.

My Serbia. What do I know about entire Serbia? A little. I was in Užice last summer and many people came to see me. I saw my old and only friend Slavenka Vergović and her husband, painter. There were also funny situations: a man whom I don’t remember says he was in love with me in his early youth and jealous of some kid.
Although I visited often and tried to keep up with everything, the Užice I saw last summer was a different city I wouldn’t recognize. Those beautiful hills disappeared, replaced by big houses, all the surrounding villages became part of the city. Many cars. The scent and spirit of the city are no longer the same. No one sleighs in the winter, everybody goes to Zlatibor. Nothing was functioning in the hotel they reserved for me, so I went to sleep in the house of Zoran Jeremić, a wonderful man and poet. And I met his family. All this reminded me of Thomas Wolf’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again. It is normal that everything is changing, but the speed of everything these years is too big for a human soul.

Love. I cannot speak about Hollywood love, where everyone falls in love at first sight and sex follows immediately afterwards. I haven’t known it nor do I wish to. It is not love and it does not last. For me, love is everything I love – my country, my son, my mother, brother, my friends, different writers, my music, my paintings. And I remain faithful. Love between a man and a woman, if it is love, demands more than the body. Perhaps that is why today it is so hard to find it.

What I dream, and what happens to me. My dreams have been my guides all my life, like some other dimension which helped me understand my own life. I didn’t need Freud, everything was clear. Many of my dreams were stories, I only had to write them down. I had four different series which ended by themselves. One dream from the time I was 22: at the end I hear my brother died and feel tremendous pain, the same I felt many years later when it really happened.
If we speak about the dream as a wish for something in real life, I did not have many such wishes, or I lived them all. There were three in my childhood: to live my life, to have children, to write a book. And I had it all.

When I think of Serbia today... When I think of Serbia now, here in New York, I think of fresh soft cheese and kaymak and wild strawberries. They don’t have them here. From my first day in immigration, the fruit, however nice it looked, was without taste. (”Flowers without scent, fruit without taste, women without love”, my late father used to say. He and America were not on good terms. See, Bane, suddenly I’m thinking of him.) My brother and I carried within the same images and remembered a Serbia which, as it seems, is now gone. Everything was more natural, machines were not this dominant, the scents of everything were stronger (the scent of the willow, acacia tree, the scent of each season).
I remember: village girls are washing laundry in the river under my grandfather’s garden and hanging it on the trees to dry. They take off their clothes to wash it and go into the river. The beauty of their bodies in the sun. The beauty of their long hair. The scent of the river and the willow and their joy. It is summer.

Truth. There was much more truth before television, because people were reading books and slowly contemplating on everything. Now here in the US, 1 percent of the people read. The students I taught at the university knew nothing. Television bombards with fast images, people think they see everything and know everything. The image repeats, it’s cheap. There was a time when French writers translated and admired our writers and knew our history. Now, here, no one knows either the French poets, or ours, or their own.
In Serbia, unfortunately, some people believe in American illusions and propaganda stereotypes which even Americans don’t believe in. In Serbia, unfortunately, some people refuse to understand: they are speaking badly about us only to justify themselves, to cover their motives and horrible consequences of their activities.

Who had the greatest influence (or what)... On me?
The Germans: They wanted to kill me and I had nightmares and claustrophobia for a long time.
Liberation: I remember the big kolo dance at the square, around a huge bonfire. I was little, but I remember.
Grandma Pava: She was so ethical, pure in everything, deeply religious in her simple way. She prayed to God as to an old friend. ”Nadja needs shoes. Help us!” prays grandma Pava. And I stand beside her and whisper: ”You forgot Božana and Desa!” I went to church with grandma Pava, early in the morning. I often think of her.
First teacher: A partisan from some place in Krajina, she was almost the same as grandma Pava. Ethical, quiet, righteous with everyone.
Mom: Her stories and the way she told them. She created dramas, because she was talented for mimicry. Strong, stronger than other women, she had to make a living for the four of us, afterwards also for aunt Vida. And she is still laughing. (Since I grew up in a matriarchate, it is no wonder these three women defined my personality.)
Books: Ours, Russian and American, from the late XIX and first decades of the XX century. I read a lot, and often read one book several times. Later, in America, it was French literature and the Paris which no longer exists.
Father: He left many books about Serbian villages, as well as anthropological books about journeys in Africa. And a deep sorrow because we grew up without him.
Žika Pavlović: My best friend. He made me a list of books I must read in order to compensate everything I missed. It was very important for me. Belgrade is not the same without Žika Pavlović.

I always feel sad when I see... Old women looking for food in garbage cans (and they used to have children and family). Seriously ill children. Young and old homeless people, in the terrible cold, without a coat. Young soldiers without legs and arms. Autumn. Dead rivers which used to be clean. A young child-prostitute in the street. That man is the worst animal. That no one understands anyone, that we are born and die alone. That I cannot stop time which crumbles everything (my old obsession, ever since I was ten). That I can no longer understand some young people in Serbia. That life is absurd.


I could have worked there, but I wasn’t interested. Others would not have refused. Hollywood didn’t have anything to offer, because I wasn’t interested either in fame or in the material things. My brother also didn’t like that horrible atmosphere there. At the end of his life he told me that I have never made compromises. Therefore I sleep in peace.


I have nothing to say. It used to be different, when my brother and I wrote plays. Now everything is swallowed by the commercial. First it happened in the movies, then in the theater and then literature. Only poetry kept its independence because not many people read it and no one can earn money on it. I stopped going to the theater a long time ago. The best theater I have seen was in Belgrade in the nineties, directed by Ljubiša Ristić. Great talent.


Everyone knows what a fight is. But today, something else comes before all weapons – how to win brainwashing, misuse of television, etc. Everything is possible. However, if you don’t have money, you must be better in everything, with a higher intelligence and imagination. After all, many examples show how empires were defeated.


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