Back in the last century there was a country called Yugoslavia. After the benevolent, and to some beloved, dictator Josip Broz Tito died in 1980, it fell apart in a terrible civil war.
In the floods of immigrants from Africa/Central America we may have forgotten about this. Novelist Patjim Statovci writes about his journey from Kosovo to Finland in My Cat Yugoslavia (translated from the Finnish by David Hackston):
“Then one perfectly normal day when I was about 15 years old I awoke to the realization that I lived in the middle of the countryside, that I was at best an average student and that I wasn’t even a very good singer, though I wanted to be the best in the world. I realized that…I couldn’t write my own thoughts clearly enough. I couldn’t draw or count because I found it hard to concentrate on prolonged activities…I looked at myself in the mirror and wondered whether I was stupid…It was a hard question to ask but asking it wasn’t half as hard as the later realization that I probably was, a stupid and unimportant person. I didn’t understand anything about politics or society; I didn’t know how Yugoslavia worked…I could only barely remember which nations made up Yugoslavia at all.”
This is voiced by a young woman, Emine, who goes on to marry, have children, and flee Kosovo with her family. People she once trusted as neighbors, employers, teachers and local merchants, came to want nothing to do with ‘her people’, and in the end the family home was broken into and robbed.
The family emigrate to Finland, Emine’s children learn to speak Finnish, to speak quietly, not to address other people in public places, to look away from strangers. They have as little as possible to do with their father, who becomes more and more emphatically himself: Muslim and Albanian, leaving home and hardly speaking to their mother Emine anymore.
The other character in the novel is the author’s avatar, Bekim, who adopts and lives with a cat who behaves like a proud, lazy, witty and sarcastic man – like Bekim’s father, an Albanian. Bekim finally breaks up with the cat, gets rid of his boa constrictor and becomes a ‘normal’ Finn. Emine’s husband Basjim dies, she get a job, and reconnects with her estranged children, assimilating to life in Finland. She says, finally “At some point everyone should experience what it feels like to run out of options. That’s what I think. Because in a situation like that you think you’re losing your mind. Only now I know it’s not the least bit dangerous.”
Statovci’s second novel, The Crossing, is about a young man and his friend’s flight from Albania to Italy and beyond. They leave after finishing high school, with nothing but some clothes and a little money, and become beggars in Tirana. “Poverty is a state of mind,” said Agim, telling me to repeat it. But the longer we lived that way, the more clearly we understood what poverty really meant. Nobody wanted to come near us. People don’t want the things they can achieve without any effort; that is what poverty taught us. “That’s the way people are,” said Agim. “They feel empathy only toward people who are like them.” The main character, trying desperately to stay in Italy and not be deported, plays up his character’s feminine traits and passes himself off as a trans-woman, hoping that way to win a music contest though his voice is not good. The ruse doesn’t work, but playing his LGBT card does. He finally meets a trans-woman, Tanja, and plans to take over her character. The last few pages recall a folk story about a horse, the symbol of his birth country and father; once strong and macho, now weak and on its last legs.