There’s an invisible way of remembering the former country and especially how it fell apart: in your body. This is doubly true for trauma. How do the people of the former Yugoslavia experience and deal with trauma of their country’s dissolution? How does trauma get passed down over generations? And how can we dance our way out of it?
With Stefan Jovanović and Snježana Pruginić.
Support the Podcast
Become a monthly patron on Patreon:
Make a one-time contribution via PayPal/credit card:
Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
This episode of Remembering Yugoslavia was challenging for me personally to make. In fact it was the most difficult one to produce thus far.
It may be difficult, even disturbing to hear as well. The topic itself may be triggering, and there will be references to state oppression, violence, war, experiences of being a refugee, and more. So listen with discretion and take care of yourself, first and foremost.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your therapist Peter Korchnak.
The ways of remembering Yugoslavia tend to be tangible. That’s what I focus on here on the podcast, architecture, products, art… Yugoslavia also lives on in people’s memories, and many have shared theirs on the show.
There’s a less visible or obvious way the former country, and especially how it fell apart, lives on: in people’s bodies.
The experience of losing a country and particularly the experience of war and everything that came with and after it, has had profound effects on millions of former Yugoslavs—and their children. Before the war in Ukraine, the former Yugoslavia could well have been the most traumatized region in Europe.
Trauma—and I’m combining definitions here—is an experience of sudden, catastrophic, or devastating events (that’s events plural) that results in lasting psychological injury. Being so overwhelming, traumatic experiences do not get processed at the time they’re occurring. Rather, trauma reappears repetitively and in an uncontrolled way over time in the form of hallucinations, flashbacks, nightmares, and other life intrusions. And frequently does so in fragments.
Trauma and memory are closely intertwined; trauma lives in memory, and memory is the place where trauma gets processed. In fact, it is in the process of forgetting that a lot of that work happens, and in silence to boot.
The injury of Yugoslavia’s disappearance was major, the psyches affected numerous, and the effects lasting.
The title of Bessel van Kolk’s bestselling book published nearly a decade ago coined the core of our story today in a succinct way: The Body Keeps the Score.
You may experience trauma mentally but it is also recorded in your body—and it stays there.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: The way I see trauma is that when something happens in our life where our brain and our body don’t feel safe, or they feel like, this is something that could put my physical safety at threat or my emotional safety at threat, the body does something that is naturally wired to do which is protect itself and go into something we call fight or flight.
PETER KORCHNAK: Snježana Pruginić is a somatic therapist—
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: —which means a body based therapy focused on trauma—
PETER KORCHNAK: —in Toronto. Originally from Karlovac, Pruginić also does community justice work focused on trauma and healing and she integrates art within these practices. A listener herself, she approached me with the idea to cover this topic on the show (hint: I am open to pitches).
What is trauma? How do the people of the former Yugoslavia experience and deal with it? How does it gets passed down over generations? And how can we dance our way out of it? All of that on today’s show.
DAN OSTOJIĆ: Hey Peter, my name is Dan Ostojić. This has been bugging me probably for a while now, just to get a message out…but, thanks. Thanks for everything.
I have suffered an identity crisis since the beginning of that war, since ‘91. I thought I was a Yugoslav. I’m an ethnic Serb from the Slavonia region of Croatia. I’ve lived with Croats, I’ve lived with— near Bosnians, like, we were Yugoslavs, man. So the identity crisis after the war began weighs heavy on me.
It’s not easy to say you’re Yugoslav because it doesn’t make any sense to me anymore. But to say that I’m a Serbian doesn’t make sense. I can say I’m Croatian but I know that’s not the true definition of a Croatian. So I guess I am a Yugoslav in a way. So the fact that you’re addressing this with your podcast is amazing. Because you’ve taken on things that seem to be remotely obscure to me and put them to the forefront of my life. I’m able to understand myself better.
You bring a lot of voices to the forefront, things I never understood. And it’s helped me out in my understanding of what was Yugoslavia. And now I get a new opinion and a new a new look on something very old.
So I can’t thank you enough for what’s going on. I really like your podcast. You’ve done remarkable work in maintaining the identity of a Yugoslav.
So thanks from Canada, thanks from me and all the other Yugoslavs you’ve helped out.
PETER KORCHNAK: I know for a fact Dan isn’t the only person who feels this way. I’m always grateful to hear from listeners—from you!—to know what the podcast means to you.
And I particularly want to acknowledge those who can and do extend their support in tangible ways. Thank you, Alex, Igor, and Itai for your generous pledges and contributions.
This is the 75th episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, and the release date is also the third birthday of the show. Throughout this run, the show has been and will continue to be listener sponsored and supported. It’s what keeps the screens on and the blinking lights blinking.
So if you’re like Alex, Igor, and Itai and find the show helpful to you in any way, entertaining, therapeutic, or even just interesting, join them. For the price of a coffee (or a burek), you can both make the show go on, as it must, and help keep the memory of that disappeared country examined and alive.
Go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate or follow the link in the episode notes in your podcast listening app, and contribute today.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: It’s a natural mechanism. We have gotten as a human species to this point, because we have it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Snježana Pruginić, the Toronto-based somatic therapist, again, on trauma.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: But sometimes when those things that are happening are too much and they overwhelm your individual sense of self, and they overwhelm your ability to have that authority to respond to a situation and mitigate it and move through it, that is something that we would call as traumatic because it overwhelms who you are.
PETER KORCHNAK: Trauma is an insidious beast. It’s in your head, quite literally, and it’s in the rest of you as well.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: It creates all these different patterns in between the brain and the body. And that process is something that is consistently going as you’re living your life and these patterns that the body kind of starts to create end up being the ways you start to see the world or the way you perceive the world, the way you perceive yourself and they kind of influence your behaviors and how you relate to other people. So the quality of your relationships or lack of relationships or different things is kind of influenced by these views.
Pruginic PETER KORCHNAK: As you might expect, some of the roots of Pruginić’s work grew from her personal experience.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: Coming here at the beginning of the war, with rumblings in Croatia and then watching it all in a sense fall apart throughout the next 10 years, did a big number on my own sense of identity and who I am.
There was trauma of survivor guilt that I came, you know, before things got really, really bad and then I was able to be here in a safe space—dealing with that, dealing with the trauma of who am I came when it was Yugoslavia and now, here in the diaspora, I’m forced to look at different identities and try and find new identities. So I think I always try to find a way of, how do I feel okay? And that question led me to bodywork and led me to using the body and touch as a way of healing because it was one thing that made me feel safe.
PETER KORCHNAK: Dealing with trauma in her family’s present, Pruginić found some of the solutions in her family’s past.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: My grandmother used to do massage in the village and she used to do a lot of touch in hands on healing. Not something I necessarily considered as like, Oh, I’m going to continue doing this work from hers. But as I got into it, I realized that it was a continuation of healing and of working with the body in such a way that I could find that space of safety for myself and for the people that I work with.
And then as I kind of progressed within my work I start[ed] asking the question of, well, how does this go beyond me? Because I can do this work for myself and heal, you know, my own traumas and processes, but what about us together and the traumas that we keep creating in our society?
PETER KORCHNAK: There’s influences and there’s breakthroughs, those moments when everything comes together and blossoms into something new.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: Ultimately, it kind of got triggered by some work I did back home where I did body work with young people who were from the different parts of former Yugoslavia. And that was 2005, so young people at that time, who were between maybe 16 and 18, so during the Balkan Wars they were children, where we did some bodywork on each other. And one of the young men told me, “If we could treat each other with the same care [and] respect as we do when we’re giving each other these treatments, these bodywork treatments, maybe we wouldn’t have had this war.”
So that was like an aha moment for me that there is a different way that we can learn to relate to each other. And that’s when I really went into like community work and community justice, and what is transformative justice, what is peacebuilding? And how can we use healing and what role does trauma play in that? What role does the body play in that?
PETER KORCHNAK: What do you mean by bodywork?
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: Typically, when people hear bodywork, they think of massage therapy. So this is a type of massage, what I was trained in, is something called shiatsu therapy, which is a Japanese massage, in a sense, but it’s basically, if you imagine, like acupuncture, but without needles. So applying pressure to specific points, working with the body, mind, and soul through an energetic aspect of the body as well as the physical.
But it can be anything from massage, osteopathy, reflexology, Reiki, yoga, anything where the body is kind of being used to help create a sense of balance or to create a sense of healing within the both the body and that person’s life.
PETER KORCHNAK: The roots reach beyond personal experience and deep into the layers of generations.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: There is trauma that can happen before we were born. And that’s of our families, of our ancestors, things that they’ve gone through.
That trauma is passed two ways. One is through the DNA. And then again, there’s a lot of kind of research around that, the epigenetics and looking at how trauma is passed from one person to another for many generations through our DNA.
And then the other part is through behaviors.
PETER KORCHNAK: Say, you die inside a little when you have to throw away food because you’re hearing in your mind your grandma’s voice telling you about her memories of the Great Depression or World War Two. Say, you involuntarily bristle every time you meet a Russian or a German because their people had invaded your country and killed your people long before you were born. Say, you never quite feel at home anywhere because throughout generations your family lived in so many different countries and under so many different regimes you lost count without ever moving more than a few kilometers. That’s all intergenerational trauma. Our roots run deep.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: I’m Serbian, born and raised in Croatia—and this is my experience as a certain person born in Croatia, not to say this is all Serbian people’s experience in Croatia—but I grew up in a home, in an environment where people would oftentimes kind of make these little statements of like, well, you know, if someone asks you why your Christmas is on a different day, just say, it just is.
Even my name, my name is Snježana is the Croatian version of my name, the Serbian version is without the J, Snežana. And I remember, one of my grandfathers being upset at my parents for giving me a Croatian version. And my parents’ response, it will help her survive and you know, kind of adapt and assimilate. So there was this idea, this behavior of like, you have to adapt and assimilate because it’s safer for you. My parents perhaps never really had any real reason to adopt those behaviors, but they were passed on to them from my grandparents and my great-grandparents who went through World War II, went through the things that happened between Croatians and Serbs and had real physical reasons to feel threatened. So that experience that they had created a behavior of hide your identity a little bit, because it’s what’s gonna help you survive and adapt.
Even as an immigrant coming here, having that kind of thinking, in my mind, well, I’m gonna just hide my identity a little bit and how do I assimilate into the Canadian culture. And there was a very big period of time in my life here where I rejected anything from back home, I didn’t want to have any friends from back home, I didn’t want to speak the language. And it was that again, patterning of that trauma, of I need to assimilate and hide my identity in order to be safe. Until I was able to recognize that that was a trauma response, that wasn’t actually my identity.
PETER KORCHNAK: Trauma responses depend on the traumatic experiences. The diaspora from the former Yugoslavia came to Canada (or elsewhere around the world) in several different waves for several different reasons, and so they differ in both their experiences and in their outcomes.
People who came before 1991 and those who came during the wars of Yugoslav dissolutions differ in their responses. And there are their offspring who were born in the diaspora but are likewise affected by their parents’ trauma. Pruginić talks about these different groups in the extended version of this episode available to Patreon and other contributors.
PETER KORCHNAK: Regardless of their source or sources and regardless of how deep into history the roots reach, all of these traumas add up if not addressed, says Pruginić.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: In recent times, we’ve started to hear about C-PTSD, which is complex post traumatic stress disorder. And what that means is basically that it’s compounding trauma or ongoing trauma, the trauma that doesn’t stop. And many people experience that all the time, because they’re living in systems of oppression or racism, other stuff, this ongoing trauma thing, and living in poverty is ongoing trauma and abusive relationships.
I remember coming and being called a DP, Deported Person, within my own diaspora, the Serbian community and it wasn’t like a compliment, you know it was kind of like how people used to before call boat people, right? It was an insult, oh, you’re less than us, because you’re a DP, you’re a Deported Person in the sense of like, you’re not Serbian enough because you’re a DP.
I’m 42. So the people that I know, a lot of it was in their formative years, maybe that’s their, like, mid to late teens, early 20s, where your brain is still developing. And these traumas are being created constantly, one after another, and from a lot of my friends in the diaspora who have come here during the war, I don’t think it has ever stopped. I think we’ve just found ways to adapt. I think we just found ways to recognize, Oh, this is a trauma response and how do I now work with that?
And one of the biggest things I’ve seen from people that I know and myself is how do we work through that is by looking at the responses to things. I remember a friend saying, once, you know, there were some tanks, because they were filming a movie somewhere in Toronto, and seeing those tanks just like triggered her. Obviously she was she’s aware enough and knows herself enough to say why trigger because of the experience she’d gone to and the trauma that she’d gone through. But that was just like, such a clear indication of showing that it’s still in her body, and her body is still constantly looking out for those threats that it has gone through, because it has never really fully processed that yet. And it might not process it in our life. It might, you know, be processed through generations forward from us.
So I think that there is this, within the diaspora itself, a breakage between these different sets of trauma responses that are visible and that are less visible and causing a kind of a compound building of traumas.
And again, I’m just speaking from like my own experience within my own diaspora. But I have a very strong feeling it’s very similar across all the diaspora ethnic groups from former Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: The problem with intergenerational trauma is that it’s invisible. It’s one thing to know and understand that your own experience of having to flee your home is going to affect you for the rest of your life, and it’s another to see how your grandmother’s having to flee her home because of war may affect you.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: Sometimes intergenerational trauma can be harder to identify and even accept that that’s what is happening. Because we just think that’s just the way we are, you know, that’s just, you know, tradition and things that we were raised. Te don’t actually see it as trauma.
I think the biggest thing is recognition: recognizing, Oh, this is a trauma response, this is a trigger, recognizing those triggers, which I think is harder with intergenerational trauma because you don’t have an originating thing that you can correlate it to. You can’t say, Oh, why is this thing triggering me, I’ve never seen a tank in my life, you know, but something that just doesn’t feel right.
But for somebody who’s has that direct correlation, direct link between an incident and trauma, that response that they’re having it becomes easier sometimes to recognize. Not in any way necessarily easier to move through it or try and respond differently. But that process of learning how to respond differently, I think personally is a lifetime process that is honestly done with so much help and support. It’s not something that can be done on your own. It needs different kinds of therapy, whether it’s trauma talk therapy, whether it’s somatic trauma therapy, whether it’s different types of self care that it really does need more of that collective support to work through it.
And then the intergenerational trauma is really about learning how intergenerational trauma can show up, learning examples, so that you can see, Oh, well, I think like that, I wonder if I think like that because of something that happened to my grandparents, and then let me learn about what happened to my grandparents.
I think that’s where the opportunity for healing is that, those of us who have the direct link to trauma have the opportunity to say to the future generations, like this is where it’s coming from, it’s coming from trauma, these are my responses, how can we create new ones for you?
And then those who are kind of experiencing intergenerational trauma and don’t necessarily have a link to it can do in that work of understanding what happened to my ancestors? What were the things that they went through? And what could something like that have created for a person? What could have growing up in poverty created for a person? How would they have behaved? How would they ever thought, what if I grew up in that, what how would I be like?
My work is to look back and see, what were the things that my family went through, and how does that impact who I am and the behaviors I do and the way I live my life. But then also look at things I’ve gone through and be like, Well, what are the behaviors that have come out of that and are those ones I want to pass on? So it’s a bit of like, backwards and forward work at the same time.
PETER KORCHNAK: Now might be a good point to take a break.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: When trauma happens, it has a desire to move. That’s the fight or flight, we have the desire to move. But there’s another response, which we haven’t talked about, just freeze, and that’s when we’re unable to move, and then that trauma stays in the body. So good way is always, how do I find ways to move that energy out and shaking and movement and anything that kind of allows the body to move a bit differently is always really helpful.
Whoever’s listening right now, you know, if you want to, you can sit or you can stand and you can close your eyes. If you feel safe and comfortable to do that, if not, you can just kind of lower your gaze so that it softens your eyes a little bit and tunes your inward into your body.
And let’s just start by taking a deep breath, we can just take a deep breath, and then just release it however you want, whether that’s through your nose through your mouth, if you want to make a sound. And let’s just start by just like shaking our arms a little bit. You know, maybe shaking our heads, doing a few head circles, maybe shaking our shoulders a bit, even kind of go up and down. And then we can kind of lean on one leg, lift the other one, just shake it a little bit. Switch by leaning on the other leg, lift the other one, just shake it a little bit, and just kind of let our whole body just to bounce a bit, just a little bit of gentle bounces, as comfortable as you can do it. And if you’re sitting, you can still do this, just by kind of moving around, wiggling around in your chair. Just giving it, you know, as fast or as slow as you want just to kind of move things out of the body.
PETER KORCHNAK: Now in the case of the former Yugoslavia, the trauma that spread across the world originated in the conflicts that ensued from the country’s disintegration. And it gets triggered repeatedly. When the pandemic hit, you’d hear diasporans from Sarajevo flashing back to the experience of the Siege, when just stepping out of your house could kill you. When the war in Ukraine started, many people across the former Yugoslavia were experiencing flareups of PTSD; I had people declining or canceling their interviews for the show because they were so triggered and couldn’t find it in themselves to talk about Yugoslavia.
What has always struck me is how each party to the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, regardless of what actually happened, sees itself as a victim. And what often also happens is comparing the pain of one’s own group with that of others, saying ours was worse or we suffered more. I’ve heard this kind of response called the Suffering Olympics.
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: I see it all the time. It’s that erasure of somebody else’s experiences, you know, I’m the victim, look at me, you know, what about me.
Really where it comes from is this acknowledgement that someone’s pain was never honored. And as human beings, we will continue looking for ways for our pain to be honored, to be seen. Because what trauma does is it takes away your ability to have authority over your own self, and in that it makes you not seen. It erases you in a sense.
A desire to be seen is a desire to heal. And I think that one of the ills that affects the Balkan diaspora is that we are stuck in that inability to see that that’s what’s happening and that if we could like really sit with each other and say, I see you, I see your pain, and I might have been a part of that pain, you know, whether me directly, my ethnic group, my ancestors, or, you know, people that I’ve never met in my life, but I belong to that ethnic group, I have been part of that pain. Your pain isn’t more important in mine, and my pain isn’t more important than yours. If we could sit with that and see that as an opportunity and a call to healing rather than a call to kind of victimize and other and close off of each other. I think we would be a lot better off in the relationships that we have with each other in the diaspora as well as in the actual Balkans.
Trauma doesn’t discriminate, you know, the brain doesn’t go like, Oh, this is more important than the other thing. And so it just gets recorded in the body as a traumatic experience. So it could be something subtle or something, you know, very, obviously big and impactful, but the body’s gonna record it exactly in the same way. So I think it’s important to understand how can we approach these conversations from, you know, we have a shared experience of trauma—not the same experiences that caused the trauma, but the actual somatic, the visceral physical experience is the same.
PETER KORCNAK: I was born and raised in the former Czechoslovakia. Recently, someone asked me, What does it feel like, what is it like to be from a country that doesn’t exist anymore? And in probing that question—you know, obviously, I probe that for Yugoslavia for people, including yourself—in probing an answer for myself, I realized that it is a was a traumatic event in my life. In fact, one that is one of the two, maybe top two that defined my life. And even just searching for those answers, you know, or for the answer to the question just got me emotional in various ways. And so you already talked about how, of course, it’s impossible to distinguish the result or the outcomes, the responses to various different traumatic events. But to the extent that this is possible, how may traumatic response to being from a country that no longer exists, how may that be different or related to war trauma. Obviously, the war trauma would be just kind of off the charts if we were to measure that in any way, but it’s still traumatic to be from a country that doesn’t exist anymore. And in Yugoslavia especially, from a country that so many people consider to be the best country in the world, as you as you mentioned. Is there is there a way to distinguish that? And how does that differ, if at all? What’s what’s going on? What am I going through?
SNJEŽANA PRUGINIĆ: If we go back to understanding trauma as something that overwhelms your sense of self, and sense of self is what is your identity is, the way you see the world, through what eyes you see the world and your space in it, and how you relate to the world, right? So anything that affects your sense of identity is going to feel traumatic, whether it’s a war, breakup of a country and an entity you knew whether it’s, you know, an absent parent, whatever, right? It’s all of these different things. If it affects your sense of self and your identity, it’s going to feel traumatic, you know, this is why people will say, like, divorce is actually number one thing after a war that causes the biggest trauma if you were to be classified, because it completely changes your sense of identity, right, in the ways that some of these other big things do.
So I think a breakup of an identity that you grew up in, and whose narrative was being like, put into your everyday life, everywhere you go, that’s who you were, you know, that’s who I was, I was Yugoslavian, that’s who I was, like, you couldn’t didn’t deny that or question. And it was, I was nothing else but that and even more with the kind of narratives we had about Yugoslavia back home during socialism, right? It was very strong, this is who you are. And so when that dissolution started to happen, I always used to say it felt like watching your mother get sick and not being able to do anything about it and watching her slowly die. Right? It felt a sense of complete loss of power and control over something that actually was you dying as well, because the world that you knew, and how you relate it to it was no longer.
So I think it is extremely traumatic, but in the same way one needs to kind of recognize, I think, what are the ways that you learn to cope. And when we talk about trauma responses, it may sound like saying they’re all these like negative things. And sometimes they can be, but sometimes they can create really also great things in a sense. For me, one way I learned to cope with that is by becoming for lack of a better word, it’s still a cliche, but like a global citizen, right? This love for travel and being around the world and learning about as many different cultures exploded, you know, I was always there as a kid, but it exploded out of this breakdown of my own identity, right? As a way to kind of cope well, if I if I’m not Yugoslavia anymore, well, then I’m gonna be everywhere. And that brought many wonderful things into my life but it also brought many challenging things around my identity and needing to kind of come back and figure out who I am.
So we want to look at these different responses as like, how has it shaped the way you live your life, not necessarily as good or bad but just understanding the relationship between kind of what triggers them or what drives them and always being in that like, inquiry? Where’s this coming from? Is it serving me to my best right now that in this way that I’m relating, or is there some other way that I can relate that would be better and more beneficial for me?
PETER KORCHNAK: And perhaps, creativity is one of the responses and you just drove home the point basically. I keep joking that this podcast is that this whole project is therapy for me. But basically, you just you just said it, you just said it. This is all a trauma response people.
We could talk about this for a long time, but it’s really, really difficult.
PETER KORCHNAK: I actually did end up writing down the answer to that question, what it’s like to be from a country that no longer exists. It appeared a few weeks ago as an essay on the Slovak Rádio Devín. My translation of that piece, titled simply, “I’m From a Country That No Longer Exists,” is at the Remembering Yugoslavia website.
I only half-joke when I say to people that this podcast, indeed the entire Remembering Yugoslavia project, is therapy for me. In fact, it grew out of therapy a few years ago when I was designing the rest of my life and digging deep for passions I would see myself centering my life around.
Conversely, I’ve stopped counting how many people told me the podcast is therapeutic for them. You heard Dan at the open talk about his experience. Among other things, I hear the show helps people—perhaps you’re one of them like Dan—feel it’s not only okay to be Yugoslav, but there are others around the world who feel the same, other Yugoslavs. As you’ll have heard both my guests today say, essentially, help is other people.
Again, this is Episode 75 of Remembering Yugoslavia, released on the third anniversary of the podcast. I’ve been in this therapy for three years! It’s been a pleasure and an honor, and I plan to continue at this clip, about one or two episodes per month.
What I also know is that if every person who listens to this episode contributed just three dollars or euros or pounds per month to support the show, I could do this full time and release an episode every week. That’s weekly therapy for less than the price of your coffee today.
Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate or follow the link in the episode show notes in your podcast listening app…and take care of yourself.
Among other things, what awaits on the other end is the rest of my interview with Snježana Pruginić. In addition to trauma responses among various diaspora contingents and cohorts, we also talked about the traumatic effects of the war in Ukraine and about dance as a form of bodywork therapy.
STEFAN JOVANOVIĆ: We will often read of, you know, what are the historical facts, which are easily accessible. But maybe less accessible is the emotional reality in the house, in the home during this period, and then how this had an effect on subsequent generations.
PETER KORCHNAK: Stefan Jovanović is a performance maker and therapist in London. He was born in Belgrade but left rump Yugoslavia with his family in 1994 when he was two and grew up in Italy.
His paternal great-grandfather was Dragoljub Jovanović, a political activist and politican, who was prosecuted in Yugoslavia for his activities by the royal government, by the Nazi German occupiers, and by the socialist government, which put him away for 9 years. He died in 1977 and was rehabilitated in Serbia in 2010.
STEFAN JOVANOVIĆ: Dragoljub had two daughters, Bojka, my grandmother, who would have been 11, 12 years old when her father was kicked out of university and sent to prison by the monarchy the first time around, and then around 26 the second time around, when he was in prison again, by Tito. Shortly after this, my father Srdjan was was born and came into a household where his grandfather was in prison.
So from a developmental perspective, it’s quite traumatic to keep witnessing one of your primary caregivers that keeps being taken away repeatedly, because of his place in the public eye, because of his ideology, because of his voice. And not only did Dragoljub have to hide, but his imprisonment really affected the entire family and anyone associated to him, who would have lost their jobs, which was the case of my grandmother and her sister, and anyone associated would have been blacklisted as an enemy of the state in the way that Dragoljub was. Which further generates quite a deep, and at the time, I think, unspoken, social and psychological trauma of what it means and must feel to be ostracized by many in your social group and community out of fear of association.
This was a story that I grew up with. It was always languaged and told in the family. It’s been something in the house since I can remember. I was always aware of this ancestral story but also of the fact that the state and the secret police had really followed both my grandparents’ generations and my parents’ generations well into the late 70s and early 80s, because of who Dragoljub was. So even though my parents and my own generation had arguably more freedom of movement than Dragoljub, there was always the sense of possibly being watched. So there’s this piece around it not being safe.
PETER KORCHNAK: Dragoljub’s story has been the family’s story throughout the generations. Jovanović’s father has been working to rehabilitate Dragoljub’s name, including by publishing the prolific ancestor’s writings.
STEFAN JOVANOVIĆ: I’d say the red thread that one could weave through the transgenerational story follows this archetypal theme of, that it’s dangerous to be seen or to be heard. And that’s something that’s been present, subconsciously, and sometimes quite literally, in the household.
PETER KORCHNAK: Now remember Dragoljub is Stefan’s great-grandfather. And so the great-grandfather’s trauma has carried over three generations and a century to the present day.
STEFAN JOVANOVIĆ: I was quite a high achiever, I’d say, throughout school, taking into account of being an immigrant, having left Yugoslavia when I was two, moving to a country where I didn’t speak the language. I can say that I really resisted, well into my adolescence, assimilating into any social group or social norm at the time, which for a long period of time I couldn’t understand or find the language for.
In my late teens and early 20s, I came out as gay and neurodivergent, which somehow accompanied this theme of not belonging anywhere and quite persistently struggling with this idea and reality of being seen. Even though I was ambitious, I had a lot of life force energy within me to do good, to contribute to society, to be in the public eye. But however, to be seen, to be heard, was terrifying. And so this, this archetypal almost sentence kept coming back to me that, if I am seen, if I am heard, something bad might happen.
And so we start to see some of this language that by now is familiar to me, that starts to repeat itself across the generations.
I think I’ve started to make sense of a lot of this in my late 20s, as I found myself training as a therapist, specifically in something called family systemic constellation work, which is transgenerational trauma therapy, and learning the ways in which epigenetics operates. That is, the way in which trauma is carried down genetically; trauma, which leaves enough of an imprint and a shock in someone’s body, that it has the capacity to morph their DNA. And then subsequently, the somatic imprint and the behavior of future generations, which we see in different places and moments of history.
PETER KORCHNAK: A therapist works behind a closed door. But Jovanović also works in a completely opposite role, on a performing stage.
STEFAN JOVANOVIĆ: It’s quite ironic maybe that I ended up in the performing arts, almost forcing myself to enter into a spotlight, which continues to be a paradoxical and sometimes deep internal struggle in the work that I do make of, of whether I feature in a performance or not.
However, one way that that I’d say really helped me negotiate this business of being seen, and finding belonging was the art form of drag, where I could create any persona, however big or small, however funny or scary or loving, yet remain unrecognizable. Because somewhere implicitly, my body had had learned and knew that there can be consequences if you are truly seen for who you really are, as what happened to Dragoljub, and in some cases that can almost cost you your life.
And so this is where, at the start of my performing career, drag was deeply healing, as it was a way to be able to express myself, to be able to be in a position where, where I can see everyone around me, and yet protect myself from being seen by anyone, and in that way, claim or even reclaim some of that power or agency that I myself, for a long time didn’t know was being hindered in my body and what I was carrying.
PETER KORCHNAK: Jovanović splits his work as a therapist and that of a performing artist down the middle. Living in London, a big city where, as he puts it, artistic expression is welcome and encouraged, helped.
More importantly, the recipe for healing contains a crucial common element.
STEFAN JOVANOVIĆ: I think the key thing for me is finding community that can welcome you, finding community that one feels they are a part of. And that social engagement, both from a therapeutic and from an artistic point of view, I’d say is what ultimately brings that kind of transition or transformation or healing.
I definitely moved towards creating works of art and performances in collaboration with many other performers, dancers, actors, musicians, always focusing on this theme of coming together, of gathering, of finding belonging. Which again, as having been born in this country that kept falling apart during my childhood and adolescence and every single time I’d go back there, it had a different name. So its kind of identity kept changing. And this really did something to my notion of what home was or where do I belong to was always a complex and and perturbing question and never with a with a straightforward answer. So I found myself always gravitating to that whatever I create has to strive to generate a sense of belonging, through ritual, through ceremony, through healing, creating performances that can bring people strangers together, to experience something participatory, something shared.
Because I’ve become really mindful and aware about what it means to be seen, to be included or excluded from society, to be witnessed in a spotlight, or to be made to feel like you do or don’t belong, which, on top of the transgenerational piece, being queer, being neurodivergent, over time has added a few obstacles to navigate growing up and claiming space. But it’s equally made me strive to make sure that everyone in the auditorium or the black box feels that they have a place and that they matter, no matter where they come from what they believe in or don’t believe in.
PETER KORCHNAK: Jovanović’s family responded positively to his art, though it took some time for them to comprehend.
STEFAN JOVANOVIĆ: I don’t use a lot of language or verbal expression. This is an interesting antithesis or conflict to, maybe my father’s trajectory, which has really been rooted within language of publishing all of these books and making sure that in a sense that history is set right from his perspective. So I think it took a while for them to understand what it is that that I was doing and how I was doing it.
What I’ve seen for me is that even when language and cognitive storytelling fail, our bodies can still retain the wisdom and implicit memory that’s passed down through the generations despite however hard oppressors might try to get rid of someone’s truth. And I believe these experiences don’t rely on words, especially when words are what might cost you your life. And I find that this is something that my work really relies on, which is a form of storytelling that relies on imagery, on gesture, on dance, on music, what I like to think of as forms that can speak directly to the soul without the need of the verbal to convey what is true and what’s not but rather, an art form that speaks directly to a nervous system, to emotions.
PETER KORCHNAK: The work Jovanovic is currently touring with is “Drumming in the Hall of the Mountain,” an outdoor, site-specific performance featuring dance and live music. The soundtrack, samples of which are appearing throughout today’s show, was composed by Maxwell Sterling and Kenichi Iwasa; it’s going to be released next year as a limited-edition vinyl album.
STEFAN JOVANOVIĆ: It’s quite a mythical, mystical piece with four performers who are dressed in these really intricate, absurd, surrealist costumes representing the elements of the Earth. And they invite audiences to gather and perform a ritual of shedding of shedding something that no longer serves in this big fire, where the public throw pieces of paper and objects of things that they’re ready to let go of in their life.
It’s a ritual, a performance as ritual that can be used to invite audiences that may come from different social groups or that have had conflicts in the past, to engage in something collectively, without having to expose themselves in any way but experience something of togetherness.
PETER KORCHNAK: The show saw its world premiere in June of last year at the Birmingham International Dance Festival.
Jovanović is working to place the show in festivals around the former Yugoslavia. So if you’re listening and want to bring the performance into your community, get in touch at Jovanović’s website, studiostefanjovanovic.com.
A video trailer for the performance is included in the episode notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast. You’ll also find the links to Jovanović’s website, socials, and free resources such as guided meditations available at his Vimeo website.
And finally, you’ll also find a path to the extended version of this episode featuring the full conversation with Jovanović where he offers additional tips on healing. Podcast as therapy.
STEFAN JOVANOVIĆ: There’s many of those forms of resources for those that might not be able to afford therapy, but somewhere to start, at least reading or listening. And then, of course, to be able to work with a somatic therapist or a systemic therapist, which I know is on the rise, at least in Zagreb and Belgrade, I would highly recommend starting to engage in those types of therapies.
PETER KORCHNAK: The somatic therapy center in Zagreb is Somatic & Expressive Arts and in Belgrade it’s Centar za Razvoj i Radost (Center for Development and Joy).
Of course, we’re talking about the region where therapy is considered something that crazy people do.
STEFAN JOVANOVIĆ: The first step is overcoming that stigma, which is something I myself have had to do growing up around narratives of, yes, therapy is for crazy people or are for only specialized cases. But I think there’s something to be said around maybe self development as a term, rather than therapy. But what does it mean to grow as a human, as someone who is socially engaged with other humans? What does it mean to develop healthy boundaries, both within families but also in society? I think these are questions which, whether one is traumatized or not, are important to become aware of.
For me, the question is, how do I become the fullest version of myself. And sometimes, we can try very hard to do things on our own. But so much healing that’s needed or even growth happens relationally. And so I think it’s very hard to achieve that growth without being in healthy relationship with others. And I think, especially when that might be a difficulty within a family or within a social group, that’s where therapists tend to perform that role, which perhaps in other societies and cultures might be called something different, shamans or healers or whatever you will.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
VERONIKA PEHE: All these films, TV series are about, so to say ordinary people who somehow get by, through these kinds of resistant gestures…
PETER KORCHNAK: Contemporary movies about the period of the former Yugoslavia come in a couple of shapes and forms. On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, we’re going to rewatch those post-Yugoslav movies dealing with the socialist period and dig deeper into what that genre is all about.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts, follow to make sure you don’t miss out, and subscribe to support us.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, embeds, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
The extended version of this episode featuring additional interview footage is available to Remembering Yugoslavia’s supporters. You don’t need to schedule an appointment to make a contribution. Simply visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and treat yourself to some donating therapy.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.
Additional music courtesy of Stefan Jovanović composed by Maxwell Sterling and Kenichi Iwasa.
Special thanks to Dijana Jelača and Lindsay Sauvé.
I am Peter Korchňak.