‘Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir’ by Olivera Simic


2014, 188 p

It’s not often that I open up a book and find myself thinking “Hey! I was there!” I did in this book, though, where Olivera Simic starts by describing an encounter at a law and history conference in Melbourne. [Those of you who have been with me since 2010 might vaguely remember that I was involved in the organization of the ANZLHS Law and History Conference that year. For me, any recollection of the conference is completely overwhelmed by the accompanying memory of leaving quickly after the last session to sit with my mother at her nursing home. She died the next day.]

Olivera Simic’s recollection of that conference, though, involves a quick interaction she had with the chair of the panel who asked how he should introduce her.  ‘Where are you from?’ he asked. ‘Yugoslavia’ she replied. ‘But that country doesn’t exist!’ he countered, finding the interchange sufficiently bewildering to share it with the audience.  Several people came up to afterwards, saying that it was very unusual to hear someone still introducing herself as Yugoslav.

But I do. I am a Yugoslav without Yugoslavia. I identify with the country I was born in; I am homesick for the place that exists only in my distant memory: the beautiful old towns, rivers and mountains, and the part of the Adriatic coast that was Yugoslavia. I speak a language that was declared dead when the war broke out in 1992. I was fortunate not to lose a close family member, but like many Yugoslav people, I lost so much.  The beginning of the war meant the end of my physical belonging to the country I was born and grew up in, the country I loved, the country I left and soon abandoned.  I tried to move on, to forget destruction and war, to run away from it all… The further I was from home, the closer home was to me, to my heart, to my mind.  The connection to my homeland was not severable to distance but, as many migrants will know, on the country, was made stronger by it. The smell, the sound, the sky and the sun of my home haunt me. They are always with me. (p.10)

We hear and read of people surviving war, but less often surviving peace. Simic was born in 1973 and spent her childhood in Banja Luka, the second-largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Her parents are Orthodox Serbs and were members of the Community Party before the 1990s in what she regarded as “a heterogenous multicultural, multilingual and multireligious community.” (p11) When war broke out in 1992, her parents sent her as a nineteen-year-old to neighbouring Serbia, her mother’s home country, where she was granted refugee status and enrolled in law school. She lived in Serbia, with occasional dangerous trips home to see her parents, from 1992 through to the 1999 NATO bombing during which, for 78 days,  she along with her fellow residents, lived in a permanent state of fear and anxiety. She was –  and still is – angry at the world for allowing this to happen, and after September 11, the emotional and existential burden of this experience devastated her in the form of PTSD.  At the end of the war, she was no longer ‘Yugoslavian’  but, on the basis of her surname, was designated to be Serbian – “a specific, but somehow alien ethnic identity”  that it had never occurred to her to apply to herself previously (p.21). Her mother-tongue, Serbo-Croation ceased to exist, replaced by other languages (Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian).

Our labels of ethnicity have overridden our very being and make it impossible for us to be recognized first as people, and only then as an ‘ethnicity’. (p.25)

In 2001 she started work with Human Rights Watch in Washington DC. She completed an M.A. in Gender and Peacebuilding in Costa Rica. Since 2006 she has lived in Australia, and after gaining her PhD., worked as an academic writing on genocide and war crimes, most particularly (but not only) those committed by Serbs, and on trauma more generally. It’s an academic path that her parents and neighbours back in BiH try to dissuade her from, seeing her as a traitor to their concept of the Serbs as both victims and heroes.  She is aware that she is part of the ‘industry’ of postwar recovery and reconciliation, organizing seminars and workshops, receiving grants to carry out research on armed conflicts.

One of the paradoxes of experiencing violence first hand is that it can give unconditional power and authority to one’s voice, and people who have not had these experiences might feel as if they cannot say anything worthwhile (P 102)

She is aware, when faced with representatives of Srebrenica (where thousands of Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by members of the Serbian forces) that she, like other academics, could be seen “as ‘conference tourists’, building our careers on the misery of survivors.” (p. 104) It doesn’t sit well with her.

I have summarized her story as a continuous, chronological narrative, which is not the way she has structured this book. There is a timeline of Yugoslavia’s disintegration as an appendix, but it acts more as an organizing device after reading her memoir, rather than during it.  Instead, her chapters are titled as paradoxes and opposites:  Journeying through War and Peace; Traitor or Truth Seeker? Moving from War to Peace; The Past Is Present; Victims and Survivors; Between Remembering and Forgetting.  There is no narrative tension of wondering if she will survive or not: no tales of want or deprivation.

Instead, this is a memoir of the intellect. She refers often to other writers and theorists and her bibliography is rich with academic references.  I was puzzled by her subtitle ‘a political memoir’ because this is so much a memoir of the head AND heart, until I remembered that old feminist touchstone ‘the personal is political’.  The blurbs on the back cover clearly place it within a feminist tradition, and in her preface she explains:

In feminist research women are considered to be experts regarding their own lives who communicate and reveal the narratives about the events that took place in their lives, their feelings about those events, and their interpretation of them (Foss and Foss, 1994 . 39) … Although mine is an individual story, I believe that on many levels it is also universal . My experiences of war and survival are similar to those of other war survivors…This is…why I have been motivated to embark on this emotional journey which sometimes links intimate experiences with existing scholarship. (p. 2, 3)

It is, then, her story but analyzed from an academic perspective, and interwoven with literature, history, genocide studies, trauma studies, human rights and peace studies.  It’s not the sort of memoir that will make you cry, but it will make you think.  I watch television and those streams of Syrians, carrying children and one or two plastic bags (what do you pack?); I hear predictions that partition might be the only solution for Syria and I think of Simic’s resistance against having an ethnic identity forced upon her by war.  I think of Simic’s need to weave her own experience into a larger philosophical and intellectual web – to make it mean something more.  It reminds us that the victims of war need to become survivors of peace, as well.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5/10

aww2017-badge I have posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

5 responses to “‘Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir’ by Olivera Simic

  1. I have always been interested in Yugoslavia, from a distance, have had Serb and Croat bosses and workmates, and have discussed the break up with them, but this is an entirely new perspective.

  2. Alec Patric talked about being a Yugoslav without a country when he came to do a presentation at my local library a week or so ago…

  3. I read and reviewed this last year (or perhaps the year before). It’s one of those books that has stuck, primarily because of that whole issue of “surviving peace”. It works well with Aminatta Forna’s novel, The hired man, which also explores post-war survival too (albeit, within the war-torn country).

    • residentjudge

      Yes- I saw that you’d read it very soon after it came out. I haven’t read anything by Aminatta Forna, I must admit.

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