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Review: Memoir offers remarkable glimpse into hope, despair

Sofija Stefanovic’s brilliant debut memoir, “Miss Ex-Yugoslavia,” begins with the author lined up in the back of a smoky Australian nightclub, competing against other immigrants and refugees from the now non-existent country for the title of “Miss Ex-Yugoslavia.”

“It’s a weird idea for a competition — bringing young women from a war-torn country together to be objectified for their looks, but in our little diaspora, we’re used to contradictions.”

Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Stefanovic’s memoir is equal parts raucous coming-of-age story, heartbreaking family drama, and quest for identity — topped with generous handfuls of political and historical introspection. That isn’t to say “Miss Ex-Yugoslavia” is disjointed — far from it. In fact, Stefanovic is such a gifted, natural storyteller that all these elements blend together seamlessly, sometimes in the same paragraph, resulting in an authentic glimpse into a life filled with love and fear; hope and despair. It’s a marvel.

After the bawdy opening at the nightclub, Stefanovic shifts gears and sets up a linear narrative structure for the rest of the book, bringing us back to the night of her birth in Belgrade, the capital of socialist Yugoslavia. The year is 1982 and chaos ensued thanks to her parent’s bickering, a gasoline shortage, and men not being allowed in the maternity ward. Always ready with an alternate plan, Stefanovic’s father waited behind the hospital, three floors down, with a basket of food for her mother. And a ball of twine.

The family emigrated to Australia when Milosevic came to power, then returned to Belgrade a few years later. Finally, in 1992, Yugoslavia was officially at war, and they moved back to Australia for good. Throughout their moves Stefanovic struggled to fit in with her peers, learn new languages and customs, as well as deal with crushes, bullies and her father’s sudden illness.

She was too Serbian in Australia, and too Australian in Serbia. “I wanted for once to be an insider,” her high-school self writes. As the war back home reached its apex, Stefanovic learned to straddle between groups of ex-Yugo friends and Australians, while also succinctly explaining the complicated nationalist divides stoking the war back home.

Filled with Yugo-rock and news reports, Baby Sitters Club books and revolution, “Miss Ex-Yugoslavia” is a remarkable work from an exceptional storyteller.

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