As writers, the lasting effects of the lives we have led bleeds into our work, sometimes without the author even noticing. Other times our work has everything to do with that search for identity and our characters are reflections of ourselves. In previous posts we’ve given you a taste of the effect that the sense of ‘place’ has on the writer and their work in poetry. Today on Words, Pauses, Noises, we invite you to sample a piece of prose written by Boyana Petrovich about the lasting effects of place, of heritage, and how it feels to leave the country of your birth to in search of a new beginning. In this excerpt of Boyana’s novel-in-progress, the main character is a woman torn by two cultural identities the result of her dual heritage. Her very name binds her to the old country and holds her back from immersing herself within a new identity.
‘My Name is Freedom’
I had a dream last night. I’m standing on the edge of a massive cliff, rope tied around my ankles. You tell me to untie the rope and walk away, but I know that the only right thing to do is jump. And I want to, so much, but I don’t know how. So I’m just standing here on this edge, tied in my jumpless bungee.
My real name is Freedom.
I was born in a country that doesn’t exist anymore. Mom and her parents and their parents were born here, too, only here was somewhere altogether different again. In 1906 here was the Kingdom of Serbia. My great grandmother, Zlata, came from a village called Hellville, three hours’ walk across the mountain to the west. If you’re less poor you could travel most of the way from here on a donkey. Not across the Bishop’s Plateau though, a rocky place where the bishop in question wouldn’t come off his horse and they both fell into the ravine. Poor horse. I don’t know if this story is true, but I do know that everyone gets off their donkey at the Bishop’s Plateau. The selfish git’s legacy. Jovan, my great grandfather, came from a village called A Crow Without a Tail. To get there you’d have to drive further into the depths of The Old Mountain, a few hours to the west, then to the south, quite close to the border with Bulgaria. I’ve seen, many times, Jovan sitting, serious, with palms on his knees and Zlata standing close to him, hands resting on her hips. The faded sepia photograph claims the first page of our family album, but they were gone long before I was born.
I could have easily been born in London, where my granddad John Cavendish comes from, but Mom and Dad didn’t accept John’s parents’ invitation to live with them. They had better things to do, they were busy living the history. Infected by the intellectual enthusiasm of the sixties and taken by the promise of a better society they couldn’t leave the most promising communist country of all. They had better things to do than be rained on while keeping company to Dad’s wealthy ancestors. Instead, they lived their dream in Yugoslavia. In 1976 they had me, their only child.
My name wasn’t exactly popular in my generation and I can’t say I was thrilled with it. Still, it sounded normal in Serbo-Croatian and caused no trouble. Slobodanka. Sloba for friends. Granddad had already changed his surname to Kavendic so I really felt at home – Slobodanka Kavendic.
It was a very different story in London. First, I didn’t like the way people pronounced my name, the ones who tried, slob’oh dan’kah. The altered rhythm of it was more like King Kong, it was like drums in a wild, hot jungle somewhere I’d never heard of – nothing to do with me. The second thing was worse.
I could speak English, the one we learned at school, but Serbo-Croatian was by far my stronger language. Maybe that is why I never saw it coming. Or maybe it’s just the universal inability to hear something that is so familiar to you like your own name, with even slightly foreign ears. For kids at Roehampton University Sloba turned to Slob within two minutes. Thinking back, they were not much younger than me but we were undeniably a whole invisible generation apart. For them death was nowhere in sight. Anyway, Slob caught like fire. At the time, that was the last drop in my cup. I was and was not a refugee, my name was and wasn’t mine anymore – hijacked by the biggest villain of my lifetime, Slobodan Milosevic. Today I wouldn’t care, but back then the Slob business was the last thing I needed. You may think that Dad or at least John should have known better than to name me this, but I don’t blame them, they never intended to return to England. I’m sure they would have called me something else if they’d expected Yugoslavia to fall apart and their dreams to be shattered.
I changed names.
Mom said no need to make a fuss about it. I had to build my life in London and if that meant changing my name so be it. Dad said to choose carefully, a name that would mean something to me, like my name meant to them. So I did. We had a glass of Pinot Noir that evening, them in Belgrade, me at my shoebox room at Roehampton to celebrate the birth of Joy Cavendish. That was the closest to Happiness that I could think of.
I’ve always believed that names have a mysterious influence on the lives of their carriers. Think of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Noam Chomsky or Frida Kahlo – could they have been an accountant, administrator or a housewife? No, the moment their names were chosen they were bound to become big.
In a way I’ve been lucky to have two names – I guess it’s like having two chances. The sad thing is I have failed them both.
The Words, Pauses, Noises team hails from all across the globe. Our cultural and social views were formed in childhood, but we’d like to think they have evolved over our year of study here. With each work we read and each new friend we make in our time at the Kingston University Creative Writing MA, our worlds expand to encompass different views and cultural ideas.
We hope that you enjoyed this taste of Boyana’s work as much as we have. Come back next week for another piece of our creative works. Until then, keep reading!