Split Lives: Croatian-Australian Stories edited by Val Colic-Peisker.

reviewed by Christine Choo

© all rights reserved

Split Lives is a collection of stories of eight Croatians who have settled in Western Australia, having migrated there between 1949 and 1996. The editor and collector of the stories, Val Colic-Peisker, herself Croatian by birth, migrated to Perth with her young family in January 1995. Her story is included among the eight. The stories of Josip, Danica, Marinko, Jela, Jure, Vlado, Magda and Val reflect the richness of their lives – their places of origin in old and new Croatia, the different social and political conditions under01 which they lived, their settlement stories, successes, difficulties and disappointments in Australia. More importantly, the collection as whole is a documentation of the waves of Croatian migration to Western Australia with different, even opposing, political backgrounds who nevertheless found a place for themselves and their families in their adopted country, told from the perspectives of the eight storytellers. Some were fiercely patriotic and committed to their political beliefs. Others tried to re-create, in Australia, the sense of community and connection with people from the same village, town or region. All struggled with the new linguistic and cultural environments, each dealing with nostalgia in their own ways. Colic-Peisker states in her preface:

Quiet Perth’s suburbia, where these stories were recorded, hides an incredible variety of lives and stories of people who came from colourful places and experienced formidable adventures to finally settle down to mow their lawn on the weekends and push a trolley through a supermarket. This is why it was not easy to select particular voices to be represented in this book. (p.12)

The potted history of Croatia in the introduction puts these eight lives in some historical context. Each of the narrated lives develops and highlights in detail different aspects of the social, political and geographical landscapes of Croatia and Australia, and some of the landscapes of the heart and emotions of the migrants. Colic-Peisker has been able to record the stories in such detail because she worked in the Croatian language which encouraged fluency of thought and expression that may not have been possible if someone who was not a Croatian and who did not have access to written or spoken Croatian had tried to undertake the project in English. These are lives in translation in more ways than one – from Croatian to English and from oral accounts to written text. The translated lives are mediated by Colic-Peisker as interviewer, translator, editor and empathetic listener, multiple roles and skills she brings to the process of translation which is always a risky and challenging business. Split Lives thus opens up to the non-Croatian speaker, in ways that have not been possible before, new glimpses and insight into the worlds and lives of Croatian Australians.

At one level each of these lives, narrated to Colic-Peisker in Croatian or English, has a important performative aspect, the narrator selecting the emphasis or highlights she or he wishes to present to the audience. The narrator’s self is consciously and unconsciously interpreted and presented. The next level of complexity is the choice of language in which the self is presented – is it the mother tongue of the narrator which may be a Croatian dialect or is it in more formal or ‘official’ Croatian? Is it English, the adopted language of the Croatian migrant? What does the choice of language say about the narrators, their identities, their migration experiences? How has the interaction between the two or more languages shaped or influenced the migration experience? What are the psychological impacts? The subtlety and depth of these questions are among the many addressed with sensitivity and eloquence by Mary Besemeres in her finely argued book, Translating One’s Self: Language and Selfhood in Cross Cultural Autiobiography. (Peter Lang, Bern, 2002) Besemeres is most interested in the loss of self in translation, more specifically, ‘what happens to a person for whom this native conversation [that creates the self through ongoing conversation] afforded by the mother tongue is suddenly interrupted, even as he or she is being formed by it, in a way that it arguably is for an immigrant forced to enter a new speech community’ (p. 34). She contends that life writing by language migrants ‘offers a challenge to the monolingual, monocultural assumptions of contemporary literary theory and philosophy of language alike, which are not concerned, as immigrants must be, with the impact of specific natural languages on actual lives: the most significant way in which language is constitutive of the self’ (278). Besemeres’ insights provide an important contextual platform from which Split Lives and other similar works of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic life writing can be examined.

While there are enormous individual differences in the experiences of migration, our shared humanity enables migrants from everywhere to recognise the commonalties of what it means to leave one’s place of origin to live in another cultural environment. Migration links families in the country of origin with a vast network of émigrés, or ‘Americans’ as they were referred to in many southern European countries. For most, migration is an audacious leap out of their familiar pond to improve their own conditions and those of their families. It often represents such new ways of doing and being as to be a challenge to their sensibilities. Sometimes it ironically represents something even darker in the move from chaos to order or vice versa, as Colic-Peisker indicates in her closing lines:

When Croatians need to unburden their souls they sit around the kitchen table or in a coffee shop with their friends for hours, wasting precious working time and puffing cigarette smoke into one another’s face. Australians tend to take and advanced professional approach: they go and see counsellors…Perth sanatorium: my new clean, healthy and orderly life. (p.291)

Interest in life writing – personal stories, biographies, autobiographies – has steadily escalated in recent years with an eager audience open to narratives of the lives of others, famous or little known. This blossoming of interest has encouraged the publication of life stories of people from a wider range of backgrounds than previously, not just the rich and famous, including migrants whose first language is not English and with varying social and economic backgrounds. It signals a growing confidence of the storytellers that their stories are worth sharing with an audience other than their own families and communities, and that it is safe to tell their stories here in their new home, Australia. It takes years for many migrants to gain enough confidence to be able to ‘go public’. Some never do. For those who have come from places where individuals live under high levels of surveillance, this freedom to ‘go public’ is experienced as a valued gift and a privilege. Yet paradoxically for others Australia can become a prison. I believe all life writing has a political edge as it exposes an interpreted personal life to further public scrutiny and enables an audience to read a life in its wider contexts. It can also reflect back to the audience the ugly and the beautiful sides of Australian society which we sometimes do not wish to recognise when we are immersed in it. Writing the lives of refugees, for example, can throw a glaring light on the human suffering and institutional abuse of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia today. The narratives of the Croatian migrants and refugees represented in Split Lives highlight the differences in Australia’s policies towards the Croatians and the latest wave of refugees and asylum seekers. The struggle for freedom and a better life is the same. The human need is the same. The social context and treatment in Australia are different.

Split Lives eloquently gives voice to Croatians living in Western Australia who have contributed economically, socially and culturally to their adopted home. While it records many happy memories, it does not shy from the difficulties experienced by the migrants and refugees. The book provides the opportunities for the reader to reflect on how we treat non-English speaking migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who come to Australia looking for a safe and secure environment for their families. The stories in Split Lives are set in Perth, but they are applicable anywhere in Australia.

Split Lives: Croatian-Australian Stories was published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press in 2004. (300 pp Photographs. Glossary. No Index. ISBN 1 920731 08 3. RRP: $24.95).

Christine Choo is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia, with a PhD in History and degrees in Social Work and Australian Studies. She has worked as a social worker, social researcher and historian and has published widely in race and gender issues.

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