Writer Rodge Glass swaps notes, tales and customs at a Short Story festival in Serbia, where fiction is helping to heal the scars of war
Since the fall of Milosevic, ordinary Serbs have experienced dramatic changes. The assassination of a reformist Prime Minister, the spread of Western capitalism, multiple false starts, and economic collapse. Many are desperate to enter the EU but the political fallout from the war and ongoing corruption problems have made reintegration difficult, on a large scale at least. But smaller goals are reachable. Four years ago, the Kikinda Short Story Festival was set up to bring young writers from the ex-Yugoslav Republics together to share work and ideas. Kikinda is the name of the small town nine miles from the Romanian border, where it partly takes place. Most Serbs can’t get Visas to go abroad, so they’ve found a way to bring the people to them instead. There’s no government funding for this festival. No grant, no sophisticated organisational network. It operates purely on favours, goodwill and recommendation of writers by writers, with a special guest country invited every year. This year: Skotska.
When I was recommended by last year’s English representative, Peter Hobbs, the organiser Srdjan Papic asked me to bring two others along. He wanted radical Scots of the younger generation who knew how to perform. So I chose Sophie Cooke, a true short story specialist with an understated style and an eye for detail, and Alan Bissett, a novelist who’s perfected his technique doing readings in schools, festivals and even prisons throughout Scotland, resulting in a recent move into self-performed drama. Sophie and Alan asked me what to expect from Kikinda: I had no idea, but a last-minute message raised alarms. Srdjan asked us to pack our ‘kilt skirts’, to ‘help get on the Serbian front pages!’ As well as learning from our new Balkan friends, we wondered whether we’d have to challenge a few Scottish stereotypes too.
The next five days were an education. The guest country is used as a promotional tool for the whole festival so, bizarrely, we were treated like literary celebrities. Within an hour of Sophie’s arrival the three of us were taking part in a bi-lingual Press Conference about Scottish literature, with one journalist ‘advising’ a very confused Alan about where to find ‘the Beograd Silicone Valley’. Multiple newspaper articles followed. We made the National Serbian News, were interviewed for an in-depth programme about the festival, and followed by a documentary camera crew. Though run on a shoestring, there was no shortage of determination to spread the word here. Meanwhile, all writers stayed in the same place, with meals taken together too. There were occasional ‘cultural misunderstandings’ – the sarcastic explanation to most problems was: This is Serbia! as if that ancient curse alone explained all. But encouragingly, locals weren’t afraid of the discussing recent conflicts: they talked keenly, and most laughed at their own side while empathising with others. Serbs and Croats traded compliments. Bosnians openly criticised their own government and media. Not everyone agrees on the details, but it’s clear this festival is not just about literature. It’s a way to repair.
For two nights, our venue was Kikinda library, with the beautiful garden hosting readings while translations in Serbian and English (often done by friends, for free) were projected onto a wall. The tone was conciliatory, the material often more personal than political, and surprisingly radical too – with no prospect of making a living from writing, there’s a great freedom in the tone of new Balkan fiction, and writers tend to concentrate more on short stories. Commercial instincts are useless in a country where ‘one person buys and ten people read the same copy’, especially as the line between artists and the industry is so blurred. Half the Kikinda line-up are also editors of magazines, work for publishing houses, or are translators. A multi-lingual book of this year’s stories will be published in October.
The best work was mainly by the new female writers. Croatia’s Andrea Pisac (now based in London) read a sad tale of how clashes between languages affect relationships. Macedonian Rumena Buzarowska stood out too: ‘Dinner Service for Guests’ was a subversive, funny morality tale about two sisters fighting shamelessly over the approval of a blind man. But perhaps Vesna Lemaic of Slovenia had the most impact with ‘Of Course I Love You’, a surreal nightmare about a lesbian couple desperate to have a child. The only story whistled in derision was one referring to a Serbian village which been wiped off the map during the war. It was just booed by Serbs. They felt it wasn’t in the spirit of the festival.
Our last event was in Belgrade. At the start of an 18-writer marathon, Sophie gave an assured, confident performance of her ‘Protective Measures’, an allegory of Obama’s America set in a world where mysterious ‘cleaning ladies’ stand in for the terrorist threat. Alan performed twice, being dragged back onstage to close the Festival with an extract from his one-woman show ‘Moira’, a comic piece he’d acted off-by-heart in Kikinda. By that point the sound system was broken. Only one light remained and outside the noisy of Belgrade warming up for a rowdy Saturday night bled through. But Bissett pressed on, performing on the grass, closer to the audience, mixing broad Falkirk Scots with Shakespeare quotes, mixing the ultra-silly with the ultra-serious. Understood? Maybe not totally. Appreciated? I think so. Worthwhile? Definitely. When the mixing desk crashed to the floor someone shouted out This is Serbia! And it was.
by Rodz Glass, on behalf of Sofi Kuk and Alan ‘Srdjan’ Biset