I was born in Belgrade, Serbia; in a part of the city called Zemun—right at the confluence of the rivers Danube and Sava. There was one small room for the three of us to sleep in. My mother, father and I watched the world turn white. Winter got through the windows, past the heating and penetrated the blankets. My parents were still driven by new love and talked for months about a long journey that would take us far from our two rivers. Their voices were the only sounds in the room some evenings. I dozed within an old wooden cot beside their bed. Australia was one of the first words I heard, whispered in the darkness of that cold bedroom. A word which was like a balloon that couldn’t be seen in the icy air above the cot, but that I knew was filled with the warmth of their love for me, and their hopes for the future.
I do not know these details as facts. Memories from that baby’s life are now resonances that my imagination evokes and puts to paper. The two rivers don’t need names to be remembered. For generations, watercourses like these have cut grooves through the landscapes we were born in. They have worked their way through the lives of those that are part of that land. At the time I was born there, the Danube and the Sava met within a federation of loosely related cultures, divided by history and divergent dialects—a country called Yugoslavia.
I was always very ill in Zemun. The hospitals of Belgrade became familiar places. The voices within these buildings were as harsh as the winter outside. Words filled with pain and the cold disregard of those who learned to live with suffering as a profession. My illnesses fell away to nothing as soon as I began breathing Australian air. If my memories of infancy were of a white city and those two rivers, then growing up in this country is of vast blue-white skies, endlessly opening up. It was as if the dream of that balloon that was made by the word Australia had floated down into my cot and become my world.
My family was living in Melbourne by the time we celebrated my second birthday. I began learning English in primary school, so I suppose I would have been five when I began speaking this language, though I don’t remember a pre-English history. If Serbian is my first language, in my mouth it is now the language of a child. Serviceable for greetings and household chores. There are odd gaps and strange inclusions. I’m able to distinguish the word for wind from air, to separate the very similar words for breath and soul, but I am unable to tell you how you’d say cloud or name the days of the week in Serbian.
It’s a rather strange circumstance when you devote yourself to a language that does not belong to your parents. Because a writer does not simply use the language. A writer becomes the language. There’s a devotion to a literary legacy. There’s also the dedication of your life to a history in which your ancestors have never belonged—which creates a separation within your mind and seems to say, before you, there is nothing.
The first vocal rhythms most of us feel in our literary lives are the words that rise and fall on our mother’s breath. What we hear are the same sounds over and again, and we will continue to listen out for them while we explore our lives through this veil of text. The first words for sleep and hunger, for beauty and pain and love, come from our mother’s tongue. We feel them cover our faces in kisses—sometimes in tears.
For me, those whispered words of the cradle were Serbian. They were hushed murmurs, warm against my neck, as the windows went white with the ice of a Belgrade winter. I do not remember that image. It’s a reconstructed history. A sequence of words put together to represent the disconnect between verified personal experience and the desolate white wasteland of everything forgotten.
My father had gone ahead to Australia, to find a job and a home for us. My mother and I were set to follow nine months later. In 1974 there wasn’t a jet bridge that connected our airplane to the departure lounge. She carried me from the terminal to the plane that would take us across the oceans to my father. Aircraft lifted into the sky in roars so loud that I could only feel the drowned-out sobs heaving through her chest. She crumpled to the ground with me in her arms. She sat me there beside her for a moment and lowered her face to the ground. She breathed over that rough, black tarmac while I watched, and placed her lips to the ground.
As a writer I wonder about those of us that have been removed from our places of birth, who leave language, history and ancestry, to begin anew somewhere else. We become proud owners of words inherited from parents that are not our own. Our first sentences are composed within a literary history that has given us so few pages we barely exist.
Above me, there is a balloon. It used to float across my cot in that cold room in Zemun, while Belgrade froze. It is filled with the history of those two rivers, the Danube and the Sava, and the people that lived at that confluence like my mother and father. It is incidental that in the Serbian language, my place of birth—Beograd, translates as white city, though that’s how I remember it. When I put my ear to that white balloon I can still hear the lullaby of a vanished world.