When people find out that I am originally from Serbia, and have been living here for seventeen years now, I get, in equal proportion, two opposite responses. Either they tell me with sly poignancy, “oh, yes, I noticed your accent, but I thought you might be French”, or with undisguised admiration, “wow, imagine, you have no accent at all!”.
Although both comments are, no doubt, either well-meaning or plain neutral from my interlocutor’s perspective, both always leave a slightly dull, offensive trace in my mind, in the way the flavour of pungent food persists on the palate even after you’ve rinsed your mouth with mouthwash.
I guess that’s because I consider both the thought of having a distinct accent in my spoken English, as well as the idea that I have shed all discernible Serbian traces from it, equally unsatisfactory. I would like to think that the reason for this discontent is not unreasonable. It is just that I feel that neither of those two possibilities speaks to the delicate complexity of how both Serbian and English mix, decimate, and reassemble me through every word, every breath in my life here in the diaspora.
The thought that my Serbian origins are always sticking out their soulful, complex, misunderstood little head in my carefully chosen English words, leaves me feeling vulnerable and exposed. Perhaps it’s pride because I know that stereotypes associate certain accents with a lack of education or intellect. And I know that when I decide to flex my trained academic muscles, those assumptions sneak away guiltily, and rather quickly, across people’s faces.
Or perhaps I am bothered by the fact that because of the ever so decidedly propagandist depiction of Serbia in the media since the Balkan wars which prompted my move to Canada, I get a sense that people associate Serbs, and therefore our language, with savagery. No, with more than that – with this mythical, cold-war fuelled imagination of people within grey communist concrete walls filled with working class odours of sweat, exotic food, and state propaganda.
I am then, it would seem, not as angered by that barely intentional misconception, as I am saddened by its inability to convey to all those around me the luxuriously expansive, rich, and poetic sound of my Serbian language. It is filled with infinite capacity for poetry. It’s the kind of poetry that embraces vulnerability, that venerates passion, and perhaps most uniquely, and most perplexingly to the North American mindset – celebrates melancholy.
And by melancholy I don’t simply mean sadness or depression in the way that the word has been socialized to resonate in the Canadian mainstream. My notion of melancholy as an embedded feature of Serbian culture shows in the soothing sound of the spoken language, in the willingness to embrace both the Sun and the rain, and to see the clouds as a filter without which light just could not be.
I am also pretty enamoured by English as a language. However, its sound and structure do not tolerate melancholy as much as Serbian does. English dictates efficiency, economy, and a dry wit that I love, but it is not really permeable to the emotional excess I crave from my linguistic homeland.
However, English has chiselled a large portion of my identity after all these years of living in Canada. I often think of myself as having been unwillingly colonized by it, much like the land I live on now.
I think, speak, and write in both languages. Like two smug teenagers conspiring playfully against a rigid parent, they navigate my mind almost too seamlessly – so much so that sometimes I am not sure where one ends, and the other begins. I worry sometimes about the implications. Am I, or should I be more Serbian or Canadian? Which language should I let romance me more, and what is the cost of letting either one take more of a back seat?
English and Serbian ebb and flow through my consciousness like ocean tides that have an unbearable affinity for one another, yet are not willing to merge completely. Sometimes I wonder if I have any control left. It is possible that the two sculpt me at will, like persistent, let somehow fatally flawed artists. No matter how much work they put into me, I still end up with an arm or a neck crooked in the wrong places, and the heart a little too close to mind for comfort.
Presented by Sonja in the Open Mic session of the February 24 Gathering of Surrey Muse.
After several years of working in academia, print, and radio journalism, Sonja Grgar is focusing on building her career as a creative writer. Originally from Serbia, she finished high school in Burnaby, and then moved to Kingston, Ontario, to attend Queen’s University. She has been living in Kingston up until the fall of 2011 when she relocated back to the lower mainland. She currently resides in Surrey. Three pieces of her creative writing are slated to be published in an Ontario based anthology “That Not Forgotten”. The book will be published by Hidden Brook Press, and is expected to launch in the summer or fall of 2012.
Copyright Sonja Grgar 2012