YOU’RE A TREE – SO WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
My kindergarten teacher was a kindly soul: one day, she dressed me up as a tree, with brown trousers, a dark-green felt hat on my head and, if I remember, she also put green greasepaint on my face. The reason was that I had a part to play in Snow White: I was a fir tree.
There I stood, eyeing up the dwarfs and, of course, the pretty girl playing Snow White; but what else could I have been other than a fir tree, given that I spoke not a word of German, but ‘only’ Hungarian. My teacher was trying to integrate me into the play, as we would say today, but what about me? I felt humiliated by my costume, embarrassed because I couldn’t say anything, ashamed that all I could do was stand there, for what seemed at the time like an eternity. But what I did realise was that I was not the same as Snow White and the dwarfs. I can’t remember if there were other trees, just that I was a tree, and that this story, which is now almost no more than a jokey little anecdote, is my first memory of feeling excluded, and that, ironically, that sense of exclusion arose from the action of a teacher, who I am sure was trying to achieve the exact opposite.
I’m pretty sure that when I was five years old, I had just one burning desire, and that was to be the same as everyone else. I didn’t have to be Snow White, but if I could at least be a dwarf? Moreover, in no way was I going to be seen in a white blouse with an embroidered collar and sleeves. So I refused to wear traditional folk costume, not just because the other children didn’t wear clothes like that (and I may have realised this already in kindergarten, even though wearing the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ clothes wasn’t yet a factor in our juvenile rule book), but also because I could see just how much that outfit meant to my parents.
Back then, I could not have put this into words, but even so, I knew very well that there was hardly any distinction between being cast as a tree and a Hungarian peasant girl: both were the result of an effort to make ‘something’ out of me that I didn’t want to be. Perhaps that was why, when I celebrated my first Fasching carnival in Switzerland, it made me uneasy. So I made up my own costume: I stuffed a huge cushion under a long, red gown, put a crown on my head and disguised myself as an old woman with a feather duster. And when my mother asked me who I was meant to be, I just shrugged.
Later on, questions like ‘where are you from?’ had a similar, alienating effect on me. The question was usually the result of someone seeing my name written down, or when I had to tell someone my surname. That such questions about name or origin are just the beginning of an interrogation was something I learned after reading Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power – and I often saw the astonishment on people’s faces when I had revealed where I came from: from Yugoslavia?
When I finally began to be more precise about my origins, that I in fact came from the Voivodina, and that this area, which was known as the breadbasket of Serbia, was populated by a whole raft of different ethnic groups, including Serbs, Slovaks, Croats, Ruthenes, Romanians, Bunjevci, Šokci, Sinti, Roma, Germans, Bulgars, as well as Hungarians, which was my family’s nationality; when I uttered the key words ‘Hungary’ and ‘Hungarian mother tongue’, I would see my interlocutor’s expression relax as they recognised my broad cheekbones, assumed there was fire in my blood, talked animatedly about the puszta – the Hungarian steppe – charmingly but pointedly ignoring the fact that I knew nothing about the puszta nor indeed about the thermal baths in Budapest, and were deaf to my explanation that the Communist regime in Hungary was hardly comparable to the socialist regime in Yugoslavia.
My point is this: asking someone which country they come from is very often a paternalistic act. The one asking the question is pigeonholing the one answering, assigning them to that country, so that there’s no room for detailed distinctions, complex ideas are simplified, and a trigger word is enough to confirm their preconceptions. If I answered the question ‘where are you from?’ with ‘from Zurich, District 4’, they’d usually laugh and retort, ‘OK, but where do you originally come from?’
Originally I came from a tiny, white house with a loft, an inside courtyard, a henhouse and a pigsty, a dung heap and a garden. My origins are closely and inextricably bound up with my grandmother, and when I went to join my parents in Switzerland, I didn’t leave Serbia or my village, Zenta, I left my grandmother, her house and her way of life. That’s the correct answer to the question as to where I came from originally.
By Melinda Nadj Abonji
Translated by Max Easterman
Melinda Nadj Abonji was born in Becsej, Serbia. She and her family moved to Switzerland at the beginning of the 1970s. She lives in Zürich, where she works as a writer and musician. In 2010, her novel Tauben fliegen auf (‘Fly Away, Pigeon’) won both the German and Swiss Book Prizes.
Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 25 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.
Photo of Melinda Nadj Abonji by Julian Nitzsche / Wikipedia