INTERVIEW – Talking migration and nostalgia with Vesna Cvjetićanin

Vesna Cvjetićanin was born in Yugoslavia and never imagined leaving it.  However, in the early 1990s, she found herself moving to Australia with her young family, and has been living and working in Canberra ever since.  A lawyer and public servant by profession, Vesna has recently delved back into the world of poetry that she loved so much in her adolescence, and is currently writing a book of poems called “15 Lines of Thoughts”.

At the end of 2018, be:longing hosted a panel discussion called “Talking Migration and Nostalgia” with three of our wonderful contributors: Vesna, Marwa Rida and Kaya Lattimore.  Below are some of Vesna’s thoughts in relation to the panel questions, kindly adapted by her for the site.


be:longing (b): What does nostalgia mean to you? Is it painful, or positive?

Vesna Cvjetićanin (VC): Marcel Proust said that nostalgia is “remembrance of things past but not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”  In my heart, nostalgia is a warm, intense but gentle, remembering of times past.  I do not feel sad when I feel nostalgic, quite the opposite; I feel happy that I have that special place in my heart and my memory that I can go to whenever I chose to.

bIs nostalgia something that all migrants feel?

VC: I think that, maybe, we migrants feel nostalgia even more strongly than people who have not experienced migration.  I don’t know, I am only speculating based on my own life experience.  Maybe we migrants have some ‘rose glasses’ through which we see our past, which is also in another place, and wish it has not, and will not, ever change.  But, in turn, we know this is only a dream and an unrealistic vision of those past times.

bHow does nostalgia feel to you as a migrant?

VC: In my view, everyone can feel nostalgic, even those who never moved from their childhood home.  It is the passing of time, of life, that makes me nostalgic, more than the fact I migrated from one place to another.

bWhat makes nostalgia different from homesickness or sadness?

VC: For me, nostalgia is a feeling different from homesickness or sadness.  I experience nostalgia as a state of mind and a state of being.  I can remember feeling nostalgic at the time I left my hometown when I started studying in another city in Serbia.  I recall having deep, recurrent memories of my childhood, my mother and father, hot summers and deep snowy winters of my hometown.  This is similar to what I feel here, after almost 30 years of my life in Australia.

But sadness is something different.  I feel sadness for opportunities not taken, wasted time and effort, wasted education, not achieving what I had dreamt of achieving – that is what makes me sad, but that is not nostalgia.

bWhat makes you nostalgic in life?  Is it places, people or weather, or maybe language?

VC: Definitely language and, in a broader sense, culture.  That is what I miss very much. I miss the innocent chit-chatting.  I will skip casual chatting sometimes, in case I use a slightly inappropriate word accidentally, which may be received in an unintended way.  I miss the jokes, the songs my people sing, the rich sound of accordions used in the traditional Serbian melodies.  I miss the dances – the kolo – the traditional folk dresses.  I had never thought I would lose the opportunity to hear and dance to them, singing the songs of my youth.

bWhat function does nostalgia have in our lives?

VC: For me, it is a protective cloak.  I have a poem about that.  Sometimes I need to hide under it to preserve the clarity of my feelings and my thoughts during times of challenge.

bYou have brought up children outside of the country in which you were born and raised.  What does it mean to have your children grow up in a cultural context far-removed from the one you grew up in?

VC: Oh, it’s a challenge on two fronts.  For me as a parent, and for the children, too.  I have always been very emotional about not being able to share with my children the places, experiences and people I have left behind in Serbia.

bHow do you seek to incorporate your multiple cultures into your lives here in Australia?

VC: I have done this in the way I felt worked for me and my family.  Our home has art and cultural pieces from our homeland.  We enjoy reading Serbian books and we watch Serbian movies.  We juxtapose our Australian present with our Serbian past in many ways, I think, successfully. Our home is a sanctuary for our language, poetry, family and friends gathering.  We love it.  I love having my own temple where our family life happens according to some special rituals and artefacts.

bHow does your work help you to engage with potent cross-cultural feelings?

VC: It never did.  And that is tragic.  Australia foregoes so much of the resources migrants bring with them here.  Starting with education – take, for example, those taxi-drivers with Master’s degrees in their home countries – then the unexplainable, obscure limitations on career progression, and unwillingness to embrace rather than to suppress differences.  Oh, sad, sad.  You see – THAT is sad!

bWhat can we learn from nostalgia and living between cultures?

VC: Migration and cross-cultural experiences enrich our lives.  Through that, we are allowed to learn about ourselves and know ourselves better.  I am grateful for many things that happened to me as a result of migration.  There were tough times, but I believe they made me stronger.

© Vesna Cvjetićanin, 2018