To mark the International Migrants’ Day, RBKC libraries are organizing the talk that explores how emigration affects those left behind. Ivana Bajić-Hajduković, the social anthropologist and author will be joined at this talk by her colleague and friend, Dr Julie Botticello, an expert on migration and health and a Senior Lecturer at the University of East London. This event is taking place on Friday 18 December from 6.30 to 7.30 pm and you can book your place here.
“Can You Run Away from Sorrow?” is an anthropological study by Ivana Bajić-Hajduković. The subtitle – “Mothers Left Behind in 1990s Belgrade” – tells us more about its content and I was intrigued to see how the 1990s collapse of Yugoslavia was presented. I agree with Ivana that it had “a profound impact on everyone, regardless of age, social status, or wealth”. I was personally involved, as well. I lived in Yugoslavia for 32 years, struggled to survive one year in new Croatia, and came to London with my twenty-months old daughter from Croatia, in October 1992. So, I can certainly relate to the context and issues the author researched.
It was very interesting to see that she focused, not on those who left, but on those who stayed, mainly mothers left behind during their children’s exodus. Ivana Bajić-Hajduković’s book “highlights the poignancy and struggles of this invisible side of migration. The loss experienced by mothers left behind, their coping mechanisms, and their everyday practices are explored through the study of material culture. The study of everyday practices and engagement with the material world reveals incredibly rich and at times surprising insight about the relationships between mothers left behind and their migrant children. The gifts from children that mothers hold on to, the food they send to their migrant children, and the everyday rituals performed around their homes tell us more about how ordinary women experienced the collapse of the country than any history book documenting the unravelling of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.”
I wondered why Ivana’s research concentrated on mothers. Why not on the wider family – fathers and siblings? She pointed out a significant gender imbalance she faced; as in most cases, the wives outlived their spouses, so the gender bias gave her research a different perspective.
Reading “Can You Run Away from Sorrow?” inspired me to rummage through my own memories – old photo albums and letters, that I still keep. It’s funny (perhaps ridiculous) to mention, but in winter 1992/93 the most precious and most sought-after food for me was, actually, real coffee. There were scarcely any proper coffee shops in London at that time. I will never forget how I was struck by the scent of coffee by Baker Street tube station. Like a cartoon character I drifted, levitated, following the smell. Everything else stopped! Whenever any one of my friends received a parcel “from home” containing ‘Minas’ or ‘Jacobs’ coffee, we shared it like medicine between us.
The link between food and the past, memories who you are, or who you once were, are so powerful. Even stronger than how Marcel Proust describes. The food shortages in Serbia in 1990s did not prevent mothers to squirrel the favourite food of their children and send it in parcels to London, to Canada… As long as they could send something to keep the memories alive, not because their children were hungry.
Ivana wrote: “A common theme throughout these cases is the relationship between memory and kinship. We mostly see mothers’ efforts to instil certain memories in their children and grandchildren through food. In these cases, eating food from one’s homeland was the closest one could get to ‘tasting home.’ Food in the context of nostalgia for home has been a subject of some excellent anthropological studies. However, in this particular case, we see how grandparents use food as a medium for conveying a specific kind of memory, not necessarily of themselves as individuals but of the extended family to which their children and grandchildren belonged, as well as memories of the tradition and culture of their ancestors.”
Have you heard of ‘Embargo Cake’, ‘UNPROFOR Cake’, ‘Crazy Dough’, ‘Cake of nothing’…? The handwritten recipes were shown to the author as many informants told sad and funny stories from the 1990s, showing how resourceful the people were. The chapter is even more interesting, considering our own short-term food shortages this spring, during the first lockdown, when Jamie Oliver suggested some “lockdown” recipes. Nevertheless, bigger problems were caused by gradual change in interests in home-food. That rejection and acceptance of new habits, meant to mothers more; like losing their children for the second time.
While doing her research, Ivana Bajić-Hajduković saw how the material culture of the home revealed more about the relationship between mothers and their migrant children than any conversation or interview ever could. Remembering Christmas fairs and fundraising events in my daughter’s primary school in London – sharing the memories, customs and traditions, favourite recipes, tasting food from Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Turkey, Ghana, the Balkans, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, China…, I have realised how this anthropological study resonates with people from many different countries, nationalities, races. This book extends geographical and disciplinary boundaries making it universal, genuine and relevant.
Zvezdana, Chelsea Library