Once Upon a Yugoslavia
Is there something about Surya--then Norma--Green's life in 1968 that leads her to so readily answer "yes" to the opportunity for an internship in a communist country with a lifestyle for which she is totally unprepared? What is it about the year, the era, that makes her decision make sense, even if she herself can't quite articulate it at the time?
The author's encounter with her first landlady, Svetlana, yields compelling exchanges between the two women on the American Way vs Tito's Third Way. Who is right? Is either right? Is the author as conditioned by the American Dream--failing to appreciate its drawbacks, such as overconsumption--as Svetlana is by the dark sides of the socialist dream as implemented in Yugoslavia (e.g. suppression of dissident political voices)?
Living in a society of few personal choices after growing up in a society in which choices are taken for granted leaves a deep impression on the author. Initially, the transition is, for her, not an easy one--it is "forced," even if the choice to go to Yugoslavia in the first place was hers. What is it that she finds hardest, and why, in the end, does she adapt? She observes that sometimes, we must be "forced" onto the path of new perspectives, of opening our minds to other possibilities. Have you been in comparable situations in your travels or on account of other life experiences?
Comment on the author's relationship with Zelimir Matko and her other colleagues at Zagreb Film. Is she indeed being exploited by being overworked for little pay? If so, because she is a "Westerner," a woman, or both?
Among the book's most moving episodes is that depicting the author's encounter with Herr Stern, who poses the author some hard questions about herself and her situation in Yugoslavia. What is it about this enigmatic man who, by revealing himself to be a deeply thinking, feeling human being, that forces the author, a young Jewish woman with family members who perished in the Holocaust, to reconsider her anti-German bias? Might Herr Stern be a former Nazi? Or perhaps Jewish, as the author wonders? Perhaps even a concentration camp survivor?
What other characters stand out most for you? What roles do they play in the author's journey away from the confines of "her" American Dream? Comment on how the romance the author finds in Zabreb with Mario--who, as a Czech immigrant, is, in some respects, also an outsider—complicates the author’s decision to leave Yugoslavia.
Once Upon a Yugoslavia is much more than a memoir: its personal journey unfolds against the backdrop not only of the social revolution in America and Europe taking place in 1968, but also, more directly, against that of Yugoslavia and its history. What picture does the book paint of Marshall Tito and the events before, during, and after World War II that culminated in that country's unusual path in the communist era? That of a dictator? A war hero who, in his effort to transform his own society and resist both Stalinism and the capitalist West, made misguided decisions that ultimately, after his death, led to his country's implosion? Who was Milovan Djilas, and what does his fate in a country he helped build say about the ultimate legacy of Titoism?
The author is impressed by the Workers’ Self-Management she witnesses in action at Zagreb Film--a system of worker ownership and workplace decision-making by employees, a form of direct participatory democracy with collective decision-making. In what ways does this system work, or not work, in Yugoslavia? What contemporary examples of experimentation with such workplace structures can you think of, whether in the United States or elsewhere? Have you or people you know been employed by companies or organizations where some elements of workers’ self-management were in practice? How, practically speaking, might they be introduced in a capitalist system such as that of the United States?
What is the impact on the author's evolving perspective of her encounter with the pioneering documentary filmmaker John Grierson? What is the filmmaker's responsibility to his/her country, especially if the government of that country is--as was the case in Yugoslavia and was (and is) the case in Canada, where Grierson helped found the National Film Board of Canada--in the business of funding films?
Yugoslavia in 1968 was, among other things, a Big-Brotherish "surveillance society." While the author herself was not literally followed about by agents of the state, she, the foreigner, often felt under observation, even as she walked about the streets of Zagreb and Belgrade, where locals, from day one, eyed her suspiciously. What lessons did she come away with that might be applicable to the "surveillance societies" we inhabit today, whether in the United States or Western Europe and beyond?
Once Upon a Yugoslavia, while set in the historic year of 1968, is most timely--both for its themes of sustainable living and its premise that a more fair and just society is possible. What contemporary parallels can you think of--whether of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign or others?
What does the concept of “success” mean to you--and how is this similar or not to the evolution of the author's thinking along this line in Once Upon a Yugoslavia? How has your concept of “success” changed over the years?
What does “freedom” mean to you? “Without social equality and social justice,” the author writes in the book, “there is no freedom. Without personal freedom, there can be no equality and justice.” What does this statement mean to you? Do you consider yourself to be a “free” person? What does “slavery” mean to you? In what ways do you see yourself to be a “free” person and in which ways a “slave”?