Alie Benge is a writer and copy-editor. She’s lived in Tauranga, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Australia, before finally ending up in Wellington. She divides her time between working on her novel and trying to end modern slavery. Both tasks feel equally difficult.
She is the co-winner of the Landfall 2017 Short Story Competition for “Shitfight” about young Australian army recruits unprepared for the experience of war in the Middle East.
I’ve heard stories about Croatia all my life. The country shimmers in the background of the stories about my great-grandfather, Didie. There is no family story that isn’t, in some way, a story about Didie. In the stories, the rushing flame of his anger is set against his quiet afternoon kindness, the young immigrant stands in contrast to the old settler. Every time we get together, someone will say,
‘Remember the time Didie had a tantrum at the orchard, throwing himself down, wailing, and beating his fists against the ground like a child.’ Another will say,
‘Remember the time his car broke down at Mt Roskill and he chased after the other cars, shaking his fists, saying, ‘You bloody bastards, you bloody bastards. You won’t help an old man!’’ My mother remembers sitting at the kitchen table, swinging her legs, while he made her arrowroot biscuits with jam and Ribena in milk. The stories of him are woven so neatly, into such a bright image, that on the week of Grandma’s funeral I thought I saw him at the mall. I nearly called out before remembering that he’d been dead almost my entire life.
He insisted everyone call him Didie, even though the Croatian word for grandfather is Dida, and the people who call him Didie are his children and in-laws. I was a teenager before I realised his real name was Ljubo. Didie is pronounced the same as ‘did he’, but as it’s said in the quick, lazy, kiwi way that skips over the ‘h’. The conversation often goes,
‘No, did he.’
‘Yeah he did.’
It’s impossible to know how many details of the stories are true because embellishment is a Croatian art form. They are a nation of unreliable narrators. This has flowed through the blood to me; the compulsion to make every story bigger, to earn its place. I add details that sound better, funnier, and then I forget that I added them. They take a shape and colour of their own and I transpose them into memory.
Didie was born in Podgora: a thin belt of green at the bottom of sheer, unproductive, grey slate mountains. Didie was told at 15 that his family couldn’t afford to feed him. So, he went into town, borrowed money for a ticket, walked 70 kilometres to the harbour in Split, and got on the next ship for New Zealand. He never saw his parents again. His family was exiled to Egypt during World War 2. Didie’s father got off the boat, took one look at Alexandria and fell down dead. At that point, in 1924, Croatians had already been catching ships to New Zealand for 30 years, as Yugoslavia had slid almost seamlessly from Balkan War to World War, when people travelled for survival rather than for experience. They were after a gold rush, but they didn’t go to Hokitika or Otago. They went to Northland for the dirty yellow shine of Kauri gum. They arrived in waves, landing in the morning and digging their first holes in the afternoon. They were solid, maddeningly hard workers. Hard work was what they had to trade. Their national export. Eventually they’d take photos of themselves with their hair slicked back, wearing gold watch chains, and send home for wives.
As a child, I was constantly being uprooted and replanted somewhere else. We changed cities from Auckland to Tauranga, Tauranga to Ethiopia, back to Tauranga via Kenya, and to Australia, where I lived until moving to Wellington as an adult. There was always too much distance between myself and any culture I had a connection to; the space was too wide to cross. I didn’t grow up kola dancing on Sundays, dressed in red and white, I don’t know the songs, or play the tambura. I only have the stories.
Culture persists around death. It’s where rituals are trotted out and find their significance. So it wasn’t until my grandmother’s funeral that these stories I’d heard, the second-hand culture, filled up with bones and blood. It put on clothes and came to find me. I’d never considered the fact that this group of people I’d been hearing about for most of my life were still alive somewhere. I thought they lived across the sea, perched over the Adriatic, not here on a grim, grey Auckland morning at the Glen Eden Catholic Parish. Here, Croatian singers are trilling with their hands clasped and their mouths stretched into ‘Os’. Here are names like Steepa, Tea, Nedika, Petar. Here, the man flashing lascivious looks at me from under heavy, lowered eyebrows is my cousin. Here, people are my height! I don’t slouch to make myself smaller, less-visible. Jill, my aunt from my father’s side, comes to the funeral. My paternal family’s history is somewhat higher on the class scale, though considerably lower in stature. While my father’s ancestors were selling their title of nobility, my mother’s side were pissing on each other’s olive groves. Jill has come for moral support but her measured, polite, blue-blooded voice is a foot and a half below everyone else and can’t be heard over the volley of voices being thrown out above her. I make a miss-step in a joke about our height, saying that we should carry poles like at the rollercoaster, ‘Must be this tall to ride us.’ I haven’t thought it through. A gleam flashes in my cousin’s eye.
My father is one of pallbearers and he grips the end of the coffin. He stands on the end, solemn, facing a different way to all the other pallbearers. After the ceremony, one of the pallbearer goes to the wrong cemetery. We find a replacement and Grandma is lifted out of the hearse but we realise Grandpa is missing. Grandma goes back in the car. We stand around, bracing against the cold, trying not to fight. Grandma waits patiently. She no longer needs to hurry, or to be pushed along. Grandpa shows up (he’d gone home, not wanting to use a public toilet), but my cousin and uncle, both pallbearers, have driven away to look for him. When the key characters are finally in the right place and we have at least five pallbearers, Grandma is trundled out again. Grandpa is astounded by Jill’s umbrella, its colour! Its girth! She tries to direct his attention back to Grandma, who is being lowered into the ground, but his eyes are up, his mouth slightly open. He is reasonably deaf and yells over the solemn crowd to Jill, ‘Where’d you buy it?’ Jill whispers, ‘The Warehouse,’ and points to the casket. Meanwhile, the sixth pallbearer wanders alone through Waikumete Cemetery wondering where everybody is. A cousin leans in to me and says, ‘This is nothing. At Uncle Clem’s funeral, he was too tall for his own hole. He had to be put to one side while shovels were found. We were put to work making it bigger.’ We joke that our family puts the fun back in funeral.
The Croatian gum diggers had a habit of only telling other Croatians when they found a productive spot. The New Zealanders weren’t mining the gum as fast as the immigrants were, so in 1910 it was decided that only British subjects could hold gum-digging licenses. The Croatian gold rush was over and they flooded Auckland’s countryside, forming suburbs of orchards, sticking with their own provinces. Those from Podgora went to Oratia. They had dinners once a week at the Marinovich’s and dances every Sunday, prospecting for someone to marry. They rebuilt their community in the Dalmatian and Yugoslavian Clubs, dancing in their peasant costumes, hopping and spinning, stamping in their black boots, arms akimbo or linked around each other in circles. They helped each other pick the fruit on their orchards so no one would have to pay wages to anyone else. Once, a New Zealander visited the orchard and, stunned by the dark-haired girls picking peaches, asked someone to teach him ‘Nice tits’ in Croatian. He was taught ‘Ja sam govno’ (actual translation: ‘I am shit’). After practicing a few times, getting the enunciation right, he took off, bellowing his new phrase, his arms spread wide, wind blowing his hair back, yelling to the left and to the right, to the beautiful peach-picking women, ‘I am shit. I am shit.’
At the funeral, my sister asks if it’s a coincidence that Oratia is almost an anagram of Croatia. Heads turn to the sign, mouths open. In all this time, no one had even noticed.
Someone at the funeral asks if my uncle Joe was named after Joseph Marinovich, Didie’s in-law. We nod our heads, we know this one. Joe was named after Joseph, my sister Aimie Jo was named after Uncle Joe. Nothing to see here. Joe doesn’t nod. He quietly explains that he’s named after Joseph Stalin: the first Joe in Didie’s heart. My sister realises she has accidentally become the second generation of our family to be named after Stalin. My kiwi grandfather, in his too-loud voice, tells a story of the time, on a lunch break, when he sat on apple crates with the family and listened to them laud communism, celebrate it, miss it. Grandpa stood up from his crate and announced that they were, ‘Full of shit’. Circling each other in the orchard, Grandpa said, ‘Fight me if you want, I was president of the Auckland rugby club.’ Grandma later found she’d been struck from the will.
My family are wound tight. They’re anxious, vengeful, manic depressive, obsessive compulsive. From them I inherited the ability to twist small details into wider fears that loom, black and stormy; a cloudscape blowing over a bright day. They lay siege to each other, holding each insult close. They’ve borne grudges to the grave, and stolen inheritances. They’ve disapproved and neglected each other. Yet, they helped each other on the orchards, and met for lunch every Sunday, they exercised shocking generosity, and when babies were born they got speeding tickets on the way to the hospital.
1991, back in Croatia, Serbian neighbours started packing their things and leaving in the night. When the war finally broke, my cousin, Đulijano tried to enlist but, because of his education, the army office told him, ‘We’ll need you to fix things when this is over.’ Podgora filled with refugees from Dubrovnik and Didie sent every piece of clothing he could find. Đulijano’s father risked his life sailing a tiny boat past Serbian war ships to get aid to Dubrovnik. Didie died halfway through the war, before Yugoslavia was dismantled into bickering nations. When it was over, letters were sent to New Zealand saying, ‘You only call yourself Croatian now. There is no more Yugoslavia. You make sure you’re proud to be Croatian.’ Đulijano was sent to visit us and to make sure we were saying the right thing. Members of the Dalmatian and Yugoslavian Club split off and formed the Croatian Club. Every member of each club was already Croatian, but the divide was over a name. A line was drawn between the new guard and those who refused to change. Where you kola danced on Sundays became a political and ethnic statement, a matter of nationalistic pride.
Those who emigrated rejected aspects of their culture to fit into their new homes. Some anglicised their names, adding Hs to the spelling, and taking the dashes out of Đ. Didie made sure his children spoke English and when each generation asked him to teach them Croatian he said, ‘No. We are New Zealanders now. You speak like the New Zealanders.’ It’s the following generations who take hold of culture. We experience it academically, collecting stories, researching our family’s origins, and meeting cousins over the internet. We grasp at the things our ancestors had to flee from, longing for the grey slate mountains and the thin, anaemic food that had meant their exile. We learn to make the boozy donuts, and blitva – which is simply silverbeet boiled until it’s limp and off-looking. It tastes like water left too long in tin. My mother hates blitva but insists on making it. She has dedicated sections of her garden to silverbeet and complains bitterly every time she eats it. We turn to the shreds of culture that are left to us and say, ‘Tell us who we are.’