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Traumatic Peregrinations: Intergenerational Memory and Migration in Nina Bunjevac’s Fatherland

Anastasia Ulanowicz


This essay analyzes images of both movement and immobility in Nina Bunjevac’s Fatherland, a Canadian graphic memoir in which the author/illustrator traces her father’s involvement in a Serbian nationalist terrorist cell. Although, as scholars such as Mihaela Precup have convincingly argued, Bunjevac depicts her father as trapped by historical circumstances he cannot controland her larger family as “frozen in disbelief, anger, and sadness” (220)I maintain that such immobility is paradoxically the consequence of constant movement. In the course of her narrative, Bunjevac, while she does not excuse her father’s actions or even depict him sympathetically, nevertheless shows how three generations of wartime displacement and transnational migration traumatized her father and in turn her immediate family. Thus, I maintain that her graphic narrative demonstrates how Astrid Erll’s concept of “travelling memory” might be enlarged to address how traumatic memories follow, and become uncannily reenacted by, migrants and displaced people. Bunjevac’s text is a particularly effective demonstration of this dimension of travelling memory because its very form as a graphic memoir necessarily depends on such elements of fracture, repetition, and difference.

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  • 1 Here, and elsewhere, I use the terms “graphic narrative” and “graphic memoir” with respect to Bunje (...)
  • 2 Bunjevac’s book is not paginated. Here, as elsewhere, I will provide either in-text descriptions an (...)

1Nina Bunjevac’s graphic narrative,1 Fatherland: A Family History (2014), begins and ends with images of birds. In the opening sequence, the author-illustrator depicts herself drawing a clutch of three eggs nestled warmly in a bed of twigs and leaves, as she casually watches a television nature documentary about abandoned coot chicks.2 The very last page of the book, almost entirely in black, features the silhouette of a bird in a windowsill. Moreover, a full-page illustration of birds scattered across a stormy sky appears near the center of her book, even as smaller images of birds punctuate the entirety of her narrative.

2It is not insignificant that Bunjevac’s narrative should feature recurrent images of avian creatures. After all, according to the superstitions still observed by the author-narrator’s elders, “to dream of birds signifies that the dreamer is about to receive news”—and, to be sure, Fatherland delivers news of untold deaths, losses, and disappointments. Throughout the book, the Serbian-Canadian author traces the complex circumstances that led to her father’s involvement with an underground ultra-nationalist Serbian terrorist cell and his ultimate demise in an explosion in suburban southwest Ontario. Moreover, she demonstrates how her father’s radical commitments, initially fostered during his youth and later ripened during his exile in Canada, so threatened the safety of his family that her mother ultimately returned to the former Yugoslavia with their two daughters in tow. In doing so, she creates what Dragana Obradović calls a “palimpsest of the family biography as a residual, painful testimony of various historical flashpoints of the twentieth century” (50).

3Bunjevac’s images of creatures of flight, many of which pursue annual migratory journeys of epic proportions, are additionally significant once one recognizes a palpable tension between movement and stasis in her narrative. As Mihaela Precup argues, these avian images are ironic, insofar as they “suggest immobility instead of flight” (219). Indeed, the author’s framing illustrations of starving coot hatchlings and a bird poised on a windowsill respectively suggest profound vulnerability and “frozenness” rather than the boundless freedom with which these animals are traditionally associated. Even the book’s centerpiece, which depicts a flock set against storm clouds and a fractured ray of lightning, convey stasis instead of movement: rather than travelling together toward a fixed destination, the birds are scattered in mid-flight, as though they are being tossed by the elements. It is precisely such a loss of direction and agency, Precup maintains, that characterizes the condition of Bunjevac’s human characters. According to the logic of the graphic narrative, Precup states, “movement is futile and running away, a lie”: Bunjevac’s father “stands still even as he appears to move forward to Canada” and in turn his own family is “itself frozen in disbelief, anger, and sadness” (220). The overall effect of the narrative, she insists, “is that of emphasizing the vulnerability of these bodies and their powerlessness in the face of sweeping historical events” (219).

4Although I agree with Precup’s conclusions, I nevertheless argue that the “immobility” and “frozenness” experienced by Bunjevac’s characters are not directly opposed to movement, but are in fact its very consequences. That is, I maintain that these characters’ sense of vulnerability and powerlessness can be traced not only to the historical events that swept twentieth-century Southeastern Europe, but also the patterns of human migration that these events occasioned, if not necessitated. Although scholarly readers of Fatherland have observed that this narrative is punctuated by the Bunjevac family’s successive journeys between Europe and North America, few (if any) have reflected on the traumatic toll of such peregrinations. Thus, the aim of this essay is to demonstrate how the three successive trans-Atlantic journeys depicted in Bunjevac’s narrative – the first, of her paternal grandfather, the second of her parents, and the third of her own childhood emigration from Canada to the former Yugoslavia—place into relief the ways in which family traumas continue in both time and space without the promise of resolution. Drawing on Astrid Erll’s concept of “travelling memory,” which refers to how, “in the production of cultural memory, people, media, mnemonic forms, contents, and practices are in constant, unceasing motion” (11), I argue that Fatherland literally illustrates the movement, and permutations, of trauma across generations. I maintain, moreover, that the book’s very form as a graphic narrative—which, as comics scholar Thierry Groensteen demonstrates, is characterized by “braiding,” or patterns of non-sequential visual correspondences—further places into relief its themes of movement, stasis, and recurrent cycles of trauma.

1. Piecing Together a Puzzle

  • 3 The title of this 12-page comic refers to the month and year in which her father, Peter Bunjevac, w (...)

5Published in 2014, Fatherland draws significantly on one of Bunjevac’s earlier pieces, “August 1977” included in Heartless (2012), her collection of short comics that variously depict the lives of Southeastern European emigres in Canada. In this comic, Bunjevac imagines the last three hours of her father’s death and meditates on the correspondences between his nationalist activities in Canada and the rise of proto-fascism in contemporary Serbia.3 Inspired in part by her work on “August, 1977” Bunjevac went on to produce the book-length Fatherland, in which she attempts to account for the events that led up to her father’s demise. In a 2015 interview, she refers to this book project as a “puzzle that took 35 years to solve.”

  • 4 This has prompted many readers to compare Fatherland to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) and Carol (...)

6As readers often observe, Fatherland resembles a photo album. The book’s cover bears the reproduction of a portrait of Bunjevac’s father, Peter, clothed in a smart suit; his gentle smile and soft gaze toward the distance suggest that the contents will offer an affectionate, even nostalgic, narrative about the family patriarch. The images within are photorealistic drawings—many of them, like the frontispiece, re-drawn from family photographs4—that are arranged in quadrants or set against black backgrounds, much like photos are carefully placed in albums to depict an unfolding family narrative. Despite its inviting cover image and organizational concept, however, Fatherland does not present an idealized or sentimentalized depiction of family life, nor does it offer a chronological and easily consumable chronicle. Rather, Bunjevac’s graphic narrative is more like an anti-family album, insofar as its images depict a father who was entirely absent from most of her life as well as an often profoundly unhappy family that was fractured and scattered as a result of his neglect, if not abandonment. Moreover, her narrative does not feature, as most albums do, a steady account of successive generations, but instead jumps abruptly across at least eight decades of family history.

  • 5 The contents of this letter are reproduced in “August, 1977”; this verbal text is juxtaposed with i (...)

7Fatherland is divided into two major sections. In the first, entitled “Plan B,” Bunjevac depicts her informal interviews with her mother, Sally, about the events the led to Sally’s decision, in 1975, to leave her husband and son in Canada and flee to Yugoslavia with her two young daughters. In what Deborah James calls a project of “collaborative testimony,” (530) Bunjevac literally draws on her mother’s testimony to present images of a young family imperiled by a constant threat of violence. Here, she depicts Sally’s nightly ritual of moving furniture in front of windows in order to thwart bombs; her anxious interactions with her secretive husband; and her composition of a terse letter in which she declares her intention to remain in Yugoslavia and never be reunited with Peter.5 Additionally, this first section includes visual vignettes of Bunjevac’s earliest childhood memories of her grandparents’ home in Zemun, Yugoslavia, in which ordinary domestic interactions are disrupted by Peter’s memory. For instance, in one sequence, Bunjevac takes part in her elder sister’s birthday party even as, in the next room, her grandmother berates her uncle for defending Peter and accuses him of being “worse than Hitler.” In moments such as these, Bunjevac not only gestures toward the entanglement of history and quotidian private life—notably, her grandmother rejects Peter and his nationalist sympathies because she was a Second World War-era partisan who fought against fascism—but also to the ways that a child’s developing consciousness becomes shaped by ideological discourses she cannot yet understand.

8If the first part of Fatherland is focused on the ultimate consequences of Peter’s secret history of violence, the second half, entitled “Exile,” attempts to account for its causes. The first image in this section, contained within a quarter-page frame, features the outline of the same portrait that graces the cover of the book; however, in this illustration, Peter’s facial features are replaced by jagged lines that suggest jigsaw puzzle pieces. In the accompanying verbal narrative, Bunjevac states that the following narrative is only a “semi-complete picture” that took “many years and much effort to piece together.” In the course of this self-admittedly “semi-complete” account, Bunjevac depicts Peter’s early loss of his father to torture in Jasenovac, a “system of detention and concentration camps” operated by the German-allied Independent State of Croatia, as well as of his mother, who died of health complications compounded by years of domestic abuse. Subsequently, she demonstrates how Peter, traumatized by his parents’ deaths as well as successive military occupations of his village, becomes a local delinquent; is sent by his despondent grandparents to military school in Split; and is later imprisoned for his public support of the Serbian dissident Milovan Djilas. Once released from prison and cognizant that his “future in Yugoslavia was bleak and filled with uncertainty,” he emigrates to Canada, where he hopes to be reunited with his beloved Aunt Mara, another family pariah. Next, Bunjevac accounts for how her father’s exile in Canada was marked by two major events: first, his long-distance courtship of Sally, who would eventually travel to Ontario to marry him, and second, his own courtship by Freedom for the Serbian Fatherland, an ultra-nationalist group that installed terrorist units throughout North America. In the end, Bunjevac demonstrates how Peter, once faced by rivalling commitments to an immediate family and an abstracted homeland, ultimately chose the latter—and, in so doing, relinquished not only his wife and two daughters, but indeed his own life.

  • 6 Pavelić was the founder of the Ustaše, the Croatian ultra-nationalist organization, and the leader (...)
  • 7 Ulinich is a Russian-American author known for her novel Petropolis (2007) and her graphic novel Le (...)

9This second half of Fatherland is also punctuated by detailed accounts of both recent and ancient Southeastern European history. They include, for instance, the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia in 1941 and the subsequent sectioning off of satellite states; the rise of such leaders as Croatian Ante Pavlević, Serbian Draža Mihailović, and the Communist Joseph Broz Tito6; and the 1948 separation of Tito’s Yugoslavian Communist Party from the Soviet Cominform. Additionally, in one particularly significant passage, Bunjevac traces the shared pagan origins of Slavic peoples in order to demonstrate how relatively recent divisions between ethnic Serbs, Croatians, and other peoples of Southeastern Europe were precipitated by both religious and secular imperial interests. Although these sequences are detailed tutorials presumably intended for readers with little to no knowledge of such history, they are admittedly dense and arguably overwhelming. Indeed, in her otherwise positive review of Fatherland for the New York Times, author-illustrator Anya Ulinich7 maintains that Bunjevac “crams too many names, facts, and personalities into a few pages” to such an extent that they resemble “overgrown footnotes.” To this end, Ulinich wonders whether the graphic narrative would be more effective if some of its narrative information either were to be “integrated into the family story” or “expanded into their own sections.”

10Even so, there appears to be a deliberate rhetorical strategy at work within Bunjevac’s condensed and potentially disorienting historical interludes. In effect, these sequences place the naïve reader into the position of her bewildered young father, whom Bunjevac depicts watching “history unfold before his bedroom window” during his village’s occupation by various Second World War-era regimes, even as he is still too young to understand their political, ideological, and indeed immediately material interests. For that matter, Fatherland’s potentially confusing historical interludes also place the reader into the young Bunjevac’s own position, when she was yet unable to comprehend why the simple event of an elder sibling’s birthday party would result in a bitter family argument involving charges of fascist sympathies. Ultimately, the literal and figurative “jigsaw”—or “incomplete picture”—that Bunjevac invites readers to solve along with her involves not simply her father’s elusive biography and shadowy intentions but also the complex and contingent historical circumstances that produced him, and in turn her. If she does not make this process easy for her readers, it is precisely because she is confounded by it herself.

2. Travelling With Baggage

11Indeed, one of the reasons why Bunjevac may be confounded by her own natal history—and in turn places her readers in a position of unknowing that loosely imitates her own—is because she is aware of how it is not confined to the former Yugoslavia but rather straddles the divide between Europe and North America. Thus, throughout her graphic narrative, she accounts for the three major successive transatlantic migrations that spanned from her father’s birth to her own eventual transplantation in late 1970’s era Yugoslavia. The first was undertaken by Peter’s father, Djuro, who was born to Serbian immigrants in the turn-of-the-century US city of Gary, Indiana; after Djuro suffered a childhood bout of tuberculosis in the infamously polluted industrial city, his parents returned with him to “their native village, hoping that the fresh country air would aid in his recovery.” Djuro’s journey would later be undertaken in reverse by his son Peter, who emigrated to Canada in 1959 to escape his tarnished political reputation and consequent diminished social and economic opportunities; Peter’s Atlantic passage was followed by his young bride’s in 1963. Finally, Bunjevac herself accompanied her mother and elder sister from Canada to Yugoslavia in 1975, after her mother became convinced that Peter’s clandestine activities posed an immediate threat to her young family.

12In an ostensible effort to aid her reader, Bunjevac accompanies each narrative of trans-Atlantic journeys with maps that demonstrate the distances they involved and, implicitly, the psychological and economic expenditures involved in their crossing. For instance, in her depiction of Peter’s migration to Canada, she provides a half-page map that features a flight route from his departure from Austria (where he was interned before being granted permission to emigrate to Canada) to the sub-arctic mining town of Thompson, Manitoba. Below this map, she provides three illustrations: first, an aerial view of the Thompson, which makes it appear to be as much a prison as a mining village; second, a lone a nickel refinery set against a dense northern forest; and, finally, the silhouette of a helmeted miner drilling into the earth. These images, situated as they are beneath a map of the northern hemisphere, dramatize the socio-geographical distinctiveness of Peter’s destination and suggest the isolation he and his fellow immigrant laborers must have experienced. Likewise, when Bunjevac initially narrates her own childhood emigration to Yugoslavia, she offers a half-page map of southern Europe with an inset of her grandparent’s home village of Zemun; in the lower half of the page, she provides a postcard-portrait of Zemun which, although picturesque, contrasts significantly with her earlier images of her natal home of Toronto.

13As these examples should demonstrate, Bunjevac’s maps are not solely informative: that is, they are not intended simply to identify the locations to which she and her forebears travelled. Rather, since these maps are accompanied by images of the discrete locations they depict—which variously gesture toward the feelings of difference and loneliness experienced by those who traversed the distances depicted within these maps—they can be read just as well as markers of dislocation. That is, even as the maps orient the reader by guiding them through the diegetic space and time of the narrative, they also make the reader aware of the cultural and psychological disorientation experienced by the successive migrations of the Bunjevac family. Moreover, it is not insignificant that the majority of the maps Bunjevac uses to depict intergenerational family transatlantic peregrinations are scattered amongst those that accompany her brief tutorials regarding the historically shifting political borders of Southeastern Europe. In this way, Bunjevac suggests that her family’s successive journeys between Yugoslavia and North America are inextricably bound up with the likewise dislocative experiences of those in the (post-) war-era regions who remained in place but who nevertheless became culturally, politically, and psychologically displaced.

14Ultimately, Bunjevac’s graphic memoir demonstrates how memory and history are produced not simply in time but also in the traversal of space. Here, her text functions as a literal illustration of Astrid Erll’s concept of “travelling memory.” In a 2011 essay intended in part to trace new directions in the developing field of memory studies, Erll argues that it is no longer satisfactory to approach memory studies from an “old-fashioned container culture” approach, through which cultural memory is theorized strictly within the boundaries of the nation-state or ethnic enclaves (8). Rather, scholars should complicate the “notion of ‘single memory cultures’” in order to regard memory as profoundly “transcultural” (8). Although this intervention is influenced, to be sure, by a recognition of the cultural interpenetration and entanglements facilitated during an age of rapid globalization and electronic communication, Erll insists that it is “actually since ancient times that memory lives in and through its movements, and that mnemonic forms and contents are filled with new life and new meaning in changing social, temporal, and local contexts” (11). Citing the anthropologist James Clifford, who used the term “travelling culture” to support his famous dictum that “cultures do not hold still for their portraits,” Erll coins the term “travelling memory” to maintain that memory is “constituted first of all by movement” (11). “In fact,” Erll argues,

the very fundaments of what we assume to be Western cultural memory are the products of transcultural movement. There is the Persian influence on the Old Testament; there is the share that Islam had on the European Renaissance; and there are the French origins of what the Grimm brothers popularized as ‘German’ fairy tales. Even the ‘first memories’ of a civilization, a nation, or a religious community are often more likely the effect of mnemonic movement than of pure indigenous origins. (11)

15To this end, she proposes that scholars should not be as preoccupied with “echoing what social groups may claim as their roots” as they should be with the “reconstruction of [memory’s] routes: the paths which certain stories, rituals, and images have taken” (11, emphasis in the original). In the latter half of her essay, then, Erll taxonomizes the various dimensions of mnemonic movement. For instance, she argues that memory is sustained by “carriers”—or “individuals who share in collective images and narratives of the past, who practice mnemonic rituals, display an inherited habitus, and can draw on repertoires of explicit and implicit knowledge” (11)—just as much as it consists in transported “contents” (e.g., shared iconic images) and “practices” (e.g., rituals and holidays that can be adapted to commemorate various and loosely related events) (12).

16Published a mere three years after Erll’s significant intervention, Fatherland offers a persuasive illustration of the spatially dynamic character of memory. To be sure, its subject matter of (post-) Yugoslavian history invites such a scholarly approach to the spatial or otherwise “traveling” dimensions of memory, since the ever-shifting borders and patterns of migration and displacement in twentieth-century Southeastern Europe place into relief the ultimate instability of narratives of origin or the purity of autochthonous memory. Moreover, and more significantly, Bunjevac’s accounts of successive transatlantic family peregrinations further call attention to how cultural memory does not remain in one place, but rather travels with individual “carriers” whose inhabitation of, and adaptation to, new environs in turn allows them to remember the past in contingent and unanticipated ways. Indeed, the aforementioned example of Peter’s emigration to the sub-arctic regions of North America demonstrate how his isolation and homesickness primed him to embrace a radical group that celebrated the reclamation of a purportedly lost Serbian homeland. Likewise, Bunjevac’s juxtaposed maps and landscape portraits of both North America and Southeastern Europe suggest how her own received memory was mediated by both early childhood impressions and intersecting cultural sensibilities.

17However, inasmuch as Fatherland complements or otherwise illustrates Erll’s concept of “travelling memory,” it also improvises on it in a way that calls attention to the significant role of trauma in (re-)constituting transcultural memory. As persuasive and comprehensive as Erll’s theory of “travelling memory” might be, it nevertheless generally overlooks the significance of the larger psychological, if even spiritual, tolls exacted on both individuals and collectives who are either transplanted into entirely new socio-geographical settings or forced to adapt to new ideological regimes within their familiar environs. To this end, it does not adequately address the extent to which experiences of fracture, dislocation, and alienation that attend patterns of human migration influence not only collective mnemonic repertoires but also in turn future traumatic historical events. Crucially, Fatherland addresses this critical gap in Erll’s theory by demonstrating how her grandfather’s unresolved anger following his childhood transatlantic journey became internalized by his father, whose cycles of violence and depression following his own migration uncannily resembled that of his elder.

18In the course of her narrative, Bunjevac explains that, at the turn of the nineteenth century, it was “not unusual for the man of the house to leave his family behind and head overseas in search of work.” Although such men would return “decades later” to live out their elder years in the newly-built homes and amply-furnished farms their years of overseas labor had enabled, they nevertheless would be “unable to recognize” the people they had left behind. This was as true for married couples such as Bunjevac’s paternal grandparents, who returned to their Serbian village after years in Gary, Indiana, in an effort to restore the health of their child Djuro, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. If this homecoming was no doubt disorienting to a couple who had spent the past decades in a clogged North American city, it was surely doubly difficult for a child who suddenly “found himself knee-deep in the old world mud.” Already encumbered by a lengthy illness, Djuro was “homesick and isolated” and “unable to cope with the emotional pain” of his sudden and dramatic displacement. Consequently, he turned to alcohol for consolation. Despite his “reputation as the village drunkard,” he nevertheless won the affection of Bunjevac’s grandmother, Stana—whose own mother was unable to prevent their marriage because her husband was “diligently chipping away at the coal ore of the Quebec mines” and therefore not “around to help enforce discipline.” As his mother-in-law and her fellow villagers feared, the drunk and depressive Djuro proved to be an abusive spouse who once threw his wife from the roof of a hay loft, thus causing her to lose her second pregnancy. Eventually, Djuro channeled his anger by joining first the Yugoslav Army, then the partisans, during the Second World War; although doing so gave him purpose and direction, it also led to his torture and death in a concentration camp.

19Bunjevac’s narrative of her paternal grandparents’ ill-fated romance is punctuated with a circular inset of a squalling male infant, his torso strangled by a fat, snake-like umbilical cord. Since this image is set against one that depicts the heavily-pregnant Stana falling from the hay loft, it immediately suggests the small life lost as a result of Djuro’s marital violence. However, this infant might just as well be Peter himself, already tethered to—and choked by—a family legacy of displacement and unresolved anger. Bunjevac first introduces Peter as a scowling young loner who tortures small animals: in one particularly harrowing four-page sequence, for example, he impassively shoves a village cat into an oven. Although his neighbors agree there is “something seriously wrong” with the boy, they also pity him because he lost his “poor mother” shortly after “they [the Nazis and their Ustaše collaborators] burn[ed] his father in the ovens.” Here, Bunjevac’s text intimates that Peter’s violent behavior is a traumatic response to the internecine violence that raged throughout Second World War-era Yugoslavia. Arguably, by burning a helpless creature, he was attempting to recreate his father’s death, whose circumstances and motivations he did not understand. And yet, Bunjevac also suggests that Peter had already internalized Djuro’s own seething anger, kindled by years of “homesickness and isolation” and ultimately given expression within his unfortunate marriage. In fact, Bunjevac makes it clear that Peter was left orphaned at a vulnerable stage in his development precisely because his mother had succumbed to “years of stress and physical abuse” that were compounded by the lingering effects of “tuberculosis she had contracted from Djuro” following his overseas migration. No doubt, the young Peter was unable to protect his mother and was subjected to abuse as well—and most likely, he resented his father not only for his active cruelty but also for his unintentional infection of Stana with his childhood disease. In this way, Bunjevac traces a plausible connection between the physical and psychological consequences of Djuro’s traumatic childhood displacement and the probable influences on his son’s, Peter’s, similar history of violence.

20Bunjevac further demonstrates the reverberations of Djuro’s traumatic experience of migration in her account of the adult Peter’s political activism and consequent exile to North America: in effect, a journey that reflected his father’s own in mirror-reverse. Much like Djuro, Peter succumbed to years of loneliness and depression upon his arrival to a new continent. Although he temporarily overcame his sense of isolation by initiating a pen-pal correspondence with Sally, whose own migration to Canada he arranged, Peter—like his father—could not remain satisfied by the promises of domestic life. Having joined an Orthodox congregation in Niagara Falls, he was inducted into a terrorist cell whose secrecy caused him to withdraw increasingly from his family and ultimately prompted Sally to leave him. Once again alone and seeking consolation in alcohol, much as his father had, Peter survived a suicide attempt only to die in an explosion of mysterious origins. Although Peter’s violent death was different from his father’s—not least because it occurred in a placid suburban neighborhood rather than in wartime—it nevertheless similarly marked the tragic conclusion of a largely miserable life. Not insignificantly, both Djuro’s and Peter’s political commitments were arguably inspired by a compensatory over-identification with subject positions they likely worried they did not completely occupy: Djuro, the American, became a Serbian partisan, whereas Peter, the exiled Serbian, performed an allegiance to a lost homeland by finding community in a radical diasporic organization committed to its reclamation.

21Ultimately, then, Bunjevac depicts her father’s paradoxical state of moving in place. Even as he crossed continents in an effort to escape both political blacklisting and bitter family memories, he nevertheless remained in the same “place” as Djuro—if not geographically, then certainly psychologically. That is, because he was unwilling (or perhaps simply unable) to recognize the stranglehold of his father’s unresolved anger, he recreated the conditions of Djuro’s originary trauma of displacement and consequently his patterns of self-isolation, addiction, and violence. Thus, if, according to Erll, memory travels in part because individual and group “carriers” deliberately reinstitute and preserve mnemonic practices within new environments, Bunjevac’s graphic narrative suggests that trauma travels in a similar fashion. In effect, it places into relief how migrants burdened with not only literal but psychological “baggage” become “carriers” of earlier inherited trauma which they reproduce in new circumstances. Moreover, and most crucially, Fatherland’s accounts of Djuro and Peter’s mirroring migrations demonstrate how the “travelling” of trauma is often instigated by travel itself—specifically, by the alienation resulting from an individual’s sudden transplantation in a new socio-geographical space that lacks familiar structures of linguistic and cultural community.

3. [Un-]Braiding the Significance of the Comics Form

22To be sure, Bunjevac places into relief her themes of movement and stasis, as well as traumatic repetition and difference, through the content of her graphic narrative: that is, through her intertwined accounts of Djuro’s and Peter’s reverse journeys. Just as significantly, however, she also demonstrates the travelling of trauma—and the cyclical repetition of trauma through travel—through her text’s very form as a graphic narrative, or a comic. As Hilary Chute argues in her landmark study, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form (2016), the form of comics lends itself to projects of historical documentation and testimony—most notably, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning Holocaust narrative Maus (1991) and Joe Sacco’s works of visual reportage, Palestine (1993) and Safe Area Goražde (2000) —because, as a “succession of replete frames, comics calls attention to itself, specifically, as evidence” (2). That is, comics place into relief the deliberate processes by which their producers—be they first-hand witnesses or memoirists who depict the testimony of family members—deliberately arrange discrete images within both successive panels and larger grids in order not only to offer depictions of key events but also to make explicit the aesthetic methods they use to represent such events. Moreover, Chute maintains, the form of comics depends on a “unique spatial grammar gutters, grids, and panels” which constitute a “spatial syntax” that is particularly suited to placing “pressure on traditional notions of chronology, linearity, and causality—as well as on the idea that ‘history’ can ever be a closed discourse” (4). Certainly, as I have argued above, Fatherland takes full advantage of such a “spatial syntax” through its juxtaposition of maps, historical interludes, and non-chronologically-presented family chronologies in order to disturb the reader’s expectations of a narrative bound by “linearity” and thus challenge beliefs that history “can ever be a closed discourse.” Bunjevac’s graphic narrative, which might be better characterized as a collage than a straight-forward chronology, strategically uses abrupt transitions between panels and sequences even as it tells a larger story of transition and displacement.

23Additionally, as Thierry Groensteen argues in his foundational study, The System of Comics (2007), the very form of comics is “founded on repetition and difference” (115). Such a foundation, he explains, is immediately demonstrable in the necessarily sequential arrangement of panels and images within a comic: each image is “linked to the preceding one by a partial repetition of its contents” (115). For this reason, Groensteen maintains, comics might be considered a “stuttering art,” since the reader’s propulsion forward through a chain of images is punctuated, if only briefly and imperceptibly, by backward glances at previous panels (115). For example, one early sequence in Fatherland features a silhouette of Bunjevac’s father kneeling before her kerchiefed mother, which is immediately followed by a panel in which Sally, still kerchiefed and bent over an ironing board, looks over her shoulder as the still-silhouetted Peter departs their house with a suitcase in hand. Here, the reader must momentarily return to the visual material in the preceding image—one which presents the possibility of a marital reconciliation—to understand how the succeeding one demonstrates the ultimate failure of a reunion promised in the first. Admittedly, the reader may not even be aware of such a recursive glance necessitated by this juxtaposition of two successive panels, especially if they are well-accustomed to reading comics. At other moments, however, Bunjevac creates such sudden and dramatic transitions between both panels and sequences that she forces readers—even the most well-seasoned ones—to become aware of how they must move back and forth between them. For example, she directly follows a three-panel sequence depicting the tortures devised by Croatians in Second World War concentration camps with a sequence that documents early pagan Slavic history. Immediately, thereafter, she returns to an account of Second World War history: specifically, internecine strife during Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. In order to understand why Bunjevac suddenly punctuates a narrative of twentieth-century violence with an interlude about the prehistoric Slavic past, the reader must return to the first sequence and consider its relationship with the following two. It is only after they have accomplished such a re-reading they might appreciate the larger argument Bunjevac advances: that recent internecine violence in the Balkans experienced by her father and grandfather was neither “natural” nor “inevitable” but rather the consequence of centuries of secular and religious political divisions. In effect, in order to understand Bunjevac’s sudden movements back and forth across time, the reader must shuttle back and forth across the material space of her text. In this way, their textual traversals figuratively complement the passages of her characters, which likewise depend on repetition with difference.

24Moreover, as the title of Groensteen’s study makes clear, comics should not be regarded merely as a sequential art but rather as a “system” or “network” of “interdependent images” (20). That is, even as comics demand a process through which the reader retroactively examines previous images arranged in a continuous linear sequence, they also prompt the reader to perceive correspondences, patterns, and recurring motifs that occur discontinuously on the larger space of the page, or even throughout the entirety of the text. Specifically, Groensteen introduces the term “braiding” (tressage) to refer to a “resurgence of an iconic motif”—or the intermittent “appearance and disappearance” of similar images in the course of a text—whose detection by the reader bids them to perceive how the narrative rearticulates previously established themes (151, 152, italics in original). Braiding, Groensteen explains in a later supplementary essay, “necessarily produces an enhancement, a layering, a deepening of meaning” which in turn produces a sense of “gratification” in a reader “capable of uncovering structuring elements beneath the surface of the story” (“The Art of Braiding” 94).

25For instance, as I have noted above, Fatherland not only begins and ends with images of birds, but it also scatters images of birds throughout the body of its narrative. Initially, such images may appear unrelated to the diegetic narrative: if the reader registers them at all, they still may not perceive their significance. However, once Bunjevac states, near the mid-point of her narrative, that in the “Balkan tradition of dream interpretation, to dream of birds signifies that the dreamer is about to receive news,” the reader is able to return to earlier images with newfound appreciation. For instance, they might recognize how the book’s introductory sequence featuring images of eggs and hatchlings immediately gives way to one in which Bunjevac begins to interview her mother about Peter’s dubious history. In effect, this first sequence hails the subsequent delivery of “news” that will constitute the entire narrative of Fatherland. Likewise, Bunjevac’s statement about the dream symbolism of birds prepares the reader to anticipate future avian images and their figurative significance. Moreover, once informed of such dream symbolism, a reader might reasonably conjecture that the image of a bird that concludes the book’s final sequence—a series of abstract silhouettes depicting Peter’s death—suggests the ultimately affective impact of the story (or “news”) that Bunjevac has until this point attempted to impart in a largely dispassionate manner.

  • 8 This is only part of a greater and complex repeating sequence, which I’ve abridged for clarity and (...)
  • 9 This last part, a sequence of silhouettes falling in space that concludes with the image of a singl (...)

26Perhaps the most dramatic example of braiding in Fatherland, however, includes the aforementioned panels featuring the young kerchiefed Sally’s reunion with, and just as sudden separation from, her husband in a suburban Ontario flat. Shortly after her book’s introduction, Bunjevac offers a six-panel sequence in which Peter arrives at the safe-house “on the opposite side of town” where Sally has relocated her young family; attempts a reconciliation; and is ultimately rebuffed by the kerchiefed Sally, who furiously mops her kitchen floor even as she keeps a careful eye on her children. Later, a few pages before her book’s conclusion, Bunjevac repeats this exact sequence of images: an establishing image of a generic apartment building; a man with flowers at the entrance of a flat; a silhouette of Peter kneeling before the kerchiefed Sally; Peter leaving the flat as Sally irons a bundle of laundry; Sally furiously mopping her kitchen as she listens to the radio after her husband’s retreat; and Sally, mop in hand, looking over her children as they watch a television program, apparently innocent of the domestic conflict that has transpired in their midst. Even the accompanying verbal narrative in the repeated sequence is not much changed: it reiterates how Peter “begs” his wife to return to him, and also how the radio report Sally listens to as she undertakes her domestic duties happens to address a bombing of a local Croatian community center that may or may or not have involved her estranged husband’s collusion.8 For attentive readers of Fatherland, this repeated sequence is literally a moment of déjà vu. That is, it permits such readers the “gratification” of identifying an already-seen sequence of images and better understanding their significance in relation to Bunjevac’s account of the traumatic events that led up to it. And yet, even as this repeated sequence affords a sense of recognition, and even clarification, it also may produce a certain frustration that often accompanies the uncanny experience of déjà vu. Upon being returned to this miserable family scene, a reader might well feel as though little has been resolved through the course of Fatherland, save for a terse recital of the basic facts of Peter’s life and the consequences of his actions. To be sure, Bunjevac’s subsequent conclusion gives the reader little in terms of resolution: it does not, for example, give any indication of how, or even whether, the author and her immediate family members were able to reconcile with Peter’s tragic history. Rather, her book ends by depicting Peter’s beloved aunt’s devastating response to news of his death and closes with the haunting image of a bird on a windowsill.9 Thus, as Precup argues, the book appears to maintain that “movement is futile and running away, a lie”: whatever promises to be momentum beyond the past is simply stasis through repetition.

4. Extratextual Perigrinations

  • 10 Sally proposed taking her daughters on a brief visit to her family in Yugoslavia. Peter, suspecting (...)

27There is, however, one remaining transatlantic journey that readers of Fatherland must consider: Bunjevac’s own. At first glance, the author’s travel narrative appears to be the least developed in the book. She accounts only for how, when she was a toddler, she accompanied her mother and sister to Yugoslavia in Sally’s attempt to escape her husband’s increasingly nefarious activities.10 Bunjevac depicts herself only briefly in the course of her text: in the aforementioned birthday party sequence; in reproductions of early childhood photographs taken shortly before Peter’s death; and later, as an adult who, having returned to Canada years later, interviews her mother about Peter’s life. Her book offers no account at all, however, of her later childhood and adolescence, or of the circumstances in which she returned to Canada and eventually established herself as a celebrated comics producer. Arguably, Bunjevac’s decision to largely absent her image and direct experiences from her own work underscores the documentary effect she achieves in Fatherland. That is, much like the narrators of the nature programs she depicts herself watching in the book’s introductory sequence, she appears to aim for a tone of detached objectivity. Indeed, her dispassionate verbal narration—combined with her use of black and white images, photographic reproductions, and multiple maps and landscapes—creates the illusion of her distance, or even withdrawal, from her own family history.

28And yet, Bunjevac’s own experience of migration is ultimately present on every page of Fatherland, precisely because its circumstances so dramatically informed the process of the book’s production. As Bunjevac states in a 2017 interview with comics scholar Scott Bukatman and historian Jovana Knežević, she remained ignorant of the causes of her father’s death throughout her childhood in Yugoslavia: she was told, simply, that he had died in an accident. When, at the age of sixteen, she finally returned to Canada—her father’s adoptive home and her own country of birth—she was not only still unaware of her father’s complicated history but also not fluent in English. Feeling as though “someone had dropped [her] in the deep end,” she “naturally gravitated toward the Serbian community” which offered her a sense of cultural and linguistic belonging. Significantly, her return to Canada at the turn of the century also coincided with Western media coverage of internecine warfare in the former Yugoslavia which largely villainized ethnic Serbs. Consequently, she sought solace in diasporic narratives that offered a nationalistic and jingoistic history of the former Yugolslavia that featured Serbs as at once heroes of European history and victims of Western historiography.

29In this way, then, Bunjevac’s migration to Canada was not unlike that of her own father. Like Peter, she was aware of returning to a place of which she had little knowledge and for which she had little affection, but to which she was nevertheless tied through a complicated family history. Moreover, much like her father, her experience of a transatlantic journey and consequent existential sense of dislocation primed her—in her own words—to fall “victim to the siren song of nationalism” which she avows “brews” in contemporary Eastern European diasporic communities. Thus, everything about Bunjevac’s experience of sudden transplantation in North America appears to signal a repetition of a long family story.

30Ultimately, however, Bunjevac’s migration experience was in fact different. Despite her initial gravitation toward the political beliefs espoused by those in both diaspora and “the old country,” she began to read critiques of nationalism by expatriate Serbo-Croatian authors such as Dubravka Ugrešić’s The Culture of Lies (1998) and Jasmina Tešanović’s The Diary of a Political Idiot (2000). Such reading convinced her that the conflict in southeastern Europe was not so much one between Serbs and Croats as it was one characterized by “tradition versus progress [and] knowledge.” Moreover, and most crucially, her reading prompted her to make a connection between her father’s nationalist ideology and the devastation currently wrought by nationalism in the former Yugoslavia. This realization was so “soul shattering” that Bunjevac decided she would “not have anything to with the Serbian community [and] the old country.” However, she eventually “came around full circle” and reestablished a relationship with the community in 2007, when she read Aleksander Zolgraf’s newly-published Regards From Serbia, a collection of comics that depicted the everyday lives of Serbs during the economic sanctions of the early 1990s to the NATO bombings of Serbia in 1999. Zolgraf’s ability to tell the stories of ordinary people in a way that neither villainize nor heroize Serbs ultimately inspired Bunjevac, already an emerging artist, to “do comics full time.”

5. Conclusion

31It is not insignificant that Bunjevac now regularly travels between Canada and Serbia—or, for that matter, that she characterizes her restored relationship with the Serbian community as one of coming “around full circle.” To a certain extent, she is repeating a transgenerational family cycle of transatlantic migration. And yet, by using the creative process of comics production to identify the underlying individual, material, and ideological circumstances that produced repeated family peregrinations, her travels have become both deliberate and productive. To be sure, the contents of Fatherland offer a bleak image of individuals immobilized by traumatic history, much like birds tossed in a storm. And yet, the completed book itself—insofar as it is a material object that stands for a “puzzle that took 35 years to solve”—demonstrates the role art might play in reckoning with the past and thus breaking traumatic cycles.

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Bukatman, Scott, and Jovana Knežević. “Online Interview with Nina Bunjevac, Stanford CREEES,” YouTube, 17 Feb. 2015. Accessed 18 Oct. 2022.

Bunjevac, Nina. Fatherland: A Family History. Liveright, 2014.

---. Heartless. Conundrum Press, 2012.

Chute, Hillary. Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. The Belknap P of Harvard UP, 2016.

Erll, Astrid. “Travelling Memory.” Parallax, vol. 17, no. 4, 2011, pp. 4-18.

Groensteen, Thierry. “The Art of Braiding: A Clarification.” European Comic Art, vol. 9, no. 1, 2016, pp. 88-98.

---. The System of Comics. Translated by Bart Beatty and Nick Nguyen, U of Mississippi P, 2007.

James, Deborah. “Drawn Out of the Gutters: Nina Bunjevac’s Fatherland, a Collaborative Memory.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, 2015, pp. 527-532.

Obradović, Dragana. “Filial Estrangement and Figurative Mourning in the Work of Nina Bunjevac.” Comics of the New Europe: Reflections and Intersections, edited by Martha Kuhlman and José Alaniz, Leuven UP, 2020, pp. 47-66.

Precup, Mihaela. “‘To Dream of Birds’: Autobiography, Photography, and Memory in Nina Bunjevac’s ‘August, 1977’ and Fatherland.” The Canadian Alternative: Cartoonists, Comics, and Graphic Novels from the North, edited by Dominick Grace and Eric Hoffman, U of Mississippi P, 2018, pp. 207-244.

Ulinich, Anya. Review of Fatherland by Nina Bunjevac. The New York Times, 20 Feb. 2015, Accessed 18 Oct. 2022.

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1 Here, and elsewhere, I use the terms “graphic narrative” and “graphic memoir” with respect to Bunjevac’s text, since I believe these terms adequately characterize the intermingling of visual (“graphic”) elements and traditions of verbal narrative (especially memoir) at work in Fatherland. I realize that these terms (as well as the term “graphic novel”) have often been used—quite problematically—by primarily North American scholars who wish to distinguish what they believe are “serious,” “independent,” and otherwise “literary” iconotexts from mainstream (and often fantastic, super-hero-themed) iconotexts popularly known as “comics” in an industry-driven U.S. context. It is not my intention, however, to use the terms “graphic narrative” and “graphic memoir” in deliberate opposition to the term “comics.” Indeed, in the latter section of this essay, I draw substantially on the works of the American scholar Hillary Chute and the Franco-Belgian scholar Thierry Groensteen—both of whom emphatically use the term “comics”—to identify a distinctive hybrid visual-verbal form which might invite such alternate names as “graphic narratives.”

2 Bunjevac’s book is not paginated. Here, as elsewhere, I will provide either in-text descriptions and/or explanatory end-notes to analyze and contextualize the visual/verbal sequences of her book that I reference.

3 The title of this 12-page comic refers to the month and year in which her father, Peter Bunjevac, was killed in an explosion in his garage after years of activity in an underground terrorist cell. The first half offers a sequence of images in which Peter, a Serbian nationalist, assembles a bomb intended to be planted at the Yugoslavian Consulate in Toronto. These images are accompanied by passages from a letter he has recently received from his estranged wife, who avows she will never return to him. In the second half of the same comic, Bunjevac depicts the increasingly violent activities of the Serbian ultra-nationalist organization, Obraz (Образ) in images that suggest parallels between the early twenty-first-century emergence of this far-right group and the early twentieth-century rise of German fascism. In the accompanying text, she directly addresses her father as “Dad,” asking him whether the rise of a movement intended to keep “its people deaf, mute and blind” hails a future he “fought, and died for.”

As Precup observes, “August 1977” may well seem inscrutable to readers who are unfamiliar with Balkan history, let alone Bunjevac’s family history. Indeed, this comic deliberately withholds orienting context: for instance, it does not account for what has motivated this estranged husband to assemble bombs in a North American suburban household, nor does it explain the connection between his clandestine activities in 1977 and the later rise of an early twenty-first century proto-fascist Serbian organization. Moreover, the comic privileges expressionistic, often dreamlike, images over “factual detail” (213): for example, it takes creative liberties in its depiction of Peter’s last days, even as it draws heavily on symbolic animal images and allusions to cinema. To this end, as Precup argues, “August, 1977” should not be read as a traditional autobiographical account, but rather as an affectively-charged “work of mourning” (211) which demonstrates a creative process in which “the author is able to take control of a story she did not witness and one that was not hers to control in the first place, which nevertheless came to change her life completely” (213).

4 This has prompted many readers to compare Fatherland to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) and Carol Tyler’s Soldier’s Heart (2012), both of which scrupulously reproduce photographs in their depictions of troubled father-daughter relationships.

5 The contents of this letter are reproduced in “August, 1977”; this verbal text is juxtaposed with images of Peter drinking alone as he create a bomb in his basement.

6 Pavelić was the founder of the Ustaše, the Croatian ultra-nationalist organization, and the leader of the Independent State of Croatia. Mihailović was the leader of the Serbian royalist and nationalist army, the Chetnik Detachments of the Yugoslav Army. Tito was the leader of the Yugoslav Partisans and later the president of the Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia.

7 Ulinich is a Russian-American author known for her novel Petropolis (2007) and her graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel (2014).

8 This is only part of a greater and complex repeating sequence, which I’ve abridged for clarity and concision. The initial sequence begins with Sally’s nightly ritual of moving furniture in front of the windows of her children’s bedroom, which culminates with her nightmarish vision of a bomb that targets this room. It is only after this series of events that Sally entertains and in turn rebuffs Peter’s attempt at a reconciliation. Later, this sequence is reversed: Sally entertains and in turn rebuffs Peter’s attempt at a reconciliation and in turn begins a nightly ritual of protecting her children’s room because she is inspired by a vision of a household bombing. The effect of this reverse repetition resembles a re-wound (family) film, or photographic negatives – fitting, arguably, for an anti-family album such as this one.

9 This last part, a sequence of silhouettes falling in space that concludes with the image of a single bird, was inspired by Peter’s Aunt Mara’s description of her response to his death: “I felt as though the ground had opened up, and I fell, and I’ve been falling ever since.” Bunjevac explains that she designed this last sequence, which is tonally different from the rest of the book, to offer “some form of mourning to my father’s death.” She adds that the image of the bird may be interpreted as a message, as in dream tradition, but could just as well be interpreted as a sign of peace.

10 Sally proposed taking her daughters on a brief visit to her family in Yugoslavia. Peter, suspecting her intention to stay on a permanent basis, insisted that she leave behind their son, Petey. Bunjevac reunited with her brother upon returning to Canada, but has since fallen out of contact with him because of their political differences.

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Electronic reference

Anastasia Ulanowicz, Traumatic Peregrinations: Intergenerational Memory and Migration in Nina Bunjevac’s FatherlandEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-4 | 2023, Online since 07 November 2023, connection on 04 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Anastasia Ulanowicz

Anastasia Ulanowicz is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Florida, USA, where she researches and teaches in the areas of children’s literature, comics/visual rhetoric, memory studies, and historical fiction. She is currently working on a book about representations of Eastern Europe in Western comics produced between 1989 and 2022. She is also co-editing, with Mateusz Świetlicki, the first Anglophone introduction to Ukrainian children’s literature. She is the editor of ImageTexT, an international open-access journal of comics studies.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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