I am the process not the product
Am I interrupting something? I hope so. I am the trauma, transmitting because my body holds the answers to things that you will never understand, but I so want you to. I may not know the mechanisms of what is happening but my experience is the key to unlocking that which has been stored in my body. This is me, writing out of necessity, this is my truth that I am untangling. I am the process not the product.
Pay attention and don’t try to get on my good side. It no longer exists. There, my secret is out; I’ve finally hit rock bottom of hopelessness and you are here to soak it up. I offer this transparency of my experience as your anti-care package. I am the sword in your stone, forged not raised in the times of uncertainty and disconnect.
I first experienced lock down as a child in Belgrade/former Yugoslavia when the sanctions, imposed in response to the Bosnian War, were placed under a United Nations embargo. It was a period that lasted between April 1992 and October 1995. Our currency ‘dinar’ was consistently breaking daily inflation records, reaching the monthly peak of a 5.578 quintillion (10¹⁸) percent. It didn’t matter how fast the banks tried to print the new money. These banknotes with new faces were worthless by the time the ink dried. The image of Clara Schumann on the hundred Deutsche Mark bill was far more familiar, as were the people that replaced bank tellers, trading on the main streets illegally swapping the exchange currency. With no car petrol in sight, the foot-traffic was booming and everyone and everything was sold on the street. Cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, underwear. Imported snacks from Germany bought with German currency. Our supermarkets were just spaces of empty shelves, our parents’ main vocation was becoming housebound, and everyone was looking for black market connections to buy luxurious flour, sugar and oil. My mother became a stay-at-home airhostess who now baked our daily bread instead of flying. School was a place we went, followed by the park, because you didn’t want to go home. It was the time of have nots. It was a new special hell where nobody came to visit, because you had nothing to offer but a top-up to their social anxiety as they sip on the watery hot mess you just served them as coffee. While the adults were not only cut off from the rest of the world but each other, the world of free-ranging city kids was expanding with every zero added by uncontrollable inflation.
My family are 4 of the 300,000 people who emigrated from Serbia in the 1990s. If you asked me a year ago how that experience affected my life in Aotearoa, I would probably divert my answer to the time we arrived in Auckland. It was the year 1995 on 25th of December, the day most New Zealanders celebrate as Christmas. I was 14 years old. Where before I never struggled with making friends, all of a sudden being aware of others making natural connections and living their lives became lonely and unbearable. Bearing witness to full supermarket shelves was like experiencing unknown abundance without reach. To be an exile was to be a failure in all that I did. Like being too visible in everything I wore, said, did, what my lunchbox contained. Everything about me screamed ‘other’, ‘newcomer’, ‘migrant’.
Pākehā New Zealanders often ask me if I was a war refugee so that they can loosen up their pity strings further, to ‘welcome’ me to where I have been for some time, as if being a coloniser gave them that right. It’s hard to be grateful when you know that people like me, from the country that had ’former’ in front of its name, were often only reduced to the singular title of war criminals. Why else does one need to be grateful, if not because your acceptance status is still pending? I may as well have worn a sweater with ‘you-don’t-belong-here’ block print letters. I didn’t belong and I longed to go back to where certainty of not-having was democratising on all fronts.
Every migrant knows what it’s like to have your family fractured, where the parents cling to the remains of culture located in community clusters of the new settlement, while the children resist the old, in desperation to be accepted by the new. Being a 1.5 generation migrant meant the adoption of the Pākehā perspective, becoming the apprentice of their world-view and allowing myself to reject anything that would surface my origins and difference.
I finally reached that acceptance when I started university and between then and now my life has been what I would call back-on-track. I am white, educated, seen, heard, respected, ever mounting my accomplishments on all social media platforms. With an exciting track record of having lived in Prague and Berlin, famously occupied by New Zealand ex-pat creatives (not migrants as we were called), I have found myself where I hoped to be. By the time 2020 arrived, even I got so very used to waking up in my bed, just like you, never giving a spare
thought to the fact that I am occupying someone else’s land. There was no discomfort to the Goldilocks standards I was now accustomed to. I did not care about the privilege porridge I ate, as long as I felt that I had hard-earned that spoon in my mouth.
Then the world got hit by our very own twenty-first century pandemic. We went into lockdown.
While everyone mourned their cancelled overseas trips and white-knuckled through containment, I was excavating the largest archeological dig of my unconscious trauma. What I dug out was the leftovers beyond the commonality we all shared as a country, as a planet. I felt my agency cut and spliced into flashbacks of my childhood, the present distorted as I watched our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern give daily national updates on the status of COVID-19. It reminded me of what it was like to be back in Belgrade, those times of constant awareness of politics and uncertainty. While one was spreading rhetorical toxins to the damaged war-torn country of the ‘90’s, the other was delivering language of togetherness and safety to ‘the team of five million’…the messages felt the same to me. The constant presence of these slogans felt nothing but insidious, filled to the brim with message of war. COVID was something to unite ‘against’, to ‘defeat’, to ‘stomp out’. All the things we say to our enemy. Nothing familiar to you, but all too well-known to me. I could hear my primal scream bouncing off the tightly coiled chromosomes that is my diasporic DNA. Vibrating in my epigenetic future that has already been passed on to my offspring. Only I could feel the echoes of my past entwined in the mortality of the next generation of innocents, surging through their bodies, influencing their physiology and mental health. When I look at our happy children, I see the true meaning of blissful ignorance. Complete unawareness of this other virus I already passed on to them. Now you know too.
Ugh - This is my rabbit hole crisis, that I wish I could ghost and turn into small talk instead of trying to turn into some kind of larger world view of anxious meanings. I have underestimated how deep the frustration is, how deeply subjective, with no potential benefits. I keep restarting the program but the glitch is there, waiting in line like another experience of rejection. Rejected, marginalized, maligned here I am in this pandemic, domesticity of baking sourdough prioritized over work,
where we are all just looking for the cure, for COVID, cancer, AIDS, war. This war that brought me here to Aotearoa, as a migrant and a benefactor of colonisation, where I sometimes hope that through the other side, we can all be different people, living different lives, different contexts. Are you still paying attention? My precious cargo of our cabin-fever dreams released into the world of internet and unlimited spread of information, is seeking attention, just like my extended hand is towards you right now. There is nothing sunny about what I am serving here. There is no ‘everything-will-be-fine’ option. All this earnest weirdness just for you.
As I logged on to Instagram on Friday 10th of July 2020, it was to release a dam of stories about my beloved city yet again being burnt to the ground. Endless videos of teargas being released on hundreds of civilians trying to storm Serbian parliament triggered by the announcement of a new lockdown, new cases and new deaths. Police on horses galloping towards their citizens demanding transparency, justice and a future that is desperately needed now. This is life in the world of COVID. Just another opportunity for internet to break itself while we fixate on social media anxiously in our isolations.
The world is changing but we see now that the ‘master’s house’ is more resilient in some countries than it is in others. June 2020 was the lowest voting turnout in Serbia since the establishment of the multi-party system in 1990. COVID-19 gave the governing regime a momentum to make Serbia once again an anti-democratic, single-party country of erosion and boycott. While the rest of the world perpetuates in uncertainty, I feel like my country is lost to certain death. No second opinion necessary. Diagnosis confirmed, no future imagined. My primitive anxious brain is constantly nurturing these confusing and unhealthy narratives. I need to somehow scaffold this grief and stage a perfect way to let it all go. I want to reach that acceptance, because I can no longer imagine what could be worse than this open-endedness of anticipatory grief to continuously dominate me. Nothing will be toppled or righted here. What I am reaching for is something prosaic, to make it all mean something. Where is the reckoning?
I want my beloved memory of Belgrade to live on. A memory or a reminder where friendships grow at every corner of crowded bazaars, in every nook and music-filled cranny. It’s the city that could never sleep, even in peaceful times, as if in constant besiegement. Doomed by its geography, located at the confluence of
Sava and Danube, this city was destined to be battled over in 115 wars, razed 44 times, and bombed 5 times. Its most recent bombing was only 21 years ago, in 1999 by NATO. This beautiful old city of open ruins is the home to the highest number of European refugees internally displaced as a consequence of Yugoslav wars. The lives formed and lived there aren’t fictional. They are filled to the brim with the essence of noncapitalist love, the very antithesis of the existence migrants are usually granted in their new country of settlement.
I am confronted with my culture and who I am, speaking my mother tongue only to my parents, with no ability to pass it on. It feels like it’s me that needs a history lesson so that I can find out who I am and what my autonomy should look like. I choose to confront you with the scale of me in a place where I perhaps don’t belong. I am now equally guilty of participating and co-opting the market and asserting my dominance and power of my skin. People like me are no longer suffering objectification in this country that I now call home. Christchurch massacres revealed so clearly that another group has occupied that place for some time now, suffering at the hand of this other virus we call white supremacy.
This attack took away Muslim sanctuaries and left us a reminder that this dangerous ideology continues to be a threat to immigrant communities worldwide. Imagine always being presented with levels of quiet to shrink into, made to occupy the stereotypes of migrant-only tropes over and over again? Segregated as part of a larger family of ‘others’ denied automatic access to untold number of privileges my skin colour allows me. Just like a doormat, they are not allowed to take up space, and are only to be dominated over, to be pitied and allowed to exist on the periphery of margins.
As the Corona virus has found the perfect hack into our bodies, replicating and thriving on our need for social contact it has uncovered the injustices that have long been overlooked and tolerated. And just like the virus, I am the process not the product.
Perhaps you think I underdelivered on the harrowing promises I made when we started this journey together? Maybe you’re right, or maybe this language I have adopted for our mutual convenience is not rightly equipped for these purposes. This is not an itemized list of all the injuries dealt to me. It is the point of arrival. Here we are in this lockdown being parented, all of us being told to stay home in order to re-emerge new somehow. To be granted adulthood once again.
It’s like this vulnerability and anger has led me to you, my husband, so that you get to see me. So that I get to be seen. This ever-growing search for human connection and the weird things that come with that path of exploration. You and me together.
From my trauma to your trauma, best regards. Here’s to moving forward, not moving on. Are you still paying attention?
Dina Jezdic is an independent curator, writer, producer and arts advisor with 10 years of experience in the museum and gallery sector. Her curatorial label @ms.interpretedd engages with anti-racist, feminist art and she is currently pursuing a doctorate in the area of Serving Society: Creating Equity, Diversity and Justice focusing on institutional decolonizing practice. She is the inaugural 2019/2020 Leadership Obama Foundation Fellow: Asia-Pacific region.
This article was made possible by a Copyright Licensing New Zealand COVID-19 Contestable Fund Grant
Cite this article
I am the process not the product. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 15 September 2020. Updated: 30 September 2020.