“Fatherland is really about who my father was, getting to understand him, and also an attempt to explain how politics can tear a family apart, just like they tore apart the people of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.”
Nina Bunjevac‘s new book, Fatherland, explores her family’s fractured history against the backdrop of 20th century Yugoslavia. We talk about how she left her country in 1990 only to find that it wasn’t there when she went back. We also explore the risks and challenges of researching a terrorist organization, the comics tradition in Yugoslavia and her own comics history, Serbia’s culture of friendship, why the Toronto Comic Arts Festival is the best comics event in North America, how I discovered her first book, Heartless, the perils of too much stippling, why it was controversial to publish Fatherland in Serbian dialect in Croatia, and more.
“When I got to Canada when I was 16, I saw an issue of Raw, and that pretty much did it.”
About our Guest
Nina Bunjevac started her art training in Yugoslavia, at the Djordje Krstic School for Applied Arts; in 1990 she moved to Toronto, Canada, where she continued her studies in art at the Art Centre of Central Technical School; in 1997 she graduated from OCAD in the Drawing and Painting department. Formerly a painter, a sculptor and an art teacher, Nina found her calling in sequential arts, a form that seemed to naturally evolve out of the narrative component in her sculpture installation work. Pen and ink became her medium of choice.
Nina’s comics have appeared in a number of local and international publications: Komikaze (Croatia), Black (Italy), GIUDA (Italy), Stripburger (Slovenia), Zone 5300 (Netherlands), Stripolis (Serbia), ArtReview (UK), Asiatroma/Le Dernier Cri (France), Broken Pencil, Exile, Taddle Creek (Canada) and Mineshaft (USA). Her debut collection of comics, Heartless, came out in September 2012 with the Nova Scotia-based publisher Conundrum Press, and was translated and published in France in 2013 by Ici-même Editions. In 2011 Nina received The Golden Pen of Belgrade at the 11th International Biennale of Illustration in Belgrade for the cover image of Balkan Women in Comics (Fibra/Croatia); in 2013 she received The Doug Wright Award in the Spotlight category, also known as The Nipper, for Heartless.
Fatherland: A Family History comes out this month in Canada from Cape Graphic/Random House and will be released in the U.S. in January 2015.
Photo of Nina Bunjevac by David Hawe.
Credits: This episode’s music is Bomba by King Africa (I make no apologies). The conversation was recorded at the Marriott Bloor in Toronto on a Zoom H2n digital recorder (because there was a power supply problem that caused a weird reverb on my main recorder). The intro and outro were recorded on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Bunjevac and me by Amy Roth.
[This is the fifth in a series of long-ass rambling posts about my travels in Chicago and Toronto from May 3-9. Part 1 is over here and part 2 is over there. Now, where did I put part 3? Oh, it’s right here! Part 4? I gotcha covered.]
I could’ve sworn the flight was 11:30. Of course, I’m also the guy who forgot where he was flying a few days earlier, so I’m not to be trusted when it comes to air travel.
I got home around 11:30 p.m. on Thursday, woke up at 7 a.m. on Friday, and got to re-packing. Before heading out to BIO, I put together a short list of stuff to do before this jaunt:
- get passports [don’t let the terrorists win!]
- turn off water [because the pipes could burst, okay?]
- leave dog-supplies by door [my pal Jason was to come by to pick up Rufus & Otis later in the day]
- unplug computers/hard drives [I once came home to find that a power surge has left an external hard drive spinning for days: not good]
- bring super-awesome present for Tom [scratched, as Tom had to cancel his trip]
No suits for this mini-trip to Toronto, although I did bring along a navy suit-jacket, anticipating cooler weather. Amy & I managed to pack two-plus days’ of clothes & toiletries into my carry-on. No laptop this trip; we’d rough it like the Amish by only using our iPhones on the hotel wi-fi.
I grabbed a selection of Roger Langridge’s comics so I could come up with some questions or observations for our panel conversation on Saturday, and we headed out around 9:45. We ran a little late, but I’d factored in enough time for the 11:30 a.m. departure.
As it turned out, I factored in just enough time for an 11 a.m. departure, which is when the flight was actually scheduled to go.
One of the few problems with flying a little airline like Porter is that, well, there are no signs at its Newark terminal as to what its gate is. Oh, and it doesn’t show up on the departures/arrivals screens. So we sorta muddled our way around the B terminal, had a too-long time in security because the TSA staff appeared never to have seen a computer print-out of a boarding pass, and got to the gate around 10:50. Two minutes later, they began boarding the plane, and we were off for the Great White North 15-20 minutes later.
We flew Porter a year earlier, and it was just a joy. Sorta like an old-school flying experience, right down to the attractive stewardesses. This time, we were a little disappointed by the lack of meal and beer (too early), but I still reveled in the comfort of the half-empty flight. It was a nice contrast to a pair of 100% filled Continental flights during the week.
Another neat aspect of Porter is that, because the airline only flies one particular prop plane, its Newark flights get to take off via a less-used runway. We were third in line to take off, which is unheard-of on a Friday morning. I was once on a flight that was 57th for takeoff (but it felt more like 84th).
Anyway, Porter flies a Bombardier Q-400. The Q stands for “quiet,” which is an accurate descriptor unless you’re sitting in row 9, where Amy & I had our seats. In that case, you’re just in front of where the wings connect to the fuselage, and the noise is a little bad. So it was on with the Bose headphones and, for a change of pace, Lily Allen’s It’s Not Me, It’s You. An adorable track from that record shuffled up onto my iTunes a week or so earlier, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Cute, bouncy, a little preachy, fun. I’m not cut out to be a record reviewer.
The bigger question was: Am I cut out to be a comics interviewer? The main reason we chose this weekend for the Toronto trip was to visit TCAF, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. We went last year and had a great time. While it was disappointing that Comics Reporter and all-around best pal Tom Spurgeon wouldn’t be able to attend, I was still looking forward to meeting/seeing some of the invited comics luminaries, including Dan Clowes, Jim Woodring and James Sturm (whom I’d met in 1998, but hey).
Most importantly, I’d get to meet Roger Langridge, a cartoonist whose work I’d adored since I first saw an issue of Zoot! c. 1992. I’d corresponded with him online on and off over the years, but this would be our first face-to-face meeting. Originally, I was supposed to “co-moderate” a panel with Tom & Roger. Tom would handle the questions about Roger’s present-day comics, and I would ask questions about his earlier work. When Tom had to cancel, he wished me luck and zapped me some of the questions he’d worked up. He e-mailed the show organizers that this would certainly be a better-looking panel than the original setup.
So, on the hour-long flight, I listened to cutesy britpop, pored over pages of comics from Art D’Ecco, Zoot! Suite, The Muppet Show, Fred The Clown, and Fin Fang Four, and scribbled down some questions. Opening my Art D’Ecco collection, I discovered that it contained a sketch and inscription from Roger. I thought, “Did we actually meet? Am I getting Memento-like with comics?” This worried me, since comics are just about the only temporal anchor I have sometimes. I concluded that the book must’ve been a present from Tom, and that he must’ve gotten Roger to inscribe the book. I just couldn’t recall having seen the sketch before. Still: that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
The flight was a little bumpy, but not worryingly so. I always feel safer when Amy’s beside me.
We landed at the Porter terminal on City Island (another great advantage to the airline is that it lands right next to downtown Toronto; landing at YYZ means you have a $60+ cab ride ahead of you), went through customs, and waited for the short ferry to the mainland. I noticed a guy ahead of us at the ferry line and whispered to Amy, “I think that’s Dan Clowes.”
“How do you know?” she asked.
“The slightly stooped posture, bald pate, sad eyes and aura of self-loathing,” I didn’t tell her.
I thought of stepping over and introducing myself as a fan of his work, but decided not to. I knew he hadn’t done much press in years â€” he has a new book out this season, his first in a while â€” and didn’t want to bother the guy who once drew this panel:
The ferry soon arrived and disembarked its passengers. One of them walked over to Clowes and shook his hand; he was clearly from the conference. I kept an eye on them as we boarded the ferry. I decided to intrude on their conversation for a moment.
“Hi, my name’s Gil Roth and I was just wondering: are you connected with TCAF? Because I’m a late addition to moderate a panel and don’t know if I need to call or check in with the organizers.”
The second guy introduced himself as Tom Devlin. Clowes less-awkwardly-than-I-expected said, “Hi, I’m Dan.”
“I thought that was you in the ferry line,” I said. “I’ve enjoyed your work for 20 years.”
He sorta smiled, then asked which panel I was moderating. “The Roger Langridge one. I’m filling in for Tom Spurgeon.”
Both guys’ eyes widened. Tom D. asked, “What happened to Tom?” Clowes asked, “Is he okay?”
On his Comics Reporter website, Tom had cited “personal reasons” for having to miss TCAF. I told the guys about his mother’s illness (as related about 10,000 words ago in my May 6 writeup). I was touched by the suddenness of their concern. I don’t really have a handle on how people in the comics industry regard Tom, but both of these guys seemed genuinely worried about him. I was glad I could allay their fears.
Devlin got out a list of phone numbers, and gave me a couple of people to call or check in with at the festival. Clowes looked at the list and said, “Is that a cell phone number fo Chester Brown? Does he have a cell?”
Tom looked at it for a second and replied, “No, that’s gotta be a landline.”
I said, “It’d be even funnier if you had a cell number for Seth.” We all laughed, and Dan speculated that Seth probably has one of those hand-cranked phones with a wooden case. Then Tom added, “I used to tell people that Seth drives a PT Cruiser, but it got to the point where I couldn’t keep a straight face anymore.” Even Amy started laughing over that image. Ah, cartoonist humor . . .
The ferry arrived and I wished Tom & Dan a good show. I hit the ATM at the gate, but it was out of order. Luckily, our cabbie was just fine taking U.S. dollars, since they were nearly on a 1:1 exchange with the canuckbuck.
We got into our room at the Metropolitan, unpacked, and e-mailed our dinner-date to let him know we’d arrived.
See, TCAF was our main reason for coming to Toronto, but it wasn’t our only reason. For one thing, I’ve got family in the city, but almost as importantly, one of our favorite restaurants had recently reopened and we needed to make sure its legendary black cod was still All That. So my pal Sam & his wife Tracie made reservations for the four of us.
While Amy showered, I walked over to Eaton Centre to pick up a brush and a comb for her; I’d managed not to forget to bring anything, but only because most of my stuff was still packed from Chicago.
I figured she’d take a while in the shower, so I meandered around the mall, looking at menswear and trying to assess whether my suit-jacket and a thin sweater would be enough protection against the cold and rain, which turned out to be more severe than predicted. At one point, I discovered a fancy men’s place called Harry Rosen. I’d seen a writeup for its five-storey flagship store in the Porter in-flight magazine a few hours earlier, but this was a mall version. So, no Tom Ford on display, but there was still good stuff to be seen.
An ancient salesman decided to help me out, and pushed suit after suit on me. He declared that my 42 Long size was a lie, and that I’d be far better treated by a 40, perhaps even of Regular length. After a few fittings, I told him that I had to get back to my wife so we could head out for dinner. He gave me his card, told me that he’d be at the store on Saturday, and that if I didn’t see him there, I should “just tell one of the salespeople you’re looking for the youngest person in the store,” he said.
Back in the room, Amy sat worried with limp hair. (I just wanted to write that.)
I brought her comb and brush, then got back to reading Roger’s comics while we waited for our friends to pick us up. It was cold, raining, and the cabfare would’ve somehow turned astronomical.
Dinner was at Ame, a restaurant in the club/theater district. It used to be known as Rain, and I’d had several phenomenal meals there. When we visited Toronto last May, we were crestfallen to find that it was shut down, with plans to reopen later in the year.
The restaurant is owned by Guy Rubino, a chef with a show called Made To Order on Canada’s Food Network. My pal Sam explained that Rain was just too pricey an establishment for its neighborhood, and that the new incarnation â€” “ame” is Japanese for “rain” â€” would be more affordable. The place was certainly more hopping on this visit. I couldn’t recall seeing so many people in the restaurant in either of my previous times there (Dec. 2006 and Aug. 2007, if you’re keeping record of my dining experiences and travels).
We parked in a lot a few doors down from the building. After we were seated, I meandered over to the bar to check out The Gin Situation. Sam had already heard about my mind-blowing G&T from two nights before, and was worried that I’d make good on my threat never to drink another. Like that was gonna happen.
Among the standard high-end fare, I noticed a new-to-me gin named Victoria. The bartender confirmed that it was a recent addition and may not have made its way to the states yet. I returned to my table and considered my options.
Before ordering, or even checking out the menu, we spent a while catching up with Sam & Tracie, a chunk of which consisted of my telling Sam some of the BIO stories from earlier in the week. He couldn’t attend this year, but was happy to hear that it was dysfunctional an event as usual for our niche of the industry.
Our waitress was a petite Spanish-ish-looking girl with braces. She was so adorable that Amy pointed out that fact (and also thinks she was less Spanish than maybe black). Taking our drink orders, she spoke pretty authoritatively about the gin selection, and was intrigued by my snooty-ass Q-Tonic (the bar only served the standard stuff, which I was willing to overlook after my nirvana experience in Chicago). I opted for a Victoria and tonic (which meh) while Amy got the Gin Kim chi, a concoction containing gin, pickled ginger, pickled daikon, cilantro, kojuchang, lemon juice simple syrup. It was an awfully inventive and tasty cocktail. I would follow my G&T with an Aviation, but it was nowhere near as lovely as the one I had in Chicago two nights earlier.
After we got over lamenting the lack of a chef’s tasting menu â€” which the four of us ordered on our last trip here and turned out to include “Squab Three Ways,” one of which was “Squab-Claw of Death” â€” we rampaged through the menu (with some suggestions from our waitress), pledging to eat family style no matter the size of the dishes.
The pork belly, my late addition to the order, turned out to be a home run, but the grand slam belonged, as ever, to the miso black cod. After one bite, I had to resist my boss’ practice of immediately calling the waitress over and asking for two more orders of it. I mean, we did order a second one, but at least we waited a little while. And, of course, we used our iPhones to take pictures of the dishes and e-mail them to my boss. He really needs to find some advertisers in the Toronto area so he can make a business trip up there.
Though the venue was more crowded than in its Rain days, Ame was never loud, and so the four of us were able to chat away. Sure, Sam & I spent too much time talking business, and I may’ve spent so much time discussing the intricacies of gin that Sam’s wife thought I was an alcoholic, but that’s better than being deaf from crowd noise at the end of an evening, right?
Overall, the meal was a joy. The desserts were . . . interesting, but I scored with a fig-sorbet dish. Sam went with an off-menu special, “Strawberry 18 Bazillion Ways,” one of which was strawberry Pop Rocks. (My brother would have been in heaven. If only Pop-Tarts were involved.) Though we’d ordered a ton of dishes, none of us were in bloated tick mode. We guessed that they got prices down to club-district level by shrinking things a bit. And getting rid of the Squab Three Ways. (And don’t get me started on the loss of Lamb Three Ways, an insanely good dish on my first trip to Rain.)
The only downside to the evening was the discovery that Sam’s car was buried behind three rows of cars: the perils of an early dinner reservation. It was raining pretty heavily and there was no sign of the lot attendant. Tracie talked about taking the train back out to their neighborhood and returning in the morning to get the car. I pondered all available options and concluded that there was nothing Amy or I could do, besides catch a cab back to the Metropolitan. I felt like a heel for so rapidly deciding on that course of action, but before I could propose it, Sam found the lot attendant, and they began the Tetris-like game of extricating his car.
Back at the hotel room, I had a welcome e-mail from Chris Butcher, the TCAF organizer, and a “knock ’em dead tomorrow!” e-mail from my pal Tom. I had a warm belly, a little buzz, my darling wife, and some Muppets comics. I’d also hit Tim Horton’s on two separate occasions earlier in the day. It would be a good mini-vacation.
Next: Cheers Judas
What I’m listening to: It’s Not Me, It’s You, by Lily Allen.
What I’m watching: You Kill Me, a little indie flick with Ben Kingsley, Tea Leoni, and Luke Wilson.
What I’m drinking: The greatest G&T ever (details to come)
What Rufus & Otis are up to: According to my pals Jason & Kristy, who hosted them this weekend, the boys were running around like maniacs in the backyard, learning to fetch sticks and tennis balls, and otherwise demonstrating all sorts of well-adjusted doggie behavior that they don’t often evince at home.
Where I’m going: Nowhere, thank gosh.
What I’m happy about: See above. As in, I’m happy to be home. But I’m also happy that I kept my head above water while cramming a lot of activities into the past week, esp. getting to meet Roger Langridge, one of my favorite cartoonists, at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Catching up with my old grad school pal Sid in Chicago was nothing to sneeze at, either.
What I’m sad about: Not a lot. I’m too tired to be sad.
What I’m worried about: That I won’t eat anything half as good as the black cod at Ame for quite a while.
What I’m pondering: How long it’ll take me to write the day-by-day chronicle of the past week, and how many details I’ll forget.
Hey! It’s a little photoset from our Toronto trip last weekend! (Amy has a bunch more great pix, but hasn’t processed & posted ’em yet.)
Okay. I’m sorry that I picked that one instead of one of my awesome cityscapes, butÂ isn’t that the best name for a store? Of any kind? Ever?
Anyway, I posted some more pix to that set from the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, so you should go back and check ’em all out! Repeatedly!
What I’m reading: I read Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself To Live during the weekend, and enjoyed that a bunch (not quite 85%, but still). I also read some of the comics that I bought during TCAF: Seaguy, Tales from the Farm and Swallow Me Whole. There are a whole ton more in the queue.
What I’m listening to: The Shepherd’s Dog, by Iron & Wine.
What I’m watching: The eh conclusion of Dollhouse, which had a couple of neat twists and turns but was never going to be able to match the impossibly well-crafted heel twist in the previous episode.
What I’m drinking: The lesser gins that they have at Lai Wah Heen, where Amy & I managed to eat 3 times in 3 days (Friday dinner, Saturday dim sum lunch, Sunday dinner after our evening plans fell through). We also had a nice wine (and fantastic meal) at Lee on Saturday night.
What Rufus is up to: Not getting into any trouble during his weekend with fellow grey, Tut! And spending lots of time at girls’ sporting events, since the family that was taking care of him has 3 daughters between 10 and 17.
Where I’m going: Atlanta next Monday for the BIO conference. My 3 nights will consist of a visit with friends in Decatur, a dinner at the awesome restaurant Bacchanalia with a client (and pal), and then the Rockies-Braves game, with more client-pals. The day before the trip, we’ll head down to Bridgewater (weather permitting) for the semi-annual greyhound picnic! In other words, don’t expect a ton of posts next week, either.
What I’m happy about: Having a nice getaway weekend with my wife. It was good to be in a city that we’d already visited and photographed; it made this visit much more about just relaxing and having some nice meals, instead of feeling like we had to get out and see the sights. Oh, and we were happy to see my cousin Andrew & his family!
What I’m sad about: That I had to tell numerous cartoonists that I either don’t know who they are or don’t know what they’ve published in the last few years. Still, most everyone seemed happy that I was willing to take their pictures for digital posterity!
What I’m worried about: Nothing I can think of, so yay!
What I’m pondering: Our next mini-vacation. We’re thinking of making the drive up to Montreal for a long weekend sometime this summer.
I’m on vacation in Toronto, eh? That means no new posts till Tuesday! Meanwhile, have a happy mother’s day, get some Tim Hortons, and chill out, just like Dave Collier here:
What I’m listening to: The Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack. Anyone know if M.I.A. is any good?
What I’m watching: The Bulls-Celtics series. Game 7 didn’t live up to the previous 6 (well, 5, if you discount that blowout in game 3), but it was some entertaining basketball. I think this is more of a function of the dumbness of the coaches and some of the players than of the high level of play. The most rewarding part for me was the discovery that Stephon Marbury is now afraid to play basketball.
What I’m drinking: Not much.
What Rufus is up to: Getting affection from everyone he meets, including the local policeman who stopped us on our walk one morning to ask me about a neighborhood dog’s aggression. Oh, and taking another Sunday hike in Wawayanda.
Where I’m going: Toronto for a long weekend with friends, family, and cartoonists!
What I’m happy about: Getting away for the aforementioned long weekend.
What I’m sad about: Having to leave Rufus with people who haven’t taken care of him previously. Because I’m a neurotic mess.
What I’m worried about: The short timeframe for my June ish, which I’ll somehow need to finish while I’m in Atlanta in 2 weeks. Also, I’m worried that I’ll never get around to writing up the rest of my Las Vegas trip notes. Grr.
What I’m pondering: How I managed to amass an iTunes library of more than 43,000 tracks but not manage to have any songs by Barry Manilow.
Last night, early in my dream cycle, I dreamed that the U.S. had introduced the $8 bill back in 2003, but I’d done so much of my shopping online that I didn’t notice the new bill till now.
More irritatingly, in almost every dream I had for the rest of the night, people either goofed on me when I told them about this $8 dollar bill dream, or they too were using $8 bills to pay for things.
I think the presence of $2 coins here in Canada is messing with my head.
Since you put up with that, here’s another picture from Toronto.