ARUN RATH, HOST:
It had all the makings of a beautiful post-war love story. A man living thousands of miles from his native land places a personal ad for a pen pal back home. A pretty girl starts writing back. Through their letters, they fall in love. He proposes, and she moves to be with him. They have three beautiful children and a charming home in Canada. Then she finds out he's a part of a Serbian terrorist organization preparing to bomb targets across the continent. What would you do?
NINA BUNJEVAC: She only knew that she had to run away and save the lives of her children.
RATH: This is the story of Nina Bunjevac's parents, laid out in a haunting new graphic memoir called "Fatherland." Her mother, under the guise of visiting family back in Yugoslavia, was able to leave with Nina and her older sister. Nina was 1-year-old. Her father, Peter Bunjevac, was killed just two years later.
BUNJEVAC: My opinion of my father up to 16, 18, 20 years of age was he was a nationalist, and he blew up, and what he did was always kind of shrouded in secrecy and everything. But once I started discovering more and more, I started - which would be probably '99, when I realized that his ideology was exactly responsible for the dissolution of the country that I had lived in. And that brought a shock to me. I was very resentful for a long time. Working through the book and doing the research, I realized that there is more to it. And I think there's more understanding about who he was and less judging.
RATH: Yet the first thing that we know about your father, reading this book, is the aspect of violence. He dies an explosion, apparently working on a bomb for an attack.
RATH: But you learn more about the roots of his violence, more about - a bit more of a sympathetic view of him.
BUNJEVAC: Well, yeah. I look at his childhood. He was born in a Serbian village in Croatia in '36. So by the time that he was 5, the war had started. And Croatia was a fascist country at the time. The Serbs were also deported to the Jasenovac concentration camp. My father's father was killed in Jasenovac in 1945. He loses his mother shortly after the war. But even before that, his father was very violent. And his mother lived under so much stress that, I think, that she basically died very young from witnessing the war and the aggression in the family.
So I think that my father was also exposed - being exposed to the same. I don't think that he really had much of a choice. After the war, he was behaving oddly. He began to torture animals. His grandparents sent him to military school because that was the only way they thought they could deal with that kind of behavior. These days, we know about PTSD. We know about childhood traumas, like, that, you know, he probably, in this day and age - he would have received years of therapy. But no, I think I understand where he comes from. I do not agree of his actions. I do not agree with his ideology. But I do understand.
RATH: I want to talk about your artistic technique. A lot of people have mentioned how striking it is. It's kind of, like, a crosshatch style of pen drawing that looks sort of like engravings. It has a strange effect that you would expect something like that - that looks like engravings - to kind of drain emotion out.
RATH: But you're portraying these gut-wrenching, emotional moments. And they really communicate that.
BUNJEVAC: Well, I always believed that overly sentimental pieces have, like, this kind of aura of cheapness, you know? I always try to stay very objective.
RATH: You reproduce some old family snapshots. And I was wondering what that was like for you artistically - to do that reproduction by your own hand, if you learned things from these images you didn't know about before.
BUNJEVAC: Oh, it was really interesting doing reproductions of these photographs because in order to do so, I had to scan them and then zoom in. And it was - it really - it resembled detective work because I would discover things. For example, my grandmother - my father's mother - who was basically abused by her husband physically - when I scanned this picture of her and her younger sister, Mara, I noticed that the photograph of my grandmother, where her face was, was very light - kind of, like, very overexposed look. You couldn't really see it. And then I zoomed in. And thanks to Photoshop, I was able to bring out the tones and realized that she had a black eye that the photographer tried to hide.
It was things like that. It was - that was very interesting. That was detective work. But then scanning in pictures from my early childhood was very difficult. And drawing that - looking at facial expressions - my mom not smiling, my sister kind of having the forced smile, you know, smile for daddy for the photograph. And me, who has a face that can't hide emotion, as I say in the book. And in every photograph, I look really angry or sad. So, you know, that was probably the best part - was using the photographs because I really think it makes the whole story a little bit more real and brings it home.
RATH: The sense of exile has defined both of your parents' lives in different ways - your father and your mother. Has that sense of exile - how has that affected your own life?
BUNJEVAC: I live in permanent exile (laughter). My life's been marked by moving, shifting the continents, going from one country to the next. The only time I feel comfortable is when I'm around other cartoonists and artists and activists from former Yugoslav republics. I think there's something that binds us together. And that's lost country, lost childhood memories, the country that doesn't exist anymore and the crazy ideologies that, you know, took it apart.
RATH: Nina Bunjevac is the author and illustrator of the new graphic memoir "Fatherland." The book is out now. Nina, thanks so much.
BUNJEVAC: Thank you so much for having me, Arun.
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