What did it mean to be transgender in Tito's Yugoslavia? And in today's Italy? An interview with the author of "Under the sign of the star"
"Under the sign of the star" is the novel by Alexandra Dejoli (published by PM edizioni ) that tells the adventurous story of "young pioneer" Alexandar who, in a Yugoslavia that slowly loses its references together with the "father-master" Tito, struggles to discover and affirm their gender identity. The author, born in Yugoslavia and now living in Rome, explores many issues raised in the book and related to her personal experience as a transgender writer who migrated to Italy.
Is this your story or fiction? How much of you is there in the novel?
Travelling in the transsexual world of Tito's Yugoslavia means being part of it even before being aware of it. This is the journey of the Argonauts to an unknown elsewhere. I was, like the protagonist, a teenager who lived in one of the many families of the Yugoslav socialist world. I have experienced everything that the protagonist goes through in the novel. Both Alexandar and I were convinced that we were made for other destinies, we tried the impossible feat of building ours, according to our nature. We both experienced a new corporeality. We tried the borders forbidden to men. Just like him, I was the object of both bullying and admiration at school, I was at the same time mocked and taken seriously, corrected and courted by psychologists and teachers, corrected and courted by the regime.
We both found ourselves frozen in history at some point, both red with shame and satisfaction. We were both the last wheels of the chariot of a system and a world that we never tried to change, but in which we only tried to find our place. Alexandar and I are not identical, the various episodes told in the novel are for the most part a narrative product.
Unlike Alexandar, for example, I was the best student in the school, the nerd hated and envied. I was the best by necessity: as a transsexual (perceived in those days as a kind of eccentric homosexual), then as now, you have to be the best if you want the bare minimum to be recognised. Alexandar is, however, much luckier than me. Doubled or halved, he remains comfortably inside his nice communist thriller. He never knows anything else, unlike me. For me, the thriller continued, with no more classmates, replaced by nationalist gentlemen, then bourgeois gentlemen and believing gentlemen. Alexandar has always remained the beautiful revolutionary in the hands of the capitalists, while I have progressed, from a traitor to the proletariat, to a traitor to the nation, into an amoral sinner. To be corrected a second, third time…
It is a story made of memories, very precise on certain passages in the history of the former Yugoslavia, in particular on the figure of Tito. What does Tito represent, why this persistence?
No fury on my part on Tito, the cumbersome marshal, old and painful. My issue is with that Tito, unfortunate master of my destiny. Our daily dose of Tito was not light. He was everywhere, in all editions, he followed us in the form of a partisan, a marshal, a commander, a president, a party person... His dark profile observed me in the classrooms, in the offices, in the hospitals, in the stations, in public toilets... We were invaded by him, intoxicated. No little segment of Yugoslav life can be told excluding Tito. Then, Tito as a character in himself is for every writer an inexhaustible source, he is such a grotesque, unpredictable, and bizarre character that never bored us, for sure. The wardrobe was no issues, he had plenty of clothes to disguise himself endlessly. He disguised himself more than all the Yugoslavian transvestites put together... One could also like his theatricality. World politics kept him busy, Yugoslav internal affairs were regarded as below the level of his genius. The omnipresent father of the homeland was considered by us schoolchildren as a real father, a little more snooty than the one we had at home, a father who equally rewarded us when we were good, scolded us when we were wrong, or sent us to gulag if rude.
My story of Tito is the story of all power and its arrogance. It does not matter behind which sign power hides and in the name of which sign it is exercised, if in the name of the red stars, stars and stripes, crosses, money, possession... the master remains the master and my disgust towards him is universal. In the novel I do not mock a half-dead man with coloured hats, vain and clumsy, but the subordinates who bend over to him. Total adherence to power disturbs me, not the pharaonic backdrop of the birthday party. In that direction is my persistence. Therefore, every age and almost every country have had their Tito, still have him, and will probably have him in the future. I do not believe that any political system will be able to suppress the various Titos who will have different names.
At the end of the book, the parallel is very interesting between the protagonist's "transition" and that of Yugoslavia, which is disintegrating to become something else. How should the reader understand it?
The path of transition chosen by the protagonist and that of Yugoslavia are substantially much more similar than it may seem, sometimes they are identical in methods. Yugoslavia, with its historical course that we all know, can only be seen as a real transgender. Yugoslavia found itself tangled in a violent identity crisis after the death of its father-master, ending in a catastrophic gender change. From one gender (communist and therefore transnational), Yugoslavia transitions to the opposite one (ultra-nationalist) by changing forms and names. If this is not an example of transgenderism! At the beginning of the novel, Yugoslavia is still only potentially transgender. It waited, to make a final decision, only for a father-master to leave, as often happens with trans persons. The most important difference between the two transitions in question is that the small one did no harm to anyone, while the Yugoslav one resulted in a long trail of blood. Yugoslavia's change of gender (political, social...) in cost us dearly (millions of dead and displaced). It chewed us alive.
What is the most painful and difficult aspect of your story to make peace with?
All the "red play", the trained happiness, the total and false adhesion... with all of this you can make peace easily, even the phony utopias, even those are digested with the passage of time. Unfortunately, however, I do not see any of the essential aspects of my story that I can make peace with. Childhood denial is a life-long trauma. Being little more than a child and already being considered the traitor of the homeland to be brutally corrected... How to forgive the cowardice of the subordinates who tried by force to make me empty of myself? Their dull brutality made my cause nobler, the cause of those who opposed them, but this is not enough to forgive. You can totally make peace only when you forgive and you can only forgive when you forget. "I forgive but I do not forget" is as politically correct as it is illogical. Unfortunately, then as now, we live in a phony world of meaningless slogans, serving the hasty politics of the moment.
What prompted you to tell this story in a language that is not your mother tongue, but in Italian? Have you thought of proposing it to a publisher in the ex-Yugoslav area, did some publishers come forward to translate it?
Publishers from the ex-Yugoslav area should by vocation be interested in the book, since the story directly concerns that space, for now they have not come forward, we hope that something changes after the interview. This is my third book written in Italian. Writing fiction in a foreign language is a more unique than rare feat.
For me, Italian was a foreign language, I started with "I am, you are, he is..." studying at a desk, sometimes in the best institutes, reading up to asphyxiation the most diverse literature, absorbed in an artificial way.
While writing I venture to create new words. For me, linguistic quality means above all its authenticity. I'm obsessed with writing in the way other authors are obsessed with the story to tell. Not being a native speaker means feeling the constant lack of not being able to remember our parents' pronunciation. This is why I say that my books are handmade, they need a long time before they see the light. Native speakers are easier to groom and cry less, but my birth is more difficult… have mercy on me. They must not hate me for this statement, rather appreciate its sincerity.
The issue is very sensitive and current, especially in this month dedicated to LGBT pride. Is homo-bi-transphobia still an issue? What are the differences with Italy?
I was trans long before the word "trans" existed, and not just in the Balkans, but in much of the world. Consequently, I carry a great sense of loneliness as a primary memory of those years. I thought I was the only one in the world, not even knowing I was trans! Today the phenomenon is on everyone's lips, the media are pleased to talk about it, showing off their progressivism. This amount of information is the only substantial difference from the past. Everything else is the same: in the Balkans, in Italy, or elsewhere. I do not see any significant improvement. Leonardo Sciascia once wrote that when God wants to trick you, you are born in Sicily. I tell the great writer that if God wants to trick you, you are born in Yugoslavia at the end of the century, plus in a body that you do not feel yours! Everyone thinks that they are the worst off, and unfortunately they are right!
The problem of homo-bi-transphobia therefore persists. Even in our current and globalised reality, which grotesquely mimics an emancipation, the LGBT population continues to be considered the world "of the different". The worst is reserved for transgender people. The complexity of their existence is constantly reduced and added to the sole component of the sexual experience. We are seen as embodied sexualities, stripped of all other content. This reductionism has terrifying consequences and overwhelms the lives of an entire category. Talking about the differences between the Balkans and the West means explaining the nuances, but the substantial colour remains absolute black. The weakness of trans people and the entire LGBT population is not conditioned by their media exposure, but depends on their legal status. The just laws and their strict application, nothing else. Legal rape is as repulsive as any other.
Is there an adequate representation of the LGBT world of the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans today, in books and in culture in general?
The LGBT world adequately represents the times we live in, but not their essence. The time we live in is the time of ignorance and triumphant vulgarity, and so is the representation of its various phenomena. Media presence of the "representatives" of the LGBT world is often in service of the politics of the moment, in the interest of satisfying the consumer or winning the voter. The worst is reserved for the transgender world, whose rare appearances add up in an "ocean" of sensationalism and bad taste. The LGBT world is a rich and multifaceted world of very courageous individuals, whose future is sometimes relegated to an amateurish, self-centred and grinning careerism, who does not want to fight but to be.
The total passivity of cultural columns rarely goes beyond obvious suggestions: certainly among the titles suggested there are books of great value, thanks to the immense commitment of translators, but of LGBT realities far from the Balkans. There are books by our local authors, valid and interesting, even if dominated by that writing that smells of literature, of a museum smell. Most LGBT fiction belongs to the autobiographical genre, typical of the time we live in, conditioned by the frustrating self-centred cravings of the authors, aimed at piquing the interest of an uncultivated public, in the Balkans as elsewhere. I believe that today we are more under the domination of bad audiences than bad books.
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