Oleg Pupovac’s earliest memory is a small figurine of a lion, perched on the dresser in his parents’ bedroom in their small home in Raštević, just outside Zadar.
The house was built brick by brick by his grandfather Petar. The youngest of three children and the only boy, Oleg would have been named Petar, except his father didn’t like the idea of his son being named after someone who died so young. Raštević only has a population of about 650 people, many of whom have familial ties to the land dating back to the thirteenth century. The school has 30 pupils. His Baba, Jela, still lives there. At 92 years old she was born on that land, and she’s one of the few who returned.
“Most people didn’t grow up how I grew up,” says Pupovac, who lived in eight different countries as a result of the Jugoslav wars, which lasted 10 years and displaced almost 4.5 million people, before moving to Australia on his own only weeks after his nineteenth birthday.
“I find it interesting how a situation like mine is often interpreted back to me by others,” he says. “I got to talking with a stranger recently who asked about my accent.”
Strangers do this a lot, it seems. His Rs are hard but not forward. He sounds American …ish. He first learned English in Kuwait and practised it in Poland, Bahrain and Lebanon, tutored mostly by Americans.
“After explaining that no, I’m not Canadian – that I’m Serbo/Croatian – the topic of ‘the war’ comes up. Because it was just one, right? THE war. This guy asks me what ‘my thoughts are on the whole situation’ and, before I can answer – because that’s a very loaded question with a very long, complicated answer – he’s telling me that he watched a BBC program about it. He’s telling me that it’s fucked up what they (the Serbs and the Croats, he means) did.”
But this isn’t a story about the war, Pupovac insists. “It’s not even a linear story. It’s a mixture of story telling, poetry, painting, performance and a quite a bit of my mother, singing.”