What is a Mother Tongue?

What is a mother tongue? What is your mother tongue? What is your mother’s tongue?

Sometimes the simplest questions take a book to answer. Such is the case with my story, with my book — Mother Tongue.

What language did you speak with your mother? What language did you speak with your father? What language did you speak with your brother?

For me there are three different answers to those questions.

Did you speak your mother tongue with anyone except your mother?

That, of course, is the most bizarre question so far for me, and the answer is no. I spoke a unique language with my mother, one I am still fluent in. And by the way, it was not my mother’s native language.

Is this story a fantasy? Is it fiction? Is it an invention of the most convoluted imagination? Are you about to read a book about zombies or science fiction? No, this is a book true to my memory, which is supported by years of historical research.

The language under discussion is Serbian. My mother was Croatian. My father was Russian. I grew up with my brother in San Francisco, California speaking English. I was born in Serbia, but left when I was six-months-old. I didn’t speak any language until I was two. 

I didn't know why I spoke Serbian, rather than Croatian, with my mother Zora. It never occurred to me to ask until I started writing this book. And by then, my mother was gone.

Mother Tongue is an exploration of lives lived in the chaos of a part of the world known as the Balkans. Following three generations of women in a history spanning a hundred years. It follows countries that dissolved, formed, and reformed. Lands that were conquered and subjugated by Fascists and Nazis and Communists and nationalists. It explores lives lived in exile, in refugee camps, in new worlds.

Long after my American passport replaced a document that read ‘stateless,’ the ‘birthplace’ on that passport changed four times in four successive renewals. Until the first time, I believed my country of birth was a fixed point. Today I know better.

 Manifest of passengers on the S.S. Constitution, 1953, including my family. 

Manifest of passengers on the S.S. Constitution, 1953, including my family. 

 My first United States certificate of citizenship. 

My first United States certificate of citizenship.