An Interview with Katarina Kaća Kostić
Four Decades of Nurturing Serbian Language and Culture in Canada
An interview with Katarina Kaća Kostić, former president of the Association of Writers and Poets “Desanka Maksimović” in Toronto
The cultural scene in Toronto, Ontario—and indeed of the whole of North America—would be unimaginable without the diligent work of one of the most animated and industrious devotees: the long-time president of the Association of Writers and Poets “Desanka Maksimović” from Toronto, Kaća Kostić. She has mentored tens of quality poets and prose writers, and gathered many artists around her association. Her feeling for people, patience, and above all knowledge of all things literary, journalistic, and publishing, remains an eternal stamp on our immigrant community in Canada.
SAN: Dear Kaća, are you pleased with the attention and respect you recently received from the Serbian community in Toronto on the occasion of your 80th birthday and, at the same time, 39 years since the foundation of the Association of Writers and Poets “Desanka Maksimović”?
That day, December 15th of last year, a snowstorm with strong winds started in the early afternoon, and by the evening the roads were completely impassable from the snow, and the hurricane-like winds almost completely impeded traffic. In spite of all that, the hall of around one hundred seats was quickly filled up. I was particularly touched when I caught sight of old friends—my coeval, Dušan Basta and others—who drove very slowly and carefully from all parts of Toronto and managed to arrive on time.
The poets’ circle was almost all in attendance, as well as the prose writers from our Association of Writers and Poets “Desanka Maksimović.” We were celebrating a double jubilee. The purpose of the meeting was essentially a relay of generations. This was attested by the talks given by the president and other members of the new board who even made an effort to gather birthday wishes from the Association of Serbian Writers and other cultural institutions that our Association has been dealing with for decades. There was even a birthday cake with some of my verses written on it. There was much thanking and paying tribute not only to me, but to all previous boards of the Association, for paving the long road and nurturing our written mother tongue and for leaving in their inheritance ramified literary connections (including publishing) in the homeland as well as in Canada. Next year, we will be celebrating 40 years of the existence of the Association of Writers and Poets “Desanka Maksimović.” All of us—old and new members—will give our all for that jubilee to be remembered and to inspire younger generations of Serbs to attain even greater literary accomplishments.
SAN: At this celebration, your newest book was exhibited—a selection of poetry entitled “Echo of Eternity” (Eho beskraja). How much did this book represent you and has it thematically encompassed your portrait? Are you more of a poet or a prose writer?
The book is a selection of my poetry that mostly I myself put together, so it quite wholly represents me as a poet. I am ultimately disappointed with it because of some minor changes in some poems. It was a question of “provocative” titles, like for example “Democracy for sale” which I want to restore. Rather than commenting further, I will quote the wise words of the memorable poet Petar Pajić: “A poem, if it is real, is written for all times and it does not need to be changed, modified, or accommodated to a so-called right time.” That is why there will be another, enhanced edition of the book “Echo of Eternity.” I am a poet by vocation, but I will most likely leave behind me more prose texts and books. The themes I talk about require a prose form. I have published travelogues, annals, chronicles, epistles, and of course, short stories. I have only not delved into novels as a literary genre, but it is sometimes a question of slight differences between genres. I still pay most attention to my poetry, since from my very first book I was proclaimed a poet, even though I was working as a journalist. I also received significant awards for poetry. My poems have been published in English, Russian, Spanish, and Romanian as whole works, and select poems in French, Bulgarian, and Arabic. A bilingual Serbian-French book of my poetry is in the works. I lived in France, published a literary theory work in French, and I honed my poetic language on French and Russian symbolism.
SAN: How do you feel now that you have passed on the baton of president of the Association of Writers and Poets “Desanka Maksimović,” Toronto, and what can future generations of writers and members of the Association learn from you?
I feel normal, in line with the laws of nature. Not only do I feel great relief and a feeling of happiness at seeing the rejuvenation of the board of the Association and the significant number of new members who are visibly arriving, but the newfound freedom also feels good. I am there when they ask me something or seek me out, I participate or attend literary events, but I have no responsibilities; rather, I am already paving the road of a free artist in my “new youth.” Old age does not exist. Everything develops at its natural speed. Young people learn from their elders that which interests them and what they find useful.
SAN: People in Serbia know and respect you, and for years you were establishing contact with significant writers and cultural institutions in Serbia. How satisfied are you with how that collaboration is developing, and what has to be advanced at this moment?
My personal connections with writers are my “daily bread,” as much in the homeland as here. All of our writers’ associations are like that: unbreakable, timeless. With respect to connections with writers and establishments, I leave my literary inheritance to all old and new members of our Association. Can writers do any differently? In principle, collaboration with writers in the homeland should always be advanced. Personal contacts are great accomplishments, but official meetings and visits of writers from the homeland are effectively carried out only through the Association. Our association has great experience in organizing literary soirées—we do not lag behind those that happen daily at 7 Francuska Street, in Belgrade. We have been an official affiliate of the Association of Serbian Writers for almost 20 years. We just have to continue down that road, and the Association “Desanka Maksimović” will also one day celebrate its 100th and 200th anniversaries.
SAN: You have traveled a great deal, and you continue to do so. What have been your dearest travels, and which meetings with our people and foreigners have stayed in your memory? Do you plan on writing about some of those meetings?
My physical condition is beginning to betray me: I cannot walk for long periods of time, so I will travel less and less. However, in return, there are floors and floors of reminiscences of past events building inside me. Much of that has already been organized and published, and some remains. I continually publish essays, records, parts of travelogues… For decades, I visited Kosovo with poets from Serbia, and it has been immortalized in my poetry and travelogues. I consider the Serbian poets of Kosovo and Metohija my brothers and sisters, and vice versa. My other love is Russia, present in my poetry and prose, and forever will be. I resided a few times in our brother Slavic country. How could I ever forget the promotion of my book of poetry, “The Cry of Blood” (Плач крови) in the same hall where, afterwards, there was a celebration of 110 years since the birth of Sergei Yesenin? I experienced the well-known phenomenon of a Russian public in love with poetry. I published my impressions of the celebration of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Day; sailing down the river Volga with other poets; my visit to an Orthodox high school and a Serbian church; and I am in the process of organizing other material for publishing. I am planning a longer stay in Moscow, to publish an anthology of Serbian writers of the diaspora in Russian, as well as my translation of Russian protest poetry in Serbian. The countries of Latin America are also my great literary challenge, particularly Cuba. I have been writing my impressions of Cuba for years; I published my first reports in 1978. I will soon publish a book about Cuba and Mexico. In my book “Letters” (working title) which will soon be published, there will also be included some details about my travels. There is a great deal of crossover of genres in my literary opus.
SAN: What is the poetic tradition of the Serbian community of Canada, and of this generation, will there be any names recorded in the history of the written word of the diaspora and Serbian literature in general?
The first and second generations of our emigrants left traces of their patriotic, love, and spiritual poetry in ethnic presses of the time. And I will also take this opportunity to emphasize that all Serbian publications in North America—from the very first issue in the mid-nineteenth century up until recently—were published exclusively in Cyrillic. That is valuable inheritance that is examined today by historians, chroniclers, writers, and scientists. There were not nearly as many books published in Serbian in the diaspora back then as there are today. However, in past times as well as today, the Serbian diaspora has given great names to literature. It suffices to mention Miloš Crnjanski and Rastko Petrović. Today, unfortunately, many well-known Serbian writers are scattered around the world; some barely saved their own lives before the approaching war. They, as well as other artists who left the homeland for the same reasons, influence the admirable cultural life of the Serbian communities to which they belong. In the foreseeable future—in Canada as well as in the whole world—literature of the Serbian diaspora in their native language will play an important role in Serbian culture overall and will contribute well-known names to Serbian literature.
SAN: How has the recent change in the board of the Serbian Heritage Academy in Toronto affected the collaboration between it and the Association of Writers and Poets “Desanka Maksimović”? Should the Serbian community invest more in maintaining our cultural associations in Canada, and how should it do so?
Every relay of generations is encouraging. At around the same time, the boards of the Serbian Heritage Academy and the Association Desanka Maksimović became younger. The Serbian Heritage Academy continues its long-time mission as the patron of Serbian cultural life in Canada. The Association is closest to it in terms of affinity. Their respective activities fill each other in. That is why it will remain a tradition that one person be a member of both boards. This year, Gordana Laković, the secretary of the Serbian-Canadian Association of Writers and Poets “Desanka Maksimović,” was also chosen as the general secretary of the Serbian Heritage Academy. Let us hope that the cultural and literary programs of these two ethnic organizations with long traditions will be inspirational enough for the Serbs of southern Ontario, so that they feel a need to support them; above all as a steadfast audience, and secondly, by participating in their work, by making suggestions, giving donations, etc. This is how we will preserve our mother tongue and pass on our rich national traditions and Orthodox customs to future generations.
SAN: Your book, “Imprints of Time” (Otisci vremena) is a unique cultural chronicle of Serbs in Canada. It came out in 2011 and it is interesting what a large time span it covers. Do you think it is your most significant book?
It is the most significant of its genre, for the simple reason that it is the most extensive. It most completely presents me as a chronicler of the Serbian ethnic community of North America. A similar book is “The American Ninth Circle” (Američki deveti krug) that talks about the lives of Slavic immigrants to Canada based on exhaustive conversations with Russian, Ukrainian, Croatian, and Serbian immigrants. Through these conversations and precious documents, I presented the emigrant life in Canada and the United States during the Great Depression of 1929. That book also has a second volume that I am in the process of putting together before publishing.
SAN: In your opinion, is there a danger that young people who were born here or who came as children—when they take up writing—will write in English rather than in Serbian? How much is lost with that, and how much is it simply a reality of the time in which we live?
It is a reality of the time in which we live. Assimilation to a lesser or greater extent is unavoidable. We can only delay it, slow it down, but even that is significant. Step by step assimilation has a reverse effect. As a young country, Canada is a cultural mosaic of many ethnic communities. Already in the second or third generations of their immigrant communities, Canadian writers write mainly in English or French. But through their ethnic backgrounds, they make their part of the ethnic mosaic specific and recognizable, and contribute to the uniqueness and authenticity of Canadian literature. We can say the same for those of us who write in our mother tongue with the experience of the Canadian lifestyle: that chapter of Serbian literature will be specific. Our descendants, who will assimilate over time and become Canadian writers, can contribute great works to Canadian literature with their very evocations, particularly with deeper knowledge of Serbian history and traditions that were passed on from families to children in immigrant communities.
SAN: Is the subject matter of new emigrants success and the active participation in the development of new technologies, unlike the so-called old emigrants, who highlighted nostalgia, failure, and loss in a foreign land?
One of my favourite themes for printing is highlighting of the specific contribution to the cultural life of Serbian and also Canadian society as a whole, the new wave of so-called technical intelligentsia. The Canadian magazine Maclean’s wrote about how the new wave of Serbian emigrants in the 1990s brought up the educational and work averages of Canadian immigrants as a whole. You brought about radical change in ethnic activities up to that point. You replaced church gatherings and picnics with theatre performances, exhibitions, concerts, and you guided so-called emigrant poetry in a new direction. You replaced nostalgia for the homeland and failure due to feeling lost in a foreign land with modern and diverse themes. You brought computer language to poetry; you pose questions in your poems and provide answers to urgent problems; you contemplate; you meditate; you polemicize; you protest; you point out the positive and negative effects of lightning-quick technological development; and much more. The ever-growing number of technologically educated young people among writers or poetry lovers is astounding. The eternal themes of poetry are immortality, death, beauty, love, and nostalgia for the homeland. They still dominate, but the poetic language has been modernized.
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