I wrote this article for the January/February 2014 issue of Serb World USA it is posted here with their permission. Click: One Woman’s War to order the book or Natlija Nogulich to view Natalija’s website. ~~~~
The Serbian Women of the Northwest San Fernando Valley Book Club was holding a special book event. Two members – Sylvia Chorovich Simpson and Anita Sabovich Rowe -invited me, along with several other non-members, to the special book club luncheon they were hosting. This event was to include the author of One Woman’s War, Natalija Nogulich.
The idea and event came together when Sylvia Simpson and Anita Rowe attended St. Steven’s annual Serb Fest in Alhambra, California. At this year’s festival, they had the opportunity to talk with author Natalija Nogulich, an accomplished actress of stage, screen, and television. Natalija was there as a first-time novelist, anxious to promote her book to an audience that could best relate to its subject and characters. She had a booth to do just that and was available to sign and sell copies and to talk with those interested in One Woman’s War.
Well, Anita and Sylvia were equally eager to talk with Natalija. Anita had already read the book and was suggesting it to Sylvia for their next book club meeting when they spotted Natalija’s booth at Serb Fest. After exchanging just a few words, these three women became fast friends.
Before they left Natalija’s booth, they set a date and decided to host a lunch with the author at Sylvia’s home. While their book club in the past had included only women of Serbian descent who lived in the northwest quadrant of the San Fernando Valley, they expanded this invitation to several lucky friends and family members.
Natalija Nogulich’s novel, One Woman’s War, is set in the Shar (Sar) Mountains of Kosovo in the 1990’s. During the course of the book, the main character, Yelena, travels to New York where her sister lives and back again to her village in the Shar Mountains.
The story unfolds during the time “between wars,” according to Natalija. Somewhere between two of the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990’s-what some are now calling the Bosnian War (1992-1995) and the Kosovo War (1998-1999)-when the United States and NATO became directly involved.
The story focuses on Yelena, a young widow who is struck by a tragedy so great that she is compelled to leave her beloved mountain village and seek comfort in the arms of her sister in New York. It is in New York, while still coming to terms with that horrific event, she uncovers the identity of the perpetrator. She is then equally compelled to return home, but is it to seek justice in a court of law or, perhaps, to settle the score herself?
There were about twenty of us in attendance at the book event on that lovely, sunny afternoon in early November. More than half of us had read the book, but in order to not spoil the ending for the others, we chose’ to’ keep the discussions primarily to learning more about the author, her process, and just a few bits specific to the book, including the humorous vehicle the main character uses to improve her English – Gracie Allen from the Burns & Allen TV show. Natalija just loves the way Gracie “flips logic” and the way a non-Serbian describes a slava held in Queens, New York.
While sharing our delight with the vivid description in the book of a slava celebration, Ljiljana “Lil” Stojanovich, formerly of Chicago, said, “Now that I live in L.A., we have a very small slava … only 25 or 30 people.” Natalija offered that her description was based on the slava celebrations her parents would host on Sveti Kliment (St. Clement’s Day), and that now, at the ages of 90 and 93, they only recently cut down the guest list from 60 or more people and two days of celebration.
As is the makeup of the region, the characters in One Woman’s War are both Serbian Orthodox and Muslims. In the villages of the Shar Mountains, prior to the 1990’s wars, everyone lived, worked, and played together side-by-side. The whole village lived in harmony. Back then it seemed that their only differences were in the way they worshiped.
“While it is fiction, the story is real,” explains Natalija, meaning the backdrop of everyday life during that period is real. The essence of her characters is real: where they live, how they live, how they relate to one another, their day-to-day lives, their celebrations, and their sorrows.
As the afternoon progressed, we learned about Natalija herself-her education, her career as an actress, her travels, and her family. Those of us who read the book were now able to truly understand how she came to paint her story with such detail. Those who had yet to read the book were anxious to begin.
Natalija’s mother, Jelena Mandusich,was born in Paciki village in the Sar Mountains of Kosovo. She lived in the house her father, Jake Alexander Mandusich, had built. The village consisted of only about twelve families at that time. It more or less remained that way until the end of the wars in 1999.
The closest town to this mountain village is Sredska. Of course, when Jelena lived there, and subsequently when Natalija first visited the village, the only way to get to the town was by foot or beast. While the city of Prizren was only about seven miles from town, it was no easy journey.
Jelena’s father, Jake Alexander “Big Jake” Mandusich, was living in Chicago when the United States entered World War I in 1917. He immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight for his adopted country. It was for his act of bravery on a battlefield in France in August of 1918 that he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
After the war, Big Jake returned to Paciki village where he married Velinka Zrnzevic and started a family. With his own hands, he built a house for his family before returning to the United States. Fearing another world war in 1941, he sent for his family to join him.
His daughter Jelena was just 17 when she moved to Chicago. She remembers that her mother, Velinka, would never have left that village or that house except to reunite her family with Big Jake and keep: them from harm’s way.
Six years later, in 1947, Jelena met Walter Christ Nogulich at Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Church on Schiller Avenue in Chicago. They were married in that same church within six months of their meeting. Walter Nogulich was born in Chicago in 1920, but his parents had raised him back in their hometown of Trebinje, Hercegovina. He returned to Chicago as a young man to live his “American Dream.”
Walter and Helen Nogulich have three children: Christ Nogulich, who recently relocated to Los Angeles; Daniella Nogulich Gomez, who continues to live in Chicago with her husband and puppy; and Natalija.
Today, more than 66 years since her parents met, their daughter Natalija smiles as she speaks of them and how they still take great care of each other: ‘They continue to talk, share, laugh, and love as I have always observed them doing.” That loving supportive relationship can be seen in the way Natalija describes the interactions of some of her married fictional characters.
Natalija, now a resident of Los Angeles, was born and raised in Chicago. She went to Serbian summer camp at St. Sava Monastery in Libertyville, Illinois, every summer. As a young girl, she attended Serbian school every Saturday at Holy Resurrection in Chicago “until I could convince my parents my other Saturday activities were more important to my future” she muses today.
Lil Stojanovich and Natalija shared a smile with their common memories of Serbian school: the red-haired Mrs. Tomich and the perpetual aroma of kupus, or cabbage, whose stuffed leaves, or sarmas, were often being prepared for this celebration or that wedding.
Of course, Natalija spoke Serbian at home with her parents, but at Serbian school, under the tutelage of Mrs. Tomich, she was also taught grammar and the Cyrillic alphabet. Perhaps it was Mrs. Tomich who set the stage for the additional languages Natalija would master: Russian, Italian, Spanish, and French in addition to Serbian and English.
Among the other Saturday activities that Natalija wanted to participate in was acting, both in school and in community plays. She began acting when she was just 8 years old. “At that time, and throughout my school years, acting was strictly for fun. I never imagined it would turn into a career.” That would come much later, after college.
We learned that she obtained her B.A. in fine arts-painting and art history’. She had received a full four-year scholarship to Lake Forest College after graduating early from Lake View High School. It should be no surprise that, with an art background, she would be able to paint such beautifully detailed scenes in her book.
Her art studies took her to Europe. After completing courses in Spain, she had a month-long break before classes were to begin in Italy. That was in December of 1970.
The break was the perfect opportunity to make her first journey to Kosovo. She was eager to visit her mother’s village and meet her mother’s cousin, Teta Jelitsa Mandusich.
As soon as she arrived in Kosovo, she felt a connection. Growing up and in college, her non-Serbian friends would often refer to her as Gypsy, for she had a different look and a different outlook than they did. It was intended as a compliment, and while taken that way, it still emphasized that she was different. In Kosovo, she saw people who “looked like me”, she recalls. The familiar rhythm of their language filled her head and heart as if she had returned home.
She soon settled in at Teta (aunt) Jelitsa’s, who lived in the house that Natlija’s grandfather, Big Jake, had built so long before. The aroma of the wood burning fire, the comforting tastes of the Turkish coffee, slatko (fruit preserves) and šljivovica (plum brandy, homemade of course) she was offered caused her to sit back and sigh “This is who I am”. She knew she belonged, she no longer felt like a Gypsy.
She returned to Chicago after completing her studies abroad – in Italy, Spain and France. It was there, after obtaining her Bachelor of Arts degree that she decided to take an acting course. She studied acting at St. Nicholas Theatre Co. in Chicago with David Mamet, Steven Schachter, and W.H. Macy.
As strongly as she felt her connection to Kosovo, Natalija now knew she needed to pursue acting, she had no other choice – it was her. She eventually moved to New York, where she lived for about six years. She acted on Broadway with starring roles in Hurlyburly, The Ice Man Cometh, and Accomplice.
She continued to study in both New York and Los Angeles with Stella Adler and Michael Moriarty as well as Kenneth McMillan. It was Kenneth that encouraged Natalija to teach and direct. Today she teaches graduate and undergraduate film directing students at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and at the AFI (American Film Institute) Conservatory in Los Angeles.
In addition to acting and teaching Natalija is also a director, producer, and playwright. She wrote and directed a short documentary Corporal Jake, about her grandfather, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
It was through acting that Natalija became a writer. She always writes a background biography for each character biography. And there have been many as her acting career includes roles in over 30 films such as Phil Spector, Hoffa,Christmas Vacation, and Postcards From the Edge.
The list of her television credits covers just about every network and major cable company from ABC to Fox and Disney to HBO. She is perhaps most recognized for her recurring role as Admiral Alynna Nechayev on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. She even wrote a biography for her role as Paulina, a cleaning woman in an episode of Two Broke Girls that was to air the night after our book event.
Natalija told us that she always knew she would write a story about a young immigrant woman from Kosovo. She never quite knew what that story would be, only that the woman would be her contemporary and come from her mother’s village to New York. She would have one foot in each country-at home in both, tom as to where she truly belonged.
Natalija had spent a month in Paciki village with her aunt, Teta Jelitsa, in 1988. That was when her fictional Yelena started to come to life. Natalija began making notes on her always-at-hand index cards. Yelena’s life was taking shape: she had face and form, a family, duties on the family’s land, a place among her fellow villagers, and a bond with her church. She was a Gypsy to those in New York. She had life.
War broke out in Kosovo just a few years after that visit. Natalija followed the news closely. She soon realized that what was being reported in the U.S. media was very one-sided. Even the initial reports of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 were falsely attributed to Serbians.
With her knowledge of Serbian and Italian, she began to read the Italian newspapers and listen to Serbian radio out of Kosovo. Natalija looked for unbiased reporting in every language she spoke. From as many sources as she could find, she collected articles and newspaper clippings about Kosovo for several years. She would gather firsthand accounts from communicating with her family in Paciki whenever possible.
She read about the peace negotiations held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, in late 1995. As a result of the Peace Accord, elections were held in Bosnia in September of 1996 under NATO supervision. A cabinet was then appointed in January, 1997, by Bosnia’s newly elected, multi-ethnic parliament. While there was still dissent between and within the various groups of the region at that time, NATO forces were in place to help maintain the peace. Their withdrawal was scheduled for June of 1998.
In the summer of 1997, Natalija decided to return to Paciki herself. While the effects of war were visible, she was relieved to see that her village remained as she had left it. The house her grandfather had built still stood strong. The local church, Sveta Bogorodica (Holy Mother of God), with frescoes dating back to 1489, was still there, and its little window in the choir loft continued to frame the beautiful countryside.
Life continued much as it had before. Natalija once again helped her Teta milk the cows. They would pick plums together, some finding their way into homemade sljivovica. The familiar aromas and tastes had not changed: the wood burning stove, Turkish coffee, slatko, and sljivovica.
Natalija had been bringing Yelena, the central character of One Woman’s War, to life for some time now. This visit really inspired her to create many of the colorful characters that would round out Yelena’ s life in the Shar Mountain village.
In addition to the beautiful and straightforward Yelena, there were her friends: Zorka, voluptuous, big-hearted, and prone to early coffee breaks (or perhaps “just a little sljivo”); Miriana, the chubby mother of four, the eternally happy optimist; and Yelena’s best friend, Zima, raised in the Islamic faith by her Albanian Muslim father, her mother a local Serbian.
There was Yelena’s Aunt Sofia with whom she and her son lived. Aunt Sofia is compassion and love and, like most mountain women, a hard worker who never complains. Aunt Sofia was modeled very closely on Natalija’s own beloved Teta Jelitsa.
The joy Natalija herself felt upon seeing the church of Sveta Bogorodica, standing as it always had, confirmed that it too would play a role in her ultimate story. Therefore a priest was also required: Father Voyn was created. He would be the epitome of what we all want our priest to be: dedicated, steadfast, spiritual, yet very much connected to the real world.
Natalija observed that Muslims and Serbians still lived and worked side by side. Her cousin was married to an Albanian Muslim. The local school had both Orthodox and Muslim Bosnian refugees that summer. Everyone got along and mixed together. It was mješano, or mixed.
Of course, that would soon all change. War erupted once again, only this time it was much worse. The U.S. dropped bombs on Serbia. The rhetoric had escalated, and world opinion had cast the Serbs as the sole protagonists.
The war was declared to have ended in 1999-after central Belgrade had been bombed, after a NATO “mishap” of three missiles struck a residential mining town. The Kosovar Muslims saw this as a victory and took power in the Sar Mountains.
That same year, at age 85, Teta Jelitsa answered a knock on her door. It was a group of Muslim men. “You have 20 minutes to leave this place. Set your animals free and go” was all they said.
Teta Jelitsa moved to Krusevac, Serbia, with her son and his family. She died soon after. The house and land that had always belonged to the Mandusich family were now gone. There was no one to appeal to. Laws of ownership, laws of order no longer seemed to apply to the Serbs of the region. No one ever moved into the Mandusich house. It was ransacked and left to rot.
Just a year after Teta Jelitsa’s cruel eviction, in the year 2000, Natalija was rehearsing for a reading of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall at L.A. Theater Works. This is when she discovered what Yelena’s story must be. It came to her during a dinner break with her fellow actors.
“We were all sitting around the same table: eating, chatting, catching up on the news,” Natalija remembers. Suddenly an actress, who had been reading the New York Times, declared out loud, “Those Serbs must be terrible people!”
Natalija recalls that, in the time of one deep breath, she ran all the optional responses through her head. She then, slowly and clearly, stated to all present, “I am one of those terrible Serbs.”
The whole theater went silent-not even the caterers made a sound. It was as if everyone had been touched in a child’s game of tag and was required to freeze in that moment, some holding-their sandwiches in mid-air, unsure if they should take a bite or set them down. All were waiting to hear what would come next.
“Now, let me tell you the history of Kosovo,” Natalija began with the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, fought on St. Vitus Day, or Vidovdan, against the Ottoman Turks. “This is where one must begin in order to understand what Kosovo means to the Serbs,” she said.
She shared the history of World War II-who had been allies and who had sided with Nazi Germany. She shared the history of Tito’s Yugoslavia and how ethnic Albanians had been relocated to Kosovo to dissipate the Serbian population, thus protecting his position from any coup attempts. She shared points of view not found in the U.S. news coverage.
She then went on to tell her own family’s history. Of her own travels to beautiful Paciki village. They learned about the real lives of the real people of Kosovo: the Serbians and Muslims. She ended with Teta Jelitsa’s eviction-and her own realization that she would never go back to that mountain village-her Paciki no longer existed.
Everyone was dumbstruck. How little they truly knew about the situation there! They all had to admit that a civil war is never one-sided: one side does not commit all the atrocities alone while the other is peacefully planting daisies. Civil wars are ugly. Neighbors kill neighbors. Brothers kill brothers.
It was at that moment that Natalija knew that her Yelena would come from this war-torn Kosovo. .She knew that, through her Yelena, she could tell people about the Kosovo that her family came from, about the Kosovo she knew from her many visits with Teta Jelitsa. She now knew the story that her Yelena was meant to tell. Her story needed to be personal, not a broad history of the Balkan wars of the 1990′ , but the story of One
After that she would carry not only her ever-present index cards of character biographies, but also her Kosovo notebook. The three-ring binder that kept her focused on the book that was to be written, the three-ring binder that inspired her. That binder contained her Kosovo. It held maps of the region and photos: photos of her mother as a teen in Paciki; of Teta Jelitsa in front of the Mandusich house that her own grandfather had built; of Sveta Bogorodica with its frescoes and Yelena’s window; of her parents; and of her many trips to the Sar Mountains. It contained her book that was yet to be written.
Of course, she still had questions: what would compel Yelena to leave her village prior to 1999, and what would compel her to return? Although Yelena was fictional, as is her story, Natalija wanted it to feel real to all who read it.
Once Natalija had answered those questions, she was left with how to end this woman’s war. She wanted the ending to be “inevitable but unpredictable.” She relied on Father Voyn to provide the voice of forgiveness. But whose voice would Yelena yield to?
Our hostess Sylvia asked, ”The book is so visual. Do you have plans to turn it into a movie?” With her background as an actress, director, and writer, the answer was “Yes”-provided that she retains control over the story. She will not allow the story to be rewritten the way the war itself had been.
Our other hostess Anita was interested in a sequel. We were all pleased to learn that Natalija has completed the outline for one, but as she continues to work as an actress and teacher and is busy promoting this book, she has not set any deadlines for its completion.
By the end of our day with Natalija, we understood how she utilizes all of her skills as an author. First, the director in her outlines the story. Then the artist in her paints the location with vivid details. The teacher does the research to provide an accurate context. The actress then gives voice to each character and how he or she interacts with the others.
Natalija says she envisions the location, and then the sounds all come from there. Each character has his or her own biography, written completely and separately from the story, so that when they speak, they speak with their own unique voices.
Natalija’s closing words on being an author: “Writing is easy. You just sit down, open your veins, and write.”
Click: One Woman’s War to order the book or Natlija Nogulich to view Natalija’s website.
(The photos used in this article were in Natalija’s “Kosovo Binder” that she carried for inspiration while writing One Woman’s War. The map is copyrighted by SerbWorldUSA. All photos and map are copyrighted and cannot be used without permission).