And then he was gone.
Milan Oklopdzic (d. July 1, 2007), popularly known as Mika Oklop, was a writer of legendary stature in the former Yugoslavia, but remains sadly unknown in English. Born in Belgrade in 1948, graduate of the highly selective Belgrade Academy of Art in Drama, already in 1974 his "I love you when you are eating an apple" won Best Radio Play, and was selected for Sir Richard Burton to perform for the O.R.T.F. (Organization Radio-Television France) Festival opening. Oklop did his graduate studies at the University of California at Davis on a Fulbright Foundation grant; after completing his MFA in playwriting in 1976, he returned to Yugoslavia, where he became a leading literary figure. His 1981 novel, CA Blues, was considered the first truly modern novel in modern Serbo-Croatian; it was printed in four editions, won the prestigious Milos Crnjanski Award and went on to become nothing less than a cultural phenomenon that retains its cult status today. Although the four novels that came later didn't have the same overwhelming national impact that CA Blues had, they enjoyed a wide readership at the time, and boast an enthusiastic following even today. Well beyond his own country, Oklop's radio plays in particular were also much recognized in, for example, Italy, France, Ireland, Sweden and Germany. He had roughly 12 of his plays produced, and translated works by both Kerouac—he called Kerouac "Dad"—and Ferlinghetti. He was co-owner of a small publishing house, Subterranean Press, and jazz critic for newspapers Politika and NIN (the cultural equivalent of The New York Times). He was a prominent figure for more than a dozen years at Television Belgrade, where he produced numerous plays of significance, the television series "Not That Long Ago," and other cultural programs such as "The Stronger Sex" and "Jazz Documentaries," among many others. Overall, through Oklopdzic's many writings, his visibility in the media, his documentaries and interviews, his work dealt with a dynamic range of intellectual and political ideas.
In 1992, Oklopdzic became part of the Serbian diaspora resulting from the tragic Balkan War (1991-2001). Coming to the United States with his wife and two children, he joined the cultural exile suffered by so many artists to avoid being part of the brutality taking place at home. His family was awarded political asylum in 1993. Over the next seven years, in recognition of his contribution to modern Yugoslavian literary culture, Oklopdzic went on to receive grants from PEN American Center, Writers Guild of America and the Carnegie Foundation. In the following years in America, in spite of the ill health that plagued him, Oklopdzic wrote prolifically in English and continued to be an important cultural and moral voice in the Serbian media, in publications such as NIN, Politika, Borba and Gloria. He died at his home in San Francisco, from complications following surgery. Six months later, in December of 2007, the capitol city of Belgrade laid his ashes to rest with full honors in the mausoleum reserved for their most eminent cultural treasures.
Theodore (Ted) Shank, Distinguished Professor of Theatre at UCSD, and whose name appears in The Former Future, sent in an email:
"…A sad story of a sensitive man who came to the US with great hopes and a love of the culture and, like many of us, became disillusioned. An important writer in Yugoslavia who, because of the violence there, brought his family to the US, and in time realized this country was capable of even greater violence. And, perhaps because of his despair and attempts to escape it… his body gave out."
Oklopdzic has left behind a rich trove of writings—virtually unpublished in English—that gave voice to a generation of Yugoslavs in the 1970's and '80's, and then a generation of post-Yugoslav artists-in-exile from 1992 until his death.
Without a full translation of CA Blues, English-readers can't know the urban, Beat-inspired novel that rocked his nation, beyond what can be gleaned from the multitude of messages, forums, websites, blog entries, Facebook pages—and T-shirts!—that have emerged in his name as news of his passing has spread. Here is an especially lovely tribute, from Viktor Markovic's Belgrade blog:
"Even though it is a bit late, I feel I need to mention a man who passed away ten days ago—Milan Oklopdzic, also known by his nickname Mika Oklop. Mika died in San Francisco, far away from his hometown of Belgrade, at the age of 59. His book, Ca. Blues, published in 1981, is nothing less than a phenomenon, not so much among the younger generation in Belgrade, but most certainly among their parents. It's a book that broke through the grayness of the communist Belgrade of the time, managing to change and influence thousands of young people at the time with its unusual style, setting (California) and theme. Oklop never repeated the success he had with his first book, which sold over 100.000 copies, a remarkable number for Serbia. This book alone, though, was enough – older folks who read it remember Mika as one of the best writers Belgrade ever had. …By the influence it left on my parents and on many others belonging to their generation I can clearly see that it was significant just by listening to them talking about it."
Having known Mika and his work in the 1970s, I became his editor when he and his family arrived in the U.S. in 1992. Since his death, I have been introducing his works in English: In 2008, the curated World Poetry Festival (SF) included my first reading of one of his poems; San Francisco's Ambush Review became Oklop's first U.S. publisher with two of his poems in their inaugural issue in 2010, and has a piece of his short prose in their current 2011 issue; under the auspices of Ambush, I have given public readings of Oklop's poetry and short prose at San Francisco's 2010 and 2011 Litquake literary festivals and at Bird & Beckett books-and-jazz venue, with more readings scheduled. On October 3rd, 2011, producer Rica Anderson sponsored the first full evening of Oklop's longer pieces in her Actors Reading Writers series held in the beautiful Berkeley City Club (architect Julia Morgan, 1929); actor Jerry McDaniel and I read to a full house: Oklop's admirers from the wider Bay Area, some of whom had known him, or known of him, in Belgrade braved a terrible storm to come and give his work the inspiring reception it has earned.
This is the first publication of the longer expatriate writings of Milan Oklopdzic. By turns chilling and charming, his U.S. writings tell the story of his wrenching journey from the former Yugoslavia to California (The Former Future, below), and leave us the troubling and delicious legacy of his surreal commentaries on Bay Area life (Amerika for Beginners, Scene4, March 2012).
Many of Mika Oklop's writings in English tell his own calamitous story: that of a prominent man in the arts and his family displaced by a war in our time. His is the moving story of a man of culture cut off from his culture, a man of letters cut off from his language: a timely story of an "America" that became Oklop's "Amerikaka," irreconcilable with the golden U.S. his family and friends were imagining back home. From his background in the classics, you may notice the beautiful construction of his stories; from his love of the Beats, listen for the writings' underlying, forward-moving pulse. From his Surrealist influences, note the disruption of time, words that are invented or used in mystifying ways, and sentences that begin to make sense and then devolve. From Absurdism, note the absurdism. Being a man of our time, Oklop's writings are sprinkled with media and pop culture references. Phrases sometimes surface more than once, giving us the uncanny sense that each piece of his writing is part of a larger, fully realized whole.
In The Former Future, Oklop asks: What is the felt texture of escape from one's country? What does it smell like; what is in your pocket; what is on the radio? As he answers these questions, Oklop uses sensory details such as these to build two tragically inextricable realities. One is a world in which trauma has burrowed in and formed borders for which there are no visas: a hungry child eats French fries today because a starving man ate a potato during WWII; a friendly blue eye today only creates an opening for revisiting a violent experience from long ago. Pitted against that reality is a world where the tiniest impulses of knowledge, pleasure and hope consolidate into irrepressible surges of humanity: an eager hand tearing a cellophane wrapper, a nose breathing music into a flute, a tired glance falling on the rung of a garden ladder: these are the small gestures that, all added together, constitute a big psychic punch in the nose to the humorless, the joyless, the rotten, the haters—gestures that remain collectively poised to stand by "any human being who… would help you out with a glass of water."
Lissa Tyler Renaud, Editor