Brigitte Le Normand

Brigitte Le Normand holds an MA in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Toronto (2002) and a PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles (2007). In addition to the book ‘Designing Tito’s Capital: Urban Planning, Modernism, and Socialism in Belgrade’ (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014), she has published several articles and book chapters on urban planning in socialist Yugoslavia and on Yugoslav labour migrants in Western Europe. She is assistant professor of history and director of urban studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan.

Brigitte Le Normand

My current project explores the relationship between Yugoslavia and its migrant workers in the period between 1965, when labour migration became a large-scale trend, and the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. I am specifically interested in the tension between migrants as ‘subjects’; both of the Yugoslav state, and in the sense of autonomous subjects making decisions about the meanings of their lived experience and about their future. In particular, I am interested in how Yugoslavia used cultural policy (including education) to manage its relationship with the migrants, and how the migrants themselves understood their relationship with their homeland, however they defined it.

While at the Georg Eckert Institute, I looked at three volumes (for different ages) of a textbook that Yugoslavia produced in 1983 for use in the ‘mother-tongue supplementary classes’ that were offered once a week to children of Yugoslav migrants living abroad. I was interested to see what kind of content was covered in these textbooks. What knowledge about Yugoslavia and values did the authors feel that migrant children needed to learn? How did they seek to build attachment to their respective homeland? How did they engage with the migrant children’s experience? The textbooks are particularly valuable as there are very few other sources of information indicating what children were taught.

The textbooks proved to be a rich source of information. They were of very high quality, with hard-covers, colour photographs and beautiful colour illustrations. The vehicle used to share knowledge and values was primarily literature but also included reproductions of works of art, occasionally framed by short explanatory texts. I learned a great deal about the way in which the idea of homeland was communicated; predominantly through the twin tropes of kinship and landscape. The trope of landscape is especially interesting as it imparted a particularly local understanding of homeland; one that could easily be understood in a more ethno-national sense. At the same time, authors and artists were only occasionally identified by the Republic from which they came, promoting the idea that Yugoslavia was the sum of its local parts. Tito as a role model, and the related topic of the Partisan struggle, were two other major themes, which was especially interesting as Tito had died three years earlier. The analysis is a work in progress, and I am sure it will continue to yield rich insights.

To provide a concrete example, I was particularly intrigued by poems that described the homeland in experiential ways that made it tangible to young children. For example, the poem “Moja domovina” (My homeland by Vladimir Andrić) describes: “My house and my mom / my father and my pyjamas [..] my coast of my sea / and my bench to the window […] and in the park a sandbox full of sand / and in the sandbox my friends and me / that is my Yugoslavia.” At the same time, by relating the homeland to lived experience, did the poem not confuse children whose lives were taking place outside the homeland?

My time at the GEI was very productive. The proximity of the accommodation to the library is very helpful. I particularly enjoyed meeting other scholars working on migration and education at the conference organised by the Migration and Education Research Group, although I wish that more of the talks had been in English, as my German is not quite strong enough to fully understand the presentations. I had some really stimulating conversations with the other fellows as well. One conversation led me to consider whether I should update a project I started back in 2001, looking at the representation of the Second World War in Croatian and Serbian history textbooks. It would be interesting to look at how this depiction has changed in the last fifteen years.

Many thanks for this wonderful opportunity.

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