What follows is a memoir I was recently asked to write about my friendship with the celebrated writer of the former Yugoslavia, Milan Oklopdzic, also known as Mika Oklop.
Readers here may be familiar with Mika’s work, which has appeared regularly in Scene4, and been archived there, since 2011.
Last August I received an email from Belgrade journalist Aleksandar Djuricic:
…I am writing a book about famous Serbian writers as seen by their closest friends and partners.
One of them is Mika Oklop, so that is how I’ve become interested to get in touch with you. His wife Brana Simonovic was so kind as to give me Your contact information. …
He was on a tight schedule, and as a result, so was I. By November the book had already been published and presented to the public at the Belgrade Book Fair. Aleksandar replied to my question about the title of the book:
I would really like to give you an exact translation of it, but that is not so easy. Simplest would be: The Homekeepers. In Serbian it means someone who guards everything that means home gathered in one place, including the present and the past, vision and tradition. It is a kind of temple guardian. But there is also an herb with that name, it usually grows on the roof of the house and there is a belief that its leaves cure all illnesses and diseases.
The text below is the same as the text in the book, without any changes. It was translated into Serbian by Igor Karanov. I have added the photos for Scene4.
Aleksandar Djuricic told me what I wrote “would be integrated into the whole story about Mika in the Serbian language.” As legendary as Mika is in Serbia, for most of his readers there, what I have written for Aleksandar’s book is their first introduction to Mika’s U.S. writings—and writing life—in English after 1992. I have felt deeply responsible, and honored, and entertained, to tell this part of Mika’s story.
MOSAIC FOR MIKA
Pondering this month, in 2017, how to describe my long relationship with Mika, I thumbed through my youthful diaries and this sentence, alone at the bottom of a page from 1977, caught my eye:
“We were silly in Davis, but there were few of us and we sort of stuck together.”
This is a remarkably apt description of how Mika and I met in 1974, at the University of California in the rural town of Davis. The school was dedicated to the study of agriculture, and the town was permeated with the acrid smell of cooking tomatoes from the nearby cannery. Davis had one all-night diner, one “fancy” restaurant where students could take their visiting parents, one bar, and one movie theatre for films that had worn out their welcome everywhere else some years prior.
Nevertheless, against all odds, this campus in Davis attracted a veritable who’s-who of leading and avant-garde figures to teach in the Art, Art History, Music, and Drama Departments, which were all clustered together at the other end of the campus from the Agriculture Department, where they couldn’t do too much damage. Literature and Film were a stone’s throw away. Certainly one reason so many luminaries and exceptional students came to Davis was that they’d misread their maps and thought the turbulent, romantic San Francisco and surrounding cities were much closer than a more than two-hour drive away.
The result of all this was that our small Arts Tribe was trapped in the middle of nowhere with a stable of creative geniuses for instruction, with nothing to do except focus on developing world-class experimental theatre and forming lifelong friendships.
When Mika and I met, I was 18 and he was 26. I was an undergraduate Acting student, and he an M.F.A. playwriting student on an impressive Fulbright scholarship. That is, he seemed to inhabit a higher social plane and, in a more conventional setting, we might have had little personal contact.
At the same time, I was professionally precocious. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in an atmosphere of heightened intellectual, cultural and social awareness; I received broad instruction from an early age in drama, speech, dance, music, languages and writing. The theatre was, as they say, the air I breathed; I had already been on the stage nearly all my life. My longtime acting teacher was German, and in addition to stage techniques he had also given me a theoretical and interdisciplinary education that was further flourishing for me in Davis. As a consequence, I had more in common with the M.F.A. students than with students in my own undergraduate class.
In any case, “there were few of us” in the arts, and even fewer in Drama, so that if an Art professor needed students to carry a twelve-foot, green, inflatable plastic foot across a stage for a surprise performance, we all stepped up. If a visiting director needed a large group to be in a piece of performance art in the dusty ravine behind the theatre building, we all showed up. After rehearsals, between performances, from the most junior students to the most senior professors, we attended an inter-generational, almost constant moveable feast to rival Hemingway’s own. Afternoons, we had a standing invitation from a distinguished professor to swim naked in his backyard; evenings, we took turns hosting parties in our ticky-tacky apartments, or roamed from one party to another, our theatre projects never far from our minds. That is, we “stuck together.”
So it was at one such party that Mika and I first met, as he wrote, “for about ten seconds.” Especially against this small town backdrop, Mika’s was a striking presence, with his European bearing and rock star charm, his broad face and dramatic features, his exotic accent and the heartbreakingly lovely timbre of his voice. He was hard to ignore, even with the goings-on swirling around us so frenetically.
Mika himself captures some of this relentless, restless activity in his legendary 1981 novel, CA BLUES. He also describes a lot of drinking and drug-taking, both inextricable from the cultural milieu of the time. Having grown up in revolutionary Berkeley, though, drugs were hardly a novelty for me after middle and high school, and I had already lost friends to them before I came to Davis. Mika—for whatever drug “experiences” he had with friends, or said he had—also lost dear Davis friends to the suicides, depressions, and general skidding off of life’s rails that too often come with the drugs. Fortunately, Mika became part of a fellowship of very accomplished and determined creative artists whose main focus, like Mika’s, was their work.
In Davis, along with being colleagues by proximity, Mika and I had a relationship most like that of siblings. We were drawn to each other, but weren’t really friends, I guess, because of our age difference. But, for example, looking back, it seems as if many of our student apartments were unofficially communal. I remember my own apartment being full of people eating (where did they come from?), and of having breakfast in one kitchen or another (how did I get there?), with Mika’s being one of them. Food was often appearing in someone’s living room in the middle of the night (how did it get there?). Of course we were all sleeping in all kinds of unexpected places—or not sleeping—and the potential for trouble of various kinds was always hovering. But whatever was going on, Mika was very protective of me, in a big-brotherly way, as if he were responsible and had one eye on me, just in case.
And that sibling feeling arose—in that indefinable “old souls” way—at least partly because our particular temperaments were so deeply similar. We were both a combination of outgoing and shy in groups, and most at ease in private. We both carried a certain air of sadness that we couldn’t shake. We each had an inborn intensity, both light and dark. We shared a cryptic, ironic sense of humor. We had similar educations and tastes, and shared a devotion to jazz. Of course, above all, we were both happiest when preoccupied with a theatre or writing project. We were loners, who also felt lonely for company, and that’s the company we gave each other.
Mika was most relaxed with me when we were alone; it was easy, like hanging around with his kid sister. Once when I was having Serious Trouble, he talked with me until very late, with remarkable gentleness and sympathy, long after he would have liked to sleep. And he used to call me on the telephone at annoying hours to say ridiculous, Dadaistic things to make me laugh, or tell me dirty jokes to see if he could shock me. But here is a glimpse of his heroic kindness: once I told him—I can’t fathom why—that I knew how to cut hair and, having gained his trust, proceeded to give him the Haircut from Hell. Hiding his alarm, he smiled sweetly and thanked me, some locks of hair hanging limply on one side, and sticking out wildly on the other. The next time I saw him, he’d been to a barbershop, and neither of us ever mentioned it again.
In sum, we were right there next to each other a lot of the time, our paths sometimes crossing and sometimes running parallel. But, for the moment, what larger role we were to play in each other’s lives was still a mystery, and we remained what he called “pieces of a future mosaic.”
When I left Davis in 1975, Mika was still there, finishing his M.F.A. in playwriting. I had returned to Berkeley, my cultural and intellectual home, where I rented the eccentric top floor of a lovely 19th century house. Mika would come to visit me, with friends, very late at night. They’d been exploring San Francisco, or been to the theatre in Berkeley, and needed a floor to sleep on and a place to make coffee in the morning before driving back to Davis. This new arrangement felt like an inevitable extension of how we’d lived when we were in the same town, and I was touched by this “family feeling.”
First and foremost, Mika and I were both happy in our artistic endeavors that year. I was making the transition to the Dramatic Arts Department of the University of California at Berkeley: traveling, performing, studying Japanese and art—all harbingers of things to come later in my life. Mika was bubbling over with articles about to be published, and plays for both stage and radio about to be produced, in several countries, by influential people of great merit.
Then Mika returned to Belgrade. In the following years, he sent occasional letters or postcards, and we talked on the telephone several times. I put snippets of news together to form a picture of his life—his marriage and looking forward to being a father, his being drafted into the air force. No doubt people who knew him in Belgrade during that time will know more about his personal life than I did here, just as people in Davis were more privy to his private life than I was in Berkeley. With me, in every communication of every kind, his work was at the fore.
By then it was clear that Mika had a naturally interdisciplinary temperament as an artist, and he was prodigiously restless in his experiments with form. And this was lucky, because his was a cultural period when many artists were interested in re-combining the arts, always looking for more and newer fusions. He not only mixed poetry with prose and jazz; he also roamed over multiple fields and genres.
A few years ago, the eminent Theodore Shank, Mika’s playwriting professor and loyal friend, found a letter Mika sent him from Belgrade in June of 1978. The letter uncannily captures both Mika’s style of communication, and the overflowing content of his thinking about professional matters at the time. He began by updating Ted on his writing, saying he’d just finished a novel: “I may go straight into another one, a one 5000-word long sentence on Peter Schumann’s [Bread & Puppet Theater] visit to Davis.” He went on:
Here is what I’m heavily into right now… I want to put together an enormous theatrical show called THE LAST THEATRE SHOW and I want to include over fifty people in it. What I need are contributors of any sort: playwrights, set designers, painters, musicians, engineers, actors, dancers, poets, costume designers… from all around the world. People who will help with bits of writings, drawings, costume devices, scores, etc. […] I don’t have a precise idea what this show will have to look like, it is an open uncertainty… with NO limits. Of course everyone contributing is an equal author of the show… THE LAST THEATRE SHOW will have to be based on a common language, the one and only theatre language freed from words and constructed dialogue, poor in the semiological sense and based on movement, VISUAL presentation and on theatrical SIGNS. It does include the
spoken word, but not in the form of fixed dialogue. In other words, independent monologues put together in a mosaic structure, mixed and disordered.
Now on different continents, we each continued to develop our thinking about interdisciplinary performance. Not long after Mika wrote the letter above, with an eye to producing an actual show, I was writing about “theatre language” in the theoretical vein for my Ph.D.: “Theatre, after all, is nothing without architecture and history, without music, art, dance and love of language, or without an all-inclusive discussion of human values.”
These interdisciplinary ideas kept being important to Mika, even after he changed his main focus from theatre to writing—“I find it somewhat easier than writing a play, concerning coherency and technical devices.” Over time, he continued to explore more and more complex aesthetic problems. But I learned that about fifteen years later.
In California, Mika wrote a novella, The Former Future, detailing his family’s 1992 escape from the war in Yugoslavia. In the story, he gave an accurate enough account of our out-of-the-blue exchange:
April 24, 1992
I got your fax last Sunday. I think I wasn't clear enough in my last fax: I will be coming to the States WITH my family. There will be four (4) of us. So please think again about your having us all stay in your apartment. We take a train to Budapest tomorrow. I tried hard to get a US visa here in Belgrade: no luck. There were ugly demonstrations in front of the US Embassy last week. Very sad.
I sent a fax to Ted in San Diego, but he's in London now on sabbatical and I don't know his phone # there. Could you please try to find it and either call or fax it to my Milan address? I don't know the prefix for Milan, Italy, but here are the numbers. FAX: 29005686. PHONE: 29001741.
Don't think this is a mistake—those crazy Italians have eight digits. I need Ted's letter of recommendation so I can be sure of getting a visa in Milan. Sundays are good for crossing borders because most of the officers are asleep then. We will surely have problems with the Austrians, because they don't let any Yugos in. I feel doubly pressured because I promised my wife Ghena we would make it. We ended up leaving over 3,000 German marks in the bank; they didn't have the money for us to withdraw. Once I get to sunburned California, I WILL tell you everything.
As you have probably noticed by now, I am not using my own fax to send this. The number in the upper right-hand corner belongs to my friend Kimi, who's an independent producer for media events here in Belgrade. He's Ultra Cool. Anyway, you won't be using his number, since I am really hoping we'll be in Milan this Sunday afternoon. I'd love to see your fax waiting for me there.
You mentioned the UC Davis Drama Department. I don't think I have anyone left there. Since Ted left for San Diego, I don't think I've been in touch with anyone on the faculty. Dan [Snyder] is an exception—but then, I never thought of him as a Professor, but rather as an Artist. We'll see. Any suggestion you can make will be more than welcome.
Do you want me to bring you something from here? Food is "verboten," but it could be a book or a small painting… You'd better not ask for anything large anyway; you'll have four (4) of us in your small Oakland apartment pretty soon (I hope).
April 25, 1992
Dear Mika Mouse,
I indeed tracked down Ted (in a couple of hours!). His London address is as follows:
42A Chalcot Road
London NW 1 8LS, England
Phone: 44 71 722-1150 Fax: 44 71 483-2891
If you call him now, you'll have his letter in time. Don't hesitate to call—I'm positive he'll help. Act fast. My small apartment is looking forward to looking smaller. And I'm sure you'll make it. Be what you are, yes?
Arrival: Brana, Mika and Lissa, first mealtime together in the apartment, Oakland. Photo - Renaud Archive
When Mika arrived with his family, there were six of us. Four travelers, two welcomers. Six people. Six different sets of information. Six understandings of what was happening. Six ideas of what had just happened. Six ideas of what was about to happen—of what could happen, and should happen. And how, and for how long. And where.
There were six of us in a chaotic “soup” of shock, affection, despair, gratitude, horror, relief, humiliation, comfort, rage, hope. Bewilderment and resolve. Exhaustion and insomnia.
Mika captured the moment in The Former Future: “I was getting hungry. That feeling of being famished comes without fail each time you cross an uncrossable border. Once you’re here, and you’re nowhere, you have to eat, shave and take a whiz.”
Mika’s family settled in another, less urban part of the Bay Area. Either by a miracle or by his own genius (or both), Mika had found the best possible woman and human being to be his wife; their children quickly became part of both my private landscape and my Muscovite husband’s. We all made room for each other in our hectic lives: our households visited when we could; Mika came with his car to help when we moved; when our boy was born, Mika’s family gave him a blanket with a stuffed telephone attached—so they could stay in touch. I treasure a photo of Mika’s young daughter feeding our new baby his bottle in their living room.
It wasn’t long after the family arrived that Mika started to write again. Time has a way of lessening the age gap as people get older, and for Mika and me, the gap between our professional lives had also all but closed. By that time, as luck would have it, our particular combination of backgrounds, skills and interests made us matchless writer-editor partners. Without any discussion, drafts of his writings began to flow back and forth between our fax machines. As our work together deepened, aspects of our earlier friendship in Davis fell into place, solved the mystery: our “pieces” had finally found their place in that “future mosaic.”
The 1990s Mika arrived in then were not the 1970s he had lived in before. Everyone had packed up and left the party. There was no more money, and artists had gone home to join their family businesses or corporate life, or to go to law school. “Free love” turned out not to be free at all, when the price was paid by the AIDS epidemic and disastrous interpersonal upheavals. Mika’s friends from Davis were dispersed across the country, with young families to care for. And, as every expatriate knows, the big welcome you get as a visitor dissolves when you want to actually live next door and compete for parking spaces on the crowded neighborhood street.
The long rolls of Mika’s writings continued to snake out of my fax machine for years. His writing never stopped dazzling me. Eventually, I set aside a separate area of my study just for all the papers we generated. Like painters who work on more than one painting at a time, Mika worked on several projects at once. Stories were mixed with other pieces of writing and rarely emerged from my fax in chronological order, but rather in a “mosaic structure” and, as in Life, the relationship between the parts wasn’t always clear.
Towards the end of the decade, when our teamwork first slowed, and then paused, it didn’t seem to have any particular meaning. Circumstances had simply shifted for both of us, imperceptibly, as circumstances do. For my part, I was running two theatre studios, writing for publication, and raising my enchanting child by myself. Running ragged and looking for a change, in the early 2000s I took a teaching job in Korea’s national theatre conservatory, followed a couple of years later by the same job in Taiwan. In 2005 Mika and I started emailing, signing with our old nicknames, Li and Mi. But our final emails, thirty days before he died in 2007, we signed “Love, Lissa” and “Love, Mika.”
Laughing together, 1996. Mika arriving for a visit: Lissa and the baby.
Photo - Renaud Archive
With the crucial encouragement of Brana Dixon—Mika’s friend, wife, and support over a 40-year period until his death—I soon began introducing the public to Mika’s writings in English:
In 1993, Milan Oklopdzic—popularly known as Mika Oklop—was awarded political asylum in the United States, where he had come with his wife and two children a year earlier to avoid being part of the brutality taking place at home. Over the next seven years, in recognition of his contribution to modern Yugoslavian literary culture, Oklopdzic went on to receive prestigious grants from PEN American Center, Writers Guild of America and the Carnegie Foundation. During his years in America, in spite of the ill health that plagued him, Oklopdzic wrote prolifically in English. He died on July 1, 2007, at his home in San Francisco, from complications following surgery. In December of 2007, the capitol city of Belgrade laid his ashes to rest with full honors in the mausoleum reserved for its most eminent cultural treasures.
Oklop left behind a rich trove of unpublished and untranslated writings that gave voice to a generation of Yugoslavs in the 1970s and ‘80s, and then a generation of post-Yugoslav artists-in-exile from 1992 to his death.
In 2008, the curated World Poetry Festival (SF) included my first reading of one of Mika’s poems.
The first important champions of Mika’s U.S. writings were the distinguished poets Patrick Cahill and Bob Booker. They became Mika's first U.S. publishers in 2010:
Ambush Review, San Francisco Bay Area literary arts review Editors, Bob Booker and Patrick Cahill
All writings by Milan “Mika Oklop” Oklopdzic
All writings edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud
“The Former Future,” title poem from a novella of the same name, in Ambush Review #1, 2010
“Forepast,” short prose (Foreword to The Former Future)in Ambush Review #2, 2011
“Thinking About Agents,” short prose (from Faxvel), in Ambush Review #4, 2013
Especially fortunate, Ambush also sponsored an ongoing series of public presentations. Under the auspices of Ambush, I have read Mika's poetry and short prose at several literary festivals, and at a wide range of formal and hipster venues that offer cultural events Mika would have loved.
In October 2006, Mika had emailed me: “The Beat Museum opened last Wednesday at 540 Broadway. I was there. Michael McClure was there. Wavy Gravy was there. The son of Carolyn and Neal Cassady was there. Where the hell were you? Love, Mika.” So it was like keeping a promise, or closing a circle when, in April 2014, I read three of Mika’s pieces for Ambush in that same famed Beat Museum, especially with Brana and Paul Dixon present.
In 2011, producer Rica Anderson graciously included the first complete readings of The Former Future and Amerika for Beginners 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: among others, Mika’s admirers from the wider Bay Area, some of whom had known him, or known of him, in Belgrade braved a terrible storm and gave his writings an inspiring reception.
Audiences continue to grow for Mika’s work. Recital: “From Belgrade to San Francisco.” Dir. Lissa Tyler Renaud. L to R: Lissa and actor Jerry McDaniel. The venerable Berkeley City Club, 2011. Photo by Kiril Bolotnikov
Longer than anyone else, writer-editor Arthur Meiselman has extended himself on behalf of Mika the writer. Since December 2011, he has made a home for Mika’s English-language writings in his superb “online print magazine,” Scene4. As of April 2017, Scene4 had over 192,000 readers in 127 countries.
* * *
SCENE4 International Arts and Culture
Editor, Arthur Meiselman
All writings by Milan “Mika Oklop” Oklopdzic
All writings edited and introduced (excerpted here) by Lissa Tyler Renaud
“The U.S. Writings of Mika Oklop,” introduction
The Former Future
This was the first publication of Mika Oklop’s longer expatriate writings. By turns chilling and charming, The Former Future tells the story of his wrenching journey from the former Yugoslavia to California.
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." Evident in his writings are his background in the classics, his love of the Beats, his Surrealist influences, and his own absurd Absurdism. Being a man of our time, Oklop's writings are sprinkled with media and pop culture references. Phrases in one piece of writing might surface in another, giving us the sense that each part of his writing is part of a larger, fully realized whole.
“Bay Area Adventures of Mika Oklop,” introduction
Amerika for Beginners
Amerika for Beginners is composed of three stories and two poems, each of which explores a different aspect of Oklop's life as a refugee in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s. The five parts constitute a significant body of Oklop’s troubling, delicious, surreal commentaries on expatriate life in Northern California. Jointly, these parts continue the story Oklop told in The Former Future, the harrowing story of his family's diasporic trip out of the former Yugoslavia.
“Sketches from Faxvel: A Novel by Fax,”introduction
From 1992 through 1998, Mika and I exchanged faxes, sometimes daily or a little less, sometimes multiple times a day. He called this our Faxvel: A Novel By Fax. We were writing a novel by faxing the stories of our lives; or perhaps we were living in a novel. We sent messages about our family lives and everyday experiences; our thoughts about Life and Work; our memories and hopes; newspaper clippings, photos and quotations. Mika sent drafts of articles, poems, advertising copy, stories, a screenplay. Among these, there were some delightful, short sketches on a range of subjects. I have published four of them.
“Mika Oklop’s Gray,” introduction
This was the first U.S. publication of an Oklop story that was first written and published in his native language, in the former Yugoslavia.
With this story, written in 1989, Oklop takes his place in the lineage of Gogol and Kafka.
“Jazz Confessions of Mika Oklop,” introduction
Factory Sealed is not only an entertaining and challenging prose memoir about Mika’s Life in Jazz; it is an experiment in creating jazz music in prose form.
“Insisting on Subjectivity,” introduction
The Last Blue
This is a timely story about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and the manufactured hatreds that foster the wars that demand it.
Mika Oklop came to San Francisco from the war in Yugoslavia, but he left his heart at home. For fifteen years, until his untimely death in 2007, Mika persisted in writing intimately about the destruction wrought by war upon the people who live it.
“Mika Oklop’s Message on Media,” introduction
One Way Media and Messaging: On the democratization of media in Yugoslavia
When Oklop wrote this anguished piece on the need for free media in a democratically viable nation, NATO had been bombing Yugoslavia for two months.
Oklop’s work dealt with a dynamic range of intellectual and political ideas.
“Oklop Transcendent,” introduction
Readers of Scene4 have come to know Mika Oklop’s blend of highly personal memoir, social critique, and political protest. In this piece, we hear him in his role as public thinker. Oklop was widely known for his steadfast commitment to humanistic values.
Anyone who knew Mika's work would recognize his writing voice in one of his last messages to me, from San Francisco: "Things are tough, okay? WE WILL SURVIVE," followed by a link to a pop site called Hello I'm Special. These few words encapsulate his brave-but-haunted air, the implied cultural criticism, the determined playfulness; the sense of the intrepid, the romantic, the contemporary, the doomed, the broken-hearted.
Mika Oklop spent half his adult life in the former Yugoslavia and half in California. As a result, his writings are in two languages. The two parts of his life are intertwined: he wrote about California in Serbian, and about Belgrade in English. We can only know the full force of his oeuvre when his Belgrade writings are translated into English, and his West Coast writings are translated into Serbian, fitting together the pieces of the mosaic for Mika.
Milan Oklopdzic. Photo by Dragan Vidanovic.
For interview by Ljilja Jorgovanovic, February 1983.
Published in Newsweek Serbia, February 2016.