Spotlight Excerpt from ‘Return to Sirana’
This novel excerpt was written by Kristin Vukovic in Lynn Steger Strong’s 12-Month Novel Generator
In the throes of an unraveling marriage and the aftermath of a traumatic miscarriage, 34-year-old Marina Maržić is summoned by her father from New York City to her native Croatian island of Pag to help Sirana, his struggling cheese factory.
Forced to confront her divided Croatian-American identity and her past as a refugee from the war in the former Yugoslavia, Marina grapples with how to live authentically on a pastoral island that was home for the first half of her life. When an affair with the son of a rival cheesemaker stokes further unrest on their divided island and her father falls ill, she must find a way to save Sirana—and in the process, save herself. Asking questions central to identity and the meaning of home, Return to Sirana reckons with how we survive inherited and personal traumas, and what it means to heal and reinvent yourself.
On the plane to Croatia, Marina sat near her husband Marko, the middle seat empty between them. Marina was distracted by a baby sitting opposite, dressed entirely in pink. The baby dropped her bottle and it rolled down the aisle. Marina could have reached down and picked it up in time, but she didn’t. Instead, out of the corner of her eye, she watched it pass by her seat. The man behind her handed it to the mother, who thanked him, wiped off the nipple, and gave it back to the baby.
The baby sucked and squirmed on her mother’s lap, finished the bottle, and cried for more milk. “She’s in the ninety-ninth percentile of weight,” the mother said, smiling. Marina nodded, gulping back tears.
Marina’s mother, a fixture in their kitchen, commanded: Pojedi, pojedi ! Eat it all. Like a good girl, she’d cleaned her plate. At college in America, after the war in Yugoslavia, it had been difficult to control her weight despite being slim. The portions were large and she finished them, although no one seemed worried about wasting food. When she was a teenager during the war, supplies were rationed. Americans never seemed to worry about running out of anything. She heard her mother’s voice: Pojedi, pojedi ! And so, guilty about being wasteful, she did.
Marko’s lanky frame was hunched over the laptop, immersed in a spreadsheet. Rows and columns and numbers. The empty middle seat between them felt like a vast distance. Marina had the sudden urge to leap out of her seat. In her mind’s eye she saw herself opening the red emergency exit, watched as her body was sucked through the door along with Marko’s, disappearing into a thick pillow of clouds. She fell through the fog, engulfed in white mist. Marko’s hands were on her skin, moving her hips in a gentle rhythm, her legs splayed wide. Every muscle alert with vibration, followed by an ache that simultaneously ripped her apart and filled her up inside.
Marina folded her hands on her lap and pressed her nails into her skin.
“What are you doing?” she said, glancing at Marko’s screen.
Marko didn’t lift his eyes. “I need to finish this. I don’t want to be stressed about it. You know the island connectivity can be shit.”
Marina stared at Marko. His furrowed brows were like thick sideways apostrophes. She tried to recall their early conversations, when they were so enamored with each other that they would stay up all night talking and fucking. Every discussion seemed important. His words and his body made her shiver. She didn’t know what had happened to that man she met five years ago, who came up behind her at a Croatian bar in Astoria and lightly touched his warm fingers on the nape of her neck, who said, without introducing himself, “I want you to be my wife.” She’d spun around on the stool and laughed. What a line! But she’d agreed to see him the next day. And the next.
He no longer looked at her the way he once did. When she’d told him she was pregnant, he gazed at her like that again, like the first time he saw her at the Croatian bar. His eyes were bright with possibility. After the miscarriage, he didn’t look at her at all.
The baby wailed. Marina reached under the front seat and rummaged in her bag for her headphones, searched for the Croatian band “Dalmatino” on her iPhone, and turned the volume up high.
After they landed, the heavens opened. Rain shivered across the car windows like tadpoles swimming upstream. The windshield wipers were useless. They didn’t really wipe anything away, they only moved it somewhere else, leaving dirty half-moon streaks.
Marko rented a car in Zadar. Renting a car always made Marina feel like a tourist in her own country, but they needed one, since Marko’s family’s summer home was on the northern part of the island and her family lived in the south, a half hour’s drive away. Marko didn’t mind driving. Sometimes, on the weekends at home in New York City, he would rent a car and they would just drive in silence for hours with no destination. Even without a map, Marko never got lost. Marina had no sense of direction.
Croatian folk music blasted on the radio. Through the blurry window, she watched village after village pass by. Like her family’s house in Pag Town, every house had its own garden. How different from our life , she thought. Every time she came back home things always appeared simpler, but she knew they were just as complicated in different ways. When she was in Croatia, she missed life in America. When she was in America, she missed life in Croatia. She felt suspended somewhere over the Atlantic, drowning under waves of the war’s making.
Through the rain, Pag Bridge emerged, a narrow concrete arch suspended above the sea. She heard the pelting water lighten, as if to invite their arrival. As they passed over the bridge, Marina looked down at the crumbling Fortica ruins. The limestone fortress blended with the island’s barren, rocky landscape—a product of the harsh Bura wind, which prevented anything from growing on the coastline facing the mainland. “Only the stubborn and strong survive here,” the elders told her when she was small. “You’ll grow up to be a strong girl.”
They spent the entire drive in silence. Salt flats spread out in uneven patches. A sliver of sun peeked through the clouds, creating a wall that divided the drenched landscape. They passed olive groves and pastures, following the single road that ran the length of the skinny island, a bony finger extended in the sea. Three rams grazed on sparse vegetation near the side of the road. Their horns curled like giant snail shells.
“Let’s have lunch at Šime’s,” Marko said.
“I’d like to stop by Sirana and say hello to Tata,” Marina said.
“Let’s get settled in first,” he said.
“It’s on the way.”
“He’ll want to have coffee Croatian-style and we’ll miss any time for the beach. You’ll see your parents tonight at dinner anyway.”
Her father didn’t like Marko. Marko’s grandparents were from the wrong side of the island, according to Nikola. Even though Marko was born in America, Nikola wasn’t happy that Marina married a man with northern blood running through his veins.
The Fiat followed Route 106, the strip of road connecting the northern part of the island with the south. They passed her father’s factory, a hulking concrete edifice. The cracked sign’s faded sky-blue lettering, SIRANA, contrasted against its dull gray background, set against a moody sky. Every time she saw the communist-era cheese factory, Marina felt the weight of her country’s history seeping through its fractured façade.