First pages, imposter syndrome, and learning all you can

On Friday, May 7, 2021 I received an important email.

The email began with “Dear Masha Shukovich” and proceeded to inform me that I am on the longlist for the 2021 First Pages Prize, which supports emerging, unagented writers worldwide with an annual prize for the first 5 pages of a longer work of fiction or creative non-fiction. This year’s judge is Lan Samantha Chang, the Elizabeth M. Stanley Professor in the Arts at the University of Iowa and the Director of leading American MFA program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The email read:
“With a dazzling array of themes and genres represented this year, and over 2,000 entries received from 54 countries, our judging committee were hard-pressed to select these 36 longlisted entries. The quality of writing across the board was very impressive and a great number came close. Congratulations to all.”

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Lan Samantha Chang, Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and First Pages Prize judge for 2021

I kept rereading the email, starting with my own, correctly spelled, name. It felt like an out-of-body experience: disbelief, joy, tears, all commingled. I was ethereal, floating.

I kept thinking: “This can’t be right. They must have made a mistake. English isn’t even my first language.” But no mistake was made; it is really my name, my work, on that list filled with magic and wanting and always more hope for something even greater.

My imposter syndrome is a living, breathing, starving beast with a nearly impenetrable hide. It doesn’t matter how many accolades it receives, how many writing awards I feed it, how much praise comes its way. It remains ravenous. My wound of not belonging, of being “the thing out of place,” an error in an otherwise error-free reality, goes way deeper than my 17 years in the US.
But it matured and earned its name here, much like me.

It’s happened many times since I came to the US from the “dark” Balkans as an international student back in 2004:

I meet a new person and they cock their head to one side, narrow their eyes and ask:

“Where are you from?”

It used to enrage me. My brain would instantly translate it into: “You are not one of us. You don’t belong here.”

The asker of the question may think they’re expressing their curiosity or interest. But it doesn’t feel that way in my body. It feels like hostility. It feels like danger. It feels alienating. And it feels unnecessarily cruel, to point a finger at my wound like that and then stick it in for good measure. But the cruelest, most alienating thing of all is that I know that the askers of the dreaded question are right.

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Salaš kod Stare Dunje in Stajićevo, Srbija, one of the places my ancestors are from

When I open my mouth to speak, the discomfort intensifies. Sometimes cashiers will talk to me very slowly and deliberately, to make sure I understand. Once a very irate TSA worker (older, white, male) told me that I look like I speak Spanish (I do speak Spanish. I don’t know about looking like I do). Sometimes people take one look at me and ask: “Do you speak English?” I guess to some people I look like I don’t.

But the truth is, I do speak English. I even dare to write in it: poems, stories, articles, blog posts, and now a book. I even dream in it.

Antelope Island, Utah

I taught myself English (not grammar, which was already taught at my elementary school in endless lists of irregular verbs and definite/indefinite article rules, but the soul of the language) by watching the reruns of Cheers in my parents’ high ceilinged postwar apartment. There was a giant, concave indentation in the yard we shared with our neighbors, where a WW2 bomb once hit the ground, leaving a cracked footprint for all to remember and never forget. The bomb never detonated. And we did forget.

But there was one thing that defied all forgetting: the voice, which seemed to come from a place vaster and more forgiving than my human skin, that was as old as my 11-year-old consciousness; perhaps even older, predating the life as I knew it. It would sometimes whisper, sometimes scream, at times even plead, but it always said the same thing: learn all you can.

So I sat with my heavy “Morton Benson English-to-Serbian Dictionary” (it was navy blue and smelled like new shoes) in front of the convex TV as old as me, watched Diane scream at Sam, Carla scream at everyone, and Norm wrap his thick roots around that corner barstool. And I learned all I could.

Morton Benson English-to-Serbian Dictionary

One of the phrases that school didn’t teach me, but Cheers did, was “eager beaver.”

It was a source of great mystery to me. There was no Google search, no internet even, back then. It existed, of course, but we were too poor and insignificant to “have” it, even the slow and noisy dial-up kind. That came a few years later.

There was no one to ask, and even if there were, I wouldn’t have dared, for fear of being forced to explain why I was doing this crazy thing: watching an American comedy show, audio-taping it, and taking extensive notes of words and phrases to look up later. I had no answer to that, beyond the fact that every cell in my body wanted to grasp this foreign language and hold it long enough to really know it. It was like being in unrequited love. Sickening. Beautiful. Impossible to stop.

I was full of questions and terrified of asking. The burden and joy of finding the answers was all mine.

In the absence of other options, I ruffled frantically through the “Morton Benson,” hungry to know. The dictionary had a cold, repressed energy about it; it would not yield itself to this undignified scrutiny.

It had “beaver” and “eager,” sure, but “eager beaver” wasn’t there. I started thinking I misheard it, made it all up. But I was anything if not prepared: I had my trusty cassette player by my side, the same one I used on our crumbling balcony to listen to the 60s US rock: the music of my parents’ youth that I was dying to claim as mine. I couldn’t videotape the episodes, so I would obsessively audiotape them, for further research. I rewound the tape and pressed play. And there it was, delivered in Carla’s shrill, nasal voice: “You are such an eager beaver, Cliff!”

My brain went into one of its many overloads, the one I also know as the “ mode.” But where could I possibly look? In desperation, I reached for my shabby but infinitely more friendly pocket dictionary. The pages were so thin, you could see the outline of your own hand through them. I took a deep breath and dived in. And there, right in the middle of the page, cocooned like a caterpillar, was the eager beaver, waiting for me to find it.

I don’t have that little dictionary any more, although I still feel its tiny heart beating, somewhere. I can’t tell you what the entry said, but I suspect it went something like this: “a keen and enthusiastic person, somewhat naive, who works very hard.”

A great relief came over me, if only for a moment: I had found my answer. I knew something. It felt like that moment when you’re washing dishes and your nose starts to itch, and after an endless minute of agony you finally dry your hands on a towel and blissfully scratch your nose. It felt that good.

I now see (probably because it’s SO on the nose) that I was really looking for a way to define me. I am still that eager beaver. I still can’t resist a good question and answers are life. That is why I write.

And now, I am in utter disbelief that this kid, who audiotaped old episodes of Cheers and picked at them like a velociraptor until they yielded the meat of their answers, this kid who taught herself ‘”American” with a hearty combo of mania and a pocket English dictionary, would grow up to become a fairly well-adjusted adult who still finds answers by sifting through words and laying them down on the page, all in a language vastly different than any of those spoken by her ancestors.

I am one of the 36 longlisted writers who sound like they might have answers. Maybe we do. And maybe we’re still out there, digging, searching. Some of us may eventually give up. Some of us will search until we draw our last breath. It all depends on how hard the questions are and how much we want the answers.

And to that overly enthusiastic, buck-toothed 11-year-old self in Yugoslavia, the country that no longer exists, I say, every time I plop myself at my writing table, exhausted from my life but still as eager as all hell:

“Not much has changed. You still need a dictionary. But let’s write anyway. ”

Micro-joys and the releasing of 2020

What a bizarre, Leviathan-esque year it’s been! If I wrote all of it into a story (and someone will, at some point), it would be inevitably deemed over-the-top, preposterous, bad writing. 

I must say, though, that I appreciated the way in which this particular series of unfortunate global events forced so many of us to seek and find joy in tiny moments. Micro-joys, I like to call them, for they are omnipresent but invisible to us humans most of the time. As minuscule as they may be, they are infinitely important, so this write-up is entirely about them. I’m not forgetting the macro-griefs and mammoth-sufferings; it’s just that they’re so many and so vast that they deserve a long post of their own. 

For me, this entire year has been like following a trail of breadcrumbs in a deep, dark, primordial forest, like the one from which fare many of my ancestors (Biogradska Gora). And I suspect that the bread is there to sustain us on the journey. 

Biogradska Gora, Montenegro
Photo by Snežana Trifunović (2007)

What I found this year, between wondering and being lost and the fragrant comfort of bread, was that, magically, I could still write a little.

I wrote a few things and a few folks read them and liked them. You can read/listen to some of the things I wrote here.

I also found wonderful forest clearings and springs full of micro-joys of cuteness and daytime snuggles and couch kisses stolen between Zooms, as I suspect many of you did too. 

Cem’s new hairstyle by Leela

I got reacquainted with the three gorgeous, magical beings I’m lucky to share my little piece of forest with in the most delicious and unexpected ways, thanks to the crazy, badly written storyline we’re all still in. 

Snuggly Leela

I also got a job that, against all rules about what jobs are supposed to do, actually seeds my soul. 

Sleepy Maya

I quietly and steadily nurtured some of the most beautiful friendships of my life and got nurtured in turn. 

I rediscovered old, nearly forgotten ancestral traditions and practices and weaved them carefully into the fabric of my life like the precious, fragile gossamer threads that they are. 

Bread to feed the ancestors

I got to meet ancestors and guides in animal and human form and receive their teachings in quiet moments and in my dreams. 

Wild blessings

I got to commune with the wild nearly every day, alone or in the company of the dearest of friends, and there is no gift that my body and soul appreciate more. 

I got to cry, and be silent, and listen, and hear. 

And I also got to remember that the deep, dark forest, with all of her sunlit and shadowy places, is where I come from and where I can make a home, like so many have before me.

So I release this shipwreck of a year with a strange mix of exasperation, grief, and gratitude. I hope release is on your list of New Year resolutions too. 

May we release and be released from what no longer serves, struggle-free, like the snake sheds her skin.

May we remember that wherever we are, whoever we are, and however wounded, there is a home to house everything that we are and that we carry, even the parts we don’t like or haven’t found use for yet. 

In this new, much awaited and hoped for year, 2021, the one that we all can’t wait to begin, I have one little wish for you, dear reader: May you stumble upon the “home within” one fine day and may you be at home and at ease with yourself, no matter what might be happening outside your doors. And may I do the same. 

The Election Day

Today is Election Day.

I am an immigrant from a country that no longer exists and I cannot vote in this election.

I remember another important election that, as a non-citizen legal alien and green card holder, I couldn’t vote in either.

It was November 2016 and I was convinced that Donald Trump would lose the election. And when it didn’t happen, I wasn’t just devastated, like so many Americans. I was terrified.

In my postpartum haze, my baby still at NICU after aspirating amniotic fluid during birth, and me at home, dim November light trickling through the window, I tried to make sense of an utterly absurd and implausible situation.

But there was no sense to be found in any of it and fear took over me like a foretelling of a virus.

I became convinced that someone would come to our house, perhaps a group of burly, white men in red MAGA hats, bearing a passing resemblance to lumberjacks, and drag me and my husband, brown immigrants from former Yugoslavia and Turkey, respectively, out in the street, still in our nightclothes, and order us to go home to what had, overnight, become our “shithole” countries. Or much worse.

I don’t think I ever felt such terror, not even during the 4-month-long NATO bombing of my hometown of Belgrade; or when my hard-won F-1 international student visa was almost terminated due to a clerical error; or in 2004, when my ex-husband beat me unconscious for daring to say I was leaving him; or even that time when my just born baby wasn’t breathing right and was carted off by wordless doctors away from me, still unheld, to be treated for respiratory distress.

This sort of fear was different. It was alive and multiplying and there was no known treatment or cure for it.

My ancestors, who have survived pogroms, famine, WW2 concentration and extermination camps, and Nazi executions were awakening in my bones, telling me to run, run, run. Run for your life. But where would I run to? And from whom, exactly?

“These are different times, a different country,” the rational part of me would repeat over and over again, but my reptilian brain wasn’t buying any of it.

It could happen anywhere, to anyone, it would whisper, refusing to be soothed or rational or sane. The time of rationality and sanity had passed and now Fear was king.

But it wasn’t just the paralyzing fear that made me feel like my lungs had become too small for air. It wasn’t even the horror of fascism rising again, making my ancestors, who fought against it tooth-and-nail-and-hoe, shiver with dread and wordless grief inside my cells.

It was the death of a life-long dream that really got me in the end.

The dream that was my America.

The dream that I grew up with while watching the ancient reruns of Grizzly Adams that came to Yugoslavia some fifteen years after they were made. The dream that made me wait for hours in line to taste my first McDonalds cheeseburger when it finally came to Belgrade in 1988. The dream that made me look at the American flag flying above the US Embassy like other people looked at the icon of Christ the Savior at church. The dream that Martin Luther King spoke of in shivery black and white footage that I watched mesmerized, sitting in front of the old box-shaped TV in my parents’ shabby, brown living room. The dream that there might be a place for me: a weird, not-quite-human, ill-fitting kid who wanted to be seen and who had things to say that were not supposed to be spoken out loud. A place where I might feel safe to be who I am.

I know that that vision of America was a naive delusion of an immigrant from a “shitty” country sitting at the heart of the “dark” Balkans, a place that was conquered, occupied, and colonized by everyone and their dog: from the Celts, to the Romans, to the Byzantines, to the Ottomans, to the Austro-Hungarians, to the Nazi Germany, to the UN; a country that is technically on the European continent, but was never a part of the “enlightened” Europe: a poor, dark-featured, fourth cousin who is never invited to sit at the table but is sometimes offered charitable leftovers because Europeans, like all of us, like to feel good about themselves.

You don’t need to say it; I know I was a fool. But there is something to be said for the Fools, those who fly simply because they don’t know that they can’t. Fools dream big. And the world needs big dreams.

But right now, I am no longer holding onto that sanitized image of America that was created by my child-mind fueled by romanticized visions of the wild frontier, the image that was generated for me out of sheer impotence of my own and my much-maligned people’s situation as we sat in our basements waiting for the NATO bombs to finally run out and our own dictator to be replaced by someone saner and kinder.

I no longer strive to be included into what Europeans call “enlightenment” or “civilization” and Americans call “whiteness.” I am happy and proud of who I am and who my ancestors were.

So, I am not talking about the pre-digested, reductionist, cauterized, Hollywood America, I am talking about the America I got to meet and love through my teachers in the 16 years that I have lived on the Turtle Island (the North American continent): Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Ocean Vuong, David Abram, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ofelia Zepeda, Andrea Gibson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, Robin Wall Kimmerer and a myriad others who have chosen to consciously strive to live more (inter)connected lives. And, more importantly, the America I got to know through the teachings received from this land that I’m on, right now, here in Utah, the ancestral land of the Utes, Goshutes, Paiutes, Shoshone, and the Navajo peoples:

The America kind
The America listening
The America remembering
The America freed and freeing
The America dreamt and dreaming
The America that never needed to be “discovered”
The America that has never recovered from its many wounds
Both those it received and those it inflicted The America interconnected
The America soft
The America pliable
The America changing
The America evolving
The America emerging
The America expanding its lungs and heart
To near bursting
The America breathing
The America understanding
The America allowing grieving
The America inviting forgiving
The America conjuring healing
The America entangled
The America immersed
The America unstuck
The America uncolonized
The America sanctified
The America subaltern
The America reinvented
The America reshaped
The America unsame
The America re-dreamed
The America liberated from itself
The America awake
The America alive
The America still possible.

So dear ones, you who have magically read this far, dear Americans, when you vote today, if you haven’t already, please remember what a gift it is to have a voice, any kind of voice, however imperfect, and use that voice to say the things you need to say.

I am an immigrant from a country that no longer exists and I cannot vote.

But your country STILL exists.

And you can.

We Were Made for These Times

I’ve been reading it all: the action alerts and news about school closures, university classes moving online, botanical gardens locking their gates, heart-centered workshops being cancelled to ensure that we are not recklessly spreading the virus about which we still know so little and yet enough to warrant extreme caution. I’ve read it all and I can feel it: the whole world is bristling, its flanks made of spiny fear.

I, for one, have never experienced this kind of shared, communal fear in my adult life.

I’ve experienced other forms of terror that can make a grown man, someone’s father, weep in the street and drop his hat like an afterthought, letting it roll into angry traffic.

As a child and a young adult in ex-Yugoslavia, I lived so close to the civil war, I could feel its shallow breath on the back of my neck. Thousands of boys only a few years older than myself got drafted and returned home after months on the battlefield, either rendered speechless by PTSD or in a coffin.

I lived through the economic sanctions and abject poverty, with no access to the basic necessities such as electricity, gas for cooking, fuel, oil, flour, salt. The whole world hated us, and we didn’t like ourselves much either. We couldn’t fly anywhere for years. There were times when we had to wipe our asses with newspapers (yes, toilet paper was a hot commodity back then, too). My family and I, and millions of our neighbors and compatriots, lived day after day with air raids and civil defense sirens painfully stapled into the bruised skin of our lives.

If one were to create a soundtrack for those times, it would have to include the high-pitched wailing of sirens warning us to go seek shelter, the way meerkats squeal and bark to tell their brethren to run for their lives, to hide. Twenty one years later, I still shudder when an airplane flies low over the Wasatch mountains. My body still remembers.

It all began in March, the month named after Mars, the Roman god of war. March is hard for me.

Day after day we would feel the earth shake beneath our feet as bombs were dropped all over our already extremely shitty lives. I remember the day I watched a giant, black mushroom cloud form on the horizon across the rivers Sava and Danube, like a putrid cosmic fart. Seconds before, we heard the NATO planes approaching, panting like Triassic beasts. In the middle of the day on April 21, 1999, they bombed the Usce Towers, which was squatting like Jabba the Hutt right beyond the water.

This is what I remember: It was a gorgeous, sunny day, the sky a ridiculous, cartoonish blue. Me and dozens of other people were out in the sun, exhausted from hiding and hoarding and barely surviving, many of us wearing T-shirts with red or black targets on them, wielding humor like a weapon. Our form of resistance was both genius and utterly insane: we fought the NATO bombers the only way we could: by strolling in the park and eating expired ice cream while they bombed the shit out of us. Sheer spite was the cheapest, most easily accessible food in those days.

This is what I remember, too: I was holding a bag of ripe, blood-red strawberries which I bought from a farmer at the green market earlier that day, a man brazen and crazy enough to brave the dangers of open roads with his sweet crop.

We all looked up at the rumble of bomber planes coming closer, immediately followed by the earth-shattering sound of explosion, but none of us ran for cover. We just stood there, arms heavy and limp, watching it all unfold in front of us, like a strange movie of our implausible lives.

But, the thing is, you adjust to abnormal circumstances. You have to, to survive and to keep whatever is left of your sanity.

Now, as an adult with young kids of my own, I’m recognizing some of the signs of things falling apart in the face of uncertainty, and it’s a sight that fills me with remnants of my old friend Fear. It’s like upsetting long-settled dust.

“Here you are again, Fear,” I find myself thinking, many times a day. This fear, it has a smell. It smells like overripe strawberries.

I thought this kind of unease went the way of dissolving mushroom clouds, but it turns out that it’s still alive and well, in me.

Those were difficult times and these are as well. A different kind of difficult, but difficult nonetheless.

But here’s the thing: we are not unprepared. As my dear teacher, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés says, “Do not lose heart. We were made for these times.”

So I’ll tell you what I wish someone told me twenty one years ago, back in March of 1999, before the first NATO bomb ever touched the ground of the only home I knew, and cracked it open, like a wound:

I know that you, Dear One, posses resilience beyond your wildest dreams. Your very presence on this Earth is the evidence of your ancestors’ survival. You already have all the tools you need to stay alive and thrive, neatly tucked into the matrix of your cells. These tools are your special form of magic, waiting like pale green bulbs in the soil, to be awakened into life, at the mere whisper of the West Wind. You don’t need to do anything to claim this magic, but acknowledge that it’s here for you, should you need it. And you will.

But for now, all you need to do is remember this: there is sun, there is moon, there are millions and trillions of stars above you. There is the vast, blue sky. There is cool water, down below. You are breathing. The earth is holding you in her lap like a beloved child that you are. Just keep making friends with your breath.

You already know what to do: follow the map folded tightly inside your bones. Ask yourself: “What did my ancestors do when they looked the Terrifying Unknown in the eye?” and trust your inner knowing for the answer.

Remember: You are never alone. Remember: Our best chance for survival, now and at all times, is to recognize our deep connection to everyone and everything around us, and to honor it. Remember: Everything but interconnectedness is an illusion of a fearful, grasping mind.

Do not forget: You and I, we were made for these times.

My Favorite Morning

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the following advice by the great Kurt Vonnegut:

“My Uncle Alex, who is up in Heaven now, one of the things he found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?”

So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’”

I’ve been practicing this diligently and it did me much good.

“If sitting in the shade of this tree, looking at this giant Utah sky isn’t nice, I don’t know what is,” I would say.

“If snuggling with my babies in bed and feeling their sweet breath on my face isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

But I began to feel that “nice” just wasn’t enough sometimes, especially on those days when the world weighs heavily on my shoulders and getting out of bed, getting dressed, and putting my mask on is just too damn hard. On those days, nothing seems particularly nice to me.

But then I read a life-changing Facebook post (yes, such things do exist) by the marvelous and brilliant Dave Rock and I felt like I was given another chance at life, an opportunity to recast some of my daily villains as heroes of sorts. I was shown a not-so-secret path into recognizing our best life when it comes rushing towards us, and I threw myself onto it.

Dave Rock says: “The Favourite Game is, well, my favourite game. […] I walk around saying everything and anything I see, hear, smell, touch, think or feel is my favourite. “You’re my favourite body. You’re my favourite life. You’re my favourite traffic-jam, you’re my favourite stranger, you’re my favourite trash, you’re my favourite sun breaking through the clouds, you’re my favourite stiff breeze, you’re my favourite horizon.”

My favorite Dave (of also says: “By acting unconditionally delighted by life for long enough we become so. This works just like power-poses and smiling meditation. It’s often easier to change our bodies than to change our minds. And changing our bodies changes how we think and feel. The trick is zero pressure, but total energy. We’re never bypassing other emotions, or self-rejecting, just welcoming delight in. You’re inviting a shift, not making it happen. Millions of years of evolution can do their job fine without our inner control freak stepping in.”

So, let me introduce you to this, my favorite morning. My, hands down, favorite snow ever. My favorite herd of deer leaving piles of my favorite deer poop in my favorite, unkempt backyard. My favorite anxiety that no one will care to read what I have to say. My favorite phobia of leaving the house. My favorite contradictory combo of desires: hide, rolled-up in a blanket like a still warm croissant AND also be seen out in the brisk morning world.

My girls and I got to meet our favorite grumpy early-morning driver and our favorite angry tailgater, but we also saw our favorite whale weather vane and our favorite bright yellow front door. There are so many favorites to choose from.

After dropping off both of my kids at school, I looked in my favorite cracked compact mirror to make sure there was nothing stuck between my teeth (now that my braces are off, my favorite feature) and there it was: my favorite, cracked self, open like a book, a little damaged, sure, but also alive and breathing and ready to see delight in all the unexpected places. And you, dear friend reading this unedited morning ramble, you are my very favorite reader. Thank you.

Cooking with Ancestors: Uštipci

During the long, hungry years of Yugoslav wars that stretched through the 1990s, all but the most skilled war profiteers among us lived in abject poverty. Several rounds of international sanctions were imposed against Serbia and Montenegro, and most of us had to survive on less than $2 per day to feed and clothe an entire family.

There was never enough food to go around, so we would do what others have done before and after: come up with creative ways to fill our bellies.

My maternal Grandmother, Ljubinka, who was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had survived the ethnic cleansings and the famine of World War II, already knew all she needed to know: to survive the harshest of times and live on borrowed happiness, one must indulge in delicious fried things made with flour and fat. Add sugar to it, and there’s an abundance of quickly fried-up joy for you. So, nearly every day, my Grandmother would make uštipci, Serbian fried dough almost identical in taste and texture to frybread, which marks, perhaps more than anything else, the stubborn refusal of Native American peoples to die.

As unhealthy as these greasy morsels may be, they are a reminder of the ingenious forms of sustenance the oppressed can create when given next to nothing. Frybread, uštipci, bannock, puri, hushpuppies, bimuelos, and similar “famine foods” are, perhaps, the greatest symbols of survival and resilience when those in power wish you dead and you disappoint them by staying alive. This is why many peoples who have war, genocide, and (post)colonialism in common, have their own versions of fried dough dishes that have kept them alive for generations, against all reasonable odds.

There’s many a Grandmother who still remembers long winters when dead birds fell from the skies like unwanted gifts and their own elders made them smile by making a feast out of destitution.

When I make uštipci, it’s usually in wintertide. I let the sleek dough slide off my spoon and into hot oil and I think of my ancestors who carried the memory of this recipe to me in their cells and on their tongues, like tight bundles with family heirlooms tucked inside.

I am in deep gratitude for their stubborn surviving that lead to me making uštipci for my family in my own sunny kitchen today, all the way across the ocean in this strange and beautiful Salty City I now call home.

What are your stories of ancestral survival? I know you have them. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here and neither would I.

Uštipci recipe (Vegan):


  • 1.5lbs flour
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1 packet of dry yeast (0.25oz)
  • 1 teaspoon salt (or more, if you like saltier dough)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • Optional: 1 tablespoon brandy
  • Optional for sweet version of uštipci:
  • Some grated lemon peel
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract


Sift flour and add salt (and grated lemon peel, too, if you’re using it). Place in a mixing bowl and add dry yeast, sugar, and warm water. Cover the bowl with a dishcloth and put in a warm spot for 15-20 minutes, to let the yeast rise.

Pour in the brandy and mix all the ingredients well with a spatula (don’t use an electric mixer). Continue mixing with a spatula for 5 minutes, until thick, sticky dough forms. You’ll know that the dough is ready if you see air bubbles forming across it. That’s a sure sign that your uštipci will be light and airy, just like Grandma’s.

Cover the mixing bowl with a dishcloth and let the dough “rest” in a warm place for another 15-20 minutes, until it doubles in size.

Heat about 1 inch of oil (my favorite frying oil is sunflower oil, but anything neutral in taste will do) in a deep cast iron skillet or heavy saucepan. The oil should be heated to about 350 F. One way to test the hotness of the oil is to dip the handle end of a wooden spoon in it. The oil will bubble around it when it’s ready.

Use a metal tablespoon dipped in hot water to place the dough in the hot oil. Dipping your spoon in hot water first helps prevent the dough from sticking to it. You’ll notice that your uštipci will rise as you fry them. Fry each for a couple of minutes on each side.

Once ready, place uštipci on a paper towel to soak up the extra oil. Serve warm with white cheese (e.g., feta or goat cheese), sour cream, cream cheese, or fruit preserves.