This is an interview with Antonija Mežnarić, about the SFF in Croatia.
Antonija, please present yourself to our readers.
I’m a long time fan and Croatian speculative fiction writer, cosplayer and conrunner. I’ve been a part of the Rikon convention organization for the last ten years––give or so––with primary concern in organizing the literary award Artefakt (since 2014) and cosplay show (since 2019). I was a part of the Fluminati team that co-wrote the novel Flumen Obscura. Furthermore, I have several stories published in our literary SF magazine Ubiq and other various SF/F short stories collections, and I’ve also authored two scientific works regarding speculative fiction in literature. This year I was on the editorial team of Decameron 2020: Stories from the Quarantine, an online literary project that published original stories during the lockdown in Croatia. For book ramblings you can visit my blog.
Please try to make a brief introduction on the Croatian SF history.
Some of the earliest works that could be considered the beginnings of SF history in Croatia are from the 19th century. I’m not going to mention earlier works––even when they have fantastical creatures or supernatural elements––because they were mostly allegorical in nature, so I’ll skip to the 19th century works that could pass for our modern understanding and definitions of a genre.
The first author that we could single out for writing fantasy stories in Croatian history was Rikard Jorgovanić (1853-1880). He’s one of our rare Romanticism writers (in Croatia, Romanticism was quite different because it was overshadowed by a political campaign called Illyrian movement) and his gothic tales were one of supernatural weirdness; with exotic and unnatural atmosphere, about ghosts and death. His notable works are stories Love on the Bier (Ljubav na odru) and Stella Räiwa––both of which thematize death and obsession. Unfortunately, he’s not well known (I say unfortunately because, in my opinion, he’s quite good).
After him there were a lot of writers whose work could pass for fantasy stories or stories with fantasy/supernatural elements (usually inspired by croatian folklore and traditions) most notably: Ksaver Šandor Gjalski (1854-1935), Antun Gustav Matoš (1873-1914), Dinko Šimunović (1873-1933), Ulderiko Donadini (1894-1923), Vladimir Nazor (1876-1949). All of these are canonized Croatian authors, although usually not connected to the genre, or at least we don’t talk about them as genre writers. With exception to Vladimir Nazor whose work––primarily his novel Veli Jože, about an Istrian giant––is discussed a lot in the genre circles, not to mention influential for our writers to this day. And most importantly, I would like to point out Ivana Brlić Mažuranić (1874-1938) who’s canonized in Croatian literature as one of the most important children’s literature writers, if not the most important. Her work was inspired by Croatian folk tales, legends and myths. She wrote fairy tales and her work––Croatian Tales of Long Ago (Priče iz davnine)––is still to this day influential in Croatian speculative fiction.
Moving to the more modern times of the early 20th century and to the first published Croatian sci fi novels. First I would like to mention Red Ocean (Crveni ocean) by the very popular Croatian writer and journalist Marija Jurić Zagorka. It was published in parts in the newspaper called Jutarnji list, during 1918 and 1919. Almost a hundred years after it was finally published in book form. This is the only novel of hers that has elements of science fiction (she’s popular for her historical and romance adventures), and it’s about a scientist inventing deadly inventions on the island Terror.
But while this novel is quite notable in its speculative fiction elements, genre theorists mention On the Pacific 2255 (Na Pacificu god. 2255) by Milan Šufflay (Croatian historian and politician) as the first science fiction novel; also published in parts in the magazine Obzor (during 1924). It was published by a pen name and originally in German, translated later into Croatian by the author himself. On the Pacific 2255 is an utopian novel in four parts and it thematises negative consequences of a technological growth for the planet (or at least this is what I learned about it, I’ve never actually read it). It gives us a vision of a future 23th century world, illustrates the way the new culture and communities could look like after the collapse of the Western civilization, and talks about politics, philosophy, religion etc. After publishing, though, this novel fell mostly into an oblivion, and everything I mention here I’ve learned from a scientific work written by Croatian literature professor Krešimir Nemec (in the text First Croatian Science-Fiction).
After him there were, of course, more SF novels being published, but one of the most important phenomena in croatian SF/F history would be literary magazine Sirius. First issue of Sirius was published in 1976. and it’s the first Croatian SF magazine, and as such he’s connected to the rise of the fandom in former Yugoslavia. Sirius was very much inspired by American magazines for science fiction and fantasy, and aside from stories it also featured non-fiction. It ran for thirteen years and was a crucial part of our fandom’s history.
The other influential magazine for Croatian SF history was Futura. Publishing in the early nineties, Futura was special thanks to the fact that––unlike Sirius––it featured not just work of foreign writers, but also stories of Croatian authors. For that reason it has a crucial place in our recent publishing history. It gave our writers one of the earliest platforms for publishing.
This is really an abridged version of Croatian SF history. There’s a lot of writers and works that aren’t mentioned here. But for those who can read Croatian I would like to recommend Ad astra anthology, which is a good place to learn about Croatian SF/F history. It collects Croatian SF stories from 1976-2006 with additional forewords about SF as a genre and Croatian SF history written by Tomislav Šakić and Aleksandar Žiljak respectively. In fact it was Žiljak’s text about croatian SF history that I’ve learned most about the rise of our fandom in the 20th century. For older works, we have a little book called Croatian Tales of Fantasy, which is actually an english translation of a selection from An Anthology of Croatian Fantasy in Prose and Paintings (Antologija hrvatske fantastične proze i slikarstva) published in 1996.
Which are the most popular SF magazines and fanzines (printed and online) in Croatia?
In Croatia there are various printed works regarding our local SF, not just magazines and fanzines but also various short story collections that get published on an annual basis. For starters there are literary magazines Ubiq (for fiction and nonfiction) and Sirius B.
Ubiq as a magazine collects original new stories and non-fiction submitted to them by authors from Croatia and other (former Yugoslavian) regions. It runs twice a year. Sirius B on the other hand features translated work of foreign authors (as was the situation with his predecessor, mentioned in the earlier question), but they also always publish at least two Croatian writers as well.
But what’s very special for our writing community is that some of our conventions publish their own short stories collections. These annual collections feature original stories submitted to their call for the authors, sometimes––but not always––with certain topics (pertaining to the convention needs that year). So, we have a Sferakon’s short story collection (distributed for free to Sferakon’s attendees), Istrakon’s short story collection, Fantastic Fiction Festival’s short story collection, Marsonikon’s short story collection called Marsonic, that gets published twice a year and, recently, Fantastikon has an ebook short story collection (they are the only one with an ebook, other mentioned collections are all printed). So, as you can see, here in Croatia we actually have a lot of annual short stories collection in which our writers can publish their speculative fiction work.
We also have a fanzine production. Though I’ll be honest I don’t follow a lot of what’s happening with fanzines (both as a writer and a reader I’m mostly following our annual short stories collections and magazines). I do know that traditionally Sfera association has a Parsek fanzine and 3. zmaj association Eridan fanzine, and I heard about Spaceship (Svemirski brod) fanzine published by SF Skupina Orion. Recently there’s also FantaSTine published by association F&ST from Split which is an e-zine for young adults and they so far published three issues in 2019.
Which are the SF&F Clubs that have regular meetings?
I’ll be honest, we usually talk about associations instead of clubs and I’m not sure what the difference would be given the same goals in the SF/F promotion (probably in the statute, but this is really out of my knowledge) but by googling the groups I know about, our clubs would be Klub Titan Atlas––based in Osijek, the organizer of the Olympos convention; and I guess SF Skupina Orion––based in Slavonski Brod, one of the organizers of the Marsonikon convention (guessing because I thought Orion was an association, not club).
Which are the most important local and national SF&F associations?
Now this is easier to answer. I’ll start with the one I’m part off––3. zmaj association, based in Rijeka (fun fact: zmaj means dragon, and the name is a word play on Rijeka’s once famous shipbuilding site 3. maj). We organize the Rikon convention, and this year (2020) we’re hosting Eurocon. Then our neighbours––Kulturni front, the SF/F association based in Opatija (near Rijeka), the organizers of Liburnikon convention. And our not-really-neighbours-but-close-enough Albus association. Based in Pazin, they are organizers of Istrakon convention.
The oldest and most notable association––SFera, based in Zagreb (capital city) responsible for Sferakon convention and rise of the croatian fandom. Then there is the Marsonikon association, based in Slavonski Brod, the other group that organizes the Marsonikon convention. They also opened the Alienus publishing house. And I’d like to mention F&ST association based in Split, they organize the Fantastikon convention, Krapinjon association based in Krapina, organizers of the Krakon convention, the brand new (so new they don’t even have internet presence) Qube from Sisak, organizers of the Skon convention, USS Croatia the web association of Star Trek fans, and Mos Croatia Spaceport, the association of Croatian Star Wars fans.
Of course, the convention organization isn’t the only thing these associations and clubs are about. They have other events and works in culture and SF/F promotion but I’m mostly mentioning conventions because that would be the “main” event in our fandom.
Which are the printing houses that publish mainly SF and Fantasy?
That would be Hangar 7 and Alienus. But sometimes other publishers publish speculative fiction as well but not as the main focus. Hangar 7 has operated since 2011; they publish both foreign (in translation) and Croatian works, various anthologies and Sirius B magazine. Alienus is a printing house of the Marsonikon association. It’s a non-profit publishing house that publishes works of Croatian writers.
Which are the most popular SF&F conventions in Croatia? What are their main attractions?
In Croatia, we have 10 active and ongoing conventions plus Fantastic Fiction Festival. So the question about which is the most popular is mostly subjective, given that everyone would probably be inclined to answer something different given their personal preferences (and I’m going to mention here the existence of a humorous personality quiz “Which Croatian convention are you”). We could actually say that going to the SF&F conventions is a popular activity in Croatian fandom so much so that every city that has a group of fans has its own convention. That also means that we have a “con season” measured by the first con in the year to the last con in the year.
So I’ll take time to mention them all.
Sferakon––convention that takes place in our capital city, Zagreb. It’s the oldest convention (since 1983), organized by the SFera association. It has the longest tradition. Sferakon was Eurocon host in 1986 and 2012.
Rikon––convention that takes place in Rijeka. Organized by 3. zmaj association. Eurocon host in 2020. Given the situation it will be an online convention called Futuricon. It also has a long tradition (since 1997).
Istrakon––convention that takes place in Pazin. Organized by Albus association. Another one with a long tradition (since 1999) and big popularity.
Liburnicon––convention that takes place in Opatija (near Rijeka), organized by Kulturni front association. One of the biggest conventions, also famous as a “beach convention” (because it’s in summer and near the sea, and sometimes even has a part of programming on the beach). It started in 2006.
Marsonikon––convention that takes place in Slavonski Brod. Organized by Marsonikon association and SF Skupina Orion. One of the “younger” conventions. Founded in 2012.
Fantastikon––convention that takes place in Split. Organized by F&ST association. Founded in 2015.
Krakon––convention that takes place in Krapina. Organized by Krapinjon association. It’s one of the smaller and newer conventions, founded in 2018. It’s the first one in that region of Croatia.
Skon––convention that takes place in Sisak (in a historic fortress). Like Krakon, one of the youngest conventions. One of their organizers told me to mention that Skon convention is famous because of their own infamous rakija (similar to palinca) called Skonovača.
Olympos––convention that takes place in Osijek. Organized by Klub Titan Atlas. One of the newer conventions.
All of these conventions are similar in their program, meaning they all promote science fiction and fantasy through lectures, presentations, quizzes, workshops, board gaming etc. Sferakon and Rikon have awards ceremonies. Sferakon with a SFERA award, and Rikon with the Artefakt award. Both of these awards are for the best work of speculative fiction published in the year prior. Marsonikon and Fantastikon have awards for the best short stories published in their publications, and Istrakon used to have two: the best story in their annual collection and the “best Istrian story”, awarded with a huge leg of prosciutto.
Cosplay shows are also a big part of it and really, no matter how big or small a convention, it has cosplayers and cosplay shows as a part of it’s program (I think that maybe the only one that doesn’t have cosplay show is Marsonikon, but I could be wrong). Also, cosplay is the main focus of the Krakon convention.
And I would like to mention how Skon, one of the newer and smaller conventions, has one of the most fun ways of doing the cosplay competition (I say this as a cosplayer). They have an open, medieval-invoking voting system in the middle of the yard and since everyone can see who votes for whom it’s quite a suspenseful affair. Not to mention people openly lobbying for their faves (we jokingly call it an exercise in democracy).
The conventions that are little bit different from this model would be:
Pandakon––Asian culture convention that helds in our capital city, Zagreb. Their main event is a cosplay show. Not necessarily an exclusively SF convention, but they’re nevertheless part of our fandom.
Mordokon––board gaming convention held in Poreč. Organized by SF&F Mordele. Their main focus is gaming.
Fantastic Fiction Festival––this is not a convention in a traditional sense but it’s an important part of our fandom. It’s a festival whose main focus is fantasy and sci fi literature and consists of various presentations of authors and publications. It is also unique in a way that they aren’t connected to one town but the whole region of Istria. Each year town Pazin and one another host town or municipality helds Fantastic Fiction Festival. Topic of that year’s festival is usually in some way connected to that year’s host area.
Who are the main author names in today’s Croatian SF&F?
Croatia has a big writing community, thanks to the fact that we have two magazines, various short stories collections, fanzines and publishers whose main focus is speculative fiction. This is probably the hardest question for me personally, because of that. How to choose main authors in today’s Croatian speculative fiction, since I know so many great authors? But I’ll try to answer it to the best of my abilities.
I would start with three names I would personally call the most important authors because of these factors: long publishing tradition, name recognition, multiple award winners, and their influential roles in Croatian fandom. That would be––Darko Macan, Milena Benini and Aleksandar Žiljak.
Darko Macan is a writer and illustrator. His writing career has a lot of titles, too much to list them all, and has multiple awards for his work. He publishes stories, novels, children’s literature and comic books. He even worked for Marvel. Besides that he wrote infamous reviews of Croatian authors and ran literary workshops. His children’s comic book Borovnica is one of the Croatian classics that children read in elementary schools as a part of the comic book curriculum.
Milena Benini was a writer, editor and a translator. She was one of those authors whose speculative fiction work got recognized even outside of the fandom. One of her novels––Priestess of the Moon (Svećenica mjeseca)––was originally published in English and then later in Croatian. She also has a lot of titles––stories and novels––and has multiple awards. She’s the Croatian nomination for this year’s ESFS Hall of Fame award for the best author. One of the key figures in Croatian fandom, her work is of high quality and she definitely set up the bar high for our genre literature. Not to mention her influential role for many aspiring authors. She unfortunately and unexpectedly passed away this year (2020), but her legacy lives on.
Aleksandar Žiljak is a writer, editor and illustrator. He’s one of the two editors of SF literary magazine Ubiq. His rich bibliography can boast with the unique narrative voices and revolutionary ideas, mostly anti-capitalist in nature. Because of his long publishing tradition and his role as the Ubiq editor, I would definitely point him out as one of the biggest names in our fandom.
Besides these three, I would also like to mention a few other authors who are either fandom famous, or whose work is recognized with multiple awards. Zoran Krušvar (popular writer in Croatia and Poland), Danijel Bogdanović (authored quite a number of stories and one novel, has multiple awards for his work), Ivana Delač (multiple stories, novels and awards, Guest of Honor at Futuricon 2020), Vanja Spirin (multiple stories, novels and awards), Ivan Lutz (multiple stories, novels and awards, one of his novels––Call it Earth––has an English translation), Veronika Santo (also multiple novels, stories and awards), Vesna Kurilić (multiple stories and awards, currently one novel, but soon plans to publish a novel in English; nominated for ESFS Award for the best promoter in 2020), Igor Rendić (multiple stories recognized by multiple awards, writer and translator, nominated for ESFS Award for the best translator in 2020) and Ana Cerovac (her award winning debut novel Krsnik got a nomination for ESFS Award for the best written work of fiction in 2020).
But like I said, we have an active writing community, with new aspiring authors showing up each year.
Give us some names of SF&F Croatian graphic artists.
There are a lot of talented illustrators and visual artists that we can mention here. First there is Igor Kordej (Croatian comic book artist and illustrator) whose work is recognized outside of Croatia. He has multiple awards under his belt for best comics, illustrations, best artist etc. The book covers he did for the publishing house Algoritam (now closed) are considered by some as collectors items.
Other internationally recognized Croatian comic book artists are Goran Sudžuka, Goran Parlov, Danijel Žeželj, Stjepan and Linda Šejić, Esad Ribić, aforementioned Darko Macan, and late Edvin Biuković. All of these artists worked for comic giants like DC/Vertigo, Marvel and Image comics amongst others.
I would also like to mention some of our talented illustrators. First of all there is Zdenko Bašić––notable illustrator and animator, famous even outside of fandom. And a few others from the Rijeka area: Nela Dunato, Korina Hunjak, Anja Sušanj, and Karin Bogdanić.
What makes Croatian SF original?
I’m going to assume this question is regarding our literature. Or at least, I can answer it as a writer and editor.
Croatian SF definitely follows outside influences (meaning anglophone literature and media mostly). But to focus on the stuff that makes it different I’ll start with the fact that in the 90s we had a strong “movement” (wasn’t a real movement, but, so to say) that could be summarized in saying that “not only Americans go to space”. And one of our editors and journalists––Davor Šišović––really pushed this idea that our writers should write about local stuff, because there are a lot of interesting Croatian history facts and folklore that shouldn’t be ignored and that could be quite inspiring.
Which means we have a lot of work inspired by Croatian folklore, traditions, culture and identity regardless of which genre they are. A lot of work is based in Croatia as well, or with Croats as characters.
In that regard I would like to mention again the Fantastic Fiction Festival. This Festival, like I mentioned before, is unique in a way that every year a new town in Istria is a host and they choose that year’s topic of the festival. That topic usually has some sort of connection to the town’s history. For example––when Motovun was a host the topic was giants, because of the legendary work of Vladimir Nazor called Veli Jože, which was about a gentle giant living in the area of Motovun. It’s still quite popular and influential work, so that was the topic for that year which resulted in the collection of short stories Stories about Giants (Priče o divovima). Writers who send their work to this Festival mostly write about Istria, its traditions, history etc. Although it’s not mandatory in the call for submissions, the willingness to write about Istria is a definite result of the nature of this Festival. It also results in the unique style of the stories published there too––if the story is whimsical, probably heavy on the comedy, located in Istria or mentions and/or praises Istria for their cuisine, traditions, folklore, history or other, it was probably written for this Festival.
But it’s not only stories in these collections that use Croatian culture, folklore or identity. In other works there are also some specific motives and themes that play an important part in making our literature original in comparison with anglophone literature (please note that some of these are also similar or a part of the other Slavic traditions and folklore, given that Croatia is also a Slavic country).
For starters, some of the most famous Croatian creatures that feature in a lot of our stories are shtrigas and krsniks. These ancient shapeshifting enemies are an important part of Istrian folklore, and they are humans who were born with the placenta on their heads (some stories) which gave them their magical powers like: ability to make people sick (shtriga) or heal (krsnik), shapeshifting into animals like dogs, cats, boškarin (the sort of Istrian cattle) etc. But also given a lot of different versions that folk tales have and different interpretations by our authors, shtriga can be similar to vampires or witches (and you can even find shtrigas as a witch or a vampire in American media as well, but that’s mostly oversimplified. An Istrian granny would tell the story of a shtriga quite differently from Supernatural and our writers are usually more inspired by the former then latter, although interpretations vary. And in these days younger authors are probably going to be inspired by some older writers like Krušvar rather then folktales). Krsnik is usually shown as a noble warrior that protects the powerless against evil shtriga. Although, like shtriga, his behavior and powers are depending on the author’s interpretation.
Then there are influences that come from old Slavic and old Croatian mythology. So it won’t be surprising for gods like Perun or Morana to be a part of the story. Or to have a story that is a retelling of a certain old Slavic/old Croatian myth. Another frequent motif amongst creatures can be giants––thanks to the previously mentioned Jože and another famous giant Regoč (from the work of Ivana Brlić Mažuranić). We even have one of the earliest mentions of vampires in Europe––Jure Grando, our very own vampire that plagued the Istrian town of Kringa in the 17th century. It’s not unusual for Jure Grando to be a character in some of our vampire stories (most recently and notably he shows up in the novel Nokturno za krpelja by Milena Benini).
And this is just some of it. There are a lot of different elements from our history, legends and folklore that play an important part in our literature. In fact, one of our most popular subgenres at the moment would be historical SF. There are a lot of works in that subgenre but I would like to mention some that has a connection with our history, traditions and identity like award winning: Krsnik by Ana Cerovac (a novel set in the 17th century Istria, deals with Uskok war against Republic of Venice in Istria), Izazov krvi by Vesna Kurilić (19th century werewolves living in the rural part of Croatia––Gorski kotar––and fighting against the changes to nature that came with the industrialisation), Granice na vjetru by Veronika Santo (alternative history that deals with more recent Yugoslavian history). Some other notable mentions: Japodinine muke by Ivana Delač (problems of one female owner of a derelict factory in 19th century Croatia in an alternative history style), Nebo nad K.u.K. by Robi Selan (Austro-Hungarian steampunk set in Croatia), Junker’s i Vailiant series by Vanja Spirin (a medieval fantasy inspired by pop culture but with a local twist), Poseidonia by Aleksandar Žiljak (steampunk written with a unique narrator, imitates the Victorian style), and Flumen Obscura by Fluminati (deals with history and legends from Rijeka and amongst notable characters has a zvončar (bellman) and morčić––both linked to exclusively Rijeka and the surrounding area).
But really, there are examples of all of the subgenres in our SF, some more popular than others. We have a lot of stories and novels set in space (my personal favorites: Noćni vlak za Dukku by Danijel Bogdanović and Prodavač snova by Milena Benini), a lot of dystopias, usually with a hint of a post-apocalypse (most notable: Mletački sokol by Milena Benini, Irbis and Ndanabova djeca by Aleksandar Žiljak) and vampires (a whole lot of stories and books, and we even have a “Croatian Anne Rice” in that regard––Viktoria Faust), parallel universes, cyberpunk, and even some zombie stories and horror novels. Our writers are following the global trends and classics as much as they are inspired by our own folklore and history. So you can find a little bit of everything.