San Francisco baby boomer Tania Romanov Amochaev is well-traveled. Maybe it’s in her blood, because when you read this piece about her mother tongue — which is the theme of her new book — you’ll see that she was born in a part of the world from which more people were once fleeing than trying to get in.

What is a mother tongue? What is your mother tongue? What is your mother’s tongue?

In Genoa, leaving for America with Mama and brother Sasha.

Sometimes the simplest questions take a book to answer, especially for a baby boomer like me with a rather unusual ancestry. Such is the case with my story, with my book.

What language did you speak with your mother? What language did you speak with your father? What language did you speak with your brother?

For me there are three different answers to those questions.

Did you speak your mother tongue with anyone except your mother?

That, of course, is the most bizarre question so far for me, and the answer is no. I spoke a unique language with my mother, one I am still fluent in. And by the way, it was not my mother’s native language.

Is this story a fantasy? Is it fiction? Is it an invention of the most convoluted imagination? Is my book about zombies or science fiction? No, it is a book true to my memory, which is supported by years of historical research.

Everyone trying not to cry as my aunt (with flowers, with Zora behind and grandmother on right) and uncle leave the camp for America while we still wait for visas.

The language under discussion is Serbian. My mother was Croatian. My father was Russian. However, although I was born in Serbia, I left when I was six-months-old and grew up with my brother in San Francisco, speaking English with everyone except my mother Zora. But I didn’t speak any language until I was two.

I didn’t know why I spoke Serbian, rather than Croatian, with my mother. It never occurred to me to ask until I started writing the book. But by then, probably like a lot of baby boomers who wish we had answers about our family backgrounds, my mother was gone.

Mother Tongue is an exploration of lives lived in the chaos of a part of the world known as the Balkans. It follows three generations of women in a history spanning a hundred years. It follows countries that dissolved, formed, and reformed. Lands that were conquered and subjugated by Fascists and Nazis and Communists and nationalists. It explores lives lived in exile, in refugee camps, in new worlds. Like my own family’s.

First trip to Healdsburg, California, in 1955!

Long after my American passport replaced a document that read ‘stateless,’ the ‘birthplace’ on that passport changed four times in four successive renewals. Until the first time, I believed my country of birth was a fixed point. Today I know better.

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