Vesna Dedic: Through Balkanska street to the heights of journalism
She is a journalist who has taken many celebrities on a walk down her “Balkanska ulica” (Balkan street), a writer who spurs emotions in her readers with her best-selling novels and one of the most famous TV personalities whose popularity has been consistent for decades now. Vesna Dedic speaks for her interview with 011info about why Belgrade is something “you loe in advance”, her journey to the heights of journalism and what motivated her to begin writing her first novel that she never published in the end.
You were born in Osijek and spent your childhood in Podgorica, only to move to Belgrade after you started college. Do you remember your first encounter with our capital city?
Oh yes. I’d visited Belgrade before during my highschool years for school competitions and amateur theater festivals. You know, back then you loved Belgrade “in advance”, before you even saw it and everyone loved coming to this city. Actually, when I first moved to Belgrade I had already known so many streets, many more than I do now, after having spent decades here.
People came to the capital usually to enroll in universities, but also to enjoy the city. Visits to the BITEF, attending the FEST, concerts, going to the SKC, Dom omladine, Dom sindikat and Dom pionir, going to the movies…exploring and enjoying all of that content was something that not a day could go by without.
How difficult was it for you to leave home and your parents?
Separation wasn’t that hard for me in the sense that I missed home, but it was difficult to deal with my own ambitions. Back then, girls competed against one another, but in an intellectual way. For example, my boyfriend of the time told me how he has a friend who claims his girlfriend knows Dostoevsky better than I do. I immediately demanded to meet her and establish whose knowledge of his work was greater.
I know it all sounds like a fairytale, but it really was like that back then. It went without saying that you had to be charming, charismatic and possess a certain amount of femininity in terms of physical attributes, but above all else you had to be extremely witty and ingenious in order to earn your spot in society, especially journalism. I wanted to earn my place in Belgrade’s city life. It wasn’t easy at all. I came to a large city from a small town which only had one bus line. This meant I had to get used to the city public transport, Belgrade’s landladies, paying bills and many other things that came with moving to a big city, all while making some friends.
The hardest thing to deal with was that I traded in my small, sunny Podgorica for the gloomy Belgrade. I missed the sun and the always blue sky, so as soon as the first November snow fell, I took the train back home. I was cold both in the streets and in my tenement apartment without central heating. My parents encouraged me to give Belgrade another chance, which I did, and I thank them for that.
No beginning is easy, especially not in a city that is a metropolis. By the way, not every city is a metropolis. For example, Zagreb, Sarajevo or Warsaw are not metropolises. There are only a few cities on this planet that can claim that title, because a metropolis is not the number of inhabitants and imposing buildings, but the spirit and way of life. In a word, it’s the culture.
Seeing how that Belgrade spirit is something that is truly a part of you, do you consider yourself a Belgrader even though you weren’t born here?
I will say no, so that the real Belgraders don't get angry. (laughter) Although I really respect the fact that some of them are fourth or fifth generation from Dorcol or Vracar. However, I would like all of them to respect all of us who brought the best from our homelands, homes and genetics to this city and contributed to its life.
The metropolis is born from the fusion of various nationalities, religions, spirituality, etc. so Belgrade is also great precisely because there was that Balkan Street, through which the best and most talented people from all over the country came to this city to give it their best.
Therefore, I am a Belgrader in spirit, in my way of thinking and the effort I put into representing the spirit of that city through my novels and shows. I am convinced that there is no one who knows Belgrade better than me if it’s not their profession to do so, and I am willing to go head to head with every native of Belgrade. I'm sure I know more about this wonderful city than they do, because I learned about it out of love and the need to be good to it and really like it.
So you are a Belgrader.
I would hope so. I am a Belgrader because of everything I have given to Belgrade, be it through my shows, through novels, or through lifestyle. I am Montenegrin on my father’s side, Herzegovinan on my mother’s, and I brought the best of both those worlds to Terazije. I remember that on the first day of my stay in Belgrade, I hired a proofreader so that the transition from one dialect to the other would be seamless and adequate.
However, the best thing I gave to Serbia and Belgrade is my daughter Lenka, who is a real Belgrade woman, the way I imagined them when I read Moma Kapor's novels. (laughter)
In your day, what was the best place to go out in Belgrade?
We were mostly divided into preppies, hippies and punks, and I was a bit of all of them because I could never stand extremes. Back then, you could tell which group someone belonged to by the way they dressed and the type of music they listened to. Like most, I went out every night. Come to think of it, I don't know how we managed to pull it off financially, and the truth is that as students we went out every night.
My favorite was the Manjez Tavern, where students of the Academy of Fine Arts, Faculty of Dramatic Arts and several colleagues from the Faculty of Philology gathered. The atmosphere was wonderful, especially when the JDP actors stopped by after the show.
However, while others would generally be attached to only one place, I liked to go out wherever there was a good atmosphere and to hang out with various people. And I kept that habit to this day.
I was happy to visit my Nana and Tas, dressed in glitter and in high heels, where the guests were athletes and criminals, but also the Academy of Fine Arts, where people with different interests came together. As for music, I listened to new wave, like everyone else, but I also loved the "mainstream" of the eighties and the nostalgia of seventies rock. My generation did not listen to folk music.
I stopped going out when I had my daughter Lenka, focusing entirely on motherhood. However, as soon as she grew a little, I started going out again. The minute I stop going out, I think it's time for the nursing home! (laughter)
I am of the opinion that we are social creatures by nature, who will wither in every sense if we close ourselves up within our four walls. That's not life. Therefore, in my list of daily obligations, in addition to work, reading and training, there are also going out, either to a restaurant or a club, or to a concert or the theater.
To put it simply, I think that going out and traveling, even to a nearby monastery, farm or spa, are extremely important for mental health. I know many successful people who failed spiritually precisely because they got stuck in their home-work habits. When you become cocooned and start to fear for money and health, you put yourself in a barren situation that cannot bring anything good. That's why I personally try not to be lulled into my own or someone else's life.
You started working in the radio when you were 13 years old, and you continued that career throughout your studies.
At first, I hosted children's shows, then youth shows, and eventually I wrote for newspapers. When I came to Belgrade, I graduated from Studio B. And all of that came easily to me, I was a natural. At the end of 1991, during the time of sanctions and the civil war, I was at RTS and was very quickly hired as an editor and host of the morning program. I didn't even have time to think about whether I even wanted to work on television. When I became a mother, it was not time for another branch, because I had to take care of a child, and not start a career from scratch. That's when I came up with the idea for the "Balkan street" show. And so 30 years have passed in journalism, a profession that I adore, but which I did not choose, but, apparently, it chose me.
It was in Studio B that you met the woman who was a role model to you when you were a young journalist.
Yes and she recently sadly left us. It was Gorica Nesovic who was four years older than me, which isn’t a big difference to people our age now, but back then it was much more significant. When I came to Belgrade I already had a radio career behind me from working with Radio Titograd and I wanted to keep working in that line of business.
At Studio B, there was a show called "Rhythm of the Heart", whose main stars were Voja Nedeljkovic and Gorica Nesovic. When I say stars, I mean that in the truest sense of the word. The first time I climbed to the top floor of Beogradjanka and saw Voja and Gorica, I was speechless. That’s how huge they were.
Unfortunately, Gorica and I never became friends and that was my fault. Do you know why? Because in my eyes she still had the untouchable status of a legend of Yugoslav journalism. Last year, I was lucky enough to be a guest on her TV show, where, after the recording, we had a very nice goodbye. Later that week, I told everyone about my meeting with Gorica Nesovic. She was and remains the good spirit of Belgrade in the eighties.
Now that I was saying goodbye to her, many media did not understand the essence of my words, where I said that our generation entered the world of journalism in Converse shoes and not in high heels. Back then, it really wasn't appropriate to show up anywhere as a twenty-year-old woman in heels, be it a club or a newsroom. It was a huge shame to look like an old woman, like some kind of aunt, and it was especially shameful to copy others, from the way of dressing to the way of writing or hosting a program.
You started building your career in journalism by reporting from protests. Can you tell us more about that time?
In 1991, I was with the famous Predrag Peca Dobrohotov in London, where we filmed a show about that city. When we returned on March 10th, Studio B was surrounded by police.
"On the loose" with me, so to speak, were our editor Jagodinac and the cameraman Zli who just happened to be next to me, and later shot a handful of videos. The three of us went out on the field and filmed the first night of the student protest. At first, there were 100-200 gathered students and actors, and the number grew as the night progressed.
Our procedure was as follows. First, we would record the material in front of the Terazije fountain, and then I would rush to Studio B with the police on my heels. However, I managed to "get away" from them thanks to my good knowledge of Belgrade and its passageways.
When I’d get hold of the Beogradjanka, I would charm my way inside, where the legendary sound producer, the late Robert Klein, and program manager Jugoslav Pantelic, who is now the manager of the Cinematheque, would wait for me. That's how I handed over the tapes to Jugoslav for the next few days.
It was a very important period in my career. Namely, an older colleague back then just casually praised our work and then said that it is time for the main journalists to go out on the streets and record announcements. That's how it was, four or five of them, today's big names in the world of political journalism, came out and took pictures. A lot of documentaries were made from that material, while I am only in one shot, more precisely my ponytail while interviewing the then Minister of Police, Radmil Bogdanovic, whom I intercepted as he was getting out of his official car and asked if he intended to beat the students.
That interview ended up on the small screen, and so did my ponytail. It was clear to me then that I was not cut out for a political journalist, because you have to know how to sell yourself there, and I have never been involved in business, be it journalism, media or publishing. My books sell because of the love of readers, not because I know how to sell them. Well, at that moment I promised myself that I would never, never, never interview politicians, nor engage in any type of daily political journalism.
That decision of mine cost me a lot of money and safety in life, but I never regretted it. Even when politicians were guests on the show "Balkanskom ulicom", only five or six of them, I never mentioned their function or party.
After that, you went over to RTS.
I worked in the editorial office of the Belgrade program, and my whole generation of young journalists at the time, twenty-year-olds, was lucky that Milan Miki Nedic, the editor-in-chief of the Belgrade program at the time, allowed us to make the program we wanted, and even to report from student protests despite the opposition of the general director Dragoljub Milanović and the editor of the news program Milorad Miki Komrakov.
So, even though the president of the republic was Slobodan Milosevic, it was perfectly fine that your opinion did not coincide with the opinion of the leadership. Normally, I came to work with a "Cedo, marry me" badge, hosted shows and received a salary, of course, without bonuses, but loyalty to the authorities was a matter of your personal choice. I didn't get an apartment from the management like the young SPS members, but I didn't get fired either.
Recently, while editing an episode of Balkan Street, I dug through the archives and recalled those reports, looking at hundreds of thousands of young souls and their energy. And I have to admit that it worries me a little when I see that there is no such thing today, because rebellion is synonymous with youth. When we were young, we went out into the streets to protest, left parties for protests at the first call of a friend. (laughs) Today, 18-year-olds don't make any noise. I don't know if such an age has come because they don't believe in change or because their parents intimidated them.
In Balkanska street show, you’ve hosted many celebrities. Is there a connecting thread between them?
There is. What most of them have in common is emotionality, charisma, as well as the way they perceive people, time, circumstances, the city, i.e. everything that surrounds them and makes life. Our conversations differ from those on other shows of a similar type, not because I'm smarter or better prepared, but because, as a mother and a woman, I have a certain emotionality. I think that all those people, whose careers are interesting to us, are decorated with emotionality and basic human kindness. It's just common to everyone.
By the way, I'm not one of those who think that people are born charismatic. I believe that charisma is a quality that is acquired in certain circumstances and depends a lot on how willing you are to share kindness, time and all the best parts of yourself with others.
And whoever steps into my studio, they all have in common that they feel at home, where they can comfortably talk, cry or laugh earnestly. The reason for this does not lie in the fact that they are great names in their line of work, but that they carry with them great sensitivity and kindness. And the thread that connects them all is openness to change, both from the world and from people, as well as the ability and need to understand people and circumstances.
On the other hand, you have people who are in those same professions but will never become stars precisely because they don't have that factor I'm talking about.
Do you feel any sadness because the Railway station has been moved and so Balkan street will no longer be the first access point to Belgrade that people have when they come to the city?
All the best and most beautiful things that happened in this city happened because of two occasions.
The first time, after the Berlin Congress, i.e. at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Turks retreated and when Belgrade's civic spirit began to emerge. At that time, girls' schools were opened, magnificent buildings began to spring up, costumes were discarded, ladies began to wear beautiful dresses, and clean-shaven gentlemen, without mustaches, exquisite suits.
The second moment of the great construction of Belgrade was between the two World wars. Although that period was short-lived, all the most beautiful things that tourists see in Belgrade today were built then.
In that story about the magnificent beginning of the 20th century in Belgrade, an important place is occupied by that railway station, which received an award at the World Festival of Architecture in the year it was built. And when you get off the train with a suitcase in your hand and look towards Nemanja or Balkanska streets, where Slavija and Terazije are, that is a symbol of Belgrade.
In absolutely all the world's metropolises where I have stayed, the train station is a grandiose building in the center of the city. The point is that your eyes immediately open up to that magnificent city in which you found yourself.
Therefore, I simply do not understand why the train station was moved to another part of the city.
Truth be told, cobblestones are once again an integral part of Balkanska Street, but, unfortunately, no one will come or go there anymore. It breaks my heart when I see that other cities preserve every corner of their history, while here we don't pay the same attention to it. And that monument with a sword at the bottom of the Nemanjina, instead of being a welcome monument, threatens with a sword as if shouting above the heads "Where are you going, you are not welcome".
How did you decide to become a writer?
I came to Belgrade precisely with the desire to become a writer! (laughs) However, that dream was "extinguished" in my first lecture at the university by Prof. Vladete Jankovic. Our group consisted of three or four young men and six or seven girls, and we all longed to become the new Svetislav Basara, David Albahari or Dusko Kovacevic. That is, we fantasized about it until Vladeta Jankovic told us that we girls would be the most beautiful and educated brides-to-be, which offended us terribly and that everything worthwhile in literature had already been written.
By the way, the world literature program, which I enrolled in, was offered by few universities in the world, and our Faculty of Philology was one of them. The first student was Danilo Kis himself, and the groups have always been small. There you could get a broad education, studying everything from the Bible to contemporary literature with top professors. The problem is that in the end you don't have a specific profession "in hand". You are just very educated.
When did you write your first book?
It was during my first year of studies. A collection of ten short stories, typed under the name "Black Lily". I took that manuscript to the biggest publishing house at the time, BIGZ. They gave the green light for the press, which made me indescribably happy.
Nevertheless, on the same day, I met the editor of BIGZ, the late Dragan Barjaktarevic, demanding that he stop the press. Do you know why? Because the work was full of erotica, which, to put it mildly, would not sit well with my parents. There is no trace or voice of that manuscript. It probably got lost somewhere in the process of moving.
When I had my daughter Lenka in 2001, I published the novel "Like Summer". However, since I did not have a nanny, I could not fully devote myself to the promotion of the book. Later, I reworked and published that novel in my publishing house, and it became a bestseller.
Basically, the first novel that met with real success was "Forever in the Heart" in 2010, and it is very interesting how it came about. Namely, at first I gave up thinking that I could deserve people's attention as a writer. However, that year I took my daughter on a winter vacation, where I spent all the money. It dawned on me that the next salary would barely cover basic living expenses and there would be no money for a vacation.
Since I had no financial background, I was looking for a way to earn some extra money. At that time, stories circulated in literary circles, which turned out to be false, about how certain Belgrade writers were earning hundreds of thousands of euros. A couple of thousand was enough for me so that I could go on vacation with my daughter.
So while panicking over what to do, I went through my diary notes, which I wrote for my own soul after the divorce, and put them together in the melodrama "Forever in the Heart". At Laguna, they estimated my market value better than I did. Basically, having received an advance of 3,000 euros, I felt like the most successful woman and the most capable mother in this world.
The novel was published on July 1, and we were already at sea the next day. Just a few days later, I was informed that the second edition was being printed, and in a few days the third, etc. By the end of the year, more than 100,000 copies were sold, which made me the most read writer in the entire region.
I have to admit that I found it fascinating. As you walk along the beach, you notice girls reading your novel at every turn. In autumn, women approach you on the streets of Belgrade and take your novel out of their bags, wanting you to sign a copy for them.
What always kept coming up was the question of when the second novel would be.
When I wrote the second book, “Sun to You, Sun to Me”, I realized that I enjoy writing and that people like and appreciate it. 12 years later, I am well into writing my 16th novel and, as always, it will be published in the summer.
If you're wondering why in the summer, I'll tell you. I published my first novel because I needed money for a vacation, and since the book was characterized by "critics" as an easy read, I continued to publish in the summer, not wanting to "enter the territory" of serious writers who publish their works for the Fair book in October. Eventually, everyone started aiming to have their works published in the summer, probably thinking that the key to success was the publishing season. (laughter)
Photo: Mia Kostic
Do you think your works are truly easy reading? You do tackle highly sensitive and important social matters in them.
I know very well how much time and effort I put into researching what I write about. My novels deal with topics such as feminism, women's rights, single mothers and the LGBT population, refugees, sterility, adoption, crime, party careers, etc. because they are social chronicles.
I believe that I have the skill to describe the circumstances in which the main characters live through melodrama. And that's nothing new. Melodrama, by definition, is a love story, impossible in certain social circumstances that hinder it.
When I published my first novel, I was aware that I was a journalist who wrote books. In translation, that means I have to have a topic, which I don't pick at random.
I remember when I sat down to write, I decided that it would be a melodrama that would make women cry, and that along the way I would tell the story of single mothers. Why? The topic was extremely close to me, and at the same time, our women are the most vulnerable class in all of Europe.
Although it may sound harsh, they do not have any system support. All the events you read about in the media about murdered women, domestic violence and child aggression have their roots in a woman's inability to leave bad relationships and marriage and thus protect herself and her children. If the state created a system of social protection for unloved women and children, all of this would be far less.
For the most part, the women really liked it. Well, when it came time for the second novel, I decided that the novel would talk about adultery as a motive, while at the same time, it would deal with sterility as a social topic, which is still a taboo topic from a patriarchal point of view.
Later I also dealt with bisexuality, refugees, etc. Let's say, in the novel "Nobody’s" I was the first to focus on gay prostitutes. I have covered all the topics that are covered in the daily press in novels, such as drug addiction, which I am a great opponent of.
However, what is most important is that women and girls feel better after reading the last page of the novel, because one of the goals of art is to provide comfort, the realization that you are not alone in your suffering.
To finish with, can you tell us your future plans for “Balkan street”?
There are no plans. (laughs) I like to make each episode from scratch. Otherwise, the show would quickly bore the viewers, as well as myself.
With the change of television, I got a new studio, which has a bar, a white piano and a resident pianist. Also, my wish was fulfilled for the sound to be soft and acoustic, and the atmosphere to be cabaret. The running time has also been extended to an hour and a half, which is the right measure to tell the guest's life story in an atmosphere that befits viewers on Sundays after lunch.
Due to the many copycats of "Balkanska street", my plan for the 21st season is to create a warm atmosphere, which will bring a dose of tranquility and carefreeness into the lives of the viewers. If so far the episodes have been in the Belgrade-Montenegro style, now I would like them to be more in the Vojvodina-salash tone. (laughter).