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French Professor’s Memoir Describes Culture and Language


Milan Kovacovic will read from his recently published memoir at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec 8 in the Griggs Center. The memoir, Ma’s Dictionary: An Odyssey Through the Social Classes: France, Slovakia, U.S.A., published by Greysolon Press, takes the reader from WWII to the present. A book signing will follow the reading, and light refreshments will be served.

Kovacovic, associate professor, Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, tells the story of his life’s unlikely path as the son of Slovakian parents working in France during the tumultuous years of World War II. His father died when he was 18 months old, his two sisters were raised by relatives, and Kovacovic and his mother traveled to find work for survival. The book recounts the journey: from train trips to Slovakia, to the kitchen of a wealthy family in Paris, to the streets of Chicago, and finally to Duluth, Minnesota. Family, language, and culture are the themes of the book.

Several chapters were written with support from artist fellowships. The chapter titled "Peace, Love, and Body Bags: San Francisco International Airport, Summer 1967" was supported by the Minnesota State Arts Board and the chapters entitled "Ma's Dictionary" and "Chicago Blues" were supported by the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council.

Book excerpt from prologue:

My family, if one can call it that, was too dislocated and too poor to establish a household of its own. So I grew up in other people’s homes, until the age of sixteen.

I was born in 1942 in rural Normandy, where my parents had been employed for more than a decade as foreign guest workers. My father died there of cancer when I was eighteen months old, in the midst of war and Nazi occupation.

Meanwhile my sisters Olga and Eva—nine and six years older than me—were being raised since infancy by relatives, hundreds of miles away in my parents’ native village in Slovakia.

In 1946, when rail travel to Eastern Europe was finally restored, my mother tried to restart her life by moving back to her homeland so she could be with her three children, two of whom no longer remembered her. But her resettlement plans foundered. Soon after our arrival in Slovakia, our family was split up again. She and I went back to France and remained there another ten years. Then, just before I turned fourteen, we emigrated to America. My sisters stayed behind in Europe, though in different countries.

ma milan
Milan and mother in Chicago Milan Kovacovic


Written by Cheryl Reitan, November 2011

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