Catherine, Kapphahn
Credit: Catherine Kapphahn

An interview with Croatian-American Catherine Kapphahn, author of "Immigrant Daughter"

Kapphahn's award-winning memoir will make you laugh and cry - and fill you with wanderlust for Croatia!

Written by
Lara Rasin

Immigrant Daughter: Stories You Never Told Me (2019) is a captivating tale of intertwining worlds penned by American-with-Croatian-roots author Catherine Kapphahn

Catherine grew up by the mountains of Colorado knowing little about her Croatian mother's early life and homeland. When Marijana passed away of ovarian cancer, Catherine (then 22) set out across the Atlantic Ocean to search for clues about her mother's past. She discovered that Marijana was orphaned during World War II, had a near-death experience as a teenager, and fled Communist Yugoslavia to Rome, and then South America. Throughout the book, Catherine weaves together the strings of her mother's life to reconcile past and present.

The author earned an M.F.A. in Writing from Columbia University before her award-winning Immigrant Daughter, which received The Center for Fiction's Christopher Doheny Award, was published. 

As Catherine describes it, Immigrant Daughter is "a mother-daughter adventure love story that takes place in six countries."

She adds, "Some of the chapters take place in Oriovac, Zagreb, Mrkopalj, Hvar, and Makarska. Many Croatian readers have written to me and expressed how much my mother's story means to them. They tell me about their own immigrant journeys. Many say the book makes them want to travel to Croatia."

Explore Croatia through Catherine's eyes

When and how did you decide to write Immigrant Daughter: Stories You Never Told Me? What was your process?

At my second attempt at college, I unexpectedly found myself in my first creative writing course. I was twenty-two years old and hanging on by a thread; my mom had recently died of ovarian cancer. Somehow in that class, I found myself writing about caring for my Croatian mom during her final months. Eventually that piece became a chapter in my book. At the time, I had no idea I was beginning a book, in fact all my life I’d struggled with writing (I didn’t yet know that I had dyslexia). At first, I thought that I’d just write about her death, because how could I, someone who had no Croatian relatives and didn’t speak the language, write about her history? It seemed impossible. My mom had never told me anything about her past. I didn’t know my grandparents’ names, where they had been born, the losses she had suffered before she met my dad in South America. Yet, I’d always sensed her history; it was ethereal, something I couldn’t quite grasp.

After her death, I was stunned to be completely cut off from my mom and her unspoken history. The more I wrote about her, the more I needed to have a relationship with the mom that I never knew. I needed to meet my Croatian family. I needed to understand my mom’s unspoken memories, so I could understand how to navigate grief myself. And so, I worked on the book throughout graduate school; I worked on it during two research trips to Caracas and Croatia; I worked on it with my dad; I worked on it through his loss; I worked on it between miscarriages and birthing my two sons. I worked on it late at night and early in the morning, listening and reading books that followed the geography of my mom’s history; I watched documentaries, examined historic photos, listened to oral histories and interviewed Croatians about their experiences. I stopped and started, stopped and started so many times over the last twenty years until I realized that no matter what, I was going to find a way to bring my mom’s story into the world.

Which area in Croatia is most inspiring to you?

I definitely have a special connection to otok Hvar. On my first and only trip with my mom to Croatia in the 70s, we visited Hvar. I was six years old at the time. My American dad, who loved photography and all things Croatian, took a photograph of my mom and I walking down a curving cobble-stoned street, lined with stone houses; we walked toward a house with a blue wooden door with hanging lace curtains. Above us on the balcony, an elderly woman watered her flowers. Eventually that photo became the cover of Immigrant Daughter.

When Immigrant Daughter came out, a Croatian news magazine put up a post with the cover photo. I noticed in the comments someone put, “That’s our house!” He recognized it. We exchanged messages; I sent him the original photo. It turned out that the house belonged to his family and the woman watering the flowers was his great aunt. I told him that one day I wanted to take my sons there to that same street. When he returned to his family’s house over the holidays, he sent me a photograph of his parents holding Immigrant Daughter in front of his house, with the photo of my mom and I walking down that exact street. It felt like Immigrant Daughter magic.

Catherine, Kapphahn
Credit: Catherine KapphahnAuthor on her first trip to Croatia on Island of Hvar.

Who is your book intended for? Do you consider it a good way of getting to know Croatia and Croatian life for tourists?

I do think that Immigrant Daughter is a great summer read! My dad loved mystery books and suspense, so as a writer I did my best to make it into a page-turner. I’ve had readers tell me that they couldn’t put the book down and that the story felt cinematic to them. Also, I’ve had quite a few readers from all different places who told me that Immigrant Daughter made them want to travel to Croatia.

When I was growing up in Colorado, I didn’t know any Croatians other than my mom. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t have Croatian relatives. After I finished the book, I realized that unconsciously I was writing the book to create a relationship to Croatia that didn’t exist for me before. When the book was published, I never expected that it would resonate so strongly with Croatian-immigrant readers. They have been writing and messaging me, sharing the geography of their own immigrant histories, how they ended up in Canada, South America, South Africa, China, Australia, the States, or back in Croatia. They share their personal connections and how much they relate to parents withholding a history of suffering from them. I feel honored that Immigrant Daughter readers are sharing their emotional responses to my mom’s story of inter-generational trauma and resilience. What’s interesting now, because of the book, I’m in conversation with lots of Croatians.

What was the most challenging part about writing the book?

For over ten years, I was literally rejected hundreds upon hundreds of times by literary agents, independent presses and book contests until finally, I won The Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award. That award and the wonderful friendships I made, really carried me forward through final part of the process. I’m so grateful for Audible’s support because it made me keep fighting for this book.

What was your favorite part about writing the book?

No one tells you that when you write, you begin having relationships with the people in your book. I began with nothing and found myself creating this Croatian family I had never known. One of my Croatian friends told me, “Baka is such a force!” And she is! My mom once told me that I reminded her of her grandmother. Somehow I found this spiritual connection with Baka within the stories that I wrote. When I discovered Baka’s only letter to my mom and heard it translated for the first time aloud, it completely overwhelmed me.

What's a hidden gem you discovered while writing and researching?

My mom and I never felt a sense of belonging to a place as I was growing up. My mom fled the former Yugoslavia for health reasons, and immigrated multiple times, learning new languages in each place. In Colorado people pointed out her accent to her; in Croatia her friends told her that she had an American accent. Once she said to me, “I have an accent in every language!” It felt to me like my mom’s spirit was unrooted. I know throughout her life she was in search for a place that felt like home. This book has been a way for me to grow roots for myself and claim a Croatian-South American-American identity for my mom.

Where can our readers find Immigrant Daughter and experience it for themselves?

Last December, I was thrilled to go into the studio in New York City and record Immigrant Daughter for Audible. It’s now available from Audible. Print copies are also available from any online bookseller, or you could order it from your local bookshop.

What's your favorite destination and/or landmark in Croatia, that's mentioned in Immigrant Daughter?

When I discovered Brestovac, the abandoned tb sanatorium on Sljeme, where my mom stayed as a teenager, I felt a spiritual connection to my mom’s geography, it was like the whole world stopped and I was walking into my mom’s history.

Once after a reading, a woman from Slovakia told me that there are many of these incredible places in Eastern Europe that are mystical, mysterious, and full of history that are abandoned and left to crumble.

The other place would be my grandparents’, Katica, Anton and Baka’s grave at Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb. Mirogoj is such a magnificent place, a maze of stones and sculptures, large trees, leaves rustling, shade and light, people tending to graves… It’s a mythical and melancholy place. I have a dream to take my sons to Mirogoj one day and take them to my grandparents’ grave. I want them to know that the names Kanjer, Smolčić, Jakovac, and Radošević belong to them too.

What's your favorite destination and/or landmark in Croatia, that's not mentioned in Immigrant Daughter?

I think it’s a destination of feeling. It’s when Croatians are sitting at outdoor cafés in the local square, in evenings along the water, beside an island port, feeling a breeze, listening to the small waves lapping, sitting there with their friends, drinking, laughing, eyes brimming, listening to music, telling stories, arguing, finding meaning in small moments, while their children run over the polished stones, playing late into the night. That freedom, that community, that sense of belonging, is something I haven’t experienced really, but there are moments where I get glimpses of that.

One destination visitors to Slavonia [Marijana's childhood home] can't miss is...

Unbelievably I’ve only been to Slavonia once, the day I searched for my mom’s house in the village of Oriovac. I’m still in touch with Ivana, the wonderful woman who helped me that day. I wish that I could find Zdravko, who also helped us, and tell him about the book! I would love to explore Slavonia, and Bosnia more. I have a photograph of my grandmother in her Slavonian costume and I can imagine her dancing at festivals in her village. I wish I knew more about my Slavonian side, but during WWII my grandmother Katica Smolčić died and all connection was lost with that side of the family. I have no other names or history from that side of the family. 

Catherine, Kapphahn
Credit: Catherine KapphahnAuthor's grandmother Katica in the center, wearing Slavonian Costume.

One destination visitors to Croatia, in general, can't miss is...

I think when people travel to Croatia they only think of the Dalmatian coast, which is breathtaking. But Zagreb is a beautiful city with a lot to explore. I just discovered the wonderful Croatia Underrated podcast that focuses on unnoticed places in Croatia, their historical significance and also myths, stories and customs. The thoughtful host Iva Silla already has inspired me to learn more!

Croatia is...

Croatia is Marijana, Katica, Anton, and Baka.
Croatia is yellow figs, blitva, šljivovica, Pag cheese and crusty bread.
Croatia is a soft musical language I lean toward.
Croatia is talking with your hands, laughing loudly and interrupting your friends.
Croatia is private, stillness, hiding and secrets.
Croatia is the Sava and Adriatic, rivers of history, and seas to float in.

As an American with Croatian roots, can you offer any travel tips for non-Croatians thinking about or planning on visiting the country?

Pull a fig from a tree and bite into it.
Try Croatian olive oil, tomatoes, and sip some local bijelo vino and crno vino!
Swim in the Adriatic Sea, dive under the water, and listen.

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