Things Nobody Knows But Me opens with Amra Pajalić learning, at age 16, that her mother’s illness is in fact bipolar disorder, and proceeds to build back to this moment. Through interlinked vignettes, she presents complex portraits of maternal grandmother Adevija, mother Fatima and her child self, and examines the fractured relationships between all three. The episodic structure compartmentalises key events, supporting Pajalić to juggle multiple perspectives effectively, while also providing much-needed emotional respite. As she pieces together her family’s past from their accounts – Adevija’s marriage is the result of blackmail and Fatima’s is arranged – the author experiences, and demonstrates, the power of storytelling.
Mental illness continues to be stigmatised within many migrant communities, its causes and treatment misunderstood. Pajalić recalls the family friends who stepped up to care for her and her brother, as well as the judgement her mother faced, likening Fatima’s experience to being “exiled again”. The family’s relocation, from St Albans in Melbourne’s west to Bosanska Gradiška and back, offers a rare glimpse into rural life and prejudices in 1980s Bosnia, before the war that would break up Yugoslavia.
Amid the chaos, Pajalić remains alert to beauty and humour. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman with a mental illness must be in want of a husband,” she quips, “to facilitate her escape from familial domination.” Forced to fend for herself from a young age, Pajalić is alert, too, to the living situations of her playmates, some of whom are abused by their guardians. This empathy, together with Pajalić’s knack for writing unruly young characters, suggests the memoir will resonate with teens as well as adults.
The outcome of Fatima’s correct diagnosis is ultimately condensed into a paragraph, life-changing but an afternote. Given the memoir’s emphasis on relationships, this decision is understandable; it does, however, make for an abrupt conclusion.
Pajalić has spent her life protecting her mother, while also bearing witness to her strength. Fatima, like so many women, has wrestled for control of her fate, making innumerable sacrifices for her children. Bipolar disorder has shaped their lives, but as Pajalić defiantly makes clear, it defines neither her mother nor their relationship.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Amra Pajalić, Things Nobody Knows But Me". Subscribe here.