Feels wrong to write anything about it here. Feels fake. But this is a site run by a Croatian SFF writer.
And we lost one of the best of us last week, so here it goes.
I first read Milena Benini’s fiction right around the time I first read JRR Tolkien, which was an enormous blessing—and not only because her ships were incredibly better than the old writer’s. It was also because she placed the plot of the third part of her glorious trilogy, Children of Eternity and Chaos, in our lovely country. Which, some fifteen years later, ended up being important for me as a writer, too.
And, if you don’t want to take my word for how good it was, I’ve once heard Milena mention that a couple of her acquaintance had chosen to quote her own words from the trilogy in their wedding wows. (Yes, I still remember the stanza by heart, too.) Like—how exactly do you even begin to quantify that?
I read the Chaos trilogy, as it was known back then, around the time I first fell in love by Ursula K Leguin’s writing, too. Which Milena was also apparently a huge fan of, which I kinda sorta guessed at through her writing. Years later, after I’d actually met Milena, I realized I was right about her love for Leguin. But I never got around to actually ask her whether she’d named her characters in hommage to some of Leguin’s characters. There was always time to do that later, you know—right up until there was no later. There will never be ‘later’ again, for the whole of Croatian fandom.
One of the first times I remember meeting Milena in person, mid 2000s at SFerakon in Zagreb, I sat in on her lecture/panel about what female-identified Croatian writers felt like in the fandom in general. Also, how their fiction was received, including, but not limited to, the ratio of awards received. And, you know—by that time I was already an enormous fan of the Vorkosigan saga, and Milena had translated the first book in the series, and had already begun getting that heroic halo in my poor little fangirl brain. Not to mention she translated my favourite book of all time, too, Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s a lot for a baby writer to take in, all at the same time.
And then I kinda sorta got used to seeing Milena around, and even got to talk to her occasionally at conventions, helped along by the fact that my then-girlfriend was a friend of hers. Milena, slowly, became human to me. Not just a writer whom I’d admired as a kid, but as a fellow feminist and all-around awesome congoer, panelist, editor, genre theorist and—slowly, in the years to come—one of the very best Croatian writers out there, genre or not. I felt ambivalent about Jednorog i djevica, her short story collection (mostly because at that time she focused on a character profile I couldn’t care less about), hated Djelomična pomrčina, was curiously (and ashamedly) enraged by several choices she made as a writer of Priestess of the Moon, and gently disliked its sequels.
I really liked Prodavač snova, though, and then came Mletački sokol which was so fucking brilliant it made sure my world would never be the same again.
Similar to what I feel about Milena dying. Which is why the loss feels so great to me, even from afar.
Right; somewhere around the time Milena-the-Chaos-author became Milena-the-human to me, I finally managed to gather the guts to ask her to autograph my very own copy of the magazine where Chaos first started getting published in Croatian, an issue of the now-defunct Futura magazine for SFFH. (You can see the copy here.) She didn’t complain. I can only guess as to if she thought me as silly as I felt at the time. Highly doubt it.
Flash forward to early 2019, when I was incredibly grateful and privileged to be able to ask her for a letter of endorsement for my grant application for Werewolf Novel #3—you know, the one we actually got. The fact that the municipality deemed the novel proposal worthy enough says a lot about Milena’s letter, but the way I felt reading what she’d written about my fiction was… unsurpassable. And I know I’m not the only Croatian writer out there whom she was kind enough to offer similar support to.
Since Croatian fandom is tiny (albeit the biggest amongst many neighbouring countries), and since we focused on a few similar issues, and held many similar beliefs, I ended up joining Milena on the stage as a panelist a few times. The most recent time—the one I remember the best and one I’m fondest of—was in 2019 at Liburnicon in Opatija. The panel was hosted by Davorin Horak of Hangar 7, both Milena and I’s publisher (well, one of hers), and Milena’s colleague in a part of her editing business. (If I gathered correctly.) It focused on the audience’s reception of Croatian SFF fiction.
And the weirdest part this time was when Milena as good as called me out to tell the auditorium my honest opinion of Chaos and Mletački sokol, both recently published in book form. I can’t precisely remember what I said anymore—although I have a teeny tiny hunch I recommended Mletački sokol, since it had better pacing and one of the best ships ever written in Croatian, ever—but the decision was so fucking hard. But what I remember about the panel today is that Milena was aware of how hopeless a fan I was of her work. Which, for some reason or another, makes me feel minutely less awful right now. If that’s even possible.
I still recommend Mletački sokol. I will probably keep doing it until my last breath. Not only because I’m queer, and it’s the very best story of a gay couple in Croatian fiction I’ve ever read. Not only because I loved it so much I ended up reading its source/inspiration material, the manga Loveless, which is not something I normally do. (And now, googling it because I couldn’t remember the title, but I remembered the author’s name because of Milena’s dedication/hashtag page in the novel itself, I found out that the mangaka is the same age Milena was this year. Being 54 sounds so fucking young to me. I always thought Milena was older. You know. One of the wise women of the village/fandom. I have a strong feeling I’m not exactly the only one to feel this way.)
Having already written this much—even though it took me two full days to come to this point—I’m starting to feel like I’m trespassing again. Like I’m claiming familiarity to a person I wasn’t even close to, when there were so many who were—starting with her family and close friends and students and many, many others. She was loved. It’s a lot. It helps. A little.
The only thing I’m claiming is a memory. One I had to recognize in order to share it here. A very, very good memory.
One which I have no words to express how grateful I am for.