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Kaja’s Path and Milka Žicina’s Path: The Uses of Literary Works for Labour and Intellectual History

by Isidora Grubački

In 1934, worker, writer, and communist and feminist political activist Milka Žicina (1902-1984) published her first novel Kajin put [Kaja’s Path, 1934]. She was the only Yugoslav author to publish in the distinguished and popular Yugoslav publishing house Nolit (short for nova literature – new literature), right next to translations of novels by Maksim Gorky, Erich Maria Remarque, Agnes Smedley, Lewis Sinclair, and many other left-progressive authors of the time.[1] According to available secondary sources, Kajin put – a coming-of-age story about Kaja, a young peasant woman who is born in a poor Yugoslav village and is forced to work as a domestic servant from an early age – was among the most widely-read Yugoslav novels in the interwar period, published also in France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria.[2] In her second novel, Devojka za sve [A Maid-of-All-Work, 1940], Žicina offered her readers the second part of the story, thus circling the story about Kaja’s difficult path.

Considering Milka Žicina’s revolutionary political engagement (activism), manual labour (work), and intellectual labour (writing), in this blog post I first offer a parallel reading of Žicina’s life story and her literary work and then reflect on the implications of this parallel reading in terms of labour and intellectual history.


Žicina’s first novel, Kajin put, tells the story of Kaja, who is born to a working mother of many children and an alcoholic, violent father. From an early age, Kaja sees herself as the one responsible for managing her father’s anger and for helping her mother avoid being beaten up by him. We witness her excitement about her first year of school, in a class that is strictly divided between better-off girls and those, like Kaja, who were growing up in poverty. After her mother dies as a result of a self-induced abortion, Kaja and her sisters are forced to leave their home and their drunken father. With little education and not even the most basic of clothing, we follow the harsh reality of finding work from Kaja’s perspective, as her first and only option is to work as a domestic servant in a more better-off house in the same village. The novel ends with Kaja leaving her first job, where she is exploited and paid only in meals, although the reason for the dismissal is not exploitation, but that the woman Kaja worked for “caught” Kaja teaching her (male) fellow servant how to read alone in a barn, which she misinterpreted as Kaja’s promiscuity. In the second novel, Devojka za sve, it becomes clear that Kaja’s first job was only the first in a series of horrible, exploitative positions she would not be able to say no to over the years. Even though working conditions improved slightly from place to place, the problem – Žicina suggested – was structural in nature, as girls in a similar position to Kaja could hardly find a different kind of job.

As others have already noticed, Kaja’s path resembles that of Žicina to a notable extent.[3] What do we know about the worker, political activist, and writer Milka Žicina?[4] Her childhood and youth were not unusual for women coming from the poverty-stricken countryside. Born in 1902 in a small Slavonian village to a poor family of a railway worker, Žicina was forced to work as a domestic servant already in her teens, although, unlike Kaja, she completed elementary school. In 1919, she moved to Belgrade in search of work and began learning dactylography there. Soon after, however, her rich transnational “career” as a domestic and manual labourer began. She spent time in Vienna (where she worked as a domestic servant), Hamburg (where she unsuccessfully attempted to find work on a ship that would bring her to the US), Metz (to which she walked from Hamburg), and then Paris. In Paris, she learned French and German, worked and joined the leather-industry workers’ trade union movement where she taught French to Yugoslav workers. Yet, because of her involvement in communist activism, she was forced to leave Paris for Belgium, where she stayed until 1931.[5]

After a decade of manual labour in various Western European cities, Žicina came back to Belgrade and began working as a chambermaid and a nightguard. During this time, she wrote her first novel Kajin put and established contact with the circle of pro-communist Belgrade-based literary political activists of the time. In the second half of the 1930s, Žicina became active in the feminist movement in Belgrade. She published short stories in the Popular Front women’s journal Žena danas [Woman Today, 1936-1940],[6] and held speeches at some of the events organized by communist-led feminist Ženski pokret’s Youth section in Belgrade.[7] During World War II, she lived incognito in a village in Banat. Žicina officially joined the Communist Party of Yugoslavia in 1945 and began working as a journalist. Yet, after the 1948 Yugoslav-Soviet split, she was accused of being part of a group that supported the Soviet side and imprisoned for four years from 1951. From then on, she lived an isolated life but continued writing and publishing until she died in 1984.


In her writing, then, Žicina drew from her own experience as a domestic servant, and her interwar literary work was to a certain extent autobiographical. Yet, until recently, scholars have explored Žicina’s opus merely from a literary perspective – entirely ignoring the political context of her work, and interpreting the literary text from the perspective of “literary autonomy.”[8] In contrast to the earlier approaches, the literary scholar Stanislava Barać began to examine Žicina’s work in the context of what she, building on Sartre’s idea of littérature engage (literature of commitment), conceptualized as “engaged women’s prose”. Interpreting Žicina’s short stories and novels along with several other women’s literary writings, Barać discusses how Žicina and other authors wrote about women’s experiences, “creating heroines and situations which had previously not existed in Serbian and Yugoslav prose, thus making visible women’s experiences that were until then seen as tabu.”[9]  

While interesting for literary historians, Kaja’s experiences can be useful for labour historians as well. Žicina’s writing in the interwar and early post-World War Two period bordered on journalistic reportage,[10] so her short stories offer a unique glimpse into the lives of workers in the interwar period, especially young women. Labour historians can therefore draw on Žicina’s novels and short stories to enhance their understanding of the experiences of Yugoslav young women in the interwar period, as examining the possibilities of the limited life choices from Kaja’s perspective deepens our comprehension of the conditions under which young women worked and the labour exploitation which they could encounter. Moreover, through Kaja’s thoughts and utterances, this literary source can bring to light the inner thoughts of the working class, deepening labour historians’ understanding of the labour movement and the inner lives of workers at the time.

On the other hand, Žicina’s work can serve as an exquisite source for intellectual historians as well, and this analysis can be in close conversation with the interpretations of literary scholars. Taking into account the autobiographical aspect of Žicina’s novels, as well as Barać’s move toward a more contextualized reading of Žicina’s work, I argue that Žicina’s novels should also be read as expressions of her feminist and communist political thought. Reading Žicina’s work from the perspective of her political thought, and considering Žicina’s political activism, it becomes clear that the concept of revolution – an aspiration for a massive and radical change in Yugoslav society – was at the center of Žicina’s political thought. In her novels and short stories, she drew a framework for which elements a successful (political and social) revolution should encompass. In Kajin put, Žicina’s vision of revolution entails, among other things, criticism of women’s double subordination under capitalism and in marriage, concern about violence against women, the problematization of the abortion ban and the connection of abortion to women’s poor economic background, and criticism of the exploitation of workers, especially young women. Although Žicina did not leave behind any theoretical discussions on these topics, an analysis of her literary work through the lens of intellectual history helps us reconstruct her political thought and enhance our understanding of how her and other women’s lived experiences contributed to the “construction” of this communist and feminist vision of revolution.



[1] Jovan Deretić, „Milka Žicina i novorealistički roman“ [Milka Žicina and the new realist novel], afterword in Milka Žicina, Devojka za sve [A Maid-of-All-Work] (Beograd: Nolit, 1982), 355-364.
[2] „Beleška o Milki Žicinoj“ [A Note about Milka Žicina], in Kajin put [Kaja’s Path] (Beograd: Narodna knjiga Alfa, 2006), 241. The French edition: Milka Gitsina, Le chemin de Kaya, translated by Camille Yovanovitch (L’Amitie par le livre, 1940); the German edition: Milka Zicina, Kaja die Kleinmagd. Serbischer Roman. (Düsseldorf: Drei Eulen Verlag, 1946); the Czech edition: Milka Žicina, Kajina cesta (Praha: 1947); and the Bulgarian edition: Милка Жицина, Пътят на Кая, transl. Веселина Геновска (Народна култура, 1948).
[3] For academic reference, see Slavica Garonja Radovanac, Žena u srpskoj književnosti [Woman in Serbian Literature] (Novi Sad: Dnevnik, 2010): 229-290; for non-academic reference, see Nina Čolović, „Milkin put“ [Milka’s Path], Portal Novosti 02/08/2021, (last accessed 22/2/2023).
[4] Unless referenced differently, the biographical information from this and the following paragraph is based on the following secondary sources: „Beleška o Milki Žicinoj“, in Kajin put (Beograd: Narodna knjiga Alfa, 2006), 241-242; T. Pivnički-Drinić, „Žicina, Milka“, Srpski biografski rečnik Z, D-Z (Novi Sad: Matica srpska, 2007): 808-809.
[5] According to the available sources, she was forced out of Paris “because she associated with the working-class people on the occasion of the big demonstrations in Paris and because she was selling left-wing press”. Pivnički-Drinić, „Žicina, Milka“, 809. My translation.
[6] Stanislava Barać, „Аngažovana ženska proza“ [Engaged Women’s Prose], Književna istorija 51, no. 168 (2019): 221-242.
[7] Ženski pokret  [Women’s Movement] organizations were feminist organizations active in different towns in Yugoslavia in the interwar period, which together formed Alijansa ženskih pokreta  [Women’s Movements’ Alliance, established in 1926], a nation-wide alliance of feminist organizations. The first Ženski pokret was established in Belgrade in 1919. In the second half of the 1930s, young communist women joined the Belgrade Ženski pokret, and established its Youth section. Among other things, the Youth section allowed the communist women to legalize their activism, as the Communist Party of Yugoslavia had been illegal since 1920. Moreover, some of the members of the Youth section published the Popular Front journal Žena danas  [Woman Today, 1936-1940]. On Ženski pokret’s Youth section, see Isidora Grubački, “Communism, Left Feminism, and Generations in the 1930s: The Case of Yugoslavia,” in Gender, Generations, and Communism in Central and Eastern Europe and Beyond, eds. by Anna Artwińska and Agnieszka Mrozik (London: Routledge 2020), 45-65.
[8] Slavica Garonja Radovanac, Žena u srpskoj književnosti [Woman in Serbian Literature] (Novi Sad: Dnevnik, 2010): 229-290.
[9] Barać, „Аngažovana ženska proza“, 229.
[10] Stanislava Barać, „Feminističko oplemenjivanje socijalne literature (od 30-tih godina go 50-tih godina 20. veka)“ [Feminist Refinement of Socially Engaged Literature (from 1930’s to 1950’s)], Antropologija 20, no. 1-2 (2020): 189-211.

Illustration: Cover page of the periodical Žena danas [Woman Today, 1936-1940], Source: Žena danas, no. 13 (1938).

Isidora Grubački is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the Central European University in Budapest/Vienna, and a research assistant at the Institute of Contemporary History in Ljubljana. She is currently finishing her thesis on the political transformations of feminisms in interwar Yugoslavia. Her research interests include (intellectual and transnational) history of women’s movements and feminisms, 20th-century political history, and history of Yugoslavia.

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