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Paradoxical Nostalgia

Being nostalgic for a time I didn’t experience

By Christian Stenico, UNO Press / Center Austria Publishing Fellow

Nostalgia—from the Greek words for homecoming and pain, coined by medical student Johannes Hofer to describe an ailment affecting patients living far from home but now usually used to describe a longing for a better past—is a strange feeling. Not only is it a unique mixture of positive and negative emotions, but it is also special because of the paradoxical ways it can come about. I thought a lot about nostalgia while copy editing Davida G. Breier’s novel Sinkhole, set in a small town in Florida in the 1980s. While that does not seem like the ideal recipe for eliciting a sense of yearning for bygone days in someone who grew up in the 1990s, halfway across the globe in Austria (albeit in Tyrol—the Florida of Austria), it nevertheless did.

Two trends are at play here: first, there is the weird way in which nostalgia, especially for the 1980s, has been celebrated. Period dramas like Netflix’s Stranger Things, Apple TV’s Physical, or AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire transport us back to a time before the pandemic, before the internet, and before social media, and instead make us chuckle about the fight between VHS and Betamax or revel in the ridiculousness of streamers on bike handlebars. Second, and even more absurdly, there is the manner in which the nostalgia for a distinctly American experience works across cultures. Just as popular culture, in general, is disseminated from North America to Europe, it seems that even our feelings aren’t region (or generation) specific.

This is surprising, because the details of nostalgia, especially when it comes to nostalgia for the experience of growing up, often feature elements that are distinctly American. This is especially true for narratives that deal with the high school experience, as in Sinkhole. Navigating whom to sit with in the cafeteria, putting notes in someone’s locker, or even having dedicated rooms for different subjects are not universal experiences. My Austrian high school had neither a cafeteria nor lockers, and students stayed in one classroom throughout the day for different subjects, with the teachers moving from classroom to classroom instead.

Still, so many of us grew up watching movies and TV series and reading books featuring these details that they make sense to us.[1] And even in cases where there is no exact match between our own experience and that in a book, we have similar experiences we can link them to. For example, while I was working on Sinkhole, I could understand the character’s feelings towards a Walkman because they were similar to my feelings growing up towards a Discman (and, funnily enough, a MiniDisc player and a phone, both with Walkman branding). Instead of seeing the struggle between VHS and Betamax, I saw the change from VHS to DVD, and then the transition from DVD to Blu-ray and streaming. And instead of dealing with the oppressive heat and humidity of a Florida summer, I grew up facing harsh Austrian winters. Nevertheless, all these details that rooted Sinkhole in a distinct place and time paradoxically also made it feel more universal and relatable.


[1] There is an added layer of absurdity in my case, because due to delays like rights management and dubbing, in the 80s and 90s in Austria we received many TV series with a 10-year-lag compared to the US. Which means that I am nostalgic for series that people watched growing up in the 70s and 80s in the US     .

By Christian Stenico

Changed the Austrian Alps for the Louisiana Swamp and love it so far. I like reading books and working on them and I'm happy to be part of the UNO Press team where I get to do both.

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