‘We shattered along with Yugoslavia:’ writer Saša Stanišić on processing trauma

‘We shattered along with Yugoslavia:’ writer Saša Stanišić on processing trauma

10 December 2021

Bosnian-German author Saša Stanišić has called two countries home. He was born in 1978, in Višegrad, Yugoslavia, just miles from today’s border between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. For centuries, that city, immortalised by Ivo Andrić‘s masterpiece The Bridge on the Drina, had been a microcosm of the region itself: Muslims and Serbs living an often tense, occasionally bloody, but generally peaceful coexistence.

Yet as ethnic violence and political tensions heated up in the early 1990s, Stanišić’s family decided to leave the crumbling vestiges of Yugoslavia. Aged 14, he and his Muslim mother went first, fleeing to Germany in the spring of 1992. His Serbian father would not join them until some months later. And while his parents would eventually move to the United States, Stanišić remained in the German city of Heidelberg for nearly 30 years, though he was briefly a resident at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2007.

Stanišić has grown accustomed to his new home and these days only writes in German, telling me over email that his Bosnian is “simply not good enough any more.” That decision has made his work eligible for the prestigious German Book Prize, an honour he won for his third novel, 2019’s Herkunft, or Origins. The book is now available in English, translated by Damion Searls, under the title Where You Come From. And while the new work circles “the subjects of war, family, and identity in times of crisis” that Stanišić also touched on his 2006 debut, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, this latest novel is much more personal, he says, and at times, a lot more autobiographical.

How the Soldier… told a story whose outlines were similar to Stanišić’s experience — the novel’s narrator, Aleksandar, grows up in Višegrad with a Muslim mother and Serbian father, with whom he flees to Germany in 1992 — but back then, Stanišić says he simply wasn’t ready to share many of the personal stories that are related in Where You Come From.

“I do not read autofiction at all. I feel too much an intruder in the lives of others”

“I was definitely too afraid to ‘use myself’ as a protagonist,” he says of his earlier writing. “I needed a filter between narrating my own emotions and my objective of narrating migration, loss, and a broken childhood; a filter that would make it easier for me to not really deal with my own life as a refugee-adolescent. Also, I was not informed enough then to be ready to engage with the political circumstances of how societies deal with migrants. So, I needed to grow emotionally, but also learn, do more research, in order to be seen as valuable … my own thoughts as [a] means of transporting a message or two.”

The characters of Where You Come From share the family structure of that 2006 debut, though everyone has a different name, including Aleksandar, who now goes by Saša (a diminutive for Aleksandar). The novel jumps around in time, following this partly-autobiographical, partly-fictional Saša through his teenage years in Germany in the 1990s, his life as an author in the 2000s, and his relationships with friends and family. There is a special focus on his grandmother, Kristina, who is dealing with dementia. The fictional Saša returns to Bosnia several times in the book, including a 2009 trip with his grandmother to the tiny village of Oskoruša, near Višegrad, where she grew up, and a return trip to Oskoruša in 2018 with his parents.

This is not the precise autobiographical fiction of Marcel Proust or Karl Ove Knausgård, however, with Stanišić saying that “a certain mistrust is still in order” regarding the verisimilitude of events and dates in the book. (Certainly no dragons lurk in the Bosnian countryside, though they might appear, depending on your choices, in the Choose Your Own Adventure–type ending to Where You Come From). And some topics are simply off limits, Stanišić says, even now, though no formula exists on where to draw that line. “I would say it is both unique to every family and unique to every writer. I do not read autofiction at all. I feel too much an intruder in the lives of others, even though I know that these lives are being freely presented to me, so there is no intruding involved. Still, I feel uncomfortable.”

In Where You Come From, these verboten topics are occasionally singled out by the narrator. Fictional Saša won’t ask his father about the scar he received while he stayed behind in Višegrad for six months. And when he gets together with his cousins, with whom he grew up, they never talk about the city they left behind or how it felt to flee. “Despite being close family,” the narrator writes, “I feel like asking to share this kind of existential experience would be too intrusive. So I don’t ask and we don’t tell.”

Stanišić as a child

Stanišić as a child

In Where You Come From, Stanišić highlights the present day intolerance towards refugees among certain political groups in Germany, and around the world. Part of what compels Stanišić to share his immigrant experience more truthfully today is this current state of politics. “Unfortunately, writing about suffering is still very much needed,” he says. These narratives, both his own and those of other refugee writers, must be told carefully, however, and Stanišić says such authors must avoid “self-victimising your biography for need of sympathy.” In his own work, he relies on the timeworn writer’s adage of “show, don’t tell”, and of sometimes simply neither showing or telling. “When I myself don’t want to know something, then I kind of feel I should neither impose this not-knowing onto the reader, nor should I invent something instead. So I just mention the non-information and leave the conclusion to the readers.”

“If you’re from the Balkans, a refugee, and don’t speak the language, those are your only qualifications and references,” writes a fictional Saša. In Where You Come From, language and its fluency is often used as a measure of one’s relationship with a country — the assumption is that assimilation ends with learning it fully. And while having to re-learn how to communicate proves to be a barrier that Saša can overcome, it might seem that the loss of a country could not be conquered. Again, turning to the fictional Saša: “We shattered along with Yugoslavia and have not yet been able to put ourselves back together again.” A number of Yugoslav-born authors, including Lana Bastašić, Tatjana Gromača, and Miljenko Jergović, have recently published excellent fiction touching on similar issues. But as painful as it may be watching a country tear itself apart, hope remains, Stanišić says. “When a country ceases to exist, there is still hope, your home hasn’t ceased to exist.” In contrast, he adds, “If someone kills your whole family, what is there left to return to? Every war biography is different and needs to be told as such.”

For Stanišić, at least for now, his personal war biography is complete. “I believe that these two books [How the Soldier… and Where You Come From] have brought to light all I needed to say on the [issues of war, family, and identity in times of crisis]. … I covered this all from both perspectives of imagination and self-imaginations, so now I can freely roam other interests. Right now, that is a story of German migrants to the United States in the 19th century.” It is another immigrant’s story that Stanišić’s many fans will no doubt keenly await reading.

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