‘No enemies, only survivors:’ Bosnia’s star writer, Faruk Šehić, on rivers, war and a borderless world

22 November 2021
Top image: Dino Isaković

Walking through Sarajevo, one novella takes prime position in the city’s bookshops: Faruk Šehić’s latest work, Greta. Šehić, who won the European Prize for Literature in 2013 for his debut novel, Quiet Flows the Una, is a household name in Bosnia and Herzegovina — both for his poetry, and for his prose. I meet Šehić in a cafe by the river Miljacka in the capital, where he often goes to be close to water. “I love rivers,” he tells me. His claim doesn’t come as a surprise.

Rivers are a strong presence throughout Šehić‘s literature. In his debut novel, Šehić celebrates the waters which flow through the small town where he grew up, and where he returns each summer. He still fishes, swims, and laughs with childhood friends, many of whom have emigrated abroad, but who always return for the warm season. His forthcoming collection of poetry in English is also called My Rivers.

It is perhaps easy to see why Šehić has chosen the country’s waterways as his muse. Bosnia indeed boasts some of the clearest waters in Europe: few stay indifferent to the see-through, almost unreal blue of its rivers. But to Šehić, this natural beauty is also a bright counterpoint to the country’s painful past. “They, who loved life beside the river Una/ and died for that, so that we could return to our town/ That desire was our greatest weapon,/ but only families of the dead remember that,” Šehić writes in his poem Domestic Epiphany.

Šehić fishing on the river Una. Image: Dino Isaković

Like Quiet Flows the Una, and the short story collection that preceded it, Under Pressure, Šehić’s latest novella Greta is a reflection on life in the midst of war. Born in 1970, Šehić was a veterinary student when armed conflict broke out in what was then Yugoslavia — “the golden age of the South Slavs,” as the writer calls it. When the Bosnian War began in 1992, Šehić himself took to arms as a volunteer-turned-lieutenant, leading 130 men at only 22 years-old. He still has a scar from the war on his left forearm. I ask about the incident that caused it: “It’s a funny story; it’s not tragic,” he says, “but it was painful nonetheless.” Šehić in fact describes the episode in “Dusk til Dawn”, in Under Pressure. The story features a drunken altercation with the police which leaves Šehić receiving stitches in hospital, before being “crucified on an UNHCR foam mattress” for the next nine days. His mother covers him with ointments, while his father lies in the next room, wounded. “He’d stepped on a landmine which blew off half his foot,” the narrator states, his unheroic tone hinting at the everyday banality of violence. “I couldn’t wait to have my stitches removed so I could go out. I was falling apart with boredom. I started writing poetry: ‘Through iron sights I gaze at the stars/ As they casually waste their lustre/ When they die they don’t agonise over their expulsion/ From the world and their own flesh/ My gun is chock-a-block with sentiment.’”

Šehić (on the right) with his comrades during the war. Image: Hari Palić, who died in battle in 1995.

Greta is the expansion of a different short story within Under Pressure. While Šehić’s previous works have fictionalised some of his own experiences, this one is named after one of the writer’s former neighbours, a Slovenian school teacher to whom the writer pays tribute. “She was like a second mother to my younger sister, and left with my family when we had to evacuate our flat — despite the fact that she didn’t need to do it; she was safe where she was.” Šehić wrote the novella, challenged to try out the format by his friend, Bosnian writer Semezdin Mehmedinovic, who has just returned to Sarajevo after a 25-years exile in the United States.

Did Šehić see the war coming? Yes and no, he says. “There was political tension until, in the 80s, Serbian and Croatian nationalism started growing. But if a country is bigger, [its] nationalism is bigger too,” he explains, matter-of-factly. It was then that Šehić’s father stopped reading the news, preferring to dive into westerns instead.

The writer, meanwhile, has long reflected on the nationalism that fuelled the Bosnian War, and the wider Yugoslavian conflicts that burned around it. “Here, people want to have a single [ethnic] identity. But my [ethnic] identity is fluid,” he says. He later adds with his signature mix of self-irony: “When I am [politically] angry, I say I am Bosnian. When I am not, I say I am just from Bosnia.” In the opening of Quiet Flows the Una, the first-person narrator, too, says: “Don’t ask me who I am because that scares me. Ask me something else.”

War erases everything. How else can I claim my past except through stories?

Does he still think about the war, given that he writes about it so much? “When I’m writing, I must go there; it’s like a realm where I have to go,” the writer says. “My memory is my portal. But it keeps shifting.” During the war, Šehić‘s block of flats was set on fire. All of their family photographs were destroyed. “War erases everything,” Šehić says matter-of-factly. “How else can I claim my past except through stories?”

When Šehić gives me a tour of central Sarajevo, it is clear that war is not only woven into the writer’s literature, but also in how he perceives his surroundings. He breaks the life of each building into different stages: “I see a tower from the 14th century, but then think about how it was also a sniper hidie-out during the war,” he says. Later, he points to an office building on the city’s central boulevard. “There used to be a bar there during the war,” he says. “We drank there for three days.”

Yet a new chapter in Sarajevo’s history has since begun. With no Covid-19 vaccines available in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the spring, Šehić, like many middle-class Bosnians, went to Serbia to get vaccinated, following the Belgrade government’s decision to offer the jab to all former Yugoslav nations. “I find it ironic that the people who killed us during the war are also now saving our lives,” Šehić says.

The writer has also stopped drinking. (“You can’t be a professional writer and drink,” he tells me.) Šehić now wakes up at 7:00 each day and writes for a good few hours. In the afternoon, he makes notes, or edits his work. If he is working on a new novel, as he is at the moment, there’s no time for anything else, including his column for one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s main newspapers.

The novel he is currently working on is a sci-fi dystopia set in a borderless world. “I realised that during the war, we lived in a dystopia,” he says. “And after the war, we’re literally living on ruins.” The book is built on this metaphor: “there’s no political system, no state, no borders, it’s a controlled anarchy. Cities are destroyed and people live just like that.” By moving away from realist prose, Šehić hopes that sci-fi will give him the freedom to explore a post-conflict world. He also hopes to tell a universal story, the way some of his favourite authors, including George Orwell, Jack London, or Ursula Le Guin — whom he calls “prophetic writers” — did. “In Greta, we ourselves are also our enemies, whereas here, there are no enemies — only survivors.”

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