Interview at Oslobodjenje

Translation by Velid Beganovic Borjen
1. Recently on your FB profile you wrote a touching text about your planned return to Sarajevo soon, ending it with words, “Ah, Sarajevo, love” How did you, an American, end up in wartime Bosnia and Croatia?
Sarajevo has always been for me a symbol of revolt and defiance against death and fascism. I am completely awed and humbled by the way Sarajevans embodied the ideals of liberalism and tolerance and stood against nationalism and religious extremism. I think of that now, so much,and how much we need people to embrace those values once again and be willing to enact that revolt with their very bodies and lives. Camus was my first literary love, and for me, Sarajevo was a manifestation of everything Camus had stood for during the great crisis and catastrophe that had gripped Europe and the world in the 1930’s and 40’s and into Algeria.
The siege of Sarajevo gripped all of my attention and it felt like even all of my breath while I was a student at the University of Virginia. I gathered up every newspaper, woke up early to listen to reports on the radio, and gleaned as much information as I could from organizations documenting the war. I could not ignore what was happening there. It was a new European catastrophe with echoes and resonances out of the pits of the genocides of the beginning of the twentieth century, and here we were at the close of that century, and the entire world was silent, and I couldn’t believe it. It was a shock to me and a wake-up call out of the naivete of my youth and into the horror of the adult world. It was also a revelation to me that Western liberalism was really a fraud– not the ideals of it, but the embodiment and lack of embodiment of it in our society. It revealed the hypocrisy of Europe and America to me in the starkest of terms and I felt a psychological and ethical crisis at the time, as a youth, and the weight of my own culpability in it all and how I would respond.
In the summer of 1994 I had the opportunity to work at Gasinci Refugee camp, but I did not go to Sarajevo until after the war. My connection to wartime Sarajevo was contained to advocacy work I did in Washington DC and activist work in Charlottesville, Virginia. There was an organization called the American Committee to save Bosnia which was organized by Stephen Walker, one of five experts from the State department who resigned over US policy in the former Yugoslavia. The ACSB held rallies and did civil disobedience in Washington DC, and many refugees were also involved in that work. I was in my third year of college at the University of Virginia and was driving up to DC to attend meetings and rallies, but I also started doing some grassroots actions on the campus at UVa. I plastered the walls of the academic buildings with the names of those who had been killed. In one academic building I listed the first names of every person listed on the State department War crimes Report bulletins and the crimes committed against them. These were victims of documented war crimes, concentration camp victims, mass execution victims, rape victims. I wanted people to be faced with those crimes and to see the names and ages of the individuals, and I wanted them to be unable to turn away, so I covered all of the walls as high as I could reach. The effect was pretty shocking and it upset a lot of people. The papers with those names and crimes fluttered in the halls and atrium. I did it in the middle of the night and didn’t tell anyone I was doing it.
I also handed out leaflets and pamphlets educating the students about the situation in Bosnia. UVA was a very non-politically engaged campus, with young people much more interested in partying at sororities and fraternities than political engagement. I went to Gasinci refugee camp in the summer of 1994 and helped deliver humanitarian aid to refugees across the border in Bosnia and along the roadsides in a steady stream coming from Bosnia into Croatia, much like the rivers and flood of people we see now. I am struck by those images of refugees on the same roads beside the same fields and woods where I once was over twenty years ago.
2. What kind of Sarajevo (Bosnia) do you remember from that time; what sights, people or events?
The Bosnia and the Bosnians who I encountered were resilient and defiant, full of unbelievable and unbearable pain, but also a force of refusal and a force of determination– they knew what was true in the face of so many lies and distortions and they had that strength that comes from knowing, absolutely knowing what was right and true and real. This is not to romanticize their suffering or to dehumanize them by mythologizing them– the people I encountered had experienced horrific traumas. The refugees who came to Gasinci and who labored in their journey along the roads had fled villages, swam across the river to get to safety, witnessed their loved ones killed or raped, every crime imaginable had come to them and hurled through their bodies like a blast. That leaves marks, there is no way to escape unscathed– but in the aftermath of these traumas, they did their hair. They wore their pearls. They made coffee and shared cigarettes. They sang songs. I remember gathering in a jam-packed little room with the old folks leading sevdalinkas and the younger people leaning in to listen and learn. I remember the young teenagers, all punk rock and hip-hop and rock-n- roll, gathering for dances. I saw the spontaneous joy in children darting into a run at their games. the dignity of Bosnians, their insistence on humanity, while living in these prefab humanitarian aid trailers, the mud of the camp, the despair in the faces of men and women who had witnessed horrible things, and yet, and yet, the “nevertheless” they insisted on in living life, in enacting life back into existence, back from the brink. Of course, there were the shelled buildings and trains and cars, still charred, the pockmarked walls and graffiti, soldiers, but against that and in juxtaposition was the sounds of the birds and the most beautiful, painfully blue skies over the fields, the ordinariness of the day and the beauty of nature, while bus-loads of refugees and masses of people dragged their belongings out of Hell.
The post-war Sarajevo that I encountered was both a place that had lost so much, but which continued to hang on by a thread to those earlier ideals that made it, for me, the center of humanism and rock-n- roll and creative rebellion. I knew from people who had lived through the siege that in the post-war years it had been flattened and dulled by the influx of Saudi and other religious influence and revival, the drain of intellectuals and creative people to the diaspora, and the influx of Bosnians from the rural areas, who brought a different kind of sensibility and set of values than what Sarajevo had celebrated so fiercely. And yet, and yet, I still sensed that “nevertheless” I still felt that spirit in-breaking through the bullshit. Everywhere I felt it in that wonderful black humor, in the iconoclasm of the locals, especially the ones who had remained through the siege, or those who had been drawn to the place in solidarity. There were still the men and women who wrote poetry and made films and performed art in the most innovative and bombastic and exuberant ways. There were still Muslim cafe owners who put up the Christmas trees and Christians who fasted for Ramadan and many more who just refused to succumb to the narrow definitions and labels of identity, choosing to be exiles, choosing to cross borders and boundaries and be as unbound as the human spirit is capable of being.
I taught Poetry workshops with young people who had spent their early childhoods in the siege. They wanted to write their stories, they wanted to speak of it and to tell the truth. One young woman sang for me the beautiful song, “Vila Vice sa vrh Trebevica.” One woman wrote of the sounds of the animals from the zoo starving on the front lines. And she wrote about her memories of hiding in the cellar during shelling and that it wasn’t all bad– a scandalous thing to say, but so many people who have survived trauma can understand what she meant– how the family was gathered together in a ritual of safe-keeping, whether they could save one another from the randomness of shells or bullets is beside the point– yes, the world is meaningless and death is random, but nevertheless we engage in safe-keeping, we hold one another in this light and will not let go. We are human together. We will love each other and live life, even if some psycho in the hills will snatch it from us, we will not give it away. We will fight to love and to live fiercely in the way that is right.
4.On Your FB page You also posted a cover of wartime Oslobođenje and wrote that its journalists had been incredibly brave. What was it about them you admired the most?
God, just all of what I am describing about what I saw in Bosnians, well I saw it all crystallized and epitomized in those journalists–but they were the ones who had a voice and could testify for the people who may have lost their voice, through death or trauma. I mean the story of Oslobodjenje is legendary– Their allegiance to truth, and I know that word, “truth” is problematic and we could spend hours parsing Postmodern and Deconstructionist understandings of truth and untruth and relativism, and Lord knows after the twisted aberrations of “truth” from regimes and states and in our neo-fascistic resurgences in Europe and America with Trump and Fox news and the wider media, how tricky this notion of truth is– and yet, nevertheless, the journalists at Oslobodjenje stood in opposition to lies and did their very best to stand as near as possible to what is accurate and the best that we can know of the truth. They labored and worked for truth under the most extreme conditions, bearing all that suffering to do this work. One of my favorite poets is Larry Levis. Part of what he writes about is this acknowledgment that there is no meaning, maybe there is no truth, but we speak it anyway, we summon it anyway, we live and breath and do art and testify to something true in opposition to a force which would blot us out. Writers and artists and just ordinary good people can live a life of insubordination to injustice. That’s what I admired about the journalists at Oslobodjenje. Just regular people who were noncompliant when the forces of murder and dehumanization came rumbling.
5. Have You ever visited Oslobođenje’s editorial office?
No! But I would love to!
6. Thank You for helping keep the paper running in Your own way back then, by selling it on the corner of a Washington street. Who organised that sale? Did You manage to sell all the copies?
I believe it was the American Committee to Save Bosnia who organized it and the NY times may have been involved. Oh yes, I believe the run of the paper did sell out entirely. I think it was a project that was well-received in DC.
7. You say You are happy You will be able to meet again Your poetry hero, Goran Simić. Why is it that you call him that?
Goran Simic is one of my lyric and ethical heroes, to take a phrase from David St. John I heard this summer, speaking of poetry masters. Simic’s work really embodies that marvelous black and ironic Bosnian humor, which I firmly believe is an act of protest, above all else, and therefore deeply serious and not at all light-hearted- -and I believe this humor is so deep in the Sarajevan psyche and fundamental to its art and its survival. Goran Simic does this thing, where he is talking to you directly and honestly, like a close friend, a warmth and generosity that comes through in the work and yet, he interrogates and provokes and insists on returning back to fundamental questions– never resting, never letting the reader off the hook– always interrupting the peace with some interjection that destabilizes and reorients the reader toward something deeper than safety. There is no time to rest, no time to be “safe”– yes, Simic will draw you in with that wonderful Bosnian generosity, but he will also invite you into a space that challenges you to rise above complacency and dig deeper. I respond to that kind of challenge for honesty and truth-telling, again, that difficult word, but with Camus, I stand for that kind of labor– to come as near to the truth as possible and to speak it with a dual boldness and humility.
8. You have visited the refugee camp in Gašinci, and many years later also the Syrian refugee camps. What drives You towards such places?
I lived through my own particular traumas in childhood and then into my adulthood. I am a survivor of sexual assault and rape. There was violence in the home and I just happened to get caught in the trajectory of random violence at different points in my life. I have sometimes blamed myself for this or created a narrative that connects my own behavior or way of being in the world with this random violence, saying that because of my earlier traumas I put myself in dangerous situations, traveling alone, being too open to people, maybe being too sexual or something– and that I had opened myself to being revictimized. I’m trying hard to get over that impulse to apologize for being a victim or a survivor, but I’m including those ideas here because I know it’s something other survivors struggle with as well.
Survivors of trauma and violence are really judged very harshly in most cultures, I believe.I think it’s pretty universal and probably something deeply ingrained in our biology, that need to dump the wounded for the survival of the group. We talk a lot and advocate a lot in the United States for survivors of all kinds of trauma. We have survivor awareness and support groups and walks and lots of advocacy in the United States, but in people’s day to day lives survivors really struggle with shame. There’s this feeling like no one wants to hear your whining or hear about your war time experience, if you’re a refugee for instance, because look, now you have all these opportunities and you should be grateful– or about your rape, because maybe you’re just trying to get attention, or whatever else.
And there’s this tension, often with survivors, because after the worse thing has happened to you, sometimes a person may have a heightened awareness of just what is superfluous and stupid about ordinary life. I work with gun violence survivors in the United States, which is an epidemic–so many soldiers and refugees survive war and come home to America to be shot dead– and one thing I notice is how often when survivors talk to one another they just go straight to the worst thing that ever happened to them– like there is this understanding and camaraderie that comes from surviving extreme experiences and an impatience and sometimes anger at the way people around you are walking around just living their lives and they have no clue that there was this horrible rift in the fabric of your world and you feel sort of disconnected and alienated from others, and also ashamed, because it must somehow be your fault or if not your fault, than a stigma, a mark of being damaged.
I have seen this acutely with many refugees– even the term refugee– setting a person aside from the citizens, from the ordinary neighbors and friends– the refugee has this exceptional burden of displacement and damage. It’s not that people actively judge other people like this, not at all, in fact, most people are kind and compassionate, it’s just that these messages are deeply embedded in our cultures and they come out in so many ways.
I was probably drawn to writing about refugees both out of my own empathy and compassion and in some part to avoid writing overtly about myself. I would have felt selfish and self-absorbed to be writing my own story and I was intent on avoiding that like the plague. In my first book, I earnestly wanted to bear witness to people who I felt were voiceless and silenced. I wanted to document the crimes committed against human beings and give them names and bodies. But I also was uncomfortable with the idea of using other people’s pain for art– and for art as a commodity, especially. So I avoided selling the book as much as possible and I also avoided a lot of promoting and marketing– I was kind of torn with poetry being both a free gift, a work of art–and also a product. That was uncomfortable. There were also a lot of ideas coming out of Deconstructionism in the 90’s about the inability to speak for the other, and there were good, important questions being asked about what happens when good-intentioned white Americans take up the voice of the other. I really wrestled with all of that and took a lot of that new thinking to heart. I listened and slowly began to move away from some of what I was doing that I felt was challenging ethically. So I did start to move away from that in my second book, and also in that book (The Bride Minaret) to interrogate my own white Western privilege and to expose some of the ways in which I am caught up and indoctrinated into American imperialist/colonialist/capitalist/empire tendencies. I tried to look at that. I failed, I think in many ways to communicate what I meant, but I did try, and I also opened up to explore some of my own story and get into a bit of my own traumas.
As someone wanting to bear witness to what human beings are capable of withstanding and overcoming– but also to stand in the midst of the sorrow and horror and look it head on without turning away. To be honest and authentic in the world and brave in facing the worst that humans can do. I am in awe of people’s resilience and on the defiance in the act of creating or even just recognizing beauty in the midst of violence and suffering. I love the human capacity to revolt against death. That is what I want to engage in, more than just speaking for others– really speaking to my own culpability in the world with regards to violence and deciding to take the best actions within my reach to do what is right and will be in opposition to it.
9. Even as we speak, lines of some refugees are on the move. How does Your poetic soul experience these ever new lines? Who or what actually sets them in motion?
Fascism, nationalism, ignorance, war sets them in motion– bigotry, callousness, bureaucracy, incompetency entraps them– the same old failure of liberal ideals that destroyed much of Sarajevo and drained it of so much of its blood– the same dead, liberal corpse of Europe is killing off the refugees who come from Syria. European and Western hypocrisy. The exposure of the hypocrisy and decadence of the West. I am enraged to watch it unfold. It makes me so angry. I would like to be able to go over and connect on a personal level at some point.
10. How much are the themes of exile directly linked to the questions of identity? How important is the identity question at all in these cases, from Your own experience?
Identity is a construct that can be empowering in positive ways and negative ways, of course. A connection to a particular history, culture, family, tradition– all of that can be sustaining to us as human beings, sometimes terrified at our precarious place in the universe and needing some kind of narrative to give us meaning, some rituals to enact wholeness and belonging. I love the particulars of culture. I love rituals, religious rituals, family rituals, though I am no good at propagating them and often even often forget birthdays– but still, I am drawn to traditions of all sorts and see them as beautiful enactments of human desire. I love the twice annual tradition of foot-washing in the traditional Mennonite and Amish churches in which members remove their shoes and wash one another’s feet as an act of humility and service and love. That just kills me. I love the call to prayer coming from the loudspeakers in cities like Sarajevo and Damascus. I love listening to the vernacular of a group of LGBT youth in a poetry workshop in Los Angeles and everything that language means as far as binding the group together and also separating out the group in a form of protest against forces of conventionality and life-squelching normalcy. I think we all have rituals and narratives we use to give our lives structure and meaning and these things are important to our sense of selves. It’s story-telling, really. And that is essential to our life-blood.
But of course, stories can be told to incite harm and lead us to death. Karadzic called himself a poet, but he wrote the worst sort of propaganda, exploiting that human desire for stories and identity into something terrible. This is nothing new, and the old old work of tyrants.
I celebrate some elements of differentiation and inclusion that is the dual work of identity– to say I am this and I am not that, but empathy must reign as well, and an adaptability, a willingness to push boundaries and cross borders and be malleable to change. Because the wholeness and stability and safety that identity offers needs to be balanced with that other amazing force of human beings– to create, to be dynamic, to transform the self multiple times and to live freely, outside of the strict or rigid bounds of identity. Exile is essential to the life of a poet.
11. The titles of Your first two poetry collections alone speak clearly that they came out of You in order to release a scream about the things you’ve seen in those places where – the world ends.What kind of a feeling does it arise, this notion that despite of it all, some new “end of the world” is occurring perpetually? What is Your third book about?
My third book is about losing your voice to trauma and then reclaiming it through love, a lovethat was there all along and one is just awakening to. It may be a love of a place or landscape, the love of creatures and beasts, the love of an idea, or the love of a person or people who you have connected with in some mysterious and wonderful way– but always this sense of connection and the urgency in connecting. Trauma can dislocate you from the world and from your own self. The title comes from the torture apparatus that was used in the 16th century on Anabaptists who were being led to execution. As they went to their death by rack or stake, by fire or water, these martyrs would often testify or sing hymns and the tongue screw was used to silence them. You can see the themes of identity here, in the Mennonite/Anabaptist history, which was my biological father’s heritage and a narrative I was drawn to as a way of being rooted and connected to him, as he had left me and the family when I was very young. I longed for that connectedness and found it in these martyr stories and stories of violence that are part of the Pacifist Mennonite culture and identity.
I am no longer religious. Twice in my life I was drawn to religion as a response to trauma, but I am no longer a believer. Yet, I still cry when I hear Mennonites singing in four part harmony and I still have a fondness for those rituals and I don’t feel an animosity toward religion. I see religion as just another expression of human creativity and desire. I recognize its dangers, though, of course. Just like all forms of human desire, and just like poetry and psychology and everything else, people will use religion to further violence sometimes. So, there are poems in the book about trauma, about sexual violence, about loss. There are also love poems and poems that celebrate desire. There are poems about redemption and reconciliation. There are many poems about Los Angeles that have seeds that are native to that region that require fire to germinate. Bosnia is also prone to wildfires and has some of this same flora and fauna-especially in the hills around Mostar and down into the coast of Croatia– very similar landscapes to California, mediterranean, chaparral and sage and creosote. This is also a similar landscape to the sage-brush prairies of Wyoming, my mother’s home. And there are a lot of questions about family and place and identity in the book.
My fourth book, Thrust, just won the Lexi Rudnitsky Prize with Persea Books in NY. This book picks up on the themes of violence, place, and regeneration, but delves into female power and agency and desire even more. Many of these poems are rooted in the landscape of where I mostly grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the battlefields of the Civil War. There is blood soaked in the ground here. I grew up with that history of violence and mined it for the poems in Thrust.
12. Why The Bride Minaret?
The Minaret of the Bride is the oldest minaret on the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. It is a holy site for both Christians and Muslims, holding the head of John the Baptist.This mosque is considered by some Muslims to be the fourth holiest site in Islam. I love it as representative of the crossroads that was Damascus, this place where all these different identities connected and intersected and sometimes clashed– but mostly I saw and identified with the intersections. The Umayyad mosque is also considered to be the place where Jesus will return in the end days. I grew up with fundamentalist religion and the constant threat of end times. The bride iconography in my upbringing was about the church waiting for Jesus to return and it’s similar in Islam– the bride in this book is a fugitive– she’s run off into the world– she is searching for identity in a land of exile. She is a refugee and she is also a prophet. She speaks the truth. She is calling us home through the call to prayer. To turn back, to turn toward one another and toward love.