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Ajla Terzic: A Not So Simple Life

The Bosnian novelist and journalist talks about growing up in wartime, Yugoslav pop, and why Bosnia needs to move on.

by John K. Cox 2 July 2014

Ajla Terzic, born in 1979, is a Bosnian novelist and journalist. She is the author of two novels, Lutrija (The Lottery) from 2009 and Mogla je biti prosta prica (This Could Have Been a Simple Story) from 2011; she also published a book of poetry, Kako tesko pisem (How Hard It Is for Me to Write) in 2004. Since 2009 she has been a foreign policy editor and columnist for Oslobodjenje in Sarajevo. She also works regularly with the Serbian media outlets and Vreme. She earned her master’s degree in English language and literature from the University of Sarajevo in 2012 and has just completed a year at the University of Maryland as a Hubert H. Humphrey (Fulbright) Fellow. She has won several literary prizes in Europe and also translated fiction and essays from English into Bosnian.




John K. Cox: Tell us about the town in which you grew up. What are some of the salient feelings, images, and thoughts that the name of your hometown brings up in you? Do you have a favorite childhood memory connected with that city?


Ajla Terzic (by email): If the map of Bosnia were a dartboard, Travnik would have the highest score since it’s at the center. I love its Fellini atmosphere, its mélange of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian influence, its mosques and cafes, its Franciscans and the Jewish community, its water and its hills, and, of course, the everlasting presence of Yugoslavia’s Nobel prize winner Ivo Andric. I used to sit on the slopes of the fort there like a character from Andric’s stories wondering what lies behind. ... I am the first both woman and first person in my family to get a university degree, but maybe it’s not so much education as curiosity that took me out of there. My dad and my high-school friends still live there, and whenever I go back, it’s like when you find your favorite pair of jeans at the bottom of your closet. I am also aware that I can romanticize Travnik precisely because I don’t live there anymore. The jeans metaphor quickly turns into the feeling of Alice in Wonderland being too big for the house, with her limbs growing too fast, breaking the windows and (glass) ceiling. But I believe that it was the best place to be born in Bosnia.




How did the 1990s affect your family and friends? Where were you during the fighting from 1992 to 1995?


I was in Travnik in spring of 1992 and I stayed there with my family, my parents and my brother, who is a year younger, during the war. For a short time we stayed with my father’s business partner’s mom in Split, Croatia, and that separation was worse than hearing the shells. It was interesting for me to come back to Split almost 20 years later for a month-long writer’s residency, where now I came as an acknowledged writer. My apartment was five minutes’ walk from the bus station where I spent one of the most unpleasant nights of my life.


However, after we came back from Split, yes, there was a food shortage and people were being killed and every time I went out – after all I could not stay at home all the time – my mom would freak out. For a long time I thought that because of my age I got through all of that unharmed: I had school and friends and a boyfriend and my whole life was situated downtown. At the same time, my maternal grandparents’ house was burned down by Serbs, and my paternal grandparents’ house was torn down by Croats. My dad was in the Bosnian army, but my biggest concern during the war was what if my brother should get recruited.


The effect of a war can be the same as when you take iron supplements. By that I mean “slow release.” That is how the war affected my late mother, for instance. Eventually, because I know how it feels for a whole world to fall apart, I developed an interest in dystopias and catastrophes in literature and on screen.


Tell us a bit about studying in Sarajevo. What was life there like in the 1990s?


I came to Sarajevo in 1997 and I was overwhelmed by both the city and my recently acquired freedom to such a degree that the evidence and remains of the war, which were still visible, did not really influence me much. However, living in Sarajevo for 15 years now, I have witnessed that its identity is closely intertwined with the war, at the cost of being harmful for both the city and its citizens. It is important to remember, but sometimes you have to let go that very same memory.


I was 13 years old when the war started, so I tend to think that I grew up in former Yugoslavia. At the age of 7, I was spending my holidays at my aunt’s in Switzerland. By the age of 12 I traveled the country from Subotica to the island of Rab in Croatia, sometimes with my parents and sometimes on my own.

I was a dancer for more than 10 years, and that experience gave me not just well-built thighs but also the sense of freedom that I also found two decades later in the United States. Freedom is not just tourism; it’s more an attitude that you can take what you think you deserve. We Bosnians should be more straightforward on that issue. 


Please give us your “elevator speech” about your two novels, The Lottery and This Could Have Been a Simple Story. What do you want people to remember about them?


The wonderful thing about writing is freedom – the freedom of style, references, motives, influences if you want. But then again choice, as we know from the consumer world, can be a tricky thing. I used to quote Henry Miller, who said, “Show me a complicated man and I will show you a great person.” And I always took this in my defense when in doubt about my choices both in life and literature.


So for me it is important that both of my novels are triggered by real-life occurrences. My first novel, which is about a young person winning the American green-card lottery, I wrote after my ex-boyfriend and I applied for it and I almost won. The experience I turned into a tale of coincidences and luck, with references to the story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, and also to Paul Auster, Woody Allen, and Richard Dawkins (the genetic lottery). My second novel is a Balkan same-sex love story about choices and identities. It was triggered by meeting this beautiful woman on a train from Vienna to Graz. She wanted to study French literature and her father was a music critic for the Guardian. She later became a successful fashion model, and it was exciting to see her transformation in the magazines. I really believe that life is an amazing inspiration for fiction, and it is up to a writer how skillfully she or he can translate this reality into artwork. Here is precisely what I want people to feel: the vivacity of my characters and normality of their actions and reactions. Writers need to live and be exposed to life in order to write about it, and my best pieces came after I got my hands dirty and my skin exposed. Also, one has to be careful not to do foolish things just in order to write about them. The same goes for, as [the celebrity chef] Anthony Bourdain would say, the kitchen, as for love and writing: always protect yourself. Of course I don’t exactly stick to this, but maybe someday I will.


Your second novel, This Could Have Been a Simple Story, derives its title from a song by the popular Yugoslav and Bosnian rock band Bijelo Dugme. The novel also contains many other references to their lyrics. What literary or historical effect were you trying to achieve by the concentrated, high dose of pop music (which, by the way, I have observed in many other writers of your generation)?


I like Bijelo Dugme, and the work of its front man, now a composer in France, Goran Bregovic. My intention was to take verses and motifs from the band, which had a very macho image in Yugoslavia, and to knit them into a love story between two women. I like to twist reality and show things that are well-known from an alternative perspective. Camp and gay imagery I always found very interesting and entertaining. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is one of my favorite movies, not to mention a whole spectrum of writers from Oscar Wilde to David Sedaris that I consider my closest influences. Growing up in Travnik in the former Yugoslavia and studying and working in Sarajevo, these references made my life more vivacious but made me often a bit lonely in my interests and preferences. And, above all, music in general is as important to me as literature. I have been going to rock concerts all over Europe since I was 18 and radio is a leitmotif of my adult life.


What’s your short list of great South Slavic writers? I’ll start for you, and you can edit, delete, whatever: Andric, Miroslav Krleza, Milos Crnjanski, Mirko Kovac … ?


To paraphrase Adele, you almost have it all. [Danilo] Kis, of course, should be added to the list. Ivo Andric is like a third grandfather to me since I had his portraits all over my parents’ apartments for as long as I can remember, And, by the way, the Krleza–Kis dichotomy was like the Rolling Stones–Beatles in music. Mirko Kovac, who died recently – I respected and read him over and over, too.


What women writers from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, etc. deserve to be better known, especially in fiction?


Women writers? John, let me go in another direction with that. ... I don’t want to make such a distinction, since somehow the contemporary and younger writers I read and know personally turn out to be men like Ognjen Spahic, Goran Vojnovic, and Muharem Bazdulj. And I would add Aleksandar Hemon to the list. He needs no special introduction at all. Translation plays a big part in all this and translators from Slavic languages are doing as much to map the reception of BCS [Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian] literature as the writers from the area.


You write journalism for a renowned European newspaper, Oslobodjenje, based in Sarajevo. I know that you’ve written a lot of columns about the United States since coming here. But when you are in Bosnia, what sorts of things do you write about as a journalist?


Back home, I started my journalism career writing on arts and literature in the Bosnian media. I was a freelancer for quite a while and somehow gradually switched to politics when I started writing for Pescanik in Belgrade and doing articles for Oslobodjenje. I enjoy writing polemical articles and was never reluctant to start a fight, either with bad translators of dear Sylvia Plath’s poems or Edward Said’s books. Nor am I reluctant to engage in a discussion with the Islamic community in Sarajevo. Given the fact that I do know how to write and I have the opportunity and the platform, I see it as my duty to speak for those who are not able or are afraid to do so, on issues from atheists’ rights to things affecting the LGBT community.


What do you think Bosnia and Herzegovina will be like in 20 or 25 years? I am thinking of politics, economics, demographics ...


For my master’s thesis I wrote on dystopian fiction, from the perspective of Anglo-American literature. If I knew the answer to this question of yours, I might write a Bosnian dystopia myself. The worst scenario would be if things were to stay the same, and get neither better nor worse. Admission to European Union is a key factor that might improve the situation in Bosnia, but that is only the skeleton. To develop the bones you need calcium, sun, and the support of muscles and if you want to run you need good coordination and exercise. Contemporary Bosnia, but also Croatia and Serbia, are complicated “side-effects” of politics in the 1990s and the unrealistic aspirations of their peoples. Now these peoples must enter the international arena with the skills they have.


Yes, it is not fair what happened to Bosnia. But life’s a bitch, so we should stop whining and move on. Also, there cannot be any progress without revision of that now-notorious Dayton treaty.


Nostalgia and historical memory, collective or otherwise, both vary from person to person. What does the idea of Yugoslavia, as it existed in its state history from 1918 to 1991, mean to you now?


After I came to my Humphrey office at the University of Maryland, I found a drawer full of world flags that they put out depending where the fellows are from. Among them I found the Yugoslav flag, too, the flag of the country whose emblems were [as] powerful to its citizens as American national imagery is to Americans.


I feel more comfortable in Belgrade – which is truly the New York of the Balkans – than in Sarajevo. [...] one of the first short stories I wrote was about the romantic encounter Gavrilo Princip had with his only love the night before the assassination of the Austrian archduke and his wife. I was one of the last generations of Tito’s Pioneers and I am proud and aware of his Partisans’ defense and resistance in the Second World War. My dad was a communist (but not any longer); my mom was an observant Muslim who used to fast for Ramadan, and at every Eid the family would gather in my parents’ apartment for lunch. Although today I am not religious at all, and I consider Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens my big influences, I was among the few children who in the year of the [1984 Sarajevo] Winter Olympic Games went to mekteb [Islamic basic school] in Travnik on weekends. It was fun and it was short, and it was just part of growing up in Yugoslavia.


I have kept the flag from my Maryland office, since it feels like my own. But at the same time I wonder: isn’t it somehow off-base to praise the former Yugoslavia unconditionally when it treated Bosnia in such a miserable way at the very end?


What is your personal, working definition of nationalism?


A very personal definition would be: the “ism” that almost ruined my life and my family’s lives and most certainly pushed my country into regression and stagnation. It is a vicious blindness and waste of one’s life.


I understand your antipathy here. But on the issue of just what nationalism is – how do you make sense of it as compared to patriotism? Is it valuable at all as a form of state organization or cultural identity? Most important, perhaps, is this: how do you know when you’re talking to a nationalist?


I would say you know you are speaking to a nationalist by the way he or she frames a conflict, if you mean nationalism in the Balkans and/or on issues relating to the Balkans. We also have to consider what we might call soft nationalism. That’s when people equalize the atrocities, saying that bad things in the war happened to everyone. There’s also nationalism in gloves, like what is being launched from academia and is as damaging as violence committed in the name of the nation.


However, as Bob Dylan says, the times they are a-changing. So nationalists are also mutating into species that are more adaptable and hard to notice at first glance.


In the West, some historians and journalists responded to the horrors of the 1992-1995 war by saying that Bosnia had been like Yugoslavia in miniature, a microcosm of “brotherhood and unity,” of tolerance and diversity. Some have since limited that praise of Bosnian tolerance only to Sarajevo, or even only to certain parts of the city, claiming that much of the republic was historically tense and remained so into our times. Where do you stand on this issue? How justified is Bosnia’s heroic label of multicultural oasis of toleration before the war shredded it?


Do you know what David Rieff, Susan Sontag’s son, said of Bosnia? Half of the people in the world would give their left hand to live in Bosnia, and the other half would give their left hand not to live in Bosnia. This is not a bad way to characterize this Bosnian complexity and duality since Bosnia now is really stuck between tradition and globalization, and this schizophrenic position is holding in place for more two decades now. Yes, it was the most multiethnic republic in former Yugoslavia, but that will not keep the economy or agriculture going forward, and I argue that Bosnia should get rid of these sentiments the same way the other ex-Yu republics did. I have to quote here my friend from Bangladesh who studies global warming and who often asks, “Is it sustainable?” In this case it is not sustainable at all, and Bosnia needs to rebrand itself like Croatia or Serbia is doing, since flashy attitude can do wonders. I hate it that when you Google my country, genocide and troubles and war come up. It’s like that black rainy cloud that is always after the Addams family. The metaphor seems appropriate now, especially after the recent floods that hit the region. And the comments and articles about how people were united in helping each other regardless of nationality I find irritating, since that is just pushing the same nationalist buttons, only in the opposite way.


I might sound impatient to deal with the past, but that is so because I have done so ever since my high school, and the burden sometimes seemed too heavy.


As Camus said, you cannot live this life hating it. The same goes for Bosnia. The basis for a sustainable country is patriotism. Just look at the States! And you can’t really like a country that is not doing much to make your life easier.


Maybe I should have played badminton more when I was younger. But there is a saying in Bosnia that goes “Tako mi grah pao,” which can be translated as “Those were the cards I was dealt.”


John K. Cox is professor of history at North Dakota State University in Fargo. His historical publications include Slovenia: Evolving Loyalties (2005) and The History of Serbia (2002). He has published translations of some of the works of Danilo Kis, as well as novels by Ivan Cankar and Vjenceslav Novak. His translation of Ajla Terzic’s novel This Could Have Been a Simple Story will be published in 2015. 


Photo of Ajla Terzic from her Facebook page.


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