A Capacity for Empathy, an interview with Sara Nović, author of Girl at War

Sara Nović has an agenda. The violent conflicts in Croatia, where she has many friends and family, and the complicated history of that region have been obsessions of Sara’s for many years. Her powerful debut novel Girl at War (Random House, 2015) tells the story of Ana, a 10-year-old girl who is living in Zagreb when war breaks out in the early 1990s. In telling Ana’s story, Sara hopes to shed light on a time and a place about which many people still know very little.

Sara’s novel gives us familiar childhood settings of school and play and family life, as well as harrowing scenes of civilian war and make shift armies, of teenagers-turned-soldiers in abandoned buildings called “safe houses,” where the inhabitants are playing cards one minute and shooting their enemies the next. We travel through this world with Ana, at an age where she is just starting to make sense of the world around her, while the world keeps refusing to make sense.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Sara at the bustling Housingworks Bookstore Café in SoHo. We talked about her writing process, the big ideas and motives behind her debut novel, and why being deaf is so awesome (Sara has had progressive hearing loss since she was a child).

Catherine LaSota: You were born in New Jersey, and you went to Croatia after high school. Was that your first visit?

Sara Nović: Yes. And that was kind of the first time I started writing stuff down about Croatia, because I was talking with people. That was the point where war stories stuck on me. And everybody was quite eager to talk about the conflict, because people didn’t experience it outside of the region and people don’t really know about it here, and during the reconstructions, people in Croatia felt kind of disillusioned about that. People feel a little bit abandoned by the West in certain ways… Particularly in Croatia, nobody in the West even really knows what happened there. I think people are more familiar with Bosnia as the center of that war, because that’s where America got involved. And now Croatia is like a hot vacation spot.

CL: It seems like there is a lack of awareness about the history of Yugoslavia in general in America, and, this is a difficult question, but, I’m wondering if there is one major thing you hope people could understand about what happened there?

…it’s easy to sensationalize war and also to ignore an ethnic conflict where you just say, well these people just hate each other…

SN: Well, I think one thing to know is: as complicated as it was, it was actually even more complicated than that. I think the way it gets portrayed in the media was: Serbs are Christian Orthodox, and Croats are Catholics, and Bosnians are Muslim, and that’s why they’re all fighting each other. But it’s way bigger than that. And obviously nationalist stuff did fan the flames, but it was also a war about money and who gets to decide which directions the roads go! Like, the capital of Serbia is Belgrade, and they wanted to build roads to get to the capital, but then Croatia wouldn’t have any roads going the other direction…almost silly stuff, but, like, that’s important to know, because it’s easy to sensationalize war and also to ignore an ethnic conflict where you just say, well these people just hate each other or whatever. It’s kind of worse than that.

CL: I think America is very good at framing things in terms of religious conflict. It’s a narrative that Americans are familiar with.

SN: Sure. And because there are all these groups and it’s so confusing — this one had an army, but these people didn’t have an army but they made their own group, etc. — there are just so many things happening that it makes sense that you’d try to simplify it somehow, like how can I define these groups and comprehend this? Like, even, who is fighting with whom?

CL: Right. There is a scene at the United Nations in your book that I’m thinking of, where Ana is talking about having stayed up really late the night before trying to think of what to say to the UN council about her wartime experience, but she is having a hard time because she still doesn’t really have a narrative for herself about what had happened. So I’m wondering — how do you see fiction and narrative as ways of making sense out of situations?

SN: I think the value of fiction about something like this is that it’s a way for people to understand the story. Even though it’s not a perfect story or complete narrative, fiction does give you a capacity for empathy, especially if it’s a novel. In this novel, for example, you can kind of hang out with Ana for a while and feel more, I hope. So that’s maybe one way of understanding a story, even if you don’t exactly understand all the details.

CL: You sold your book to Random House before finishing your degree at Columbia, and then you published the short story “Notes on a War-Torn Childhood” with Recommended Reading here at Electric Literature. That story was written after you’d written the book, correct?

SN: Yeah, I mean, the book took a long time. I’m told these things happen! I wrote a short story when I was in undergrad that pretty much still exists as the end of Part One of Girl at War. It’s this very violent thing that happens. I gave it to a professor, and he was like, oh good, go write a book! (Laughs) And I’m like, thinking, what? But then I just started writing chunks, and I think you can kind of see that in the structure, how it was kind of vignettes, and there is different stuff in all directions. I was writing those for years, but not really figuring out the direction. The story I wrote while I was at Columbia that was published in Recommended Reading obviously uses similar characters, but I was playing with expanding and contracting the material.

CL: At what point did the structure of Girl at War become clear to you? You said you were working on it in different sections.

…what does it mean to make a story out of this material, and how does trauma and memory come into play in narratives of war in general?

SN: I always knew that I didn’t want it to be chronological, but I didn’t know what order it would be for a long time. At one point I had it switching back and forth much more than it does now. I had it at one point starting in the present, which made no sense, not even a little! (Laughs) And eventually I kind of came up with the way it is now, in part because I kind of felt like people needed a break after the end of Part One. But there was also this idea of what does it mean to make a story out of this material, and how does trauma and memory come into play in narratives of war in general? And I think they’re probably not straight narratives, you know?

CL: The question of memory and the fallibility of memory is something that comes up a lot in your book. Can you talk about that a bit?

SN: Yeah, it’s interesting because, the different people I talked to remember things differently. It also depends on what side are you on, or where you were. Even in Croatia, the war in Zagreb looks a lot different than the war in Vukovar or wherever. So that changes things. I had a couple friends who told this story that there used to be a McDonald’s in Zagreb, and after the first air raid happened it closed. And I was like, that’s amazing! And that was in the book. But then other friends were like, no, there was never any McDonalds in Zagreb. (Those friends said) McDonalds didn’t come until after the war, and it was the symbol of capitalism or independence or whatever. So I still don’t know what the answer is, and I couldn’t really work it out, and I ended up taking it out of the book.

CL: What kind of research did you do for Girl at War?

SN: Besides talking with and stalking my loved ones, I also did a lot of weird things like research the roads — so, which road existed at what time, etc. I was looking at a lot of old maps. Part of the reason (in Part One of the book) why Ana and her family end up down below where they’re going is because the roads were wonky then. And for some reason I became obsessed with what the weather was on certain days. And that information was really hard to find initially, when I started writing this book. Now there are websites that would make that pretty easy.

CL: Was the accuracy of the weather important because of the environment or feeling that weather can create?

SN: Well I think I just felt like a lot of good historical details were important for showing that this is a real place where things happened, even though the characters are fictional.

CL: You studied literary translation at Columbia with your MFA program there. How has that influenced your own writing?

SN: Just to be working on Croatia stuff, reading stuff, was an influence. The poems that I was translating, this guy Izet Sarajlić was writing them in his house during the first 30 days of the siege on Sarajevo. So that was quite intense. But also funny — that was interesting, to find humor in that situation, sometimes it’s the only thing you can do.

CL: Had you thought about writing a novel before that experience you had with your undergrad short story?

SN: No! I mean, I never really thought that writing was a thing that people did. It’s weird, because I was always an avid reader, but it never occurred to me that people were writing these books! (Laughs) And I was always writing stuff like terrible poetry or whatever — stories too — as a kid, but, like, hiding them under my bed. They weren’t things that I showed people. So I definitely didn’t think writing was something you could do for a career, or that writing was even a thing that adults did.

CL: Was your writing workshop the first time you’d shared your writing with somebody?

SN: Yeah, with the exception of my little sister, who has read everything I’ve written.

CL: Does she still read everything you write?

SN: Yeah. I actually live with her in Queens. So, she’s a live-in reader. She’s not a writer, but she’s smart, so it’s like, what does a human think of this? (Laughs) Which I think is nice to have in the earlier stages. And in the later stages. A person who’s going to read this book and not think of it the way I do.

CL: Have the family and friends you talked with in Croatia read the novel? What do they think?

SN: They like it. Which is great! I was really happy about that. I wasn’t that nervous about it because I had been talking with them about it so much that nothing in the book was really a surprise to them, but the fact that they like the finished product is great.

CL: I think one of the big strengths of the book is that we learn about the experience of a child in wartime, and that Ana, despite her environment, is still just a child. This environment of war is simply her frame of reference for what is normal. Was it difficult to write the story of someone whose childhood was very different from your own?

SN: Well, I mean, I kind of identify with Ana in a lot of ways, personality-wise.

CL: How so?

SN: Mostly her feeling generally weird in the world — but maybe that’s all writers, I‘m not sure. (Laughs) I don’t know, but writing about Ana didn’t feel hard for me, because I got to learn along with her. Because of the way the book is set up, she kind of has to work out, okay, what’s going on now, and what’s going on now, which is what I was doing as I wrote. I was also a giant tomboy as a kid, and I identify with a tomboy’s struggle with her mom, which comes up in the book a little bit. So that’s one thing. I don’t know, I think our general personalities are quite similar. But she’s smarter than I am!

CL: How do you write a character who is smarter than you are?

SN: I don’t know! Well, I guess you revise it, you know, it takes a lot of tries!

CL: Speaking of Ana’s parents, I was thinking: they are faced with some horrific decisions about safety and their family, and in the course of making decisions they are both showing their powerlessness and also some strength at the same time. I’m curious about your thoughts on characters that express strength, or characters that are seen as weak, and how do you write a character that is strong? What does that mean to you?

…in the landscape of war, you don’t have agency

SN: It’s particularly weird in this book, I think, because in the landscape of war, you don’t have agency. That’s something that I worried about when I was writing Ana, because first of all, she’s a kid, so she doesn’t have that much agency anyway. And then she’s in this war where the whole point of the war is you lose control over your life, and particularly this war where there is genocide involved, and the civilian is the target of this thing. So that question of agency — there has to be a way to show strength even when you don’t have control over your basic life, and I guess it’s a mental thing. Ana’s dad does it by being really good-natured — he’s kind of funny, not strong in a physical, violent way. And then there are those characters in the safe houses, who are strong in a very different way.

CL: Were there particular characters that were favorites for you to write?

SN: Sure. I mean I think Ana’s dad is a favorite of mine. I honestly had the most fun writing the safe house stuff, because it was exciting, and (the characters in the safe houses) are so bad-ass!

CL: The environment in those safe houses is SO masculine — images of oiled-up women on the walls, etc.

SN: Kind of — I mean, definitely in Croatia, but I think also in Europe in general, naked chicks are just more of a thing. Like if you buy a newspaper, there is a naked girl on the cover of the newspaper, etc. I think Ana is pretty unfazed by it because it’s just all around her all the time. But yeah, in most civilian or child soldier situations, you have to manufacture a certain kind of bravado to get people to kill people, and I think a lot of that will oftentimes be done with drugs, but in this case, it’s this feeling of being an action hero or a gangster or something.

CL: The people in the safe houses all have these action hero names. Were those names fun to come up with?

SN: Yes, it was super fun. And I think (choosing action hero names) was something that somebody told me had happened and maybe quite often, because, like, the whole Croatian army wasn’t really an army, and the whole Bosnian army wasn’t really an army. There were a lot of people who weren’t used to killing people who were all of a sudden killing people.

CL: One thing that Ana does to get away sometimes and gain perspective is to step outside and spend time on balconies. I’m wondering: New York can be a crazy place — what do you like to do yourself when you just need to step out of it for a while?

SN: I like to walk around. In Queens you can walk and no one will bother you — not so much in Manhattan. But when I lived in Brooklyn I used to just go to the river a lot. Just the smell of salty water takes it down a notch for me — it feels like an extreme change to me! So, yeah, if I can be near water then I feel a lot better. Luckily there is a lot of water around New York– if it’s dirty, it doesn’t matter.

CL: Where do you do your writing?

SN: I do a lot of my writing on the train. I find the train is conducive to writing. I think because you can’t get out. I wrote a lot of Girl at War on New Jersey Transit, because I was living in Philadelphia when I started going to Columbia, and I thought, if I’m going to be on this train for two hours, I’ll just sit here and write.

CL: Ana maintains a distant relationship with Sharon, a UN Peacekeeper who met Ana when she was 10 years old, in a time and place of war. In one scene when Ana is an adult, she realizes, “for Sharon, I would always be ten years old.” I love this scene, which made me think about how we are often stuck in the moment of our lives that define us for certain people. Do you think that we often define other people by certain moments in their lives, or do we also do this to ourselves? This seems like a theme that runs throughout Girl at War.

SN: Yeah, for sure, definitely, we do it to ourselves probably both by accident and on purpose in different ways, like when there is something that we can’t get over and then we define ourselves in a way that perpetuates that. And yes, of course, other people do it, too, like if you go home for Thanksgiving or something, the way you talk to your family is different than the way you talk with people you see in New York everyday, and part of that is because your family sees you in a different way or in a different time.

CL: What are you working on now, and is there anything you are reading that you particularly love?

SN: Right now I’m reading Heidi Julavits’s book (The Folded Clock), and it is awesome! I love it! Her book is lovely — it’s like having a sleepover with a friend who is way smarter than you telling you very smart things, because it’s really intimate but really intelligent. So I love that. What am I writing? Who knows! Deaf stuff mostly. I’ve been writing some stories about deaf characters. I’ve been writing something that I thought was a short story, but it keeps getting fatter and fatter, so I have no idea what that means!

CL: Are you still doing the Redeafined blog?

SN: Yeah, not as much because I’ve been busy, but I always have something to say about it! The Redeafined blog started because there is this idea that if you have a kid who is deaf, you should implant them with a cochlear implant, and part of the stipulations of that is that you don’t teach them sign language, because — and this is insane to me — scientists and doctors tell parents that if you teach them sign language they won’t learn English as well. Would you ever say that about any other language (about a child’s capacity to be bilingual)? No, you wouldn’t. But that’s what happens. It is a ridiculous thing to say, and no one would ever say it about any other culture or language. But they say it to women who have just given birth, who are maybe not in the best emotional state. It’s crazy! So that’s the reason why I started the blog.

CL: What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about deafness?

SN: There are so many! I mean the main one is that it’s bad, I guess! (Laughs) But I quite like it!

CL: What do you like about it?

SN: I love ASL (American Sign Language). And I like being able to turn my ears off. I don’t know how you guys don’t do that — I would freak out if I had to listen to things all day! It’s very overwhelming, particularly in New York.

CL: A lot of us wear earplugs!

Deaf culture is so lovely. It’s nice and open in a way that you don’t see so often.

SN: Deaf culture is so lovely. It’s nice and open in a way that you don’t see so often. This is a gross story but it’s true: in deaf culture or ASL culture, it’s really common if you’re sitting at a dinner table with people you don’t even know to be like, ok, I’m going to go to the bathroom and I’m going to take a shit. And that is not weird, and that is not a shameful thing to say, and that’s because you know you have to tell people where you are (going to be) at all times (or you will lose each other). You can’t talk to people through the bathroom wall! You need to be like, here’s where I’m going, here’s how long I’m going to be there, here’s what I’ll be doing. And this openness spills over into other areas. It’s a community where you get to talk about things. Actually the deaf community has been leagues ahead of the mainstream community with things like gay rights. I think that all stems out of this thing we share, that we become so open about everything else. So that’s nice, and I like it!

More Like This

Celebrating What We’ve Accomplished in 2023

Contribute to our year-end campaign to start 2024 strong

Dec 8 - Halimah Marcus

Exclusive Cover Reveal: Cally Fiedorek’s “Atta Boy”

A gripping story of how far you’re willing to climb and how much it's possible to lose

Dec 8 - Electric Literature

9 Books About the Aftermath of the Balkan Wars

Christine Evans recommends literature about war’s collision with ordinary life

Dec 8 - Christine Evans
Thank You!