On the Memories that Rewrite a Past
Vedran Husić, author of ‘Basements and Other Museums’ talks to Matthew Neill Null about truth as a kind of imagination
Vedran Husić’s debut story collection Basements and Other Museums, to be published in March 2018 by Black Lawrence Press, has two glorious, violent, complex, multiethnic, and fractious nations as its twin poles: the former Yugoslavia, and the United States of America.
Its vision ranges widely. A story like “Hand in Glove,” with a gay Bosnian refugee working for the Census Bureau in 1990s suburban St. Louis, sits next to “The Exile of Muhamed Mehmedbašić,” in which one of the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand — and the only Muslim in on the plot, as he points out — contemplates his act. One is invited to lift and turn the prism of this world, finding arresting images along the way: children making a game out of dodging snipers’ bullets; a brawl over a Serbian soccer jersey worn into the wrong bar; bored refugee teenagers listening to The Queen is Dead on a laptop; a man slipping over the border to Trieste to procure superior blue jeans for the black market of Communist Yugoslavia.
After reading the collection, I talked to Husić about war and private memory, piercing one’s illusions about the past, and Nabokov. Lots of Nabokov.
Matthew Neill Null: While you’ve lived in America for years, your hometown of Mostar seems to me the spiritual locus of your work. Could you talk about that place and what it means for Basements and Other Museums? When Americans think of the Bosnian War, the siege of Sarajevo may come to mind, but they probably don’t know what happened in Mostar.
Vedran Husić: Mostar is definitely the capital city of this collection, but the Mostar evoked and represented in these stories is mostly an imagined, mythical Mostar. It’s a hybrid blur of reality and dream, both immediate and distant, like a vivid memory. I think that’s fitting for a wartime setting, a place in the constant act of transformation, either through destruction or recreation, where all of its inhabitants are in exile, even those who never strayed across its shifting borders. The details of description are precise but elusive, both dynamic and passive, specific and yet, ultimately, tantalizingly, out of context; they ground readers as much as they keep them afloat. And that’s how Mostar has always felt to me.
Mostar is also a very fertile setting, put under siege by the surrounding Bosnian Serb forces and then divided between Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, a division that still stands today; there’s the minaret on one side of the city and the steeple on the other. But Mostar is fertile ground that I felt I had the expertise to plow, whereas I didn’t feel I possessed that same proficiency regarding Sarajevo. “Deathwinked,” for example, is set in Mostar’s sniper alley, another simultaneously delineated and amorphous setting, though the infamous “Sniper Alley” was actually two streets in Sarajevo. But my imagination had no claim on Sarajevo, because my curiosity was invested elsewhere.
MNN: Could you talk about how “Witness to a Prayer” came to be? With its footnotes and Borgesian imagined texts, it’s likely the most complex story in the book.
VH: I’m glad you think that as that story is my favorite in the sense of it being a perfect marriage between what I had to do and what I wanted to do. Like most of my stories, though, it came to be through a stringing together of stubborn images in my head and an accumulation of “observations” in my notebook. There was an overabundance of these “observations,” in fact, the notes spilling over into footnotes. The form, as mentioned above, is that of a case history, an oblique biography, and Ivan Borić, the subject of that history/biography is abstractly based on Nabokov, his beliefs and prejudices regarding literature, as well as, most significantly, his style of expression of those beliefs and prejudices. But the real human center of the story is based on a couple from Sarajevo, good friends of my parents, who lost their own daughter during the closing stages of the war.
Here things become complicated. I never spoke, formally or even informally, with that couple about their daughter’s death; I took their loss and imagined a story around it that wasn’t their story. I would wonder what “truth” could my imagination provide me about the loss of a child. When I wrote about the death of a parent, I was taking to its natural extreme a very real possibility, and so despite the admittedly stylized rendering of grief, I felt I was being honest in its depiction (I might as well “confess” that I’m the son in all my stories; even when every other part of the character is not me, the way the character is a son is the way I’m a son, or at least one of the ways.)
In “Witness to a Prayer,” I solved the problem of “truthful” representation through metafictional trickery, revealing that Ivan Borić’s internal monologue, which comprises the story’s second half, was imagined by the narrator, an admirer of Borić who has come to interview the writer’s widow. (If this spoils the story for certain readers, then those readers wouldn’t have enjoyed it anyway.) I wanted to say that access to such pain and grief is impossible, always an illusion, but that the attempt counts and the attempt is what generates literature. I wanted to emphasize that empathy is not understanding, but an honest attempt to understand, a kind of loving. I wanted to inspire belief in readers without deceiving myself or them that I had bestowed any actual knowledge. I wanted to say that truth is our faith in the possibility of truth in this world, a kind of imagining.
MNN: In “Documentary,” the narrator begins, “Only a delusional man will seek solace and affirmation from his memories, but I’m telling you the past is all I have, all I know, when talking about him, and there is a kind of solace, if not affirmation, in thinking back on our shared childhood in America.” Maybe this yearning is a natural point-of-view for this refugee character. But as I read the stories, I began to feel that this statement was the organizing principle for the book itself — perhaps for all of Bosnia, where the 16th-century Ottoman Bridge of Mostar was destroyed by Croat troops in 1993 and has since been rebuilt in period detail, a central image in your book. From a vague present, the characters are mining a past where everything seemed more fixed and concrete. The great dramas of their lives are behind them, and they are recursive, picking apart that past bone-by-bone. Did you have this in mind when you were writing?
VH: Memory is a central theme of the book, the way it recovers and rewrites the past, and my characters depend on memory’s power to certify and comfort while simultaneously being suspicious of that power. The characters that lived through or died in the war are usually the ones who recall a prewar past that is, as you put it, “more fixed and concrete,” and hang on to this vision with everything they’ve got. The immigrant characters, by contrast, are freed from day to day survival and allowed to philosophize on the nature of memory, question the purity of any past. In the former stories, memory is never really evaluated, only strenuously exercised, while in the latter stories, memory is constantly interrogated, its power invested with doubt, not hope, unable to truly confirm or console. Memory is one of the metaphorical bridges in this collection, perhaps the main one, connecting past and present, Bosnia and America, the real and imagined, but bridges get destroyed and what’s rebuilt offers a kind of solace, perhaps, but little affirmation, or only its illusion.
Let me conclude my answer the way your question began, with a quote from one of my stories: Daniel, who has come to Mostar to visit his father’s grave in the collection’s penultimate story, “Like Coming Home,” upon seeing the Old Bridge (Stari Most, from where Mostar gets its name) thinks how, “Despite the recent reconstruction it was still called the Old Bridge, and, perhaps, for all intents and purposes, it really was. But I knew it was not, nor would it ever be, the bridge over which my father had walked.”
MNN: Correct me if I have your biography wrong, but after you left Bosnia, I believe you lived in Germany for a few years before your family was settled in St. Louis as refugees. So I’m wondering about your journey to writing fiction and poetry in English. Did you “choose” to write in English for particular reasons, or did it come naturally when you first sat down to the desk? You mentioned Nabokov, and I can imagine an alternate universe in which he happily continued to write novels in Russian, American residence be damned. The Balkans are so linguistically rich that, similarly, I imagine various paths forked in front of you.
VH: Well, technically, I was a refugee in Germany, and by coming to America I became, merely, an immigrant, since the war at that point was over and we had an actual choice between going back to Bosnia or coming to America. But I don’t really agree with this terminology, since that choice was really no choice at all. Similarly, there was a choice between writing in Bosnian or English, but that choice was also only an illusion. I think, and I dream, only in English, and though I consider myself, ideally, a citizen of the world, it is the fact that I write, and am solely able to write, in a distinctly American brand of English that is the most authentically American trait about me, whatever “authentic” or “American” means. I came to writing and reading rather late, and when I started writing I’d already lived in St. Louis for eight years and my mother tongue, unexercised and forlorn, was a fading memory. I am able to speak it, somewhat correctly, in the same odd though slightly less thick pseudo-German accent with which I speak English, I can barely write or read in it. So Nabokov’s “private tragedy,” as he called it, was not one I mirrored with my own mother tongue as for me all roads led to the English language.
MNN: Do you think your heritage gives you a special vantage point to write about this place? I know you come from a rigorously secular background that’s typical of the former communist Yugoslavia — it reminds me of my own atheist great-grandmother, a Slovene peasant from Strmca. But your father has a Muslim background and your mother a Catholic one, and the Bosnian war played out in bloody fashion on religious fault-lines between Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox. It had to be devastating for your family to watch. My grand theory is that important Yugoslav figures tended to come from mixed unions, because they didn’t suffer from ethnic myopia. Danilo Kiš was the child of a Hungarian Jew and a Montenegrin Christian, and Marshall Tito, with a Slovene and a Croatian parent, was married to an Orthodox Serb.
VH: I will gladly buy into that theory! I do think there’s truth to the idea of a diverse heritage leading to a more elevated vantage point from which to view and understand a complicated event. For that reason all but one of my narrators are products of a mixed marriage. Afforded an added perspective from which to look at the breakup of Yugoslavia, they can tell the story of that breakup with a special insight, a telling that’s made more urgent by our voice being in the clear minority. Even Muhamed Mehmedbašić is doubtful about the role his religion plays in his self-definition and fearful of what part it plays of how others define him. A full Muslim, he’s the sole exception to my narrator rule; this exception was not really prompted by Muhamed being a historical figure, but by my desire to write from a purely Muslim point of view, since they did suffer by some margin the worst loss of life and land. And by writing from a historical perspective, I wanted to show that the prejudice toward Muslim Slavs was not merely a recent development but existed at the formation of Yugoslavia, which was a kingdom before it became a communist republic. Communism, despite its obvious liabilities, is what held the country of my birth together this long.
My father does come from a Muslim background — and though non-practicing, he was interned in a concentration camp merely due to his last name — and my mother from a Catholic one; moreover, I have family in Serbia proper who affiliate with the Orthodox faith. My parents are not religious, as you stated, nor were they members of the Communist Party, but they did sincerely believe in Yugoslavia and loved their life there. A lot of my fiction explores this belief in a failing country: was it nativity or true faith? Is there a difference? What is certain is that they felt deeply betrayed by the breakup of the only place where they felt they truly belonged, the only real home they knew.
MNN: The first story of yours I read was “Deathwinked,” [which appeared in Recommended Reading] and the voice really struck me, how unapologetically romantic, lyrical, and word-drunk it was. It stood out as being so different from the restrained voices that I associate with MFA programs in America — and yet you got an MFA from Arizona State. So who are your influences as a writer? When I describe your work to people, I talk about Witold Gombrowicz (for the way you stretch moments of time like taffy) and Danilo Kiš (for the subject matter and the “case histories” of the characters), but now I realize I might be projecting my own interest in Slavic writers onto your work.
VH: I don’t mind flattering projections, and it’s always a thrill being compared to writer I never read (Gombrowizc in this case), the thrill of discovering a ghostly lineage. As for Kiš, I did read him deeply during the writing of these stories, the only Yugoslav writer I have read extensively. He is mentioned in “Witness to a Prayer” — a “case history” of sorts and a story about artistic influence as much as anything else — along with other writers who have made an impact on me, chief among them Vladimir Nabokov. But you’re not too far off when you mention Slavic writers, as my earliest reading (which began, as I said, rather late, in my twenties) were Russian writers, from Gogol to Dostoevsky to Isaac Babel and Ivan Bunin (and of course the Nabokov of the first, European half of his career).
Paul Celan also looms large over this collection; I read him my first semester of the MFA, in John Felstiner’s amazing translation, and “Deathwinked,” the initial draft of which I wrote that semester, was largely inspired by his poetry and my homesickness. Poetry for me has always been equal to fiction in its simulative powers, and I seem to be especially attracted to writers who write both, like Stuart Dybek and Denis Johnson (and Nabokov as well, again!). To them I owe much of my stylistic debt. But no list of influences would be complete without my fiancée, the wonderful writer Naira Kuzmich, who recently passed away from lung cancer at the age of 29. I met her during our MFA and she is by far the best thing to happen to my writing and in my life.