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Ismet Prcic’s brilliant, provocative, and propulsory energetic debut is about a young Bosnian, also named Ismet Prcic, who has fled his war-torn homeland and is now struggling to reconcile his past with his present life in California.
He is advised that in order to make peace with the corrosive guilt he harbors over leaving behind his family behind, he must write everything.” The result is a great rattlebag of memories, confessions, and fictions: sweetly humorous recollections ...
Ismet Prcic’s brilliant, provocative, and propulsory energetic debut is about a young Bosnian, also named Ismet Prcic, who has fled his war-torn homeland and is now struggling to reconcile his past with his present life in California.
He is advised that in order to make peace with the corrosive guilt he harbors over leaving behind his family behind, he must write everything.” The result is a great rattlebag of memories, confessions, and fictions: sweetly humorous recollections of Ismet’s childhood in Tuzla appear alongside anguished letters to his mother about the challenges of life in this new world. As Ismet’s foothold in the present falls away, his writings are further complicated by stories from the point of view of another young man—real or imagined—named Mustafa, who joined a troop of elite soldiers and stayed in Bosnia to fight. When Mustafa’s story begins to overshadow Ismet’s new-world identity, the reader is charged with piecing together the fragments of a life that has become eerily unrecognizable, even to the one living it.
Shards is a thrilling read—a harrowing war story, a stunningly inventive coming of age, and a heartbreaking saga of a splintered family.
A playful but heartfelt debut reflects multiple aspects of the Bosnian War via the perspectives of one Muslim teenager who escapes military service and another who does not.
Not just shards, fragments and brief episodes but a character who may be an alter ego or even non-existent enhance the multi-faceted nature of Bosnia-Herzegovinian-born Prcic's brightly detailed, sometimes hallucinatory story of the shattering impact of age-old enmity and conflict on a civilian population. His central character, also named Ismet Prcic, is observed in two timelines, growing up in Tuzla and as a refugee in the U.S. Diary accounts and notebook passages are interspersed with the story of another character, Mustafa. Although young Ismet finds himself living in a war zone in Bosnia, his life has its conventional dimensions too, like girlfriends and an interest in theatre which gives him his chance to escape the besieged city, to perform at the Edinburgh festival. Mustafa's experience is more shape-shifting. Did he die in the shelling, or witness scenes of appalling brutality while serving in the military, or is he a character in the memoir Ismet is writing to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder? Depressed, deserted, increasingly unhinged in California, Ismet sinks into despair, his story concluding with the sound of terror and Mustafa's haunting presence.
Too long, but evidence of a spirited, soulful talent.
In wartime, when his country needed him the most—his shooting finger for defending, his body for a shield, his sanity and humanity as a sacrifice for future generations, his blood for fertilization of its soil—in these most pressing times, Mustafa's special forces combat training lasted twelve days. He ran the obstacle course exactly twenty-four times, he threw fake hand grenades through a truck tire from various distances exactly six times, he practiced marksmanship with an air rifle so that bullets were not wasted, he got covered with blankets and beaten by his peers for talking in his sleep at least once. He did countless push-ups and sit-ups, chin-ups and squats, lunges and curls, mindless repetitions designed not to make him fit but to break him, so that when he was, the drill sergeant could instruct him in the ways of military hierarchy and make him an effective combatant, one who was too scared not to follow orders and who would fucking die when he was told to fucking die.
At some point he was introduced to the real weapons. "This is an Uzi, this is how it works, we don't have any Uzis, so forget what you just learned. This is an LAW, this is how it's used, we only have a limited number of them and they are in the hands of people who already know how to use them, so you'll never get in contact with them, so forget what you just learned." And so forth.
The knife guy taught him where to stick the knife for what effect, and he stabbed hanging sacks of sand with people drawn on them. The mine guy showed him how to set up antipersonnel and antivehicle mines and pointed out all their deadly charms. The army doctor took a swig of plum brandy and told him that war was a giant piece of shit and that he, Mustafa, was a chunk of corn in that shit and then warned him not to come to his office again until he had a gut wound so big he could canoe right through it. That was, about, it.
In the end he got a Kalashnikov like everybody else, one clip of ammunition, one hand grenade, and one knife and was sent to the trenches with the regular army for a week, just to sample what war had to offer, to read the manual, as it were, before they decided what special unit he was fit to join.
NOTEBOOK ONE :
* Sent to Eric Carlson at ____ Los Feliz Dr., Thousand Oaks, CA 91362, by Ismet Prcic ; at ____ Dwight Street, San Diego, CA 92104, postmarked August 27, 2000.
(. . . cheese . . .)
As the KLM flight finally touched American soil, the white-knuckled Bosnians in the back—people for whom just a few months ago airplanes were but thin lines of cloud, silently crisscrossing the skies above their godforsaken villages—erupted in spontaneous applause. I joined them, despite the queasy feeling in my stomach brought on by the cheese and fruit we'd received somewhere over England. The cheese had been yellow and maybe rancid, and throughout the flight I'd hurried up and down the aisles in search of an unoccupied lavatory, where—kneeling awkwardly in front of one tiny toilet or another—I'd find myself unable to hurl.
These people, my people, the refugees, they were fleetingly happy and stubbornly perplexed. They smiled but also furrowed their brows at the unfathomable patter coming from the speakers. The plane came to a stop at the gate at JFK, but the little belt buckle next to the crossed-out cigarette over our heads remained lit. We sat there. The man in front of me, a youngish fellow with a wife and a daughter and a mouth of cataclysmic teeth stuck his head over the seat and peered at me through glasses.
"Are we there, or are we just getting gas?" he whispered to me in Bosnian, eyes bulging, half-fearful and half-embarrassed. Despite his attempt at discretion, everyone heard him, and they turned to
me , the only Bosnian on board with any English, for information.
"We're here," I mumbled, nodding.
Murmurs of approval spread from seat to seat. The man turned back around.
"I thought so," I heard him say to his wife.
"Don't pretend you knew," she said.
"You always have to turn the harvest combine off before refueling, otherwise it's a fire hazard," he explained pointedly. "Same goes for planes. Machine's a machine."
"Yeah, yeah, you know everything."
"Shut it, woman."
It had begun with politicians fighting on television, talking about their nationalities, their constitutional rights, each claiming that his people were in danger.
"I thought we were all Yugoslavs," I said to my mother, although at fifteen I knew better. You had to live under a rock not to see that the shit was about to hit the fan. I don't know why I said it. Maybe the Communist message of Brotherhood and Unity had been so thoroughly drummed into my head that it surfaced robotically and overrode my actual experience. She told me to shut up and turned up the volume on the television.
Then reports had started coming in: sieges, civilian casualties, concentration camps, refugees. Croats and Muslims being slaughtered left and right by Serbian paramilitaries and by the Yugoslav People's Army, who, as their actions made evident, seemed not to really belong to all of the peoples of Yugoslavia.
"Which ones are we?" I asked my mother, still playing dumb, hoping that my willful denial could erase the images on the screen, erase my fear, make everything normal again. Again she told me to shut up and turned the volume even higher, until the downstairs neighbor started broom-handling our floor and my mother had to turn the TV down.
All at once your nationality became very important. There were reports of Serbian paramilitaries stopping all men trying to flee Bosnia, ordering them to drop their pants and underwear to prove they were Serb. Being circumcised meant your ass.
All the Bosnian cities and towns, if not overrun, were suddenly under siege. This went on for years. Civilians chopped down park trees, got buried in soccer fields, burned books and furniture, kept chickens on balconies, duct-taped their footwear, caught and ate pigeons, made makeshift stoves out of washing machines, grew mushrooms in basements, replaced broken windows with murky plastic, went nuts and jumped off buildings, drank rubbing alcohol diluted in chamomile tea until it was no longer flammable, rolled herbal tea cigarettes in toilet paper, suffered, hoped, waited, fucked. Authorities emptied the jails and mental institutions because they couldn't provide for the inmates and patients. Thieves and murderers went back to their families. Lunatics walked around town doing funny things like comparing people to watermelons and sad things like freezing to death behind churches. Soldiers fought for all of them and for themselves. My father, a chemical engineer, got lucky and came up with a contraption that turned industrial fat into edible fat and got paid ten thousand German marks by a small business entrepreneur and war profiteer, which saved us. My mother ate just enough to survive, because she felt so guilty about not being able to quit smoking. She rationed her cigarettes as much as she could, walking around the apartment like a restless ghost, playing her solitaire, counting seconds before the next one. Sometimes, my brother and I stole a cigarette when the pack was close to full and hid it somewhere in the apartment just to pull it out, unexpectedly, when she didn't have any left, just to see her eyes light up for a moment. Later it would break our hearts to see her fingering the wool of the large tapestry in the corridor, looking for our stash, her forefinger touching her lips, her eyes on fire.
The airport corridors glowed majestically. The current of passengers moved us along. You could tell who was a refugee and who wasn't—facial expressions, postures, surety of stride. The natives and the tourists walked briskly, trying to get it over with, catch their next flight, and be somewhere else. Their bodies were streamlined. The refugees, we walked like somnambulists, clutching our carryons, putting them between our bodies and the new world as if for protection. Hungry-eyed, we took in the wall posters advertising liquor and Disneyworld, the tiled floors, our stolid shoes, our knobby knees, our hands against these unfamiliar backgrounds. We drank it all in, giddily and guardedly at the same time.
But what I thought was going to be a short, silent, incognito burp turned out to be a mouthful of cheesy vomit. I stopped, dropping my bag next to the wall, and choked the burning, foul liquid down. It made my eyes water. I kept swallowing, trying to coat the inside of my throat with saliva. Then I realized that no one was passing me. When I turned around, sour-faced and disgusted, I saw that all the Bosnians were queued up behind me, waiting, all eyes. They had been following me. Even the few who had been walking ahead had stopped where they found themselves, looking over their shoulders.
"You all right there, pal?" the harvest combine operator asked, carrying his blonde-angel daughter in his arms like a sack of grain. His wife, a loose white headscarf over her head, was lugging two bags behind her and scowling.
" Zgaravica," I managed, and they all made sympathetic faces. Indigestion. I picked up my bag and started walking again, swallowing. There was poison oak in my mouth, my throat, the middle of my chest.
One part of me felt pride to have fifty people stopping when I stopped, going when I went. The other part was embarrassed by them, by their bucolic cluelessness, their needy, confused eyes. I fought the urge to run ahead and merge with the natives and the tourists, to ape their body movements, roll my eyes at the slowness of the line, pretend I cared about what time it was, and become one of them.
The corridors spewed us out into a huge room. A black woman in a uniform stood motioning with her hands, first to the right and then, just as eagerly, to the left. Her lipstick was bright red and you didn't have to be close to notice that some of it was on her teeth.
"Citizens and resident aliens, line up to the right. Everyone else, please keep left," she said, impatiently eyeing a Bosnian family of six, who, painfully baffled, planted their feet and gawked at her, holding up their manila refugee envelopes like signs at a rally and impeding the flow of traffic.
"Go left," I yelled ahead in Bosnian, and the family hesitated, turning to me. When I nodded, they lowered their envelopes and lined up to the left, checking to see if I really would follow suit.
The right-hand line was moving fast. Immigration officers waved the Americans to their stations, opened their passports, shot some shit with them, stamped the stamp, closed the passports, and, smiling, welcomed them back. Pretty soon the right side of the room was completely empty—until another wave of Americans, from some other flight, crowded it again.
The left side was uniformly compact, with foreigners inching down a monotonous maze. At the front, stepping over the yellow line became an issue. Officers kept repeating their admonishments with disgust, and the refugees kept looking around the floor, wondering why the hell these Americans were yelling and pointing at the tiles, checking their pockets to see if they'd dropped anything important, shrugging their shoulders.
When it was my turn at the yellow line I stood as close to it as possible without going over, like I was about to shoot a free throw. My heart rocked my body; I could feel its beat behind my eyes, on the sides of my neck, at the tips of my fingers, in my toes. For a moment I forgot about the rawness of my throat, about the putrid weight in my stomach, the bad taste in my mouth. I stared ahead at the PLEASE WAIT FOR THE NEXT AVAILABLE STATION screen, praying silently, sending good vibes, and visualizing the perfect outcome.
The screen changed to a flashing number eleven. I swallowed and crossed the yellow line toward the station where a young Sikh gazed at me politely but without emotion. I approached with a smile, psychically projecting Koranic verses instead of uttering them, and handed him my everything.
"Welcome to the United States. Good luck."
I wandered out of the immigration maze on a pair of legs that weren't mine.
There was a man with a sign in his hand that read BOSNIA , a chicken of a man in gray woolen pants, an off-gray jacket, and long navy blue coat. He had one of those comprehensive foreheads that, over the years, creeps up to the top of an egg-shaped head and a pair of eighties-style aviator eyeglasses, the top of which were tinted and flush with his eyebrows; the bottoms drooped to the middle of his cheeks. At the end of the corridor behind him was a uniformed cop—the last line of defense—whose forearms seemed rooted to his Batman utility belt. He was a huge redhead with the voice of a gargoyle and hands that could squeeze a confession out of a sculpture.
"What nation is abusing us now?" he boomed at the man with the sign watching me come down the corridor. But seeing me slow down, the man disregarded the question and came toward me.
"Bosnian?" he asked in Bosnian, and I, surprised, said yes in English. The combine operator and his wife attacked the man with a salvo of overlapping questions. As soon as they heard somebody speaking in a language they could understand, my fellow refugees turned their backs on me. I was instantly demoted from general of this ridiculous comedy to grunt, no one paying me any mind, some even pushing past me to get closer to this tiny man. I remembered how six months ago, on the way to Scotland, aboard a ferry from some French town to Dover, my friend Omar and I had separated from the rest of the theater troupe and walked around the boat, crudely insulting everyone we encountered in our native tongue, terrified and giddy that we might stumble upon the one passenger who, realizing he'd been told he was spawned by an ass-eyed, donkey-raping water buffalo, would kick our heads in.
"If you're from Bosnia, let's gather over here," yelled the man with the sign. "I'm Enes, and I'm from the Bosnian consulate. Welcome to New York City. The majority of you are trying to catch a connecting flight, and I'm here to assist you in—"
The Bosnians went fucking crazy, speaking to him all at once, waving their tickets, their yellow immigrant envelopes, pushing to the front. Enes tried to calm them down, shaking his head, shouting that he wouldn't help anyone if they didn't queue up.
I felt a little sad witnessing this, so I pulled away. My flight wasn't until the next day, so I knew I would have to stay in New York overnight. I meandered a little way from the group, trying to look native. My stomach cramped and again I felt like I could burp. Fooled once, I swallowed down some spit instead.
"The rats are a-coming," said the redhead cop to a passing American who had noticed the commotion. I glared at him, right into his green blue eyes. He held my gaze.
"You speak English?" he boomed toward me, overpronouncing.
There's a word in Bosnian, zapr?ka, which is a culinary term for the finishing touch to a lot of Bosnian meals. It's golden butter melted in a pan with red paprika, a violently orange sauce (the exact color of the cop's hair) that is poured into stews and over stuffed peppers.
" Zapr?ka," I said to him, smiling my best fresh-off-the-boat smile, " jebem li ja tebi mater hrdavu, jesi'l c '
\ uo ! " A couple of Bosnians heard me and scoffed and chuckled at the insult.
"I know you understand me," yelled the cop, but I took my ticket out of my pocket, pushed myself in between two Bosnian women and waved to attract Enes's gaze.
" Hej care, kad je avion za Los Andeles?" I called.
I sat there people-watching, the shoulder strap of my bag wrapped around my ankle in case somebody tried to steal my wrinkled clothes and smoked beef and the slivovitz I was smuggling as a present to my uncle—stuff he couldn't get his hands on in California. After telling me to wait, Enes had led the rest of the Bosnians away to catch their flights to cities like Nashville, Fargo, St. Louis. I sat there thinking I was cold. My jaw was jumpy. But the more I pressed my arms against my body the more I became aware that it wasn't the cold making my teeth chatter. I looked around. People: shapes, races, demeanors I'd never seen before. They were walking in groups or pairs, or were at ease with their aloneness, purposeful, while I sat there trying not to puke.
Other men with signs displaying the names of other sad countries rolled by with gaggles of confused immigrants, yelling in exotic languages, leaving behind one or two other petrified saps who, like me, tried to occupy as little space as possible. There was a gangly black man in a black suit sitting with four veiled women (resembling babushkas) in a range of sizes, pretending he knew what was up, but clearly scared. Only a young African woman in dark jeans and a white blouse, with closely cropped hair and shiny eyes, behaved with any sort of confidence. She took her seat, took a book and snack out of her carry-on, something noisy and, by the look of it, covered in salt, and proceeded to read and munch like she was on a park bench. I wanted to lay my head in her lap, to be touched and told that everything was fine.
Eventually, an airport shuttle—a smelly, back-loaded van of some kind—drove us through New York to where we were to spend the night. I caught only glimpses of the passing buildings, cityscapes, and cars; the African woman was next to me and our thighs were warmly touching. Feverishly, I imagined her taking my hand in hers, looking deep into my eyes and loving me wordlessly. I could see us hugging, touching, holding each other, walking along the beach, cuddling on a love seat, checking on our sleeping brown babies with their Slavic foreheads and African lips.
"Here we are," the driver said.
The van pulled into the parking lot of a dingy motel and shat us out the back. The driver said to prepare our documents and follow him inside. I could tell he did this all the time, his body familiar with the asphalt beneath his feet. He knew to pull the front door instead of push it, though there was no sign. You could see that he hated but tolerated the manager, a shaggy man of Arab descent, who asked me: "How many in the room?"
"One, one," I said showing him my index finger. He looked at my passport and had me sign next to my name on a faxed list. Then he shoved a key into my hand. The orange plastic rectangle to which it was attached read 7. He pointed, then turned to the African woman.
"How many in the room?"
I lingered, acting like I was having trouble picking up my bag, hoping to catch the number of her room, but the driver waved me over.
"Indian or Italian?"
"Bosnian," I told him.
He rolled his eyes.
"To eat! Do you want Indian food or Italian food for dinner?"
I wanted to stomp on my own balls.
"Indian," I said, figuring there was less of a chance of ending up with a plateful of pork.
"We're leaving at six sharp. I will come and knock on your door. You should be up and ready," he warned, jotting down my choice.
Rooms 1 through 14 were in the basement, and I followed the arrows through halls lit here and there with chipped sconces that shot murky light at the ceiling in repetitive, throbbing patterns. My room was in the corner, down the length of the corridor from a dazzling behemoth of a Pepsi machine. I unlocked the door and went in.
Room 7 was surprisingly big: a king-size bed with magenta sheets, a TV presiding, two nightstands with lamps, and a table with two chairs and a phone. It smelled of orangey bleach and dust, of cover-ups and FBI sting operations, sex for money and crimes of passion, alcoholic self-pity and junky visions—all the stuff I'd seen in American movies.
I tried to lock myself in but couldn't turn the key. I tried in both directions and it wouldn't budge. I opened the door, closed it, and tried again. Nothing.
I looked through the peephole and saw two teenage girls giggling by the Pepsi machine. One of them had a head scarf and looked European; I wondered if she was Bosnian. She covered her mouth when she laughed. The other one looked Arabic but was in a pair of ripped jeans, which exposed her scabby knees. Their faces glowed red and blue, in turn. I'd always been a loner and proud of it—people were something you had to deal with or avoid—but now, standing on a worn patch of beige carpet, on my first night in America, I longed for somebody, anybody.
Then I felt my stomach turn. Somewhere in all of this, the cheese puke I'd kept down had somehow turned to shit. I ran to the bathroom, and it came out of me in stormy gusts and thunderbolts. When I was done I felt rejuvenated, glorious.
Still, I didn't want someone silently slipping in while I was asleep and cutting my throat or, even worse, knocking me out with a chloroform rag, turning me into a hustler rent boy or forcing me to work twenty-four hours a day in an underground meth lab. I didn't want to wake up with missing kidneys, liver, heart, or eyeballs. I'm in America, I thought, and that meant I was in a movie; the fact that I couldn't lock the door from the inside was one of those little details upon which terrible plot shifts would depend.
I was paranoid. I looked through the peephole again—nothing but red, white, and blue lights telling me that I was thirsty. The girls were gone. I opened the door and studied the lock in vain. I dragged over the table and jammed it under the knob. To get in, the crackhead nutter would have to push hard, which would make a noise, which would wake me up, which was my best chance of survival. Now I needed a weapon.
Someone knocked on the door and my heart kicked against my ribcage like an angry baby. I looked through the peephole: the driver. I dragged away the table and opened the door.
"Indian?" he said, looking over his paper.
He handed me a couple of Styrofoam containers and put a check next to my name.
"Tomorrow morning at six," he said, and made as if to go.
" Uhh . . . ," I started, and he stopped.
"My . . . my . . . my key," I stuttered, "I . . . I can't . . . uh . . . lock the door on the inside."
He looked at me with obvious disdain.
"It's automatic. You don't have to do anything. You close the door and it's locked."
Before I ate, I jammed the table up against the door again, together with the chairs and all my luggage. Fuck the driver, I thought, he might be in on a plan.
The shower had no faucet, just a knob in the middle of the wall, and I couldn't figure out how to make it get hot, if there was hot water in this place to begin with. The best I could do was not-icy, and I stepped in for a quick soap and rinse. By the time I was done—two minutes tops—my lips were the color of eggplant.
Channel 4 was news—fast, indecipherable English I found comforting in the absence of flesh-and-bone humans. I shivered under the covers. I heard the click, click, clicking of women's shoes outside my window and snuck a peek through the magenta curtains, up through a grate below the street. I saw a woman's legs and a big man in a mink coat holding both of her wrists and yelling at her. I'm fucking staying up all night, I told myself, but I woke at five thirty to the sound of the alarm, alive and unmolested, all organs intact.
* * * The driver drove us to the airport. The African woman sat behind me this time, so I got to see some of the city. It was mostly New York motorists in profile, sipping from thermos bottles, yelling out of windows, smacking their dashboards, smoking, putting on makeup, singing, dozing off and waking up just in time to brake, playing air guitar, looking at me with what-the-fuck-are-you-looking-at on their faces.
Enes met me at LaGuardia, showed me where I was to wait for my flight to Los Angeles, shook my hand limply, and shoved off. I sat on another plastic chair and waited.
I kept thinking, You made it, man, not believing it. I looked at my hand, this thing I'd been living with all my life, and it felt like I was seeing it for the first time. It seemed only vaguely familiar, yet I was somehow in control of it; it was my hand to use. I glanced up to make sure that what I saw around me was America, confirmed that the seat next to me was a part of that country, then placed my strange hand on its cool plastic surface, and told myself again: You made it; you escaped.
Two other Prcic ;s made this journey before me. There was my granduncle Bego, who fled the Nazi invasion via Paris, settled in an apartment in Flushing Meadows, and died there, alone. And then there was my uncle Irfan, who fled the Communists in 1969, ended up in California, and twenty-six years later invited me to live with him. We were all from the same town in Bosnia but had fled three completely different countries. Bego escaped the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Irfan , the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. And me, the newly formed independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Says something about the Balkans: Regimes are plentiful, they don't last long, and they make people want to run away.
What came to me then was the voice of my paternal grandmother. She had told me once that every time Bego or Irfan returned to Bosnia to visit, they had seemed to her like different people. Un
recognizable . She had blamed this on America.
I looked at my hand again.
Through the airport window, I could see a homeless man in a filthy camouflage jacket sitting on a curb, his back to me, playing fetch with a dog. He'd fight the plastic bottle of Dr. Pepper out of the Alsatian's mouth, tease her with it, and then throw it down the sidewalk. She'd chase after it, her swollen teats swaying, bring it back to him, and the scene would repeat. I sat there mesmerized, telling myself again that I had made it, wishing I had a dog or something warm to touch, to look in the eye. It was then that the morning sun sliced through the clouds, its light hitting the window in such a way that suddenly I saw my reflection. I saw a young man sitting alone on a plastic chair, white-knuckled and wide-eyed and zit-faced, happy and perplexed, and I knew why my grandmother couldn't recognize her own son, why I was wielding a stranger's hand. I knew that someone new would get off this plastic chair and board a plane for Los Angeles and that all the while an eighteen-year-old Ismet would remain forever in the city under siege, in the midst of a war that would never end.
Just as it came, the sun went away. The homeless man threw the bottle. The bitch ran after it. I looked at my hand, then at everything else. I was new and America seemed too big a place to be alone in.
From the air Los Angeles was vast and gray and pockmarked with light blue pools. Down at LAX, it was hot for a winter afternoon; it was amusing. There were palm trees through the terminal window and people wore sandals in earnest.
Coming out of this one corridor I saw a man and a woman in their fifties, white, dressed in shiny red-white-and-blue frocks and top hats with stars all over them. They walked through the crowd, handing
them things. The woman came up to me with an ear-to-ear smile. "Hello, sir!" "Hello." "Could I ask you a couple of questions?" She was speaking slowly and clearly. I was glad about that. "Yes." "Where are you from, sir?" "Bosnia." "Are you visiting us for the first time?" "I am refugee." "So you're here for the government cheese." She said this very loudly, looking around and trying to get every-
one's attention. "Well, sir, here you go," she said and gave me a brick of yellow American cheddar. "Welcome to America!" I noticed that there was a man with a camera taping me. I smiled and waved the cheese at him. Isn't this something, I thought. In New York they call you names and in Los Angeles a lady wearing the American flag gives you some cheese.
I knew then that I was going to like Los Angeles much better than New York.
Q&A with Ismet Prcic, author of SHARDS
Can you talk about how and when you came to learn English? What was it like writing a novel in a language other than your mother tongue?
I had English in school since the fourth grade but that doesn't prepare you to actually speak the language. You learn a lot of nomenclature, memorize a lot of irregular verbs, but putting these things in the right order to express yourself adequately is a little bit more of a nuanced endeavor. The only way to really learn a language is through an immersion. In my youth I was in a secret punk duo and we wanted to write our songs in English so we could one day be on MTV. I would scour our town's library for anything written in English so I could look at how sentences were constructed and change a word here and there and make the sentences my own. All the American movies and TV series were subtitled in Bosnia and we would tape pieces of paper over the bottom of the screen and watch the movie without the help. It's funny, Mexican soap operas are really popular in rural Bosnia nowadays and it's not uncommon to find Bosnian kids who grew up speaking to each other in Spanish with a perfect Mexican lilt. Like I said, an immersion.
As far as writing in English is concerned, it is hard. Words are never rained upon my keyboard. But this can be very freeing as well. I never finished anything I started in Bosnian because I know the language so well and no matter what I put down I am disgusted by it because I know that there are so many better ways to say what I put down. In English I'm happy to make sense, to be clear. And people say Oh, this is a wonderful way to put it, how do you do that? and I go that's the only way I know how to say that.
Within the book, there are many instances of things falling apart, or being exploded, and also many instances of things being reassembled. How does this inform the structure of the book?
The book is presented, in a way, as a primary document. Every word that the narrator has ever written is entrusted to a close friend who has to make sense of it and put the writings in a particular order and try to capture the essence of his friend, not knowing which parts are autobiographical, exaggerated, or downright invented. On top of that there's an extra complication. The narrator is haunted by this other person, this Mustafa Nalic, and the reader — just like the close friend serving as an editor — is never and will never be sure who this Mustafa is, if he's real or imagined. I think the central metaphor of the book is the little kid called Donut who collects shrapnel trying to reassemble a mortar shell so he can throw it back at the enemy. The impossibility of this endeavor is heartbreaking to me because there's no reassembling of something that has exploded with that kind of violence. There is no going back. The structure of Shards is similar. It's a sack of pieces of a human being that somebody put together to give us a glimpse of him, with a lot of pieces missing, some pieces that might come from some other human being; it's impossible to tell.
It's been said that artists must dare to leave their comfort zones in order to produce, but in most cases, presumably, they do so by choice. One of the reasons Ismet's story is so poignant and powerful is that his coming into his own as a person and an artist intersects with the violent dissolution of his family and his homeland. Does survival feel like a betrayal for Izzy? Or is it simply his lack of familiar footholds in the new world that make it so hard for him to move forward?
Survivors always struggle with that. At times you count your lucky stars, other times you wonder why me?, what did I do to deserve to survive? and the like. But it's exactly this duality and the pondering of this duality that becomes a driving force behind wanting to write it down, wanting to pacify the mind-splitting experience by putting it on a piece of paper. Some get into the business of rewriting the narrative, bringing it to a satisfying but un-true conclusion that makes it easier to deal with the experience. Others try to capture it as it is, conflicting, dual. Triumph and guilt, two opposing feelings about a single experience, exist within the same mind simultaneously and they do not cause it to short-circuit. I'm obsessed with the idea that, when it comes to humans, when a coin is tossed once into the air it is possible that it will land on both sides simultaneously.
What makes it hard for this narrator to move forward is not the fact that he cannot figure out how to negotiate the new world but the fact that it is impossible to run away from trauma. Trauma shatters who you think you are, what you think you love, believe in, think, and if you survive, you are this reassembled person who will never again trust him or herself to love, believe and think with the same intensity and surety in their beliefs or thoughts as before, because they experienced firsthand just how fleeting and immaterial these things are in the face of death.
As he moves from place to place, refuge to refuge, before, during, and after the war, Ismet reads lots of books, no matter where he is, and often has to leave them behind. Now you've written your own. Can you talk about the role that literature and art played in your own survival?
I've always thought that art is done not in spite of, but because of, one's circumstances and I often say that war is the best thing that could have happened to me as an artist. Just like the narrator, I was a part of an avant-garde theater troupe and I recall a particular stretch of time in which the Serbs shelled my city every hour, on the hour. It went on for awhile and people started winding their watches to it. You would realize that it's two minutes to noon and you would leisurely make your way to the closest building, go down into the basement and wait. The noon shell would explode, and you would leisurely go back out and go back to your life until two minutes to one p.m., at which point you would have to go and find another building to hide in. And, despite this, not once did our theater troupe miss a single rehearsal though we had them pretty much every day for four hours. It was a form of rebellion against the aggressors; your shells cannot stop me from being me, from doing my art.
I've always thought that a reason to read literature is to witness how other minds, different minds than your own mind you, perceive the world and engage with it, deal with its absurdity. There's nothing like finding out that some other poor soul from South East Asia thinks about "reality" the same way you do as you sit there in your ski suit and under four blankets next to every member of your immediate family on a freezing winter night in Tuzla, 1994, with no electricity and with a single piece of wick floating in a jar lid full of vegetable oil, making all the shadows in the room flicker and throb. You feel this kinship across the distance, across ages, and no amount of shells that one can lob into the city can take that away from you. And it's the same when these writers' ideas are totally different from your own. As long as they create a spark of thought, make you look at everything with new eyes, you feel like you're not alone; you're in dialogue with a fellow human being across the globe, across centuries. Even escapism feels good in this situation. You just can't go wrong when reading books, any books.
Writing also seems to be what drives the character of Ismet over the edge. What is it about writing that can be so dangerous?
It seems that we write diaries in times when we cannot comprehend what is happening to us and by writing sentences about our experiences, and organizing those sentences into paragraphs, and so on and so forth, we somehow tame the experience, make it manageable, digestible. We take the scary trauma, we liquefy it, dip our pen into it, and spread it cursively all over sheets of paper, and when we run out of ink we have our trauma transferred into words. It's sitting right there on the desk in a stack, you can pick it up and lock it in a drawer forever, or give it to others, or burn it, but just like somebody taking your photograph steals a little bit of your soul, so does writing about trauma steal some of its potency. It's therapeutic.
However, if the person trying to tame his or her experience by writing about it is not ready, is split between two worlds, is broken, then what comes out is not therapeutic at all. What comes out becomes clear evidence of this person's brokenness. Think of Jack Nicholson in Kubrik's The Shining. It's not much of a book but it gives us a glimpse into what it's like to be broken in this particular way.
The blurring of boundaries between the Ismet vs. Mustafa stories keep the reader on his toes, and can at times feel like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story. Where did the idea of Mustafa originate for you?
The way Ismet and Mustafa are presented in the novel was inspired by my high school Physics professor Mr. Omer Mesic and my very limited knowledge of quantum mechanics. Sometime in 1994 we were studying allied optics and Mr. Mesic lectured that photons, the smallest units of light, are both waves and particles simultaneously. He then went on to explain it further and I got some of what he was saying but I remember leaving that class in a trance. This new knowledge that things could be both matter and energy simultaneously floored me. I went home that night and wrote in my journal making a following youthful connection: humans are made of the same stuff as light because we're also both matter (body) and energy (soul, spirit, consciousness, what-have-ya) simultaneously. So, there you go.
Can you describe what it's like when you go back to Bosnia now to visit your family? Has the experience changed over the years?
My answer here is going to be banal. Of course everything is different now and it's not chiefly because the times change but because we grow old. My father has died. My mother lives by herself, pacified by her faith, calmer than I've ever known her to be. My brother is grown up and married and there's more respect and love between us now. The old Bosnia is gone. We traded socialism for kleptocracy... I'm realizing that this is all pure nostalgia. We all think of the past as good ole times, forgetting that it's not the times that we miss, not this political regime or that standard of living, but our own youth and stupidity. It's just when you stay in your hometown your growing old seems more gradual. When you live elsewhere and visit your home town on a regular basis and witness the transformations from year to year, it makes you grow old faster, makes your bones ache.
But still the first thing you do back in Tuzla is make an obligatory round of visits to all your family members where you have to convince them (individually and usually on the sly) that you're alright, that the reason why you and your wife don't have progeny yet is due to economic and not medical or domestic reasons. You eat chevapiat the Tin Can, make a pilgrimage to the old stomping grounds, meet up with balding, thickening high school friends (all of you in your mid-thirties) whose business cards claim they are risk managers, managing directors, database administrators but who have no problem meeting you at a bar at 1 PM on a Tuesday and drinking you under the table for four or five hours, mostly on you (because you're rolling in it), and whose sleek cell phones never chirp and whose wedding rings are easily removable, and who keep bitching about their kids, cars, colonoscopies. You trudge the familiar streets in shoe-melting heat, perspire in crowded cafes with no air-conditioning, pounding buckets of iceless Coca Cola Lights and trying to remember whether you went to kindergarten with that broken person murmuring to herself on a stairway in a petticoat.
What's your favorite Tom Waits album?
Swordfishtrombones. My background is in theater and this album is so histrionic it's not even funny. Every song takes you on a different journey and there are these instrumental intermezzos to make sure that the transitions between songs with lyrics are not too jarring. Amazing stuff. But the first Tom Waits album I ever heard was Rain Dogs and that one has a special place in my heart. In the world of the novel that was the album Izzy, the narrator, heard on his twenty first birthday that made him want to stay in the United States forever. But one can't go wrong with Tom Waits. Every album is a trip into new outlandish territories. I would listen to this guy order Chinese takeout over the phone and fart into a half-full can of Pabst Blue Ribbon while sawing his kitchen counter in two. He'd make it sound amazing. You better believe it.
What writers have you discovered lately?
Lately, I'm on a John Edgar Wideman kick. I read Philadelphia Fire in grad school and it floored me, killed me. Now I'm reading everything by him, and also, like other fellow readers who are scared they will run out of books by a favorite writer, I'm saving a book or two for later on in life. He's one of the greats. I don't know what the Nobel people are waiting for. I also discovered a Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy who is a force of nature. Her novel Paradise is magnificent. Nami Mun's Miles From Nowhere is a kick-ass book as well. I also have to recommend Widowby Michelle Latiolais. Yes, she was my mentor and teacher, but this book is so stunning that it goes beyond any bias you may think I have. Everyone should read it and cry.
Posted January 12, 2012
This is the darkest book I have read since 'The Last Stand of Mr. America'. This being said it is absolutely fabulous and a must read. Gripping, thought provoking and emotional this book will have you reading until the end still wondering and thinking. I picked this up at the library knowing nothing about it and I am so glad I did. This should be read and discussed in our high schools and college English classes. If you have any reservations about buying/reading this book don't. It is fantastic and you will be glad you .
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Posted May 10, 2013
This book came to my attention as an award winning novel by a local author. It is almost poetic in places and provides a disturbing insight to the personal impact on individuals growing up in the chaos of the disintegration of Yugoslavia.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 29, 2012
This so-called novel--whose narrator and main character has the same name as the author--captures the reader immediately with its headlong rush of fluent, stream-of-consciousness prose. It paints, in simultaneous layers, the adolescence of the narrator and his doppelganger, Mustafa, as the new republic of Bosnia comes under siege and life is disrupted by the brutality of war. One hero "escapes" to the USA and the other is perhaps killed, and hearts are twisted and tormented all along the way. Mr. Prcic is indeed a masterfully provocative and talented writer, but I did get weary of the anguished adolescent voice about two-thirds of the way through. As this writer matures, his work will bear watching. This book is a debut worth reading.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 20, 2011
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Posted March 27, 2012
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