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|Interview Natasha Radojcic
Fiction doesn’t require fancy words; it needs understanding readers willing to fact the hard, unconscionable truth of what one human being is capable of doing to another and the consequences of ignoring such acts.
- 'Writing the Madness of War', Natasha Radojcic, Boston Review 2002/ 2003
|SK — You started out as a cinematography major, in Belgrade. Do you see a relationship between film and your writing?
NR — There is definitely a visual aspect to my craft. I see things before I describe them. And once I start describing them, I’m determined to pick the right words. Usually I struggle the most with verbs. I have about 400 verbs on my wall. I look at them until I find the one that’s right. I always write in English, but I’m a bilingual thinker. Serbian, my other language, has seven cases for the noun and a totally arbitrary word order. English, on the other hand, is ruthlessly precise. And while the focus of a Serbian sentence is on the subject, in English it’s always the predicate. So first I concentrate on the shape of the sentence and then I try to find verbs that are interesting enough, and active enough, for the kind of writing I want to produce. It’s a great struggle for me to be clear, precise, to tell exactly what the character is feeling at every moment, and yet not be too far away from the page. Which I think virtuosity, an overabundance of words, can do to a writer.
SK — Would you approach a text in the same way if you were writing in Serbian?
NR — I’d probably be just as fussy. But writing in a foreign language poses a special challenge. When I was studying at Columbia, a professor of mine advised me to stop reading in any language other than English. I can make my way through several European languages – I may not get every word, but I can make my way through – and he said that it was affecting me syntactically. I’ve done that for a long time now, and I found that when I went to do a tour for this book in Serbian, I felt like a foreigner. It’s not that I have an accent – maybe my ‘r’ is a little softer than it used to be – but I just couldn’t think in an abstract way anymore in that language.
SK — You came to the States in 1989. What about the rest of your family?
NR — They left in 1993.
SK — Where are they now?
NR — Only my Dad is left. My mom passed away. My dad lived in Greece for several years and then retired back to Belgrade, and my mom’s family, those who weren’t gone, moved to places like Malaysia, Canada, America, Germany – all over. There aren’t many left, unfortunately.
SK — You got out just in time.
NR — Yes. And after being in the States for several years I suddenly realized I had to write about the place I’d left behind.
SK — You’ve published two novels so far. Your first novel, which has just been published here in the Netherlands, is called Homecoming. But the protagonist, Halid, never really goes home. Tell me about that.
NR — You know, when you get displaced by a great calamity, such as war, especially when there are these insane divisions between people… I’m the daughter of a Muslim mother and a Christian father. I’m half one side and half the other. Which is emotionally, psychologically, so complicated. It’s like being half Palestinian and half Israeli. All I wanted to do was fight for peace, and try go get people to understand that it is possible to be tolerant of one another. And people do listen, but only in places that are already tolerant, like London, or New York, or Germany… When I went back to Serbia, my pleas fell on deaf ears. Bosnians have been totally ‘anti’ my book. They called me an ‘American expansionist’, a fundamentalist, they publicized the names of all my relatives, because there’s still this idea of being dishonored by association to the wrong family member – a very tribal concept. The Serbian papers wrote that I got a million dollars from Random House to write this book! And that I was dating some Wall Street tycoon… I was discredited in the worst possible way! (laughs) It was awful. But on the other hand, it’s a bestseller in Serbia.
SK — Ironic. I guess people are curious after all. Let’s get back to this idea of coming home but not really coming home. Going back to the place you came from, but never really arriving.
NR — Okay. I’ll try to explain. This book is dedicated to my… I lost a boyfriend, we were very intertwined, we were living together. He was from Sarajevo and he couldn’t integrate into American life. He was too proud to go to work and do something he didn’t want to do just so he could pay his rent. So one day he got drunk and got on a motorcycle. This book is how I dealt with the loss. It is my mother’s village, but the way Halid looks, the way he’s not fighting for himself – that comes from my experience with Dragan, who couldn’t…. I mean, if you met him you’d probably never notice that he was such a fragile man, because he had such a loud way about him. But he was. And he couldn’t integrate. I fell into American life very nicely. I liked being anonymous. My family is very prominent in Yugoslavia and I was failing them in every possible way! I could never do the right thing. I just don’t have a talent for it: sitting properly, dressing properly, behaving properly… I tried really hard, but I was like an alien in my own house. Once I got to America, nobody gave a shit, and I thought, my God! This is heaven! I was given the chance to become whoever I wanted to be. It took a long time. It’s a quest. And it never really ends. But the best part was: nobody knew me and nobody cared. Of course, that’s also the price you have to pay. Because nobody cares. That’s the other side of the coin. But I felt like I was … free.
SK — Halid returns to his village, but keeps avoiding going to his mother’s home. Eventually they do run into each other, in an orchard. It’s a painful scene – I can’t imagine my own sons not wanting, or being unable, to come home. Why does Halid return to his village at all?
NR — (long silence) I think he didn’t have anywhere else to go. He says at one point, home is the last place in the world he wanted to see. When you have that sense of failure as a human being, when you had all these good intentions and you still do terrible things, without even necessarily meaning to… I think he was lost to the world. With war criminals it’s easy – that’s black and white. Those are bad people. But what about the good people, who have something on their conscience that may not allow them to be happy? To go home? Going home, meaning: integrating the shadow and becoming a whole human being who can get through most days peacefully. So as I said, I think Halid returns because he has no other option. As a writer, I had to take away all his options to make him fall apart.
SK — You said there’s something that makes it impossible for him to reintegrate. But the place to which he returns has changed so drastically – how could he reintegrate?
NR — There are some people who do. Some people can come back. I have a cousin who was shot, and survived. Her story is horrifying, but she still looks forward to every day. She had the strength, or faith, that other people don’t. Some people survive. Like Mira, for instance, in Homecoming. She’s very strong. She gets furious, but she manages to take care of business. And she takes a stand.
|SK — Halid returns to his village and receives a hero’s welcome – but not really. It’s as if the people in his village are going through the motions. They congratulate him and ply him with food and so on, but it all seems a little insincere.
NR — Not insincere, just cautious. There is a certain code of behavior that exists under strenuous circumstances. Freedom of individual expression comes from economic abundance and peace. In a destitute area, people have their own ways. When Halid returns, he no longer follows the code. He doesn’t do what everyone else is doing. When the other men go to the prostitutes, for instance, he refuses to take part in their aggression. Halid, in a way, causes the other villagers to reject him. They don’t want to think about the war, they don’t want to think about those who died, they just want to be drunk. They have to kill him, really, because he’s upsetting whatever little balance they think they’ve found.
SK — Can soldiers every really come home?
NR — I don’t know. You experience something that completely robs you of your identity as a compassionate human being. If you can forgive yourself, forgive the circumstances, and come back, and still be able to feel compassion…. I don’t know. I think about it all the time. It’s a group I identify with. I’d actually be curious to know what you think of my second book, You Don’t Have to Live Here, because in that book the woman does forgive herself.
SK — What has she done? Or think she’s done?
NR — She hasn’t done anything blatantly, morally wrong. But she has done many self-destructive things that could be complicated for the woman she was trying to be as a young person. She goes through the nightmare, but she’s okay in the end. I was able to find compassion in her, and strength, but I couldn’t find that in Halid. It was as if he couldn’t love himself. I think that in spite of how strong we may be, we need our environment to be truly welcoming, in order for us to survive.
SK — Was Dragan in the back of your mind the entire time that you were writing Homecoming?
NR — Oh, yes.
SK — Not an easy book to write.
NR — No, but thank God, I’m so much happier for having written it. I sleep easier now, because I didn’t – for months. The last six pages were the most awful two days of my life.
SK — Halid’s death.
NR — What was hardest for me is that he dies from the inside. He knows he’s dying. And I had to be there with him. My best friend read those pages and said, ‘You’ve got to stop writing this book! I hate it!’ I’m glad it’s out. I’m writing a comedy now, my third novel. It’s the exact opposite of Homecoming. It’s called Dreaming, which is the name of a little town where everybody’s nice. The book takes place in the American South, which I’ve never seen, but the climate’s right – I want this book to be humid. When it’s humid people sweat a lot, and that’s funny. At one point they make a wedding cake with 300 eggs, a wheelbarrow of butter, and two sacks of flour, for about 7 people. And the cake is sweating! My second book had been pretty hard to write, too. I wrote it in the first person, it’s heavily autobiographical. The woman in the book is constantly on the move, she’s running all the time, gets into drugs very badly, keeps moving. When I finished it I decided to model my third book on Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. I love Cannery Row – it’s so warm. Cannery Row has 32 chapters, about two-thirds of them are narrative and the rest is short vignettes about these really ridiculous people! I used the same structure, but made up a town where there’s no death, where people hang smileys on the door of the graveyard gate... Of course death comes eventually and things have to change, but everything turns out all right in the end.
So I’ve gone from a black book, to slightly less black, to a lighter book. And now I’m going to do an epic (laughs). I work hard. I can’t stop writing. I feel like I live for so many people who are gone. For my mom, for Dragan, for a cousin of mine who just committed suicide – I’m an only child, so cousins are very important.
SK — What makes you take on all those lives?
NR — I think I’d go insane if I didn’t, because I can’t reconcile with that much loss and not be angry with God. I want to know why. These were such good people. It shouldn’t be like that. But questions only generate more questions. Elie Wiesel said in his essay, ‘Why I write’, that he writes ‘to touch the bottom of madness and to get away from it’. I look at the world, and it’s a pretty fucked-up place. This is my way of trying to contribute – in a positive way, I hope.
SK — There’s a short passage in your book that I’d like to ask you about. Halid and his friend Shukri are standing by a stream – once a ‘fishing haven’, but now so polluted that the fish have been gone for more than five years. I’ll read it to you: ‘“Do you think we’ll ever get the fish back?’ Shukri asked. “We might get some. Probably not trout.” “You and your trout. We have all this fun ahead of us, and you’re standing here mourning over some fish. Do you know anyone who ever caught trout here?” “Nope.” "I didn’t think so. It’s a goddamn myth, like all the rest of the stories.”
My question is: which myths, which stories?
NR — Serbia and Bosnia, that whole area, is obsessed with this idea of military heroism and the necessity of honorable death and murder. We even have an expression for it: Srpska mitomanija. It means: a lust for exaggeration. I was watching a nature channel one day and I saw these two male birds about to fight. Suddenly they both just puffed up! Expanded their chests. To scare each other. I think that’s what happens in Serbia. All these frightened people who bullshit themselves into believing that heroic is endeavor is a) important and b) honorable. Which is really dangerous, ’cause people get killed! I think that’s what I meant by stories and myths.
SK — There’s one particularly intriguing character in Homecoming, Mladen, who is known as the ‘stupid giant’ and spends most of his life in a cage. When Mira asks him why he stays in the cage, he says it’s because the villagers sleep better. What’s striking about Mladen is that he speaks with such sensitivity. ‘He always tells the truth’, Halid says. Where did this character come from?
NR — Fellini, maybe? I don’t know, I just thought how awful it is not to fit in anywhere, in any way. And Mladen literally doesn’t fit in – he’s nearly seven feet tall and his features are disfigured by his ‘growing disease’. A gentle monster. And sensitive – yes. Maybe too sensitive. In many societies he’s the sort of person who would get put away, so he wouldn’t upset anybody. He’s a total misfit. I feel like that almost all the time.
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn
Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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