Author’s Note: This post should really have a subtitle. Its full title should be “Why I No Longer Write About Bosnia: A Lesson on Staying in Your Own Lane.”
Based on recent events in the YA community, I have replaced the regularly scheduled Thursday blog (which is about rejection), with this one. It only seems appropriate that I push back my own pain to highlight the pain I once caused.
Content/Trigger Warning: Minor description and discussion of ethnic cleansing/genocide. Cultural appropriation.
In the summer of 2008, I was 19 years old. It was July 11th, and I was at the Jersey shore drinking wine and hanging out with a couple of my friends when I overheard a strikingly handsome man speaking a language that made my heart flutter. At first, I mistook it for Russian, but I quickly realized it was not nearly as harsh. It flowed. It was soft and didn’t have the anger behind it I often associate with Russian.
In the summer of 2008, I was also a braver creature than I am now. I approached the man and asked him what language he was speaking. He said it was Bosnian. I smiled. I knew about Bosnia. A little, anyway. When I was 10, my father bought me my very first CD, an album titled “Dead Winter Dead” by a band called Savatage. The album was a series of songs that when listened to in order told a story. The story took place during the siege of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. It was a love story about two sides uniting over a man playing cello on Christmas Eve in the center of a shelled-out city. It was Romeo and Juliet without the tragic ending.
As I would come to learn, what happened in Bosnia was in no way romantic and was in every way tragic. But at that moment, all I wanted was to impress this handsome stranger with my knowledge. “Are you from Sarajevo?”
He said something in Bosnian to his group of friends, who chuckled, then turned back to me and said, “No. I’m from Srebrenica.”
Despite my ignorance, the man befriended me. We started dating. We fell in love. He was Muslim (in culture more than practice), making him a Bosniak (which can be different from Bosnian, a fact I would soon learn). He was the second youngest of five brothers, all of whom had managed to survive the genocide at Srebrenica. They were there on July 11, 1995 when the Serbs drove their tanks into the town, and the UN stepped aside. It was why I’d met him on July 11th, 13 years later. He was trying to escape his memories.
I won’t tell more of their story than this background for the reasons I’m about to explain. What I will tell you is the story of my ignorance, and how that ignorance led to a selfishness that destroyed what might have been my greatest love. Because I did not only love this man, I loved his culture. I loved his country, though I’d never been there. I loved his brothers and his sisters-in-law and their young children. I loved his language, which I picked up in college and which he helped teach me (because my professor made me sound Russian, he said). I loved pita and cevapi smothered with kajmak. I loved the techno music that at first I could not understand then began to realize was all about violence and love and the intermingling of the two. I loved his history. I loved how much the Bosniaks I got to know felt like they belonged to a place, that even though they now lived in the United States, they had these roots that spanned back generations in Bosnia. They would always belong to Bosnia. I myself had never belonged anywhere. I had no roots. So theirs were painfully beautiful to me.
My boyfriend hung the Bosnian flag on his bedroom wall, and draped next to it was a scarf, blue and yellow like the flag. There were words on it that read “Krv svoju za bosnu moju.” Roughly translated, “My blood for my Bosnia.” He believed that. All the Bosniaks I knew did. I, meanwhile, had never felt that strongly about anything.
That would be the title of my book, I thought every time I saw the scarf. My Blood for My Bosnia. I don’t remember who first came up with the book idea–me or him. What I do remember is how he would beg me to tell his story. How he would sling his arms around my shoulders and proudly show me off to his friends and family, declaring that I was the girl who would tell their story. I was the one who would finally make Americans listen.
When the summer ended, and I went back to college, we would spend hours on the phone every night, him telling me stories about his past. I would write down everything he said, then pry for every extra detail I felt I might need. I wanted to know what the hills looked like, what the grass smelled like, how much it snowed. I wanted to know how the Eurocrem tasted when he stole it from his mother’s cupboards before the war began. I wanted to know how many sheep they had and how slaughtering a lamb worked. In the beginning, he wanted to tell me. He wanted me to tell his story, because no one in America knew about Bosnia. No one had ever told their story. Eight thousand men and boys were slaughtered in Srebrenica, and most Americans had no idea. As I was in school for creative writing and deeply in love with not only him but everything about him, I seemed the obvious choice. One of his sisters-in-law even joked I was “more Bosnian” than most of the Bosnian girls she knew.
I was proud of that. And I was honored that he wanted to give me this precious gift. But I understood it to be a weighty responsibility, too. I wanted to make sure I did it right. So in addition to our nightly discussions about his life, I spent hours and hours and hours at the library reading everything I could about Bosnia, and Yugoslavia before it. I pulled videos from archive files I didn’t even know our library had until then. I watched what happened in Srebrenica and elsewhere. I saw the Serbs line the men up in graves the victims had dug for themselves, then pull the triggers of SKS’, then smile for the camera.
The nightmares got worse. I have always had nightmares, but they shifted. They started to be about a conflict I’d never lived through. They revolved around fears that weren’t exactly mine. In my short story classes, every story I wrote was about Bosnia. My writing professor looked at the non-fiction manuscript I was working on and told me it lacked any sense of me.
I started to digest my boyfriend’s pain in a way even he did not. I didn’t realize what was happening at the time, but I was stealing his pain from him. I would get drunk and cry and demand to know why the Serbs had done that to him and his people. Why anyone would hurt anyone that way. I railed about his pain and expected him to console me. I thought what I felt was good. I thought it meant I loved him so much it hurt me to know he’d been hurt. And in some ways, it was that. Mostly though, it was theft of the most terrible kind. It was the most selfish thing I’ve ever done.
He stopped wanting to tell me stories about the war. I begged him. We started to fight, something we’d never done before. Constantly, about everything. I think he picked fights with me to avoid telling me the stories I’d sickly come to depend on. To thirst for. I was hungry for this story that did not belong to me. I wanted to buy my way in to a community I could never truly belong to, and he sensed it if not outright knew it. But I didn’t know it. I was too deep in my own selfishness.
I was a sieve for pain; I always had been. Years later, one of my therapists would call this relationship a “trauma bond,” not in the sense that our relationship with one another was abusive but that our pasts were abusive. Trauma was a thing I knew more intimately than anything else. It was a thing my boyfriend and everyone around him knew. Instead of sharing similar hobbies or core values, we shared trauma. It was the source of my sense of belonging. I clung to it because it was familiar. I had not yet learned to want to be free of it. He had.
The thing is, the reason for telling the story often matters as much as the actual telling of the story. Our reasons separated. His was authentic and genuine. Mine was toxic.
Eventually, his best friend, a survivor of one of the many internment camps set up in Bosnia, called me to tell me my boyfriend was cheating on me. Now that I look back, I don’t even know that he was. Maybe. But maybe he just wanted an easy way out.
We broke up.
I still didn’t stop writing about Bosnia, though. By then, I’d made other friends who were Bosniaks, though I never fed on their pain the way I had my boyfriend’s. But by having those friends, I still felt like part of the community. I still felt like it was okay to write about Bosnia even though it was a community I did not belong to, and never would because, somewhat obviously, I am not Bosnian. Like I said, I’d never had a community. Dating that man, and having those friends, was the closest I’d ever come to feeling like I belonged somewhere.
Short stories became my new outlet. My new sick fix. I thought maybe I would even publish a whole compilation of them, with the same title. My Blood for My Bosnia. It would be a best seller. When it was, we’d run into each other at a book signing. I would fix things. He would love me again. I would belong somewhere. It was a ridiculous fever dream I held for far, far too long.
Then, in 2017, not longer after I published my first novel (thankfully, not about Bosnia), I attended a writers retreat focused on writing more sensitively and staying in one’s own lane. MadCap changed my perspective on a lot. It also made me reflect on the damage I’d done to this relationship that, though I’d cherished, I’d let fester and rot.
I stopped writing about Bosnia after that. Because the thing is, it doesn’t matter how much history I know, or that I’ve listened to or read all the transcripts of the Bosnian War Tribunals, or that I’ve loved and continue to love Bosniaks, or that I adore the food, or that I speak the language (badly, these days). None of that matters, because I am not Bosnian. I will never know what it’s truly like. I should not be the one to make Americans listen. A Bosnian should do that. That genocide is not my pain. It never will be. And for me to capitalize off it?
It’s wrong. Plain and simple.
But Bosnian voices? You had me at “ljubav.”
❤ Always, Aimee