Why I No Longer Write About Bosnia

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

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Dispensing with the “Classics”

Author’s Note: I really don’t think this needs to be said, but I’m going to say it because of some memes I’ve seen going around about To Kill a Mockingbird being pulled from a school’s curriculum. The following post is not in any way advocating for the banning of books. Please do not call me a Nazi. There is a huge difference between changing required reading in school and banning books. The former is a change in curriculum, the later is censorship. 


This post has been churning around in my head for awhile now. For those who haven’t read the “About” section on this site, I was an English major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As such, I’ve read a lot of books considered “classics” (or, in academia, those books which make up the Western canon). I read them because it was required of an English major, not because I liked them. I read them because I wanted to be an author, and it is widely known that to write, you must read. I read them because I was told they would make me a better writer.

And maybe in some ways, they did. But I’m no longer convinced it is these specific books that make one a better writer. In fact, I think in some ways, they can be harmful. Because the authors at issue are almost universally white, cisgender, straight men. Not surprisingly, that makes a lot of their work racist, homophobic, and patriarchal. They do not reflect the reality of the world around us, not anymore (and arguably not when their books were written, either), nor do they reflect the reality of any world I want to live in. To quote one of these men, Albert Camus, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” But how can the Western canon represent the current truth? How can it help us learn to write our own truths when it doesn’t even accurately convey its own?

Yet, the thing that haunts me most is the thought of what we could be missing out on by encouraging our students to mimic a Western canon that is no longer relevant. Think of all we could have if we didn’t force this trite old sameness down the throats of every high school student in America. We could have more readers, more writers. We could inspire more voices to tell more stories, more truths. We could lift up creativity, in all fields, across all specialties and scopes. I mean, what if black students didn’t have to read about the “heroism” of Atticus Finch? What if they were never subjected to a lecture on why it’s “okay” that Twain used the n-word 219 times in Huck Finn? What if indigenous students didn’t have to read the words “the only good Indian was a dead Indian” written by some white woman who didn’t know the first thing about their culture(s)? What if female students didn’t have to read about an all-male cast descending into chaos and savagery (and thereby be forced to contemplate what their role is in placating this behavior) in Lord of the Flies? What if our students didn’t have to follow around a main character who rapes two little girls in A Clockwork Orange? What if none of these children were ever forced to sympathize with their oppressors? Would that really make them worse writers?

Or would it make them better?

Would it make the writing less or would it simply make it different? If we didn’t have these “influences” would we be more or less free? I mean, isn’t literature about freedom? Expressing oneself in the fullest and truest way possible? And how can you be free to write from your own experience and your own culture if none of your “influences” saw you as human?

What kind of impact would it have if instead of To Kill a Mockingbird, we passed out copies of The Hate U Give? Hell, what kind of impact would it have if we just went ahead and accepted the fact that a lot of the Western canon is simply boring? I mean, how many people out there do you think hate reading because someone handed them Moby Dick and they read three pages about how white some whale was and decided books were not for them? Seriously though, even the whale is white? What if we gave them Six of Crows instead? Why can’t books be both instructive and interesting?

The thing is: they can. And they are. There are a lot of books out there that are both; books that academics (and even teachers) snub their noses at because they’re classified as “young adult” or “fantasy” or “genre fiction.” I mean, I have actually seen educators, good educators I know, say things like, “THUG was really great considering it’s young adult.”

Like… what? Seriously, though. What?

Anyway, I think it’s far past time we stop and ask ourselves: Why are these labels seen to be bad things? Is it who writes these stories that make them less? Because if it’s that, it should really be evaluated. Or is it that reading these stories is fresh and interesting and fun? And if it’s that, whoever said that reading had to be boring or painful to be worthwhile? I mean honestly, what kind of message are we sending with that notion?

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Anyone else think it’s time that we cancel the classics? And if not, why do you think they should stay? Anyone want a good mix of both? Let me know (respectfully, please) your thoughts in the comments.

❤ Always, Aimee

 

Diversity Check In

One of my goals for this year was to read 24 books, but more importantly, to read diversely.

*Note: When I mean diversely throughout this post, I mean diverse characters written by diverse authors (e.g. own voices).*

Good news! I am upping that goal to 40 books for the year based on my current rate of reads. But my most important endeavor is still to read diversely.

Brief anecdote about being thirty. I was a teenager in the 2000s. Young adult literature existed then (I’ve heard other writers my age try to say it didn’t), but it wasn’t like it is now. It was sparser, for one, and mostly contemporary. There wasn’t a lot of fantasy to be had. There was almost no fantasy with female main characters save Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey (one of these days I’m going to try one of those book spirals with all the Mercedes Lackey books I own, and you’ll see how desperate I was for this kind of writing), and those books are… well, they’re quite white. I didn’t have Twitter. Goodreads didn’t even come out until I was a freshman in college. Social Media wasn’t really a thing yet. I mean, Facebook wasn’t available to anyone except for college students and MySpace was more about glitter backgrounds and bands. I found books I might like the “good old fashioned way” — by asking a bookseller or librarian, or by sitting on the floor of Borders (we still had those) and reading a ton of blurbs. When I found something I liked, I stuck with that author (see: my someday Mercedes Lackey spiral).

Reading diversely wasn’t something anyone talked about like people do now. That doesn’t excuse me not doing it. It was possible. It wasn’t like authors of color didn’t exist. I could have found them, but I didn’t.

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I’m trying to rectify that now. And it’s easier these days, thanks to social media in part, but mostly thanks to authors of color leading the push for their rightfully deserved and earned spots at the table. It’s thanks to initiatives like We Need Diverse Books. And it’s thanks to a new generation of readers who are hungry for newer and better stories than the ones that came before.

That doesn’t mean I can be lazy about reading diversely, though. Publishing is still light years behind when it comes to reflecting America (and note that I am specifically talking about traditional publishing in America here; self-publishing is a whole different ballpark, and I don’t have enough knowledge to talk about the publishing situation in other countries). This is why I’ve decided that every so often, here on the blog, I’m going to do a quick diversity check in with regard to my reading. I want to hold myself publicly accountable for being a better reader. Because being a better reader means being a better writer. And reading diversely means being a better a human, in all honesty.

So without further ado, here’s my very first diversity check-in.

Books Read in 2019: 8

Books by women authors: 6

Books by POC authors: 3 (Breakdown: 2 Black Authors and 1 Asian Author)

Books by LGBTQIA authors: 3 (Note: Not all of these numbers may be accurate as some of these authors may choose to keep their personal lives out of the public sphere which I am 100% okay with)

Books by authors with disabilities: 1

So not bad! But as soon as I wrote this the first thing I realized: I haven’t read a single book this year by an author who identifies as non-Christian. Granted, some of these were fantasies exploring religions that are not Christian or Christian coded so some of these authors may identify as non-Christian, I don’t know, but I definitely cannot put my finger on it for certain. As always, room to improve. Anyone have any recommendations for books by non-Christian authors? YA fantasy is always a plus! Or a great memoir?

❤ Always,

Aimee

 

Why I Use Trigger Warnings

You’ll notice that in my last review, which you can read here, I made a point to lay out trigger warnings. In the short stories I used to post on this blog (but no longer do because they were for an adult audience, and I am a young adult/new adult writer), I also made sure to preface them with trigger warnings. Now I’m about to explain why.

For those who don’t know or haven’t been around this blog for awhile, I have Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve been around the block with other mental health issues, too. Throughout the years, I’ve run up against generalized anxiety disorder, depression, self-harming behaviors, eating disorders, agoraphobia, touch aversion, and insomnia. These are the things that (in my mind), make my C-PTSD not “complex” as much as it is “complicated.”

For those who do know me, they’ll be the first to tell you I am also someone who does not like the way “trigger” is thrown around these days.

Trigger has a specific medical definition. A trigger is a stimulus such a smell, sound, or sight that triggers feelings of trauma. This is why it is most closely related (or used to be) to PTSD. A trigger is not something that makes you feel upset. A trigger is not something that makes you feel uncomfortable. A trigger is not something that makes you grimace and wish you hadn’t read/seen/heard/touched that thing. A trigger is not the predecessor to a mildly uncomfortable feeling.

A trigger is something to be avoided at all costs. A trigger causes anxiety, panic, flashback, nausea, fainting, vomiting, sweating, nightmares, shakes, and tremors. A trigger is, in short, the recipe for a very, very bad time.

A trigger is hearing a mother scream at her children, then having your mind go blank and your eyes glaze over before finding yourself, hours later, with your hands clasped over your ears rocking back and forth in the empty bathtub, all your clothes on, mumbling incoherent protests against a phantom from the past.

A trigger is a boy who looks like that boy brushing up against your arm on the bus, and your mind stealing you away to years before, when it wasn’t just a brush against your arm, and you weren’t on a bus, then only coming out of the fog of memory when a kindly black bus driver kneels in front of you and tells you as gently as her contralto can, that this is the last stop, and is there somewhere you’d like to go?

I rarely use the word trigger. Words have power and when I say the word “trigger” I want it to mean something.

Because it does.

It does not mean uncomfortable or upsetting. Literature is supposed to be uncomfortable and upsetting. It is supposed to make you feel. If literature makes you uncomfortable or upset, it is doing its job. There were a lot of things I listened to in Educated that made me uncomfortable and upset. There are a lot of things I read in books I will five star review in the future that made me uncomfortable and upset. None of them have been triggering to me.

But that last bit is the most important part of this whole thing: to me. I am thirty years old. I have been in and out of therapy seriously since I was nineteen. At this point, I know what most of my triggers are (although sometimes one will sneak up on me). I’ve been able to beat some of them back into the realm where they’re no longer triggers but are just experiences that make me uncomfortable. I’ve had that opportunity, to seek and destroy the things that make life hard to live.

Others haven’t. Not only because some may still be young (this is a blog that is supposed to be teen friendly, for goodness sake), but also because others might not have had the privilege I have had. I know what it’s like to choose between therapy and food. I’ve been there, in my younger days when mental health coverage was worse than it is now and I was poor. Food will win. Every time. I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to make that choice anymore. Others aren’t so privileged. And I recognize that. They haven’t had the time or the means to seek and destroy. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

So I write trigger warnings. Not to devalue the word, far from it. I write trigger warnings because I know how powerful words can be. And I would never, ever want to intentionally shove someone before an altar of their own demons and make them pay.

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As always, take care of yourselves.

❤ Aimee