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Little Check Marks on Our Names

By Saša Stanišiç
Translated By Damion Searls

Winner of the German Book Prize, Saša Stanišić's Where You Come From will be out from Tin House next week. Translated by Damion Searls, this autofictional work explores identity, immigration, and what it means to live between languages. In the excerpt below, the narrator considers how the "exotic quality" of his name has affected how he is treated in his adopted country of Germany.

We have little check marks on our names. Someone who liked me called mine “tiaras” once. In Germany, I’ve usually felt them to be a hindrance more than anything. They put bureaucrats and landlords in a skeptical mood; passport control at the border takes longer for you than it does for Petra in front of you or Ingo behind you.

Plus, during the twelve semesters I was at university, it said in my passport that I was authorized to stay in Germany solely for academic study. So the most assiduous border guards would ask me what I was studying. The fields were listed in my passport too, but they asked anyway, as a test: if you hesitated or stammered like you didn’t know your own major, the visa was possibly fake.

At the Frankfurt airport on my way to the US to take a job as a teaching assistant in German, a border control officer indulged in so much time over my passport that the line behind me was reconnoitering the emergency exits. At some point the officer, as if he’d only just noticed the visa, shouted: “So! You! Are a student. What! Are you studying?” He was screaming. Somehow, he managed to scream every word as if it was the most important.

“Slavic!” I replied at the same volume.

The answer released a nod of recognition from him. “Must need a lot of math,” he cried. He turned more pages and had another question: “What were you! Doing! In Tunisia!”

“All! Inclusive! Package! Tour! And I! Especially! Liked! The buffet!”

I tried not to care too much about this exotic quality of my name; anyway, I had trouble grasping some German names too. One time, in a conversation about a couple I didn’t know, I asked which one of them was the woman, Hauke or Sigrid. They both were! Assumptions busted.

In any case, once you’ve gone to twenty apartment open houses and never made the short list, Saša is going to turn into the German Sascha. After that I didn’t get an apartment either, at first, but at least it was because of my job. (“Only doctors, lawyers, and architects live in our building. And one classical philologist, we can’t get rid of him.”) Then I won a literary prize, and for six months it looked on paper like I was making good money. All of a sudden neither my name nor my job was a problem.

Before I saw the cemetery in Oskoruša, I had never thought much about where I came from in the sense of family roots. My grandparents were just there. One grandfather was still alive, the other wasn’t. One was a friendly fisherman, the other had been a fanciful Communist.

“Hardly any of my characters stay in place. Few get where they originally wanted to go.”

I didn’t know much about my grandmothers’ pasts—I just took them for granted as part of my present. Nice to me, full of life. A little weird about beans sometimes. I always thought there’d be plenty of time for us to get to know each other better.

Places, too, weren’t overburdened with feelings of belonging. Višegrad was Mother’s story about being in the hospital in a rainstorm. It was running through the streets as cops and robbers, it was the softness of fir needles between my fingers, the stairs to Grandmother’s apartment with its countless smells, the sledding, the school, the war, the childhood interrupted.

Heidelberg was fleeing and a new beginning, precarity and puberty, first time being stopped by the cops and first love, salvaged furniture and university. Eventually it was the defiant self-confidence of shouting: Because I can!

But then I read my last name on every other gravestone in the Oskoruša cemetery. And all at once, my origins—both the unknown relatives and the well-known places—meant more to me. I had been to Oskoruša only as a tourist in shorts. Someone who drank a shot of schnapps under his ancestors’ fruit tree. Who thought the landscape was unbelievably beautiful and the ruins unbelievable. Who had never asked himself: What kind of people were they, my people? Including the ones who were still alive. Grandmother, standing next to me with her curled hair dyed purple, eyes closed, saying: “I see nothing but the spring in Oskoruša.”

Why did she say that? I would understand only much later: it was always in the spring that Grandmother had been in these mountains with Grandfather. Our trip, too, was full of April.

In fact, after the cemetery visit I started thinking crazy and irrelevant nonsense about how I was the last male Stanišić. That I might be a dead end, if I didn’t have children. I began thinking about my origins, revisiting and documenting my biography in diaries and notes and fictions, trying to find what aspects of where I came from might have turned me into the man I am today, then questioning the whole thing. It seemed old-fashioned, regressive, even destructive to talk about my origins or our origins in an age when where you were born and where you came from were once again being misused as distinguishing features, when borders were hardening and so-called national interests rising up from the drained swamp of small-country particularism. In a time when exclusion and refusal of entry were on the ballot again.

Most of what I wrote after Oskoruša was in some way explicitly about people and places, and what it means for these people to have been born in these particular places. Also about what it means not to be allowed to live there anymore, or not to want to. What does a particular genealogy, being the product of a particular origin, give you? And in the same way, what does it make impossible? I wrote about Brandenburg, about Bosnia, the geographical location didn’t make much difference at all, struggles with identity don’t care about the latitude. I wrote about racism, violence, fleeing. Hardly any of my characters stay in place. Few get where they originally wanted to go. All are afraid. Being sedentary rarely turns out well for them. They are refugees from something more or less existential. Their lives in transit are sometimes a burden, sometimes a gift.

They rarely talk about homelands, or home. And when they do, they don’t mean any concrete place. Home, says Mo the globetrotter in Trappers, is where you have to pretend the least.

Home, I say, is what I’m writing about now. Home was both the past in a Višegrad I knew the way a child can know things, and the later past I’d been given by a Heidelberg that had started out foreign and turned complex like this sentence. Home is this sentence.


Excerpted from Where You Come From: A Novel by Saša Stanišić. Published by Tin House. Copyright © 2019 by Luchterhand Literaturverlag, a division of Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH, München, Germany. English Translation Copyright © 2021 by Damion Searls.


Related Reading:

"Three Myths of Imimgrant Writing: A View from Germany," written and translated by Saša Stanišić

From "How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone" by Saša Stanišić, translated by Anthea Bell

"Family Rules" by Anke Stelling, translated by Lucy Jones

Published Dec 2, 2021   Copyright 2021 Saša Stanišiç

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