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PEN World Voices Festival 2014: Balkan Literature

By David Varno

5pm, Saturday, May 3, 2014
Invisible Dog, Brooklyn NY
Participants: Aleksandar Hemon, Igor Stiks, Ognjen Spahic, Vladimir Tasic
Moderator: Mika Buljevic
Presented in association with Invisible Dog and Trust for Mutual Understanding.

During this lively panel in the sprawling, sunlit loft on the top floor of Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center, four writers from the Balkans weighed their responsibility to address the region’s politics and turbulence with the existential need, as artists, to transcend borders. 

Moderator Mika Buljevic, cofounder of book club Booksa in Zagreb, opened by hedging a description of what she termed the “imaginary Balkans,” a space shaped by outside assumptions of the Balkans as wild and marginal.  Acknowledging the diversity within the Balkans, Buljevic asked the panelists whether they think about this space when writing.

The authors, who come from Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro, and who in three cases now live in the West, had predictably varied responses. Novelist and mathematician Vladimir Tasic, who left Serbia before the Bosnian War and lives in Canada but continues to write in Serbian, claimed that Balkan fiction writers cannot avoid politics even if they choose to write primarily about love or art. Since novelists deal with social issues of status, location, and economics, he said, they inherently address the region’s political situation.

Igor Štiks, whose novel A Castle in Romagna was nominated for the IMPAC award in 2006 after being translated from the Serbo-Croatian, and who was described by Buljevic as a political activist, commented on the incongruity of looking to artists to explain political situations. “Artists rarely express political thoughts,” he said. Acknowledging the tenuous relationship between aesthetic work and social engagement, and dismissing social realism as an invalid art form, he nonetheless claimed that books from the Balkans cannot be apolitical.

Aleksandar Hemon, who also left the Balkans before the war, and was in Chicago during the siege of his hometown Sarajevo, began writing in English because he lacked emotional access to Bosnia and what was happening. Given the outside audience for his work, he faced the responsibility to explain what has happened in the Balkans. This is a quandary, he admitted, given that literature cannot actually explain. Still, he said, “literature is great for things that are hard to talk about [because] it moves us into the realm of human experience.”

Fiction writer Ognjen Spahic characterized himself as “stuck in Montenegro,” but claimed inspiration from American and Latin American writers. When it “became impossible to write American literature,” he said, “my identity became unclear.” For him, the term “Montenegran writing” means nothing, yet when his work was translated into French, critics considered his work to be a product of Balkan heritage. Seeking an explanation, he cited the endurance of Dracula, the region’s best-known literary export, which reveals Western readers’ preference for the “bittersweet taste of blood.”

Štiks, Tasic, and Spahic all read from their work amid the discussion, and Spahic read a short story “Raymond is No Longer with Us—Carver is Dead” that mirrored Carver’s story “Little Things” and referenced other works by the American writer. Hemon, who published the story in the Best European Fiction 2011 anthology from Dalkey Archive, upheld it as an essential exercise in border crossing.

“All literature is inherently Balkanized," Hemon said, a perfectly Balkan and perfectly universal sentiment to leave us with. No country is composed of readers who read only books from their own language, he claimed, and writers must move through different languages and across borders and time to make a project fully realized.

Published May 5, 2014   Copyright 2014 David Varno

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