What is it about the short story form that appeals to you as a writer? What does it permit you to do that you can’t do in a novel, or in poetry?
The short story form allows me to make my point; to get from A to B in a very direct trajectory. It gives me the opportunity to explore characters and develop plot just enough to say what I intend to say. Although there’s symbolism in my short stories (some of them are in fact symbols as a whole), they’re quite straightforward – unlike poems, which are sometimes harder to understand and decipher. Furthermore, while it’s possible to successfully integrate lyricism into short prose (and by doing that, make a short story with interesting lyrical images), the final product can be quite different and a lot richer than poetry. And it seems to me that some lines and paragraphs in a short story can make much more of an impression on readers than those in a novel (naturally, this is a generalisation). Finally – and I say this both as a writer and a reader – the short story has a bright future because it consumes less time then a novel.
Which short story writers have influenced your work (both Bosnian & Herzegovinan/Serbian authors, and those writing in other languages). What is it that they do with the short story form that you admire (in terms of structure, theme, imagery, style)?
I don’t have a role model, but I do have writers whose work I enjoy reading, and there’s no doubt that some of them have indirectly influenced my writing. I like many writers, from various backgrounds and epochs: Daniil Kharms, Jorge Luis Borges, Ephraim Kishon, Danilo Kiš, Miljenko Jergović, Mirko Demić, Anton Chekhov, Jelena Lengold, Isaac Asimov, Srđan Srdić (I could go on and on…). I love how Kishon is able to make jokes about almost everything (including his own nation); I like the twisted perception of people and things, and the overall absurd approach that Kharms has. I was amazed by the structure, style and richness of language when I first read Demić’s short stories. The themes and style of Danilo Kiš and Miljenko Jergović’s stories (although quite different to each other) are close to me as I writer and reader. Sometimes I admire the idea; sometimes it’s their choice of words; sometimes it’s an emotion that the writer integrates in the story, and sometimes it’s just an original point of view.
What’s the publishing culture like in B&H? Are there many magazines/journals publishing short stories?
Quite a few magazines publish short stories in B&H. However, most of them are kind of ‘old school’ magazines, which depend on various funds, struggle to print four issues a year, and have rather rigid editorial policies about younger writers and new/fresh approaches. I would especially point out Sarajevske Sveske [Sarajevo Notebook] and the new, redesigned Putevi [Roads] magazine (among others) as favorites of mine, and among the best. It should be noted that similarities between our languages also gives B&H authors the opportunity to publish their stories in Serbia, or in Croatia, for example. Since that’s very often the case, magazines in B&H tend to lose good short stories to more famous magazines in the region. Overall, the situation with our publishing culture is not great, particularly in times of crisis, but good magazines somehow always survive.
You’re also a geographer. Does this feed into your work, and if so, how?
Geography is a beautiful science because it teaches (among other things) about different cultures, traditions, religions, political systems, etc. I don’t want my writing to be exclusively pinpointed to the Balkans, or Bosnia, so I use my knowledge to set my stories in Boston, or in Russia, or Indonesia even. I often use the Caucasus region as the setting for my short stories because it’s so alike to the Balkans (geographically and historically; even the ethnical and religious diversity is similar). It’s interesting when you’re able to write about yourself, or issues of your nation, and not mention your nation at all (for example, I write about Georgia, but I think of Bosnia). Since borders are so influential to the lives of the people in the Balkans I refuse to limit my writing in any way. It is, in fact, a way of rebelling; my response to the fact that we were denied the freedom to travel (mostly for bureaucratic reasons) for years, and to the fact that we are so obsessed with borders and walls (and not just in the Balkans!).
You’re part of a generation of authors who grew up in a time of great uncertainty and upheaval. Do you think that your generation feel compelled to address these issues in their writing? And do you ever feel under pressure to reflect a particular political viewpoint in your work?
I think war (re)shaped us all. Many young authors write about those changes, about horrible things that happened. It seems to me that the purpose of stories dealing with this period is dual – first, writers want to express their own experiences or the ones they’ve heard (and almost every family has a story worth telling) and second, they feel in a way obligated to stress that war should never happen again. Personally, I’ve written several stories about it and I don’t think I’m done with the subject. For me, it’s necessary to write about it from time-to-time as a remembrance to chaos, evil, absurdity, greed, and stupidity that should never ever happen again.
So far, I’ve never felt pressured when writing about my political viewpoints. Perhaps it’s because the human condition – and the ‘little, common man’ (so to speak) – are often my primary focus. However, I know authors who’ve experienced problems because of what they’ve written. Sadly, it’s not because of their short stories, but rather because of some article or column they wrote. Politicians obviously don’t read short stories, or more of us would get into trouble – ha-ha-ha. I think auto-censorship is greater problem nowadays.
In B&H, is there much interface between authors writing from a Bosnian Serb tradition, and authors who identify themselves as ethnically Bosniac or Croat? Or are their separate ‘scenes’ of writers from different traditions?
One has to know that B&H is a very complex (and in a way surreal) country. We don’t know how many people live here because the last Census was conducted before the war in 1991, but we surely know how to divide country into 10 cantons, two entities and one district. If country has 14 (yes, fourteen!) governments, then one should not be surprised by the fact that there are several Literary Associations in existence. Fortunately, younger generations of writers do interact and exchange ideas. The latest project I took part in happened in March (it was called ‘Undiplomatic Art’): several writers from Banja Luka went to Sarajevo, and those from Sarajevo came to Banja Luka to present their work. However, we are still experiencing ‘us and them’ dualism, even in the literary microcosmos, because everything in this country is a ‘political issue’.
Can you recommend some short story writers working in B&H that we should be reading (ideally, one from each background)?
I respect the writing of several authors, but I will highlight Lana Bastašić and Lamija Begagić because their stories are quite exceptional, as well as Anto Zirdum whose SF stories I also enjoy.