Interview about ”Bosnia. Separation” – ”I was moved by unexpected beautiful and simple stories of people with no political agenda, and no desire to impress someone, people with a bitter sense of humour and harsh self-criticism.”

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Interview taken by the writer Adisa Basic, from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

How and why you decided to come to Bosnia?

I first arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2009 for a short period. After that, I came for several times as a tourist, but in 2013 I moved to Sarajevo for 6 months for my PhD field research. Looking back, I think that the first experience of the city was essential for my future choice to study the Balkans and to become a sort of “hostage” of Bosnia’s charms and burdens.

This happens in many critical moments of our lives – we are faced with situations we are not prepared for and we have to deal with them somehow. Its the same in a war, in a terrorist attack, or when you first fall in love. It all happens very quickly, without any previous preparation. And that is horrible for “control freaks” like me. Well, that was the case with me in Bosnia, too. It was the result of a sort of lottery. I was a pretty confused undergrad student in Bucharest, looking for some international experience. So I participated in an international program for young people in South East Europe (Leadership Development Program, organised by the European Fund for the Balkans). In the end of the summer academy we were split in small groups and there was a random selection of places in the Balkans where we had to organise projects to inform young people about European Union. The most poetic experiences of them all, isn’t it? I turned up to be in the Sarajevo group. I was very happy for that, especially because I was in the group with Selma Hadzic, an amazing Bosnian girl with whom I rapidly connected. She made all the major preparations for our project and all I wanted was to fully taste “the adventure”. In time, she became one of the closest friends of mine from the region. There is one poem in the book with her name, I think I never told her that she was my muse 🙂 Anyhow, we organised a photo exhibition presenting the views of young people about the future of the Balkans in the EU. I stayed in Sarajevo for one week. It was a sort of magic. First, because I travelled by train from Bucharest to Sarajevo. I had to change the trains twice – in Budapest and in Zagreb. In total it took me 38 hours to get there, but I heard dozens of unforgettable stories on the way. When I finally arrived in Sarajevo after the never-ending trip, my first feeling was ..home and safe… in a really peculiar way. People made even fun of me that night – “Come on, did you smoke something in that train? What’s wrong with you? It’s just Bosnia, for God sake, not New York…” I clearly remember these words. Maybe it was because of Selma’s welcoming hug in the railway station, or my own excitement to discover a completely new place as an escape… I don’t know. The thing is that I knew almost nothing about the place besides the cliches – that it is a former war zone and.. “the powder keg of Europe”. I think in this case ignorance really worked as a bliss for me. I lived in a flat close to one of the central cemeteries, the one near the Faculty of Medical Studies, on the hill. I never heard the word war. It was just me and the streets I walked for hours and hours. I had no map or GPS. I explored. After that week I promised myself to get back there. Months after that, I avidly started reading about Bosnia and the war. Somehow I was ashamed with my ignorance especially when I saw the Markale market or the Holliday Inn hotel and I had no clue what they represented. In 2010 I decided to dedicate my MA dissertation and next my PhD to the role of symbols in BiH’s post-conflict reconstruction in the Europeanization process. And from that moment on, in all my journeys back to Bosnia, real or imagined, I looked only for that feeling of home and warmth that I had when I got off the train in the Sarajevo railway station.

What were your expectations? And what your prejudices? Was reality any different?

In the beginning I had no expectations. And that was just fantastic. I realised that sometimes ignorance protects you from many monsters – ideology, stereotypes, even from yourself or your “good intentions”. My first visit to Bosnia was in this sense very pure, as I focused on people, streets, autumn leaves and Sarajevsko pivo. But being more curious than ignorant also helped a lot! After a while I exposed myself to various layers of information about Bosnia. So I encountered this “rigid” Bosnia from academic articles, which for long remained pretty abstract to me. Then it was the Bosnia from a series of contemporary novels and essays which was wild, beautiful and confusing. And in the back of my mind there was that Bosnia which I first experienced before the readings, which fascinated and frightened me especially because it contrasted a lot with what other people told or wrote on Bosnia. But I discovered that cliches are also meant to protect us in a certain degree and I embraced them all in my coward attempts to understand what happened. And then, first in my research and then in my poetry, I felt the need to mock the way we hide ourselves from reflexivity and introspection behind our cliches. I wanted to collect as many of them as I could. And then I wanted to look them in the eye. This is what got me close and made me find common grounds with many people in Bosnia – the fact that we use irony to both protect and punish ourselves for our past. Bosnia taught me to relativize most of the major truths I believed in. How could one expect that from reading some boring political science articles?

What were the prejudices about Romanians that you had to face?

Before Bosnia, I lived and studied in Graz, Berlin and Ljubljana. There I was exposed to various negative reactions towards my nationality often associated with poverty, Roma beggars, corruption what media showed them about us. In Bosnia actually the reactions to being Romanian were much milder than in the other countries. What shocked me was that many of them expected Romanians to be closer to Bosnians than Westerners, because we also had lots of problems in getting in the EU, with corruption and so on, so we were more like them, as some explained me. Others told me with a very arrogant tone that they do not need the help of Romania because we “didn’t deserve to get in the EU anyway”. Many claimed that Yugoslavia was superior to Romania in the communist period, so they perceived as unfair for us to “lecture” them. For me this was a bit shocking, as I was myself critical towards neo-colonial attitudes of foreigners in Bosnia. So it felt really weird to be considered myself as a representative of that neo-colonial tendency. I think that this tension between the self-perception and the local perception of a foreigner in Bosnia was one of the first sparkles of the book.

You write also about international community in Bosnia. What kind of people were “the strangers” that you met in Sarajevo? How you realized you will make poetry out of that?

In the first two months I spend most of my time with foreigners living in Sarajevo because I could not speak the local language fluently and I had only few local friends. Actually, my initial plan was to focus on the institutional interactions in the EU pre-accession process, so I had to deal mostly with diplomats and politicians. For two months I also had an internship at the Embassy of Romania in Sarajevo, so I socialized most of the time in the “international bubble”. I never thought about making poetry out of that. I was first focused on my tasks and adapting to the new environment. The next months I was focused on my research interviews and on my attempts to understand the sometimes contradictory positions people have on similar subjects and on the future of Bosnia and the EU. I had little time for me in this process. I was often frustrated for hearing the same answers all over again. At a certain point I felt I could not get anything valuable out of these formal dialogues with this type of elites, as they were mostly mandated to reproduce an official position. Nothing made sense. I felt we were all blocked (me included, as a stranger) in a certain discourse on Bosnia that makes our ideas very predictable and simplistic, repeating the same mantras of limited statehood, ethnic fragmentation and blah-blah, without a critical questioning of our own diagnosis. My intention to get poetry out of this frustration materialized only after I came back to Bucharest.

Your poetic persona says in one poem: “Bosnia is our rehab”. How true is that?

In that particular line I referred directly to my very own situation when I arrived in Bosnia (after a painful break up). And I soon discovered that other internationals came there with similar purposes – to run away from something negative they left back home – either at personal or professional level. On one hand it was this rather neo-colonial arrogance which makes you look at Bosnia as an exotic place, that will challenge you with its “backwardness” and will make you become a better person. So you get to perceive yourself there as a new-born person, with a clear purpose in life, almost as a hero in a “civilising” project (what Maria Todorova described as the effect of Orientalism in the book “Imagining the Balkans”). On the other hand it was a form of coward escapism – to be somewhere not very far, but neither very close to Romania, where you can alienate yourself from your old vices and still feel safe. For many foreigners that I met (but I want to avoid any forced generalization) BiH had the effect of a rehabilitation centre, where you find your real or fake inner peace by focusing on others’ problems, leaving your problems aside. In this process of emotional or even physical detox one has to face hard times in a rehab. For me it was an opportunity to question my limits at all levels and nobody warned me about that before moving to Bosnia. But I do not want to exaggerate too much with this idea. Maybe if I would have got a scholarship to Tanzania in that particular moment of my life the outcome would have been similar, who knows? I needed that kind of cultural shock and Bosnia just facilitated that profound introspection for me. And like any rehab, that includes a lot of hypocrisy and self-delusion, too. But I would not put the blame solely on Bosnia for that emotional earth quake I have gone through. In the end, it was also the seductive power of fiction that we can always blame for our weaknesses.

What was in your life in Bosnia that was not fitting in to the academic paper, but needed poetry instead?

This is a very profound question. Sometimes I looked at my 300 pages PhD thesis and I ask myself – what more could I write about that? But of course, poetry allowed me to be free and to openly show my bias. For my research, even if I conducted an interpretive study, and I reflected a lot on my bias and my own intervention upon the findings, that was impossible. I still needed to focus on certain issues – the institutions, the formal part of EU negotiations etc. I had to impose myself many restrictions and I needed to stock to them. Also, the formal elements of a PhD thesis keep you trapped in a certain language and a predefined framework that denies your individuality. I needed poetry in order to regain control over my feelings. I needed poetry in order to learn a new language of empathy, without any restrictions. But I also needed poetry so that I could lose control. Usually a research puzzle needs to provide a solution or a future recommendation in the end. That felt like a burden! I always asked myself – Who am I to give solutions to Bosnia when I am myself in a shitty situation? So I needed poetry because I wanted to focus only on the beauty of the unsolved puzzle itself. And there was Miss Irbina which totally fascinated me for a long time. I lived on Miss Irbina ulica and this is how I found out her story. I very much empathized with her almost sick devotion to the Balkans and to Bosnia in particular. Let’s be serious – how could I talk about Europeanization and Miss Irbina? Only poetry could do that.

Who were the Bosnians you decided to write about? What was interesting about them? Is Bosnian warmth and hospitality only a myth?

While being in Sarajevo I soon observed that almost everybody was telling me the same ideas. I realised I could not reach the nuances and the “untold” stories in this process if I continue interactions at the formal level. Plus, I always felt that many parts of the puzzle are missing. So I started going to parties and making more local friends. I extended my area of definition of the so-called “elites”. I also travelled with a backpack in Eastern Bosnia, in Brcko and in Banja Luka. I spoke Bosnian more with my hands than with my mouth, but I met amazing people in the bus, in the train, in the pubs. The cliché of the “Bal-kan”, the “blood and honey” realities of Bosnia confirmed in my case, too. Beyond the nice faces I also perceived a lot of symbolic violence in people’s everyday interactions, coming at the same time with their warmth and hospitality. The industry of war story-telling, if I can call like that, began to frighten me from the beginning, so I tried to avoid in discussions any topic that would lead to that. I tried to reach people with very different backgrounds, people who travelled the world and people who never left Bosnia. I was moved by unexpected beautiful and simple stories of people with no political agenda, and no desire to impress someone, people with a bitter sense of humour and harsh self-criticism. But one thing is for sure – part of the home feeling that I had in Bosnia are its people. My impression was that the main tension of a divorce is in the silence, not in the screaming. In Bosnia I felt that many of the untold stories are more painful than the bullet holes. The new map, the new borders, the new life and the unspoken words of redefining territories, on paper, with flesh and blood. These are the main characters I wanted to focus on. And this is something beyond any rhetoric.

You told me Bosnian men were sometimes conservative toward you?

Yes, but I was already trained to survive that attitude from Romania, where men make sometimes very conservative remarks, too. Most of them were shocked that I was travelling alone, especially when I was out of Sarajevo. Because in some aspects I perceived Sarajevo as a more cosmopolitan city than Bucharest. And the shock was to see that cities outside Sarajevo gave me a rather rural feeling, and this contrast was weird. I could feel that on the way men look at you on the streets. Most of them (but a lot of women included) suggested that the real reason I was there was to find a man to get married with and that story with the research was just a cover up for my real intentions. “A girl of your age, coming to Bosnia alone? Come on, you can’t trick us that way… You’re looking for a men”. I was pretty surprised to see these conservative standards in action. They are mostly used to judge a broad range of young women’s decisions, not just mobility opportunities, but also their bodies or they choice of make up. I felt sometimes like I had to excuse myself for being single and some remarks made me feel very vulnerable, exposed, unsafe. Sometimes I felt judged as an “easy going” woman just because I am not married or just because I am a foreigner. I must also confess that I did not enjoy the opposite attitude I observed in Berlin for example, that all-permisive hipster style of individualism and self-love.

Your book deals with personal and social turmoil: divorce and (post)war. What are the similarities/differences?

Sorry, but I need to write a new PhD to answer this question 🙂 For me divorce was something cruel and unfair, but necessary. Because it placed me and my partner in an ever-shifting asymmetry of power, and made us obsessed with conquering new territories that the other one lost. I was totally clumsy in dealing with the horrible task of negotiating the dissolution of intimacy. And that brought up the violence in me. In a divorce you feel like you need to quickly pack your bags and run away, but at the same time you desperately want to stay there and think things over. In those desperate moments we find out that we still have lots of free space for love and romance, even when we are hurt and betrayed by our partners. Celine Dion was really smart in that song – “my heart will go on”. No matter the atrocities of everyday life, our heart continues its own way. So I discovered that during a divorce love becomes a rebellion, a civil war against your own organs, a forbidden manifest against the dictator, an insurgence against your whole reason. There is fear, hope, despair and remorse, in a roller-coaster which lasts for a few minutes or goes on for years in a row. There is nostalgia and victimhood – they are part of the plan. And there is domination and terror. And there is that persisting feeling of “unfinished business”. You suddenly find out that all your intimate belongings go through a lengthy process of transitional justice. The guilt needs its punishment. People are living for the truth, but were could a confused couple find the truth?

I never intended to suggest that a personal experience of separation from a person you loved can ever be compared with the tragedy of genocide and war that happened in Bosnia. I just picked up a lot of women’s voices from Bosnia that started a dialogue with my broken voice and the fragments left out of their conversations became poems. The stories of women who pass through a tragedy are never just their own stories, they are most often connected with the others and the community. In my poetic personna’s mind during her break up we hear not just her own voice, but also other women’s voices reminding her about her hurt feelings. We hear also the lost house, the forgotten presents for Valentine’s Day, the puffy-eyes mornings, the broken family’s expectations, and the social constraints, the biological clock and the laughter of failure and so on. Also, there is that moment when the lawyer comes and you have to split all the common properties. The private break up becomes a public break up, like many others in this world. That particular moment when you realise that is unbearable. It touches the most fragile parts in that dead body of the former couple. And then the peace agreement comes and it’s over. But the dissolution takes ages. You can never forget the way your love used to organise your household, and all the joys you had in that shared space with the Other. The break up does not kill you, but it kills that feeling of belonging that keep you alive. But just for a while, then you move on.

How was the reception of your book in Romania?

In my view, the reactions to the book were overwhelming. Many critics wrote about it, but also many so-called “ordinary readers” sent me messages with their vivid impressions. The few ones who still enjoy poetry nowadays, the privileged minority. Critics focused mostly on the first part of the book and of the title about Bosnia and women’s stories. They considered that part very brave and original, and a sort of revival of political poetry, which is still seen as a controversial topic in contemporary Romanian poetry. In Communism poets used to write a lot of political poetry, usually respecting the Party’s standards and being filtered by censorship. So that kind of poetry was always perceived as being fake and with a hidden agenda imposed from above. In the 2000s there was the poetry of transition and post-communism, touching some social and political elements, but that was done in very personal ways by the young generations of poets reconquering their lost territories. I think that is why my book annoyed some people with its sometimes very obvious political references (like the European Union, the Schengen area or Marx). But overall I guess it attracted attention mostly because it focuses on a topic which was very little tackled in Romania. We have very few experts on the former Yugoslav space and very few Romanian writers touched the subject.Actually this is something I am always annoyed about. We were so obsessed with adoring the West after 1989, that we completely ignored our Balkan neighbours. Anyhow, the eclectic style of the book was often highlighted. Some critics called it “a concept-book”, because it combines different types of ready-made texts from very different fields (academic quotes, soap operas, Wikipedia, Facebook chats, extract from the Civil Code referring to the legal implications of separation or advice from women magazines for an efficient diet). There were also some critical reviews underlining that the fact that the voices of Bosnian women mix with the pathetic voice of a divorced woman was not a good choice. Or that a personal banal tragedy being legitimised with the reference to a collective tragedy is a questionable literary technique. The ordinary readers appreciated mostly the second part of the book, the one about divorce. Many claimed that politics is boring and dirty and should not be included in poetry. They told me they connected very much with the broken-hearted pathetic tone in the book and they think you need to be brave to afford to be pathetic nowadays ( I am still not sure if that was a compliment…). This book also made me travel a lot. Selections from the book were translated in other languages, I was invited to readings all over the country and this year it was awarded as the Poetry Book of the Year 2014 in Romania. Some other people felt that the poems have a performative dimension, which makes it appropriate for theatre. I was invited to take part in some experimental theatre and jazz sessions, with the same actress playing all the female roles in the book. That meant a lot for me. These reactions helped me a lot at the personal level because they showed me that “there is life after divorce” :)) . And also they proved that my motto, which seems paradoxical at first site, its actually pretty accurate : “Bosnia – connecting people”.

Miruna Vlada is a young Romanian poet and cultural facilitator born in Bucharest in 1986. Besides Bucharest, she lived and studied in Graz, Berlin, Ljubljana, Sarajevo and Prishtina. She chose this pseudonym when she was 16, and she did not anticipate the „political” impact of the name Vlada in the ex-Yugoslav space where she would later live, work and write about. She published her first book when she was 18 – “Poemextrauterine / Ectopic Poems” (2004). The book received a series of national book prizes for debut in poetry and provoked a public debate about “feminine” writing. Her second book “Pauza dintre vene / Break Between Veins” was published in 2007, together with an audio book. She was included in several anthologies of the most important young Romanian poets and she was awarded by the Bucharest Writers’ Association. In 2013 she completed a PhD in International Relations at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration focused on the Europeanization of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2014 she published her 3rd book of poetry „Bosnia.Partaj” („Bosnia.Separation”) considered by the Romanian literary critics a „revival of Romanian political poetry”. The book was nominated for the best poetry book of the year by various literary magazines in Romania and it won the Best Poetry Book of the year Prize offered by the Radio Romania Cultural, the national broadcasting radio company. The book had more than 12 reviews in literary journals, cultural magazines and blogs. She was invited for readings and debates about the book in the most important cities in Romania. A jazz and poetry performance based on the book was presented by Ana Maria Galea in Bucharest, Targu Mures and Campina. In March 2015 she was invited for the Traduki poetry readings in the Leipzig International Bookfair (Germany), and in April she was part of a Translation Workshop organised by the Romanian Cultural Institute in Stockholm that resulted in the translations of several poems from „Bosnia.Separation” into Swedish. She is now working at her first novel.

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