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Somber Devils and Laughing Angels

Interview with Bosnian poet Mile Stoic

by Demitri Tetin

Mile Stoic is a writer of poetry and essays as well as a compiler of anthologies and a translator of German. Until the war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, he lived in Sarajevo and supported himself by writing and editing literary publications. He served as editor of Naši Dani, a youth newspaper notorious for exposing then-Yugoslavians to the music and culture of the West, to the disapproval of the Communist censors.

As the war broke out, Stojic and his family sought refuge in Austria, where he taught at the Slavic Institute of the University of Vienna. Currently, he lives and writes between Vienna and Sarajevo. He is a full-time columnist of the Feral Tribune in Split, Croatia, and Dani, in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

In 2004, Stojic collaborated with SAIC graduate student Amir Berbic on A Dictionary for Saturday and Sunday, a project that combined his short essays with Berbic’s unique “objects.” The result was more than collaboration; it was what Stojic calls a “symbiosis.” Stojic’s somber, reflective prose, that examines the meaning and context of such words as “nostalgia,” “mediators,” and “asylum,” acquires a different kind of poignancy next to Berbic’s images of bullets growing out of flower pots, keys twisted into bottle openers, and compasses charting out rectangular borders. Their work is neither funny nor sad, but somewhere in-between, or beyond.

Chicago and the Bosnian diaspora

Dimitry Tetin [DT]: I know you haven’t been in Chicago very long, but do you have any impressions of city and the Bosnian community here?

Mile Stojic [MS]: I don’t know what is important or particular to them, but the fact that they were able to settle here and be accepted here is very important.

It is also interesting that the first Bosnians to come to the United States came to Chicago in the beginning of the 20th century and they came here for economic reasons. In the last 10 years they were able to help and support the “new” Bosnians who came as a result of the war.

DT: Traditionally, first generation immigrants stick to their culture very closely and then their children become assimilated and take on the new culture, losing contact with their parent’s culture.

MS: I don’t think it was a matter of staying in touch with as much as it was a feeling of duty to support these people when they were coming during the war. They had nobody else to turn to but members of the old Bosnian immigration.

On writing in exile

DT: The fate of many European writers and artists of the 20th century is one of forced or self-imposed exile: Kundera, [Matrimonio di] Gambrowitch, [Dubravka] Ugresic, [Vladimir] Nabokov. While politicians obsess about geographical lines and borders, many artists and academics in exile pledge their alliance to cultural and historical traditions of their country without aligning themselves with the political party that happens to be in power. The condition that results for the writer in exile is a particularly dangerous one. The place of one’s birth is erased and one is left floating in the unstable sea of memory, nostalgia, and language.

As you said yourself, exile was one of the important characteristics of 20th century literature. Exile is an intellectual category, as opposed to asylum, which represents a more regulated movement.
The great German poet [Bertolt] Brecht, who was also in exile in the United States, said: “In exile a man speaks loudly but nobody listens. And he makes mistakes in the foreign language but nobody corrects him.” Exile is a tragic state for a writer, but it very often can be an advantage.

A whole group of German writers during WWII and great Russian writers under Stalin, were looking for the only way of survival in exile. Nobel prize winners emerged through exile: [Joseph] Brodsky, [Czeslaw] Milosz. Exile is a difficult state to manage, but sometimes it is a very productive one. Very often countries that award status for these writers profit from this type of state, even though they do not really provide great conditions and status for the writers.

A great number of Bosnian writers live in exile and you can already see their traits in global literature—in Germany and the United States. That is the only positive thing. Otherwise exile is a very negative category and it’s a category of erasing one whole generation.

DT: What does it take to stay relevant to your reading public at home while living abroad?

It’s like singing over the telephone. I am singing to an audience that listens thousands and thousands of kilometers away. I don’t know who my audience is, nor if they are applauding, if they are responding to what I am singing. But I continue to sing. My only reward is silence and a sense of being lost.

DT: In literature, sometimes, a great power is attributed to the position of liminality. It is a position between borders: you are neither this nor that. You are completely free—alone, but free. Is there anything positive in that?

MS: An Austrian poet Alfred Polgar described this state: “Otherland did not become homeland, but homeland became Otherland.” In this type of conversion, the sense of freedom is hidden, because you lose sense of the [historical] moment. In this type of state, good literature can evolve. However, it kills the author.

DT: At the end of Aleksandr Hemon’s novel Nowhere Man, his immigrant hero talks about the fact that there is literally nowhere that he wants to be. Is that a feeling that comes along with such a position?

Yes, it is a feeling we carry, both me and Hemon and many writers of our generation. Our languages are too small to be respected in the global literary currents. But, they are equally important to us, just as English is to its writers.

So we are fighting for our languages, even though Hemon writes in English, but his theme is still a Bosnian one. And we are trying to not let it be forgotten what happened to our languages and our country. We are not writing the histories of our countries. We are writing the history of our people suffering. That is the difference between those of us who are coming from small countries, and those who come from major countries.

Views of America

DT: I know you have not been in the United States for a long time. From your own point of view, does the United States seem different than it was 10 years ago? Do you think the attitude toward religion has changed?

MS: People are the same everywhere. People are better in good times, and worse in bad times.
I think our country is specific by no means, and people are the same just as they are the same everywhere in the world, just as they are in the United States. There were bad political currents from our neighboring countries on the East and on the West—Croatia and Serbia—and it would be the same if there were bad political currents from Canada or Mexico.

Religion in itself is not a problem by any means. It becomes a problem when religion is instrumentalized for the needs of certain groups. That is what happened in our region and is in some way happening in the United States, which has an overly critical perspective on Islam, which is also a religion very much present in the United States.

There are two Americas: one of Bill Clinton that we remember as a friend of our country, and one of George Bush which looks at the world in a different way, and looks at us in a different way. Still, Bosnia views the American people as friends, despite of any current political direction. Aleksandr Hemon writes about this in a very meaningful way.

Inability of literature to address violence

DT: One of the main goals of post-WWII European literature was to develop a discourse to address the violence of the war and Soviet occupation. Do you think American literature lacks, to borrow [Theodor] Adorno’s words, a “commitment” to the resolution of addressing violence in literary language?

MS: Violence is usually enforced by those who have force. Those who don’t have means of imposing force don’t do it. Violence usually begins with language. If we analyze the language of the media, we will see that the media usually anticipates violence, hatred, and racism.

Intolerance is the mother of all violence and the sort of language present in the media supports this type of intolerance. It is usually the violence of the stronger upon the weaker. When we talk about the violence of the 20th century we usually talk about the work of Hitler and Stalin, who, using the logic of the powerful, were able to kill millions of people. But we forget that violence begins with our everyday language. Even in the language of our immediate surroundings, such as our family.

The logic of violence is born in overly talking about weapons, force or promoting militarism. Violence is also given birth in the discrimination of any minority group. It is very difficult to be tolerant, and it is very easy to talk about tolerance. In this sense, it would be very good to listen to the small ones, the weak ones, because there is a lot to be learned from those groups.

DT: The newspapers are filled with stories of violence perpetrated by and against Americans.

It is first of all a response to violence. If you respond to violence with violence, which is sometimes really necessary, you must defend elementary human principles with care. Everything else becomes an aggression toward innocent people. There are no historical, ethnic or racial reasons why an innocent child in Palestine should be killed.

Writing under socialism

DT: Can you talk about what it was like writing for a youth publication such as Naši Dani under Tito? In the US, youth magazines usually address pop culture, issues of puberty and adolescence. Youth culture stood for something completely different in the Eastern and Central Europe. What sort of censorship did you encounter?

Of course, censorship existed. In youth publications there were topics that we did not tap into. For example, President Tito could not be criticized. At the same time, we were allowed to talk about Western youth culture, rock’n’ roll, etcetera. We read and translated Western books and magazines. It was a form of auto-censorship, where we willingly gave into a form of censorship in order to get freedom for something else.

DT: How were youth publications such as Naši Dani different from other publications?

MS: We were writing about things that were different, because other, non-youth publications were under the direct influence of the Communist party, which we were not. We were not influencing a great number of people, people usually belonging to the youth generation, but we could at least freely express ourselves.

In my time, the editorial staff would often be fired by the authorities, but there were no other, worse consequences: they were not put in prison. We were in some sort of a half-category between the West and the Eastern Block.

DT: What sort of work were you translating?

MS: We were usually translating leftist ideas of the West: Jean Paul Sartre, Adorno, [Jürgen] Habermas. But we were aware of the rightist thinking as well, [Martin] Heidegger, we were aware of that.

Interaction between text and image and the role of translator

DT: As I was showing the book Amir and you co-authored, one of the faculty members at SAIC asked me if she needed a lot of “background” information to understand it. She seems to have been asking for an intermediary, a critic. As a poet, editor and teacher, what role do you think the role of the critic in interpreting a work of art should be?

MS: When you are talking about the book itself, the texts written were mainly written for the Bosnian population. The American version, Dictionary for Saturday and Sunday, is mainly the work of Amir. He chose the text and put it in the context of his own visual work, and I think that it what is worth the most about the book as a symbiosis of two pieces of work, written and visual. When you ask about the role of the critic…the role is usually to mention the things that an ordinary reader cannot tap into, even though I never took too seriously the critics of literature. I usually skipped the forewords, and would immediately go to the work itself.

DT: What was your experience like when your written work was combined with images?

MS: I did work with illustrators, but I was usually not happy with their work because they oversimplified my ideas. They would adjust it to their own idea. I think in this case, Amir was not working as an illustrator, but was using his own finished work and was putting it into a relationship with my writing. In this case, my work and Amir’s work had equal weight. That is what makes this project interesting. The fact that these two different mediums of work at first glance seem like they don’t have much in common but, after deeper analysis, a greater relationship can be seen.

DT: Although the translation of your work is excellent, do you think Amir’s images help point the reader in a certain direction?

It is understood that the language of painting or music is more universal than the language of words, simply because the visual language and the language of music is understood by groups of people across borders. The language of words is used by a smaller group, though it is understood that the language of literature works directly with ideas. A poet or a writer can talk at town squares and can ignite masses and is therefore considered more dangerous.


DT: In the past 20 years, after the fall off the Berlin wall and increased globalization, various elements of the English language (usually related to economics or the military) entered the vocabulary of the countries of former Yugoslavia, as well as those of the Soviet Block. Can you think of a word that the English language should borrow from Bosnian or Serbo-Croatian?

MS: English words did not only come with the fall of the Berlin wall but also with the installment of global communication systems such as the internet. I speak German, and many English words also found their way into the German vocabulary. It is a process that one can no longer stop.

I don’t have any one word that I can recommend to the Americans. I would recommend our entire culture, about which they have no clue and which is at least a 1000 years old. Its history is filled with many great writers, painters and artists, whose beauty the American nation can most certainly enjoy.

Sincrere thanks to Amir Berbic for translating
Images are from “A Dictionary for Saturday and Sunday”
by Amir Berbic ( )


September 2006