Matt Jakubowski talks with multi-talented writer Ismet Prcic about his new autobiographical novel, Shards, American theater, and the importance of experience and writing during and after wartime.
Bosnian novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Ismet Prcic (per-sick), who prefers to go by Izzy, published the short stories “Curfew” in Identity Theory in 2004, and “Porcus Omnivorus, Part 1” in McSweeney’s in 2008. His various awards include a 2010 NEA grant for fiction, and a feature-length screenplay he co-wrote with Malik Vitthal was one of twelve projects selected for the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab. Prcic’s prose style is terse but agile. There’s a willingness to take linguistic risks and a habit of describing emotion and experience in surrealistic ways right before punching back to reality.
In his autobiographical first novel, Shards (Black Cat), Prcic writes of his experience as a teenager forced to leave his family behind in 1996 to avoid serving in the Bosnian war, when NATO bombings and terms like “ethnic cleansing” were part of the daily world news. This escape was possible, oddly enough, only because Prcic has been an actor since he was a kid. Even though he had just been drafted into the Yugoslav army and had to report for duty when he turned 18, he was granted a special visa during the war to travel to the 1995 Edinburgh Fringe Festival with an avant garde theatre troupe. He managed to get from Scotland to Croatia and from there to America.
Izzy now lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Melissa. This interview took place via email in early August and as we warmed up for it, Prcic helped me out by volunteering that, yes, he does admire fellow Bosnian author Aleksandar Hemon, and that the first interview with Hemon he ever read was published in BOMB Magazine. In the acknowledgment for Shards he also thanks Hemon, “for writing back,” after Prcic contacted him.
On August 23rd, the Center for Fiction announced that Shards had been shortlisted for the 2011 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. The book will be released October 4th.
Matt Jakubowski You’ve worked in theater a long time, published short stories, and written screenplays. What was it like working on a novel?
Ismet Prcic I became a novelist by chance. I came to the US in 1996 and threw myself into studying theater. I did that for five years, had a lot of fun, but, at the end of the day, I was disillusioned by what was considered good theater in America. People spent so much time learning how to dance in unison, have a perfect pitch, good timing—to be good entertainers—and not that many people were concerned with making abstractions visceral, which is what the Eastern European theater I grew up with was all about. I started writing Shards in a beginning short fiction class taught by Eileen Myles. I discovered that I loved not having to collaborate, not having to tease crucial performances out of strangers. I was in charge of the complete product, and that, for the first time, freed me up to try and tackle some of the obsessive thoughts that plagued me since childhood, and try to capture them, pacify them, in my writing.
MJ What was it like growing up in a Muslim family in Yugoslavia (and the countries it later became)? I’m wondering about those obsessive thoughts from childhood you mention. How did those develop, as you realized you were under special scrutiny?
IP It’s funny but we never thought of ourselves as a Muslim family; we were Yugoslavs and, more specifically, Bosnians. We were a secular family, we treated holy books as literature, we ate pork, drank slivovitz, we prayed in a mosque once a year on Bajram when my grandfather made us, if that. It took people calling us Muslims that made us research what that meant. By the time the war started, we were not eating pork anymore, not because we suddenly believed, but because there was no meat to be had. Four years of that and it stuck. I still don’t eat pork out of solidarity for all the people that lost their lives. My mother is a believer now; faith saved her life. I still drink slivovitz.
MJ Can you talk about Beckett’s influence on your work over time?
IP There are two kinds of artists, ones who look at this slapdash, absurd world around us and try to make sense of it by shoving chaotic life into orderly forms in order to make us feel better, and the others who look at the same world and try to capture it as it is, to hold a mirror up to nature as it were, disregarding the conventions of the forms that already exist. Beckett is the champion of the latter kind, and I try to emulate him when I can.
MJ In terms of absurdity and reality, did you have clear ideas about what it meant to write a war novel the right way and the wrong way? What’s your view of a taking on the role of a war writer, and telling the story of a war?
IP War is the greatest teacher of them all. War shatters everything you think you know and believe and shows you that society, reality, things you hold dear are simply illusions, a common set of agreements by the people who choose to make them or are simply grandfathered into them. Most of us are grandfathered into these agreements, and it takes war or some other reality-destroying experience to wake us up. Once you’re awakened in this manner, it is sometimes hard to buy into the old agreements once the war is over. It’s hard for me run after money when I’ve seen black marketers sell puffs of smoke for the equivalent of a dollar. They would line thirty smokers in the market, light a cigarette, and have everybody take a drag. A thirty-dollar cigarette. To me, it’s absurd to buy furniture. My wife buys a beautiful oaken hutch, and in my head I automatically calculate the caloric value of the piece if we had to burn it to keep warm. Trying to capture this sort of absurdity in a novel is an exceptional challenge. You have to use the conventions of a form that is designed to take the reader by the hand and into the orderly world of the book and keep them there to the end. But at the same time you have to capture the chaos, the absurdity, the duality of everything. No wonder a lot of modern war books that were written by survivors of wars, from Slaughterhouse Five to The Things They Carried to How the Soldier Repairs a Gramophone, experiment with the form. Conventional storytelling just cannot seem to capture the shattering of a psyche that occurs when humans experience war. How can a shattered psyche write an orderly story? We owe it to the dead to keep trying to capture that experience though.
MJ Do you keep a journal? Shards is presented as a found journal. I’m curious about that element as part of your storytelling technique.
IP I do not keep a journal now, but I did when I was younger. I chose to present the novel as a primary document because I believe it makes it more visceral—and here is where the theater artist in me pokes his head out again. When we plunge into a novel as readers, we are aware of the book’s artifice from the start. When we plunge into a memoir we feel safe because we know that no matter what happens in the course of the book the person writing it survived to tell the story. Being a first-time novelist I tried to structure Shards so it starts off as a memoir—with the protagonist even sharing my name—and by the time the fiction elements collapse into this memoir, it’s hard to tell what is real and what is fictional.
MJ You say that memoirs often make us feel safe—and the Ismet narrating this very memoir-like novel seems to rarely feel safe. Why was it important for you to do this?
IP I was taught that as an artist you have to use everything at your disposal to move people. It is especially true in theater. The play called Carmen Funebre (Funeral Song) by Teatr Biuro Podrózy changed my life because it was so visceral. You’re standing outside in the night amongst other audience members, and out of nowhere two scary guys on stilts come at you with torches and whips. They choose a person next to you and drag her into the circle, tie her up, and beat her. You feel the fire from the torch on your cheeks. That whip smacks the air just to the left of your face. You feel like it could have been you in that circle despite the fact that you understand that this person is a planted actor. Your body feels that fear more than it would if you sat in the safety of an auditorium and watched the same scene on a proscenium stage. By the same token, even though the reader knows that he or she is reading a fictional novel, the fact that the protagonist has the same name as the author, and his love interest shares the name with author’s real life spouse, they end up feeling a little more for the protagonist.
MJ Most people are happy if they’re modestly conversant in another language. What was it like tackling spoken English, then writing it? Plus, you also translate literature from Bosnian to English.
IP I had English in school since the fourth grade, but I didn’t start speaking until I went to Scotland in 1995 when I was 18 and I had to. I was this Slavic Tarzan ordering drinks by saying, Big man, big viskey—small man, small viskey. Once in America I just read a lot of Stephen King and watched a lot of late-night TV trying to understand the jokes and those pesky idioms. Some show would end and the voiceover would inform me that the protagonist had bought a farm. How nice for him, I would think. I still make mistakes. I just recently realized that for the last twelve years I’ve been calling myself a scary goat instead of scaredy cat. I think that somewhere along the way I had spliced scapegoat with scaredy cat. As far as translation is concerned, I do it when I want to delve deeper into a text in English. I translated some American and British plays for a director friend of mine in Bosnia. I’m translating Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson just for fun because I love the book so much.
MJ You told me you’ve begun work on your second novel, or that you’re gearing up for the next one. Can you talk about it, and how you’re approaching it at this stage after Shards?
IP When I was writing Shards, all I did was generate stories, fragments, trying out things, and never for once thought about structure. It turned out to be that hardest thing to do, to take over 800 pages of material and shape it into a book that someone would want to read. This is also why it took me seven years to get it done. This time around I’m thinking about structure from the start. The new book deals with the similar themes as Shards but from a new angle. I like that we humans are simply these stories that we tell to ourselves and each other. To be human on earth is to be a performer of self.
Matt Jakubowski is on the fiction panel for the Best Translated Book Award. As a member of the National Book Critics Circle, his reviews and essays are published widely in print and online by The National, Bookforum, The Quarterly Conversation, American Journalism Review, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer and, forthcoming, in The Believer. His fiction has appeared in Apiary, Glossolalia, and Keep Going. He’s written a novel and is at work on a book of short stories. After time spent living all over the world, he now calls Philadelphia home.