In Conversation with
I met the poet, fiction writer, and journalist Amila Kahrović-Posavljak (A-mee-la Ka-do-vich Po-sav-lee-ak) in Sarajevo in the spring of 2017, when we collaborated with a local NGO, the TPO Foundation, to develop critical thinking and writing curriculum for Bosnian-Herzegovinian youth. In addition to that work, she is now partnering with American poet Heather Derr-Smith to launch the literary human rights organization Čuvaj Se (Choov-eye Say, "Take Care"), whose name derives from a farewell expression of solidarity and tenderness that Sarajevan civilians voiced to each other during the nearly four-year fascist siege of multi-ethnic Sarajevo in the 1990s, which frequently left residents terrorized and without adequate food, electricity, or running water. Amila was a child at the time; that's where we begin as we talk about her award-winning debut novel Smrtova Djeca (roughly "Death's Children"), religion, punk rock, feminism, and literature after genocide.
Tom Simpson: You grew up in Sarajevo during the siege. What was that like for you?
Amila Kahrović-Posavljak: It's always hard to talk about those years. Besides the more well-known stories there are so many small details, and the fullest perception of reality is always in the details that are the hardest to explain. Art sleeps in details.
It was death everywhere. I was a refugee in my own city, because in the first months of the war I was imprisoned in occupied Grbavica. I was just seven-and-a-half and saw so many things: rapes, murders, massacres. Later, when I was released and escaped to the free side of the city there was still constant shelling, hunger, and death. The most horrible moments were seeing a friend, a child, dead.
We were sleeping in smelly basements, eating grass from the park cooked with milk powder. We were having nightmares every night. But we were amazing kids in the time of war: we were dancing, learning, reading, going to school (also in smelly basements, since the schools were destroyed), risking our lives. Many of my friends were killed by shells and snipers on their way to school. We would celebrate birthdays (without cakes) and sing. We were singing a lot. That was our way to live, to survive and defeat all evil.
TS: What sort of access did you have at that time to literature and culture? Did you have a sense then that art and culture could provide forms of escape or even resistance to fascist, genocidal ideologies? Were you writing at all at that time?
Even at that early age I understood the enormous and beautiful (yet painful) power of the resistance. And it shaped me as a person and as a writer. I am proud to have been part of the resistance to the last fascist aggression of the 20th century, which produced the last genocide of the 20th century.
Our access to culture was various. There was a lot of very good and very serious culture on our national television. I remember how excited we were about Susan Sontag and Joan Baez coming to Sarajevo. And now there is a documentary about Bruce Dickinson, the frontman of Iron Maiden, coming to Sarajevo during siege to put on a concert. And the "Rock Under the Siege" festival featured Bosnian punk, rock, and electronic bands that we knew were the best in the region. We were shaped by this hard rock and punk resistance culture. In the rare times we had electricity we were listening to music, and we kids would put on our own little shows while hiding from grenades.
In one apartment where we lived, after a professor who had lived there was killed, we found a record collection that included Abba and the Beatles, and that shaped my musical taste, too. All of us were playing guitars, listening to serious music, and reading serious books—Dostoevsky, Joyce—especially since our national library had been bombed and burned and we lost somewhere around three million books and other artifacts. We understood this love of literature as resistance. The term "cultural resistance" was already in wide circulation in Sarajevo under the siege.
TS: Not only punk and rock aesthetics, but also Muslim and feminist ones have shaped your identity and your work in profound ways. Do you see any tensions or contradictions between them? Which thinkers and artists have influenced you most?
I don't see any tensions between authentic, personal faith and liberation movements. After all, every faith in God started as a liberation movement. But I do see a lot of tension between religion and liberation movements. Reason is simple. Religion is an institution. It represents just one, very narrow interpretation of the Torah, the Bible, or the Holy Qur’an. It exists to undermine freedom, and it is a perfect tool of ideology.
Regarding thinkers that influenced me most, while I was studying literary theory it was phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl and later Derrida and Foucault. Now I see that as just a kind of intellectual puberty, the one we all have to go through. Now I'm falling back in love with literature, especially Russian and American fiction. I've been devouring Proust and Bellow. I am addicted to literature, and I do not read philosophy or any sort of "discourse writers" anymore. When I am immersed in the world of literary imagination, those other things seem boring and narrow. And I don't want literature that makes a "statement"; I want a multiverse, I want hidden worlds that unfold.
TS: Tell us about your debut novel, Smrtova Djeca. What kinds of stories did you want to tell?
AKP: It's hard to give a precise answer that avoids a cheap form of what I call "intentionalism." It's a story of my generation, teenagers in a post-war Sarajevo ghetto, deprived and poor, living in the ruins of former worlds, in the shadows of death and violence of all kinds. Many of my school friends died after the war in street violence that was never spoken about. Many of them had enormous personal beauty and pain inside their young beings. It was a world of self-destruction, a silent continuation of the war after the guns fired their last shots.
Everything in that time was in the colors of their faces, the sounds of their voices. Their story was hunting me. Their premature deaths were hunting me. And perhaps it was my enormous passion for literature—the one that made me read almost all of the serious world literature that was translated into Bosnian language by the age of 15—that helped me carry the story inside myself for ten long years before I could write it.
TS: Does fiction writing feel as necessary, and as urgent, to you as journalistic writing in a country where political corruption is widespread and freedom of expression comes with significant risk?
AKP: I have never thought about the usefulness of literature. It can be engaged (I am not saying it should be, because every "should" is a boundary for art itself), but I don’t think it should be a form of activism. I personally despise activism in literature and consider it literature for certain political moment and therefore shallow. So, engagement and activism in literature are strictly opposite forces.
The journalist, by contrast, can be an activist or, at worst, a mouthpiece for the authorities. Journalists are forced to tell stories in a relatively narrow, "useful" way. There is no such mandate in literature. Journalism can bravely disclose corruption and scandal, but it will be forgotten after a certain amount of time. Literature can make a story out of one corrupt politician's very ordinary evening, conjuring his deepest motives, the atmosphere, the voices with a depth that journalism cannot match. But in my country, new literature is not valued. Older literature is taught in schools in a way that insists on "proper interpretations" (that idiotic phrase is an indication of how authorities take literature out of the realm of art and place it in the realm of lifeless discourse).
TS: What do you think the future holds for Bosnia-Herzegovina? And what's next for you?
AKP: I am not sure what is next for my country. There is certain status quo that's getting a little bit disturbed now by Russian influence in the western Balkans. This status quo is one the big world forces have no idea what to do with. Ours is the society they "saved" from war, but the post-war, post-Dayton projects of political renewal and reconstruction are unfinished and unnatural. It's a version of what's happening in the Crimea, and I guess a glimpse of what could be in store for Syria.
Regarding my work, I am writing new fiction about a strange relationship and a great love inside an old, traditional family ripped apart by ideological divisions after World War II and totally destroyed after war in the 1990s. And after that, I have a synopsis for a novel about something I witnessed indirectly as a child: a nineteen-year-old-girl held as a sex slave in 1992, in an occupied suburb of Sarajevo.
The interview is edited for clarity and length. Tom Simpson teaches courses on religion, genocide, and human rights at Phillips Exeter Academy. His nonfiction essays on postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina have appeared in the literary magazine Numéro Cinq, and the University of North Carolina Press published his first book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940, in 2016.
 Gur-ba-veet-sa, an area of Sarajevo west of the historic city market and south of the Miljacka River, which runs east and west through the city.