Interviewed by Steerforth Press, April 2015
You write about a very specific historical time and place in depicting Sarajevo and the Bosnian civil war of the early 90s. What is your relationship to them?
When I completed the manuscript, which is in part about experiencing the Siege of Sarajevo, I asked Goran Simic, a Bosnian-Canadian poet who lived through the Siege of Sarajevo and divides his time between Toronto and Sarajevo, to read the manuscript. When he finished he asked me whether I’d lived through the siege myself, which was a great compliment and relief. My name is ethnic in a way that might lead people to think I myself could come from Sarajevo. But this is not the case. I have no connection to this historical time or to Sarajevo but through the characters who landed in my imagination one day and stayed there until I finished writing the book.
I approach writing in the same way I approach reading: with the yearning to be transported. I want to see and experience and feel much more than my own life can offer. I think this is true of all avid readers. Given limited material resources and the constraints of travel in space and time the imagination is a powerful way to experience many lifetimes, places, circumstances, identities, and time-periods. This is the reason I feel compelled to read and to write: I love to see and feel and experience beyond my own life.
It feels to me like I use my imagination the same way scientists use robotic rovers to explore the places that humans can’t easily get to physically: the moon, the deep ocean, under the wreckage of a building. My imagination similarly can get to places/spaces/time periods where I can’t. Supported by research, it can take me deep into a character’s psyche, give me a fly’s eye perspective of the details of everyday life, offer a breath-taking bird’s eye view of city and countryside and wilderness, take me way out into the cosmos, and shuttle me “back and forth” in time.
How did you approach researching this novel? Did you visit Sarajevo? How do you orient yourself to the problem of “getting it right” when you’re fictionalizing an historical event and depicting actual psychological states and sociological phenomena?
Unlike the academic enterprise, the aim of which is to propose refutable generalizations, novelists represent the singular – a person rather than a category of person, actual individual places/spaces rather than typical ones. While writing novels I research the particular: clothes, objects, settings, dates, sequences of events.
Having said that, I did a lot of general reading about the history of Yugoslavia because it was such a complex nation – how it was founded, its role in WWII, the partisans, Tito and the Nonaligned Movement, the fall of communism and the civil war of the 1990s, theories about the cause of its dissolution, of which there are many. My general knowledge was thin and mostly wrong, due mostly to western media reporting. I also researched PTSS in youth, the presentation of violence in PTSS-suffering war-survivors, “juvenile delinquency,” juvenile detention, the experience of refugees in Canada, particularly young refugees to make sure my there was plausibility in my storytelling.
I did not visit Sarajevo. I would love to visit Sarajevo because it’s a remarkable place and I love to travel. But I don’t think visiting a place is necessary to meet the demands of verisimilitude, and it can be an obstacle if one labours under the illusion that being there in person is the same as knowing what it’s like to be a native/resident. I could never be there as anything other than a tourist, and I can never personally see and experience the place but through the filter of my own expectations as a visitor, my personal likes and dislikes, how I happen to feel and who I happen to meet and what I happen to eat the week that I’m visiting. I would only ever experience the city in its host guise. And, of course, visiting Sarajevo now doesn’t take me to Sarajevo under siege twenty-five years ago.
I think a more accurate way to conjure a place is to read many accounts by actual residents of that place and time. Reading these accounts provides an understanding of the commonalities of living there, what it feels like to be a native resident, as well as the vast range of diverse experiences that living in one place offers, however one wants to codify them (differences of gender, ethnic, class, age, etc.). Each account amplifies and qualifies/corrects the previous account and in this manner I can come far closer to what my characters would see, think, feel, experience than my personal response to a place or person over the course of a few days could bring me.
How was it that you felt confident enough to write in the voice of a teenage boy? Considering that you are neither a teenager nor a boy.
I sometimes feel that I’m a teenage boy trapped in an adult woman’s body! I resonate with the quality/energy of the teenage boys I experience around me, though of course not all teenage boys are like this and this describes teenage girls as well: roiling with pent-up energies, sexual and otherwise; yearning to be free and self-sufficient; feeling constrained by the prissiness and pettiness of domestic life; calling out the hypocrisies and lameness of the adults around them; an irrepressible urge to yell “fuck you” and “fuck that” to the many ludicrous injunctions and taken-for-granted absurdities of everyday life. So, Jevrem’s voice does not feel alien to me. I get his rage at and his disappointment in the adults around him and at politicians and global leaders for irresponsibly promoting such a horrendous war as the one that was foisted on his country, then being complicit in its ugliness and its longevity.
How do you justify the gang violence you describe in the book? Thousands of former Yugoslavians immigrated to North America bearing the scars of that war who are good law-abiding citizens and not delinquents at all.
It felt plausible to me that Jevrem, my teenage protagonist, being who he is in temperament and personality, having lived through the longest siege of a city in recorded history at the age he did, living with the devastating consequences of war on his family, would become a “juvenile delinquent” with an “anti-social” sense of his place in society and the place of violence in that society. That is, his character and story to me show imminent coherence, and that’s all that really concerns me as writer of novels. I’m wary of the notion that a character could or should represent a class of people. Characters are singular entities and to see types in them or demand that they represent types is to misunderstand the literary project, in my view. Is s/he plausible is a better question to ask of a character than is s/he typical.
Fiction’s power and scope lies precisely in its license to explore emotions and actions on the level of conjecture and extrapolation, all covered by the evident fact of singularity (individuals everywhere contain the possibility of unpredictability, even while fundamentally shaped and constrained/enabled by their context and contingencies) and tested by an imminent emotional and circumstantial logic.
Writers often purposefully deal with what is statistically anomalous: the exception to the rule, the unusual, unexpected, the extreme extrapolation of human experience/behaviour and real world scenarios. In this way fiction is able to freely explore the wildly diverse landscape of “the human condition,” and use “what if” to test the metal of diverse character in various contexts.
While not the norm, there are gangs of South Asian and Somali young men in Canada who are working out the trauma of their childhood experiences as immigrants, refugees, visible minorities, and war survivors in similar ways as Jevrem and his gang do. And worldwide, gangs made up of refugees from the former Yugoslavia exist.
I researched PTSS and its relationship to violent behaviour to make sure my representation was plausible and found that traumatized youth, as well as returning veterans, can present with extreme violent behaviour, and, more prevalently, with extreme violent fantasies. But are Jevrem and his gang in actuality as violent as he presents them to be? Jevrem is a compulsive liar. How reliable is his voice, his storytelling? Do the home invasions really go down the way he recounts them? Is it possible that he did go with his gang to Andrew’s house but only yelled at Andrew on his front step, that the rest was another instance of the violent fantasies that both torment Jevrem and satisfy a compulsive need to assert his control over any confrontational situation, thereby relieving his feelings of powerlessness and humiliation as a refugee in a struggling refugee family? Research shows that feelings of powerlessness, humiliation, and lack of control in young men, especially (due to prevailing gendering pressures), whether caused by poverty, racism, refugee status, war trauma or other traumas, can (though won’t necessarily) lead to a number of concerning symptoms, including deep depression, violent fantasies, “anti-social” activity of various kinds, petty crime, gang membership, major crime. As in some of these cases, Jevrem has become the perpetrator, even if only in his own mind, so he won’t any longer be the victim.
Aisha, Jevrem’s sister, also embodies a plausible and documented response to the trauma of war, and other traumas. She is a model student and an extreme over-achiever.
How would you describe the main theme of Little Bastards, if you had to identify one?
I encountered Jevrem first by feeling the force of his anger. The first scenes that I wrote were of him and his gang on a rampage in Toronto, breaking and entering and generally behaving badly. I was interested in him as a perpetrator. But then I discovered his history. The criminality in him is a function of his loss of faith in “the good” at a very young age. As ever, his behavior as a perpetrator is fueled by the trauma of his victimhood. He is, like a lot of teenagers, a fierce moralist who feels betrayed, lied to, and let down. So the thread that I see running through this book is Jevrem’s emotional response to his deep sense of disappointment in the adult world that has authority over him. Hypocrites, all of you! It is this judgement that he is able to slowly qualify as he journeys toward some indefinite hopeful destination – literal and figurative – in the last third of the book.
The second section of the book is set in Toronto, where you grew up. Why did you set it there and what kind of decisions does one make as an author in representing the place where one used to live – given that there are hundreds of ways of accurately describing a city?
I don’t feel that I chose to set this book in Toronto, or my subsequent two books, which are also partially set in Toronto. The characters just somehow gravitated to it. I wasn’t living in Toronto when I wrote Little Bastards and I don’t live there now. I am not concerned about representing Toronto in and of itself; my characters happen to live in the city in a very particular way and that’s the city that I write. Jevrem lives in a run-down, shabby neighbourhood and his state-of-mind is such that it’s a bleak place for him; the season, springtime, adds to the bleakness. Compared to the old-world charm of Sarajevo, Toronto is an ugly place for him and the fact that he and his family are here as refugees and did not leave their home by choice makes his relationship to his new city fraught and conflicted. My Toronto is a different city, since I was lucky enough to immigrate to it and live in it under very different circumstances.
You clearly love the open road. There is a feeling of exhilaration and possibility when Jevrem escapes juvie and hitchhikes west, even though he’s in many ways at his most desperate. Why did you have him go on the run like this?
My favorite form of travel is the road-trip, and my favorite place to do it is throughout North America. All my road-trips have been spiritually cathartic and peaceful and have connected me to nature in a way no other kind of trip has done simply because so much of Canada and even the States is wilderness or relatively unpopulated countryside and it takes so long to get anywhere. You have to sit back and be patient and relax into the rhythm of the journey.
My editors at HarperCollins Canada asked for there to be a redemptive and hopeful element to Jevrem’s story – the original manuscript is far darker than the published book – and the only way I could see bringing this into the narrative arc in a way that was true to Jevrem’s psychological state was to have him literally break free from his past and physically undertake the journey that he’s also figuratively on: toward a destination that potentially offers something whole and uncorrupted to believe in again. A road-trip across the continent, especially via hitch-hiking, is bad-ass and therefore in keeping with Jevrem’s bad-ass energy. It, in addition, offers him all the time and opportunity to find a meditative and reflective orientation to his past, as well as to open up to what exists around him in the present, allowing him to move on from the wounded narcissism of his juvie days. On the run, on the move, he is at once freer and more empowered than he’s ever been and also more vulnerable and dependent on others. This felt like the perfect emotional tension to propel Jevrem out of his misery into a new way of understanding himself and his past.
Several characters that Jevrem meets during his road-trip have a fairy-tale quality to them. They seem to understand and accept him, and are generous and kind in offering him certain life truths to consider. Do you think such characters actually exist?
These characters just appeared when I was writing the road-trip section of the book. I didn’t premeditate them. Jevrem is hitch-hiking, so he climbs into cars and up into cabs and there they are, waiting to interact with him. Jevrem is so eminently teachable/suggestible in his vulnerability and existential aloneness that it would be hard to contrive a character who would have no impact on him. I do think these wise characters exist everywhere if we’re looking for them. A person in urgent need of guidance, searching for meaning or wisdom, can find what they’re looking for in total strangers, no matter what these strangers say. Everything and everyone they encounter feels important, like a sign. It’s their deep yearning that can turn ordinary life into fairy-tale-like encounters.