The Rumpus International Rivers Interview #3: Sasa Stanisic on the Danube


Sasa Stanisic was born in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina and lived there until 1992, at which point his family fled the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia. He currently resides in Germany.

How The Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (2008), Stanisic’s first book, is a self-portrait of a precociously creative young boy as he wades through the ugly swamp of ethnic violence and political destabilization of the Balkans during the 90s. Chapter titles like “When flowers are just flowers, how Mr. Hemingway and Comrade Marx feel about each other, who’s the real Tetris champion, and the indignity suffered by Bogoljub Balvan’s scarf” bleed into a narrative equally lyrical. The meticulous tenderness with which Stanisic threads his story left me emotionally exhausted.

[To learn more about The Rumpus International Rivers Interview project click here.]

Stanisic also writes nonfiction—the essay referenced in this interview is a pointed take on so-called ‘Immigrant Literature’ entitled “Three Myths of Immigrant Writing: A View from Germany” published in Words Without Borders.

The first time I asked Sasa Stanisic for an interview, he declined. The book, he wrote, had been haunting him since its original publication, imposing a ‘geopolitical agenda’ he’d never foreseen. As for the Danube, he wrote, “I haven’t written one single word about it, as a matter of fact I don’t even have the slightest idea how Danube smells or feels on the skin.” I fretted over this.

I re-read his book, swapped out some questions, and approached him again a few months later. The following interview was conducted in August, 2009.

The Rumpus: Were you surprised to find Daniel Handler standing on a beach, holding an accordion on the American cover of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone?

Sasa Stanisic: My German publisher and I had no idea who that person with the accordion was until at some point my Dutch editor recognized Daniel and pointed him out to me. I guess for the U.S. readers the whole thing is more interesting since they might be able to connect the image with the actual living person. For me it was just a funny coincidence which at least led to a great experience—I immediately read all his work and enjoyed it a lot.

Rumpus: Could you elaborate on what you meant by HSRG’s “geopolitical agenda”?

Stanisic: A book is not only written—after it’s finished it starts writing you, the writer. You become its notebook, its sheet of paper on which it forces you to think and rethink your original ideas, your topics, your research, actually everything. Dealing with all the questions once the book is out and unchangeable, forces you to permanently give opinions about—in this case—sensible, challenging topics that you are basically only half the expert you would have to be if you wanted to explain yourself in a trustworthy, intelligent and helpful manner.

Writing about a war will always be political writing, no matter what amount of hermetical hide-and-seek or aesthetical operations are involved. Thus, the FAQ regarding my book were not about my use of commas or how the images went berserk, but about the political situation in Bosnia, about guilt and shame, about victims and perpetrators, about reasons, arguments and beliefs that led to the conflict in the first place, etc. All of this needed and still needs answering and ongoing discussions, but I mostly felt overwhelmed and unqualified to articulate anything worth more than personal experiences of the siege, of fear and refuge—all the things which I wrote about anyway.

Rumpus: So at some point the book had grown into something different than what you’d expected?

Stanisic: Something as radical as a war can only be understood (if at all) through the collaboration of journalists, academia, artists and, of course, people. By trying to give an artistic approach through my book I stepped unwillingly into other fields. Like a dentist being asked about a throat ache on a much more relevant scale, I was caught in trying to explain what was unexplainable for me. In the end, trying to explain why it was unexplainable finally led to a huge general insecurity in dealing with the subject at all. Instead of giving it a rest I continued pursuing more research, talking to more people on the subject as if I was to please this aftermath of the book by knowledge that was more historical and psychological than literary and aesthetical.

Rumpus: Was the article you wrote on immigrant literature for Words Without Borders in part a response to the reception of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone?

Stanisic: The reason for writing that essay was less a personal agenda than an attempt to explain my unease with the general label of “immigrant literature” after I had read quite a number of reviews (in different countries) involving books written by ‘immigrants.’ It just seemed to me so utterly wrong to credit someone’s work just for the fact that this someone migrated from one place to another. We all move. We are all leavers and new beginners at some point, and yes, it is a huge leap from war to peace, from one language to another, from Boston, MA to Joplin, MO. Unfortunately, involuntary displacements are still taking place while we speak. But no matter how much sympathy we personally feel towards a person experiencing a step like this—which in different degrees will always include loss, sadness, and pain—being an immigrant is not a literary criterion. Having brown hair isn’t one either. Regarding fiction, our concern shouldn’t be the author’s origin (and of course I am forgetting the sales people right here), because that is actually merely a simplified, almost insulting judgment of the book by its cover—or rather by the name and origin of its author—an act of discrimination if we want to say it in a more provoking way, but at the least an act of ignorance and false empathy.

Rumpus: But aren’t these labels unavoidable?

Stanisic: I am realistic enough to see that there is no way around this label. It is not being made or forced by authors, it is being made because we are for sale and sales objects need exotic power, and because everything is pigeonholed anyway—putting things in order, no matter how random and insufficient, lets us sleep better at night.

Rumpus: As Europe becomes more unified and migration more common, will these labels eventually disappear?

Stanisic: Europe is not becoming more unified—well, yes, on paper—but not as long as the criteria for so many things (import regulations, border control, visa politics…etc.) are still made in an unjust, unreasonable way. Given that the label “immigrant literature” is already established, unavoidable for anyone with a migrant background and used in any given context, I strongly advocate an absurd amount of specification to go along with the label. For example, an author whose parents fled a war but he himself was born in the country where they fled to, and that is where he went to school and college before he wrote his first book of poetry in the language of this country—he should be labeled as: “Author whose parents fled a war but he himself was born in the country where they fled to, and that is where he went to school and college before he wrote his first book of poetry in the language of this country.”

Rumpus: You mentioned that you were traveling to research for a new project. Is that a method you used in How The Soldier Repaired the Gramophone?

Stanisic: Yes, I also did a great amount of writing while doing research. It gave me the opportunity to meet and talk to people other than family, but also to explore my own memory deeper by comparing it to the memories of others who were in my home town during, for example, the political transition from socialism to a nationalistic “democracy” or during the bombings. I just feel much more secure about whatever I write if I stand with one foot in reality—meaning if the stories I write about have a core of “this actually (could have) happened.”

Rumpus: You write that an immigrant author’s most interesting book is his second or third, after they’ve purged the need to tell the story of their transition. Have you done that?

Stanisic: It is a bit more challenging for the simple fact that now the stories I am writing are relying more on my imagination than on facts, more on research than on memory; so it is basically a slower writing process, more reading, more exploring. On the other hand, this approach is a little bit relieving too, since many times while writing [HSRG] I felt too close and equal to my character.

Rumpus: Is there danger in that?

Stanisic: It can stand in the way of narration in cases where we want the protagonist to actually go through some kind of catharsis while our own (non-fictional) experiences and stories lead to something banal or completely uninteresting. By changing the way I experienced things, even just involving different details than in reality, I often felt I was betraying the past and playing an unfair game with the reader where he (of course) would ask himself “Did this really happen?”

Rumpus: Having never seen it, could you recite anything you learned about the Danube?

Stanisic: Not really. It was the Big One. Sava, Drina, Bosna—little ones, but no less beautiful. Danube–the Big One. That’s all.


Rumpus original art by Ilyse Magy.

Michael Zelenko is a freelance writer and editor. He was most recently a writer for the newspaper The Reykjavik Grapevine in Iceland. Born in Murmansk, Russia, he currently resides in San Francisco where he is working on a children's book. More from this author →