Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Rayess grew up in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina. After surviving genocide and 1,150 days under the Serbian military siege, she emigrated to the United States in 1996. She then earned a BA in Economics from Brown University and two Masters degrees and a PhD from Columbia University. Currently, she is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Education, Health, and Psychology, where she works on understanding how and why societies fall apart and what role education plays in countering radicalization and rebuilding decimated countries. She has published on education-related issues and has lectured around the world to adult and adolescent audiences. In her students’ feedback, Sabic-El-Rayess is consistently praised as one of the most inspiring professors they have encountered.
Sabic-El-Rayess’s award-winning memoir, The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival, is told from her perspective as a young Muslim woman growing up during the Bosnian War. I was honored to talk with Sabic-El-Rayess recently over Zoom about what being an author means to her, how her memoir represents both individual and universal experiences of the genocide, and why she believes the term “objectivity” can shield discriminatory bias.
The Rumpus: Your Twitter profile says, “Bosnian genocide survivor, Mom, professor, author of The Cat I Never Named, on a mission to counter hate.” You wear a lot of hats! How have you adjusted to the idea that you are now an author, and has that influenced your identity as a genocide survivor, a mom, and a professor?
Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Rayess: I first wrote about fifty poems during the Bosnian genocide, from 1992 through the end of 1995. Now, decades later, being a first-generation immigrant yet an author whose work has garnered attention is humbling, but also empowering. The Cat I Never Named is that empowered voice—raw, authentic, and unapologetic of what it represents. It tells my story with all of its brutality, pain, and love I had experienced during the genocide.
Rumpus: Can you share a little more about why, as a teenager growing up during the war, you gravitated towards writing verse to express yourself as opposed to prose?
Sabic-El-Rayess: I learned English late in life, and I’m self-taught. So, I never explored the craft of writing the way a native speaker might. I write from an emotional place and that’s something that transcends the language. My emotions really drive my visual imagination and my ability to write. That was what first drew me to poetry. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but an emotional urge to put to paper the kind of pain and loss and love that I experienced during the war.
Rumpus: The Cat I Never Named is certainly an emotional read. It’s also unique because its written from the perspective of a Muslim girl, a kind of narrator who is difficult to find in young adult literature. Toni Morrison said, “if there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” Does that quote resonate for you, and if so, how?
Sabic-El-Rayess: Of course. My brother once said to me, “Amra, I never realized that the reason I felt lesser growing up was because we were Muslim. It wasn’t until I saw our life captured in The Cat I Never Named that I understood the way teachers mistreated us in school shouldn’t have been normal and acceptable, but it was.” So, I wanted to produce a story that reflected my authentic experience yet delivered a timely and relatable narrative on how consequential hatred can be.
Rumpus: Absolutely. It sounds like there was a strong sense of responsibility for representing the stories of so many genocide survivors who haven’t been able to share what happened to them.
Sabic-El-Rayess: While writing, I often thought of genocide survivors. They were ultimately the most important people who would be impacted by my telling of a Bosnian story. Over the last few months, thousands of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) have reached out and shared their own stories of survival with me. They’ve said that my work has made them feel seen and heard, which is the highest form of praise I could have received.
Rumpus: That’s incredibly moving that the survivors feel validated by your stories, especially since writing this memoir required you to tap into intense and painful memories. Why did you choose the genre of young adult memoir to share your experience instead of fiction?
Sabic-El-Rayess: I didn’t feel that I needed to fictionalize my story. As a sixteen-year-old, I witnessed the kind of brutality and hate that is typically thought of as inconceivable, until it happens. Nothing had to be imagined, just revived on the pages. Writing for young adults, though the book is a crossover into the adult readership, allowed me to work in the space where mindsets are more amenable to change and build a window into the world that many young people never envision as possible.
Rumpus: Memoir is definitely a popular genre right now, for some of the reasons you touched upon. You teach and research on a variety of education issues at Columbia University. What was it like for you to switch from academic writing, which has its own rules and conventions, to writing creative prose?
Sabic-El-Rayess: Academic writing is typically driven by external data, which restrains us as scholars from fully engaging our lived experiences. But, after years in academia, I have come to realize that the lack of the insider perspective is detrimental to our understanding of the world and particularly the kinds of subjects I study, from othering to hate and radicalization. When you write in the academic context there’s a systematic approach to information that is constantly applied.
So, simply writing the stories that are part of my life the way I would tell them in an ordinary setting was liberating. I would say that is the primary difference: it took me a while to understand that there was inherent value in being comfortable sharing the emotional side of myself, which I would say I was not comfortable doing as a scholar in many ways. Writing prose is easier in that sense, because there’s no kind of burden of the structure that I experienced when I write academic pieces.
Rumpus: I realize art is different from quantitative data or statistics, but there’s a fascinating book that just came out called Hooked: Art and Attachment. The author, Rita Felski, basically says to engage in academic writing but to deny that we have an emotional response to the objects that are studied is neither realistic nor desirable. Her argument is that moving closer and acknowledging our attachments, whether it is an attachment of joy, boredom, or aversion, is the one of the most illuminating things we can do. What do you make of that?
Sabic-El-Rayess: It is axiomatic that our formative experiences inform who we become and how we interpret the world around us. Christiane Amanpour, a journalist I greatly respect for her audacity to report from Bosnia during the genocide, famously said that objective reporting is about hearing all arguments but not about being neutral. Telling stories, as she puts it, is about telling truth. I could not agree more, which is why I take issue with how frequently academics use and abuse the word “objectivity.” Some resort to the notion of objectivity to justify exclusion because people who have had difficult lives, who have gone through genocide or who have experienced racism, have been implicitly if not explicitly portrayed as the subjective interpreters of their condition.
This perspective reflects the inherent bias against the marginalized, persecuted, and suffering as less capable to partake in resolving problems that most directly affect them. It is time to dismantle and challenge this institutionalized bias in academia too frequently disguised as “objectivity,” but de facto intended to perpetuate elitism and marginalization of some groups.
Rumpus: I couldn’t agree more. A memoir is certainly one of the strongest demonstrations of the power of subjectivity. The Cat I Never Named capture the kinds of atrocities you and your loved ones endured during the genocide. Can you share how you thought of the title of your book?
Sabic-El-Rayess: In discussing this project with various members of my team at Bloomsbury, I referred several times to Maci as “the cat that I never named.” My family never actually named Maci (“kitty” in Bosnian), and the title honors her for being essential to our survival during the war. She also parallels those characters in our lives we consider alien to our experience only to realize that they are essential to our survival. That has never been more true than during this pandemic.
Rumpus: Many of the brutal hardships of war don’t make it into the news coverage and the history books. In one scene, because your family is starving, your dad bravely attempts to kill a chicken, but your mom has to finish the chicken off when he is too stricken to continue. You write, “Her face shows no remorse or regret, but I know what it costs her to be the strong one.” Why are these moments so important to capture?
Sabic-El-Rayess: Mundane moments are effective channels to communicate desperation, brutality, pain, and love. My father was a gentle giant, an intellectual, and World War II orphan who loved to recite poetry. As we were about to be killed by the Serbian soldiers, the last thing my father wanted to do was to kill an animal, but we had to choose between our own survival or starvation. As mothers often do in these trying moments, my mother did what needed to be done for the survival of her children.
Rumpus: In another scene from your memoir, you describe how you and your classmates lacked basic school supplies. You memorize your notes and then erase them so you have space to write again in the tiny UNICEF notebook that was given to you. One of your peers, Dani, resorts to writing his notes on his arms. He explains, “I stare at my notes on my own body, and by the time they wear off I’ll never forget it. How can someone forget a tattoo?” This was so powerful in representing the physical nature of how we not only transcribe and memorize knowledge, but also our stories and experiences.
Sabic-El-Rayess: People tend to ask me how I have gotten over the trauma of genocide, but one cannot get over a deeply embedded experience. The emotional imprint of genocide is inseparable from who I am. It is tattooed on the inside and defines everything I’ve done. Inevitably, in my day-to-day life, someone’s voice or a certain smell that wafts past me sends me right back to Bihac during the war. The difference with memorializing my story is that I have invited others to live it, for a moment.
Rumpus: I’d like to turn to how memory works for you with this book specifically. In your acknowledgments, you write, “My hands were no longer tied. My mouth was no longer taped. Each page memorialized my voice…” It sounds like writing this memoir was a way to recuperate what happened to you and to also validate your narrative. What was it like to remember writing The Cat I Never Named once you read it as a finished piece, and to share it with your family?
Sabic-El-Rayess: My husband and my daughters live with the stories in The Cat I Never Named. But, I do have to acknowledge in particular Dinah, my younger daughter and an emerging writer herself, who opined on each and every chapter as I wrote. She would say, “Mom, there’s a detail that you shared with us that you should include here.” Dinah was a great counterbalance to the feedback from the Bloomsbury team precisely because of her insider perspective and lived experience of having a mom who is a genocide survivor. While finishing the book felt like a parting experience, it also signified a new beginning for me as an author.
Rumpus: How do your two daughters feel seeing personal family stories written down for the world at large to read?
Sabic-El-Rayess: They’re less focused on the book’s wonderful reception and what these stories mean to others than they are on the well-being of their mom. There were days when I would write for fifteen or sixteen hours with tears rolling down my face. They care for those kinds of consequences that putting the story in writing has had and continues to have on me. I have been targeted as an outspoken advocate for the diverse and authentic representation of Muslim people in our society where Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism are rampant.
Rumpus: You mentioned that one purpose of your memoir is to teach empathy and inclusivity. Your story cultivates understanding and appreciation, but how do we combat narratives that encourage fear and hatred?
Sabic-El-Rayess: I am interested in the idea of transformative learning; that is, how to transform one’s moral framework and deep-seeded biases that the narrative of hatred may prey on. I have received reflections from parents who have said, “I was not comfortable having my child read about the genocide of Muslims and I wanted to check out the book when they brought it home. So, I read a few pages and then realized I couldn’t put it down. This book has educated me. I was unaware of what happened in Bosnia, and now I want to give this book to others.” This kind of moment is transformative because it allows individuals to self-reflect and be changed by it.
Many years ago, I started my academic career at Columbia University by designing and teaching courses in statistics, but it didn’t take me long to recognize that even when teaching quantitative courses, one has to tell stories to inspire and engage students. Powerful stories are transformative, and we need them to heal and empower us in this trying moment in our shared history.
Photograph of Amra Sabic-El-Rayess by Ingrid Skousgard.