An Unexpected Collaboration: KENAN TREBINCEVIC and SUSAN SHAPIRO in conversation with Rob Williams
The Bosnia List
by Kenan Trebincevic
In his riveting debut memoir The Bosnia List (just out from Penguin Books), Kenan Trebincevic recounts his family’s harrowing escape from their Brcko hometown during the Balkan War, and their return, 20 years later, when Trebincevic visited his homeland and confronted his past. Trebinčević was just 12 in 1992 when the war broke out, a Muslim boy who was confused when his Christian Serb neighbors and friends turned on him overnight. His beloved boyhood karate coach, Pero, came to his door with an AK-47 and shouted, “You have one hour to leave or be killed.” Miraculously, Trebincevic, his mother, father, and older brother, escaped Bosnia and were eventually sponsored by the Connecticut Interfaith Council in the United States. Now, at 33, Trebincevic is an American citizen living in “Yugo Row,” in Queens. He works as a physical therapist, where he met co-author Susan Shapiro, a Jewish memoirist and journalism professor at the New School. I met Trebinčević in Shapiro’s class and recently asked them about The Bosnia List, the nature of fate, and the origins of their collaboration.
Rob Williams (Rail): Kenan, English isn’t your first language, you studied science, you do physical therapy as your profession, and you’d never published anything before. You joked in an interview that the only things you’d ever written were medical notes and bad love letters. And Susan, you’re best known as a writing teacher and for your series of funny memoirs Lighting Up, Only as Good as Your Word, and Five Men Who Broke My Heart. So how did this serious, important book about religious persecution come about?
Trebincevic: Two years ago, Susan was my patient at Shift Physical Therapy, where I’ve worked for seven years. She came in with a serious back injury, but she wouldn’t focus on the exercises I gave her. Whenever I walked away, she started grading stacks of essays from her classes. When I jokingly asked her if the topic was “What I did on my summer vacation,” she said, “Actually, my first assignment is: Write three pages about your most humiliating secret.” I laughed and said, “You Americans! Why would anybody reveal that?” She said, “Because it helps you heal,” and mentioned that editors want to hear unusual voices. When I emailed her that night to see how her back was doing, she sent me a piece a student of hers had just published in The New York Times. It was about how she and her mother, a Holocaust survivor, ate bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur to cope with the anniversary of her father’s suicide 17 years earlier. It was a powerful piece, very raw, about parents, religious persecution, and loss. It unlocked something inside me.
At her next appointment, I showed Susan my first three pages. After several rewrites, it wound up in The New York Times Magazine and was chosen by William Vollmann for The Best American Travel Writing anthology. Susan said, “keep writing” and invited me to come to a book seminar she was teaching where a literary agent was the guest speaker. He was impressed with my essay and agreed with Susan, that I should expand it to a memoir. She told me to try to write a short flashback scene next. I didn’t think I could do it, but when I got home that night, 43 pages came pouring out.
Shapiro: I’d torn two ligaments in my lower back while kickboxing. I was in pain, in a very vulnerable place—it was my first serious injury. Several doctors told me I might never heal or be able to bike, swim, or walk well again—and I live in Greenwich Village, where I walk everywhere. Kenan said he could help me heal. My insurance covered 60 sessions a year. But hours and hours of physical therapy can be very tedious. And it was painful. I’m a journalist, so I asked him a lot of questions for distraction. At first it was casual, I wanted to know where Kenan’s accent was from, where he grew up. But when he told me about what his family survived, I was shocked. I thought: He’s the male Muslim Anne Frank. In 1992. And he lived to tell the story.
I’m actually a pretty outspoken left-wing, bleeding-heart liberal. I’ve helped students publish lots of pieces against racism, homophobia, xenophobia. I’ve written on political and Jewish topics myself, but I’m a hothead so it’s not my most nuanced work. Also, I have to make a living; I could relate when Nora Ephron and Woody Allen complained that people liked their funnier stuff better. But my family lost relatives in Eastern Europe during World War II. I’d reviewed many Holocaust memoirs for The New York Times Book Review and a syndicated column that started at Newsday (and ran in many other newspapers around the country). Kenan lived in Queens near his brother and his dad, who’d had a stroke. He took care of his dad, refusing to ever put him in a nursing home. He was such a good, hard-working kid, who’d had such a tough life. He was very sensitive at work, taking excellent care of patients of all ages. I felt like he’d been through hell and deserved a break. When his first piece in The New York Times Magazine came out, Kenan told me, “This is the most pride I’ve ever felt.” Because of his exile and the way the war ended in a stalemate, he’d felt like a loser in some ways. But publishing that piece made him feel victorious. When I told him, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” he was fascinated. I laughed and had to admit that I hadn’t invented that expression. I promised him, “You fix my back, I’ll fix your pages.”
Rail: What were your first impressions of each other?
Trebincevic: I generally don’t share my past with strangers because I figure they won’t be able to understand me. However, Susan seemed intrigued by what I told her, and she genuinely listened. The fact that she’s an educator was appealing to me. She asked interesting questions, and I found myself trusting her without much reservation. But actually, one of the reasons was that she’d lost family in the Holocaust herself. I knew she was sympathetic and understood me quickly. My mom once told me that Jews were one of the few peoples who could understand us. So, there’s a sense of shared history. Jews and Muslims have both experienced genocide in Europe over the centuries.
Shapiro: Kenan seemed sweet, hyper, deceptively happy-go-lucky, but he took his job very seriously. He’s a real healer. He asked the right questions about my medical history. He emailed me after my first session to see how I was feeling and ask whether I needed any medication. My long-term therapist—an addiction specialist I’d written books about—had just moved out of town, so there was this void in my life. Kenan was taking care of me and I felt gratitude and wanted to help him. I overanalyze everything—one friend told me, “Even your dreams have been in therapy,” and my students say they get shrunk by me just by osmosis. When we met, Kenan had just returned from Bosnia and sounded like he was still angry and resentful. He’d never made sense out of the war. How could he? He was only 12 years old when it happened. It seemed to me that he was still traumatized by his past. He would never see a psychotherapist. He’s from a culture where men don’t usually talk about their feelings. I asked him, “Why didn’t your family ask how you felt during the war?” He said, “They were too busy telling me to duck.” My therapist’s creed was, “lead the least secretive life you can.” And I always tell my students, “Writing is a way to turn the worst thing that ever happened to you into the most beautiful.” That happened with Kenan. I became his Jewish mother, personal Max Perkins (editor of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe), and his femme Freud. We sold the book during Hurricane Sandy. It was a book of healing on many different levels.
Rail: Kenan, I’m your age, and I when I was growing up my father had two friends from Yugoslavia. I was confused when he told me, “The country Arpad and Marko are from broke up; it’s been split into smaller countries.” I wasn’t aware of the extent of the war or the genocide. Even as an adult, I hadn’t thought about it much until I read this book. I’m curious what it’s like to be from a place that technically doesn’t exist anymore. Where you live, in Astoria, you’re surrounded by 10,000 other immigrants and refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Does that help? Susan, how much did you know about the war before you started working on this project? Did you know other Bosnians?
Trebincevic: In the book, I write about this moment when I was 11 years old, when an army major asked me if I was Yugoslavian, Bosnian, or Muslim. I told him, “I am from Yugoslavia, I am Bosnian, and my religion is Muslim.” Bosnia existed as a country in the 11th century and eventually was engulfed as part of Yugoslavia—and our people had their identity taken away. After the Balkan War, as an adult, I learned that the hybrid country of Yugoslavia I’d lived in had always been extremely volatile. I’ve always regarded myself as Bosnian. I am proud of my Bosnian Muslim heritage, but I also feel privileged to be an American citizen. I have fully assimilated and consider the States my home. I see myself as a regular American guy, more into the Yankees and Seinfeld reruns than bloodthirsty revenge. But I love that in Astoria I can stay connected to my heritage, having a dual life. Greeting local Bosnian store owners and eating meals at ethnic restaurants reminds of my happy childhood, before the war. I can connect and disconnect with my past with a switch of a button. That’s the beauty of Queens, the most diverse neighborhood in the world.
Shapiro: As different as we seemed, Kenan and I had interesting connections. Right after we met, I found a full-page piece I’d published in Newsday in 1993 on a Bosnian benefit by the PEN American Center that my NYU graduate professor, the late poet Joseph Brodsky, had asked me to cover. I’d interviewed Czesław Miłosz, Wendy Wasserstein, and Susan Sontag, who all raged against the Balkan genocide, comparing Slobodan Miloević to Hitler. It ran the month Kenan emigrated to Connecticut. When I showed him, he was awed by the coincidence.
Kenan showed me pictures of his mother, Adisa, a pretty redhead who resembled my mom. She’d warn him, “Never go to someone’s home empty-handed,” just like my mother, who’d grown up a poor orphan who was sent home from school for only speaking Yiddish. Kenan’s hardworking dad advised, “Whatever your job, do your best,” like my father. I grew up Jewish in suburban Michigan. He grew up Islamic in Eastern Europe. Yet in some ways, it seemed we were from the same close-knit, no-nonsense family.
Our Penguin Books editor Wendy Wolf loved the first 200-page draft we handed in but basically said, “Now just add 100 pages of Yugoslavian history so American readers can understand.” My father—a history buff who is politically astute and cynical—actually assisted me a lot, emailing us smart articles, sending the best books on Yugoslavia, helping me figure out how to sneak in the background without ruining the exciting narrative. My dad loved The Bosnia List—partly because it’s about Kenan’s family, not ours.
Rail: You’ve recently done big events at the PEN World Voices Festival, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Strand bookstore, Barnes & Noble, Politics and Prose bookstore in D.C., and the New School. It seems like you two work extremely well together. Was that true from the beginning? Tell me more about your collaborative process.
Trebincevic: I spent every free morning, lunch time, evening, and weekend working closely with Susan in person, by phone, and over email. We were immersed in the process so much that she was reliving all of those moments with me. She would often cry while we were writing or as we read the pages over together. It was like she was crying for me, because I couldn’t. I felt as if I was in a time warp and had to regress to age 12, as I was during the war—but this time make sense of it as an adult. Talking it over with Susan, reliving it all, and answering tons of questions about my emotional state made me see it in a different way. I’d never made sense of how and why my family survived. I never had post-traumatic stress, but I never talked to a therapist either. The war ruined my mother’s life when I was 11 years old. Then she was sick with cancer from when I was 12 until she died. I never wanted to burden her with anything unimportant. Maybe it helped to have Susan, an older female, who I could tell the whole story to.
Shapiro: I was seeing Kenan two nights a week for physical therapy, which—as I said—was so boring. But when we’d talk about his past and do the book, hours would fly by. We both have a ton of energy, so we were actually a perfect team. I used to do seven pieces a week for seven different newspapers and magazines, and I’ve published nine books in the last decade. I’m obsessive. After I quit smoking, drinking, and drugs, I became a workaholic. The Bosnia List took us one year to write. When someone asked Kenan why we did it so fast, he said he’d never written a book before and he followed my lead, thinking that working every day, night, and weekend was the way all authors did it.
When he would come over to my apartment to work, he’d always bring salty Bosnian food that my husband loved. Kenan’s from a very macho culture, so he asked my husband’s permission to work with me. My husband—a TV/film comedy writer (who has worked on In Living Color, Saturday Night Live, and Seinfeld)—nicknamed him Kevlar and joked, “OK, I’ll trade you a year’s worth of cevapi for my wife’s brain.” We pretty much both adopted Kenan. By coincidence, another Jewish journalist friend of mine had collaborated with a Bosnian war survivor on his story. I threw them a book party where Kenan and I met lots of people from the Balkans. The Bosnian ambassador to the United Nations and the foreign minister came. At one point, I couldn’t find the ambassador. Turned out he was in my husband’s den, asking him questions about Seinfeld, a show Bosnians seem weirdly obsessed with.
Rail: When I hear you talk about the way the book came about, “kismet” comes to mind. I was reading recently about how predestination is an important concept for Muslims. Kenan, you’re not necessarily religious, but does any part of you believe in fate—at least in terms of meeting Susan and ultimately telling your story? Susan, do you believe in fate? In your New School class, you said you teach the “instant gratification takes too long” method, where the goal is to write and publish a great piece by the end of the class. You’re always saying things like “No never means no, rewrite it and make it better.” So I imagine you think people make their own destiny. What role does luck or chance play?
Trebincevic: I was always spiritual and believed in karma. Looking back, I've learned that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. Neither is this collaboration.
Shapiro: It felt like fate. The book took one year to write but altogether, with selling it and editing and waiting for it to come out, it was two years. And that was the exact amount of time I needed for my back to completely heal. My worst fear was that I’d become one of those people who kvetch about their illnesses and injuries all the time. Luckily, at a certain point when friends and colleagues would ask, “Hey, how’s your back?” I was able to start talking about Kenan and our book project. It was a very happy ending.
Rail: The book starts with a list of people to avenge on your trip to Bosnia. It ends with a list of Serbs who helped save the Trebinčević family. And “List” is in the title. Where did the idea of lists come from?
Trebincevic: After two decades in America, my 72-year-old father desperately wanted to visit our hometown again before he was too old. My brother and I agreed to take him. At first we thought we were only doing this for him, but I quickly realized it was time for me to face down my past. While my father made a list of friends and family he wanted to see, including his father at the cemetery, I wrote down a different list. I literally wanted to confront my past. There were 12 items, including confronting neighbors who wanted us dead and who betrayed my family, visiting the concentration camp that my dad and my older brother survived, and standing on the grave of Pero, my old karate coach, to make sure he was really dead. On vacation, a lot of single 30-year-old guys go partying or sightseeing. I visited graveyards. Maybe the list was my way of dealing with my nervousness about going back to my homeland—I needed to have a specific agenda, a plan, a shield. I showed Susan my list and she was struck by it.
Shapiro: I asked Kenan lot about his mother, Adisa, who died of cancer in 2007. He started having dreams about her and remembering things he’d forgotten. I questioned—many times—if he had a connection to Schindler’s List. The first 10 times he said no, he didn’t like the movie. Finally he recalled that it was his mother’s favorite movie and they’d watched it together in Connecticut. That’s part of the reason we came up with the title. She told him, “You have to remember the bad people who hurt us, but you can’t forget there were good people too.” Kenan had sarcastically told her, “I could count the good Serbs on one hand.” But toward the end of the book, I asked him to write a list of every Serb who’d helped his family. And there were 12, ranging from ordinary civilians who gave him bread to a war criminal who protected his dad and brother at Luka, the concentration camp. So we ended the book with a new list—and dedicated it to his mother, Adisa. He actually had this amazing dream, right before he went on a book tour of U.S. towns with a lot of former Yugoslavians. He dreamed he was back in Bosnia where he was about to fight with a former classmate who’d betrayed him, and he heard my voice say, “Don’t fight. You have a big future in New York.” Then he went to his old apartment and his mother woke up from a nap and came over to shake my hand and thank me for helping him tell their story.
Rail: That’s touching. I bet she would be proud that Kenan is in such good hands. So what’s next for both of you? Another collaboration in the future?
Shapiro: We’re doing book events together on June 6 at the New York Public Library, then in Michigan and L.A. in August. On my own, I recently finished a new novel. And I’m working on a new nonfiction book, The Forgiveness Tour: Finding Peace, Pardon, and the Perfect Apology. Just as I started, reviews for The Bosnia List were coming out. Oprah.com called it “a poignant, powerful look at forgiveness” and The New York Times Book Review critic said, “Trebinčević eventually forgives.” Kenan was very upset with the word “forgiveness,” which he felt was inaccurate. I interviewed a Holocaust survivor about Elie Wiesel’s pushing the German government for an official apology in 2000, which Wiesel thought was an important step in healing. I want to interview Kenan about what further steps he feels might lead to forgiveness—if that’s possible—and help his people heal.
Trebincevic: How can you forgive ethnic persecution and genocide? The Bosnian motto is, “Never forget. Never forgive.” I can’t be a traitor to my people by granting forgiveness to evil men who committed crimes against humanity. I’m afraid some Americans might have misread my book. I did forgive my father for not getting us out of the country sooner, and my mother for getting sick. As Susan mentioned, on the final page of The Bosnia List—with her and my late mother’s prodding—I remembered 12 Serbs who helped our family. One hid my father’s gun so he wouldn’t get in trouble. Another man, a bus driver, waited for us in a snowstorm to drive us out of Bosnia and to Vienna. So on some level I’m acknowledging my mother’s belief that in every religion and nationality there are both bad and good people.
On my final list was, “Thank Good Pero, who made calls for us and typed the paperwork we needed to get us out of the country.” He kept my dad and brother from being taken to another concentration camp. So I decided to track him down. I found him in Vienna and wrote a piece about it for Slate. The book will be published in Bosnia soon—it’s causing quite a stir there. The Bosnian president mentioned it in a speech last week. The publisher wants me to go there to promote it. Susan says if I want to do a follow-up memoir, the list of 12 Serbs maps out the whole structure. This time instead of avenging people who wronged my family, there are people—of all ethnicities—I have to find to thank for saving my life.
Rob Williams writing has been published in the New York Daily News, BULL Men’s Fiction, The Nervous Breakdown, and Mr. Beller's Neighborhood.