Hearing about the Syrian refugee crisis is unavoidable. It has become a part of our dialogue. You can’t change the channel or scroll away from one story on the heartbreak and prejudice refugees face without running into another. Once in a while, kindness does shine through in rough times like these–the Pope just took 12 Muslim Syrian refugees back to Rome with him. But what may be most important to note, is this may be a new crisis, but it is following a familiar pattern.
People have been displaced and scattered through war and genocide for centuries. Media outlets just have a short memory. The same horrors occurred for the Croatians in the 1990s. Author Sara Nović covers that seemingly forgotten time in her debut novel, Girl at War: A Novel (Random House, March 22). Named one of the best books of 2015 by Bookpage, Booklist and Electric Literature, her story of a war-torn country’s people uprooted from their homes has become starkly relevant.
BookTrib asked her why she thinks her novel rings so true in relation to current events.
Question: Girl at War follows Ana Juríc, a young Croatian girl forced to leave her home when civil war breaks out in 1991 Yugoslavia. She then flees to the U.S., trying to make a new life for herself. Given the parallels readers can draw to the Syrian refugee crisis, are you at all surprised by how relevant and timely your novel is?
Sara Nović: I don’t think I’m exactly surprised by Girl at War’s timeliness, though in a lot of ways I hate that it continues to be relevant—it means a lot of innocent civilians are suffering, and that their suffering is being avoided or ignored by those in power.
Even with respect to the timeliness of the book in its own context, it’s clear that though the Yugoslav Civil War is over, the damage is ever-present. Rural places in Croatia and Bosnia are still being demined because of the use of cluster bombs. Politicians and professors are still deciding how and what to teach children about the war, which is arguably the most important factor in the countries’ futures. The hatred that flared surrounding the conviction of Radovan Karadžić at The Hague last month highlights the inefficacy of the “split the baby” government stipulated for Bosnia by the Dayton Accords. On the other hand, one wonders if an earlier NATO presence could’ve prevented a massacre like the one at Srebrenica altogether.
I’ve often wondered what captures the public’s imagination in one crisis versus another. During the war in Croatia, particularly after the massacres in Vukovar, people thought Europe was sure to intervene. But that aid was slow to come. Later, in conversations with friends—and I think Ana has this thought too in the book—when we were trying to parse out why NATO waited so long to show, we tossed around the idea that maybe they’d gotten involved because of the Siege of Sarajevo, since that was a place Westerners had heard of and to which they felt attached; the Olympics had been in Sarajevo in 1984. And while I know political and military decisions are more complicated than that, I also know that we civilians can be distracted from crises that are far away.
This is part of the reason why I wrote Girl at War, to highlight an individual’s experience of conflict, something that news articles, or textbooks, or even big, sweeping war epics don’t do. Because for people who experience war, it is intimate and it is specific.
So to that end, part of me is wary of this question. The Syrian crisis is not the ex-Yugo one. In many ways we in the West are much more directly responsible for it. The Syrian people deserve to have their own stories heard—the hurt and heartbreak and hope that belong specifically to them. And from a place of aid, intervention or policy, it is only in understanding the intricacies and context of this situation that we can even begin to help right it.
Most of all, though, we cannot let the limits of our empathy be so narrow that we care only for human life when it looks exactly like our lives. So if readers connect with Ana as a person, and see parallels in the world around them, I hope it moves them to act in whatever way they are able. To me as a writer, that would be the highest compliment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sara Nović is the author of Girl at War, now out in paperback from Random House and Little, Brown UK. She is the fiction editor for Blunderbuss Magazine, and studied fiction and literary translation at Columbia University. She teaches writing at Columbia, Wesleyan University, and for the literary nonprofit Words After War, and lives in Brooklyn.