“The Bosnia List” is a powerful, poignant memoir about how Kenan Trebincevic’s Bosnian Muslim family survived the brutal ethnic cleansing of the 1992 Balkan War.
Trebincevic was just 12 years old when his world changed and his family had to flee to survive. Now 33, he is an American citizen. He lives in Astoria and works as a physical therapist, which is how he met his Jewish co-author, Susan Shapiro.
They will be appearing twice this week at the PEN World Voices Festival. amNewYork spoke with the pair about their unusual collaboration.
How did you decide to write the book together?
Kenan Trebincevic: I’m a physical therapist in Greenwich Village. Two years ago, Susan had a serious back injury and became my patient. She’s an author and New School writing professor who wouldn’t focus on the leg lifts, always grading stacks of essays. I asked if the topic was “What I did on my summer vacation?” she said, “My first assignment is: write three pages about your most humiliating secret.” I laughed and said, “You Americans! Why would anybody reveal that?”
Susan Shapiro: I told him “because it helps you heal” and that editors wanted unusual voices. At my next appointment, he showed me his three pages, about how he’d recently visited Bosnia after 20 years because his aging father wanted to see the homeland that betrayed them. It blew me away. I thought: he’s like the male Muslim Anne Frank who lived to tell the story.
KT: I’d held a grudge against the Christian Serb neighbors who’d turned on my family. After several rewrites, my essay wound up in The New York Times Magazine. Susan suggested a short flashback scene next. I said I couldn’t, then 43 pages poured out of me … When I met our Penguin Books editor Wendy Wolf, she said, “I admire your ability to hold grudges. I hold grudges so well much myself that I even hold them on behalf of others.” That’s when I knew I was in good hands.
Kenan, how was it for you to visit Bosnia and relive the tragedy writing about it?
KT: I never really understood how and why my family survived the war. To make sense out of it, I had to regress to age 12. In some ways visiting my old town, I still felt like I was that young boy I came to reclaim. At first, writing was personal and soothing. Then I remembered my late mother had always wanted to tell the story of how we survived. She died of cancer in Connecticut before she could. I started feeling a moral obligation to tell the story for my family, my people and anyone who’s been persecuted because of their nationality, religion or ethnicity. I dedicated the book to my mother.
SS: I interviewed Kenan constantly, in person, over the phone, by text and email, for a year. Our deal was: “You fix my back, I’ll fix your pages.” I became his personal Maxwell Perkins, his Jewish mother, his femme Freud. I told him “writing is a way to turn your worst experience into the most beautiful.” Luckily, holding grudges is good for memoirs.
If you go…
Shapiro and Trebincevic will be appearing at the Pen World Voices Festival on Tuesday, April 29 from 6:30-10 p.m. at Wesbeth’s Literary Safari in the West Village and on Saturday, May 3 from 1-2:30 p.m. at the “Creativity & Craft in Asylum” panel at Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Gallery.