An interview with Igor Štiks

Špela Močnik

Photograph by Ivan Hrkas

It is hard to pin the author Igor Štiks (1977) down to any sort of fixity. By virtue of his literary output, one is tempted to think of him as Bosnian. After all, his two novels to date, A Castle in Romagna (2000), and Elijah's Chair (2006), dealt with the Bosnian war. Yet he was born in Yugoslavia and wrote his books in Croatia, to which Štiks fled as a teenager when war broke out in 1992. It was there that his writing first drew acclaim. In 2000, A Castle in Romagna was honoured with the Croatian prize for best first novel, while Elijah's Chair was crowned Croatia's best novel of 2006. Both have been translated into several European languages.

Not only is Štiks' national heritage indeterminate, he also traverses intellectual disciplines as a political science scholar. Štiks is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh working on a project (CITSEE) that compares and contextualises citizenship issues across the former Yugoslavia's seven successor states.

In literature, the idea of place has been a strong driving force for many authors – think for example of Palestinian literary figures such as Ghassan Kanafani lamenting their 'lost land'. Yet you are a child of multiple nations: born in Sarajevo but having lived in Zagreb, Paris, Chicago and now living in Edinburgh. How does this experience influence the sense of place in your fiction?

Extreme violence destroys existing places and cuts a person off from his or her past, a past that has not been allowed to develop naturally. When you experience this, the loss of what was actually there is combined with a sense of loss of what is about to happen, of what might have been. When the Bosnian war broke out, I was a 14-year old kid. Life had seemed to me full of promise. Many things were already in place for a foreseeable future to develop. The shock I suffered was thus punctuated by that double (both imagined and actual) loss of place and the past that was attached to it. This was furthermore compounded by a sense of being kidnapped into someone else's reality.

I didn't suffer alone. In the past 20 years, most people in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans have been struggling with a reality they didn't choose.  I've come to learn that struggling often comes in different forms – acceptance, assimilation, mimicry, and exile, but also resistance.

The people who, for obvious political and economic benefits, organised the war and enacted visible physical violence, as well as invisible violence, on a society of more than 20 million did not respect my reality, the one that existed before the war. They aimed at changing it radically according to their projections. To achieve that, they needed radical violence. This is why I often say: If you didn't respect my reality, then why I should respect the awful reality you've created and forced me to live in? I chose exile but also active intellectual and political resistance.

Regardless, the damage is done. My childhood has become a 'lost land' even if Bosnia is geographically still there. After going through this, it doesn't matter if you later stay put in one place, because you've been irrevocably pushed into an exile from the reality, place and time you once knew. In other words, no one feels at home in these places any longer. I live, and often my characters live, between these different historical and geographic places. Temporal and physical displacement thus becomes the 'place' they spend most of their time in.

We are seeing the rise of right-wing parties in Europe latching on to anti-immigration sentiments. France, which recently banned the burqa, is a clear example. Premised on the protection of indigenous rights, this political rhetoric promotes the notion that 'native rights' must come first. It is, in other words, nationalism par excellence. Do you think that the concept of 'national literature' can only add to this air of xenophobia, or is there still some good to it?

The nineteenth-century idea that literature could be neatly compartmentalised into 'national' literatures was always a problematic one but increasingly so in a world of intensive migration. However, old habits die hard, and the old institutions – academia, literary circles, university departments, cultural ministries and such – suffer from inertia. This is why we are now privy to fruitless debates about 'French' and 'francophone' literature, 'British' and 'commonwealth' literature, local and 'immigrant' literature, which to me is a waste of time but something that won't disappear so easily. The idea that literature preserves the cultural or spiritual essence of a nation is still an attractive one. My new homeland Scotland is a good example. Edinburgh has the biggest monument ever erected for a writer, namely the Scott Monument for Walter Scott. And we thought that only Eastern Europeans still believe in writers as 'fathers of the nation'! Literature is indeed always written in particular places and in a particular language but it is also cosmopolitan in its essence – one of the beautiful paradoxes of human creativity.

As a novelist and full-time political scientist, you don't just exist between nations, but also between disciplines. In this sense, you belong to a niche set of 'part-time authors', such as Coetzee, who toggle between two professions - literature not being their day job but the sphere that brings them the most recognition. Does this juggling act empower your creative production or turn you into a schizophrenic?

A million-dollar question! I would like to believe that there is cross-fertilisation between these two activities, which are quite different in nature but loosely united under the umbrella category of intellectual work. In my personal case, not only are they distinct in nature, I also perform them in two different languages. My fiction is reserved for my mother tongue and my academic work for English (in the past I've also written in French). It's a schizophrenic situation par excellence that gets even more so because I'm obliged socially to put on different hats depending on circumstances. However, there is an inherent unity, I believe. The topics, themes, events that pre-occupy me are just seeking the most suitable form of expression. Sometimes it's literature and sometimes, academic work. They are different modes by which knowledge and understanding is produced. In this respect, fiction was never just an aesthetic activity for me but an active mode of intellectual discovery.

Is your work as a whole a way of processing the Balkan war—understanding it in order to make sense of this tragedy?

Certainly. It would be difficult to deny it. My novels deal with the topics easily associated with a traumatic event such as the Balkan war. They explore issues of history, and of political conflicts and the way people try to survive them. Furthermore, my Ph.D. dissertation and current research work at the University of Edinburgh tackles the evolution of citizenship in former Yugoslavia and the post-Yugoslav states since 1918. My work here basically consists of analysing numerous and frequent transformations of states (empires, federations, states coming into being and disappearing), symbols and social identities, as well as different citizenship statuses people had over the last 100 years.

Just imagine a 90-year-old person who has never left his or her home town, say, in some border region in the Balkans or Central Europe. That person, if happy enough to survive, must have lived in at least six or seven states, would had to have changed his or her official papers at least 10 times, all the while probably being bombarded with at least as many different political symbols. What's more, that person must have lived under three or four different ideological regimes, and two or three different economic administrations, been governed in at least three or four different languages, and probably would have family members who hold different national identities today. These are the very same changes that my family and I have had to live through. It's the very stuff of literature; the material with which fiction struggles and sometimes cannot even absorb.

Some scholars vehemently subscribe to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that proposes language shapes the way one views the world. As someone who speaks several languages and whose novels have been translated into several languages, do you think languages really shape the way we order our lives?

I believe hybrids, nomads or bilingual people can provide an answer. Clearly, the logic and functions of a language can make it (im)possible for us to express certain things and thoughts. Its structure can help us to understand the world around us—just as it can constrain our understanding. However, this doesn't mean translation and learning new languages are impossible. By moving between languages and different linguistic places, your being can change. The way I view the world can therefore best be described as a personal Esperanto: a language that doesn't exist as such but is nonetheless very real to me. Sometimes I wake up and can only name things in the Dalmatian dialect of my mother—maybe because it takes some time before the standard register kicks in. Other times, I can express things precisely only in French. However, I cannot write in this personal language as it only exists in my head. So, the very process of writing becomes an act of constant internal translation for me. It is a constant attempt to channel different personal 'languages' into, hopefully, an enriched prose of just one standard language. My Esperanto.

Are there any tensions, or congruencies, between your 'literary' and your 'linguistic' identity?

My literary identity certainly moves beyond the linguistic limits of my language due to the Weltliteratur character of this particular art. However, the name people give to this identity is often necessarily collectivist or geographic, and therefore can be only partially right. You won't be horribly wrong if you describe me by my states, past or present (post-Yugoslav, Bosnian, Croatian), their wider region (Balkan, Eastern Europe, Mediterranean), the cities in my native region in which I've lived (Sarajevo, Zagreb), or their official languages, past and present (Bosnian, Croatian, Serbo-Croatian). However, through those grids alone, you won't know what actually shaped me as a person and a writer. How do you account for my experiences in Paris, Chicago or Edinburgh? Or the influence that foreign languages like French and English have on me?

When Yugoslavia still existed, it used a common language known as Serbo-Croatian. When the country later disintegrated, we saw the growth of languages such as Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin. Have we witnessed a Balkanisation of languages whose differences are negligible and thus superficial?

There is only one language that the former Yugoslavia shares but names differently. For some people, this is an important identity marker, identity here understood as a difference between incredibly similar things. I understand these people and I'm totally fine with the idea that everyone names his or her language as they wish. However, I have a problem with nationalistic attempts to convince us that these are essentially different languages. My literary identity rebels because this is the only language I have to write fiction. I have no other. If you try to make it poorer, to cut it to the ideal of a few nationalist linguists, to make it sterile, then you are working directly against me as a writer, and taking away from me the only tool I have. I therefore have to resist by using all the available resources of this South-Slavic language I was born into while also bringing in as much as I can from other languages in order to express myself (which is difficult in itself, let alone when someone tries to limit your options).

Let's talk about your novel A Castle in Romagna, which pairs what at first seem to be two distinct love stories – one unfolding in Renaissance Italy, and the other in Yugoslavia under Tito. When the stories start to converge, it is as if the rift between the past and the present – often held to be insurmountable – is actually trivial. How was this novel influenced by your experience in the Balkan war?

A Castle in Romagna was my attempt to speak about the Balkan war without writing about it directly. It was also an attempt to show that human experience has changed little over time if you are caught in unfavourable historical and political circumstances. I used these historic tales only to suggest what was actually happening in the Balkans in the 1990s because I wasn't ready to describe it myself. I tried to avoid it as much as I could, but after a couple of years I simply had to face it.

There has been a surge of creative works that represent the trauma of the Balkan experience. One recent example that comes to mind is Téa Obreht's novel The Tiger's Wife, which won the Orange Prize in 2011. What do you think of this trend?

The relationship between war and literature is an old one, maybe even constitutive for literature. The re-creation of a traumatic past through fiction – though this does not represent reality as it was – can have a powerful impact on people and their memory, often a much stronger impact than historiography.

What we have noticed with the Balkan conflict is that it is not a subject limited only to local artists such as myself. Twenty years after the conflict, what happened in the Balkans has also become the premise of In the Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie's directorial debut.

Regardless of the artistic qualities of Jolie's film, the most interesting thing for me is that in spite of all the current conflicts in the world, the 1990s Balkan conflict is still strongly present as a milestone in contemporary history and artistic imagination, with Sarajevo especially symbolic of Yugoslavia and its destruction. It was indeed a conflict that wasn't digested properly, intellectually or politically; it haunts us until this very day. For a very long time I didn't want to deal with it head on. Only when I moved to Paris in the early 2000s did I feel a strong impulse to finally write about the war. Writing Elijah's Chair was also a way for me to move on, in this sense it became a therapeutic activity. I realised I actually brought these intense life experiences with me to Paris even though I initially believed that I had left them behind the moment I physically left the Balkans.

I think I've managed to translate the Balkan tragedy to the wider world precisely because there was nothing particularly 'Balkan' about that tragedy; it was a human tragedy that happened in the Balkans. I wanted readers of Elijah's Chair to understand that the Holocaust in Vienna and elsewhere is connected with the siege of Sarajevo and that both can be considered part of the same heritage of the twentieth century. The main character in the novel, Austrian writer Richard Richter is entangled in all of these places and conflicts: Paris, Vienna, Sarajevo, the Second World War, 1968 and leftist struggles and, finally, the Bosnian war. If the novel succeeds in presenting to an international reader that what happened in Sarajevo not only happened to its citizens but to all of us, provoking that reader to start contemplating his or her own reality with this realisation in mind, then I believe my mission is complete. But this is not a one-way process. I myself needed some foreign help, in the form of an Austrian writer as my protagonist, in order to re-discover Sarajevo again. With Richter's help, by seeing things through the eyes of a stranger, I finally found a way back to my birthplace.

With additional input from Nazry Bahrawi.



Špela Močnik is the founding editor of Refleksije, a critical blog that discusses politics, society and culture in Slovenia. She completed an MA in Social and Political Thought at the University of Warwick and will be pursuing a doctoral degree in sociology in the UK.