Courtney Angela Brkic is a first-generation American of Croatian descent. She studied archaeology as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary and attended New York University, graduating from the MFA Program in writing. She has worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a forensic archeologist and for the United Nations International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague and Physicians for Human Rights. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to research women in Croatia's war-affected population, as well as a New York Times Fellowship. Her translations of Croatian Expressionist poet A.B. Simic have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation. Her story collection, Stillness, was awarded a Whiting Writer’s Award. Brkic’s memoir, The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living, which describes her time with the victims of Srebrenica, Bosnia, along with the history of her Croatian family during World War II, was published in 2004. In 1996, at the age of 23, she went to eastern Bosnia as part of a Physicians for Human Rights forensic team. She spent a month helping to exhume and identify the bodies of thousands of men and boys who were massacred by Serb forces the year before. Courtney Brkic currently teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio and is at work on her first novel.
Jonathan Yardley persuasively opines: “There are respects in which the story of Andelka and Josef [one of Brkic’s family’s stories in The Stone Fields] is more moving than that of all the unknown victims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ at Srebrenica; it is easier to become emotionally involved with a small cast of characters whom one comes to know than with a large one to which names cannot be attached. Either way, though, the story is the same. Courtney Angela Brkic tells it sensitively, sparely and with quiet passion.”
As you will find in the conversation below, she has gotten the Bosnian stories out of her system but certainly not the concerns that horrors like the Balkan tragedy occasioned.
Robert Birnbaum: Courtney Angela, uh—
Courtney Angela Brkic: [Pronounces] “Brkic.”
RB: I couldn't say it even after I looked in the pronunciation guide in The Stone Fields.
CAB: It's hard. And actually the Cs, there are two types of "chu"—there's a "chu" and a "che" which most people can't hear the difference between them—so the variations even within those letters are difficult.
RB: It is must be like Dutch—what's the language, Croatian?
CAB: It depends on who you ask. It's Croatian or Serbo Croatian
or Bosnian Croatian, Serbian, and right now the politically correct
thing is to say "BCS" for "Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian."
In Croatia people say Croatian. And in my family we say Croatian.
RB: As in World War II in Holland, where the Dutch were good at ferreting out imposters because only Dutch people could say certain words that Croatian has the same character—is it true of your language?
CAB: You can definitely tell when someone didn't grow up speaking it. People can tell with me because I have a very American accent. So they can hear immediately in the intonations or the just the way I say vowels. The Dutch thing—I used to work for the War Crimes Tribunal for a short time and the tribunal was in a place called Scheveningen —
RB: [laughs] How do you know how to say that?
CAB: — right by the Hague. I had the taxi driver who said, "If you learn nothing else while you are in Holland, learn how to say "Scheveningen." It was used in the Second World War as code because nobody could pronounce it. I don't think I pronounce it correctly. You can [with Croatian] immediately tell where someone is from. And you'll have people coming from coastal regions like Dalmatia and they'll come to the city and live there many, many years but you can still hear in their accents. They never fully lose that.
RB: In the United States, we basically only discern Southern and perhaps various New York City dialects and the Boston accents. I wonder what sociological baggage it brings. I heard a caller to a sports radio show degrade a Red Sox [Trot Nixon] who was from North Carolina—he called him a redneck and all but said he was a inbred hillbilly.
CAB: Hill people, yeah. It's pretty bad, but it does bring such baggage. And I grew up in Virginia, and [if] you cross the border into West Virginia, according to the Virginians, the West Virginians are trash and hill people and there are all sorts of jokes running around about them. It is amazing how certain provenience—
RB: I got the sense from reading your books there is that kind of tribal regional animus in Croatia.
CAB: I'd say more regional than tribal. But in fact to the extent that in Dalmatia every island has its own identity, its own accents, its own dialect. There is one island called Vis, and on one side of the island is the town of Vis and on the other side is a town called Comeja. And we are talking five miles. When you pass over the large hill that separates them, it's as if you have gone to the other end of the country because the accent is so different. Of course, they make fun of each other.
RB: I guess the verb "balkanize" has done much to prevent people being taken seriously from that part of the world. Did that play a part in whether people took seriously the break up of Yugoslavia?
CAB: Absolutely. In a few of the stories I make a joke out of that. The words "internecine," "quagmire," "age-old ethnic conflict" — there was a point where many of us, if we read that one more time, we were going to hurt somebody.
CAB: It was amazing how easy it became to just pull that out of people's bags and use those words. I tried to explain it to a lot of people I worked with in Zagreb. I worked with a lot of Americans; if you talk that way about a group of people in America, everybody thinks it's wrong: it's either racist or you are being a snob about a region. But there was this weird thing that happened in the war, and it happened in Croatia and Bosnia—that suddenly it wasn't considered racist or small-minded: it was this way of making everything digestible, and if people could explain to themselves, "Oh, well the reason this happened—these people are blood thirsty. They are absolutely warlike in their manner and their history. Look at their history. . . ," they would go and pull out the history books and they'd say, "Look at these years of battle and fighting. . . ." I always used to say to people, "Look at the rest of Europe. Look at Germany. Look at France. Look at Russia. Look all over the world. And there is no difference really between there and anywhere else. Once people thought they could explain it that way, it robbed the need to do anything about it. Or find a peaceful solution to it. That's just how they are. They are like that there."
RB: There seems to be a myth of peace about the post war (WWII). Supposedly up until September 11, 2001, we were living in a world that was relatively peaceful. Perhaps because I wasn't born in this country—
CAB: Where were you born?
RB: I was born in Germany. For some reason, I was always attuned to the —
CAB: — right, the larger picture.
RB: When people claim that the world was peaceful, I ask, "When was that? Which years?"
CAB: There is this feeling of—I don't know—vast optimism when people think of the '50s, and if you really look at it and pull it out and consider the South and consider a lot of things—not quite. I teach at Kenyan College [in Ohio] and one of the books I was teaching to my students is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, and it's now the third time I've taught it—it's always amazing to me because they know about slavery. They know historically and understand the Civil War, but still there is this Gone with The Wind-esque picture a lot of people have in their minds and "slavery was, of course very, very bad," but to know to what extent things were as bad as they were—I actually had students who were very upset at me for teaching that book. But I had a lot of students for whom it had never occurred to them. We do that with the [twentieth] century and we look back and everything was roses.
RB: I was talking to Elizabeth Gaffney about her novel Metropolis, which takes place in late nineteenth-century New York City, and we came to talking about how badly history is taught in this country. It would seem that most people aren't interested in it — mostly because it's so badly taught. As a consequence that ends up allowing much mythology to take root, which is even more troubling.
CAB: It's true. We have such a rosy view of what our history is.
RB: For example, lynching continued to take place up until the 1950s.
CAB: Most people have no idea even on the small scales, in towns all over the country, maybe even not anything to the extent of lynchings, it's so unbelievable and that's what scares me the most right now. That we have this view of America that is so far from the reality of it. When I drove home for the winter holiday, I drove from Ohio back to DC and one of the radio stations that I caught just before I passed into Pennsylvania, in southeastern Ohio, was this call-in show where the woman was screaming about the Mexicans. In Ohio there are a lot of migrant farm workers and probably illegal aliens among them and certainly tensions between populations. For example, last year in Columbus [Ohio] there was a horrible house fire, an arson, in which something like ten people died, many of them children, and this woman on the radio was screaming about how . . . —always just one step away from outright hate speech, inciting viewers. She had one older lady caller and she said, "I have this lawn boy who comes and you have opened my eyes because I have never looked at this like that before. My gosh, you are probably right." This hate-mongering, unbelievable stuff. But even at a place like Columbus they are not looking at this fire in terms of what it means, what it indicates about the tensions that are at work. I find it very hard to believe.
RB: Even if you started teaching history in a personal narrative way, it wouldn't overcome the faith-based mythologies that are regnant. Tell people what the facts are they seem inclined to bath in the warm comfort of their beliefs.
CAB: When you have a straight lane to Jesus you don't need to hear any other opinions.
RB: I guess we wandered far afield here [which is okay]. Getting back to your books, are wolves a big part of Croatian culture?
CAB: Not so much. They are in the Balkans. All over Europe—sort of a motif and a theme.
RB: More so than any other animal?
CAB: Not more than any other animal.
RB: But in your books—
CAB: In me, they are very strong. The thing that has always struck me about them, particularly in Croatia and probably the reason I was most drawn to writing about them even tangentially was that they did a study in the time I was living in Croatia about trying to change people's points of view about wolves. Trying to let go of this almost medieval "Wolves are evil. Wolves are going to attack us and kill our children. Steal our chickens. Let's get them before they get us." Particularly in the region of Wecam where there were a lot of wolves that they are doing this, did this. What they found was slowly, slowly, slowly people are coming around. And they are realizing that wolves only attack when they are very hungry, frightened, or hurt in some way. They had to create an entire shift of paradigm in these regions and I found that very interesting.
RB: You do use a striking image when some one mentions a place “where wolves fuck.”
CAB: The word is "Vukojebina," and it means, out in the countryside, really the boondocks—Deliverance country, basically the Croatian version of Deliverance—and if you if you break it down it basically means "where Wolves fuck."
RB: The only other fiction that I am aware from that part of the world is Sarajevo Marlboro [by Miljenko Jergovic].
CAB: They are very good, those short stories.
RB: There hasn't been a groundswell of interest.
CAB: It's surprising because he is very well known in Bosnia Hertzogovinia. He is actually from Sarajevo. But lives today in Croatia and he is a very good writer and he is also a very good social critic. He used to write, and he may still, for one of the weekly magazines called Globus, and his articles were always . . . he had such a finger on the pulse of where politics were going, where current opinion was going, and he has many, many books. Actually, Sarajevo Marlboro is the only one published in the United States.
RB: By a wonderful publisher, Archipelago Books.
CAB: That book was available in the UK for years before it ever made it here. And it's a sad fact that interest among publishers here is just not there.
RB: How did you come to get published? Through NYU?
CAB: Not really. Completely — I like to think by hard work — but by dumb luck as well. And that was that while I was at NYU and in the period just after it. I tried to find an agent. Through every way possible. Friends, friends of friends.
RB: Friends of friends of friends?
CAB: [both laugh] Exactly. One of my professors sent me to his publishing house and it never worked out. The minute that someone feels that they are doing a favor for someone else it gets awkward. After a while I said, "I am not going to do this anymore. I'm sick of this. Forget it." Because too many times I was coming across people who wanted to give me advice. They didn't want to take me on but they wanted to advise me. And the advice they wanted to give me was "Don't write about this subject matter. Nobody will be interested in this subject matter."
CAB: "Don't write about Bosnia. Don't write about Croatia. This war. Refugees. None of it." And short stories are a really tough sell, and these were two things—and what I was actually told in one place. You have a double kiss of death. Not only are you writing short stories, but also on a theme we just don't think we can sell. And that's what I heard over and over. Finally I decided, no more friends, no more friends of friends. And I went to the Writer's Market and I made a list of writers whose work I admired, found out who their agents were and just sent to them cold. And it just so happens that one of those agents read my work—a very early version of Stone Fields and said, "It's good and we'd be interested in the future but it's not ready yet." Which I knew. To which I said, "Funny you should say that because I also have these short stories." And I remember her saying, "Most probably we are not going to be interested." But I sent them along and she really liked them. And that's how it went.
RB: Even the people who you know have published great stuff will still dish out the conventional wisdom when they are talking to you. Success has such a serendipitous feel.
CAB: It could be on a Tuesday, they'd love something and on a Thursday they are in a bad mood, their coffee was cold and it's raining and things are just not going their way. I worked for an agent, Larry Schartzheim, for about ten months in Midtown, NY, and that is what I realized there. Some times you can have the best material in the world, but it will just miss. There was one manuscript for a West African woman—I don't remember her, name or the name of the manuscript. But I remember that the first line started off something like, "On the day I was born in my village one hundred miles away, my grandmother danced with a bowl of water balanced on her head." It was [with emphasis] the most arresting, amazing image. And I was so excited about this because, of course I wanted to undo the bad karma I was doing by writing rejection letters. I wanted to rescue someone from transom. I wanted to make the agents happy and it was very good writing. I remember I took it home and actually read it at home and I called my agent and I said, "Wow, have I got the manuscript for you. I am just blown away it's the best thing I have read since I have been here." And I put it in her office, put it right on top, marked with a stickie, and said this is the one to look at. And about five days later I say to her, "What did you think." And she says. "Ah, not so much."
CAB: It was the point at which I realized that first of all, readers are very different.
RB: It's variable and subjective within our own experience. You can read something the first time and love it and the second time, not. Currently Sam Lypsite's buzz is about his being rejected twenty-seven times. People forget that Tibor Fischer was rejected fifty-six times. That seems to say that—
CAB: It is variable. Something else that is interesting, when I look at my own work depending on the day I look at it, I can love it and I can think it's the worst thing I have ever written. Hopefully somewhere between the two extremes is the truth.
RB: Well, certainly everyone needs an editor. So, I am not clear on the route you have taken. You studied as an archaeologist—
CAB: I studied anthropology and archaeology—
CAB: It interested me. When went to school it was between studying English and studying anthropology. I went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia. My parents were very good about saying to me, "Study what you want to study. What you think you would enjoy and love."
RB: Unusual for immigrant parents.
CAB: It is very unusual. It took a lot of doing on their part. Particularly for my father who was battling this hope for stability for his children. But he said, "It would be lousy to study something that you are not interested in." So it came down to English and archaeology, and I decided, "I read anyway, voraciously. I read. I read. I read." But archeology, unless I study it I am not likely to go out and do it and learn about it. So that's how decided, and I minored in Spanish literature and language.
RB: I gather you spend a fair amount of time in Spain?
CAB: I spent a year.
RB: And the distance between undergraduate studies and NYU?
CAB: Quite a few years. Five to six years. And that was the period I was in Bosnia and living in Croatia and went to Holland to work at The Hague. Actually I knew that when I finished archaeology I was not so interested in immediately pursuing something but I thought in the future I might go back and do something with it. I worked for a while in America as a field archaeologist.
RB: I hadn't known that certain tools [in archaeology] were so important. I understand that in many pursuits one's tools are very important—
CAB: And you take a lot of pride in them.
RB: A certain brand of trowel?
CAB: Yeah. They are very important and you never want to be without a Marshalltown trowel, and it had better be sharpened perfectly and [chuckles] or else they will laugh you out of the field.
RB: You had training as field archaeologist but you went to Croatia as a forensic archaeologist.
CAB: I had a Fulbright to go to Croatia. And switched tracks completely at that point and had a sociology project to collect data on the war-affected population in Zagreb, specifically women. Women who had been displaced from Croatia or were refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and had a year to do that. I had already been getting off track before that point hence why I applied for that scholarship. And that changed my focus completely. That year led to the summer, the July and August I spent in Bosnia. And it just sort of piggybacked—one thing led to another, led to another, and while it doesn't seem like the straightest road, in a way it was utterly logical for me, at the time.
RB: Well, personal logic is—
CAB: Sometimes it is not so clear to other people, exactly. And at the end of that year with the refugees, I thought, "Here is a chance to bring my training and do something very concrete," which is why I went to Bosnia. They hired me as an archaeologist but they hired me for language reasons. They were very happy to have someone who spoke the language.
RB: And yet at the same time you had to hide your background from the locals.
RB: You worked with a couple of Latin Americans who had vast experience in forensic archaeology—which is a really morbid pursuit.
CAB: It is morbid and awful. When I was going out there I thought, "Maybe I will end up so interested by this that I will go and study this." The first day I knew that I was just not cut out for it.
RB: It could be that here is a real case of American exception—in the treatment of the dead. What I get from reading you is that the dead are ever present. They are there. Whereas Americans seem to have no problem burying them and that's that.
CAB: Not only that but with older people in America we do the same thing. We bury them before they are even dead. So by the time people die—the line in America between living and dead is so starkly drawn. It's not like that in the vast majority of the world. In quite a few of the places it's not like that—Latin America for sure, as in the Balkans. In that war, clearly one of the reasons it became so hard to draw the line was because people didn't know who was dead and who wasn't. The whole issue of missing persons, people were probably dead. But not definitely.
RB: Of course, in Latin America—actually Guatemala—was where “disappearing” became a government-sponsored human rights abuse.
CAB: And the dirty war in Argentina.
RB: You observed that refugee women always think their missing will return.
CAB: The vast majority. Until they are shown evidence, it is a rare person in those circumstances who without evidence can say, "I really have to face the fact that most likely [they are dead]." Eventually they have to accept that fact. But it happens because so much time has gone by that it just would defy logic that the person would still be alive. Or some type of proof is given or the body is found or someone is tracked down who saw the person shot and buried or that sort of thing. But the women that I interviewed and the vast majority of them had missing people in either their immediate family or in the extended family.
RB: Is there a word for “closure” in Croatian?
CAB: That does bear on this question, and I don't think so, to the best of my knowledge.
RB: There is an odd way in which we characterize a culture by the words they don't have.
CAB: Right. Actually women never explained it to me in that way. They always say it is better to know and interestingly that is a less absolute way of putting it than "closure." Because "closure" implies "that's it, I can move on," “shut the door,” draw that line starkly. I can move forward. For these women, it was more: "This situation is shitty. It would be slightly less shitty if I could know." But they did not fool themselves as to think that it would be good.
RB: "Closure" is one of those psychobabble words that is a pseudo-word, except we do believe, or have been impressed, that in this country we can do things that stand in opposition to human nature and experience.
RB: Getting back to the way your stories were accepted for publication, your stories—if someone asked me, "Do you want to read a story collection on Bosnia, about the war?" I would probably hem and haw. But your stories do validate the notion that in the hands of a skillful writer that any subject can be made interesting readable and compelling.
CAB: That was my hope. And the reason why I didn't listen. The thing I kept telling myself was that if I make it good enough, write this well enough, they will have no choice but to be interested in publishing this. I just refused to give up on that point. Any material, if it's treated in such a way that it's good, then it makes all the difference in the world.
RB: I was fascinated by the story "Surveillance." A story about a sniper/ photographer. He is kind of a spook and works for the State.
CAB: The state apparatus. Exactly.
RB: You turned it into such a personal tale even as you show how terrible it would be to live a society like that.
CAB: And he clearly feels he has a connection. I wrote that—one of the reasons was because and it's probably true of other immigrant communities, while there was still communism or socialism or however you want to call it—in the Croatian population in America, Italy and England, Germany there was this very deep-seated fear of Udbah [Unutras?nja Drz?avna Bezbednost], the state secret police. And Udbah infiltrated immigrant communities abroad. There were several high profile murders/assassinations that took place outside of Yugoslavia. And my dad and every person who immigrated during those years, whether it was logical or not, they had this fear of being observed. This fear that there were dossiers on them and their movements were being charted. During the war in Croatia and Bosnia there were re-awakened fears about this because many people will tell you that in many of these countries, not just in Yugoslavia, those state systems were never fully disassembled. The people who were these interrogators, the people who followed people and who roughed up the opposition, were underground anyway and it became very difficult to tease them out even after the fall of Communism.
RB: They gravitated toward the seats of power.
CAB: Exactly. It's hard to know whether that's a paranoid view of things or there is a grain of truth—probably both. What really fascinated me was what would that look like for that person, not some high level functionary but for some guy. This guy thinks he is an artist but he is not good enough, so he views his surveillance work in some sick way as his art. And I because I am very much against the black and white depiction of people and particularly when we talk about human evil and if it were only that simple then maybe we could do something about it. But it's not. To me it is very clear that you can have people who are going into Bosnia raping and murdering and putting in detention and they could go back to their homes and villages and farms and hug their wives.
RB: That does fall under the rubric of “the banality of evil.”
CAB: What is interesting is the American sense that war is something that happens elsewhere because we draw such black and white in personalities and view things in such stark terms. In the war in Bosnia and Croatia, I worked with many Americans and Western Europeans, and the general prevailing attitude was that this was a defect of a region. That evil could be so widespread and the same personality could be harbored — again, this idea of the banality of evil. And we are not very good at looking at ourselves in that light. In America, that's where we fall short.
RB: You make the point that most outsiders want to say that both sides were equally bad. Massacring seven thousand people was a response to someone else's evil deeds.
CAB: Right. Or this was an answer to an earlier crime. And that's wrong. It's not right to paint in black and white to look at these shining examples of humanity versus these evil people. That's clearly facile, and it would be facile in the Balkans, however—to my mind—and nobody has ever convinced me any different; and I base this very much on what I saw and experienced. There were vastly different degrees of war crimes that were going on by different sides. What I look at most is the degree to which the governments themselves were complicit in the crimes that were committed. So it becomes right to say—it is correct to say—that there were war crimes committed by all sides. Anybody who would say that there was not one soldier in our ranks who did something wrong, that's again clearly facile. But it greatly varies as far as the degree to which this was approved of or even ordered by higher levels And that's something when I was working at The Hague that was something that bothered me, because if we can agree that everyone is guilty and everyone bears more or less an equal guilt, then—
RB: Than no one is culpable. No judgment is necessary.
CAB: No one is really guilty and we can all move on and we can have closure.
RB: The Hutus and the Tutsis, they are all—
CAB: And it's that idea, they are Africans, they are in the jungle—these awful racist beliefs that people have.
RB: And so the African genocides were [and are] way under the radar.
RB: The stories in Stillness, are they a collection or did you write them over a period of time and select a few for the book?
CAB: I have quite a few other stories. It happened in that period all of the stories that I wrote one way or another had to do with that region or the war. That was very much my focus. And therefore it made it easier later when I thought, "Hey, I should make a collection." I never wrote the stories with the idea of a published collection. It just happened that I couldn't write about other subjects. Those were the things I wanted to write about.
RB: Maybe it's obvious but you could have put Stillness at the beginning, the title story at the beginning—is it the conclusion for you.
CAB: For me it's the beginning and the ending. If I could have gotten away with putting it two places I would have. For me in many ways Vukovar was the beginning. It was not in chronological sense—there were situations that happened before that. It was the first time in that war, in 1991 that things became clear in terms of what the Yugoslav army and paramilitary groups were willing to do— that they were willing to massacre. They were willing to manipulate the media in the way that they did—and they did grotesquely. I talk about it as the test. That rump Yugoslavia — Serbia was able to effectively gauge the response they got about Vukowar [ was a thriving home to 50,000 Serbs and Croats before the war. Now, fewer than 3000 survivors remain] and Osijek was, "Oh, that's really awful but what can we do?" If there had been a different response, at the very beginning there would never have been war in Bosnia.
RB: I must confess that I was capable of being as stupid and oblivious as anyone else. I was aggravated about any attention being paid to Yugoslavia because I was upset about Central America—I saw it as racist that there seemed to be more concern about white Europeans than—
CAB: There was not much care about the Europeans, as it turns out. And generally I agree with you about Latin America; Bosnians and Croatians thought that their European qualities would save them. It's similar to what happened with the tsunami. Had the stories been only about the local populations, I am not sure that there would have been the response that there was. But so-and-so was on vacation and we can all imagine that and sympathize with that. In Croatia and Bosnia they thought, "People will see we are hard working people and we send our kids to school, we drive our cars the way they drive their cars in Italy just across the water." And they were in for a very nasty surprise. And in Bosnia, Islam—the fact of Islam—was used to a very large degree, which is amazing because Islam in Bosnia is unlike Islam anywhere else in the world, and there seemed top be very little understanding of that.
RB: It was a variation on ”the only good Indian is a dead Indian” theme. What is going on with the [Slobodan] Milosevic trial? He seemes to be successful in dragging it out.
CAB: He's making a fool out of everybody there. He wanted to call Bill Clinton and he refused to have his lawyer represent him. Then he was going to represent himself. The last I heard, because I haven't followed it much lately—I washed my hands of it. I think he has a heart condition and for a while they were checking him out and seeing if he was fit to be on trial.
RB: Well, that's a problem because the U.S. refuses to become a signatory to the International Court, and when the spectacle of that trial is shown, it diminishes the ICC [International Criminal Court]. On the other hand—
CAB: —it's disgusting that we aren't willing to participate. In Kosovo, after the war, there was the case of a guy, an American soldier named Ronghi, and he raped and murdered an eleven-year-old Albanian girl, threw her body in a field. And I never heard anything after that. He may have been court marshaled but whatever he got was a slap on the wrist. And that's really wrong.
Editor's note: Reader Michael Moore corrects us, "In fact, Staff Sergeant Ronghi was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole."
RB: So you are teaching now?
CAB: No more human rights/translating/archaeology, none of that. Right now I teach and I write and it's a good balance.
RB: What city is Kenyon College in?
CAB: It's in a very tiny town called Gambeer. It's smack in the middle [of Ohio], an hour and a half northeast of Columbus. Cincinnati is three and a half hours, Cleveland is two in the other direction.
RB: Are you surprised that I know or care anything about Ohio?
CAB: [laughs] Most people do not—
RB: I grew up in Chicago, so the Midwest in not a foreign land to me.
CAB: There's an article in [March 2005] Vanity Fair about Kenyon [because] of the election, because it boasted the longest lines in the country—eleven hours my students waited to vote.
CAB: I didn't see any of them, but a group did come to Kenyon College and had a rally. I saw John Kerry when he came and we all showed up and waved our signs. There were a lot of people who came to the state. The Vanity Fair article raises a lot of questions. There are many outstanding questions about Ohio and how things went.
RB: I recently saw the documentary Unprecedented, which was about the Florida electoral debacle. And I was beyond amazed that the issue was dealt with in this way and that whole country did not demand a better process for resolution. I can't say what the truth was but the way the issue went away so quickly—it wasn't dealt with.
CAB: Just like in Ohio, just like this. What the article talks about and at the time a lot was not made of this fact—in Cleveland, in districts that were working class or had greater numbers of non-whites registered to vote, the lines were impossibly long. People could not afford to take off work and many people ended up having to leave the lines. At Kenyan there were all sorts of games being played through the Secretary of State's office, telling the students they were not allowed to vote there, all sorts of things because they knew they would vote Democrat. What amazes me is how quietly everybody, afterwards, has gone back to business as usual. To a certain extent we need to—what 's the alternative? But I can't believe that they didn't figure out the voting machines between the last time and this time. Four years they had to figure things out. According to the article there are some very specific things that should be investigated.
RB: So you have left you troubled youth behind—you're teaching?
CAB: I did, I did. Happily, I'm not so sure. I miss New York.
RB: Now the tortuous life of being a writer. What else do you see in your future?
CAB: Writing some more. To tell you the truth and I am writing a series of articles about it now; the thing that interests me right now is this American moment that we are living in. It's as significant as anything else I have written about. And the fact that one of the stories I wrote a few weeks ago is about a translator in Iraq. I don't know if you saw the news story about the woman who was in the interrogation room and was translating for these American soldiers—and they can't figure it out, but it seems that soldiers were joking around and one pulled out his pistol and shot her in the head. Then tried to cover it up [this story has recently been accepted in the forthcoming second volume of Stephen Elliott’s Politically Inspired anthology.]
RB: Yow. No, I hadn't heard that one.
CAB: There was almost not a blip about this. You can find it if you go to Reuters. The Washington Post had something about it because she did some translating for them. But it went so far under the radar—to me that's unbelievable.
RB: Writing a story?
CAB: A fiction, but inspired by this. Having to do with something like this that could happen. So that's what I am working on right now, and being in Ohio is not a bad thing. I'm there on a limited contract. I'll go away in May and come back for one more year. It's not right to construe the state [Ohio] as everyone thinks this way. It's far more complicated than that—there are variations of people that are there. But I still think there are a lot of things happening there that are very disturbing, that are trends demonstrating, at least to me, the direction in which we are headed. I'd like to write about those things.
RB: What about a novel?
CAB: I am also working on a novel. I have the ideas for a novel and I would like to write a novel. I am done with the war. Between the Stone Fields and Stillness I did what I wanted to do with that and said what I wanted to say. I have also—not come to terms with things, but time has passed and it's always going to be important to me, and probably in some way I will always write about it, but I am also ready to talk about other things. I would also like to write a book about immigration, write a novel about immigration from a woman's point of view who comes to America in the post-9/11 world, and who comes as an illegal immigrant.
RB: I look forward to it, and I hope we meet again.
CAB: I hope so.
© 2005 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing