Courtney Angela Brkic

courtney angela brkicCourtney 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?

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…

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.

RB: [laughs]

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.”

brkicCAB:
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."

RB: Meaning—

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."

RB: [laughs]

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—

RB: —because?

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.

CAB: Yeah.

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.

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.

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.

CAB: Right.

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.

CAB: Completely.

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?

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.

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.

RB: Did you see the troops of writers that came through Ohio? Steven
Elliott
and Nick
Flynn
?

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

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