Writers & Company

Bosnian writer Semezdin Mehmedinović on the trauma of war — and the power of love

The Bosnian author and editor spoke with Eleanor Wachtel on writing about memory, language, identity and existence.
Semezdin Mehmedinović is a Bosnian writer and editor. (Edvin Kalić)

"Forgetting doesn't kill you." That's what Semezdin Mehmedinović's cardiologist told him after he suffered a near fatal heart attack at 50 and was worried that his medication could lead to memory loss. But for Mehmedinović, forgetting is a kind of death. That life-changing event led him on a journey through the landscape of his past, captured in his moving, intimate new book of autobiographical fiction titled My Heart

Born in 1960 in a village in northeastern Bosnia, Mehmedinović began his career in Sarajevo as a poet, columnist, editor and filmmaker. He and his family survived the four-year siege of the city that began in 1992. His book about that experience, Sarajevo Blues, is widely regarded as the best piece of writing to emerge from the war-blasted capital. Mehmedinović emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1996 as a political refugee but now lives back in Sarajevo.

He spoke to Eleanor from his son's home in North Carolina.

A school at the bottom of a lake

"I was born in Kiseljak, near Tuzla. Tuzla is a small town in the northern part of Bosnia. It is a mining town and region. My ancestors were miners. 

"My father was a miner in a coal mine. My grandfather was a miner in the salt mines. When I was a kid, when they asked me what I would be when I grew up, I would answer 'miner.'

"There were many empty and abandoned mines under the city. The ground began to sink; that part is interesting. I remember houses slowly starting to sink. I remember, when I was on a bus going through that zone, that the sinking was intense. The bus felt and looked like a boat rocking on water.

"The village I come from is on the shore of an artificial lake that was created a few years before my birth. This lake was located in a valley with the villages along the river. Before the lake was formed, the houses were not demolished. So I remember from my childhood, a roof could be seen above the water surface, or the treetops that had been submerged. 

When I think about my writing as a whole, it's connected with the tragic events in my life.

"I remember my father jumping out of a boat and diving to see, at the bottom of the lake, a school he attended. These images are very likely the sources of my melancholia, which led me to literature. When I think about my writing as a whole, it's connected with the tragic events in my life. But when I describe these events, I try to distance myself from it and be an objective observer, not just somebody who is a part of it. I aim to be observant, to help myself to get through it. 

"My family were not intellectuals. They were miners. Because of these images and probably because of melancholia, I may not have become the miner I was meant to be."

A Bosnian special forces soldier returns fire on April 6, 1992 in downtown Sarajevo as he and civilians come under fire from Serbian snipers. (Mike Persson/AFP via Getty Images)

A song for Sarajevo

"We think about the siege of Sarajevo, it changed our image of war, in a way. Before, we used to think about war as two armies. But Sarajevo was a different thing. The energy of war is a magnet for young people. When you think about new production in literature or in art, they're going back to war and trying to describe, again and again, what happened.

"The truth is, war was a time of trauma. People are going back to clean that trauma. My writing in exile was once mistakenly associated by critics with nostalgia for the world I came from. I don't think it's nostalgia, but trauma that fuels the person who has experienced war. That is why I write obsessively about my Bosnian past. 

I don't think it's nostalgia, but trauma that fuels the person who has experienced war.

"I felt like I hadn't come out of some of these traumatic events. I thought if I got them out of me by describing them, I would get rid of them.

"It's not nostalgia. I don't have nostalgia for Bosnia, or for any place. I think this is a sensitive, teenage time when we have many choices ahead of us.. 

"I think that's nostalgia to me."

My intense beating heart

"There were three events that led to this book: my heart attack in 2010, a road trip I took with my son in 2015, and my wife's stroke in 2016. 

"When I wrote the about first one, which is a description, or report, of what happened to me, I was describing some topics that were important for me at that point. One of them is forgetting and memory. 

"It's a strange thing — after I was prescribed medication for my heart condition, I started to have minor medical issues. I asked my cardiologist about it and asked him what I had to do to rid myself of these issues. He told me there was nothing I could do and I had to take the medication. I asked him the side effects and he told me that memory loss was one of them. 

I was describing some topics that were important for me at that point. One of them is forgetting and memory.

"He was talking like it was normal, like it's not serious. But for me, as a writer, the idea of losing memory was a problem.

"After that, I decided to go back with my son to Phoenix, Arizona, which was where we had our first apartment in the United States after leaving Sarajevo.

"I wanted to go there to see how my memory of that time compared with reality. I also wanted to maybe write something about it as well. I wanted to say something to my son. But a year after that, my wife had a stroke. The result of her stroke was a memory loss. She lost her recent memories. She couldn't remember what happened in the last four years. 

"Later, we found that she lost more than just four years. In all this, the connection between memory and forgetting, it was in a way, a topic that I explored from my first days as a writer — as the drama exploded in my life."

Semezdin Mehmedinović's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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