Photograph by Eldin Trebinčević
WHEN KENAN TREBINČEVIĆ was 12, his beloved karate coach came knocking at his front door with an AK-47, screaming: “You have one hour to leave or be killed.” His Christian Serb neighbors and classmates in Brčko, Bosnia all turned on him because he was Muslim. His father and brother were put in a concentration camp, and his favorite teacher held a rifle to his head. His family fled the country with just a few suitcases, and ultimately settled in Westport, Connecticut. Twenty years later, as a Bosnian-American, Kenan returned to his birthplace with a to-do list that included confronting a neighbor who stole from his mother and standing on his coach’s grave to make sure he was really dead.
We recently spoke about his powerful debut book just out from Penguin (coauthored with Susan Shapiro) The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return, his day job as a Manhattan physical therapist, and if it's ever possible to come to terms with genocide.
HAIG CHAHINIAN: Why did you decide to go back and visit your homeland 20 years after the war that killed 300,000 of your countrymen and exiled your family?
KENAN TREBINČEVIĆ: After living for two decades in the United States, my 72-year-old widowed father, who had had a stroke, desperately wanted to visit our homeland before he was too old to make the trip. He’d been such a great father. He’d never said no to anything we ever wanted before. So my older brother Eldin and I felt like we couldn’t deny him this request. I pretended we were only doing this for him, but I was 30 and realized it was time for me to face down my past. While Dad and Eldin wanted to reconnect with family, friends and visit graveyards to pay their respects to loved ones we’d lost, I wrote a different list of what I wanted to do. I wanted to confront the Serb neighbors who’d betrayed us. I’d held a grudge for 20 years.
You’re now a physical therapist in Manhattan who studied science, and English isn’t your first language. So how did the memoir come about?
Two years ago, I had a patient named Susan Shapiro who had a serious back injury. She’d published several memoirs and taught journalism at night at The New School. She wouldn’t focus on the exercises because she was always busy grading stacks of essays. When I looked over and jokingly asked if the topic was “What I did on my summer vacation,” she said, “Actually, my first assignment is: write three pages about your most humiliating secret.” I laughed and said, “You Americans! Why would anybody reveal that?” She said, “Because it helps you heal,” and mentioned that editors wanted to hear unusual voices. When I emailed her that night to see how her back was doing, she sent me a piece that a student had just published in The New York Times. It was about how Danielle and her mother, a Holocaust survivor, ate bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur to cope with the anniversary of the suicide of her father 17 years before. It was a powerful piece — very raw — about parents, religious persecution, and loss. It unlocked something inside me.
At her next appointment, I showed Susan my first three pages. After several rewrites, it wound up in The New York Times Magazine and was chosen by William Vollmann for The Best American Travel Writing anthology. Susan said to keep writing and invited me to come to a book seminar she was teaching where William Morris Endeavor agent Kirby Kim was the guest speaker. He was impressed by my essay and agreed with Susan that I should expand it into a memoir. She told me to try to write a short flashback scene next. I said I couldn’t. But then I went home and 43 pages came pouring out of me that night. I asked her to coauthor the book, everything 50/50, and we shook on it.
What was the collaboration like?
I have a difficult, full-time job, so for an entire year, I spent every early morning, lunch break, night, and weekend on the phone with Susan, emailing, texting, and meeting with her. I was so immersed I even had dreams in the right sequence for the book. I was living and breathing the story with her. In the shower I’d recall exact conversations from 1992 and jump out to take notes, dripping all over the floor. The most difficult part was escaping my adult mind and remembering what the hell I had thought when I was 12. I had to fully immerse myself and relive all those stories. It came back to me like a film. But then I had to make sense of it as an adult.
Can you give an example of something you wrote from the 12-year-old’s perspective, even though you were 30?
As a 12-year-old, I didn’t understand what changed overnight with my heroic karate coach. He went from teaching me kicking technique to threatening me with an AK-47. But it’s not that he changed overnight. War brought out the worst in him. He didn’t hate me because I was a Muslim. He was an opportunist, and for him everything was a personal vendetta. Only after I went back to Bosnia did I realize who he truly was before the war. He was always jealous, always bitter with anyone who was bigger, better, richer than he was. As a kid I saw him as a guy wearing a black leather jacket who hung out with cool girls, but he was one bitter man who went after everybody he loathed. Realizing that made his betrayal hurt less. I realized this guy was a psycho all along, and I was too young to understand that because I wasn’t hanging out with him in town.
In your first New York Times Magazine piece, you admitted you fantasized about getting revenge on Petra, your next door neighbor who’d stolen repeatedly from your mother during the occupation. Why were you the most enraged at her? When you banged on the door of her apartment in Bosnia, how did it feel confronting her?
When I told my Bosnian friend Ado, my neighbor in Queens, that I was having revenge fantasies, he said “Every Bosnian Muslim who goes back feels that way the first time. It’s normal.” When I landed, I felt like I was still the 12-year-old boy who’d been forced to leave his country and the life he loved. I stayed particularly upset with Petra because she’d embarrassed my mother in front of me. I remember when she came over and said, “You might as well give me that skirt, you won’t be needing it much longer.” She also took my mother’s rug and nightgown. Confronting her was number one on my list. When I saw her again, I realized she was now a frail 65-year-old lady, and I was stronger and more powerful than she was. She was scared when I looked her in the eye and said, “Nobody has forgotten.”
Was your list connected to Schindler’s List?
While writing a 1995 flashback scene with Susan, I mentioned that my mother’s favorite movie was Schindler’s List. Susan’s Jewish, and that intrigued her and she kept asking about the connection. I remembered that when we were living in Connecticut, my mother used to rent the movie at Blockbuster for a dollar and cry watching it, over and over, and say “That’s exactly what happened to us.” I was a resentful 15-year-old who asked her, “What do Jews in World War II have to do with our Muslim family in 1992?” My mother said: “You should never forget the bad people who did us harm. But you also have to remember the good people who helped us.”
While my original list of 12 consisted mostly of betrayers whom I wanted to confront, Susan asked me exactly how many Serbs had come to our aid in any way. I went home that night to write it down. I was surprised that I could recall 12 Serbs who had come to our aid.
When a friend asked if during the war your parents ever wondered how you felt, you wrote that they were too busy telling you to duck. Tell me about your dark sense of humor.
As a culture, Bosnians tend to be sarcastic and self-deprecating, so it felt very natural for me to poke fun at certain things. I make things lighter for the reader to help them understand that not everything is tragic. My mom loved to use the word tragicomic.
Daca, who looted Muslim houses, provided comic relief, because it seemed like she wasn’t threatening your life. The billowing blond was only shamelessly stealing your property.
Well, actually, I took it very seriously as a 12-year-old. I thought our life was in danger because her husband, Boban, acted like a Serbian soldier. They could have turned us in. In retrospect, they seemed more like a Serbian Bonnie and Clyde: two burglars who don’t think they’re burglars. The war brought out the best and the worst in people.
Why did you start your book in the present, at your apartment in Astoria, New York, and weave it back and forth in time?
At a book seminar, I met Scribner’s editor Colin Harrison. I showed him another essay I’d published in The New York Times, "Marshall Tito in Queens" about a Balkan-themed bar I used to frequent in my neighborhood, which nearly turned into a mini-Yugoslavian War. He said, “Start your book there.” He’s the author of great thrillers himself, several set in New York: Bodies Electric (Park Slope and Sunset Park), The Finder (Bensonhurst), Risk (Canarsie), and Manhattan Nocturne (East New York). I wanted my book to be a page-turner, too. My coauthor agreed. She said, “You’re not Clinton or Obama, you’re not going to write an autobiography starting from when you were born.” We decided to try flashbacks so that the chapters shift in time, but overlap. In the end it all comes together. My coauthor told me a line for both writing and love: you can do anything as long as it works.
When you were 12, you were running for your life. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I thought I was someday going to take over my dad’s gym and train all the athletes in town. I had to take over my dad’s legacy; he was a pretty cool guy back home. All I knew in life was the river, karate, and my dad’s gym. But my dad was a big fish in a small tank. Here I don’t feel like my dad felt back home. I’m a tiny fish in a huge tank. Look at how many people live in New York, how many physical therapists. I guess some patients — like my coauthor — think of me as their savior, just on a different scale. When we first started the book, Susan said to me, “Here’s the deal. You fix my back, I’ll fix your pages.” We kind of wound up healing each other.
As the grandchild of four Armenian genocide survivors who resettled in California, I felt your tale shed light on their stories of exile too. How difficult was it to write about this experience? It sounds like it was both healing and painful.
Ever since I went back, every time I think about it and talk about it, it’s soothing. But it’s also like a storm. It doesn’t stay over my head for too long; it’s more like a quick little rain shower. Before it would kind of sit there and boil. Through writing I found something deeper. I had a lot of “Aha!” moments, about how lucky I am to have escaped.
Is this a narrative about forgiveness?
I didn’t forgive the murderers who killed my people. I forgave my parents for not getting us out of there earlier. If we left when the war began, I probably would not have ended up in America. But I think, more than anything, I forgave myself for accepting that I have a better life now than I would’ve had I stayed in Bosnia.
At 12 you became an outsider in Bosnia for being Muslim. You were also an outsider as an immigrant in the United States. Now your work has appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and The Bosnia List has been published by a New York publishing house. Do you feel like an insider now?
I feel like I left the 12-year-old part of myself back there, and when I went back to Bosnia I retrieved it. I realized I didn’t belong there anymore, whatsoever. The United States is where I belong, and I couldn’t wait to come back.
You’re a physical therapist. Is there symbolism in healing people’s wounds after being wounded in your earlier life?
I grew up watching my dad fix athletes’ knees, and in high school I thought I wanted to do something in sports and health. I never analyzed why I picked physical therapy, though. What does my choice have to do with the war? I’m still processing it.
I see parallels between your life and my grandparents’ lives. Can you ever understand genocide, why people perpetrate mass killings?
Well, I experienced it. For some people, murder is a big moneymaker. Wars make money. If you talk about certain people like Hitler and Milosevic, it’s all about power and personal gain. All you need is a charismatic leader and a group of uneducated people. Religion is often used as a convenient tool to tell you, “You’re different from them. They’re the reason why you’re unhappy, why you don’t have a job.” It’s blaming the other group for your shortcomings.
Why do some people hate certain groups? I think it’s really to take blame away from themselves and scapegoat another group. In Yugoslavia it was like Germany in World War II: a nationalistic land and power grab by those who wanted to live with their own kind and no one else.
Why did you dedicate the book to your late mother, Adisa?
Once we were exiled to Connecticut, she often told me she wanted to tell the world the dramatic story of what happened to us and how we survived. But by then she was too sick with cancer to write it. She used yell at me: “Stop bouncing balls and go read a book.” I think she’d be pleasantly surprised and proud that I wrote our story for her.
What do you want this book to accomplish?
Old Yugoslavian history was told by Serb politicians in Belgrade. The most recent books on the 1992 war were written by older, acclaimed Western journalists. I didn’t want to write another academic or political book that was similar to what was already out there. I wanted to tell my story through the eyes of a 12-year-old Bosnian Muslim boy who’d lived through the war, juxtaposed with the perspective of a 30-year-old American citizen, a regular Queens guy more into Yankees and Seinfeld reruns than bloodthirsty revenge. I wanted younger people to relate.
I felt a moral obligation to tell this story for my late mother, my people, and for anyone who has been persecuted because of their religion, race, or nationality. I didn’t want to remain a victim. It was empowering. When I met my Penguin book editor, Wendy Wolf, she told me after she read the proposal, she greatly admired my ability to hold grudges for so long and that she was so good at holding grudges herself that she even held them on behalf of others. That’s when I knew I was in good hands. As it turns out, holding a grudge is good for writing your memoirs.
Kenan Trebinčević’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Best American Travel Writing 2012, The International Herald Tribune and Salon. He’ll be discussing the secrets of publishing at the L.A. Press Club on August 14.