The Many Worlds in Between: A Conversation with Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro




WHEN MY family left India for Toronto, my mother waited for a bus every morning wrapped in layers to fight the frigid Canadian winter because we couldn’t afford a car. She had once been a teacher. Now she commuted an hour to make sandwiches at Mr. Souvlaki, a takeaway joint. My father, an electrical engineer, worked at a furniture store for minimum wage.

Much like Kenan Trebinčević, the 11-year-old refugee in World in Between, I did not discuss my parents’ jobs, wishing everyone knew how much better off we used to be. When we rented a small apartment, a wealthy Indian woman donated her raggedy blue couch, an old lamp, and a chipped nightstand she was throwing away, not unlike the church donations given to the Trebinčevićs in Norwalk, Connecticut. My father called our minor indignities rites of passage as émigrés, though to me they remained humiliations.

Yet after reading Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro’s powerful new middle-grade autofiction about Bosnian refugees fleeing the war, I felt grateful we’d moved by choice and could return home if we wanted. What stuck out to me in this beautifully moving book was how the phenomenon of immigration — being the “other” in a new country — emphasizes the value of family. In the face of heartbreaking cruelty, the Trebinčevićs bind tighter together against a world that rejects them for being Muslim.

I talked with Trebinčević and Shapiro over email about the lasting effects of ethnic cleansing, war, and genocide, as well as their new collaboration.

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PULOMA MUKHERJEE: You two co-authored The Bosnia List, an acclaimed 2014 memoir about how Kenan escaped the war and later visited his country of origin. What led to revising the story in World in Between as autobiographical fiction from the point of view of a 12-year-old?

KENAN TREBINČEVIĆ: In 2016, I published essays in Newsday and Esquire during Trump’s Muslim country travel ban. I recounted my own “Coming to America” story of how, at 12, I’d escaped the Orthodox Christian Serbs’ ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosniaks during the Balkan War in 1993. I made a point to show how we’d survived because the Westport Interfaith Council of Churches and Synagogues banded together to help sponsor my Muslim family. It was a statement against Trump’s racism and xenophobia. I expressed what I felt as a kid, watching the war unfold and my Serb friends, neighbors, and favorite teacher turn on me. The way we were treated in Connecticut, I implied, was the compassionate way to help other human beings traumatized and exiled from war. My co-author, Susan, posted the clips on our Facebook page.

SUSAN SHAPIRO: A former student who became a children’s book editor read the essays and said, “This would make a great middle-grade memoir.” I asked, “What’s a middle-grade memoir?” I’d only published adult books. She explained the divisions of kid lit. Kenan’s dramatic saga happened when he was 11 to 13, so telling the story from his view at that age worked well for middle grade. But we needed permission from Wendy Wolf, our brilliant Penguin editor. She didn’t want a new project to interfere with the readership of The Bosnia List, since it’s in high school and college curriculums across the country. Our great agent, Samantha Wekstein, found this fantastic children’s book editor, Lynne Polvino, who’d published a different immigrant memoir turned kids book, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas, as a novel “based on a true refugee story” that we loved. We realized a middle-grade novel would be a completely different audience, and Wendy agreed. In Bosnia List, a 30-year-old man goes back to avenge the traitors who’d betrayed his family in the former Yugoslavia, and we weaved in the complicated history. World in Between focused on the dark emotional side: how did it feel to have all your friends and favorite teacher betray you?

How did you two meet and decide to work together?

KT: Susan hurt her back and came to my Greenwich Village office for physical therapy. Bored with the exercises, she was always grading stacks of papers by her writing students. One day, I joked, “Is your assignment ‘What I did on My Summer Vacation?’” She said, “No. My first assignment is ‘Write three pages on your most humiliating secret.’” I laughed and said, “You Americans, why the hell would anyone do that?” She said it was healing and helped her students break into The New York Times and launch books. I was skeptical. But she shared a heavy Times piece that touched me by a student whose mother was a Holocaust survivor and whose father had committed suicide. After I came to a seminar she taught, she helped me publish my first piece in The New York Times that attracted literary agents. English wasn’t my first language, the only thing I’d ever written before was medical notes on patients, and I had a full-time, 50-hour-a-week job. So I told Susan I could only do it if she’d partner with me. 

SS: We’re a good team because we’re opposites. He was this stoic Muslim male physical therapist 20 years younger than me who’d never really talked to anyone about the war before. I’m an emotive Jewish shrinkaholic New Yorker with a graduate degree in confessional poetry and writer of several provocative memoirs. He used to have a stronger accent and would skip connectives and mix up idioms in English that came out very poetic. I’d ask him questions to get him to reveal what he felt, and he’d say, “No, I keep to my chest.” He used to say, “Nobody cares about my backstory.” But editors from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Slate, and Salon did, as well as agents and top book editors. I promised him that “writing is a way to turn your worst experiences into beautiful art.” And he did it. Twice.

You dedicated The Bosnia List to Kenan’s late mother, Asida. Why did you dedicate World in Between to Kenan’s father?

KT: My dad passed away recently, so it felt fitting. He was very proud that I told the story of our people. I’m so glad he was around to come to all the events for The Bosnia List and meet Susan. I met her father, too.

SS: My dad also loved The Bosnia List, I think because it was about someone else’s family instead of his. He was a history buff who compared the Serbs to the Nazis and shared our outrage that a genocide could happen again in Eastern Europe, this time in 1993, and the world let it happen. Like civilization has learned absolutely nothing.

Muslims are still being displaced or persecuted for their beliefs in other parts of the world too, for example Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. As a refugee of ethnic cleansing, how do you feel about the displacement and persecution of Muslims around the world?

KT: I feel angry and disappointed. It’s taken me years to understand that, at the end of the day, world leaders turn the other way because it isn’t in their best interest to intervene. With the Chinese state’s organized genocide of more than one million Uyghurs, the United States condemned the Chinese government through tweets, White House press conference briefings, and criticism during the United Nations Conference this year — slaps on the wrist. If the Western world really punished the Chinese government, the global economy would suffer. When it comes to Rohingya Muslims, I don’t see any great nation getting anything out of even reporting it, never mind helping or punishing the perpetrators. In both cases, they are minority groups in their countries where totalitarian regimes justify their own inhumanity. Most nations don’t want to risk their friendly relations, trade agreements, or self-involved diplomacy. The saddest examples of persecution and displacement are when it’s orchestrated by your own people, like in Syria and Afghanistan.

SS: Kenan talked a lot about why it’s been so hard for him to forgive and move on from his past trauma. Unlike the Holocaust in World War II when Germany lost the war, apologized to the Jewish people, and offered reparations, the Serbs didn’t officially lose. They never offered remorse. They didn’t compensate any of the Muslim families they’d massacred. They got away with mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. The Balkan war ended in a stalemate that’s led to ongoing unemployment, a complicated shaky truce among different ethnicities, and rising nationalism today. The most heartbreaking part of telling Kenan’s story from a child’s view was that he kept expecting the good guys to bring the bad guys to justice. But that never happened. It made him skeptical of everything his parents taught him about good and evil. Ultimately, he was able to focus on the humanity of individuals ­­­­— including Serbs — who came to his family’s rescue. As his mother told him, “There is good and bad in all people.” 

Since this is written as a middle-grade novel, what do you hope kids will take away from World in Between?

KT: We hope it will teach young American students about war and genocide through the shocked eyes of an innocent boy. And show them how to treat immigrants, be kind to and not fearful of foreigners, and offer ways to help refugees and trauma survivors assimilate.

SS: Along with going over old photographs, letters, and documents that Kenan’s family kept, he and his brother, Eldin, both have incredible memories for specific details. Working on the book with Kenan taught me so much. One tiny example: After almost starving for a year during the war, Kenan vividly recalled everyone who was kind enough to feed him. Some people would make him and his brother a turkey sandwich. But his relatives in Vienna and the kind Reverend Donald Hodges and his wife Katie in Connecticut opened their refrigerators and asked, “What do you want? You can have anything.” He was so elated and moved by this generosity, he remembered it 20 years later! So now, if I’m feeding someone hungry or broke, I remember to open my fridge and offer a lot of choices. 

At one point, Kenan’s mother covers his ears during a family conversation about a woman being attacked while trying to get her husband released from a concentration camp. Kenan says, “I knew what they meant from movies.” Did you find yourself cutting back on the degree of violence as the book is meant for a younger audience? Was that tricky?

KT: The Bosnia List mostly used an indignant adult voice for an older audience. To capture my inner world at 12, we tried a younger, more impassioned boy’s voice, focusing on my confusion and desperation at the time and the depth of my displacement in two foreign countries. It was complicated. It took us five years to figure it out.

SS: Reading acclaimed dark political children’s books by my former students offered guideposts. Renée Watson’s best-selling, award-winning novels tackle everything from domestic violence to racism to gentrification. Maria Andreu’s poignant novel The Secret Side of Empty depicts her life as an undocumented immigrant from Argentina. Abby Sher’s scary dystopian YA novel, Sanctuary, co-authored with Paola Mendoza, is about undocumented immigrants at the Unites States–Mexico border who are being eliminated. Warhead, the young adult novel by Jeff Henigson, chronicles the true story of his recovery from brain cancer as a teenager. Alyson Gerber’s popular middle-grade books are about having scoliosis, ADD, and disordered eating. These books taught me that kids can handle really tough subjects if you do it well and tell the truth. 

You recently did an online event at Politics and Prose in Washington with another Jewish-Muslim writing team. Did you set out to be multicultural?

KT: By coincidence, Susan had written for Newsday in 1993 about a Bosnian War fundraiser sponsored by PEN America where she interviewed Susan Sontag and her old professor Joseph Brodsky. It came out the same week I landed in Connecticut. She told me early on that her family lost relatives in the Holocaust. There was an immediate connection. I met her father, a doctor and history buff who compared the Serbs to the Nazis, and her mother, an amazing cook who fed me. Susan grew up with Jews in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and I’m a Muslim from Bosnia, but we had the same values about the importance of working hard, respecting family, giving charity for those in need. Sometimes it seemed like we were from the same family.

SS: I call our projects “Muslim-Jewish books of healing about the Christians who saved Kenan’s family.” I love paying tribute to people of different backgrounds who helped him survive and start over. 

When Kenan realizes his own friends and favorite teacher betrayed him, his shock is heartbreaking. Looking back, do you believe Serbs who turned on their friends always hated their Muslims neighbors? Or were they brainwashed by politicians?

KT: Both. I never thought about it when I was younger, but old Yugoslavian history curriculum was created in Serbia. Ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims occurred during Serb uprisings in the early 1800s. I read an article of how, in 1904, along the Bosnian-Serbian border, women and children were slaughtered, thrown off a bridge into the river separating Serbia from Bosnia. During both World Wars, history repeated itself, and Serbs turned on Bosnian Muslims. For nationalistic politicians, scapegoating a minority to separate people and blame for their personal failures is a tool that never fails.

SS: As my father pointed out, there are a lot of parallels to Nazi Germany. 

Did writing this book from a 12-year-old’s perspective clarify or intensify your emotions about the war? Have your feelings about the Bosnian War changed? 

KT: The war will always hover in my subconscious. It changed the trajectory of my whole life. Writing the adult memoir made me relive the memories and helped me make sense out of my lingering rage as an adult. World in Between made me realize how clueless and innocent I was watching the war unfold. I mean, I was most upset that my best Serbian friend, Vic, didn’t want me on his soccer team. I was sure it would all blow over, desperately wanting everything to go back to normal. Long after we found safety in the United States, I just wanted my old life and routine back. That’s such a kid’s perspective.

SS: Working on The Bosnia List, Kenan told me how much it sucked to get exiled from his country at 12. His older brother, Eldin, got to drive, date, and go to bars in the big city, but Kenan missed out. When they were the only Muslim family they knew in Connecticut, even in junior high, Kenan worried, “But who am I going to marry?” I remember we argued over a line I wrote, “I never kissed a girl from home,” because it embarrassed him. But in the aftermath of publishing The Bosnia List, a Sarajevan woman named Mirela instant messaged him on Facebook, thanking him for telling their story. Within months, he was back in Bosnia with a ring in his pocket, driving to celebrate their engagement. What’s that line? “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

KT: Susan loves telling that ending to my story. Now I visit my homeland with my wife, and Mirela’s family has become my family. And I’m finally at home in my two countries with her. By facing down my past, I found my future.

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Puloma Mukherjee is a fiction and nonfiction writer and a mother based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Guernica and an anthology of short stories. She’s currently working on her first novel.

 

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