Today I’d like to give a warm welcome to Adnan Mahmutovic, Bosnian author of the prize winning novel Thinner than a Hair, which is available from Cinnamon Press, together with Refuge(e) a collection of short stories and poems.
Thinner than a Hair is told in the first person by Fatima, who is growing up in Bosnia in the 1980s and 1990s. So as well as the usual teenage pressures of having a boyfriend that her parents disapprove of “He’s an illiterate peasant and has no prospects” there are the growing shadows of the war.
How did you come to write a book in a woman’s voice, so convincingly I think your publisher thought you were a woman when your novel was judged as the winner of the first novel competition by Cinnamon Press. Did you chose Fatima or did she chose you?
Funny you should say Jan Fortune-Wood thought I was a woman. It’s happened before. And yet one agent refused me before even reading it in belief that I couldn’t pull it off. Why a female voice? It’s hard to remember the origins of it. I think I wanted to explore that point of view. I took it as a challenge, and at the same time I think you’re right, I didn’t really have a choice. At least it didn’t feel right to for instance tell the story from Aziz’s point of view. I think I made it harder when I decided Fatima wouldn’t always be the most likeable character
Well I liked Fatima because I believed she was a ‘real’ person. What struck me about Thinner than a hair is that it is rooted in its particular time and circumstances with lots of evocative details, like the smell of the mother and the disgusting but compelling taste of the camel meat – how much of this is based on your own direct experience and how much is imagined?
Ah, canned camel meat, now that’s unforgettable. It was a big favourite with people who liked to drink. In any case, I think even if I did remember details, smells, colours, tastes, they’d still be imagined and reimagined. I think even direct experience, if I tried to put it down in words, would still be filtered through an imaginative process. What I tried to do, since I was writing in English, is to convey a dose of ironic distance from details that Bosnians would recognise as typical of this place, practical hallmarks of Bosnia. I thought that if Fatima was to feel “real” I’d have to rely both on my memory and imagination that is not shaped by Bosnian literature. Now the smell of the mother is interesting because my mum was allergic to certain smells, spices, tastes, and our house always felt smell-less.
I had to change that for Fatima.
The camel meat makes quite an impression on the reader too although I wouldn’t want to eat any.
You have answered one of the things I was going to ask about which language Thinner than a hair was written in. I wondered why you chose English and whether you use other languages for writing – Swedish? Serbo-croat and does it make a difference to the piece of writing which language it is written in?
Neither would I Caroline. I was young then and couldn’t make myself swallow it.
The language. In part, it was a coincidence. What I mean is that after many years in Sweden, my Bosnian deteriorated. I lost words. At the same time I felt everything I wrote in Bosnian was weird to the core. It’s like that Sartrean sense of nausea, when you see something and it appears meaningless. Writing in a foreign language helped me cure that condition. Now English came to me as an unexpected gift. I did write a few columns in Swedish, but when I was accepted into the English program at Stockholm University, my Swedish stagnated and English developed. I started my PhD and 80% of my reading and conversations were in English. A coincidence, but a nice one.
I think the language makes a difference. Had I written in Bosnian to begin with I’d probably fall into some stylistic traps common to much Bosnian literature, even the innovative one. English offered some distance and also a different kind of closeness, intimacy. It was a challenge in the best way. In a sense the rhythms and nuances of it helped me reach for those raw parts of my characters and the changing world in which they live. It was a familiar world of their childhood that went through a horrible metamorphosis. I think to write about it in a language foreign to them seems, as an afterthought, quite natural, proper to their predicament.
It must have been a strange experience losing touch with your mother tongue. I want to ask what motivated you to write Thinner than a hair and also Refuge(e) which deals with similar stories and circumstances. Are you ever homesick for Bosnia or is Sweden home now?
It was, absolutely. A few months ago when a writer from Brussels asked for two stories to be included in an anthology of diaspora writing, I had someone translate them. Weird feeling.
I think I was able to write those stories because I was not homesick, because I not even close nostalgic. If I were I’d fall into the traps of homesick people to idealise things, images, feelings, etc. Like Fatima I wanted to revisit the homeland and its history as a stranger.
You remember in [Refuge]e when I talk about that bureaucrat telling me I’m a stranger in my hometown, well that’s what got me going. A sense of groundlessness seemed like the perfect ground for writing.
You mentioned Bosnian literature earlier and I have to admit that you are the first writer from the former Yugoslavia whose work I’ve read. I have lined up The Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andric and two books by Aleksandar Hemon for my summer reading. Any comments on those two authors and is there anyone else you’d recommend?
Andric dealt with another time and history. A classic in the Balkans. While his work has merit, no doubt, I’d rather start with MesaSelimovic, another big name and great prose. Hemon, like me is a writer in diaspora. He too writes in English, and has made quite a name for himself after he got MacArthur fellowship. I think he’s a great short story writer, and while his novels aren’t bad, I don’t quite fall for them. They give me a sense he’s bored while he writes. Nothing is truly at stake. I actually recognise that attitude, but I won’t go much into it or I’ll start lining up stereotypes. There are many good shorts in The Question of Bruno, and there’s one I like alot in The New Yorker “The Noble Truths of Suffering”, which I wrote about on my blog Under the Midnight Sun.
I also wrote a little about The Lazarus Project.
I know you like poetry so you check out Melika Salihbeg Bosnawi, a historic character who was imprisoned by the Communist and wrote a lot of religious/philosophical poems and drama.