Kenan Trebincevic and Susan Shapiro, interviewed by Desiree Prieto.
In his riveting debut memoir The Bosnia List (Penguin Books, 2014), Kenan Trebincevic chronicles the story of his family’s escape from the former Yugoslavia during the 1992 Balkan War’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims. He was twelve years old when he landed in the United States, thanks to the Connecticut Interfaith Council of Churches and Synagogues. Twenty years later, Trebincevic returned to his homeland with a list of war-time wrongs he wanted to make right, which included avenging many of the Serbs that betrayed his family.
Trebincevic, now an American citizen working as a physical therapist in Manhattan, met his coauthor Susan Shapiro in Greenwich Village, when she needed treatment for a back injury. Shapiro is a Jewish memoirist and long-time journalism teacher at The New School, where I took her class. I recently spoke with both of them about war, writing, fate and why they call their collaboration a “Jewish/Muslim book of healing.”
Prieto: How did you two meet?
Trebincevic: Susan was my patient at Shift Physical Therapy on University and 11th Street, where I’ve worked for the last seven years. She came in with a serious spine problem.
Shapiro: I tore two ligaments in lower back, my first serious injury and a lot of doctors told me that it might never heal. I tried surgeons, chiropractors, orthopedics, arthropods, nobody was being the least bit helpful. My insurance covers physical therapy, so I wound up with Kenan. He had a thick accent and seemed preoccupied, arrogant and a little bit antagonistic. He asked, “How did you do it?” I said, “kickboxing.” He said, “kickboxing at your age? You’re a 50-year-old professor, you’re not an athlete.” I said, “Why don’t I just kill myself now?” He said, “No, don’t,” sounding alarmed. He didn’t quite get English colloquialisms.
Trebincevic: She wouldn’t concentrate on the exercises I gave her to strengthen her back. Every time I’d walk away from her, she’d pull a stack of essays from her briefcase. “You’re not paying attention,” I told her. She said she had to grade 100 essays a week by her students. I looked over at one and sarcastically asked, “Is your assignment what I did on my summer vacation?” She said, “No, my first assignment is to write three pages about your most humiliating secret.” I laughed and said, “You Americans! Why the hell would anybody reveal that?” She said, “Because it’s healing. And my students want to get in the New York Times and do book deals. I was surprised. When I emailed her that night to see if her back was okay, she sent me a piece that her New School student Danielle Gelfand had just published in Times. It was about how she and her mother—a Holocaust survivor—ate bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur to cope with the suicide of her father 17 years before. The deep, honest way Danielle had delved into religion and the holocaust and death unlocked something in me. So Susan's next session, I handed over three pages. After she helped me revise it several times, it wound up in the New York Times Magazine and it was picked up in the Best American Essay anthology.
Prieto: Did you know it would be a book right away?
Trebincevic: No. I didn’t even think it was an essay. I’d never written before, except for medical notes and bad love letters. I didn’t study literature and English wasn’t my first language.
Shapiro: When he handed me his first three double-spaced typed pages, he really got my attention. It was about how his Muslim family was a victim of ethnic cleansing in the 1992 Bosnian war. I was shocked, just because he seemed like this happy-go-lucky cute kid, so I had no idea that he had that background. It was about how, at 12, everybody from his life deserted him and betrayed his family because of his religion. His father and brother were put in a concentration camp. I remember he stood over me while I read it, wanting to know what I thought. “What did you think? What did you think?” and I said, “It blows my socks off.”
Trebincevic: I didn’t know what that meant. I said, “That means you don’t like it? She said, “No, that means it’s really good.”
Prieto: What about the religious differences between you two?
Trebincevic: I’m Muslim but not very traditional. Susan is a Reform Jew, but not that religious either. I’d say our New York work ethic determined our way of lives more than our religions.
Shapiro: I was always interested in Jewish arts and literature. I used to review quite a few books for the New York Times Book Review on the Holocaust. So I put his story in that context and thought: he’s like the male Muslim Anne Frank who lived to tell the story.
Prieto: What was with all the lists?
Shapiro: The book started out with a list of 12 people Kenan wanted to avenge, that was the idea for the original Bosnia List. But I kept saying to him, you can’t start hating the Serbs and end hating the Serbs. There has to be an emotional arc, even for an essay, but especially for a memoir. I said “Tell me about Schindler’s List,” because we were using the title The Bosnia List. He finally remembered that it was his mother’s favorite movie, and he had this flashback to his mother making him watch Schindler’s List.
Trebincevic: I really wanted to watch Back to the Future. But my mom said, “Cars don’t fly, you can’t learn anything from that. Watch Schindler’s List.” While we watched it together she said, “It’s like the story of our people.” I was skeptical and said, “How do Jews and Nazis in 1942 have anything to do with us?” She said, “It is our story, and you have to remember the bad people who hurt us, but you can never forget the good people who saved us.” I said sarcastically, “I can count all the Serbs that saved us on one finger.”
Shapiro: I said, “Kenan, you just told me a story where there were more than that. Somebody slipped you bread. A Serb soldier filled up your propane gas tank. A bus driver waited in a snowstorm to get you guys to Vienna. Write a list right now of the people you can remember, every single person who helped you.” It was a list of 12. So that new list was our ending.
Prieto: You wrote about the United States intervention in the Bosnian war.
Trebincevic: I felt it was noble of President Clinton to stop the killings and the war. However, he contradicted America’s policy for democracy and justice by forcing the unjust Dayton Peace Accords which ended the war. The Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 allowed Serbs to keep the occupied 49% of Bosnia they ethnically cleansed. Once the war turned in our favor and thinking I was finally going home after liberation, NATO threatened Bosnian Army with Airstrikes. The war ended and Bosnia stayed divided. Watching the end of the war on TV in Connecticut, I was very upset to realize that we could probably never move back to our homeland.
Shapiro: Interestingly I was freelancing for Newsweek in the nineties when my old professor Joseph Brodsky called me to say that PEN American Center was doing an event he was involved with, decrying Eastern European Nationalism. It was a benefit to help Bosnians. I interviewed Brodsky, Czeslow Milosz and a bunch of Jewish writers, Susan Sontag and Wendy Wasserstein, who said: There’s a Holocaust going on right now that no Americans know about and we have to stop it. It turned out to be a big two-page article. When I showed Kenan, it turned out that by coincidence that was the week he came to Connecticut at 12, the week he landed here. So we thought it was a sort of fascinating coincidence.
Prieto: You two had issues about forgiveness?
Shapiro: I was thrilled with the great reviews the book had in the New York Times Book Review, Oprah.com, Toronto Star and the Brooklyn Rail. But Kenan was upset whenever a reviewer would say or imply that he forgave all the Serbs. The New York Times Book Review critic said “Trebincevic eventually forgives.” We wrote a letter explaining that he only forgave himself, his family and the Serbs who helped them escape. But, for example, he never forgave the Serbian nationalistic monster, President Miloscevic.
Trebincevic: I don’t think genocide and ethnic cleansing can ever be forgiven or forgotten. I can never forgive former neighbors and friends for the murder, rape, or concentration camps they threw their own countrymen in. These were people who we shared holidays, birthdays, and classrooms with. At first I felt like a young victim who lost his childhood. But after reliving what happened to me by writing the story with Susan, I came to understand how amazingly lucky we were. My mother said that we should never forgive those who did this harm, but I should always remember the good people too, and acknowledge any acts which saved us as well.
Prieto: The Bosnia List struck a chord with me because I’m from San Antonio, where Latin American immigrant children are currently being sheltered. Kenan, you came to the U.S. with your parents. Did that make a big difference?
Trebincevic: Yes I believe that the reason my brother and I didn’t turn to crime and drugs despite having our lives brutally disrupted is that we grew up in a happy safe home in Bosnia. We stayed a close-knit family throughout our struggles and that’s what I believe saved us. We listened to our parents who said that they came to America to be nobodies so we can one day become somebodies. We also happen to land in Connecticut’s middle to upper class school system where we had good mentors and made friends who were sensitive to our past.
Shapiro: When the Boston bombing happened, Kenan told me he hated that the brothers were Muslim and they had so much in common with him and his brother. I said “You have to write about this!” I’m very analytic, I joke that I’m Kenan’s Jewish mother and shrink. He wound up doing a great piece for the Wall Street Journal analyzing why those two foreign-born Muslim boys turned to terrorism, while Kenan and Eldin fulfilled the American dream.
Prieto: Most Americans don’t understand Yugoslavia. So it’s a great idea when you flashback to Kenan learning the history. The war memoir becomes a history book and a travelogue. How did you decide to include the maps and language dictionary?
Shapiro: After we did the first draft of the memoir, the editor said “It’s really great, now just go back and add 100 pages of Yugoslavian history so Americans know what the hell you’re talking about.” So that was the biggest trek. We had six weeks.” I wanted it to be a fun, engaging page turner. I didn’t want it to be boring, so how do we add Eastern European History? I didn’t want to stop the narrative and then just have a history lesson. Kenan and his father and brother were really healthy because they were in the physical fitness business. Instead of eating Doritos and watching football on Sundays, they’d chop carrots and celery and drink coconut juice and sit around and watch the Military Channel. They would watch video on World War I, and his dad and his brother would call out the true story of Bosniaks, which nobody ever told. So at the start of World War I, his brother would scream out, “A Serb started it by killing Ferdinand!” They would tell the whole history of the Bosniaks. Kenan was very confused himself when he was 11 or 12 about Yugoslavian history and all the republic, and Croatia and Bosnia were succeeding from Yugoslavia, so what was really cool was that we told it through his eyes and his confusion. So we were able to tell it in a fun way where we sort of slipped in the information way, so it didn’t disrupt the narrative.
Trebincevic: Old Yugoslavia’s history was told and written by Serbian politicians in Belgrade. The most recent history on Yugoslavia in early 1990s was written by older, acclaimed western journalists. With the help of my brilliant co-author and the genius of Penguin Editor, Wendy Wolf, we told the story through a 12-year-old Bosnian Muslim boy, juxtaposed with the perspective of a 30-year-old New Yorker, an American citizen. The most important part for me was to re-write the region’s history, which was tainted for centuries, to educate Americans. Bosnia was around since 11th century, but its name was hidden and left out for the last hundred years, until our independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. I feel that by being this opportunity, I have a duty and the moral obligation to tell this story for my people. It is their story as well. I hope to give them a voice, especially the younger generation. I am positive that no where else in the world could we have published this work, other than in America.
Prieto: Was it hard to relive the past?
Trebincevic: Susan pushed me, asking a lot of questions. I trusted her because she was Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust. Also she’d published 9 other books. I enjoyed her memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart, about re-meeting people from her past who hurt her. When her husband read The Bosnia List, he joked “It’s like Five Bosnians Who Broke My Heart.” She was a popular teacher who’d helped 80 students publish books before. I started taking her class and her book seminar, where I met the WME agent who handled the book. I met a bunch of the students she helped get published. I felt like I was in good hands.
Shapiro: Kenan lost his mom to cancer several years ago. So we joke that I became his Jewish mother—and femme Freud. My books Unhooked, Speed Shrinking and Lighting Up tell about my adventures in psychotherapy. I’ve had so much great therapy, I shrink people by osmosis.
Trebincevic: The hardest part of telling the story for me was to make sense of ethnic cleansing. I don’t know why my family was spared when there were many other innocent people who died. I speculated why Ranko, a war criminal, could find some compassion or one ounce of kindness in his insane mind to not harm my father and brother. But I didn’t want to exploit my people by coming across that the reason they died was because they weren’t kind. I came to understand who these violent people truly were all along. The war allowed them to be who they really are since they could not be themselves during peace time. This made it easier to bare and understand. Not all Serbs were as equally guilty and not all committed crimes. There were many from mixed families who fought on the Bosnian side during the war, specifically in Sarajevo. I never asked my dad how he managed to stay calm, but he still has the same anger toward them when their names come up. I feel terrible for the older generation because they have lived one big lie a good part of their lives. My life began when I came to the United States.
Shapiro: Kenan said for 20 years he’d had all these different fantasies for revenge for all the people that had hurt him and taken his dad and brother away. He said never once did it ever occur to him that he would be a hero there for his people because he’d written about the truth of what really happened and it’s in bookstores in his homeland. He was 12 years old when he was exiled. And now everyone who knew his dad go by the bookstore and take pictures and buy copies of it and they’re proud of him. Of all the ways of avenging his past, he said it would never have occurred to him to do this. He said it’s the most pride he’s ever felt. I said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” He said, “Wow, the pen is mightier than the sword, I have to write that down.” He’d never heard the expression before. I laughed and told him, “Sorry I didn’t invent that phrase.”
Susan Shapiro, an award-winning journalism professor, has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Newsweek, The Nation, Salon and Psychology Today. She's author of 8 books including Unhooked, Speed Shrinking, Overexposed, and the acclaimed memoirs Lighting Up, Only as Good as Your Word and Five Men Who Broke My Heart, currently optioned for a movie. The Bosnia List, a coauthored memoir, was recently published by Penguin Books. She and her husband, a TV/film writer, live in Greenwich Village, where she teaches her popular "instant gratification takes too long" classes at The New School, and in private workshops and seminars. You can follow her on Twitter at @susanshapironet or reach her at ProfSue123@aol.com.
Kenan Trebincevic was born in a town called Brcko in 1980 to a Bosnian Muslim family who was exiled in the Balkan War. He came to the United States in 1993, went to college in Connecticut and became an American citizen in 2001. He works as a physical therapist in Greenwich Village and lives in Astoria Queens, amid 10,000 other former Yugoslavians. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times Op-Ed page, The International Herald Tribune, Salon.com, on American Public radio, and in the Best American Travel Writing Anthology 2012. His memoir The Bosnia List, coauthored with Susan Shapiro, is recently released by Penguin Books.
Desiree Prieto is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in the San Antonio Current, NBC Chicago, VH1, Rome Today TV and more. She has an M.A. in English Literature and an M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing from The New School. While a native Texan, she's also lived and worked in Rome, London, and Chicago.