Wildly entertaining, sexy, and strong, the stories in Bosnian author Asja Bakic’s collection “Mars” all involve characters who must confront an unusual shift in reality.
“(The stories) all started off as an obsession with a name, character, or a situation I couldn’t get out of my head,” Bakic said in a recent interview.
Soon an entirely new audience will have the opportunity to become fixated with Bakic’s striking prose, as “Mars” marks her English language debut.
Bakic was born in Tuzla, Bosnia, in 1982 and currently lives in Zagreb, Croatia. Bakic’s book of poetry, “It Can Be a Cactus, as Long as it Stings” was nominated for a Kiklop award, and “Mars” was shortlisted for the Edo Budisa Award. In 2017 she was selected as one of Literary Europe Live’s “New Voices from Europe.”
The stories in “Mars” are striking for their unique twists: While recovering from an accident, a woman realizes the truth behind why she is never allowed outside; a writer searches for the anonymous author of a recent best-seller, only to be told she wrote it herself.
“It is absolutely unlike anything else I’ve ever translated,” said Jennifer Zoble, the book’s translator who has MFAs in translation and in non-fiction from the University of Iowa.
Most of the other stories Zoble has translated from Bosnia are semi-autobiographical or about the war period in the ’90s. But Bakic’s work “has some speculative elements and dystopian tropes ….it’s not in any way explicitly autobiographical. She’s not making herself a subject, even through she does name one of the stories after herself.”
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While Bakic acknowledges that growing up in Tuzla, the site of a 1995 massacre, informed her writing, that doesn’t mean war has to be her main subject.
“I didn’t enjoy the wartime experience in the least, so I don’t like to dwell on it. I use some of these bad experiences as a literary prop, but I don’t go overboard: it can easily become ugly and too personal for my taste.”
“Things that happened before the fall of Yugoslavia in the ’90s and after the war in Bosnia ended, are much more meaningful to me than the war itself.”
As with many works of surrealism, there’s a subtle element of social criticism present in Bakic’s work, as well as plenty of humor.
“Humor is essential. It’s a great companion to more sinister feelings I also love to write about. When I was a teenager, I loved reading Isaac Bashevis Singer, and I think he’s the main reason why I have this notion that any major tragedy must be funny at the same time: darkness isn’t dark enough without humor.”
“Sex goes incredibly well with this mix, and I truly enjoy writing about female sexuality from a feminist perspective.”
Writing Across Borders
In addition writing fiction, poetry and essays, Bakic also translates literature from English, French, German and Spanish into Croatian.
“I think national borders are the biggest fiction best-sellers. Balkans are here to show us why: same language, same people and traditions, same politics, hard borders. It doesn’t make any sense. Natural borders, I can understand, but if you try to forcefully divide people so you can manage them more easily, keep an eye on them — there’s nothing “normal” or “natural” about that. Reading what others have to say helps us see through this imaginary divide.”
“I, for one, owe a lot to American literary history and theory, to your TV shows and movies, American popular culture in general. Culturally, the United States aren’t as closed off as they are politically: there aren’t any hard borders in literature and science. Money divides us though. When ideas are free, they have the most impact.”
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“So, I find translators to be of the utmost importance for any open and free society, because they work to minimize divisions, and to keep us all well-informed and safe from prejudices.”
Zoble, the translator of “Mars,” said students are often hesitant to pick up another language, perhaps because of how languages have been taught in the past. “I really believe studying another language brings you close to your own language …. It puts you in touch with your own experience and your own language as much as it draws a connection to something different.”
Bakic said that learning other languages also facilitates different, inventive uses of one’s native language.
“I don’t take any words for granted anymore. It really is empowering and useful: comparing the same idea expressed differently in English, for example, and in Croatian, French or any other language. It gives you clarity. I’m truly sad I don’t speak Korean, Japanese or Mandarin, because I’m convinced that Hangul, Chinese characters or Kanji would alter the way I think about literature, in a good way, and help me to be a better writer.”
For her reading at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Prairie Lights, Bakic will be joined by Zoble and Slavic languages scholar and visiting professor Ellen Elias-Bursac, who wrote the “Mars” afterward.
• What: Asja Bakic will read from her new story collection, “Mars,” and have a conversation with translator Jennifer Zoble and Slavic languages professor Ellen Elias-Bursac
• When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
• Cost: Free