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Road to redemption: Kenan Trebincevic on 'The Bosnia List' (Q&A/event details)

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Kenan Trebincevic.

Mr. Trebincevic is the author of The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return (A Penguin Books Original, $16.00), along with Susan Shapiro, and will visit the Westport Public Library this Saturday afternoon, March 29, at 3 PM. (See event details below.) He was born in the town of Brcko in 1980 to a Muslim family that was exiled in the Balkan War and then came to the United States in 1993. Trebincevic attended college in Connecticut and became an American citizen in 2001. His writing has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, and Salon.com; he has also been featured on the American Public radio show “Bosnia Unforgiven.” Trebincevic currently works as a physical therapist in Greenwich Village and makes his home in Astoria, Queens.

The Bosnia List was published in February and has earned critical acclaim. Publishers Weekly noted, “The great instruction of this important work is the author’s moral transformation that helped him replace hate with grace, if not forgiveness.” Further, Booklist called the tile “A mesmerizing tale of survival and healing” while Kirkus praised it as “An engaging memoir of war trauma and the redemption to be found in confronting it.”

From the publisher:

A young survivor of the Bosnian War returns to his homeland to confront the people who betrayed his family

At age eleven, Kenan Trebincevic was a happy, karate-loving kid living with his family in the quiet Eastern European town of Brcko. Then, in the spring of 1992, war broke out and his friends, neighbors and teammates all turned on him. Pero - Kenan's beloved karate coach - showed up at his door with an AK-47 - screaming: "You have one hour to leave or be killed!" Kenan’s only crime: he was Muslim. This poignant, searing memoir chronicles Kenan’s miraculous escape from the brutal ethnic cleansing campaign that swept the former Yugoslavia. After two decades in the United States, Kenan honors his father’s wish to visit their homeland, making a list of what he wants to do there. Kenan decides to confront the former next door neighbor who stole from his mother, see the concentration camp where his Dad and brother were imprisoned and stand on the grave of his first betrayer to make sure he’s really dead. Back in the land of his birth, Kenan finds something more powerful—and shocking—than revenge.

Now, Kenan Trebincevic invites readers to journey with him on the path to redemption …

1) What inspired you to write THE BOSNIA LIST?

I went to the University of Hartford for college and graduate school and now have a great job as a physical therapist in Manhattan. Two years ago, a patient named Susan Shapiro came to me with a serious back injury. She’s an author who taught journalism at night at The New School. She wouldn’t focus on the exercises because she was always busy grading stacks of student essays. When I looked over and jokingly asked her 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 her student Danielle Gelfand 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, and 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 “keep writing” and invited me to come to a book seminar she was teaching where a William Morris agent was the guest speaker. He was impressed with my essay and agreed with Susan, that I should expand it to a memoir. She told me to try to write a short flashback scene next. I said I couldn’t, then went home and 43 pages came pouring out of me that night.

I realized that I’d never made sense of how and why we’d survived. Susan quoted Joan Didion’s line “I write to find out what I think.” That turned out to be true. The more I wrote, the more I’d remember another story where I’d find one more road block I needed to find my way around. I felt like I was in a time warp, constantly regressing to 12, the age I was during the war. I had to relieve what happened to me, but this time make sense out of it as an adult. I was totally immersed in the story. It was addictive and soothing at the same time. Ultimately I felt a moral obligation to tell the truth of what happened, not only for my family, but for my people, and for anybody who has been persecuted because of their religion, race, or nationality.

2) Tell us about your collaboration. How do you feel that Susan influenced your storytelling abilities?

Susan is Jewish and lost family in the Holocaust. My late mother’s favorite book was “Schindler’s List,” where we took our title from. My mom used to tell me that Jews understood what happened to Bosnian Muslims in 1992 because they’d also been the victims of a genocide in Eastern Europe.

Susan has published three memoirs and teaches first person writing. She taught me how to balance my energy and emotional temperature while feeling totally exposed to the world. She'd say, "Writing is a way to turn your worst experience into the most beautiful,” and “God is in the details.” She encouraged me to be vulnerable so a reader could be fully immersed in my body and mind, feeling my emotions. She joked that she became my therapist and my Jewish mother.

3) You have experienced being Muslim and living in both Bosnia and America. What are the challenges of such an upbringing? How did you overcome them to forge your own identity?

In 1993, we were sponsored by Connecticut Interfaith Council consisting of churches and synagogues. Reverend Don Hodges of The United Methodist Church in Westport welcomed my family and me at the JFK airport in 1993, and housed us in his home for four months until my parents found jobs and could afford our own apartment to rent. In Connecticut, I met my first Protestants and Jews. Friends, colleagues and mentors off all backgrounds were supportive of my past and sensitive towards me. My middle school principal introduced me to class making sure that students embraced me, while teachers stopped me in the hallways to ask me how I was doing. University of Hartford's director of physical therapy, Dr. Catherine Certo, accepted me to the program and always made sure that I stayed on the right path to graduate. I've never experienced any form of religious hatred through high school or college in America. A Jewish oncologist from Westport, who took care of my mother when she had breast cancer surgery and subsequent treatments, made sure she never received a bill. Becoming an American and assimilating to life here broadened my view of other cultures while maintaining my own. While I'll always be proud to be a Bosnian Muslim due to our difficult past, I also free immense pride to be an American citizen and enjoy my double identity.

4) It’s been said that past is prologue. How has revisiting your roots allowed you to embrace the present (and future) – and what lessons did you learn that can benefit future generations?

While I started out feeling like a young victim who’d lost his happy childhood, I came to understand how amazingly lucky we were. After reliving what happened to me by writing this book with my co-author, I began to feel more lucky than bitter. One lesson I learned that could benefit future generations is how important it is to embrace foreign-born children and help them assimilate, like I did. Many immigrant parents, like mine, need multiple jobs to support their families. So in many cases teachers, mentors, and coaches spend more time with these kids. I was immensely lucky to grow up in such a kind community where other parents and teachers went out of their way to make me part of their lives. I’ll paste a piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal that exemplifies how important this assistance can be. It can change the whole path of your life.

"Two Brothers Who Took The Assimilation Path" WSJ 4/27/14

By KENAN TREBINCEVIC

"I hope they're not Muslim," I told my brother, Eldin, when we first saw the pictures of the Boston bombers. We soon found out that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev shared our religion, as we'd dreaded, when my Jewish college roommate jokingly texted: "Hey, would you please tell your people to stop blowing things up?"

I laughed, in sadness, but soon felt completely unnerved by how much the Tsarnaevs' story mirrored our own. My brother and I were born six years apart, and we're two foreign-born-and-named, athletic, Islamic brothers from difficult backgrounds in Eastern Europe, where we had experienced persecution and then been generously taken in by Americans. The 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed in the police shootout, was the eldest, more strong-minded child, like Eldin. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now in a federal medical detention center in Massachusetts, looked up to his sibling, as I always looked up to my strong-minded brother.

Boxing is big in Chechnya and nearby regions where the Tsarnaev family has its roots, and the brothers excelled in the sport, like their father. Martial arts are big in the Balkans, where we're from. Our dad owned a gym in our hometown of Brčko, Bosnia, where he trained athletes and where Eldin and I won brown belts and awards for karate.

The Tsarneavs were caught in the confusing war between Chechnya and Russia that erupted in 1999, and they wound up emigrating in 2003 to Cambridge, Mass. Caught in the bloody war between Bosnia and Serbia, factions of the former Yugoslavia, my family moved to Westport, Conn., in 1993.

Like the Tsarnaevs' father, our father suffered setbacks to his career in America, and to his health. While Anzor Tsarnaev reportedly toiled as a mechanic for $10 an hour, our dad, Senahid, slung poultry at a fast-food chicken place and took other low-paying jobs. While the Tsarnaevs' mother, Zubeidat, did facials at a Boston spa and later at their home to make ends meet, my mother, Adisa, baby-sat and found work at a data-processing firm. We too had little money, and it was hard to get jobs without connections or language skills.

Yet the Tsarnaev boys became angry, alienated young men who never quite assimilated into their new country (Tamerlan said on Twitter: "I don't have a single American friend, I don't understand them"), while my brother and I made many friends in the U.S. and wound up on the more successful side of the American dream.

There is a well-documented connection between unhappy, disenfranchised immigrants who can't connect and crime and terrorism. When I first moved here at age 13 I felt as lost, estranged and resentful as Tamerlan Tsarnaev appeared to be. In the days since the Boston bombing, I kept comparing Eldin's and my circumstances with the Tsarnaevs' to see where our paths diverged and what saved us from becoming embittered.

I was struck by news accounts that the Tsarnaev parents moved back to Russia, where they separated two years ago. One of their daughters lived in New Jersey, and she admitted that she hadn't spoken to her brothers in years. I was fortunate that my immediate family of four stayed together, first in Connecticut until my mother died of cancer in 2007, then in Queens, N.Y., where my father, brother and I now live blocks away from each other.

Even when I moved into my college dorm room at the University of Hartford and Eldin moved to the Stony Brook campus in Long Island, we spoke to our mother, father and each other daily—either by cellphone or email. I'm convinced that remaining a close-knit family kept my brother and me saner and safer. The Tsarnaev family, by contrast, seemed constantly roiled—by war, immigration, work and financial difficulties, serious illness and a marriage breakup. Throw in radical religion and, in retrospect, it seems a recipe for disaster.

Perhaps because my family survived the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans to wipe out Muslims, my family members—unlike Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his mother—did not seek solace with any specific religious figure or house of worship. While we remained proud of our heritage, we were sponsored by the Interfaith Council in Connecticut, a group of liberal churches and synagogues.

When we arrived in 1993 at JFK airport, we were met by the Rev. Don Hodges, a Methodist minister. He drove us to his Westport home, where we stayed for four months. It's not surprising or wrong for immigrants to deepen their focus on religion in a strange land. But I would speculate that in our case we felt such gratitude to the people of differing faiths who helped us that our chances of assimilating, and succeeding, in America were enhanced.

When my mother found a lump in her breast, the late surgeon Dr. Malcolm Beinfeld at Norwalk Hospital operated on her. Dr. Beinfeld, who was Jewish, told us that the Bosnian genocide against Muslims reminded him of the Holocaust. We never received a bill for the surgery or for my mother's subsequent radiation and chemotherapy.

A Protestant dentist, Richard Sands, asked my mother: "What does your son need?" At 13, I was taken to an orthodontist who gave me braces and took care of me for two years. I was embarrassed but deeply grateful that he never asked for a dime.

On my first day of school in Westport, Dr. Glenn Hightower, the principal, and a member of Mr. Hodges's church, introduced me to the seventh-grade English class with his arm draped around my shoulders. He explained that my family had been exiled in the Bosnian war, and he asked the other students to help me out. I had a foreign name, strange accent and could barely speak the language. I felt scared and pathetic, like a mutt waiting to be adopted. I was immediately befriended by Miguel Peman, a Catholic Spanish-American student, who offered me a seat.

When the school-bus driver who drove me home noticed that I had a long walk to Mr. Hodges's house, he introduced himself as Offir, from Israel, and dropped me off right at the driveway, making me promise not to tell anyone. Later, my Greek Orthodox soccer coach, Ted Popadoupolis, gave me rides to practices and games when my parents couldn't.

My brother and I didn't pursue sports with the dreams of Olympic glory that Tamerlan Tsarnaev apparently did. At schools in Westport, Norwalk and Hartford, a series of teachers and mentors helped us formulate a realistic career plan. They geared us toward a more feasible field than sports stardom: physical therapy.

We didn't experience the sort of disappointment and resentment that Tamerlan seems to have endured when his boxing dream went sour. Instead, sports teams gave us a sense of belonging.

Since my athletic father was a health nut, under his strong influence, my brother and I steered clear of the alcohol and drugs that seem to have plagued the Tsarnaevs—and might have fueled depression and hopelessness that, I would guess, twisted their judgment.

It is impossible to know what went on in someone else's childhood or what is happening in another's mind or heart. The Tsarnaevs took one path. My brother and I, despite our family's war displacement, persecution and years of poverty, thrived—but only with stable parents by our side, good jobs and help from many and diverse guardian angels. During a dark week, it was easy to forget that countless immigrants to America have similar stories to tell.

5) You are currently on book tour. How has this experience been for you – and what do you hope that attendees might gain from this writer/reader interaction?

I've re-connected with long lost family friends and found cousins in Toronto I didn’t know I had. Many emails from Bosnians of all ages said they were thankful that I’ve helped them reconcile their own past. A lot of immigrants say they’ve been through similar turmoil, trying to get jobs, learn the language and fit in. Emails from American readers have expressed their appreciation for explaining the complexity of a region they weren’t familiar with. Yet they’ve also related to certain parts – like when my parents were sick. At the first meeting with my Penguin editor Wendy Wolf, she told me she loved the part about how I held grudges. She said she holds grudges for so long she even holds them for other people. That’s when I knew I was in good hands.

***

With thanks to Kenan Trebincevic for his generosity of time and thought and to Lindsey Prevette, Publicist, Penguin Books, for facilitating this interview.

The author will appear at the Westport Public Library (20 Jesup Rd.) this Saturday afternoon, March 29th, at 3 PM. This event is free and open to the public and will be held in the McManus Room. Copies of The Bosnia List will be available for purchase/signing. For more information, read the event listing.

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