Everything I Don’t Know How to Say / sve što ne znam kako da kažem

By | 15 September 2022

When I left Bosnia in 2018, my cousin gave me a book of poetry, Bosansko-Hercegovačka Poezija. It’s a slim volume, bright purple with a pale lilac square on its cover. From it, a woman sketched in dark blue, a wide-eyed and startled dove at her breast, stares out. It was published in 1983, and is soft with its years and the hands that have held it. I still haven’t read it. I can’t speak Bosnian. Or rather: I couldn’t. Or perhaps: I can’t speak it well enough for this. When we left Bosnia, we left the language too. I was five and naš jezik became simply: a language. Not mine. Definitely not ours.

It’s not entirely true to say that I haven’t read it. I’ve flicked through it, glancing at names as though I might find one I recognise. I am ignorant of most things to do with where I was born but I know that I do not come from a place famous for its poetic tradition. Bosnia is not Japan or India or Germany. That’s not to say we do not have poets. Every place has poets. But Bosnia is a small country, and, to most, insignificant. It is smaller than Iutruwita/Tasmania with two million less people, positioned on the south eastern flank of Europe and tucked into obscurity with countries like (North) Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Bulgaria, Moldova. It is very easily forgotten.

If people are good at history, when I tell them where I’m from, they make that sympathetic expression, their eyebrows folding like hands in prayer. They tell me that they ‘remember the war over there’, as though it were possible to reduce what happened to us to ‘the war over there’. Well. I suppose it is possible. Our genocide is obscure and attention is cruel. Case in point: they will then often ask, sometimes with morbid curiosity sometimes with the regular kind, what I remember of it.

When this happens, all I can think of is all the things that I don’t. My grandparents, for example. Their faces, their voices roughed with cigarette smoke, their papery hands holding me close as I grumble an escape in their lap. No matter how many times I look at the photos, they slip away from me. Even their names. Too, my father’s face unworried by grief. How it felt to be thrown in the air by him, caught in free-fall and tossed again, light as fog over Jablaničko jezero. My father, young and whole, clasping my hand in the tall grass behind our house, off to look at the bees. We had kept bees but they’re gone now. The bees. The sound of the word Babo. Our house without the ghosts. Our language without translation.

(No one is interested in this; they want to hear about the bombs, the camps, the hunger, the bullets; not my dead grandparents, the other dead, the interesting dead.)

I have not read the poetry collection that my cousin gave me, but my eyes have skimmed across certain poems and I’ve read others aloud, though with awful incomprehension. I did find a name I recognised, Ivo Andrić, and felt satisfied, connected to my cultural tradition even if I have only ever known him as a novelist and our novelists do not have quite as much trouble as our poets (Aleksandar Hemon, for example). Like our genocide, our writing is obscure. It does not cross the border. Or rather, when it does, it becomes diaspora, which is to say it becomes hyphenated. This is not the same as diluted, but it can feel that way.

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