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

By | 15 September 2022

I was twenty-five when I started visiting Bosnia. My biological father had been reaching out to my sister and me for years, but he was easy to ignore. His Facebook messages were a jumble of letters that we couldn’t decipher, consonants hugging each other too close, surely, to make words. This was cruel of us, but we didn’t know better. We were on a mission to forget and what we had in place of memory was cruel, too. I replied to him only once, when I was seventeen. By then our cousins had started reaching out on his behalf, filling our inboxes with formal English and defeat. Like him, they were easy to ignore. We had been back to Bosnia only once, and had seen no one on my father’s side of the family, except one aunt who my mother had allowed to sit with us in a slastičarna for an hour or so, my sister and I stony in her presence. We had heard things about her, too. When I was seventeen my father asked me da li želiš upoznat svog oca and I used google translate to reply: ti ni si moj otac. The first thing I said to him in twelve years. You are not my father.

It was years before we spoke again but my father is forgiving, of my words and my long silence both.

(How we started speaking is not an interesting story. It involves a throwaway comment and all the questions that it raised, a burr in the needlework that, once tugged, sent the tapestry unravelling.)

I start visiting Bosnia; I start (re)learning the language. This is unavoidable. My father does not speak English. He lives alone in a village of twenty, thirty people, few of them young enough to have learned English in school. When we are not at an aunt’s house or driving around the country trying to fit twenty years of living into three weeks, we sit together in our house, the one he built for us before the war, and fill the years and silence with nouns. He holds up a banana and tells me banana, an apple and says jabuka. He places his hands on the table, the couch, the chair – sto, kauč, stolica. Outside he gestures wide and gives me nebo, oblak, drvo, rijeka, cvijet. I repeat the words faithfully and when I am able to remember them the next day, my father’s smile is wide. I write poetry from this, which is a bridge and a return, and a remembering.

The first time I return, I stay for three weeks. I cannot yet make sentences: I cannot conjugate, I do not know the seven cases. I put words into what feels like an order but they bear no relation to one another and leave my relatives blinking and uncertain. English structures my tongue and Bosnian crumbles under its weight. I ask for things I didn’t want, set aunts scurrying for meals with a remark about the weather, misplace the possessive and hail my cousins instead, throw open doors to a thousand questions, none of which I can answer. When my cousins are not around to translate for their elders, the quiet swells. I fill it with izvini and ne razumijem and ne znam until it feels like they are the only words. They are the truest words.

My family, too, is forgiving of my silence. My aunts brush it away and carry on, showering me with questions, offers of more coffee, another slice of baklava, another hurmašica. I am passed around the room, pulled into laps like a child and nestled under arms. I am twenty-five and I do not mind the indignity. They ask for photos of my childhood, of my sister. They tell me stories about our early years, chortling at my grumpy indignation, my sister’s early tottering. My uncles are calm and gruff, quietly enjoying the scene, smiling from the corners of their mouth and offering an occasional wink in solidarity. My aunts are garrulous, my cousins too. They expand to fill any space, their voices battling for dominances across the couch. Occasionally they are reprimanded, someone growing suddenly aware of my westerness and imploring the others to calm down, to stop pestering me with silly questions, to act decently, only to be immediately reminded that I don’t mind, do I? She’s one of ours, after all.

Once, before I go, I make my family laugh. Wanting rosehip jam, I ask for asshole jam. So pleased with myself that I could formulate the question, I switch an i for a u and send twelve people into peals of laughter. It is the first story anyone has to tell of my adulthood.

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