Kenan Trebincevic’s family immigrated to the United States from Brko, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1993 when he was 12 years old to escape the war.
He now lives in New York and is its co-author the world between A dramatic, gripping novel for children aged eight to 12 that makes her family’s wartime experience accessible to young readers. It is based on his co-authored adult memoir, Bosnia list.
Trebincevic spoke to BIRN in an email interview about his memories of Bosnia during the war and how he adapted to life in the US. He explained that by sharing his story in his books, he met his wife Mirela, and this summer they celebrated their son’s first birthday with their extended family in their hometown of Sarajevo.
“By facing my past, I found my future,” he said.
BIRN: What vivid memories do you have of the Bosnian War?
Kenan Trebincevic: In 1993, my family and I surrounded the TV watching the political upheaval. Like many others, my parents naively did not believe that everyone feared that this war would come to our city.
I remember the sound of the first gunshots and us hiding in our apartment for months. My karate coach came to our door to throw us out of the apartment; His ultimatum was “Leave in one hour or be killed”. Later he took my father and elder brother to a concentration camp. Before that, my elementary school teacher held a rifle to my head.
What was it like coming to the US, learning a new language and adapting to a new society?
I was an angry teenager who wanted revenge. At first, I was scared, bored, and lonely of my new environment in Connecticut. I was stuck on the news, wanting an update on the war. Fortunately, I met kind teachers and made a few close friends who were sensitive and supportive of my past. I played soccer and used sports as a bridge to absorb American culture and thus succeed in school. Fortunately, I picked up the language quickly.
Your first book was a memoir Bosnia list, about your experiences as a survivor and refugee. How did you come to tell your story? How did your understanding of your experiences change as you wrote about them?
My co-author Susan Shapiro, a Jewish writing professor, was a physical therapy patient of mine. She was grading papers and not paying attention to her exercises. I asked sarcastically if the assignment she gave her students was to write about what they did on their summer vacation.
She told me that the first assignment she gave her students was to write three pages on their most outrageous secret. I laughed and said: “You Americans, why would anyone want to reveal it?” Susan said it was healing and the editors wanted unusual voices. That night she sent me an essay her student had written about her father who was a Holocaust survivor.
The next time Susan came in for physical therapy, I showed her the first three pages I had written. It was about returning to Bosnia for the first time in 20 years and running away with my neighbor who had stolen from my mother. I kept writing and showing her more pages and she sent me to an editor she knew. Thus my first essay was published in ‘The Reckoning’ New York Times Magazine.
Then I sat down with literary agent Kirby Kim to publish a seminar she was teaching. He found a bright penguin [book company] Editor, Wendy Wolf. I told Susan that I couldn’t write the book without her, because English wasn’t my first language, and I was working full time. So we decided to shake it up and work together. When she told me that “the pen is mightier than the sword”, I was taken aback, I had no idea that was a famous quote.
It turns out that writing books is the best way to preserve memory and the best revenge for all the crimes our old neighbors and friends have committed against innocent citizens. In telling this history through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy The world in between, I gave voice to our young generation. The greatest gift the book has given me since I met my wife as a result of storytelling is my wife and my son.