Kenan Trebincevic’s family immigrated to the United States from Brcko, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1993 when he was 12 years old.
Now he lives in New York and is a co-author The world between a dramatic and engaging novel for eight to 12-year-olds that makes his family’s war experience accessible to young readers. It is based on his co-authored memoir for adults, List of Bosnia.
In an email interview with BIRN, Trebincevic spoke about his memories of Bosnia during the war and how he adjusted to life in the US. He explained that he met his wife Mirela through telling his story in his books, and this summer they celebrated their son’s first birthday in his hometown of Sarajevo with his extended family.
“Facing my past, I found my future,” he said.
BURN: What vivid memories do you have of the Bosnian war?
Kenan Trebincevic: My family and I huddled around the TV watching the political turmoil of 1993. Like many others, my parents naively did not believe that this war everyone feared would come to our city.
I remember the sound of the first gunshots and the months we were hiding in our apartment. My karate coach came to our door to drive us out of the apartment; His ultimatum was “Leave in one hour or be killed.” Later, he took my father and my elder brother to the concentration camp. Before that, a primary school teacher had a gun to my head.
What was it like coming to the US, learning a new language and adjusting to a new society?
I was an angry teenager who wanted revenge. At first, I was scared of my new environment in Connecticut, bored and lonely. I was glued to the news and wanted updates on the war. Fortunately, I met kind teachers and made some close friends who were sensitive and supportive of my past. I played soccer and used sports as a bridge to absorb American culture, and that’s how I thrived in school. Fortunately, I picked up the language quickly.
Your first book was a memoir called List of Bosnia, about your experiences as a survivor and refugee. How did you come to tell your story? How has your understanding of your experiences changed as you write about them?
My co-author, Susan Shapiro, a professor of Jewish writing, was my physical therapy patient. He graded papers and did not pay attention to his exercises. I asked sarcastically if the assignment she gave her students was to write about what they did during summer vacation.
She told me that the first assignment she gives her students is to write three pages about their most embarrassing secret. I laughed and said, “You Americans, why would anyone want to reveal this?” Susan said it was healing and the editors wanted unusual sounds. That night she sent me an essay her student had written about her father, who was a Holocaust survivor.
The next time Susan came to 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 meeting the neighbor who kidnapped my mother. I kept writing and showed him more pages and he referred me to an editor he knew. That’s how my first essay “Report” was published in the newspaper The New York Times Magazine.
Then I sat in on the publishing workshops she taught, where I connected with literary agent Kirby Kim. He found a wonderful penguin [book company] editor, Wendy Wolfe. 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. Therefore, we decided to work together. I was surprised when he told me that “the pen is mightier than the sword”, I didn’t realize it was a famous quote.
It turned out that writing books was the best way to preserve the memory and the best revenge for all the crimes committed by our neighbors and old friends against innocent people. By telling this story through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy The world in between, I voted for our young generation. The greatest gift the book gave me is my wife and son, because I met my wife as a result of telling the story.