Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Conversation about War and Publishing with Jasmina Dervisevic-Cesic

Interview by Susan O'Neill

Before she turned 20, Jasmina Cesic lost a home, a husband, two beloved brothers and her right arm. Now, 13 years later, she has forged a new life in the US as a wife, mother and businesswoman. The River Runs Salt, Runs Sweet is a memoir of her life in Bosnia before and during the civil war that tore apart the former Republic of Yugoslavia. The title of the book is taken from the Koran.

SO     The River Runs Salt, Runs Sweet details your life in Bosnia from about1988 to your emigration to the US in 1993. You wrote the book in 1994. It's an honest, harrowing account of loss and survival; I'm amazed that you had the presence of mind to put your experiences on paper so soon after you'd lived through them—and in English, a new language to you. How did you accomplish all that so quickly?

JC     It was all in my head when I came here. It was all I could think of. I studied English at Harvard Extension for four months; in 1993, people were dying every day in Bosnia and I would go every day to Harvard Square and people there were happy. It made me cry. The book was a healing process. I wanted to write in English, to tell everyone in my new country what was happening so they could understand it. My English was bad; I gave what I was writing to my best friend Joanna, and she helped me with the words I didn't know.

SO     I noticed that the book credits Joanna Vogel and her brother-in-law Bruce Holland Rogers in an "as told to" role.

JC     Joanna suggested I show it to Bruce because he is a writer. The stories are all mine; he did not change what I wrote, but he moved pieces of them around so one story did not end before another began. He thought it would be more exciting like that, like you see in a novel.

SO     The book is indeed exciting, and the war was very much in the news in 1994. So why didn't it sell?

JC     At that time, Zlata's Diary was published—

SO     That was the account of the 12-year-old girl from Sarajevo; it was touted to be the Bosnian Diary of Anne Frank.

JC     Yes. All my rejection letters basically told the same thing: The book was very well-written and it was a true testament to the strength of the human spirit, but after Zlata's Diary and other books on Bosnia, they didn't think it would be easy to sell a book such as mine. My agent advised me to change my story and to leave Bosnia out of my book. "Bosnia is so far away," she said. "Make your book to be just about you, a woman who experienced a horrible tragedy and yet stayed complete and strong both emotionally and spiritually." She said that is what would draw American public attention and sell the book.

SO     And you said?

JC     I told her, "Shawna, as much as I would like to get rich, my book is not about selling. It is about telling. It tells an important story. And it is certainly not just about me." I simply used my own tragedy to get the story out to the rest of the world: what can happen when a madman is elected, when we are presented with an idea that war is the only solution to our problems and the only way out to a better future, and when hate, prejudice, and ignorance are chosen over love and humanity. Mankind suffers, children die, and it makes no difference to which side they belong.

SO     And so it remained unpublished until 2003, when Bruce Holland Rogers brought it out through his own small press, Panisphere. I understand that Bruce just sold the rights in Pakistan, to be published in Urdu and English. Congratulations!

JC     I am more than happy that my book is finally going international. I am disappointed that no country in Europe where I come from has published it, but hopefully now that Pakistan is going to, maybe they will, too.

SO     Back to the book: When it begins, you are what we would consider a "typical" 15-year-old in Visegrad, Bosnia, obsessed with clothes and friends and teenaged crushes. By the end, your losses include not only home, family and health, but your innocence. From what you've told me of Bosnia, it sounds as if your progress through the war paralleled that of the country itself.

JC     Bosnia was always a very mixed country. We had every ethnicity. Before the war, a typical 15-year-old had no religion when it came to friendship. Your best friends were kids on your street or in your class or on your team, if you played sports, no matter what their religion was. However, as soon as the war broke out, our Serbs friends became strangers. I still sometimes ask myself if they ever were true friends, or how come they changed so much over night.

SO     What is Visegrad like now?

JC     Visegrad now is a city free of the Muslim population that was more than 70% before the war. It is just sad for my family and me when we walk down those familiar streets, knowing that in every house on our street someone is missing because they were killed, burned alive in the war or slaughtered or thrown off the bridge like my younger brother. You see some familiar faces—like I saw a Serb girl that went to my school; she gave me a look but said nothing, and I didn't say anything either. My homeroom teacher, who is Serb, was living in my apartment until he had to escape recently because he is a war criminal and murderer. It just looks like a dead city now to me.

SO     Here in the US, no one alive today has ever had to live with the chaos of a war fought on our soil. How do you feel this affects the way we act toward other countries?

JC     I think if the US ever fought a war on its soil it would do anything to maintain the peace. The US already has big social problems, so can you imagine if it had economic ones, too, and then add to it hundreds and hundreds of orphan children, thousands and thousands of displaced people, building destruction, totally damaged roads and highways, water problems, not enough food to feed its population and everything else that goes on in a war. We still remember pictures from New York City when the towers came down, and then New Orleans last year. So many New Orleans residents are still living somewhere else, and the city is still under construction and reconciliation, the towers in New York City are not rebuilt yet; therefore, I don't have to give you a picture of this country if it had experienced the same destruction as war has produced elsewhere. In this case, peace means freedom.

SO     In the book, you do not depict the UN Peacekeeping forces in a positive light. In fact, the incident where your husband died and you lost your arm happened because someone was trying to blow up a UN vehicle; you and those around you who were injured and killed were merely bystanders. After the explosion, UN soldiers passed by without helping. Later, your escape from Sarajevo depended upon your running over UN-guarded ground in the dark of night, dodging their barriers and lights. If they weren't there to keep you safe, what was the point of the UN?

JC     I don't know. Maybe to make us die with full stomachs? The UN failed in Bosnia, and they know that, and the world knows that. They have not done what they were supposed to do and what they were there for. They made six safe zones in Bosnia, and they said if they demilitarized those zones they would protect their residents from the Serbs. In 1995 one of them, Srebrenica, fall into the Serbs' hands, and more than 9,000 Muslims were killed in just a couple of days. The UN didn't do anything to protect those people; they basically just left the city. A few days later, also in 1995, another "safe" zone, Zepa, fell into the Serbs' hands and again, the UN did nothing. You can do some research on the internet in regards to this, and there are many books about Srebrenica because it was the biggest massacre since the World War II.

SO     Even in the midst of the war's horror, your book tells of instances of extraordinary goodness and kindness.

JC     Humankind somehow always manages to come together in the midst of the horror of war. Only in situations like those will you see strangers helping strangers out of pure innocence without some other agenda on their mind.

SO     What would you like readers to get from your book?

JC     I would like them to know that no matter what, life goes on. Love, friendship, sharing, knowing are beautiful things. The more we share, the less ignorant we are. Knowledge just makes us stronger and more understanding and more loving. Don't let others change you because they are the way they are. Love can conquer the world and hate can just destroy it. Hate makes you miserable and love makes you happy.


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