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Interview: Q and A with Kenan Trebincevic and Susan Shapiro, authors of ‘The Bosnia List’

Kenan Trebincevic and Susan Shapiro
Kenan Trebincevic and Susan Shapiro

Kenan Trebincevic was holding a grudge. Then again, he has reason to. In 1992 he was a happy, karate-loving 11-year-old when his Bosnian town segregated overnight in the Yugoslavian war, which ultimately killed 300,000 of his people.

His powerful memoir, The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return (Penguin, $16) chronicles how he confronted his past after emigrating safely to the United States, returning to Bosnia two decades later as a 30-year-old physical therapist and proud American citizen. He reconstructs what happened through the eyes of a Muslim child during ethnic cleansing and shows gratitude to his new home.

Trebincevic calls his debut book “A Muslim/Jewish story of healing” because the project started when he treated a Jewish patient, Susan Shapiro, a journalism professor at New York University and the New School and author who became his collaborator. They appear Sunday at Books & Books in Coral Gables.

How did the book come about?

Trebincevic: My 72-year-old widowed father desperately wanted to visit our homeland before he was too old. My brother and I felt like we couldn’t deny him this request. I pretended we were just doing it for him. But I realized it was time for me to face my past. While they reconnected with family and friends and visited graveyards to pay their respects, I had a different list. I wanted to confront 12 Serb neighbors who’d betrayed us.

The following month in New York, Susan became a patient. Out of boredom, she graded papers during exercises. I asked if the assignment was “What I did on my summer vacation?” She replied, “Actually, write about your most humiliating secret.” I laughed and said, “You Americans, why would anybody reveal that?” I found out. My first piece ran in the New York Times Magazine and attracted a literary agent.

Shapiro: I write on Jewish topics. My parents —who now live in Florida — lost relatives during World War II. I’ve reviewed many Holocaust memoirs. When Kenan told me that his father and brother were put in a concentration camp [Kenan was considered too young to be a threat] and everyone he knew turned on them because of their religion, I thought: He’s the male Muslim Anne Frank who lived to tell the story.

How did your collaboration work?

Trebincevic: English isn’t my first language, and I’d never written before. Susan asked a lot of questions. I felt as if I was in a time warp regressing to age 12. Reliving it with her as we wrote, I saw my past in a different way.

Shapiro: I said, “You fix my back, I’ll fix your pages.” It took two years, the exact time for my spine to heal. I joke that I became his Jewish mother and his shrink.

How did a revenge list of 12 grievances turn into gratitude?

Shapiro: When we started, Kenan was really negative. I said, “You can’t start and end a book with hate.” I pushed him, asked if he’d seen Schindler’s List.

Trebincevic: I recalled it was my late mother’s favorite movie. She’d rent it at Blockbuster for a dollar and cry, “That’s what happened to us.” As a resentful 15-year-old I asked, “What do Jews in World War II have to do with our Muslim family now?” Mom said, “Never forget the bad people who did us harm. But remember the good people who helped us, too.” Susan asked me to count exactly how many Serbs helped us escape. I was surprised to recall 12 who’d aided us, the same number of people who’d betrayed us.

Shapiro: Coincidentally, the same month in 1993 Kenan emigrated, I published a Newsday piece on an event to aid Bosnian refugees by PEN American Center. Joseph Brodsky, Wendy Wasserstein, Susan Sontag and other Jewish authors compared Slobodan Milošević to Hitler and warned, “Another Holocaust is happening in Europe right now.”

Trebincevic: I was awed when she showed it to me. Telling the story to someone Jewish made it easier. I felt like she understood what we went through.

The book got raves in The New York Times, O Magazine, NPR and BBC. Were you satisfied with its impact?

Trebincevic: Yes, publishing our story changed my life. Thousands of people have sent emails of gratitude and support. I reconnected with lost family members, and since Susan made me put in the line: “I never kissed a girl from home,” I’ve had some interesting marriage proposals.

Shapiro: I told him that, “Writing is a way to transform your worst experiences into the most beautiful,” and, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” He was awed by that. I had to tell him I’d stolen the line.

Jessica Milliken is a writer in New York.

Meet the authors

Who: Kenan Trebincevic and Susan Shapiro.

When: 4 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables.

Info: 305-443-4408; www.booksandbooks.com.

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