Thursday, October 18, 2007

Goran Simic interviewed by CBC


It's good to see that Goran is back: an interview from the CBC. Wish they could mention the 2 books he's done with us since Immigrant Blues. We're supposed to be doing a new collection of poems -- or even a Selected pre-war Simic -- next year,though it's been hard to pin Goran down.

Goran Simic Interview

Goran Simic(photo: Luna Simic) Goran Simic was born in Bosnia and has published many volumes of poetry, drama and short fiction. His work has been translated into nine languages and been published and performed in several European countries. One of the most prominent writers of the former Yugoslavia, Simic and his family were trapped in the siege of Sarajevo. In 1995 they were able to settle in Canada as a result of a PEN Freedom to Write Award and he became a resident at the University of Toronto's Massey College as part of their writer-in-exile program. PEN's Writers in Exile Committee supported Simic's integration into the Canadian writing world, and he and poet Fraser Sutherland collaborated on a short-run collection of poetry called Peace and War, as well as a theatrical piece. In 2003, Brick Books published Simic's first full collection of poems in Canada, Immigrant Blues , translated by Amela Simic. He continues to write and give readings.

Can you describe the situation (or circumstances) that led you to make the decision to come to Canada?
I wouldn’t be surprised if nobody remembers collapse of Yugoslavia 15 years ago, division of Bosnia forced by elected national parties and then, three years long siege of my hometown Sarajevo, the horror which lasted longer than any nightmare. Simply, because the wars succeed each another so quickly now that we’re in danger to forgetting them as new ones come along. So, as politically engaged writer who kept idea of multi-religious and multinational Bosnia alive, naturally I was named as ideological traitor from those who have the same national background as me. I lived with my children in the city which at the end of war resembled more of ashtray than of once respected city who used to host Winter Olympic Games in 1984. At the end of war I drove red line and find just 11,000 people killed during the siege, two new graves (my mother and brother), destroyed family house and my bookshop, tired of spending more time in graveyard than on desk. I knew it’s time to go, and to follow natural instinct which say, “It’s better to be wounded than dead”, the moment I saw my little family resemble walking skeletons. And personally, most decisive moment was when I realize that I am not afraid to die anymore. I left the city as writer who lost battle but not war, with my children and few bags of books including my own to remember who I am.

Thanks to late Susan Sontag I was settled with family in Italy for one year and after that PEN Canada did the best to make Canada my destination. Twenty years ago if someone predicted that I will settle in Canada I would call him lunatic.

What was your life as a writer like in the former Yugoslavia?
I live in Toronto almost 12 years and I am afraid that I have the same syndrome of romanticizing the past as most exiled writer has that need. But the truth is that ex-Yugoslavia resembled, a little, Canada being home for different nationalities living together for hundreds of years. As professional writer I enjoyed social and health security, society didn’t measure writer by how much money they earn but by what is final product, state politics was left oriented but with back door opened to “mild capitalism” and political system was suspicious of anyone dare to change masses point of view. But as the writer I can’t complain running literary magazine, having my own bookshop and easily having a lot of readings over the border of Yugoslavia. One of the reasons why I stayed so long in Sarajevo lay in the fact that I didn’t want to believe illness of destruction, or fate of Yugoslavia will ever come to Bosnia. I was wrong. And I don’t hide it. You can read it in my poetry.

You were one of the most prominent writers of the former Yugoslavia. When you moved to Canada you had to start almost anew as a poet and writer. Can you describe what this transition was like?
I read biography of great Canadian poet Gwendolyn McEwan and while reading one thing in her life just hit me as a metaphor of my survival as a writer: Once she was penniless and went to the nearest bank to borrow some money but she was told by clerk that she has to bring something to prove to the bank that she is eligible for loan and what she did was something that I would do. She went home and come back to the same clerk with her ten published books and what she got from clerk was rejection: it’s worthless. I can find myself in that moment when she was told that she spent whole life writing something worthless. I had the same feeling coming here with my books published somewhere else. The sense that nobody really cares who you are was challenging.

Since I arrived to Toronto I was attending more celebration speeches than voices who can offer me a job just to survive. It was really painful moment in which I realized that nobody expected poet to come but future carpenter, mechanic or someone who can contribute to society by paying taxes. The only job I could find in that time was position of manual labourer in Holt Renfrew wear house, just next to airport. It’s painful period, not because description of my job was that company needed just strong arms but not my brain, but because the time remaining to my writing after I arrive home wasn’t enough. The funniest thing was that once my selected poems was published in Holland I took the flight on Thursday to have a book launch in Anwerpen next day just to get back to work on Monday to behave the way my job description was. At the end it wasn’t that bad experience ‘til I was told that executives don’t like my article published in “Globe and Mail” arguing with the way big companies laid off simple workers before Christmas holidays, just to avoid paying them salary for Christmas break.

But anyway, my major concern was that me as exiled writer had concern that the speed I was learning English is appropriate to the speed I am forgetting the language I came with. Plus, over that, as a writer I was
dealing with issue of dictionaries of English Language which became my Bible in sense that I followed belief that if you jump in the river don’t pretend you are not swimmer. Will I ever be able to learn English properly? I have doubt. But I have a need to express myself in the language I live with for such a long time that I feel oblige even just to try. I did experiment with some of my poems and it worked and sounded good, and after that I wrote entire opera libretto in English and it sounds good, and now I can’t stop myself thinking about to write new poetry book in English. Language is like a glue: once you get into it you can’t get rid of it.

Since moving to Canada you have published several books of poetry, been shortlisted for awards, and founded Luna Publications. Where do you get your drive and motivation?
This a great country if you want to get lost or to start new life from the beginning. On the other hand it’s terribly difficult to replace your past, beliefs, and continue with your life and profession. Here exists a huge gap between friendliness and politeness…how most people describe Canadian mentality…but you can get lost in that gap easily looking for friendliness. Cactus can survive Northern Pole temperature only in room temperature. Coming here I knew that I will become kind of hybrid writer with roots deep in the past and head in reality and I simply knew that I can’t afford myself to stop because there’s too many things I still have to say which I can’t say in some other forms like delivering pizza or carving. I guess it’s question of how much energy you have personally and how much heart do you have to give. And I am truly thankful to my dear Canadian friends, I would be half of person without them. I always believed that publishing is on my way. This is not about money because as things go only suicidal people jump in restaurant and publishing business, which I experienced both, but that pleasure publishing the voices that you give a chance nobody can measure with money. There is a “mission” in everything man does, little like a bug or big like giraffe, but “mission”.

How has PEN Canada assisted you as a writer? What impact has their support had on you?
PEN Canada was my first step and I am really grateful to PEN people working to get me here and it’s huge list of people I should thank. As much as I am grateful to late Susan Sontag who did her best to organize it. If sometimes in future PEN finish the mission and cease to exist it will be a moment that we can say that world is a perfect place. But I am afraid we are fare from that point. I was one of the founders of Bosnian Pen and for me PEN is conscience of the time we live in.

Immigrant BluesYour writing has been translated into nine languages. How, if at all, does translation change the writer’s intent or meaning?
I have so many problems with nuances lost in translations. Sometimes I feel happy not knowing so many languages but I believe that if writer have strong idea what to say and how to say, there is no bad skilled translator who can make it less valuable. I am sad only if some reader tells me that meaning of some of my writing was twisted in translations, or printing errors. I have so many objections concerning some translations and “versions” but I try not to talk too much about it because I highly respect translators as ambassadors who don’t care about state borders. Pity, here in Canada some cultural institutions, avoiding to finance translations, behave like there is nothing interesting out of Canadian border. I am afraid that America and Europe is more open to introduce and learn from the voices out of English speaking countries.

What, if anything, are the differences writing in your native tongue versus writing in English?
Sometimes I dream in English, sometimes in my dreams I speak in my native tongue. And I have the same problem if I can’t remember some word to express myself in my dreams as in reality. Few years ago I did experiment writing some of my poems directly in English, and that poems sounded the way I wanted to hear it. It happened that publisher from Serbia asked me to translate those poems in Serbo-Croatian language (which in fact doesn’t exist officially) and after I did it, it sounded to me so plain and with so little blood in veins that I was almost ashamed. This is a writer’s nightmare. Recently I wrote entire opera libretto in English and I liked the way it sounds in English as in Bosnian as well. Who knows, maybe I am getting better bridging that gap but definitely the worst exile writer’s nightmare is that the progress you do in other language is on the same level as regress you feel in the language you were born with.

Why did you decide to become a writer?
Poetry language, I believe was my first language I feel comfortable with in sense expressing myself. As a school kid I wrote poems and publish it in magazines even at that I wanted to become painter. But nobody in my family was big fan of arts. My mother would come to my room in the middle of night to turn down the light because she was afraid that I will lose my sight reading so much. Later on, when I was in my twenties, my father was proud to read my name in newspapers that I was awarded for poetry. Mother, almost illiterate, would spend nights reading my books trying to figure out what I that missing between the poetry lines that she couldn’t comprehend. Sometimes after my twenties my father tried to convince me to get some steady job and to write poetry in my spare time. But it was too late. I was already infected. And I still can’t get rid of that infection. Since then I was infected by other forms like drama, short stores, librettos, as well. No cure for me.

What books or authors have most influenced your life?
There is one book I clearly remember was the book I read by myself first time. It was Pale Alone in the World, book for children that influenced me most. It’s about one boy who wake one day alone in the city and without control of parents he could take a freedom to drive streetcar and to eat sweet as much as he wanted. At one moment he realized that he doesn’t enjoy freedom anymore because there is nobody around him that he can share that happiness with. After that I introduced myself to the huge family of world writers learning more than giving. Sometimes I ask myself the same question and still can’t find out who’s writing influence me most: Yates, Brecht, Borges, Popa, Celan…Lennon, Cohen, or Radicevic, Crnjanski, Andric. I would say: everybody. But going to my maturity I learned that I always loved poems more than authors. Even I never separate individual life of authors from their poetry.

What advice would you give to writers starting out? Would your advice differ for those who live in countries without as many freedoms of speech? If so, how?
1. Don’t be afraid of who you are. But don’t look at yourself in the moror too long because that person you see is not who you are.

2. Don’t give up. But make balance asking yourself: am I writing just because it’s easiest way to express myself? Only you will know the answer. But have on your mind that if your readers find the answer that only you know, you have to start asking yourself the same question you started with.

3. Who am I to give you advice?

1 comment:

Gabrielle de Montmollin said...

Yates? is he realted to Yikes?

p.s. hope you are recovered from pneumonia and other ills.