Goran Simic has nothing against butterflies, but he can't write about them.
In 1992, Serbian nationalists began their siege of Sarajevo. Simic was a well-known and well-read author, and no friend of the nationalist cause. He had criticized it in print, citing the xenophobia and hatred that came with it. The bookstore he owned and his family home were shelled and destroyed. His mother and brother, and many friends, were killed.
"I'm so happy to see my face every morning," he said, over a plate of spicy fish at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Edmonton recently. "Oh my, look, you're still alive. Once you survive horror, everything else is wonderful."
First, the late Susan Sontag helped get him out of Sarajevo. Then PEN Canada, an organization committed to protecting freedom of expression, brought Simic to Toronto in 1996, where he was a senior fellow at Massey College. At that time, his English was poor. He was one of the best-known writers in the former Yugoslavia, but once his fellowship year at Massey College was finished, and he emigrated to Canada, he was obliged to find work.
He found himself as a labourer in a Holt Renfrew warehouse.
"There is no country in the world that wants a poet," he said.
"They want a bricklayer or a computer scientist. Many authors get lost."
Since last fall, he has a salary and an office at Stanley A. Milner Library as Edmonton's 2011 writer-in-exile. He has been, for much of his career since the siege of Sarajevo, a "war poet," interpreting what he had seen, heard and smelled during and after the siege of Sarajevo - his sophisticated, multicultural hometown, an Olympic city, "the Jerusalem of Europe" that was reduced to what Simic has called an "ashtray."
It has been his job to ensure, in some small way, that what happened is not forgotten. "They're still digging up bones," he said.
In the fall of 2006, at Litfest, author John Ralston Saul challenged the City of Edmonton to host a writer-in-exile. As a university city, an arts city and a city of immigrants, it seemed a natural fit.
Few of the people who heard his speech knew what a writer-in-exile was. But a week later, then-city councillor Michael Phair, John Mahon from the Edmonton Arts Council, professors and administrators from the University of Alberta, MacEwan and Athabasca universities, and representatives from organizations, such as the Writers Guild of Alberta and Litfest, were meeting over a cheese tray at City Hall with the executive director of PEN Canada on speakerphone.
Less than a year later, Edmonton's city council chambers were jammed to welcome Jalal Barzanji, an Iraqi writer, as Edmonton's first writer-in-exile. Saul returned to make a rather astonished victory speech, suggesting that Edmonton's collaborative model - currently between the University of Alberta and the Edmonton Arts Council, with an office donated by Edmonton Public Libraries - could be a model for the rest of the country. Next came Rita Espeschit from Brazil and Sheng Xue from China.
Barzanji, Espeschit and Xue were enormously active in the role. So is Simic. His poetry and short stories have been published around the world, his opera librettos - a long collaboration with British composer Nigel Osborne - have been performed all over Europe. His puppet theatre shows are now classics in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A full-length documentary has been made about him, When You Die As A Cat. Simic and Serbian writer David Albahari, who has lived in Calgary since 1994, are two of the most famous writers in Canada - though few Canadians have heard of them.
This weekend, Simic will launch his first book of poetry written in his adopted language, a marvellous collection called Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman.
He is currently working on a book of short stories about Alberta and translating Canadian writers into Serbo-Croatian. We met on one of the coldest days of the year, and Simic was the only person in downtown Edmonton who wasn't complaining about the weather. Like butterflies, weather isn't among his preferred themes.
He has been thinking about his experiences as a persecuted writer and as a war survivor, as he watches the demonstrations in the Arab world.
"It's a great victory for freedom of speech," he said. "It's proof that people can change history.
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