Girl at War by Sara Nović

Rapariga em Guerra | Sara Nović Editora Minotauro 2015





Quando comecei a ler este livro pensava que se tratava de uma autobiografia até porque está contada na primeira pessoa. Soube depois que o não era e fiquei algo desiludido. Afinal a autora não nasceu na Croácia mas sim na América. Os pais não morreram na guerra. Além disso a guerra nunca chegou a Zagreb ao contrário do que ela diz.

Tenho de reconhecer porém que o livro está bem escrito o que não é por acaso visto a autora ser professora de escrita criativa. Mas teria sido preferível contar o enredo na terceira pessoa.

A crítica do The Irish Times é extremamente dura exagerando talvez a negatividade na apreciação. Quanto às outras críticas parecem-me por vezes demasiado favoráveis.





The New York Times


JUNE 2 2015

‘Girl at War ’ by Sara Nović

By Anthony Marra 




By Sara Novic

320 pp. Random House. $26.


“You don’t need to experience something to remember it ” a former child soldier remarks in the final pages of Sara Novic’s outstanding first novel “Girl at War.” She’s describing how the memory of the Yugoslav civil war will be conveyed to future generations but she might also be describing the possibility that good literature allows: Charge language with enough vitality and its story will be remembered by readers a world away.

Before her descent into child soldiering Ana Juric was a normal 10-year-old in Zagreb Croatia but the breakup of Yugoslavia rendered normalcy a rare commodity. The diverse city reorganized on ethnic lines that cut through friendships and families and freighted every gesture with factional affiliation. The brand of cigarette between your lips and the length of stubble on your chin signaled your loyalties as clearly as a raised banner. With an eerie foreshadowing of 21st-century warfare civilians watched their cities burn outside the window and on the television screen.

All of this is narrated from a child’s perspective which tempers encounters with physical violence while magnifying their moral stakes. Ana and her friends jostle to take turns pedaling the air raid shelter’s bicycle-powered generator. They play war games that end only “when one team had killed the other in its entirety.” Novic builds the inner world of Ana’s childhood — as both puberty and paramilitaries loom just over the horizon — with the same vivid detail she gives the blockaded city.

The crucible that turns Ana from child to child soldier occurs on the way home from Sarajevo where Ana’s family took her sickly younger sister to be evacuated on a Medi­Mission flight to America. Here illness in the human body and body politic entwine. Serb forces block the road and lead Ana and her parents into the woods. In one of the most powerful scenes I’ve read in a long time Ana’s parents are killed but she is saved — though subsequent events belie any notion that she has been spared.

Several times Novic shifts between 1991 and 2001 by which point Ana has joined her sister in Pennsylvania and attends N.Y.U. With the stateside setting both prose and plot occasionally stumble into well-worn territory. Her adoptive family’s wiseguy uncles — including one named Junior — seem to have wandered in from an episode of “The Sopranos.” Her college boyfriend is as bloodless as a baked potato and their relationship feels incidental to the extraordinary Croatia chapters.

But this is also where Novic reveals the extent of her ambition and her novel expands to become more capacious more merciful than its war-torn segments might suggest. Ana’s younger sister is thoroughly American imbued with a spirit of “you can be whoever you want” pluralism so at odds with the rigid ethnic identification of Ana’s own childhood. She is too young to remember Croatia or the parents who sacrificed themselves for her making Ana the sole repository of family memory. Ana’s question is less how to speak the unspeakable than how to speak across a cultural gap so wide the unspeakable is unhearable. Nabokov once suggested that memory is the only real estate. In Ana’s case it’s also the only country from which emigration is impossible.

Throughout “Girl at War” performs the miracle of making the stories of broken lives in a distant country feel as large and universal as myth. It is a brutal novel but a beautiful one.

Anthony Marra is the author of “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.”

Thursday 11 June 2015 


Girl at War by Sara Nović review – when childhood lurches into nightmare


A young girl travels from the devastation of the Serbo–Croatian war to a new life in the US


Kapka Kassabova


The bulk of Anglophone literature that initially came out of the 1990s Yugoslav civil wars consisted naturally of the more immediate genres: historic analyses of the Balkans and graphic novels. Some fiction and memoir reached us in translation including the work of Dubravka Ugrešić Slavenka Drakulić and Semezdin Mehmedinović but not enough. Now a generation of novelists has appeared: the last children of Yugoslavia still close yet removed enough from the heat of collective trauma to create fresh narratives. Joining the stunning fictions of Olja Savičević Selvedin Avdić and Téa Obreht comes a debut novel by the young American-Croatian Sara Nović. I read it in one night.

The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes ” the 10-year-old narrator tells us. In the first of the novel’s four parts tomboy Ana describes what made her world precious (parents and baby sister her best friend Luka) and how that world collapsed in just a few months. Disintegration begins with a cancelled holiday because of road blockades; then the newsagent’s dark question about cigarettes “Serbian or Croatian?”; the missing kid at school; the first refugees from out of town and the appalling whispered details (one man’s wife was taken by a paramilitary with a necklace of human ears). Nović follows the lurch into total nightmare all the way to the event that terminates the first section and Ana’s childhood. This is tough territory for any novelist and it takes guts to go there. This key scene is written with chilling restraint: in the unspeakable moment that crisp voice is devastating.

The young perspective is the novel’s principal charm but the tone is disrupted with too many overstretched exchanges anxious to tell us things we already know. This may be a problem of balancing the emotional pitch between the solemn adult and the fresh child-narrator. But when it works it’s terrific: “As a side effect of modern warfare we had the peculiar privilege of watching the destruction of our country on television.” In a childish war game “Those who died with their limbs bent in unnatural angles and could hold their positions the longest were the winners.” At her best Nović is a poet: “Summer gave way to fall in the abrupt unbeautiful way Zagreb always changed its seasons”; and later at university in the US Ana’s sympathetic professor “seemed to know I was not at home in the world”. I longed for more of these perceptive asides a sensitivity to language that is particularly striking if you read Nović’s fascinating reflections on what it’s like to be a deaf author.

In the next section of the book “Somnambulist” Ana is suddenly 20  living in the United States with adoptive parents and a false persona that begins to crack. In many ways the rest of the novel is a variation on the traditional emigrant narrative of fragmented selves but with the added baggage of trauma. Ana’s discussions with her professor about WG Sebald reference this explicitly though the novel doesn’t need the literary sign-posting. The American scenes are tart with tragicomedy and Ana’s drive for psychic resolution is compelling. There are memorable set pieces involving an intellectual college boyfriend criminally well-meaning UN workers the pitfalls of language (“I didn’t know what soccer was but was pleasantly surprised to find out it was football”) and the impossibility “to contain Gardenville and Croatia in the same thought”. Nović sustains the non-linear structure and while some of the American territory is a little familiar (reminiscent of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno which is no bad thing) that’s part of Ana’s sorrowful insight – once you lose what you love the rest of the world feels a bit empty. But there is more for her to discover on her return to Croatia including old friends and new facts about Chetniks and Ustaše in the Serbo-Croatian conflict. The attempt to extract meaning from the conflict doesn’t go further than this but perhaps it doesn’t need to – this is Ana’s story and she is a satisfyingly complex character of such resilience and heart that I couldn’t sleep until I had followed her to the end.

 Nović excels at distilling visual poetry from action scenes and there is one section in the middle that steals the show when the shellshocked young Ana drifts into a twilight community and becomes an accidental combatant. “Suspended between living and dead” Ana has become mute except for the mantra: “Forward grip gas chamber cleaning rod bolt frame magazine function check.” Nović has breathed fire and ice into these pages. Immersing herself in the darkest materials she has given us the real stuff dystopian fantasies are made of.



MAY 27 2015 1:00 PM

This War Happened: A Wrenching New Novel Relives the Disastrous Croatian War


by Meredith Turits


For most Croatia is an idyllic vacation destination rather than a ravaged portion of the former Yugoslavia in which more than 100 000 died in the 1990s. I’m among the throngs who dreamily look up flights to Dubrovnik once a week. To Sara Nović that it’s considered paradise is strange and almost incomprehensible. As we touch on the country’s commercial allure in passing she laughs nervously and I see her visibly shift across the table from me at a Lower East Side dive bar. “I want people to know that this war happened to people ” she says.

False narratives stoked the fire of the Serbo-Croat war the conflict at the center of Nović’s newly released debut novel  Girl at War (Random House). The Yugoslavian conflict one of the most violent in Europe since World War II was fueled by stories: from large-scale Serbian genocide denial to small-scale rumor-spreading like the tales of explosives in piles of sidewalk trash described in the book. (A Croatian friend told Nović about these—she still doesn’t know whether they actually existed or not.) She points me toward the Bosnian Book of the Dead which lists 97 207 names of the dead from the war; it’s a project that aims to debunk one of the many myths that ensnarl the period.

It’s fitting then that Nović 28 uses fiction to tell the nation’s story. In alternating time periods that mirror the selectivity of memory  Girl at War follows protagonist Ana Jurić throughout her childhood in war-torn Yugoslavia to the safe haven she finds with her adopted family in suburban Philadelphia—but Ana can’t so easily shed the Croat identity that has in ways left her scarred. At one point in the novel as a 20-year-old student at New York’s New School Ana stands defiantly before a packed room at the United Nations gesturing at a slide presentation of two camouflage-clad teen girls clutching assault rifles. “There’s no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia ” she says. “There is only a child with a gun.”

This isn’t the life Nović knew—she didn’t spend her childhood in 90s Croatia—but rather it’s one she pieced together from family and friends’ stories. She spins those she has been told from multiple angles into a narrative she hopes fosters empathy on all sides which she says is the responsibility she bore when writing about history.

Nović tells me about visiting Croatia in 2005 as a 17-year-old guided by two native lifeguard friends—the trip that spawned her novel—weaving in and out of the cities that peppered the coastline as well as inland Zagreb where the more intense fighting took place.

The war had been technically over for almost 10 years . . . but people there felt abandoned by the West at that point and they were really keen to talk about it.” Nović shares glimpses into the anecdotes she collected: Croat women raped by Chetnik soldiers to birth Serbian children as a tool of psychological warfare; her Croatian high-school friend in Philadelphia diving under a parked car after hearing the fire whistle fearing he was under siege. They’re nearly all images that spring alive from her pages. Nović cut a description of a McDonald’s in Zagreb she heard about several times because she couldn’t confirm whether it closed after the first air raid or if it hadn’t even arrived until after the war—interviews didn't line up enough. Despite loving the idea of McDonald’s closing up shop she scrapped it because she didn’t want it to resonate inauthentically. Girl at War may be fictional but it’s far from false.

Having grown up in the U.S. to Croatian parents Nović is American and emphatically not Ana—she will undoubtedly be sick of answering how their lives are parallel by the end of her press cycle. But like Ana who begins the story as a 10-year-old and matures throughout its pages both in body and mind Nović says her understanding of the situation in Croatia grew more nuanced as she wrote the novel. But she maintains her skepticism of the U.N.’s effectiveness:

Everyone talked to me about the way the intervention of the U.N. was pretty ineffective in these wars ” she says. “There has to be a way to work with people

 instead of coming from above and implanting [troops]. That didn’t work. I don’t think it works anywhere.” That skepticism is one of the reasons Nović pits Ana against the U.N. in one of the book’s powerful scenes. In that moment a piece of Nović within Ana peeks through.

As to the efficacy of interventionism however politics aren’t so black and white—something Nović tells me that she and Croats have learned the hard way. “To reduce that war to an ethnic war is to miss of the crux of it ” she says. “No war is easy to explain.” Her dive into the conflict’s gray areas—both its subtleties and emotional side effects—is what makes Girl at War masterfully layered and at times wrenching. 

Meredith Turits is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New Republic The Paris Review Daily Electric Literature and more.



Sat May 9 2015


Girl at War by Sara Novic review: notes from a phony war-torn childhood


This clumsy debut novel never for a moment convinces in its setting characters or conflict says Eileen Battersby


Ana the narrator of this oddly detached debut novel is two people. There is the 10-year-old tomboy who plays football and dashes about Zagreb until life there changes. And then there is the introverted sleepless college girl living in New York terrified of nightmares and a decade on wondering about her past.

Neither of the personas proves that memorable although the younger one is far more sympathetic than the caustic grown woman who keeps everyone she meets including the reader at arm’s length.

Girl at War draws loosely and unconvincingly on the war in Croatia which began in 1991 following the break-up of Yugoslavia. If ever a novel needed to be written in the third person it is this one – if only to convey a plausible sense of trauma and reduce the amount of clumsily reported conversations.

Dialogue is not a strong point. There is a staccato quality about the content as well as the prose; the narrative is both under- and over-written; no mean feat and one that makes it impossible to engage with the story.

The opening section of the book is the best and the passage quoted on the back jacket is taken from the most dramatic sequence. But Sara Novic has a flat prose style. Her novel was written while she was completing a creative writing course at Columbia University and it reads as an assignment. It is laboured and predictable and even Novic’s decision to intersperse the narrative with an unambitious flash-forward and flashback technique does not create any mystery – the pieces have already fallen into place long before she offers them.

Of course the war is what gives the novel its relevance yet many readers will be bewildered by the author’s apparent confusion of Croatia with Bosnia. The war-torn version of Zagreb that appears here never existed; Zagreb was far away from the frontlines and was not subjected to food rationing and air raids (although in the early months air raid sirens did sound). There was no aerial bombardment in Zagreb.

In fact from 1992 there was little bombing even in neighbouring Bosnia because of a UN Security Council resolution prohibiting unauthorised military flights over Bosnian air space. Daily life in Zagreb was not disrupted by sniper fire; nor were there water shortages or ongoing power cuts. War was concentrated along Croatia’s eastern borders with Serbia and Bosnia.


Hazy history


Novic who was five when the war broke out is referred to as having lived in the US and Croatia. Perhaps this explains why the sense of Croatia is so hazy and described through adult eyes. Also irritatingly obvious is her habit of providing extraneous details without ever explaining anything.

It does not matter if a character has a line of acne along his chin; it would be more interesting to find out how an impoverished family such as Ana’s succeed in getting a seriously ill child – Ana’s little sister – alone to the US for urgent treatment courtesy of an unspecified medical program.

But then if the writing were stronger and less inclined to clunky phrasing such as “Not wanting to wake Brian I compelled myself to stillness for a minute or two tried to match the rise and fall of my chest with his” or “I snuck a peek down at the Converse high-tops I’d pulled on in a last-minute fit of groggy defiance” one might not be so demanding of clarity.

Early in the narrative Ana is still recalling events through a child’s viewpoint. She adopts the tone of a newsreader:

“As a side effect of modern warfare we had the peculiar privilege of watching the destruction of our country on television. There were only two channels and with tank and trench battles happening across the eastern counties and JNA ground troops within a hundred kilometres of Zagreb both were devoted to public service announcements news reports or political satire a burgeoning genre now that the secret police were no longer a concern. The anxiety that arose from being away from the television the radio our friends’ latest updates from not knowing panged our stomachs like a physical hunger.”

“Panged our stomachs” is jarringly inelegant while the language used certainly does not ring true coming from the memories of a 10-year-old.

On the way back home from leaving the little girl with the unspecified medical experts the family is stopped at a checkpoint. A massacre follows and the action moves on 10 years to Ana now living as an American in the US wary of discussing her past.

Now three years into her college course Ana is about to address some UN delegates. It is obvious that the woman she meets must have had something to do with getting her into the US. Their exchanges are impersonal. But then Ana is remote and unforgiving; she appears to see offence in the most simple gesture.

Ana’s contact hands her a cup and a pastry: “I . . . took a swig of the coffee that turned out to be hot chocolate. I choked it down; I usually took my coffee black. The sweetness stuck in my mouth and it dawned on me that for Sharon I would always be 10 years old.” This statement is delivered as if it were hugely important.

Even more disconcerting is the next revelation: “In America I’d learned quickly what it was okay to talk about and what I should keep to myself. ‘It’s terrible what happened there’ people would say when I let slip my home country and explained that it was the next one to Bosnia. They’d heard about Bosnia; the Olympics had been there in ’84.”

Actually as the 1984 Olympics were held in Los Angeles it is far more likely that Americans would have been more aware of the Summer Games than the smaller Winter ones which were held in Sarajevo.

Ana continues: “In the beginning adults operating somewhere between concern and nosiness had asked questions about the war and I spoke truthfully about the things I’d seen . . .They’d offer their condolences as they’d been taught.”

Her contempt for Americans in general not least her hapless foster mother only serves to further alienate the reader. She reserves actual dislike for the improbable Sharon. After lunch they part as a cab pulls over and Sharon sets off. “I watched her into the cab but she was typing something on her Blackberry and didn’t look up again.”


Return home


Fortified by Rebecca West’s classic study Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) Ana breaks up with her boyfriend and is at last prepared to return home to a country she no longer knows. Yet she has no difficulty in immediately teaming up with her old pal Luka with whom she has had no contact.

They are both 10 years older and it is unlikely that Luka and his father would walk around at home in their underpants in front of any young woman never mind a childhood friend who has reappeared after a decade away. Nor is it likely that Ana would recall a woman from her past snapping at the height of the war 10 years earlier “Petar for chrissakes just tell her already.”

Girl at War is a novel not a history but it does profess to be about Croatia. Any foreign correspondent will pick factual holes but the reader needs to believe. I couldn’t penetrate the sense of random anecdote. Ironically Novic published a far more credible short piece (Notes From a War-Interrupted Childhood) in 2013 which though based on similar material has far more urgency. Non-Croatian Aminatta Forna’s recently Impac-longlisted The Hired Man (2013) conveys a better sense of Croatia.

There are so many impressive works coming from Croatian writers in translation that are stylistically superior such as Olja Savicevic’s recently published Farewell CowboyS. – a Novel About the Balkans by Salvenka Drakulic about a Bosnian woman in the rape camps; and Selvedin Avdic’s Seven Terrors which wittily and surrealistically explores the postwar communal trauma of Bosnia.

Most of all Novic lacks the immediacy authenticity and rich multicultural nuances that make the finest of the writers of Croatia Bosnia and Serbia so exciting.


Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent




May 14 2015

Book review: Girl at War

Sara Novic’s debut novel is a superb examination of conflict and its aftermath writes Malcolm Forbes.


Malcom Forbes


In one of her essays collected in Café Europa the Croatian author and journalist Slavenka Drakulic writes about the crimes her country committed as a fascist puppet state during the Second World War and her generation’s inability to learn from history.  “Perhaps ” she goes on “this is the reason why we are now with this recent  war sentenced to live in the past.”

That recent war provides the backdrop to Sara Novic’s powerful debut novel at War. The book’s protagonist Ana is 10 when the Croatian War of  Independence breaks out and 20 when she returns to her homeland after having  embarked on a new life in America.    

Too young to be condemned to “live in the past” Ana is instead deeply scarred  by it. Her story is an important and profoundly moving reading experience.    

“The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes.”    

From her arresting and somewhat cryptic opening line Novic sets the scene and  builds the tension. Ana is a tomboy who enjoys long summer days outdoors with  best friend Luka in the Croatian capital. But Serb soldiers are advancing on the  city rumours abound about concentration camps and Slobodan Miloševic is on TV  looking like “a dejected bulldog” and ranting angrily about “cleansing the  land”. When the presidential palace is bombed Ana her parents and ailing baby  sister Rahela find themselves under siege.    

Just when we think the novel will be a tale of one family fighting for survival  Novic changes direction topples our expectations and then floors us. After a  trip to Sarajevo to put Rahela on a flight to America for urgent medical care  Ana and her parents are halted by a roadblock and a gang of drunk AK-47-toting  Chetniks. Hauled out of the car and bound with barbed-wire cuffs they are  herded into a group of other prisoners and led in a procession into a dark  forest towards the mouth of a large pit.    

Girl at War;is being marketed as the lead fiction title of 2015 for  Random House US and Little Brown UK. It is too early to debate whether it is  the standout debut novel of the year but it will be interesting to see if  another novelist particularly a first-time novelist can match Novic’s bravura  gut-punching opening section.    

Once we get our breath back we discover that in the next section Novic has  fast-forwarded a decade. Ana is now a student in New York and reunited with  Rahela. She tells the story of her ordeal during the Croat-Bosniak war to the  UN; to her friends and to boyfriend Brian she lives in denial claiming to be  New Jersey- born and bred.    

But over time that stage-managed deception along with a genuine yearning to  reconnect becomes too great forcing Ana to make a much-postponed return  pilgrimage to Croatia to come to terms with her own personal tragedy and learn  the fates of the loved ones she left behind.    

Novic has lived in America and Croatia and writes with authority about both.  However her Croatia sections are far and away the strongest in the book.    

Her American interlude creaks with the usual Old World versus New World clichés  and is hampered further by attempts to convey Ana’s crippling trauma through  overdone referencing of W G Sebald and desultory treatment of 9/11.    

Swapping the land of opportunity for a decidedly straitened Croatia Novic does  two interesting things with Ana for the remainder of the novel: she has her tour  post-war Croatia culture shocked by her own culture and overcome by alternate  waves of nostalgia and torment; and in an extended flashback that comprises the  grittiest grimiest section of the book she shows Ana as a child-soldier  battling to stay alive.    

As we accompany Ana on her journey we travel through a range of emotions. There  are the twitchy nail-biting initial scenes of air raids shelters and sniper  fire all of which serve as prologue to the terrifying round-up in the forest.  There is poignancy in Ana’s unanswered letters to Luka excitement as she is  smuggled out of the country by UN peacekeepers and horror at what she is made  to endure and later live with.    

“[D]o you think it makes sense to open old wounds?” Brian asks her. “Open them?”  Ana replies.    

“History did not get buried here ” Ana tells us at one point. “It was still  being unearthed.”   

Girl at War; is a superb exploration of conflict and its aftermath and a  stark reminder that while ceasefires and peace treaties may end the fighting  they don’t always end the suffering.


Malcolm Forbes is a freelance ­essayist and reviewer.

Wednesday 23 March 2016 16.00 GMT


Topography of a novel: Sara Novi on haw she wrote Girl at War

Sara Novic


The author tells the story behind the story of her debut novel about the Serbo-Croatian war

By Sara Nović for Topography of a Novel by Blunderbuss Magazine part of the Guardian Books Network



Every book has its own texture materiality and topography. This is not only metaphorical; the process of creating a novel produces all sorts of flotsam–notes sketches research drafts–and sifting through this detritus can provide insight both into the architecture of a work and into the practice of writing. Blunderbuss is excited to run this series in which we ask writers to select and assemble the artifacts of a book in a way that they find meaningful and revealing. In this installment  our own fiction editor Sara Nović tells the story behind the story of her debut novel Girl at War  out in 24 March in paperback in the UK.

Girl at War tells the story of Ana Jurić a ten-year-old girl whose life and nation are upended by civil war. Moving through time and space – from 1991 to 2001 from Croatia to the US and back again – the novel artfully renders the weight of war and the persistence of memory. It is at once harrowing and intimate unrelenting and understated. Through Ana we see history not as textbook abstraction or as intrigue in the halls of power but as a fact seared onto the hearts of real people.

–The Editors at Blunderbuss Magazine


I write by hand so pieces of Girl at War live in all these notebooks.

 I think this is the first appearance of what would become the novel’s characters in a notebook from 2005. The project was a short story first in the third person about a young boy’s traumatic past and his inability to deal with it in America years later. The character Damir eventually became Ana the protagonist of the novel and the point-of-view switched from third to first person but much of the original description from this story remains the same and serves as the basis of the climactic scene in the end of the book’s first section.

Road and highway construction were big points of contention in Yugoslavia in the period leading up to the war. Those in power in Belgrade were keen to build roads horizontally across the country to provide Serbian access to the Adriatic Sea leaving Croatia largely unconnected with itself from the north to south. Because this was arguably a factor in inciting the conflict and because certain roads facilitate key plot points in the novel I did a lot of research on which roads did and didn’t exist in 1991 and have a few maps in which I tried to work out Ana’s family’s journey from Zagreb to Sarajevo.

Ana is very much in love with Zagreb as a child and one of the ways she escapes the pressures of war and family life is to go out on the balcony and look at her city. I wanted to paint an authentic balcony view for the reader from the neighborhood in which Ana lives so while visiting Zagreb I drew out an accurate panorama and worked my descriptions off this picture.

Additionally the page on the left shows what became the opening scene of the novel (though I didn’t know it then).

The novel’s working title for a long time was “Oba su Pala” or “They Both Fell.” (It’s now the title of the first section of the novel.) The phrase comes from some of the most famous footage of the war what which was played on the news on a loop as a sign of Croatia’s victory despite limited resources. In the novel Ana happens to watch it on TV with her mother and I watched it on YouTube about fifty times to write the description of it.

One of the things I struggled with while writing this novel was the structure. Because of the nature of trauma and memory I knew I didn’t want the narrative to be chronological; however I was having trouble finding the right place to start the story. The big break came when during the MFA I expressed my organizational frustrations in a meeting with Sam Lipsyte. Sam hadn’t read the novel but he graciously let me talk at him about it for a while and he drew this picture as I did. When he handed it back to me I realized what I had to do; the four humps became the four sections of the novel as they are now. I should’ve known it would take a semi-illegible map to sort it out given how many I’d drawn over the course of writing the book!


Sara Nović is the fiction editor of Blunderbuss. She is a writing instructor at Columbia University and with Words After War.





Saturday 23 May 2015 09.00 BST

What it’s like to be a deaf novelist


Sara Novic


Sometimes I turn off my hearing aids and dip below surface of the sound. Sara Nović explains the challenges of being a deaf author and why deafness is still used as a synonym for stupidity.

My first novel has recently become an audiobook to which I will not listen. The characters have been assigned voices and accents and inflections that I’ll never hear. This is not a complaint exactly; to have written a book that someone wants to publish in any and all formats is a writer’s dream. But to hold some disc or drive that contains a thing I made transformed into a new thing I can no longer understand is a predicament in which few writers find themselves.

This disconnect will appear with increasing frequency as I embark on a series of literary events following the launch of my novel. As an audience member I have been to my share of readings in New York. I go because I am in love with books; I go to be with my friends. But even as a spectator they require a lot of concentration and sometimes when I’ve worked myself into a cross-eyed headache I turn off my hearing aids and dip below the surface of the sound let myself drift in the quiet. At my own events I won’t have the choice to opt out.

So far I have read in public only three times each distressing in the regular ways (an audience!) with the added terror of exposing an increasingly unknowable part of myself – my voice. I can feel my words in my chest and mouth but can’t be sure of what they sound like out in the world. As far as I’m concerned my voice has no echo; it does not stick to the tape recording. What does it mean to perform for an audience with such limited control of your output?

Books have always provided me with a sense of solace and companionship when I found the hearing world overwhelming. Growing up I filled notebooks with the things I was afraid to say aloud. Libraries too seem designed for me – a place where one isn’t supposed to talk equality under the rule of silence.

Since my hearing loss was progressive I was educated in spoken English alongside my hearing peers; later when that became too difficult I learned American Sign Language (ASL) and used interpreters in class. When given the choice between the two my preference is by far for ASL in which at least I do not feel self-conscious. But having been brought up in the hearing world with an English education and now in turn writing and teaching in English I spend much more time immersed in English than I do in ASL. My ASL is fluent and I can dream and think in sign but it is not my primary thinking language.

In reality the language – or linguistic modality – in which I am most fluent is written English. When I’m writing my mind and body need not be translated for a hearing audience. I don’t worry that I am unclear that my lips and tongue will revert to their unpractised ways under pressure or that I’m speaking at the wrong volume for the background noise I cannot gauge. When I’m reading a book I do not have to guess in the way that I do when lipreading – paper never covers its mouth or turns its head.

And yet there is a disconcerting entanglement between speech and the practice of being a writer. I frequently see advice from famous authors – Stephen King  among them – that you absolutely must read your own work aloud in order to edit it properly. Without listening to your words in your own voice you can neither fully understand what you’ve written nor hear how to fix it. At best this kind of advice leaves me feeling a little left out but at worst I wonder: am I making mistakes a hearing writer wouldn’t?

Another part of writing that seems inextricable from hearing is dialogue. Someone who writes dialogue well is said to “have an ear” for it. I don’t think I write dialogue well. Whether this is just your average writerly paranoia or is linked to the physiology of hearing loss I can’t say. Relevant here is a cultural divide between the deaf and hearing worlds with regard to frankness. By nature of its visual modality sign language is more direct than spoken language; there are no euphemisms in ASL. Further the threshold for “rude” or “inappropriate” is much higher in the deaf world. Stemming perhaps from the days before SMS and email when it was harder to keep tabs on a deaf person’s wellbeing there is no shame in bluntly discussing one’s feelings plans and bodily functions with friends or even acquaintances.

In the writing world any trace of this directness translates as “bad dialogue”. “That’s not how people talk ” my workshop mates have said. And of course they’re right.

In English the phraseology of silence and deafness overwhelmingly signifies the negative. To hear is synonymous with understanding – “I heard about that” or “I hear you” suggests the speaker’s knowledge comprehension or capacity for empathy on a given topic whereas across the headlines cries for justice or peace often “fall on deaf ears”. So as long as deafness is a synonym for stupidity or wilful ignorance d/Deaf and signing people will continue to be “othered” into a position of inferiority. (The capital “D”is used to refer to those who associate themselves with the Deaf community; a minority are medically deaf but choose not to associate with that community.)

In the face of all this it’s perhaps unsurprising that the works of fiction written in English by d/Deaf writers can be counted on one hand. It is important to note that sign languages foster a rich tradition of storytelling and slam poetry but books written in English – many d/Deaf people’s second language – are few. On the other hand this means the experiences of Deaf characters present a rich and relatively unmined cache of material with which to work. Plus being a Deaf writer means I can write anywhere without being distracted – I wrote most of my first book on the New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line.

And while writing in a language that works against me can sometimes seem a less-than-ideal occupation what is the job of a writer if not to reinvent language or at least to create the space and tools for the silenced?

I am reminded of Chinua Achebe quoting James Baldwin who expresses frustration with the limits of the language: “My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way … Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it had only learned to imitate it.” Achebe goes on to say: “I recognise of course that Baldwin’s problem is not exactly mine but I feel the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English.” And while Baldwin’s and Achebe’s problems are much bigger than mine I can look at the successes of these literary giants and extract a hope that English with a little work can carry the Deaf voice too.