In The Cat I Never Named, teacher, research scientist, and activist Amra Sabic-El-Rayess tells her story of surviving ethnic cleansing during the 1990s in war-torn Bosnia, and the stray cat that became an integral part of her family and their survival. Sabic-El-Rayess spoke with PW about deciding how and when to tell her story, the power of education to uplift or diminish, and the importance of representation in the classroom and beyond.
Why did you feel your story should be shared with a young adult audience, rather than adult readers?
The simplest answer is that I was 16 when the war started and, to write about my own experiences in a way that is true to who I was then and how I was thinking about the war, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and racism, it was important for me to write in that voice. And I thought it was most appropriate for young adults, though I do think the book is very much a crossover with adult audiences because it touches on so many issues that are overlapping with what America—and the world—is experiencing today. Almost every chapter was written with laughter and tears, keeping in mind those who will be reading it who haven’t experienced the kind of visceral hatred that I lived through in Bosnia, and with the hope that I can warn America and the world from becoming places of hatred, genocide, and ethnic cleansing.
My own children, who are young teens, have been going through some difficult emotions and painful moments over the last couple years because they are aware of my background as a Muslim. My husband is also a first-generation immigrant and they have struggled with the way many people think about them or talk about them. So, writing this story was to help my own children, but also to help other young adults process what they are witnessing in terms of public protests, hatred, unrest, and social disintegration.
Have you long wanted to share your story as a memoir, or did you feel that now was the time?
I thought about writing the book for many years; the story has been in me and with me my entire life. Many times, when I would tell a story to make a point, my students at Columbia would say they hoped that I would write my story as a book one day, but there was actually a question that my younger daughter asked me a couple years ago [that made me write it]. She came to me and said, “Mom, what will happen to me and my sister if you and dad are rounded up and taken away, as Muslims and immigrants?” That was the tipping point for me because I was recognizing the same fears that I had prior to the war in Bosnia, within my own children. That jolted me. Yes, I was doing work in the classroom; yes, I was teaching my students about marginalization and discrimination; yes, I was traveling around the world giving lectures, but I had forgotten that I had a powerful story to tell and that I could deliver some of these messages to the age group that I was concerned were being affected by the narrative in this country.
The parallels between my story and what is happening in the United States are stark. I hope that teens will read this book and say, “This is something that’s happening in my community or to me,” and that they can recognize and be compelled to do something about it. I know many teens—and adults—feel helpless, but I think that by changing how we act towards others is an enormous step forward. I feel that a lot of people are blinded by hatred of the other; I want them to pick up and read my book and realize why they shouldn’t go there. It’s a one-way ticket to pain and violence and those who survive are stuck with it for the rest of their lives. It changes many of us; I became a constructive and productive person, but many are affected by violence and are unable to get out of the cycle. I hope that the book serves as a warning.
Was it difficult to slip back into the mindset of being a 16-year-old?
One of the reasons I didn’t write the book for a very long time is because it is a struggle to survive ethnic cleansing and genocide and live through some of the moments that I had survived, then live with and find peace with it. People often ask me, “Have you been cured of your trauma?” And, in fact, you can’t be cured of what you’ve lived through, but you can sort of learn to live with it; it’s a lifelong partner. I did worry about what would happen if I went back there. I had a lot of nightmares when I came to the United States; every night I would wake up to some sort of scene from the war. I was concerned that, if I went back into that intense whirlpool of emotions, I might never be able to come back. There were many nights when I would have a nightmare after I spent the day writing and would wake up in the middle of the night, but there was also this incredible, empowering element to it. Many times during the war, I felt that I was abandoned by the world; that we were forgotten; that I was going to die no matter what I did or what I thought or who was I was. The worst part was that I couldn’t do anything about it; I couldn’t change the trajectory of my life and I was powerless. Writing this book made me feel that no one controls who I am anymore; I control what I say about my life.
Your memoir is titled The Cat I Never Named, centering the feline that your family reluctantly adopts at the beginning of the war. Why did you choose to tell your story through this lens, with a persistent cat as a central character?
It wasn’t even a decision; she was such a critical component of our survival during the war, that I couldn’t have written my story without some of the moments where she played a crucial role. Today, in the United States, a lot of people are looking to adopt pets [during the pandemic] because there’s this unconditional love that comes from them. We weren’t looking for a pet. We could barely feed ourselves; my mom didn’t want the cat hair in the house; and we didn’t know if we were going to be executed. We didn’t want her, but she loved us so unconditionally that she found her way into our family and not only that, she was there during the most vital moments. I’ve taught statistics at Columbia, so I’m someone who appreciates verifiable facts and figures, but I also believe that Maci saved our lives countless times.
Only once I had written the story did I realize that her experience paralleled my own; she was also a refugee. We didn’t want her, just as I didn’t think I was wanted when I came to the United States. I thought I had nothing to offer, that I was a broken person with a broken language, with no money and nothing to bring to the table. Then I found love here from many strangers who appreciated and respected me for who I was, something I didn’t experience growing up in Bosnia.
Family, friendships, and community—what many would describe as a typical teenage experience—are, understandably, major themes in your story of adolescence before the reality of the growing unrest became undeniable. Why was it important to you to portray this in the book?
I think the only way one can get through a pandemic, a war, an extreme circumstance, or emotional loss of any kind, is if you find some form of love. Often, when a teen or adult in the United States reads a book about war, somehow only ugly things happen on the page, the characters are presented as different than the reader or are in a faraway land or another time. My goal was to have the reader realize, within a few chapters, that I was very much like any other teen and that I had a loving family, so that they can forget that I am different than them. And, in that process, I hope I can invoke empathy because I do think that when we give numbers of, for example, how many people have died from Covid-19, those numbers are forgotten, but powerful stories are not. So, I thought that this story should not only be a story of genocide, ethnic cleansing, pain, and suffering—things that might feel “other”—but also a story of unexpected love, of wanting to play volleyball, of going out and talking to my friends about school, and missing peer interaction. I craved those things. I risked my life, at one point, to cross a [frequently bombed] bridge to tell a friend that school was starting again; it was so meaningful to us to have those moments of togetherness. I think everyone realizes the value of that interaction in the United States today.
The importance of education was impressed upon you by your parents and fully embraced by you from a young age. As the U.S. education system undergoes the stress of the pandemic and society’s reckoning with racial injustice, do your past experiences give context or perspective? What message do you have for fellow educators?
In general, my view is that often education is this component in our lives that is assumed to be benign or have a positive influence, but right now we are facing the consequences of institutionalized racism in this country. As educators, we need to admit that there are problems in the education system; there are voices that are not being heard and stories not being told as a consequence of racism, and change really begins at the top. And, in the context of education, the top is schools of education, like [Columbia University’s] Teachers College and other well-known schools, where we teach educators who then go on and teach generations of young individuals. Diversity has to be more pronounced and present in the schools of education in terms of stories we tell and books we assign in our syllabus. This was one of the reasons why I felt compelled to write The Cat I Never Named. As a student, I never read a story, or solved a math problem, that had a character with a Muslim name. At face value, I was a successful student, but I knew I wasn’t looked at as equal to those who were non-Muslim and I think that many kids in America today feel the same way. Our country is demographically changing and it’s changing rapidly. It’s important that we incorporate these stories and voices into the education system in a way that I don’t believe has been done in the past.
You co-wrote this story with Laura Sullivan. What was it like to collaborate with someone on such intimate source material?
When I decided to write for a young adult audience, my concern was that, though I publish extensively, I had never written for this age group. I wanted to make sure that my writing was not restrained by my worrying about whether what I was writing about was appropriate and whether the gatekeepers in schools would approve. I needed to unleash my emotions and write, so I asked my agent who suggested Laura as someone who could guide me.
It’s amazing that [Laura and I] have never met and that we’ve only spoken on the phone twice. I joke to her that we should call each other more often. As many stories are included in the book, there are as many that were written and not included; Laura was essential to helping me narrow those stories to determine the arc of the story and deliver the right messages.
Was it difficult to choose which details and experiences to include in the narrative?
It was not a difficult process in that the book is mostly chronological. I’m not focused on the specific dates of events, however, because I didn’t want to write something that burdened the reader with unnecessary statistics; it was about the emotion and the power of the story.
The story reflects the national trajectory of what happened during the war, but there were moments where having someone like Laura debate a story was important. For example, there was a family member very close to me who was raped, whose story I wrote but ultimately did not include in the book because it was an extreme story in terms of the vivid details and because some members of my family did not want the most painful aspects of their lives shared with the world. I had to choose between telling a story that could serve an educational purpose and my love of my family and being respectful of their wishes; I opted for my family. Still, it was important to me to share certain details of how women and girls are affected differently in circumstances like war, when rape becomes a tool to dehumanize, demoralize, and exterminate.
How has putting your story to paper helped you process your experiences or better understand yourself?
One of the things I’ve realized, in part because of my [academic] work, is that we are creatures of hierarchy who believe in the legitimacy of education; it’s something that gives a stamp of approval to our views. Once education gives you legitimacy in society, it allows you to speak more freely. My experience is not different from many of the other victims of genocide, ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, racism, and discrimination, but, because of the education I received and my love of learning, I have been empowered. In a way, who I became after the war has really legitimized me as an individual and as a voice that speaks on behalf of those [Bosnians] that will perhaps never have a chance to tell their stories. I’ve received many messages from all over the world, not just Bosnians, who have come across my lecture from Columbia or something else I’ve written and have said thank you for sharing these experiences and using your platform [to create change]. Today, I’m in a different place career- and education-wise, but I’m really still that 16-year-old girl asking why someone is hated for their differences. I want to change that.
I’ve been told by people multiple times while in the United States that I don’t look like a Muslim or speak like a Muslim or seem as extreme as a Muslim. In giving me these compliments, these people have actually put me down while letting me know how they truly feel about someone with a background like mine. My hope in writing my story and making it public is that I can counter Islamophobia and the biases that are so deeply prevalent in this country and western Europe. I think it’s important that more of us speak up, but I also understand why some don’t; I’ve received uncomfortable, offensive, and horrific messages and I only started my Instagram and Twitter account recently to help promote this book. Racists who hate people like me have already found my accounts and have used every slur you can imagine towards me as a Muslim woman. I was aware this was coming my way; I thought about it and discussed it with my girls and husband. We, as a family, understood that it is not the same to write a book like this as a woman, so the very process of writing this story was influenced by the idea of women’s empowerment.
Do you hope to write more for younger readers?
I am determined to write more! I’ve always liked writing as much as math, and even wrote poetry during the war, so this process has made me feel encouraged and given me a sense of purpose. I’d like to write many more books for young adults and adults.
Will you be doing any events, virtual or otherwise, to promote this book?
Being able to interact with teens and college students in-person about this book was important to me but, obviously, not possible right now. But I do have virtual events scheduled! On September 22, I’ll be in-conversation with Daniel Nayeri, Bill Konigsberg, and Malaprop’s Bookstore bookseller Amy Cherrix. On October 8, I will be speaking at MPIBA’s YA Lit lunch. I will be joining a live (virtual) panel at the Southern Festival of Books on October 10. I’ll also be speaking with Anushay Hossain on one of the upcoming episodes of her Spilling Chai podcast on diverse voices in America.
The Cat I Never Named by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess, with Laura L. Sullivan. Bloomsbury, $19.99 Sept. 15 ISBN 978-1-5476-0453-1