Q: While many of us were busy preparing to travel to Seattle for ALA Midwinter, I see by your tweets and Facebook posts recently that you’ve been in Bosnia meeting librarians, teachers, and students. Can you tell us more about what you did there?

A: That’s right, and it was a wonderful experience. The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is sponsoring a One Bosnia and Herzegovina, One Book program through June 2013, for students in the country, and I was honored to be invited there to help train the discussion leaders, who include the coordinators of the nine American Corners in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as teachers and librarians. American Corners are partnerships that the embassy has with (at this point) nine public libraries throughout BiH (which is how Bosnia and Herzegovina is abbreviated when you want to save words or typing time; it’s pronounced “BEE-ha”).

The program will work like this: the embassy purchases a collection of American books and other resources (magazine collections, computers, Kindles, etc.) and also provides funding for programs and upkeep, while the libraries cover the salary of the Bosnian American Corner coordinator. I met with teachers, librarians, and students in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Tuzla. I read about the country before I went, and from the early moments of my first very first discussion with teachers from schools and madrassas in and around Sarajevo, I saw that the selection of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (picked by the embassy’s cultural affairs officer, A. Sunshine Ison) was a brilliant choice. While it may at first seem like that novel is too specific to the American experience to comfortably cross the Atlantic (not to mention the Adriatic Sea), in fact the book is ideal as a basis for discussion among readers of all ethnicities, ages, religions, and genders, no matter what country they live in. And given the political and social realities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was especially meaningful to readers there.

A “New” Nation

Before war broke out in 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the six republics that made up the former Yugoslavia, was a cultural melting pot made up primarily of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Jews. Marriages between ethnicities and religions were not unusual. But with the dissolution of Yugoslavia came the reemergence of ethnic hostilities that had been held in check under the authoritarian rule of Marshal Tito. One of the many compromises required to end the Bosnian War in 1995 was the creation, in the Dayton Peace Accords, of a “new” nation, including, but formally divided between, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska.

But for many of the people living there, and maybe especially for those who are too young to have experienced multiethnic life before the war, it’s not intuitive to think of themselves as Bosnians, but rather to define themselves by their ethnicities. And given the realities of three separate languages—Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian (which are, in fact, actually about as different as American and British English)—separate schools (or single schools divided into separate classes for Serbs and Croats, “like South Africa under apartheid,” one man said to me), as well as the closure of institutions like the National Museum in Sarajevo because of disagreements over what “national” means (and how these institutions should be funded), it’s not easy for Bosnians to think in terms of “we” or “one country.”

Enter One Bosnia and Herzegovina, One Book. I’ve always believed that the greatest benefit of One City, One Book programs is that they help foster a sense of community among a group of disparate readers. Even the simple shared experience of reading—and talking about—the same book can begin to establish a connection where none existed before.

While I was in BiH, I led discussions of Alexie’s novel with readers of all ages. I concluded each discussion by reading aloud the section of the book where Junior, the 15-year-old narrator, realizes that he’s a member of many tribes: Spokane Indians, chronic masturbators, bookworms, smalltown kids, basketball players, teenage boys, beloved sons, cartoonists, and so on. I asked each person, as we went around the room, to identify one or more of the tribes that he or she belonged to.

In a discussion at the American Corner in Tuzla, a woman sitting in the first row of chairs in the room said that she was in “the tribe of mothers”; a woman toward the back laughed and said, “Oh, I’m in that tribe, too.” And the two exchanged a long look. Were they both Serbs? Or was one a Croat and one a Bosniak (a Bosnian Muslim)? For those few moments, whatever their differences, the two were connected. There were many members of the chocolate-lovers tribe. (I am in the hot chocolate–lovers tribe, and in BiH the hot chocolate was superb—delicious and thick enough so that a spoon could stand up in it. Yum.) Then there was the university student who described himself as feeling he had no tribe—he was Muslim and gay. Sadly, he believed there was no place in the country for him.

Several of the teens were together in a tribe that wondered why Junior didn’t seem to mourn the death of his grandmother in any obvious way, or at least not in the way that they had mourned when their own grandparents died. That led to a good discussion of the ways different religions or ethnicities handle the deaths of loved ones. I shared with them the Jewish tradition of “sitting shivah,” when friends and relatives come together after a funeral to share memories and stories of the deceased.

Now, I’m not deluded enough to believe that reading and discussing Alexie’s novel (or any book), by itself, can bring about dramatic changes in a society. But I do believe that an experience that allows strangers to connect across a crowded room—because they are mothers, love foreign films, have cried over a particular scene in a book—can start the process of bridging the differences that separate us and help us begin to see that in the Venn diagram of our relationships with others, we are all part of the common tribe of humanity. And it was inspiring to see the power of books to do just that.

Books on the Balkans

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric
Sarajevo: A War Journal by Zlatko Dizdarevic´ S.
A Novel About the Balkans by Slavenka Drakulic
Sarajevo Daily: A City and Its Newspaper Under Siege by Tom Gjelten
The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804–2011 and The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War by Misha Glenny
Nowhere Man and the forthcoming The Book of My Lives by Aleksander Hemon
Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History by Robert Kaplan
Sarajevo, Exodus of a City by Dzevad Karahasan
Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War by Peter Maass
Vermeer in Bosnia by Lawrence Weschler
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West