Goran SimiĆ: To Be Exiled Writer . . . or Not to Be at All

Every time I look at myself in my Canadian mirror and think about my status as an “exiled writer,” I find some kind of comfort in the fact that every fifth citizen of planet Earth carries a passport different from his or her country of origin. It’s been thirteen years since I joined Virgil’s tribe of writers, who recognize one another by their strange English accents. We share the same unique religion, the English dictionary our exile’s Bible. Thirteen years, then, since I came to Canada, choosing physical security over writerly insecurity. Thanks to the human ability to forget recent history as quickly as last year’s snow, when I crossed the border into Canada, I knew that only through literature and memory would I be able to preserve my personal history.
Who now remembers the collapse of that European country of Yugoslavia in the last years of the last century, the country where I was born 55 years ago, a country that no longer exists on any map? How many people can recall the bloody Bosnian war (1992–1995), which took 200,000 lives before it ended in a draw, as if it had only been a bad soccer game? After the daily news – or daily horror – about Baghdad and Gaza, how many television viewers can afford to remember the three year long medieval siege of Sarajevo, which was only terminated five years before the twenty-first century knocked on our door? I was there, witnessing for three years the daily ration of death, destruction, hunger and humiliation. The day I left Sarajevo with my children, all that remained behind me were the ruins of my family house, my looted bookshop and fresh graveyards. The most precious items I carried with me were my books, published in Bosnia, of value only to me, and my precious memories. But again, with my backpack containing photographs from the happy past and my faith in a bright future, I joined the ranks of those exiled writers, was marked by the same burden as those coming from the horrors of Rwanda or Ethiopia or Burma. We have in common at least one other thing: we failed to discover a country in need of writers in the same way as there were countries in search of brick layers or railway workers. We writers are too curious and our writing is shaped to celebrate nuances instead of transparent things. And the truth is never a pleasant companion for those who believe that history starts fresh with each election. From where I sit I think every single country should open their borders to writers first – before the brick layers, railway workers. We can offer so much: a healthy opposition, a historical memory, presence, experience, the denial of intellectual borders.
I haven’t noticed much respect in Canada for my kind of profession. The first wall I bumped into was the fact that my books, published in many different languages, were worth nothing if they’d not been translated into English. At that time my English wasn’t better than a five-year-old Canadian born kid. No institutions, including the Canada Council, would finance translations from languages other than French. I escaped from war torn Bosnia, divided by national borders, only to face more division here, between and «them». I still don’t understand why the average Canadian doesn’t feel a need to introduce new immigrants by the simplest of ways: through literature immigrants grow up. The opposite is letting newcomers continue to live in Canada as if it is only rented land, encouraging them to make their own gated communities, based on the values taken from the country they came from.
It took me years to make myself visible as a writer in Canada. I didn’t – and still do not – complain. Three years under siege in Sarajevo taught me that I should consider myself lucky to see my children growing up happily in Toronto, instead of having my children visiting my grave. The fact that I survived doesn’t make me feel better when compared to those that who didn’t. I don’t consider my recent personal history filled with any more disappointment, pain and failure than that of the average Canadian who has never recovered from his cat dying. But my advantage is that literature doesn’t speak if there is no pain or recognition of that pain which flows between the lines.
While I worked for two years as a simple manual labourer in the Holt Renfrew warehouse next to the airport, I hid from my coworkers my writerly occupation. This was in part because some of them were illiterate, and partly because some of them had suffered through much bigger tragedies than my own. But on our lunch break I would go outside of the dirty warehouse to watch the landing airplanes carrying new immigrants with their fresh hope and expectations, and I imagined stories about them. It was at times painful to use to my poet-rented muscles during the day and then to transform into something else when my shift ended. On one occasion, after taking ten days leave from work, I brought my coworkers a box of Belgian chocolates, and nobody believed that I had been doing readings and signing copies of my selected poems, recently published in Holland. Later I published an article, in The Globe and Mail, criticizing the working conditions in the warehouse: that was the beginning of the end of my long journey within the manual class. Superiors and managers became suspicious about my real motives of renting my sweat for money that could barely cover my monthly expenses. I soon quit and rejoined Virgil’s tribe, as it is where I belong.
I believe that poets must be engaged witnesses of their own time, the way Bertolt Brecht or Anna Ahkamatova were (“In the dark time, will there also be singing – Yes, it will be singing about dark time,” –B. Brecht). I have nothing against the sci-fi landscapes one finds in so many novels; nothing against butterflies flitting between poetry’s lines. But my credo has always been to deal with human souls, with ordinary people and situations I see every day on my way to my desk. I witnessed the horror of war; I’ve seen the sorrow of immigrants. All of it has become deeply tattooed in my poetry. If some future reader between my lines recognizes the nuances of the time in which I’ve lived, and if the beauty of poetry makes him think and love, I will consider my writing mission accomplished. But I am still far from this point.

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