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Sara Nović Takes You to the Front Lines of Croatia's Civil War in Her Novel, 'Girl at War'

We met the author to talk about her dark debut novel, which is about a girl caught up in war-torn Yugoslavia. We also discussed her blog, Redeafined, which gives a voice to issues faced by the deaf.
May 15, 2015, 1:46pm

Sara Nović's dark, tension-riddled debut novel, Girl at War (Random House), explores the civil war that marred Croatia in the late 90s through the fictional life of Ana Jurić, a girl who experiences the war as a child and carries the trauma with her as a young adult in New York City.

As Nović writes in the first sentence of the novel, the war began over cigarettes. These small aggressions ignite tensions among Serbians and Croatians in the tinderbox region that was then known as Yugoslavia. In the end, more than 140,000 lives would be lost and more than four million people would be displaced.

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At first, the protagonist is unaware of what being on the Croatian side means, but she soon learns after witnessing death among her family and community. The book is strung together by sentences taut with a potential for violence that Nović never lets subside. Likewise, the endemic warfare Ana experiences doesn't disappear when she leaves her home. Rather, it lives and breathes within her long after she's moved to America. Girl at War is a testament to just how the trauma of living through war can warp a life.

Nović's new novel, however, isn't the only thing the 27-year-old writer's been up to. As a deaf author, she also runs a blog called Redeafined, which is focused on giving a voice to the disabled. She's slowly becoming a public advocate for her disability, using her platform to grapple with how being deaf affects her understanding of language—or languages, in her case. Nović is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).

Nović lives in Queens, New York, but met me in downtown Manhattan at the Housing Works Bookstore Café for a chat about her well-written new novel, the complexities of conflict, Cochlear implants, and how the timeworn editing advice "read it out loud" might mean something different to a writer who is deaf.

VICE: The book's mostly about the wars in Croatia and neighboring countries. What lead you to write about that?
Sara Nović: I have family there. The main thing that inspired it was I went and lived there after high school. It was a weird time for the country. It was about seven years after the war. Everyone was coming down from it. Particularly that war, there was a lot of hyper-nationalism and excitement—everyone was going to be independent. But then afterwards, things go back to their old ways. The new government is corrupt, as if the old government wasn't. People were feeling disillusioned and abandoned by the West. NATO came by and blew up some stuff and then they were gone.

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So for me, coming in and having a relationship with these people but also being an American, it was kind of an inside/outside state. People talked to me a lot and they told me all these stories. So I wrote a book about what the war was like.

It's not a war that the West seems to think about that much or even remember that often.
That's what I found out when I got back and started going to school. A lot of people had heard of Sarajevo and Bosnia, which was part of the war, but nobody really knew about the other parts of it, which I thought was weird. Like, what makes America only interested in one part as opposed to another part of the conflict. Honestly, I think it was the Olympics. The Olympics were in Sarajevo in 1984. People just knew the word, I guess. Maybe religion played a role, too. Maybe it's easier for them to understand Christian-Muslim conflict than Christian-Christian conflict.

People don't talk about girls as child soldiers.

The other thing was that the war started in Croatia before it started in Bosnia. So it went on for a couple years in Croatia before it spread to Bosnia and then at that point, a lot of people had been killed because the war had been going on for three or four years. That was the point when America was like, "Oh shit, maybe we should get involved."

How did you feel about having this insider's perspective but still kind of being outside of the culture?
A little weird. But I think, you know, the stories in it are true, and people wanted them told, so I don't feel bad. I try not to, I mean.

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This can also apply to other parts of your life. Did your hearing loss, as it gradually happened, change your relationship with language?
Yeah, sure. It's kind of isolating. And knowing different languages makes you think about language differently, in general. ASL is quite a direct language, culturally. A lot of the time it's iconic, in the way that the word looks like the thing you're talking about. A lot of it is part of the nature of being in the deaf community. When we're hanging out with our deaf friends, everyone tells each other everything: Where you're going what you're doing, when you're going to be there so that I can find you later. If you go to the bathroom and don't tell anyone, no one can find you. No one can yell to find you. So everyone is constantly telling everyone about everything they're doing, unless it's a detail you don't want anyone to know, obviously. I think that kind of obsessiveness affects the way that I write. English is so much more euphemistic or coy. I think it makes you work more than ASL does.

Do you find, in writing in English, trying to find the rhythm and the pulse of sentences and words has changed at all for you?
I think it made me more attentive to rhythm. That's the one thing you still have access to, right? The vibration and the feeling of the language.

Sara Nović in 2015. Photo by Alan Caras. Courtesy of Random House

I guess it's something a lot of people do, complimenting a person with a disability for passing.
It's true. I think "passing" is the perfect word. I've been talking about it a lot with a friend of mine. What does it mean to pass for hearing? Part of it is changing the way you think and talk. If you look on the news, whenever there's some kind of interpreter at an event, the entire world freaks out because they're making a funny face while they're interpreting something. Really, they're just using grammar. The way you use your eyebrows when you're doing ASL, to know whether you're asking a question or whatever, is grammar.

So laughing at that is like laughing at somebody speaking German or another language?
Right, but people feel fine about it with ASL when they would never get away with it in any other language.

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Could you talk about the work you do with your blog, Redeafined?
It kind of started because there are a lot of ideas with predispositions on deaf people and their intelligence. And that's just silly, but it comes embedded in the language, you know? If you type deaf into Google, you'll get things like "the people cried out for justice, but their cries fell on deaf ears." It becomes a synonym for ignorance.

The language that people use when describing it mischaracterizes it.
I started blogging because I wanted people to think about what doctors tell them. For example, let's say you've just given birth and are in the hospital. You've had a child. The doctor and the Cochlear implant people show up and say, "We're so sorry, your child is deaf. But don't worry, we can fix it." You know, putting a hole in this kid's skull. And I'm not saying that Cochlear implants are not a useful technology. But a part of most implant surgeries, and the therapy that goes along with it, forces kids not to learn sign language. That's another thing, you'd never say this about any other two languages. "If they learn how to sign, they'll never learn English," which we know is scientifically not true. No one would say that about Spanish. So I started the blog to say, "Actually, bilingualism is a good thing and it makes sure that your kid has 100 percent access to everything all the time." If you take the Cochlear implant off, you can't hear anything.

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It's that emphasis on trying to get their kids to pass for normal.
Yeah, it's just like, "Fix it, fix it, fix it immediately. Make the baby normal."

You don't have to start telling your kid right then that they're fucked up.
I just don't like the dichotomy of telling people: "Well, you either have this or you have this." Why can't you have both of them? That's the reason that I decided to start the blog. This is actually a binary that doesn't make any sense.

It's like, "You're welcome to have this opportunity to be a hearing person…"
And now you're not allowed to be a deaf person.

And hearing loss exists on such an ambiguous scale. You can tell people that you're hard of hearing or that you're deaf, but you might not be fully deaf, you might be almost deaf. You might have some hearing trouble. It's such a nebulous thing to have. You can't describe to someone exactly how well you can hear them.
Yeah, sure. But that's a weird question too. "How much do you hear?" I don't know. How much is there? What's the answer to that question?

I guess, like any other disability, there's not a lot of actual public discourse about it.
That's part of it. People want to talk about it, so they don't know anything about it.

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So when you go into an interview like this, is it frustrating to have people always talk to you about your deafness?
No, I kind of like the opportunity to talk about it in a way that's intellectually interesting. It's obviously something I think about a lot too, the way it affects how I write. People always tell you to read your stuff out loud when editing and that's not a useful device to me.

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And, being called Girl at War, the book mostly deals with a young girl's experience explicitly?
Yeah, and that's another thing. We don't get a lot of girls at war. I mean, you do get a lot of girls at war in reality, but not in books.

It's a perspective that's pretty maligned when people talk about war.
I mean, it didn't start out like that. But as I was writing the book, her gender started to become more important in the way that people interacted with her. It made me realize that people don't talk about girls as child soldiers or girls in the military at all.

If you type deaf into Google, you'll get things like 'the people cried out for justice, but their cries fell on deaf ears.' It becomes a synonym for ignorance.

Do you think the things that you've written about in this book—woman at war and the war in Croatia—will continue to occupy you going forward? Or have you said your piece about it?
When I finished the book, I felt like I didn't have any more thoughts at all. Probably a lot of people say that when they finish a book. It's a thing that is all of the ideas that you've ever had in your life. But now I have thoughts again, which is a relief. But that area of the world will always probably preoccupy me. Everything's in flux.

Yeah, it's like you said. There's still so much work to be done.
I had a professor in undergrad who said, "I don't think Yugoslavia can survive as separate countries." At the time, that pissed me off due to some feelings of patriotism. But as these governments form and time goes on, we'll see what happens.

Are there factions that really want the genocide to be a point of discussion and others that would prefer to forget about it?
Sure, and the thing that's hard about it is that the paramilitary groups are the ones responsible for the worst parts of the genocide. How do you hold them responsible when they don't exist anymore? They were just civilians.

I guess it's a question of how to deal with such a huge trauma publicly?
There was a big thing about this wall in Zagreb where whenever someone got killed they would write their name on a brick of the wall. It was called the Zid Boli, which means "Wall of Pain." It was huge and right in the center of the square. A couple years ago, the government moved it. I think they put it somewhere outside of town. People were mad about it, but the government said it was bad for tourism.

Sara Nović's Girl at War is in bookstores now.

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