Where You Come From by Saša Stanišić, Damion Searls (Translated by)

Off we go, open your eyes, I’m going to show you a few things, you clearly have no idea about anything.

Saša Stanišić shows us all a few things, about how you create a life after war changes everything, when the country you were rooted in no longer exists. Where did it go? If the country no longer exists, what happens to its people? About exile, and the remaining few who are left behind to remember, the ones who may well be able to explain where you come from. It’s auto-fiction, memoir with exaggeration, it’s a journey through memories- tender, silly, horrible. It’s the roar of a football crowd (soccer to Americans, pfft) a childhood in Višegrad beside the Drina, being multiethnic (his father is Serbian Orthodox, mother Bosnian Muslim), a grandmother who can read kidney beans, the collapse of Yugoslavia, fitting in and sticking out in Germany, a mountain town of 13 villagers who won’t forget and hold the memories of ancestors. It’s the bumpy road of old age and youth chasing their history, so full of ghosts. The pressing question is, who am I? How do I define my life, my family when so much was ripped away? He is one of the lucky ones, isn’t he? Escaping with his mother before the atrocities that befell so many.

Why does grandmother take care of gravesites? What do the ancestors have to teach him? Why is it so important to her that he knows where he came from? With humor, he writes beautifully to the Alien Registration Office as he applies for German citizenship but he also struggles to define home, the horror of borders and what it means for people like him, in between places, histories. His childhood, charmed, gave no hint to the division that was coming, the terror, the spilling of blood. War is his origins as much as it was his grandmother’s. The hunt for a better life, which he will find as a writer because like his grandmother once told him , he and his Pero are both troublemakers with words. What words can tell his story, knotted as it is with his ancestors and a history nightmares are made of? “Worlds die away”, and he is trying to capture his, fill in the gaps of his memories, comprehend the history his family made under the conditions fate created. Is where we end up accidental, chance, choice? Is he his languages? It is an adventure, even as he tries to carve a place for himself to fit into, even if he doesn’t always know where he belongs and is ashamed sometimes in the light of glaring differences.

It’s a disorienting life, not just for grandmother whose mind rests upon the shifting sands of time, but for him too on shifting lands. Proof of reason to have a place to stay, the existence of dragons, politics, communism, being Slavic, growing up among heathens, migrants, borderless, massacres… there are heavy subjects here but somehow this novel manages to be fun, light, playful considering an ugly history. Identity, what the hell does it mean for any of us whether we are solid in the place we were born or squeezed out into alien places we have to contort ourselves to assimilate in? Shame of differences or pride in them? What is the measure of a life? The end of the novel is chose your own ending themed, I remember those books well. Villages die, so do grandmothers. Sad, beautiful. I think this book moved me because it’s like listening to my father talk about his own memories of the country he fled. I am not surprised this novel won a prize, he is a gifted writer.

Publication Date: December 7, 2021

Tin House

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