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Saša Stanišić — writer from Bosnia

Heike Mund db
December 21, 2017

Saša Stanišić was a 14-year-old refugee boy when he came to Germany, and he knew virtually no German at all. Fourteen years later, he became a successful writer — in the German language.

Saša Stanišić
Image: DW/ M.Smajic

Every year, Saša Stanišić does about 100 author readings; he's a professional performer and reader on the stage by now. He clearly loves juggling with the German language and the meaning between the lines, with the same subtle irony he uses when observing the people around him. His entertaining author readings are in great demand.

His 2006 debut novel "How the Soldier repairs the Gramophone" has been reprinted several times and translated into more than 30 languages.

His second novel, the 2014 "Before the Feast" garnered him the Leipzig Book Fair Award and quickly won him international fame.

Stanišić honed his professional writing skills at the German Literature Institute in Leipzig. Working on his texts showed him how important it is for a writer to think about what is being said between the lines, he told DW.

He also said he loves to write somewhere in public, surrounded by other people —  for instance at the Medical Central Library in Hamburg, where he lives. "Everybody there studies like mad, so I can really concentrate," he said, adding that he takes a few books from the shelves to make sure he doesn't draw attention.

'Look at the word and the word looks back'

To a certain extent, Stanišić's protagonists are trying to escape, too —  from somewhere or from something.

There's Ferdinand Klingenreiter, an aging magician battling his fear of failing on stage and the chaotic Mo, who always falls in love with the wrong kind of women, in particular human rights activists.

Saša Stanišić
In 2008, Saša Stanišić was the youngest laureate ever to have won the Adelbert von Chamisso literary prize Image: Kirchgessner

Saša Stanišić is a wonderful storyteller with a charming accent in German. His author readings are like poetry slams, and there is always a lot of laughter. In fact, sometimes the author himself can barely contain himself.

In his novels, hardly a page goes by without some linguistic surprise. Suddenly, he might wax philosophical about fish, claiming that what he likes about them is the fact that they are "perpetually depressed — there is no cheerful fish." And Saša Stanišić knows what he is talking about. As a child in Visegrad, he loved to fish. He enjoyed the peace and quiet along the river where he could just let his thoughts wander.

A passion for writing

Stanišić was 12 years old when he wrote his first texts in Serbo-Croatian. Two years later, he and his family fled the war in his native country, and headed to Germany, where they stayed with an uncle in Heidelberg. Later, they moved to an apartment in the Emmertsgrund suburb on the fringes of the city.

The language class for foreigners at his new high school opened a new linguistic world to the boy. Stanišić quickly learned to speak and write German, even writing highly emotional poetry in the new language. The language class was his refuge, he said, adding that he was never unable to cope. He only needed two or three months to get a handle on the German language.

Bridge over Neckar in Heidelberg
The bridge in Heidelberg reminded the young man of the bridge in his hometown, VisegradImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Wittek

He narrowly escaped deportation back home by applying to college, but his parents had to leave Germany, choosing to move to the southern US state of Florida, where they still live today. With an MA diploma in his pocket, Saša Stanišić later also spent a year in the US.

A voice that is heard

The story of his escape is always present to Saša Stanišić. "So much is reminiscent of 1992, our escape to Germany, uncertainties during the journey, the feeling of being at people's mercy, the long marches, the fear," he noted on his blog, "kuenstlicht."

Sasa Stanisic
In 2014, Stanišić won the fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In interviews, he likes to stress that he is endlessly thankful that he was offered so many opportunities in Germany, that he was able to go to college and that now, as a successful author, he has a voice that is heard.

Every native country is a random place, he argues. People are born in one place, escape to another — and are lucky, he says, if they can influence fate.

Playful, humorous, bittersweet

His books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and mirror not just a penchant for slapstick comedy, but political alertness.

The writer has a close eye on the rise of far-right populists in Germany and a latent xenophobia toward refugees.

"I like to conjure losers," he told an amused audience when he was awarded the 2016 Rheingau Literature Prize. "In my stories, I give them prospects," he added, his face thoughtful and serious all of a sudden. The audience was silent for a moment  — and that is what matters to Saša Stanišić. He wants to be heard.

Discover more about Saša Stanišić and other artists who had to find home in a foreign land inDW's online feature "After the Escape."

You can find thedocumentary on Youtube.

Or watch it directly below:

Documentary: After the Escape - Finding Home in a Foreign Land

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