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Discussion Questions: Girl at War by Sara Novic

Friday, February 26th, 2016

Girl at War_TP_NovicFor readers of The Tiger’s Wife and All the Light We Cannot See comes Girl at War by Sara Novic, a powerful debut novel about a girl’s coming of age—and how her sense of family, friendship, love, and belonging is profoundly shaped by war.

This is a book about war through the eyes of a young person, both a child and a young adult. What are the benefits and drawbacks of a having a child/ young adult narrator? Imagine Ana in her thirties. How might she tell the story differently now?
Ana’s father tells her the story of “Stribor’s Forest” after a particularly difficult day for the family. Do you see echoes of the story’s moral throughout the rest of the book?
In what other ways does storytelling or narrative become important for Ana?
The end of Part 1 features an aside about language—Ana says she grew up thinking all languages were ciphers, translatable by swapping out alphabets. Why is this important to the story? Why do you think the Nović chose to include it during a moment of extreme violence?
The novel’s four sections often end at times of high tension. Why do you think Nović chose to write the story in a nonlinear fashion?
While at the UN, Ana makes the statement that “there is no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia.” Given her experiences, what do you think she means?
A lot of minor characters help Ana to safety along the way—who was your favorite and why?
When Ana returns to Croatia, she and Luka wonder how long it takes to forget a war. What do you think?
How might the story have been more or less effective had Ana and Luka become romantically involved?
How would you say Ana changed as a person throughout the course of the novel?
This story has in turns been classified as “historical fiction,” a “war story” and a “coming-of-age story”—which of these resonates most with you?
The end of the novel is fairly open-ended. What do you think happens after the final scene?

    A Conversation Between Julia Glass and Sara Novic

    Thursday, February 25th, 2016

    Girl at War_TP_NovicFor readers of The Tiger’s Wife and All the Light We Cannot See comes Girl at War by Sara Novic, a powerful debut novel about a girl’s coming of age—and how her sense of family, friendship, love, and belonging is profoundly shaped by war.

    Julia Glass: It is electrifying to see the words girl and war together in a title–and terrifying, too, of course. Equally chilling is the heroine’s statement “There is no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia. There is only a child with a gun.” That made such an impact on me. Because Ana’s point of view is so intimate and her everyday life as a child and then a young woman so palpable, I’m sure that every reader’s first question is this: How autobiographical is Girl at War? Did Sara Novic live a version of Ana’s nightmare herself? Of her escape and recovery?

    If not—and I note, from your biography in the book, that you were half Ana’s age when that war began–was your family living in Zagreb? What are your earliest memories of the war or its effects on your daily life? The details of day-to-day living are so poignant and vivid in the book’s earliest chapters: the way school and jobs and even the rituals of children at play persist despite the threat of sudden violence, the way parents try to maintain a sense of normalcy. Where did those details come from if not your own experience?

    Sara Nović: First, thank you, Julia, for reading the book and asking me these interesting questions. Having grown up in the States myself, the short answer is that Girl at War isn’t autobiographical. Ana’s story isn’t my experience, or any one person’s. The genesis of the novel came about when I went to live with some family and friends in Zagreb after I graduated high school. I think because I represented a kind of “middleman” to them—American, but still family—they were eager to share their experiences with me. This was in 2005, so the war had been over for a few years, and people were feeling disillusioned by the (lack of) intervention and aid from the West, and the new democratic government that was shaping up to be corrupted just as the old one had been. There was a sense of urgency in these stories, and a feeling that people wanted their voices heard. I’ve always been an avid journaller, so I recorded a lot of the anecdotes people told me right away. The opening scene with the cigarettes, for example, was an experience that happened to a friend of mine pretty much exactly as Ana experiences it.

    Later when I went back to the US and started college, I was shocked to find that most of my peers didn’t know where Croatia was, never mind what had happened there. So I started writing a short story about the war for a creative writing class in which I had accidentally enrolled. My professor encouraged me to expand on the topic, so I kept writing out in all directions, and that story lies pretty much in-tact at the end of part one of the novel now. Along the way I continued to ask a lot of questions of my friends and family back in Croatia—two of them were very good readers for me throughout the process of writing this book—and that, alongside with a lot of more “traditional” research, was how I made sure the details were accurate, which, even though the book is fiction, was important to me given the gravity of the conflict.

    JG: During the years of the Yugoslavian Civil War, I was in my mid-thirties, and news coverage of the atrocities against Muslims and other civilians was prominent in the New York Times and other western papers. As an American, I felt a sense of futile rage over the lack of intervention by European and American powers–but I also felt confused. I did not feel I could fully grasp the complex hostilities and ethnic biases fueling the war, which was clearly about more than disputed territory. Do you think most westerners understood the war? What might it surprise us most to learn about that conflict? What misconceptions do we have?

    SN: I don’t think most Westerners understood the war in Yugoslavia—the conflict was really complex and to grasp it fully would require a nuance that the mainstream media rarely provides. One of the big misconceptions about the conflict is the idea that it was an entirely ethnic-fueled war. On the one hand, it was about ethnicity, because there were territories that contained ethnic majorities; however, like any war, this one was mainly about power and money. For example, one big point of contention was road construction—the capital of Yugoslavia was in Belgrade (Serbia) so most of the country’s money went toward building roads horizontally so Serbs could get to the Adriatic Sea, while travel vertically within Croatia and Bosnia was very difficult and nothing was being done about it. It sounds mundane, but I think that kind of thing was at least as much of a factor in the split as the ethnic tensions were, though the media only focused on the latter part because it made an easier and more sensational story.

    JG: In Girl at War, there is a clear before and after–with devastating heartbreak and danger in the middle. Some readers would call it a “loss of innocence story” as much as a “war story.” (Or maybe that’s true of all war stories.) Certainly, I would call it a story about how human beings endure, even find a way to thrive, in the face of inconsolable loss; that’s what all the best fiction shows us. Do you still have family in Croatia or elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia? Do you return there now, and how do people say their lives have changed? Is it ever possible to feel safe in a place where formerly peaceful neighbors turned on one another so violently?

    SN: I still have family and friends there and I try to go back in the summers, though I’ve missed this year. Croatia is now a very popular hotspot for tourists from around the world, particularly because of the Game of Thrones craze (they film some of the show there). The coast of the Adriatic is so beautiful; it’s sometimes hard to believe that a war took place there so recently. Overall I don’t think people really feel unsafe in the way that they fear their neighbors—you probably couldn’t get on with your daily life if you thought about that too much. But there are times when tensions flare up—for example when Russia recently vetoed the UN resolution to commemorate the murder of over 8,000 civilians at Srebrenica as a genocide. In many respects it’s still a time of transition. They’re still counting and documenting the names of the missing and dead. They’re still demining the more rural areas, removing undetonated cluster bombs. I think the way in which these wars get written about in the history books for the upcoming generation will really dictate a lot about the future of all the ex-Yugo countries.

    JG: Along with her reluctant testimonial at the U.N., Ana’s experience of living in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York takes her back to her war experiences, and it seems as if she feels even more estranged from her adoptive country as a result. I love the passage where she reflects, “The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans–that I–could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept.” Can you talk about what it means to you to be an American at this moment in time? Do you feel a sense of obligation to write about that?

    SN: Americans have the privilege of distancing themselves from war, which is of course due in large part to our physical distance from everybody else. Because of that, I think the natural tendency of a lot of people is to actively avoid talking about wars “over there”—it seems like the average American feels like it doesn’t concern him or her. But that wouldn’t make sense for a character like Ana; not when war is on her mind constantly, and the differences between experiencing war in Croatia and in America are so striking. When I workshopped a draft of this manuscript during the MFA program, I remember someone questioning whether I was “allowed” to write about 9/11. That floored me—wouldn’t it be way worse to have a character who had experienced a war in childhood, and was then in New York City on September 11th, and say nothing about it? I think I do feel a sense of obligation to write about these things, in this case for the purpose of making Ana a full and complex character. But in general it’d be beneficial if more Americans wrote about what it means to be an American today—that would require an examination of our personal and collective actions, which is always a good thing.

    JG: I have also been confronted with the illogical notion that fiction writers are somehow forbidden to write about current events as cataclysmic as the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But if this is the stuff of our own lives—or even if we have merely imagined what it would be like to experience such a crisis—of course it belongs in our stories! In fact, I’ve noticed that a lot of powerful “war fiction” is being published these days–some of it by young veterans, even spouses of veterans, but some of it also by writers whose only “qualification” is an astute imagination. You have to wonder if this literary trend is in part a reaction to the national tendency to avoid talking about these distant wars, even when they are of our making. Never mind that newspaper headlines are relentlessly dominated by wars all around the world: civil wars, wars on terror, wars fought in part by children, wars where “allies” and “enemies” are not at all clearcut. Just to name a few powerful recent books, I’m thinking of To the End of the LandWhat Is the What, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime WalkYou Know When the Men Are GoneYellow Birds, and Redeployment. Extraordinary new stories are also being written about past wars: NostalgiaMatterhornThe Sojourn. I’m just scratching the surface. Can I ask if you feel like a part of this wave–and if you’ve read a lot of fiction about contemporary conflicts? What other fiction writers, in general, have made the greatest impression on you?

    SN: I didn’t really think of how I fit into a particular category while I was writing the book, in part because I was just so focused on Ana’s individual story, and in part because I didn’t really think of myself as “a writer,” or consider that this was a thing I’d try to publish, until I’d written well over half of it. That said, like Ana, I was lucky to have a couple professors at college who fed me books, so I’d read Hemon and Ugrešić in the early days of writing this manuscript. Peter Maass’s Love Thy Neighbor, a nonfiction account of the conflict in Bosnia, and Ishmael Beah’s memoir about child soldierdom in Sierra Leone also influenced this project early on, as did some authors of Holocaust literature like Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski. And of course Rebecca West and Sebald play big part in Ana’s development, as they did for me as a reader and writer.

    One of my favorite writers unrelated to this project is probably Zadie Smith—I admire and envy how she weaves together such big stories with so many moving parts, and is simultaneously clever and funny. And lately I’ve loved Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels—now there’s a woman who knows her way around a narrative!

    JG: I’m glad you brought up Sebald. When we meet Ana in New York, where she’s studying literature at NYU, you mention Austerlitz, along with other writing on the subject of “displaced persons.” Do you see yourself as “displaced”? Was writing Girl at War a way of trying to find your place?

    SN: I think that writing Girl at War was me trying to find my place in the way that an eighteen-year-old (when I wrote that first story) writing anything is doing it to better understand his or herself. I do identify with Ana in feeling “in-between,” though for me this comes more from falling between Deaf and hearing worlds and languages. I lipread well and can often pass in the hearing world, but I feel more comfortable in the Deaf world, where I can access 100% of what’s being said via American Sign Language (ASL). However, at the same time, I spend so much time immersed in English—speaking, writing, and teaching—that it’s often the language in which I have my more complex thoughts, and on the bad days, this feels more like having no intellectual home than having two.

    JG: Your editor did mention to me that you lost your hearing at a very young age. Speaking from my own experience, I know that the ways in which I listen to and hear the world around me–and I’m not just talking about dialogue–feel indispensable to my relationship with language and even to my imagination. Would you talk about how, if at all, you think you write differently from hearing writers?

    SN: I think I probably do write differently than hearing writers, though I suppose I can’t know exactly how, because I don’t know what I don’t know—if that makes any sense. I’d venture to guess that I pay closer attention to small visual details; I’ve gotten comments from a lot of readers that Girl at War is “cinematic,” and I think this has to do with all the action and movement, and the way in which I take in the world visually. David and I were talking about this once, and he commented on the fact that it was odd how, though I’m Deaf, my writing on the sentence-level has a strong rhythm. But I think that’s because of my deafness—rhythm is the component of sound I still access just as much, or more, than a hearing person.

    JG: When you sit down to write, what is your favorite part of getting down your stories? Do you have any special rituals or routines? I’m not a planner, so I think my favorite part of writing is the moment when I get to see what a character will do next. And I don’t mean that in a wishy-washy, “a character takes on a life of her own and I just sit back and watch” kind of way, because writing is hard work, not magic. It’s more about the moment when a character is developed to the point where her actions and the subsequent narrative become inevitable.

    SN: In terms of routine and ritual, I write by hand, and usually in a public place. I wrote a lot of Girl at War on the NJ Transit train when I was commuting between Philadelphia and Columbia in NYC. Trains are great because you can’t go anywhere and procrastinate, so you have to keep your butt in the seat and work. On rare occasions when I am writing at home, it usually turns into me cleaning the kitchen, or pacing around the apartment with my baseball glove. (Like Ana, I grew up a giant tomboy.) These moments don’t look like writing, but I sometimes find that the more fully I can craft an idea in my head, the less chance there is to hit writer’s block when I sit down to put it on paper.

    JG: Those of us who loved this book are eager to know what you’re working on now. Do you think you will revisit the subjects and themes of Girl at War?

    SN: Thank you. I’ve only just started working on a new project, so I don’t know much about it, but it follows several characters at a boarding school for the deaf in Boston. It’s been presenting me with all kinds of questions, like how to represent ASL on the page, which has been an exciting and frustrating challenge. I think writing about the Yugoslav Civil war, and about the region in general, will always interest me, but I’m looking forward to seeing what these new, American characters will get up to as well.  And looking forward to reading your next book, Julia.

    Julia Glass is the author of the novels And the Dark Sacred NightThe Widower’s TaleThe Whole World Over, and the National Book Award–winning Three Junes, as well as the Kindle Single “Chairs in the Rafters.” Her third book, I See You Everywhere, a collection of linked stories, won the 2009 SUNY John Gardner Fiction Award. She has also won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her essays have been widely anthologized, most recently in Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, edited by Sean Manning, and in Labor DayTrue Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon. She is a cofounder and literary director of the arts festival Twenty Summers, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and has taught writing workshops at programs ranging from the Fine Arts Work Center to the M.F.A. program at Brooklyn College, Julia lives with her two sons and their father on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

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