Displacements and Digressions in Saša Stanišić’s Where You Come From

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side by side series of the cover of where you come from

Where You Come From
Saša Stanišić
Tin House | December 7, 2021

Saša Stanišić’s Where You Come From—winner of the 2019 Germany Book Prize and published in that country under the name Herkunft—is a thrilling shapeshifter of a novel. Part memoir, part fiction, and part Choose Your Own Adventure, this engrossing book, through a first-rate translation by Damion Searls, is a contemplation of how trauma—in this case, a multi-ethnic nation’s trauma—changes what and how we talk about the past.

Stanišić explores how the book’s title, which can be both a statement and question, indicates that there are no easy answers to this simple and complicated phrase.  The phrase is fraught territory for those who are voluntary émigrés or involuntary exiles. In 14-year-old Stanišić’s case, when the Bosnian war began nearly 30 years ago, he and his mother left Yugoslavia for Germany early in the conflict, to be met by his father a half year later, who arrived with an unexplained scar on his thigh.

In Stanišić’s own words: “Here’s how it is: The country where I was born no longer exists. For as long as the country still existed, I thought of myself as Yugoslavian. Like my parents, who were from Serbian-Orthodox (Father) and Bosnian-Muslim (Mother) families.” Yugoslavia becomes a metaphor for Stanišić’s paternal grandmother Kristina’s failing memory, for our own histories, the countries to which we can never return.

From the outset, Stanišić propels away from establishing straight temporality and fact: “It is March 7, 2018, in Višegrad, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Grandmother is eighty-seven years old and eleven years old.” And later in the novel: “What kind of book is this? Who is narrating? A thirty-nine-year old in Višegrad, Zurich, Split is writing it. A forty-year-old on a balcony in Hamburg is writing it. It’s spring, summer, autumn, winter. It’s today.” In the first quote, in admirably few words, he details how his grandmother is traveling through time in her own mind, which is as disconnected as the former Yugoslavia is. In the second, the speaker—and through him, the reader—is equally unsure of where and when we are, let alone where we come from, and what we recall.

The narrative moves forward, backward, and diagonally, offering an experience of unreliability, and possibility. Because of this, the eventualities that the book explores become conceivable.  The stories and characters are delightfully vivid and mutable, moving through the young Saša’s life, education and adulthood, and the memories of parents and extended family act as ballast, with repetitions that shift in the retelling. Kristina, the narrator’s paternal grandmother, is often our guide. As she ages, her memory fades, she resides in many figurative countries at once: where her husband is sometimes alive; where she confuses Saša for her spouse; where she is in Yugoslavia or elsewhere.

Memory—like homes and homelands—isn’t lost as much as unrooted, no longer anchored to a simple one-way construct: “Can’t sleep. It all comes together—the tongue of the snake, the language of the poet. That Grandmother is no longer losing just names and dates but words and will. Grandmother consists of gaps—uncompleted sentences, vanished memories—while here I intentionally, artificially put gaps in.”

Here, we see the underlying theme of the effect of war and physical dislocations on displaced people—the undiscussed scars, like Saša’s father’s leg or the psychic trauma, where those “lucky” to leave or survive try to fill in such gaps. The characters in this book, the citizens of Yugoslavia, can never return home to what used to be home, and the concept of one’s origin is a surprisingly difficult one to pin down.

The fractures and fragments—in his grandmother’s memory, in his country of origin—are reflected in the experience of the book. The hybrid approach of the novel/memoir calls into question the veracity of what we’re reading, echoed by the narrator himself. What is memory? Whose memory? “Fiction, in my view, I said, is an open system of invention, perception, and memory that rubs up against real events . . .” Stanišić the writer has a power that Stanišić the character in this book doesn’t: to keep people and memories alive and evade the painful certainties of our vulnerable lives. Through writing, he can be multitemporal and multilocal, and as he shows in the last section of the book, he can even change the past and the present.

The formal story ends on page 295: “‘Yes,’ I call back, ‘I forgot to wish my grandmother good night.’” The next section, “Dragon’s Hoard,” is our chance to lead the narrative. Stanišić hands the reins to the reader, saying “you are me.” (This section is also a great recommendation for reading this book on paper rather than in digital form, for the sheer physical pleasure of rifling through pages.)

Stanišić’s ostensible handing over of a certain kind of authorial power—not all, of course, because we are still limited to his choices, similar to our own lives, where our individual agency comes with limitations—is a bold act and a playful one. I found myself returning again to an earlier point in which his grandmother says, “Try to finally understand. It doesn’t matter where something is. Or where someone’s from. What matters is where you’re going. And in the end even that doesn’t matter. Look at me: I don’t know where I’m from or where I’m going either. And I can tell you—sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.” The national dislocations and irretrievable human displacements and losses rendered by global upheavals, are a dark version of this afterward, perhaps a Choose Your Own Survival instead.

In this impressive and touching novel, digressions are the journey, as we too move through our own make-your-own-adventure lives, in which where you are from, and even where you are going, are of transient import. Perhaps all that matters is where we are now, in all the nows that are slipping through our cupped hands, regardless of how tightly we try to hold onto them.