Books In Conversation
Kenan Trebinčević with Zachary Ginsburg
“I felt like I was in a cowboy movie with black and white hats. Since my parents were good people who weren’t political at all, I assumed nobody would hurt us. But instead of ending in two hours, the drama dragged on for months on end.”
World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story
At age 11, Kenan Trebinčević found himself in the middle of a firefight, bullets ricocheting around him as he carried bread home to his family in hiding. As Muslims, they were targets of the brutal ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian War in 1993. Mortars were blowing up the street as he ran for his life. When he spotted his favorite teacher holding an AK-47, he went to him for help, but the Christian Serb turned his gun on Kenan and pulled the trigger. The gun jammed, allowing Kenan to escape, but the betrayal would be permanently etched into his memory.
Trebinčević pens these experiences in his powerful and unforgettable middle grade novel, World in Between (HMH, 2021), which has received starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal. The book is coauthored by bestselling author Susan Shapiro, who teamed up with Trebinčević for his memoir, The Bosnia List (Penguin, 2014). With their new book, which they call “a Jewish/Muslim book of healing,” Trebinčević and Shapiro hope to show young readers what it feels like to be a refugee and how we can help them assimilate. The audience will discover that the trials of the Trebinčević family continued long after they reached the United States, as they navigated the complexities of starting over in a foreign country. Trebinčević’s story is one of incredible resilience and persistence, revealing the best and worst of humanity. I had the privilege to interview Trebinčević over email.
Zachary Ginsburg (Rail): You wrote about surviving ethnic cleansing in your debut book, The Bosnia List, a memoir for adults. Why did you decide to turn your experiences into an autobiographical novel for young readers in World in Between?
Kenan Trebinčević: During Trump’s Muslim country ban in 2017, I wrote short pieces for Newsday and Esquire about my experiences as a 12-year-old Muslim refugee boy who’d just landed in Connecticut. The Westport Interfaith Council of Churches and Synagogues had banded together to sponsor my family, which, I implied, is the humane way to help other human beings traumatized by war. My coauthor Susan Shapiro posted the clips on our Facebook page. A former student of hers, a children’s book editor, thought it would make a great timely kid’s book to teach children to be kind and not fearful of foreigners. We asked our Penguin editor Wendy Wolf, who didn’t want a new project to interfere with readership of The Bosnia List since it’s on high school and college curriculums across the country. She gave us permission for a middle grade novel, a completely different audience. Our fantastic agent Samantha Wekstein sold it to a children’s book specialist Lynne Polvino, another terrific editor who’d published a different immigrant memoir turned kid book, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas. So we were once again in great hands.
Rail: In what ways was the writing process different?
Trebinčević: In The Bosnia List, I told my story in past tense as an angry and cynical 30-year-old, politically astute American who wanted to avenge the Christian Orthodox Serbs who betrayed my family. For World In Between, I used a younger, much more innocent voice in present tense. It was hard to go back in time to excavate the raw emotions I was feeling when I was 11, watching the war unfold and my friends and favorite teacher turn on me. We hoped it might show what it feels like to be exiled from your country, and remind people of all ages to show kindness and compassion towards refugees who might be having a much harder time than you can imagine.
Rail: The book is filled with vivid memories, from dodging gunshots on your way home from the grocery story in Brčko to enjoying the American meal of “macaroni and cheese, a roasted chicken, and delicious sweet cornbread” that your father and brother brought home after finally landing a restaurant job in Connecticut. What was it like trying to remember all of these moments? Did it all pour out of you, or were certain ones more difficult to retrieve?
Trebinčević: I happen to have a bizarrely good photographic memory, especially when it comes to dramatic events of the war—like when my teacher held a gun to my head and pulled the trigger, only to have it jam—which is unfortunately etched in my brain forever. But I also recalled what people wore or said. My coauthor Susan, the author of several memoirs, also suggested we go through old photographs, letters, maps, and documents together. That really helped. She was always trying to get me to “show, not tell,” wanting to know “How did that feel?” and “Where did it hurt you?” She couldn’t believe I’d never talked about it all before. “Why didn’t your family ask how you felt during the war?” she once asked me. “They were too busy telling me to duck!” I yelled at her and we both cracked up.
Rail: Life in Bosnia during the war seemed surreal. As you and your parents and older brother Eldin fled your home with only what you could carry, you told your mom you forgot your retainer. “Your teeth are the least of our problems now,” she said. How hard was it to understand the gravity of your situation at 11? Did the war force you to grow up faster?
Trebinčević: I felt like I was in a cowboy movie with black and white hats. Since my parents were good people who weren’t political at all, I assumed nobody would hurt us. But instead of ending in two hours, the drama dragged on for months on end. It became real for me when they took my father and brother away to a concentration camp. Thankfully, they survived. But in a war, there were no rules or justice. Everyone lost. Seeing my parents become powerless overnight took away all my security and idealism. It definitely made me grow up faster. By the time we were in high school in Connecticut, my mother and father were sick, and my brother Eldin and I were trying to take care of them.
Rail: After the Serbian government spread anti-Muslim propaganda and paid Serbian men to quit their jobs to become soldiers, your close friends turned their backs on you. Bigotry and violence escalated, and your favorite teacher threatened to kill you. Did these betrayals shape your view of humanity?
Trebinčević: War brings out the best and the worst of everyone, as we’ve tried to portray. You never know what your neighbors or friends will do. My mom used to say, “There is good and bad in people of all backgrounds.” I wasn’t so sure. Writing The Bosnia List, I’d started with a list of 12 Serbs we knew, betrayers I wanted to avenge. Susan said I couldn’t start and end the book angrily, there needed to be an emotional arc. I couldn’t find one. But then she suggested I list all the Serbs who wound up helping my family: a neighbor gave us food. Another slipped us money. A police captain forged fake documents for us. A bus driver waited in a snowstorm to drive us to Vienna. It turned out, when I counted, there were 12. That was the arc.
Rail: American culture and media seemed important to you even before the war. There were references to Law & Order, Madonna, Die Hard, G.I. Joe, and The Great Escape. How did your perspective of American culture shift after you moved to the US?
Trebinčević: Landing in Connecticut, I soon realized that the United States was not Beverly Hills, 90210, and our story was not as funny as Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. When I moved to Queens and commuted to work in Manhattan, I’d look around the subway car, surprised how many foreigners there were here like me. My wife Mirela is from Sarajevo, and I love turning her on to my favorite American movies and TV shows.
Rail: Your parents placed high expectations on you. At one point, your mother says, “We’ll be nobodies in the USA so you and your brother can be somebodies one day.” I can imagine many immigrants to the US feel a similar pressure. How did these expectations affect you?
Trebinčević: There was no room for failure. If I didn’t do well, I would end up working multiple jobs barely, scrapping to put food on a table like my parents. I hope readers of World In Between might appreciate their parents, life opportunities, and freedom more.
Rail: Throughout the book, you cling to the belief that you will return to Bosnia after the war is over. Eventually, your family breaks it to you that the States is your new home. Why do you think this was so difficult to accept? Do you see yourself as an American now?
Trebinčević: As a child, I expected the good guys to win over the bad guys like in the movies. As a teenager, I felt powerless, hoping I could return before the war was over to fight against the injustice of the Muslim genocide. After the war ended in a stalemate and I realized the Serbs would get to keep our town, laughing at us, I was enraged. I later felt lucky to become a proud American citizen and that this country gave me a second chance. But in some ways I was living a dual life. When I married Mirela a few years ago and we visited her mom’s home in Sarajevo and I met her brother and sister and their spouses and kids, it all came together. I lost my parents, but I’ve adopted her family. Now we visit all the time, and I finally feel at home in my two countries, with her.
Rail: Along with soccer, you’ve always been fond of art. At age 12 , your drawings won the art contest in the international Bosnian newspaper for refugees, which helped other Bosnian refugees contact your family. Now you’re a writer. How has art continued to play a role in your life?
Trebinčević: As a kid, drawing was a way to stay out of trouble and get away from bad thoughts. Writing I see as a way to preserve memory. Susan tells her students it’s a way to turn your worst experience into the most beautiful. I met Mirela when she contacted me to say how important The Bosnia List was to her, so maybe it’s true. By facing down my past, I found my future.
Rail: Despite all of the good people in Yugoslavia, the genocide against your people happened in 1993, and these kinds of massacres continue to occur. Can they be prevented?
Trebinčević: We have to keep voting against and fighting against power hungry psychopaths and the uneducated people who turn to them for guidance. Too many world leaders ignore nationalism and racism because it serves their interests. To paraphrase the famous saying, “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.”