Category: Clay Fellows

In the Literary Balkans: From the ICTY to Modern Sarajevo

Srebrenica Genocide Memorial landscape[photo: Srebrenica Genocide Memorial landscape.]

This past July, I embarked on a trip that began in the Hague at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), extended through Nuremberg and the now-historic Courtroom 600 where the Nazi war crimes trials took place, and ended in the Republika Srpska territories in the northeast Bosnian village of Potočari, where the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial now stands. Seventeen years earlier, more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by the Bosnian Serb Army in an area that had been deemed “safe” by the United Nations, and the city of Sarajevo had lain under uninterrupted siege for more than three years. The salient bullet and mortar wounds in the concrete facades along the Ferhadija and banks of the Miljacka contain traces of Sarajevo’s recent past, while the road that leads from Sarajevo to Srebrenica (from the Federation of BiH and into Republika Srpska) weaves through extraordinarily lush green hillsides consistently betrayed by the skeletal remains of homes and farmhouses destroyed during the war, and red skull-and-crossbones signs that warn their readers to watch out! in both the Bosnian Latin and the Serbian Cyrillic alphabets—pazi, пази—for the landmines that make those hills now impenetrable. Yet too, the edges of these peaks are dotted with colorfully painted wooden beehives, boxes producing thick and sweet Bosnian honey for baklava, tefahije, and other sweets that line the shop windows in Sarajevo’s baščaršija.

Republika Srpska honey
[photo: Republika Srpska honey]

In the early 2000s, Aleksandar Hemon’s first book, The Question of Bruno, sparked my interest in literature from the former Yugoslavia, and it later shaped my legal focus on international human rights law. Thinking about literary descriptions of the city of Sarajevo and the experiences of war in Bosnia, I carried images from Hemon’s novels, as well as those from the earlier works of Danilo Kiš and Ivo Andrić, with me on this strange trip layered with history, literature, and law.

On May 26, 2011, Ratko Mladić, Colonel General of the Bosnian Serb Army, was arrested for crimes against humanity and genocide in Bosnia—specifically for his role in the killings in Srebrenica—for which he had been indicted more than ten years prior. Less than a week after his arrest, he was transferred to the ICTY in the Hague, where his trial commenced on May 16, 2012. Beginning in mid July, I observed this trial behind the plate-glass walls that separate the tribunal proceedings from the viewing public. The ICTY courtroom space stands in sharp contrast to its precursor in Nuremberg, which convened at the Palace of Justice from 1945-46 near the physically destroyed center of Bavaria.

At the ICTY, all observers arrive before the trial day begins and sit facing a dark-curtained wall, fumbling with earpieces that translate between English, French, German, and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian (BCS). When the clock (digitally) strikes the trial’s commencement, the curtains electronically pull back, revealing the panel of judges, the attorneys, and the defendant, already seated with only a small number of feet between all of us. My eyes moved immediately toward the man I assumed to be Mladić, sitting in the back left of the courtroom, physically framed by uniformed U.N. guards. I had seen numerous photographs in newspapers and news stories from the 1990s, but I hadn’t seen an aging man in ornate glasses gripping a book, free from handcuffed confinement, with a small water pitcher and glass at his table. Occasionally, he smiled. I thought of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and her reports from his 1961 trial that emphasized the banality of evil. I had expected Mladić to look like a monster. I am still unsettled by his physical normalcy, even as I recall him yelling in stark and disquieting Serbian to his attorneys seated below.

Images from Mladić’s trial followed me to Sarajevo as I meandered through the streets in anticipation of my trip to Srebrenica. I spent time in the city’s historical archive, which contains objects from the siege, collected and saved by the residents of Sarajevo. The building itself bears few traces of postwar restoration, save for the replacement of broken windows and doors. Inside, the floors and ceilings are marked with discolored holes and larger mortar marks—indentations one is forced to step upon to move throughout the space. Around the rooms, small tables and cases are filled with makeshift cooking appliances, homemade weapons, improvised military uniforms with puma sneakers from the early 1990s (which I remembered from my American classmates’ feet during gym), newspaper clippings, photographs, and so many objects—large, small, and seemingly banal—left behind on the streets by victims killed during sniper fire. A small sign in the entryway refers to the space as a “living museum.”

Ferhadija Facade
[photo: Ferhadija Façade]

As the only route to Srebrenica is by an unreliable bus running once per day, the owner of the Sarajevo guest house where I was staying would be doing the driving. On July 26, after a nearly four-hour journey through the winding roads carved out between Sarajevo and the northeastern banks of the Drina river, I arrived in Potočari, where uniformed Bosnian police officers and photojournalists had lined up along the paved walkways of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial and its cemetery. The Muslim grave markers weave across this otherwise-desolate area, interrupted only by newly dug graves and number “markers,” set aside in piles, in wait for yet more victims to be uncovered and later buried here. The almost-anthropomorphic grave markers stand resolutely (or perhaps, I hope they do). For the first time since the genocide in 1995, a U.N. Secretary-General would be visiting this site, in conjunction with a trip throughout the regions making up the former Yugoslavia. Before Ban Ki-Moon’s helicopters touched down on the plot of land where U.N. soldiers had stood (also resolutely, I imagine), as the Bosnian Serb Army killed more than 8,000 people, I overheard a conversation among a few reporters and a man with keys to a bulldozer. I learned that more bodies had been found just outside the cemetery, and they were to be excavated upon Ban Ki-Moon’s departure. After Ban’s speech, which focused on the seemingly parroted phrase that “we must learn from the lessons of Srebrenica,” he boarded a U.N. helicopter, and I saw the bulldozer begin to break ground, so to speak, in the close distance.

[photo: Memorial grave markers (left), Leaving Srebrenica (right)]

Upon arriving back in Sarajevo, I spent time tracing some of Aleksandar Hemon’s steps from his New Yorker short story, “Mapping Home,” in which he describes his 1997 return to the city after years of living in Chicago. In the meantime, images from the Ban Ki-Moon visit to Srebrenica, unsurprisingly, showed up on a number of news media sites. My driver had seen himself in a Free Radio Europe clip, prominently walking among the graves. “My family says I’m famous,” he laughed.

[photo: Sarajevo. All photographs taken by the author, Audrey Golden.]

The Possibility of Translation: Guillaume Le Blanc

Guillaume Le Blanc


Only starting from the possibility of translation can a lever of exchange between lives—between so-called normal lives and precarized lives, between self-possessed lives and lives deprived of that possession—guarantee the possibility of a reflection on precarity, without accompanying it with a return to the normal as the ultimate lesson of the struggle against precarity. For a translation cannot exist without the equal recognition of languages that are exchanged in the act of translation itself. Translation does not signify that the language of the precarious is placed under the supervision of “normal” language: it implies, on the contrary, the possibility of a play between the value of normality and the voice of precarity.

The possibility of translation. An interplay between languages. While this passage describes philosophy’s work, we—translating these words in a shabby café in Paris’s lively, multicultural 19th arrondissement—couldn’t help thinking of our own project. We had come to France to translate Guillaume Le Blanc’s book Vies ordinaires, vies précaires. Six months earlier, on our own initiative (or whim?) we had emailed the philosopher whose untranslated work captured our attention for the way it brought together a faith in the power of linguistic creativity with a commitment to the philosophical investigation of “precarious lives.” At the core of Le Blanc’s work are contemporary forms of precarious existence, broadly defined as existence outside of social norms, and a large part of this work has to do with listening for the voices of the excluded, the marginalized, the silenced. Le Blanc wrote back not only with his blessing for our translation, but also with an unexpected invitation to come to Bordeaux and discuss his book—an invitation that we were able to accept, thanks to the generous support of the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures.

Above and beyond the work of double translation—translation of political speech into the language of the precarious, translation of the language of the precarious into philosophical language—defining a concept of precarity would permit the return of precarized voices back into the concert of today’s democratic voices. If democracy begins in conversation, in the free circulation of speech, it is all the more imperative that this conversation not only maintain the elementary structures of society as it exists, nor even that it progress by reforming the “major language,” but that it be itself a permanent translation of the discordance of voices.

The work of translation. A concert of voices. After a month of translation work, we boarded a train south with half the book, a pile of questions, and a street address in Bordeaux. Le Blanc’s most recent book, Dedans, dehors, devotes chapters to an examination of hospitality, so we should not have been surprised at the welcome that awaited. Paul Ricoeur refers to translation as hospitality, and for our two days chez Le Blanc and his wife, the feminist philosopher Fabienne Brugère, we felt Ricoeur’s insight as lived experience. In between watching Usain Bolt’s 9.63 second 100-meter dash (and some significantly longer synchronized swimming routines) with Le Blanc’s two daughters and their cat, we worked over the finer points of the translation and heard from Le Blanc about his current and upcoming projects. Despite Lindsay’s occasional grammar mistakes, and Walt’s even more occasional grammar accomplishments, our conversations were stimulating, and we left with a suitcase full of books, a new excitement for the project, and a firm conviction about the richness of “starting from the possibility of translation.”

Walt Hunter, Guillaume Le Blanc, and Lindsay Turner


In Rio, Tracing Elizabeth Bishop’s Footsteps…

Aerial view of Rio.
(Photo: Marvin Campbell.)


The Rio I entered this summer differs enormously from the one Elizabeth Bishop — the mid twentieth century American poet whose footsteps I began to haltingly trace through a week-long trip to the city — entered in 1951 on a cruise circumnavigating the South American continent via the port of Santos. Whereas hers was on the brink of modernization, today’s Brazil has the sixth highest GDP, with the fifth expected by the end of the year. Whereas hers was a site of political assassinations and Cold War intrigues, today’s is a model of stability: 2002 witnessed the peaceful transition of the presidency to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula, as he is popularly known, not only marked a similar transition when he exited power in 2011, but achieved near universal acclaim for being, in the words of Time magazine, “the most successful politician of his time.” Under the tenure of his successor, Dilma Rousseff—the first female president in Brazil—it should be little surprise, then, that the largest country in South America has become a model in the region. Securing the World Cup in 2014—the first time the event has been held in South America since 1978—and the Olympics in 2016, beating out Chicago, Tokyo, and Madrid, to become the first South American country to host the event, period, it has become a major player on the world stage.

Lapa Steps, Rio.
(Photo: Marvin Campbell.)


But despite this emergence I found that there is much Bishop would recognize in the capital city: the scaffolding of the favelas, the scant remnants of Portugal in civic and religious buildings, the dull, ash grey modernism of Nieymeyer, the riotous samba spilling out into the streets of Lapa, a bohemian district with pale pastel facades and the famed Lapa Steps, encrusted with multicolored tiles, that bridge the neighborhood to Santa Teresa. And more, there are personal markers Bishop would surely return to and which I sought out through my peregrinations: the apartment in Leme she and her partner Lota De Mercedo Soares took when Lota was supervising the construction of Flamengo Park, itself still a major part of the cityspace; the primary home of Saambia the couple shared an hour outside of Rio in Petropolis, untouched in the private hands of a Bishop admirer. Even the growth, although headily outpacing any from the post-Vargas era, would not be totally alien, having been something Bishop observed in the construction of Brasilia.

Nor would the police presence I observed surveilling in the shadow of such progress, with police officers seemingly on the corner of every city block and even more pronounced in the favelas, surprise her. (“Burglar of Babylon,” a poem exploring the life of one fugitive’s subjection to the panopticon of the state, figured this all out long ago, I couldn’t help remark to myself. ) Nor would the folk art, arrayed in the stalls of the Feira Hippie de Ipanema, fail to attract her magpie eye for such artifacts. Nor could the demographics of what, in her own time, Gilberto Freyre sentimentally called a “multiracial democracy,” allow her to avoid thinking about race relations in her own country and more generally.

Like the Key West of my larger project, and where Bishop also spent a considerable amount of time, Rio and the larger Brazil she explored over the course of twenty years was a mess in precisely the way her aesthetic needed. Profuse and tropical in its energies, it unsettled her famed restraint. Teeming with contradictory social forces that the political order only flimsily papered over, it forced her to think through questions or race, class, history, and gender in ways even her friend Robert Lowell, a self-appointed poet of history, scarcely imagined. And with its spirit of tolerance toward sexual difference, even greater now, Brazil allowed her not only to write, but to love. As Bishop herself said, Lota gave her the first stable home she ever really knew.

In turn, even after Bishop left all her homes there in the late sixties and died in Boston at the end of the seventies, Brazil has taken up the poet in various ways, even if she herself rarely ventured into Brazilian public life. Most recently, 2011 witnessed the translation of her poems into Portuguese by noted scholar and poet, Paulo Henriques Britto, who I had a chance to discuss Bishop with, while 2013 will witness the release of a film entitled “The Art of Losing” on Bishop and Lota’s relationship. William Logan, a poet and critic, once rhetorically asked if we could imagine Bishop without Brazil. It seems, in some measure, Brazil can’t imagine itself without her either.

The author, Marvin Campbell, and the Rio skyline.
(Photo: Marvin Campbell.)


Lapa steps, detail. (All text and photos by Marvin Campbell.)