The second international event I attended this semester was also a part of the Neustadt Literature Festival. As a student in the affiliated course, I got a chance to talk with some of the authors individually, both in conversation and interviews. After the festival’s keynote address by African American poet Marylin Nelson, we got to have lunch with all the authors on the jury who come from all over the world.
I got to sit next to Adnan Mahmutovic, a Bosnian refugee who wrote the short story collection How to Fare Well and Stay Fair, which I absolutely loved. The short stories feature primarily Bosnian refugees, and some of them are autobiographical. His rich depictions of his homeland particularly resonated with me, as did his realistic portrayals of women.
The primary way that Mahmutovic describes Bosnia is through smell, particularly in the story “The Myth of the Smell.” An old woman in a refugee camp says that the rich scents of Bosnia are like “the greeting arms of a father.” When a girl returns to the refugee camp from Bosnia and brings back a handful of soil, her fellow Bosnians marvel at its heady, superior smell. Yet as the name of the story implies, the dirt smells ordinary, and the refugees are aggrandizing it in order to cling to their homeland.
Other of the stories feature very young female protagonists, most of whom are Bosnian, who are escaping the violence of war; they are victims of rape and have seen their family members murdered. Mahmutovic’s descriptions of these women’s relationships with their bodies and lovers are so strikingly intimate that it’s difficult to believe they’re written by a man.
When another female student and I complimented him on his ability to write female characters and tackle delicate women’s issues, he blushed with pride. Growing up with many sisters and a close family, he said he felt like he has always understood women better than men, and he credits the women in his family as his inspiration.
Mahmutovic was funny and honest, and meeting him in person only made me appreciate his writing more. While How to Fare Well and Stay Fair provides insight into the weighty issue of the Bosnian refugee crisis, it’s also sweet, witty and uplifting, much like the author himself.