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Ismet Prcic, 'Shards' author, explores Bosnian experience

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 19, 2011 - When I met Ismet Prcic in 2006, he had a blue Mohawk and wore the same Lakers jersey over all of his shirts. We were graduate students in southern California, a commuter campus where parking was at a premium.

To avoid buying a parking pass, early in the mornings Ismet would drive from his apartment in Los Angeles and park in the lot at the campus mall, yet to fill with shoppers. Then, before stepping out of the car, he'd put on a disguise. A hat, a shirt, a jacket. Otherwise, the security guards were sure to notice him - big guy, blue Mohawk, yellow jersey - and if they saw you cross the bridge to campus, your ass was toast. (Meaning, you got a parking ticket.)

Ismet spent his youth under siege in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Technically, the apartment building where his family lived was in a "safe zone," but to hear his stories, the neighborhood was "safe" only in so far as Ismet survived.

Then, in 1995, at age 18 - improbability of improbabilities - Ismet was granted a visa to leave Bosnia to attend a theater festival in Scotland. He left in the dark of night on a bus full of actors, winding along barely passable roads, no plan for what he would do when the festival was over.

He knew some of his friends planned to flee; and at the last moment, he joined them, jumping out a window in his socks, living for months in a bureaucratic limbo as he sought official status as a refugee, his passport his only companion.

Ismet was granted passage to America. He would live with his uncle and attend college. He flew to Los Angeles via New York with only his Hollywood visions to guide him. He made it, but Ismet soon discovered that he had not really escaped. Far removed from the shelling, Ismet - known in southern California by a new name, Izzy - began to fall apart, to fracture.

"Shards," Prcic's first novel, explores a version of these experiences from the point of view of a fictional Ismet Prcic. The book presents itself as an artifact of Ismet's life, a collection of his writings pulled together in an attempt to wrangle the memories into some kind of order. There are excerpts from Ismet's unpublished memoirs. There are letters to his mother left unsent. There is also the story of another young man, Mustafa Nalic, whose life intertwines mysteriously with Ismet's.

Doctors provide us with one framework by which to understand post-traumatic stress: as characterized by unwanted memories, a desire to go numb, an inability to let one's guard down. The reader could diagnose the character of Ismet Prcic in this way; he's textbook. The experience of reading "Shards," though - the deliberate disorientation, the layering and morphing of events that characterize the book - reveals in a more visceral way what it might be like to live always with a full awareness of the tenuousness of civil society, of the terrible precariousness of calm.

It doesn't strike you when you meet Izzy - now, it's a salt-and-pepper ponytail; the Mohawk's gone - that at some level he still lives in fear. In graduate school, all of us teaching assistants worried about parking tickets (we weren't making the big bucks). None of the rest of us, though, came to school ready to go incognito, to disappear.

Ismet Prcic will be in St. Louis this week to read from "Shards," sign copies of the book, and discuss his work and experiences. Events below are free and open to the public.

What: Reading, Book Signing, and Conversation

When: 3-5 p.m., Nov. 19

Where: Cafe Novella, 5510 South Kingshighway

What: Reading and Q&A

When: noon-1 p.m. Nov. 21

Where: Fontbonne University Lewis Room, 6800 Wydown Blvd.

More information: New York Times review

Interview with the author from Oregon Public Broadcasting

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez teaches at Fontbonne and is a freelance writer. 

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