Sara Nović, 27, of Sunnyside, traveled to Croatia after high school in 2005 because of family ties in the country, and she talked to a lot of people there about the civil war that had broken out in Yugoslavia in 1991, the beginning of the Croatian War of Independence that would last until 1995.
Those who were children during the war told Nović about playing games on a barricade made of sandbags and sleeping in a pantry while air raid sirens blared around Zagreb. Nović wrote everything down.
At the time, she didn’t know that this material would turn into her first novel, “Girl at War,” published on May 12. It’s since garnered praise from major publications such as The New York Times, although Nović avoids reviews and looks at the Internet “with one eye closed.”
“I guess I never considered writing to be a career that a person could have,” she said. “It was just a thing that I always did, but I thought it was a nerdy thing that I always did that I wasn’t supposed to be sharing with others.”
As an undergrad at Emerson, she wrote a short story about a child who grew up during the war. Her professor called her into his office and encouraged her to write a book about the topic, because he hadn’t read anything about Croatia. Nović replied, “Yeah, all right,” not really believing that she ever would, “but then I kind of did,” she said.
She kept writing on and off throughout college and her MFA program at Columbia University, although she didn’t know that she was writing a book “until quite late,” she said, “even after I’d written a lot of it.” Eventually she decided to write the book for an audience partly because of the responses she received whenever she talked with other Americans about Croatia.
“Whenever I talked about Croatia, people didn’t really know anything, like where it was, never mind that a war had taken place,” she said. “So I think the very first impetus was anger, like why doesn’t anyone know about this? I don’t think it’s fiction’s job to educate people. It can’t do that—it would be a really boring book if you wrote a book like a textbook. But I think it can make people curious to find out about stuff.”
“Girl at War” focuses on the war’s impact on one girl, Ana Jurić, moving between her life as a 10-year-old in Zagreb when the war begins and her life as a college student at NYU who decides to return to her country after a decade away.
“I didn’t want the book to be in chronological order,” Nović said. “I think—I hope—the past and present thing shows that for Ana, the war is not over, how these things are still intertwined, always.” It’s also a reflection on memory and fragmentation: “This is a war, so people were under a lot of stress, anxiety, and it changes the way your memory works.”
Nović was influenced by the work of Izet Sarajlić, whose poetry she was translating, although she only realized that he impacted her book in retrospect. His wrote his collection “Sarajevo War Journal” during the first weeks of the war in the Bosnian capital.
“He’s very spare with his language, but he’s also very funny in this black humor [way],” she said. “When you’re amidst this terrible situation, you’re still a person, so still some things are funny. And that was something that I tried to put in the book with the way the kids respond to the war,” playing war games and fighting over the generator bike in underground air raid shelters.
Nović is deaf, and she has written about the experience of being a deaf novelist for The Guardian. She joked that she can “just sit anywhere and write and not be bothered by people,” but she said “’deaf’ is a really negative thing in our language,” with phrases like “falling on deaf ears.”
“It’s sometimes weird to write in a language that’s intrinsically negative about your personhood,” said Nović, who is trilingual in English, American Sign Language and Croatian. Since her hearing loss was progressive, “English is my first [language], just not my favorite anymore. Except when I’m writing. Then I like it again.”
Nović founded the online magazine Redeafined three years ago to combat misinformation on deaf issues. The busy author also teaches writing at Columbia University and at the Fashion Institute of Technology and serves as the fiction editor for Blunderbuss Magazine.
Now Nović is working on a “very new” writing project set in a deaf school in Boston.
“It’s just kind of a short story that gets longer and longer instead of ending, which I eye with suspicion because that’s what happened when I was writing [‘Girl at War’],” she said.
Sara Nović will be participating in a reading along with two other authors at LIC Bar, 45-58 Vernon Blvd., on July 14 from 8 to 9:30 p.m. “Girl at War” can be found in bookstores all over.