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Authors Sara Nović and Peter Golden on fusing trauma, wars with literature

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Authors Sara Nović and Peter Golden both have successfully used their books as a way to address war trauma, mainly focusing on Eastern Eurasia.

The duo visited the University at Albany’s Standish Room in the Science Library on Tuesday, April 17 to discuss the research they did, and directly interact with an audience with questions and commentary on how literature and war can fuse together.

Nović’s debut novel was “Girl at War” (2012) which chronicled the coming-of-age journey of Ana Jurić, a 10-year-old girl whose world is forever changed when civil war grips Yugoslavia, leading to its collapse in the early 1990s. This intimate perspective was how Nović intended for readers to emotionally connect to the generally-unfamiliar conflict.

Being an American-Croatian writer who was personally familiar with the conflict, she commented during her visit on campus that not many Americans “know much about the war which really motivated me to go and write about it.”

As many Croats wanted to secede from Yugoslavia and be its own country, Croatia became independent on June 25, 1991 from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Overall, the collapse of Yugoslavia happened due to political instability and inter-ethnic wars there among Serbs, Croats and Albanians. Somewhat marginalized in American schools’ teachings, these wars ironically were known internationally for incorporating multiple war crimes, like rape and ethnic cleansing, resulting in over 130,000 deaths.

“When I got to Croatia, people wanted to tell me their stories,” she said. “I did a lot of research…and I also was reading everybody else’s books on the topic.” Noting that the war occurred “pre-Internet,” she said that she also dove into newspapers to gain insight to what happened.

Fellow writer Peter Golden recounted how he grew up in New Jersey and his family survived the Holocaust which partially served as background context for his own books.

His most recent was “Nothing is Forgotten” (2018) which was “about a young man from New Jersey who travels to Khrushchev’s Russia, where discovers love and the long-buried secrets of his heritage.” Golden himself also visited the Dachau concentration camp and incorporated his experiences in his writing.

“I had this English school teacher…when she wrote on the board, you could see the [prisoner] numbers of Auschwitz on her arm,” he said, eliciting audience gasps. “No one asked her about them…It seemed everyone knew that she was a survivor.”

Golden also said that like sex and cancer, the Holocaust was another thing people did not talk about while he was growing up, something which made him curious.

“In the 1960s in America, there was a sense of optimism while Kennedy was president. Then, you had the Cuban Missile Crisis which scared everybody, and then you had President Kennedy shot. Shortly after that, the Beatles showed up and for the younger generation then, it was like all of that [Holocaust, Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis] was in the past and everything was a party again. So, people stopped talking about the Holocaust because who would wanna do that during a party?”

Personally remembering that the CIA had smartly “figured out that the people who needed to hear rock and roll were in the Soviet Union” at the time, Golden said that his book deals with a person who deals with broadcasting that music there.

Both authors collectively agreed that to craft their books, they had “to be curious and figure things out.” While Nović said she processes things through reading books, Golden perceived himself as a “huge nerd and books were always a pleasure,” even reminiscing about loving his library card.

Nović, who started to personally lose her hearing since around elementary school, also commented on being a part of the American deaf community, being the founder of REDEAFINED.com, a website which revolves around deaf rights and deaf culture.

She said she remains grateful that she learned extensively about holding onto the English language and immersing herself in deaf culture, so she would not “feel isolated.”

Their visit amusedly ended though with Golden being tasked to read “Go f*** yourself” in Russian while Nović interpreted it in ASL (American Sign Language).

“The middle finger works too,” Nović joked afterwards.

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