It has been 30 years since she and her parents fled Sarajevo before the war. She was still a child, just like the main character in her new book, The Velvet Home. In it, writer Vesna Evans returns to Yugoslavia and Prague in the 1990s and describes what people fleeing tanks go through and experience. “When I went to Bosnia to see in 1996, after the war, it was a completely different place from what I remembered,” he says.
The Velvet Home tells the story of a family of four who flee to Prague before the war and must find a new home, friends and work there. Writer Vesna Evans dedicated her third book to her mother and father. It is based on real events that she herself experienced. As the author of the interview knows her since her studies, he leaves a touch in the text.
Mark, how did you feel when I escaped the war?
So are you going to talk to me?
I can, can’t I?
Okay, I’ve known you since college, but I don’t remember ever associating you with being a war refugee…
To the right? I didn’t even mention it.
Yes, on the one hand, you didn’t talk about it, and even if you were more eccentric, you didn’t behave differently from the others at school. In addition, you spoke Czech very well, you studied Czech, your parents also ran two restaurants in Prague. If your name isn’t Vesna, I don’t even know you’re foreign.
Yes, many people have done the same. My friend from the gymnasium told me that she knew nothing about me and the emigration. I think many acquaintances will be surprised. Maybe I subconsciously wanted to be normal and not face the fact that we ran away from the war and still talk about it with friends. So now you can ask.
Vesna Evans, born Tvrtkovic
Photo: Jakub Plihal
- She was born in 1982 in Sarajevo, and in 1993 she fled with her family to Prague before the war.
- She studied creative writing at the Literary Academy in Prague.
- In 2009 she released her first short story Ani ve snu, and three years later the short story Idioti 21. století.
- She has lived in Norway with her husband and daughter since 2014 and has Czech and Croatian nationality.
Thank you. Many events in the Velvet Home seem very authentic, but you yourself point out that it is fiction, even though it is based on real experiences and memories. In interviews, you often have to answer what is reality and what is fabrication, but I wonder how you managed to distinguish fiction from real experiences after these years?
I would never be able to write an autobiography of my life, I love the creative process in which I develop an idea or a memory, develop it, complete it and everything germinates and arises under my hands. It’s the most fun thing for me when I write, but it’s not as much as I would have liked, because it’s often hard work. Memories can be unreliable, especially when you’re a child. I managed to capture a number of feelings in the book, but then I realized it could have been different. My brother and I talked about certain events, and we both remember them differently.
What was it?
For example, he didn’t remember any bunkers, yet he is six years older. Dad then confirmed to me that in fact we had gone to hide in bunkers. I don’t know if my brother was somewhere else, but it just goes to show how memories aren’t quite telling. However, part of the Velvet Home debate has been deciphering what really happened to me and what is fiction, many journalists believe I was born on April 5th as the main character. But that’s the fiction I put in the book, because it suited me with other motives and events.
Velvet Home is your third book, and what surprised me the most is that you decided to tackle the subject of war and emigration only now. I would expect you to have the tendency or the need to get out of it sooner.
I went through different periods, for example, when I arrived in Prague, I didn’t want to accept that I was in the Czech Republic and would now live here as a child. Then I had a rebellious teenage period where I thought I didn’t care. Except for high school, where I was in a new environment and meeting new people and friends, I slowly integrated without realizing it, and stopped caring.
I realized for the first time that Prague was my home, except for an Erasmus student internship in my final year of university, when I spent a semester in Finland. So it was quite late. In Finland, I was looking forward to the people of Prague, then I realized that the house where I have family and friends and where I want to return is no longer Sarajevo, but Prague.
Are you relieved or surprised?
This surprised me, and enough. But I’ve been working on the subject of the book for quite some time without realizing it. And in fact, I was sorry for the way the Czechs and the politicians, for example, behaved during the migration crisis, when they rejected the refugees. It was then that I realized that I was taking the Czech Republic and the Czechs for granted. Unfortunately, I missed the dialogue with the people who settled here and adapted, nothing was written properly about it. I would not like to compare myself to people from Syria or Afghanistan, they have a different culture and experience, but I have already accepted my Czechoslovakia and I am open to dialogue. I’m not afraid to talk about it.
How were you received by your parents in the 1990s when you came to Prague?
I don’t even know, I was just a kid. They put me in a class among Czech children, I didn’t take any private lessons, I had a lot of help from teachers who were excellent, and they didn’t even have any support or experience. They worked with a new student who is absent and slow, and at the same time they had to take care of about thirty other children. As soon as we arrived the parents started working, cleaning the hotel, we didn’t use any help when we arrived.
How long did it take you to process and accept that you are in the Czech Republic forever and it will become your new home?
Long. When I went to Bosnia to see in 1996, after the war, it was a completely different place than I remembered. I even considered going to high school to study in Sarajevo, but I already had all my relatives and friends in the Czech Republic. I’m really lucky to have people I’ve met here. I love Prague, spent the formative years of my life there. I like the culture of the Czechs, they go to the theatre, there are hundreds of theatres! People are competent, diverse, everyone has a different style. And I love Czech humor.
Vesna Evans | Photo: Jakub Plihal
And how long did it take you to listen to it?
You know it takes a while to figure out jokes and especially before you start being funny yourself. And until then, you are not yourself. Even if you learn the language, you are still very far from mastering it and your mother tongue. You’re late, you’re dumber. It is also nice to realize that the refugee children who arrive here will simply be slower in certain things. But who knows, maybe I just think I know Czech and like Cimrman and Pelíšky.
Do you like Cimrman?
Yeah, didn’t you know that? I had to tell my husband, who is Norwegian, that Cimrman is a real character. We also went to his museum, he admired it badly, it’s just great.
How did your parents react when you told them you would write about your escape from the war?
They were happy. Although I don’t know how my dad will react, because I wrote a lot of true things about his mom, but I also added some fabrics to it, it probably won’t be an enjoyable read for him. My parents were a big influence that I did it, it meant a lot to them.
However, publishing the book was not entirely easy, the first publisher rejected it because of the subject of refugees, now, on the contrary, you distribute a number of interviews, because it is very reminiscent of the events that take place in Ukraine. Doesn’t that seem paradoxical to you?
I used to send a demo to a publishing house, but they didn’t mind that it wasn’t an attractive subject. Now I’m sick of the parallel, because it’s a topical issue. I wondered what it was. I have a war, a book, the Czech Republic and my roots, I am no longer determined by the bartenders who send me back to Bosnia. I would easily meet all hateful refugees and answer their questions.
But now a completely different war has come, I have no one in it, and besides, some memories have awakened in me and I am completely blown away. I spoke to acquaintances from Bosnia and Herzegovina and everyone is traumatized. When they fire and bomb in Ukraine, I can imagine it very clearly, I lived it, for me it’s not just news events. Although similar things are covered in Velvet Home, it is not a book about the Ukrainian war. But I hope readers will understand a bit of what people fleeing war feel like.
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