This content was published: February 19, 2022. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.
Interview with Carolyn Moore Writers House Resident, Ismet Prcic
Posted by frances.ferguson
Ismet Prcic & PCC student Guzide Erturk | Interview
Ismet Prcic, the writer of the novel “Shards,” has been the guest resident of the Carolyn Writer House at PCC. I had the pleasure to meet with him there and to talk about his next book, a sequel to “Shards,” his other projects he is currently working on, and his writing career.
Erturk: Ismet Prcic, the main character of your novel, grew up in Bosnia, saw the war, and immigrated to the U.S. After moving to the U.S., he became Izzy, but also begins to imagine what would have happened to himself if he had stayed behind. So, he creates a new character, in his mind, called Mustafa as the personification of how he would have been back in Bosnia. Instead of giving your main character a fictional name, why did you decide to give him your own name?
Prcic: The decision to name my book’s protagonist after myself was somehow both organic and calculated. In trying to understand my new country I noticed that in United States people separated their books into fiction and nonfiction. American readers seemed obsessed with truth. Every time I went to see an author read one of the first questions during the Q and A was undoubtedly: “How much of your book is true?” Memoirs seemed to be more popular than fiction and, in my mind, I figured that this had to have something to do with Hollywood movies and the popularity of happy endings. Back then I conjectured that when one reads a memoir one immediately knows that the author of the memoir has made it through whatever their life had thrown at them by that point, and that there’s less chance one would be bummed out at the end of the book. In Shards, I named my protagonist after myself just to thwart the idea that one should feel safe inside a narrative, ever.
Erturk: After moving to the U.S, part of Ismet still tried to live in Bosnia. With your recognition in literature and your success with being published here, do you still feel that some part of you is still left in Bosnia?
Prcic: Shards was my attempt to capture in a reading experience at least somewhat viscerally what being a refugee of a particular age and from a particular kind of conflict feels like on the inside. Life of an immigrant, especially a refugee, is lunar as hell; most of the time one is in both places at the same time. In a way it’s like being in a strange dream where one keeps “waking up” from one culture into another, from one language into another at rather random intervals. Sometimes the effects are thrilling and illuminating and serendipitous. Other times they’re confusing and disassociating and horrific. Sometimes you see your Bosnian father standing in the middle of the ice cream aisle in a supermarket in Portland and you have to take some time and conscious effort to figure out what part of you is where, is the brain or is the eye in Bosnia? But that’s just the feeling on the inside. If other people are involved (Bosnians and Americans alike) things can get even trickier. A lot of immigrants are told to Go back! I’ve heard different incarnations of that sentiment a few times in the US. I really didn’t expect to hear it uttered to me by a Sarajevan cab driver the last time I visited Bosnia in 2019. He was giving me a ride from the airport and the moment he realized I was visiting my family from America he warned me not to stay in Bosnia no matter what my family told me. He changed lanes without signaling, found my eyes in the review mirror and—like some Russian mafioso from a B Hollywood movie—said: “Go back to your country, son!” hammering down on every consonant.
Erturk: You have a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of California. When did you decide to become a writer? Did you ever dream about being a writer before leaving Bosnia?
Prcic: I became a writer by chance. Though I wrote in my original Bosnian, (terrible) poetry and silly sketches and one-act plays, I didn’t think of it as my primary art. I was always partial to acting and that was what I was passionate about. Theatre saved my life. I was conscripted into the military and it was with a theatre troupe that I escaped the war in Bosnia to go and perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. So naturally, when I found myself in the United States, I continued to pursue this dream. What I didn’t count on was that to Americans I would always have an accent. I started realized that I never got cast in any major theatre department shows, which made have to take things into my own hands. I started writing plays in English in which Bosnian immigrants spoke English. Then I directed the said plays and cast myself in them so I can have my time on the boards as well. After years of this I ended up getting better at writing. The moment I graduated with a Theatre Arts degree I had a crisis and I took a train to visit Malik in Los Angeles. I told him that I was freaking out about my choice to do my studies in something that is so famously looked down upon in the United States, in terms of career choice. He suggested I should stay in school another year and get a minor. I decided to do my minor studies in creative writing. It was then that I wrote the first portions of the manuscript that would later become Shards.
Erturk: You wrote the screenplay of the 2014 movie “Imperial Dreams.” How does it feel seeing your work on the silver screen?
Prcic: I’m only a co-writer on that film; I wrote Imperial Dreams with Malik Vitthal, a friend I met in junior college in California. For sure, it’s a bit surreal to see famous people say your words on the big screen but that’s the extent of my exhilaration on that front. Screenwriting is an entirely different animal from writing fiction. I love it because it’s disciplined (which I’m not) it’s collaborative (and I’ve been known to avoid people) and because it is humbling like theatre is; it forces one to see oneself as a small part of a much larger agenda. This is challenging for a personality like mine but I have learned that one can’t always seek comfort. I spent a lot of my life running away from pain and discomfort, to the point of disassociation at times. It was always about escapism for me in the beginning. Malik and I wrote many scripts together—horror films, actions, thrillers—but none of them became films because we were journeymen who were always writing stories for other people’s tastes. The moment Malik decided to make a movie about someone close to his heart, a young ex-gangster from low-income projects in the infamous South-Central Los Angeles who wanted out of the life of crime, the stars realigned in our favor and Malik and I got into the Sundance Screenwriting Lab. At first, I thought I might not be the right person to help write this film, being a white immigrant writing about Black experience. However, it turned out that the very experiences of spending my youth in soviet-style building blocks of Tuzla during the war, negotiating its streets filled with people with guns, and the constant fear of death or injury led directly to how I found my way into the essence of the man we were writing about. Because he, like me, like many Americans living in the projects, had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It so happened that trauma was what connected us, these two fellows from two ends of the globe (Tuzla and Los Angeles are nine time zones away). But it had to be trauma exposed, trauma talked about, trauma integrated. We had to be open about our inner wounds in order to transform something negative into something positive.
Erturk: What can you tell us about any new projects? For example, are you working on any novels or movie scripts? What would you like to do?
Prcic: Currently, I’m finishing a second book in a conceived trilogy about trauma, that started with Shards. The new novel, entitled Unspeakable Home deals in a way with the traumas I accrued while exorcising the traumas described in the first. Just like Shards the second book is dual in structure as well as nature, and is broken into two sides: Side A(merican) and Side B(osnian). Side A is the grouping of stories the protagonist’s American wife was willing to read and comment on throughout their marriage while Side B has all of his writing that she couldn’t take because it hit too close to home.
Malik and I still have a working friendship and are now also developing a couple of film projects as well. One film is about punk musicians who want to play for God and the other about a woman who can see inside of people.
In terms of what I would like to do in the future, I would love to write a more personal screenplay and have it see the light of day one day. My friend Dacho (Davor Marjanovic) helped me write a script based on one aspect of Shards but it’s hard to find a producer for a film like that. There are some plans to perhaps transform it into a limited series for TV. So much of screenwriting is working for free and waiting, waiting, waiting.
Erturk: Currently, you are a resident of the Carolyn Moore Writer House at PCC, which offers emerging writers a place and time to focus on writing. Would you tell us about your experience at it?
Prcic: I don’t know if it’s the immigrant thing or what, but I always lived with people, always folding my energies into already existing currents and learning to live alongside others—parents, relatives, pets, roommates, lovers—sharing space and dreams and air. This residence was supposed to be shared as well but COVID made it so that for the first time in my life, at forty-four years of age, I had an opportunity to live a month all by my lonesome. It took some time learning how to breathe without having to share the air, how to enjoy an otherwise unoccupied space. It was an experience that truly stretched the heart and humbled the soul. I received it as a blessing and a much-needed practice as, believe it or not, after thirteen years in Oregon, it’s today—the day I’m writing the very words you’re reading now—that I am moving to California to live on my own. I have two suitcases and a box of books, a dream and a prayer. And a life, of course. I’m alive.
Erturk: In “Shards,” we learned that Ismet loves to read from his mother’s library. Which writers have influenced you?
Prcic: It was my maternal grandfather’s library that started it all for me. He was an imam in the times of communism, which in his case meant he had to join the party, work as a school secretary and pretend he was not a God-fearing man. Sporadically, the agents of the state would check up on him and monitor the way he was running his household. For that reason, alongside his religious books and funny tales about Mullah Nas’rudin, his library contained volumes of popular western fiction, as well as every single, goddamned issue of the mandatory The Communist he was too traumatized to throw away his entire life. I believe that my mother’s urban library emerged in reaction to that one and hers included everything from the Vedas to Asimov. It was on its shelves that I encountered Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf at twelve. Its famous FOR MADMEN ONLY section was printed in incendiary red ink and I just had to see what all that was about. Being led into that mystical theatre of Hesse’s, I fell in love with the sheer madness of spending one’s life in arts, in search of answers we can only get closer to and never really attain. I felt guided into it, felt like it was a necessary and exciting sacrifice. Later on came Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Rikki Doucornet, John Edgar Wideman, Sarah Kane…all my other guides.
Photo: Guzide Erturk and Ismet Prcic in the Carolyn Moore House’s Great Room.
This interview is also excerpted in the 21st issue of Wellspring, available to read via this link.