Issue #193: A Very Small Flame by James Winter

193-cover_Page_01The siege of Sarajevo began in April, 1992 and lasted nearly four years, during which the citizens of that war-torn city lived in terror and suffered every possible kind of deprivation. Thousands were starved, raped, killed by snipers or wounded in bomb attacks. Like the mass murders in Srebrenica and death camps like Omarska, the siege of Sarajevo became a symbol of the Bosnian war and dominated the world news cycle. But how did the civilians caught in the crossfire live day to day? How did they continue on when surrounded by so much death? These are just some of the questions that author James Winter takes on in our new issue, “A Very Small Flame.” Written from the point of view of Pasha, a Muslim grocer trying to protect his family, “A Very Small Flame” uses a unique format to tell its story, presenting lists of words and memories to record the facts of history. As a reader I was caught up in the drama of Pasha’s life but also held by his refusal to fall into despair, even when bearing witness to the darkest of atrocities. Read our Q&A with James Winter to find out more about the research that went into “A Very Small Flame,” and how this thriving, cosmopolitan city went from hosting the Olympics in 1984 to being a battlefield just eight years later. It is a history lesson everyone should know, and a story worth telling—how to face such horror with an unflinching eye, and without losing love or faith in humanity.

3 thoughts on “Issue #193: A Very Small Flame by James Winter

  1. You might also like a short story “The Good In Men” included in the collection The Last Game We Played, published by Black Lawrence Press, written by Jo Neace Krause.

  2. While reading this remarkable story, I couldn’t help thinking of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, the best book I’ve read this year. It amazes me that neither Winter nor Marra had even been to the countries they chronicle so vividly in their stories. Not having lived through the horrors they depict, they both capture the humanity of the individuals who did, and there is a startling similarity in the compassion, humor, hope, and dignity of the characters between the two stories, who all represent different sides of the conflicts. What seems clear is that there were atrocities committed on all sides. What is also clear is that beneath what we consider different ‘factions,’ are individual human beings, who somehow, against all odds, are able to maintain the hopefulness and compassion of the human spirit in the midst of their individual loss and despair.

    These stories are so important, because, bombarded by reports of destruction in far flung countries, with no clear understanding of who the ‘bad guys’ are, we often lose sight of the ‘good guys’ – the people, just like us, who mean no harm and are just struggling to survive.

    While it’s nice to know that it’s possible to hang onto a ‘very small flame of hope,’ ultimately, it seems like a tragedy that for so many blameless individuals, this becomes the only means of survival in an unfathomably cruel world. Further, it is hard to find redemption, or a sense that through these stories we can learn from the mistakes of the past, as all around us the atrocities continue unabated while we stand by, scratching our heads, indiscriminately tossing more weapons into what we hope are the right hands.

    When my daughter was in 5th grade, her chorus sang Judy Collins’ _Song for Sarajevo_ at a school concert. We leaned into each other, whispering, ‘Wow, that’s pretty intense for 10 year olds,’ as we dabbed at our tears, thinking we were crying because of the beauty of their sweet little voices. I realize now that’s not what we were crying about, and I applaud the chorus teacher’s bravery for choosing that song and bringing us to our knees in that elementary school auditorium.

    Thank you, James, for your story.


  3. “A Very Small Flame” is a very fine story. I like the way the unique lists gracefully work to the advantage of the story, providing an interesting feature to the story-telling without impeding the forward progress of the story. And I admire the consistent and convincing tonal note held throughout.
    The life of the main character emerges so naturally that I listen as if another person were telling me their own authentic story—an urgent story told in a measured voice. I love the handling of this family, especially the sister and brother Advo, though the very small flickering of his parents also work well.
    The historical material is handled naturally as well, engaging me as a reader without allowing the factual context to overtake the story. Of course, these historical events are the context and the urgency of the story. Touchingly handled, without becoming overly sentimental, “A Very Small Flame” presents us with a social context in which killing carries no consequences and life is viewed so cheaply that survival is a small miracle—a very small one, as a matter of fact.

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