A Very Small Flame
by James Winter
Issue #193 • June 30, 2014•Buy Now!
There are many ways one can die in Sarajevo.
The most obvious is to be killed by the Chetniks. This is no special thing. It does not matter who or where you are. Their bullets will find you. Their snipers possess accuracy matched only by the American armed forces, or so I’ve heard, an irony since President Clinton donated boxes of infantry uniforms to protect us on these cold, cold nights, but wearing one will only get you shot. Oh, at first we loved the donations. The clothes were warm and looked sharp. Then the young man in the apartment upstairs was shot in the head while crossing the street for a handout of smuggled NGO milks and cheeses. The uniform was an arrow saying, “Here, shoot me.” Now, we burn the clothes in our nightly fires, so I guess they did become of some use. The young man, Kemel, was so proud to walk about in that spectacular jungle camouflage with its bare patch on the sleeve where the Americans had removed their flag, as if sans insignia nobody could tell from where the uniforms had arrived. Kemel’s girlfriend later died, too, her breast pressed to the pane of their apartment window, waiting, waiting, until finally—bang!—a tiny, blackened hole just above her left nipple. Like I said, accuracy. No one wanted to believe she made herself a target.
James Winter is an English professor at Kent State University Salem and an instructor with the Upward Bound Program. A graduate of the Northeast Ohio Master’s of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) consortium, his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in PANK Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and The Rubbertop Review. James lives in Ohio with his wife and newborn daughter, and is currently finishing two story collections, one of which features “A Very Small Flame.”
Hannah Tinti on A Very Small Flame
The 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.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
A similar thing happened with “A Very Small Flame.” I was listening to a lot of political songs as I finished “El Pueblo,” one of which was “Miss Sarajevo.” Again, I wanted to know the meaning. I remembered a little of the news coverage of the Bosnian War from my childhood, but my knowledge was limited. As I researched further about the experiences of those living in Sarajevo, I was moved by their perseverance and grace. I didn’t begin writing what appears in One Story, but rather about the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo, Admira and Bosko, who get mention in “Flame.” Yet, I felt uncomfortable fictionalizing their lives and decided I needed to create a totally fictional character.
My first attempt consisted of a series of letters between a Sarajevo shopkeeper involved in the black market and his young daughter who lives in Paris with his ex-wife. I realized I had a novel on my hands and not enough research. So, I set this draft aside. Then, desperate to complete the story, I thought I had a clever idea—a Sarajevo black comedy about a woman whose attempts at suicide are thwarted at every turn. I wrote about a page and found it was not funny. Not at all. Yet again, I threw the story aside.
Finally, four years after becoming interested in Sarajevo, this Christmas I decided to put all of my research into a tale about the experience of living through the Siege. No matter what came out, I had to finish the draft. When my wife and I returned from my sister-in-law’s at the New Year, I was incredibly sick. What better time to write than when semi-lucid? I’d write a paragraph or two, feel woozy and worn out, and return a few hours later. In a week, I finished the version I submitted to One Story. It’s the quickest draft I ever wrote. I think my illness turned off my internal doubter and editor and enabled me to write less of the narratives I’m used to and more of an essay, which condensed my research and ideas into a cohesive chronicle of one man’s experience of the Siege.
I gathered all of this information in notebooks and Word documents and continued by reading several texts, balancing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I am especially indebted to Sarajevo Blues by Semezdin Mehmedinovic, Fools Rush In by Bill Carter, and Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia by Chuck Sudetic, Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo and Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land, as well as the heart-wrenching poetry I read online. From there, I researched names, cultural norms, and used Google Maps and Images to study the city before, during, and after the Siege.
By studying this mound of research so closely, what I needed during my writing of the piece tended to fall into place. I could choose what would best serve the story. Editing the piece with Hannah required me to research many aspects of the piece further—Muslim prayer, the layouts of certain streets, and more specific details about many of the places in the story. It was thrilling to work with her since she pushed my writing, research, and ideas of what my story should and could do toward what I had originally envisioned.
Of course, in my mind, no amount of research is enough and I realize a fictional piece cannot take the place of nor do justice to those who lived through the Siege. I only hope that I could capture a small slice of the personal trauma of the war.
The first list gave me the confidence to make a second. I did it once, so why not two or three times? Listing them in a single sentence diluted the power of the specific words. Having them line-by-line allowed them their own space to resonate with the preceding deaths and those that follow.
There were actually one or two more lists in the original draft. One I cut during revising and the other I cut with Hannah. Only after editing the story with her did I see the joke, as cheesy as it might be—Pasha, the grocer, is making his own sorts of lists.
I knew a third person narrator would distance itself from the reader. I wanted the reader to feel very close to Pasha, to live in his skin during the horrors of the Siege. The first person would also be more conducive to having him address the reader directly, as if he has taken your hand at the door of his shop and said, “Here, let me show you my city.”
I could see Avdo, all of him, from his size and shape to the crazed look in his eyes. But I didn’t want his insanity to guide the story. I wanted his humanity to shine through, the kind of humanity Pasha might observe every now and then. Thus, the tender scene with the children at Markale, and the suspenseful scene that closes the story. For me, Avdo holding that pigeon is a St. Francis image. I don’t know what he’s saying, really. Coming from Avdo, it’s probably nonsense, yet his words stop the war for just a moment. For Pasha, that’s enough to rekindle that very small flame.
The second collection contains stories that take place around the world, like “El Pueblo Vencera” and “A Very Small Flame.” Others are set in Barcelona, Bahrain, and there are a few stories I gleaned from working with veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. There’s even a father and son UFO abduction story, a sort of coming of age meets The X-Files.
I hope to finish these this summer and begin working on a novel.