New York City, October 13, 2019
Dear members of The Swedish Academy,
I am a Bosnian born artist living in New York, whose work deals with genocide, collective memory and trauma. I’m writing in regard to your recent decision to grant Peter Handke The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2019, and the impact that has had on me, and other survivors, since the announcement on October 10th.
After reading numerous articles about your decision in complete state of shock and disbelief, I was grateful and relieved to see that journalists, writers and public figures worldwide, had not forgotten Handke’s public denial of the Srebrenica genocide, nor his ardent support for Slobodan Milošević, Ratko Mladic, and Radovan Karadžić (the latter two convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990’s by ICTY.) The many published responses underline the very serious emotional, psychological and physical reactions that are the consequences of your astonishing celebration.
What is missing from many of these articles is how your decision to grant Handke the Nobel prize actually feels for those of us who have survived genocide and mass persecution he’s denying in our home country. What follows is a brief explanation of just how painful and assaulting your choice is for my communities both in Bosnia, and its diaspora.
It is simple to employ the cliche that an artist’s political or moral positions should be separated from their work, but I would argue that in today’s political climate this is an unreasonable and willfully ignorant expectation. It is especially dangerous in this instance in which the author uses words as a tool to distort and erode historical facts. He already had a large audience that might believe or sympathize with him—an audience that you have now increased exponentially. Furthermore, only those who have the privilege of not being directly affected and offended by Handke’s claims can insist on valuing his work and ignoring his poisonous output. Even if you are rewarding him solely for his literary contributions, I find it unfathomable that you could ignore his later works pertaining to his alliance with genocide perpetrators and misrepresentation of Serbia’s nationalist agenda. Do you realize that the result of your misguided decision delegitimizes and dismisses the worst atrocities carried out on European soil since World War II? Did you consider how your decision and lack of accountability would affect survivors from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and by extension the millions globally who have experienced similar anguish?
During the past fifteen years I (along with the support of countless volunteers) have created and developed inclusive spaces for remembering, mourning and healing in response to these atrocities. This includes ŠTO TE NEMA - the annual nomadic monument to the Srebrenica genocide. The monument’s 5th iteration was hosted in Stockholm on July 11, 2010. I am profoundly disturbed by your decision to such degree that I have been unable to sleep regularly since it was announced. Each day is a losing struggle to remain present at my day job, and focus during my interactions with others. Any food that I put inside my body is expelled in diarrhetic form. Frequently I break down and cry. It is difficult to listen to, and support other Bosnian friends who are experiencing similar symptoms. I ask myself if we can really be there for each other when we all hurt at the same time.
The pain in my chest persists despite my attempts to take deep breaths. The anxiety I feel is located heavily in my stomach. It has taken me days to realize that all of this, everything that I am experiencing is the trauma I carry in my body, manifesting. It’s debilitating, as if you are half asleep and half awake. The situation you have created is causing physical retraumatization. I recognize that every trauma survivor has their own trigger points. These were clearly mine. They are coming at a vulnerable time as I am in the midst of working with several civil society organizations in Serbia to organize the 15th annual iteration of ŠTO TE NEMA in Belgrade on July 11, 2020. This temporary memorial has traveled to 14 different cities since 2006 - ironically the same year Handke gave a eulogy at Milošević’s funeral in Serbia. Most of my conversations with my Belgrade partners are about trying to figure out how to realize this ephemeral monument safely. How do we protect thousands of donated cups [one for almost each of the 8,372 Srebrenica genocide victims] that make up the monument? How do we make sure that none of our volunteers or passersby, who will participate in placing the cups on the ground and filling them with Bosnian coffee for those who will never return to drink it, do not get hurt by nationalists? Do we actually need bodyguards to protect us, and will they be able to shield us from physical harm?
My family was persecuted from our hometown of Banja Luka when I was fifteen years old. With a population of more than 100,000, we were too many to kill at once. So, after forcing us to leave everything we had behind, the perpetrators not only occupied our homes and took hold of our possessions, but they also took the time to erase all cultural artifacts from our city. All 16 mosques, most of which were built in the 16th and 17th centuries and have survived two World Wars, were blown up. The names of streets and public places were changed and remain as such to this day as part of the nationalist propaganda meant to erase the multicultural heritage of the city where I was born and grew up in.
International friends, despite their love and sympathy, cannot fully comprehend my rage and disappointment. I’m frustrated by their inability to understand the threat of complete annihilation; but how could they? Imagine if Handke’s written words contributed to a sense of your erasure - of your family’s, your city’s, and that of your daughters and sons. Would you still have rewarded him?
Peter Handke is not the first, nor will he be the last genocide denier. Nor is this the first egregious mistake by your secret selection committee to select a recipient who doesn’t seem to be deserving of such prestigious recognition. It would perhaps be easier to bathe in apathy, dismissing the relevance of the Nobel Prize to begin with despite the fact that from now on every one of Handke’s book covers or articles written about him will list him as a Nobel laureate. His Nobel Prize will stay forever and be written into history. That is what he will be glorified and remembered for, despite this no-doubt fleeting uproar roiling about your decision. Is that your aim, to ignore, to stay quiet until all of this blows over? Do you not think that his words will encourage the despicable rise of nationalism across the region?
Your choice to celebrate a genocide denier and war crime apologist, sending him home with over one million dollars, is an unforgivable act of cruelty, arrogance and destruction. It implicates you directly in the continuation and deepening of the trauma and violence suffered by survivors. Handke’s denials cause us once more to feel invisible and irrelevant, as if our lives have no value or meaning. Your gesture by association is turning you into deniers of murder, torture and genocide. That is the legacy that You will now be remembered for.
Yours sincerely, Aida Šehović
Aida Šehović is a Bosnian born artist based in New York. She is the founder and caretaker of the ŠTO TE NEMA nomadic monument.