Fiction editor Janice Obuchowski talks with Ismet Prcic: “I’m a child of wartime, he tells us, “so I obsess about death ad nauseam, which apparently makes me both a better and a sadder human.” And, apparently, an astonishing writer. Read the interview below and “Desiccated,” his story, in NER 38.2.
Janice Obuchowski: Early on in “Desiccated,” your protagonist remembers the metaphor of a frog that allows itself to be boiled because the water was heated slowly. “This horrified you as a kid, this notion that something can be all around you, killing you, something you could get yourself out of if you could perceive its presence, yet you have no apparatus to do that.” The writing then keeps enacting this idea: the protagonist is slow to understand the horrors about him. He wakes and doesn’t remember for quite some time his wife has died. He studies his neighborhood and can’t place what’s wrong with his environment. When I first read this piece I kept thinking this was a story about horror—a dead wife, a zombie apocalypse, memories of war-torn Bosnia, words missing from printed texts (a kind of blankness)—but it seems to me equally about the perception of horror. Were you thinking about it this way as you wrote?
Ismet Prcic: I’m a child of wartime so I obsess about death ad nauseam, which apparently makes me both a better and a sadder human. My maternal grandfather, who was an imam, used to say that if a person thought about their own death every day they would surely end up in heaven without even having to be a believer, without all the abracadabras and aerobics of Muslim prayer, because the fear and introspection that happens when we examine our own mortality wakes us up and changes the way we perceive our life and the way we spend it in the now. And spending our lives we are, with every click of a mouse, with every meme, with every tweet of our president.
And the horror of being alive, if we really examine it, is always about perception of life ending. An empty alleyway in the middle of the night is not scary if you’re drunk and really need to urinate, but it is if you have time to think yourself stabbed. Earlier humans lived to survive; they had to procure food and water and shelter on a daily basis, carve it out of the sea, the mountain, had to take risks, lived shorter lives, but lived them for reals. There was no time in the day to contemplate mortality the way I do it now, obsessively.
I had a taste of living just to survive in Bosnia so it’s really hard for me to convince my American wife that I’m primed by this experience, that I’m still in a lot of way in survival mode despite the fact that our pantry is full, that water flows out of a pipe in our wall when I lefty-loosey it.
JO: This also strikes me as a story about survival, both literal and emotional. This character has to process his grief about his wife. He also has to fend off zombies. He thinks about what he knows of survival as originating in his experiences as a teenager in Bosnia. Do you see this character as capable of surviving? As incapable? (I see a lot of evidence for both, actually, which feels to me compelling in its own right.)
IP: I was trying to explore where the experience of living actually happens; is it in the thoughts or in “real life”? I guess the use of quotation marks here give away where I stand on the subject currently, even though, intellectually, I understand that both of these positions are true simultaneously, that it’s the limited human brains that are inventing the distinction between the two, because we as a species can’t stop noticing mostly meaningless patterns, can’t help thinking in a binary way. Incidentally, we build complex technologies using the same principle and we worry about singularity—the moment when a manmade machine becomes enlightened—yet in our whole history we’ve only had a handful of actual people who achieved the same. Most people when they hear that we gain by giving, that we win by not fighting, that we feel stress and suffering because we’ve learned to do so, not because they actually exist, dismiss these truths as lack of common sense. And common sense gives us both Out of sight, out of mind and Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Both sayings ring “true” in a same way that photons are both waves and particles; it has to do with who is doing the observing.
At the end of the day it’s always about communication, it’s always about how well we can make our particular truth ring through in the ears of loved ones and strangers alike, hear their truth back, and survive in this world together, despite differences.
JO: Recently you co-wrote Imperial Dreams (streaming now on Netflix). The film is synopsized as, “A young father returns home from jail eager to care for his son and become a writer, but crime, poverty and a flawed system threaten his plans.” Do you think of this short story and the film as being thematically similar? (Are there themes that preoccupy you as a writer?) Second: How different are the experiences of writing a short story versus writing a screenplay?
IP: To answer your first question, yes. When my friend Malik Vithal approached me to fictionalize the story of a young man he met in Watts, I didn’t know if I was the right man for the job. I mean, what do I know about the hood? Or the racism of the criminal justice system? Or what it’s like to grow up black in the US? But at some point I connected with this young man because of PTSD, which in the US is most prevalent with our armed forces, rape victims, and young people from the hood. It turns out that growing up under siege—with no power, no food, negotiating the moods of people with guns and nothing to lose—is similar to growing up in the hood. The fact that this young man wanted to write and make music and thrive made me feel that despite the fact that we come from such different places our feelings were similar, which provided a way for me into his story. Still, it was tough going, let me tell you; three and a half years Malik and I went back and forth, and being a loner fiction writer most of my time, fighting only with myself, I was thrown for a loop. Once I saw the final version though, the work of all of these people who brought it to life, I signed up to do it again. Malik and I are working on a new project now.
JO: Anyone you’re reading now you’re particularly smitten with?
IP: Currently, I’m reading a novel by Percival Everett, poetry of Joan Naviyuk Kane and rereading stories of Danilo Kis and John Edgar Wideman in preparation for a gig at IAIA in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the end of July.
JO: What are you working on now? More stories? A novel?
IP: I’m trying to finish this pivotal short story in my collection about immigration and alcoholism that has been kicking my ass for over a year. But I keep going after it, despite the glass chin. Perhaps a good zombie apocalypse is what I need, or new anti-depressants. Or I can practice mindfulness and learn to smell the fucking flowers with the same amount of energy I spend worrying about the shit I can’t control.