KGOU

Author Adnan Mahmutovic On Using Humor To Tell Stories About Refugees

Feb 8, 2018

Adnan Mahmutovic fled the war-torn former Yugoslavia as a teenager, and settled as a refugee in Sweden. He began working as a care assistant for a man who had suffered a stroke, and the job became his introduction to Swedish life.

“A huge part of who I am now was built through those 11 years that I worked with him and other people with brain damage,” Mahmutovic told KGOU’s World Views.

Now a writer-in-residence and professor in the University of Stockholm’s Department of English, Mahmutovic says his experience as a care assistant was formative to his development as a writer.

“You have to allow yourself to be both professional and intimate at the same time. And I think that's the core of writing,” Mahmutovic said.

Mahmutovic, whose books include How to Fare Well and Stay Fair and Thinner than a Hair, draws upon his experience as a refugee to inform his work, and he sprinkles doses of humor into his writing. The heading on his website says, “Funny stories about sad refugees and sad stories about funny refugees.” But when he first starting writing, he didn’t know he was funny.

“I was reading them aloud at different events, and then people would laugh and it's like, what's going on here? Why are you laughing? These are sad stories,” Mahmutovic said.

The use of humor helps him respect the traumas of characters who live through difficult times and circumstances. He says the post-war literature was too patriotic and nationalistic, and describes people in ways that he didn’t think were realistic.

And while he adds that it’s generally not a good thing to laugh at refugees, they have some funny characteristics.

“The way we deal with the nostalgia, for instance, we are ridiculous. All of us,” Mahmutovic said. “I realized that when I was in all those refugee camps. I mean things people did like smelling dirt and thinking, you know, that's just the smell or my old country or something like that.”

Interview Highlights:

On how being a care assistant influenced him as a writer:

You have to allow yourself to be both professional and intimate at the same time. And I think that's the core of writing, that you have this, you have the craft, you have the skills, you have the professionalism but at the core of it is a kind of intimacy that is that is essential. Getting closer to someone and in at the same time keeping some distance. So I think that balance between distance and intimacy is essential for writing, that you have to be able to to see the bigger picture but also to remain in that place of intimacy which is kind of dangerous. I feel it's it's risky but it's important because what you do as a writer is exactly what I did as as a carer, as a care assistant, that is to to care and to actually connect with another human being who is completely different from you in every way from age through religion to nationality to whatever.

On using humor in stories about refugees

One thing I didn't like about some post-war writing was that it was trying to be too nationalist, that was trying to be too patriotic, it was trying to be things that describe people the way they were not. And for me that was funny. It was, people are funny. So I would listen to these stories and someone might object like, oh, how can you characterize this old Bosnian woman who is who you know wears a headscarf for instance. You think that that's really serious. And then you tell something about her that you know how she, for instance, used a remote control to hit her husband on his thing. And for me that characterizes that person to the core. I mean that for me brings me really close to her. And she maybe a lot of things, and that is one of those things. And someone might omit that. I don't, because that is reality. And that's why I found in about all these, all of us, refugees. But also I think you don't want to laugh at refugees. And I think that's obviously your shouldn't in a sense. But we are silly, as well, as people. And the way we deal with the nostalgia, for instance, we are ridiculous. All of us. I realized that when I was in all those refugee camps. I mean things people did like smelling dirt and thinking you know that's just the smell or my old country or something like that.

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Suzette Grillot: Adnan Mahmutovic, welcome to World Views.

Adnan Mahmutovic: Thank you so much.

Grillot: It's great to have you here. Adnan, let's talk a little bit about your background. You're a novelist and a literary scholar. But you were born in Bosnia, left Bosnia as a war refugee in 1993 and moved to Sweden. So then you spent most of your life growing up there. So tell us a little bit about that background of yours and in particular it's been noted that you worked for about 10 years with people that had brain damage, all before you then decided to study English and become a writer and a literary scholar. So kind of how did that happen? From Bosnia, to working with people with brain damage in Sweden, to being a writer and a literary scholar?

Mahmutovic: Well I was I was 17, 18 when I came from Bosnia as a refugee. And when I was growing up in which was then former Yugoslavia at the time of a brotherhood and love and all that, which then turned out to be something else. So when I came to Sweden we were in all these ... moving from a refugee camp to a refugee camp, so kind of moving around quite a lot. And at some point Sweden decided that they would just keep all of us. So we got green cards, everyone, the lot.

Mahmutovic: And then in that first period I was in a really small town in southern Sweden, just a couple of buildings in the woods, endless woods and moose and all kinds of animals. Just really really beautiful but very depressing as well. And I was sent like all of us just so we were studying Swedish as everyone did. And then we had to work at different places from time to time. So we would spend maybe three months painting a school and then three months on a farm or three months washing dishes in a hotel or different places. So that's how we sort of got introduced into Swedish society.

Mahmutovic: I wanted to study art and I got a kind of a saw a job on the side working with a blind person like a, like a care assistant. And I kind of liked that. And at the same time I was I was studying English on my own because I realized that my German was kind of useless and I was just listening to all those tapes and just studying English on my own. And then I moved to Stockholm, looked for work, and wanted to continue studying and I found this job which was really a chance. I don't know, it was it was a fate I would say. I started working as a care assistant for a guy in a wheelchair. He had a stroke. And that became like my introduction into the Swedish life. And a huge part of who I am now was built through those 11 years that I worked with him and other people with brain damage. But I was studying at the same time, so it wasn't really like I did that work and then studied. Rather I would work at night. So I worked night shifts and then I studied daytime. I was building a family and I didn't want to take loans and so on.

Mahmutovic: So I then I was I got really interested into languages because when I was back in Bosnia I didn't believe that a person could speak another language. That's why I never learned any German, which I had in school for five or six years. So I never could really speak German or use it. I was completely useless in German. And and learning Swedish, it really was great fun. I was like Oh well I can actually do this. And then I moved from someone who had studied engineering to someone who just loved languages. And this person I worked with he was he loved literature here. He worked as a journalist for many years. So that's how I sort of got into languages as well and literature and I got into it into English English literature. I was inspired by some really amazing teachers and the rest is history so I basically just worked and studied at the same time.

Grillot: My goodness what a path you've had. And there's so much that you want to follow up on but just one thing in particular you said that working for the stroke patient and other brain damaged patients that you then developed into the person that you are through that work. You made a specific reference to that work developing you into who you are today. What what do you mean by that? How so?

Mahmutovic: I mean that you have to you have to connect. You have to allow yourself to be both professional and intimate at the same time. And I think that's the core of writing, that you have this, you have the craft, you have the skills, you have the professionalism but at the core of it is a kind of intimacy that is that is essential. Getting closer to someone and in at the same time keeping some distance. So I think that balance between distance and intimacy is essential for writing, that you have to be able to to see the bigger picture but also to remain in that place of intimacy which is kind of dangerous. I feel it's it's risky but it's important because what you do as a writer is exactly what I did as as a carer, as a care assistant, that is to to care and to actually connect with another human being who is completely different from you in every way from age through religion to nationality to whatever. And that is something that I experienced publishing my first story which was actually here in the States when one of the editors wrote back to me and she'd loved my story so much and I couldn't believe that someone across the pond could connect to something I was writing, this Bosnian story is very kind of a small town story about these Bosnian women. And where did that come from? I just couldn't figure that. And that for me is the miracle of writing, that connection that care, that intimacy which which I think is is essential for writing and such and for life or everything.

Grillot: That is absolutely incredible how you've articulated that connection and I mean obviously connection is what I think why we read. We read. We enjoy literature you know in all of its forms and other art forms as well as a way to connect. But that that way in which you characterized being kind of at the same time distant and close or intimate and how that is kind of dangerous and risky. How it's a fine line to walk I guess but you also are funny. You're saying it's a lot a lot of humor and so I'm going to I'm going to transition to that because I think it's related, too, that it can be risky to use humor. But as an example, on your website, you say, that quote across the top of your website "Funny stories about sad refugees and sad stories about funny refugees." And then you also in some of your writings and even like titles the way in which you play with words "How to Fare Well and Stay Fair." You know you've like you've got this this way with words that it's comical it's it's funny. I mean if you look at what you do. You've worked in the comic world. Your works include a title of visions of the future in comics. So some might think that's completely different and we've had a conversation for nine minutes and you haven't told a joke but that's not really what we're talking about here because humor is also isn't it that very precarious place where you you get close enough to something to be humorous about it, but it also requires some sort of distance. Somebody who does research on humor called it "benign violation.

Mahmutovic: Like right.

Grillot: It has to be a violation of something that makes it funny but it has to not hurt. And so you get close enough but not too close. You don't go over that line right. So does that make sense and so is that related to the whole this whole thing here and can you tell us a joke now?

Grillot: Now it's like where does humor come into all this because clearly what I look at your stuff. You're a very funny guy. So how does humor play with all this?

Mahmutovic: I discovered that. I didn't know I was funny. What happened was that I thought I was writing these really serious, dark stories about refugees, and then I was reading them aloud at different events, and then people would laugh and it's like what's going on here. Why are you laughing. These are sad stories. Yeah definitely because humor is a part of that. And I think it's needed partly I think as a way of dealing with trauma.

Grillot: It's a way to deal with discomfort, right? We laugh because otherwise we'll cry. We laugh because we don't know what else to do.

Mahmutovic: Yes. It's just. And I realize that in order for me to respect these traumas, these really sad stories of these refugees, is to actually respect the way the people are, for real. One thing I didn't like about some post-war writing was that it was trying to be too nationalist, that was trying to be too patriotic, it was trying to be things that describe people the way they were not. And for me that was funny. It was, people are funny. So I would listen to these stories and someone might object like, oh, how can you characterize this old Bosnian woman who is who you know wears a headscarf for instance. You think that that's really serious. And then you tell something about her that you know how she, for instance, used a remote control to hit her husband on his thing. And for me that characterizes that person to the core. I mean that for me brings me really close to her. And she maybe a lot of things, and that is one of those things. And someone might omit that. I don't, because that is reality. And that's why I found in about all these, all of us, refugees. But also I think you don't want to laugh at refugees. And I think that's obviously your shouldn't in a sense. But we are silly, as well, as people. And the way we deal with the nostalgia, for instance, we are ridiculous. All of us. I realized that when I was in all those refugee camps. I mean things people did like smelling dirt and thinking you know that's just the smell or my old country or something like that.

Grillot: I think what you're maybe getting at is, I mean, you used the word kind of realistic or real. But is it's kind of human, right? Is that, I mean, it's exceptionally human to be nostalgic to no matter whether you're a refugee or not, to be you know maybe that the funny part is then kind of how we're nostalgic, but that we're all these things and so it kind of again maybe develops that connection between people regardless of who they are and what their experiences are. Is that's all just really about being very very human?

Mahmutovic: Yes absolutely and I think it is essential that we can laugh at ourselves because we...

Grillot: Because otherwise we'll cry.

Mahmutovic: We have to laugh at ourselves in order to remain humble as well. I think if we are not open to be a laughed at and to make fun of ourselves then I think we are entering into some kind of dangerous zone of of being. Yeah.

Grillot: Yeah yeah the humility side of it too. But I mean not everything is funny. I mean you know you talk about sad stories about funny refugees, and funny stories about sad refugees. I mean, it's not everything about refugees is funny. And not every not every story about refugees is sad either. I mean can you can you. Does that make sense going both ways?

Mahmutovic: That's why I actually put it that way is because it is both ways. It is like just a circle. You have those things the sadness and the fun and then.

Grillot: And then sadness and then fun. And sometimes fun out of the sadness and sometimes sadness out of the fun.

Mahmutovic: Yes.

Grillot: Well that's such a great way to describe it. And your your life experience is really incredible and really appreciate you being here today to share it with us and to share your work and I look forward to reading more of it and laughing.

Mahmutovic: Thank you so much. Pleasure being here.

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