By Nick Ward
For Sanita Fejzić (BA '15, MA '18), writing is a way of life. A graduate of Carleton’s Department of English Language and Literature, she believes that writing can challenge power structures, expose historical blind spots, ignite social change, and dramatically amend one’s core values and identity.
In our conversation, Fejzić explains how creating the imaginary can often lead us to better understand what is possible in the real world – a pressing necessity in our current moment.
While fiction can surely help us realize the unrealized, sharing real-world experiences through writing is often as inspirational and revolutionary as any creatively assembled allegorical world or story.
For her beautiful, funny, and often tragic play Blissful State of Surrender – which just completed its successful run at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) in Ottawa – Fejzić drew on her own life in a Bosnian-Canadian family. Informed by her personal contextual backdrop, the play explores clashes of culture between parents and children, offers a portrait of the Muslim refugee experience, and interrogates the complexity of a family coping with intergenerational differences, profound secrets, and the cosmic struggle of living with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Since wrapping up her MA at Carleton, Fejzić has gone on to Queen’s University, where she is presently a PhD candidate specializing in social and ecological justice.
Fejzić is one of two award-winning Carleton English graduates whose plays have been recently picked up by the GCTC. Sarah Waisvisz’s Heartlines opens on March 22, 2022. Read our interview with Waisvisz here.
Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to have a conversation with your alma mater, Sanita. Congratulations on Blissful State of Surrender. Can you tell us a bit about the play and what you hope it inspires in those who see it?
Blissful State of Surrender is my first play. It had its world premiere at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) on February 22, 2022. The play is inspired by my personal story of surviving the Siege of Sarajevo and the genocide of my Muslim Bosniak people during the 1992-1995 Balkan War. After five years spent as a refugee and “temporary guest” across three countries in Europe, my family immigrated to Canada in 1997. Likewise, the play focuses on a family 20 years after their arrival in Canada.
The production dates at the GCTC coincide with the 26th anniversary of the end of the Siege of Sarajevo. It was with great shock and sadness that the play opened on the day war broke out in Ukraine. Its relevance to past and present events is a testament to the weight of history repeating itself.
More specifically, Blissful State of Surrender is a play about a dysfunctional but deeply loving Bosniak-Canadian family dealing with intergenerational trauma. The cultural gaps between the parents and their three grown-up daughters create an atmosphere of comedy that balances the serious and traumatic atmosphere of the play. Private and public boundaries blur in this story that grapples with post 9/11 Islamophobia and stereotypes that homogenize Muslims.
It is relevant that Blissful State of Surrender is about the aftermath of genocide and forced exile to Canada by a family of Muslim Bosnians. The vast majority of the Bosnian diaspora in Canada lives in Ontario (about 27,000), making Ottawa a good home for the world premiere of my play.
The play has had a long history of development. It was workshopped in 2018 at the National Arts Centre under the direction of Sarah Garton Stanley before undergoing four workshops with TACTICS, a local, indie theatre series. In 2020-2021, I was a Playwright in Residence at the Great Canadian Theatre Company; with the help of the then Artistic Director, Eric Coates, I took the risk of introducing more Bosnians in key scenes. The audience gets to hear my mother tongue, Bosnian, forcing them to experience the disorientation that comes with the refugee experience.
In writing Blissful State of Surrender, I have tried my best to approximate a realist portrait of the Bosnian refugee-immigrant experience. This play could as easily have been staged in the United States or Europe, where most of the Bosnian diaspora is located.
To translate that which is beyond words is to stage the lived poetry of complex human experiences. Bosnian immigrants have a particular way of speaking that goes beyond the Slavic accent and echoes its unique warring, lamented, joyful and generous everyday poetics. Filled with folklore and contemporary preoccupations, the Bosnian refugee-immigrant’s imagination is as deep and complex as is their troubled history. From the medieval Bosnian state to the Ottoman rule, Austro-Hungarian occupation, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, World War II, Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the 1992-1995 genocide, Bosnians are scarred with beautiful and striking – even if deeply hurt – collisions with the past.
This play was written in honour of Šuhra Fejzić, moja rahmetli nena, my devotedly Muslim grandmother brutally murdered during the genocide. It honours the approximately 100,000 Bosnians killed, of whom 80% were Muslim Bosniaks. It remembers the approximately 12,000 to 50,000 Bosniak women and girls raped during the genocide, and their children. Finally, it was written for the 2.2 million Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox Bosnians who were forced into exile during the genocide, the largest exodus in Europe since World War II. The loss of connection to culture and country, and our mother tongue, remains a continued source of unrest and pain. May Blissful State of Surrender bring love, healing and hope for a world without war, genocide and other forms of organized violence.
Blissful State of Surrender serves as an example of your storytelling and writing dynamism. How have you cultivated these skills? What has writing given you?
I am a poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright. I am a lover of words, as one might be a lover of food. I write in multiple genres simply because it comes naturally to me. A true gastronome would not limit herself to one type of cuisine; in turn, I do not limit myself to any one way of playing with words, thinking with words, resisting with words, or imagining new worlds with words.
I am a prolific reader and a PhD Candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University where I have been a Teaching Fellow in the Gender Studies Department. Writing is an essential aspect of thinking and reading critically in the university context. No doubt being a scholar has amplified my writing skills and moved them in a critical direction.
Writing has given me a way of being in the world, it has allowed me to live an artist’s life. Make no mistake, writing has also given me struggle. It takes time to master a language – English being my third, it took longer than it might have taken others – and it takes even longer to master multiple literary forms. If I string words with ease today, it’s because of years and years of sustained effort. Writing has taught me the value of discomfort, struggle, and sustained effort. It has taught me to value long-term goals. Writing as a way of life is the opposite of the capitalist impulse for instant gratification. To struggle is to engage in battle, in a labour of love, to develop grit and endurance, and these are qualities necessary in the face of individual and collective uncertainty, complexity and failure.
Writing in the context of social unrest during a climate emergency, you have to be willing to keep going in the face of challenging and painful realities. Struggling to master English and to find my voice has forced me to interrupt the desire for immediate satisfaction. This, I believe, is a form of self-transformation, one that is essential for the eco-social revolution that is forthcoming as colonialism and late capitalism take their final breaths.
In your opinion, why is writing so crucial in our contemporary context?
Writing, and great art and culture in general, is about metamorphosis.
Our contemporary context is sometimes called “the end of times” because we co-exist during a planetary climate emergency in the context of relentless social unrest. We need transformation – at the individual and collective levels. Writing can help spark that change. If we change our language, we change our perception. If we change our perception, we transform our values.
By speaking truth back to power, writing exposes our blind spots. By imagining new worlds, writing opens new possibilities. The question is: what kind of writing is strong enough to change our individual and collective actions? What kind of writing can arrest corrupt systems of production and waste? Living in our modern context, how can writing help us abolish exploitation and exceptionalism? Writing cannot do this on its own, but it is an essential aspect of the cultural revolution needed to get us into a more just, responsible and liveable future.
Can you tell us a bit about your time at Carleton in the Department of English Language and Literature?
I have several degrees from Carleton. My first, fresh out of high school, was in Commerce. This was not a degree I desired, but one that seemed practical for a refugee-turned-immigrant-turned-settler afraid of taking risks. Following its successful completion, I embarked on a successful career in public affairs, writing for national museums, at the time, the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, which is today the Canadian History Museum Corporation. Although I had a desirable position in a Crown Corporation at the tender age of twenty-four, I was unhappy and restless. I wanted the freedom and responsibilities that come with being the master of my own pen. So, I went back to Carleton and enrolled in English with a concentration in Creative Writing. I became one of the co-editors of In/Words Magazine and Press. I met other poets and writers. I was inspired by a handful extraordinary professors. And the rest is history.
Could you speak more about that? Who and what inspires you?
Everything inspires me. The whole of Creation is a living, breathing work of art. A tree inspires me as much as the latest Anne Carson text. An essay on more-than-human embodiment is as thrilling to me as taking care of my children. My inner world is endlessly changing. My relations inspire me. Observing the growing desire to be a better version of myself is a challenge that inspires me.
What’s next for you, Sanita?
Right now, I am seeking representation to publish my first book of non-fiction, Affection for Otherness. Up next, I will be finishing my first full-length novel, The Communist’s Daughter. I have been writing this story for four years now. After that, I will polish my PhD project, Land Matters, a long poem and a text of theory. My next two plays, already written, Naomi’s Loves and Our Lives Inseparable, are both in various stages of development.
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