Much like Ana, the heroine of her engrossing debut novel, Sara Nović isn’t entirely sure where to call home. “This is what I’m trying to figure out,” the author says, laughing, in a recent interview. “I really don’t know.”
Nović, 28, has lived in Queens for about a year, and in New York City for a few years, but she grew up dividing her time between the U.S. and Croatia, where she has friends and family. The dual perspective informs her powerful story.
Remarkably well-crafted and emotionally mature, Girl at War plunges readers instantly into the world of 10-year-old Ana, who lives in a tiny flat in Zagreb with her parents and baby sister, Rahela. The city seethes in the oppressive summer heat, and Ana hears whispered rumors of “disturbances” in nearby towns, but she’s still relatively carefree, spending her days playing football and riding bicycles with her best pal, Luka.
Then one day the guy at the corner store refuses to sell her the usual pack of cigarettes for her uncle unless she can tell him whether it’s a Serbian or a Croatian brand. War has arrived. In Nović’s skilled hands, it takes the form of such concrete details, interruptions of daily life—small at first, then catastrophic. Ana and her family adjust to the sudden chaos: They forgo their annual trip to the coast, make do with severely restricted food and water and hide in underground shelters during air-raids. But when Rahela falls ill and no local hospital can help, the family is forced to take a huge risk. The consequences of that decision will shape Ana’s entire future. When we see her again 10 years later, in New York City in 2001, Ana is still reeling.
Ana’s difficulty dealing with her past is complicated by the general ignorance of the American public about the Croatian War of Independence, which Nović was awakened to after her first extended trip to the country. “I was shocked that nobody [in the U.S.] had heard about the war. It kind of freaked me out, because it still feels very fresh there.”
In response, she wrote a short story for a creative writing class. In it, the character who would become Ana was “having a meltdown,” as Nović puts it, triggered by news of the death of Slobodan Milošević and the memories it dredged up.
After she’d turned in the story, her professor called her into his office; she assumed she was about to be scolded. Instead, he told her, “You are going to write this novel, and you’re not going to pull any punches.”
“I kind of doubted that I had a novel in me,” she says now. “I was like 18! But eventually I just kind of started writing out in a web from that starting spot.” She kept working at the story, in chunks, for a few years. Getting the structure right was especially tricky.
“I knew I didn’t want it to be chronological,” Nović says. “I wanted readers to have a break after what happens in Part 1. I tried all sorts of weird stuff—I tried starting the book in the present, but that was terrible.” Then, while working on her MFA at Columbia, she had a meeting with writer Sam Lipsyte. He hadn’t read the novel yet, but he said, “Just tell me about it.” That did the trick: “I just spilled my guts, and he drew a picture on an envelope, and that ended up being the order in which things are now.”
As it stands, the narrative structure works beautifully, adding a whole extra layer of tension to the story. Readers slowly discover that there’s a secret buried in Ana’s past, even beyond the dark history she keeps from even her closest friends, but uncovering it is not a simple process.
Ana’s ambivalence about discussing the war might also reflect Nović’s experience. “Some people adapt better than others,” she says. “There are people in Croatia now that just don’t want to talk about it. Then there are other people who want to get it all out, and there’s a lot of cool art coming out of it.” She mentions, for example, a theater group called Heartefact that stages performances in some of the villages that were hit hardest because of their ethnically mixed populations. Still, she says, “It’ll take a long time for things to get better.”
She’s certainly not one to sit around waiting; Nović is busy. In addition to fiction, she writes essays and nonfiction, works as an editor at Blunderbuss magazine, teaches at Columbia and is the founder of the deaf-rights website Redeafined.
Nović, who is deaf, says the site started as “an anger project, but a productive one.” She’d been reading some op-eds about parents of deaf kids advocating for cochlear implant surgery, and she wrote a counterpoint op-ed in response, but no one wanted it. So eventually she decided to publish it herself, and Redeafined was born. To her surprise, “people are reading it!”
The topic is heated, she acknowledges, in part because it’s usually the case that a deaf kid has hearing parents. That means “it’s a weird kind of identity . . . you probably don’t share it with your family.”
She’s working on a story now that’s set at a deaf school, and she’s been trying to figure out a good way to put sign language on paper.
“When I finished this book I thought, well, that’s it, those are all the thoughts I really had,” she says, which is probably how everyone feels after their first novel. “It’s literally everything you’ve ever thought about. But now I have thoughts again, so that’s encouraging!”
Nović also loves teaching. There’s a character in Girl at War, a professor who acts as a sort of book angel, lending Ana new books each week and guiding her reading. Nović says he was inspired by a professor she had at Emerson as an undergrad, whose office was similarly crammed with piled-up books. “I’ve been really lucky to have a couple of teachers like that who just feed me books,” she says. “I hope to become that person.”
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Girl at War.