Where You Come From, by Saša Stanišić

There are some people who you never want to ask where they are from unless you’re ready to sit down with them for hours, possibly over a coffee or tea, and listen to them spin out stories about not only where they come from, but also when and who they come from. Since I love a hot beverage and a story-spinner, I was happy to sit down (metaphorically) with Saša Stanišić as he tried to explain where/who/when he comes from in Where You Come From (expertly translated by Damion Searls).

Speaking strictly geographically, Saša Stanišić and his family are from Višegrad, in what is now the Republika Srpska (Bosnia and Herzegovina). Speaking temporally, the Stanišićs are from Yugoslavia. When civil and ethnic violence broke out when the country started to splinter in 1991, they fled to Germany. Speaking genealogically (I guess?), Stanišić comes from a sprawling family who live in Višegrad and the remote village of Oskoruša. A web of family stories and memories link them together: grandfathers who rafted the Drina, a great aunt who wanted to go into space, a grandmother who always called Stanišić a donkey. But Stanišić is also a refugee boy who grew into a man among many other refugees in Heidelburg. Where he lived, no one was from ’round here. All of this has given Stanišić a very reflective attitude and a semi-permanent sense of being an outsider.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Stanišić doesn’t tell his story in a straight line. He constantly jumps back and forth through time to give a complete answer to the question of where he comes from. This means we visit Yugoslavia in its last decade, a more peaceful Bosnia/Republika Srpska in the 2010s, with Germany in between. Perhaps the one constant in this work is Stanišić’s grandmother, Kristina, who was his link to the past even through her heart-breaking decline into dementia. So many things remind Stanišić of visiting his grandmother in Višegrad and Oskoruša. The more time I spent with this book, the more I started to see why. His grandmother, who weathered the horrific violence of the civil war, was a rock. Even after she started to show the signs of dementia, Kristina was stubborn about staying the same and living independently. She is also someone who appreciates a good story or a trip down memory lane.

Where You Come From is a strange ride, but one I grew to enjoy once I settled in with the Stanišić clan and the author’s penchant for time-traveling through his own life. Readers who like a non-linear autofictional narrative will enjoy this personal and family history.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A panorama of Višegrad and the Drina (Image via Wikicommons)

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