Lesleyanne Ryan’s debut novel Braco, which follows the journey of 14-year-old Bosnian refugee Atif after the fall of Srebrenica, was published in the fall of 2012 by Breakwater Books to universal acclaim. Already Braco had won the 2011 Fresh Fish Award for an unpublished manuscript. But this spring the novel has also been nominated in the Margaret and John Savage Frist Book Award category of the Atlantic Book Awards.
The shortlist for this section of the Atlantic Book Awards is drawn from a large geographical area with many fine books eligible. So the nod confirms Braco is a standout. Lesleyanne is a very rare phenomenon, a very fine prose writer who has lived through some of the extraordinary events she describes. In Braco, she has shown a keen and intelligent focus as she tells a story from many different (but necessary) points of view turning her personal insights about conflict and ethnic violence into the highest craft. What she has given us with Braco is a compelling tour de force which weaves through the murky politics and horror of the Balkan conflict, revealing the faces behind the headlines and the emotions behind the statistics.
I asked Lesleyanne about her long journey from her first notion that she would write a novel set in the Balkan conflict to final publication.
Paul Butler: With its multiple perspectives and complex historical and political landscape, Braco is an extraordinarily ambitious first novel. As it turned out, the enthusiastic reception the book has received confirms you were on the right track all along (that’s if external validation were needed), but there must have been times when you wondered whether you had taken on too much, when you felt that, okay let’s start again with something simpler. And if so, what re-energized you and brought you back to your original conception of Braco?
Lesleyanne Ryan: When I first decided to write the story, my plan was to tell it only from Atif’s point of view but once I started to put words down on paper it became apparent very quickly that I couldn’t achieve the one goal I had set for myself – to tell the whole story of the fall of Srebrenica.
Once I considered the multiple points of view, my first thought was that it would be too much for the reader, especially given the confusing nature of the Bosnian war. In fact, on your advice, I read some other novels that used multiple points of view, and with that, I knew it could work. It became a juggling act and I ended up having to buy paper the size of poster board to make a flowchart. Then it was just a big puzzle and was actually a lot of fun to put together.
In 2010, an agent shopped the manuscript in New York and when some of the publishers suggested it would be a better story with just Atif, I tried putting it to paper. I finished a draft, but it simply didn’t work. My beta readers wanted to know what happened to Jac. They wanted to know what motivated Niko, Tarak and Mike. And since Atif is a character with so little emotion, it was hard for the reader to latch on to him. I realized the other points of view let the reader care about Atif through their actions and that allowed me present Atif as he should be – an emotionally void, traumatised boy functioning solely on adrenalin and instinct. The general consensus from my beta readers convinced me the original was the better choice for these reasons and that made up my mind once and for all to stick with the multiple points of view.
Extract from Braco:
Mike opened his eyes. Brendan’s new cameraman, Robert, stood in the doorway. He carried a video camera on his shoulder, which looked too big for his slight frame.
“Brendan said to tell you the escort leaves with or without us in ten minutes.”
Mike tossed the towel on the dresser.
Robert didn’t move. “He told me to help you.”
“No, he told you to make sure I was up and moving.” Mike picked up the black bag and tossed it at Robert’s feet. “Go on. I’ll be right down.”
Robert picked up the bag and walked away. Mike turned to the dresser and shuffled through some papers. He picked up a laminated black and white clipping that showed an emaciated boy wearing only a pair of shorts.
The caption read, “Starvation in the heart of Europe. Twelve year old Atif Stavic weighs only 63 pounds. Food drops and convoys are doing little to alleviate the hunger. Should the UN intervene?”
Mike had never returned to Srebrenica to tell the boy his face was known worldwide; at least it had been for a few days. His photos and the footage from other journalists had sparked outrage over the Serb blockades. Within months, the UN designated Srebrenica and a fifty-square-kilometre area around the town as the first United Nations Safe Area. Only the Canadians responded to the UN request for troops, sending in one hundred and fifty peacekeepers when ten thousand were needed. Eight hundred Dutch replaced them a year later.
Mike liked to think the photo had made a difference. The truth usually did.
“Where are you now, Braco?”
He dropped the picture into his knapsack, checked the room over and left.
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