A Jewish woman collaborates on a book with a Muslim man? Sounds like the start of a joke—except that it’s anything but. When writer and teacher Susan Shapiro was forced to undergo physical therapy for an injured back, she met a young therapist whose personal story soon had her riveted. She drew it out of him, page by page, and the result, The Bosnia List, just published in March by Penguin. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Shapiro about this highly unlikely pairing and the unexpected insights it yielded.
YZM: What initially drew you toward Kenan Trebincevic?
SS: I tore two ligaments in my lower back and Kenan was my physical therapist.
One day, he told me to do leg lifts and went to help another patient. As a journalism teacher I always carry a stack of student papers. The exercises were boring so I took out papers to grade. Kenan got annoyed I wasn’t paying attention to the workout. He looked over at the essays and asked sarcastically “What I did on my summer vacation?” in his Eastern European accent. I said, “Actually, my first assignment is to write three pages on your most humiliating secret.”
He laughed and said, “You Americans. Why would anyone do that?”
I said, “It’s healing.” And I added also that my students want to get published in the New York Times and write books. That night he emailed to see if I was okay, which I thought was very menschy. I sent him a poignant piece my student Danielle Gelfand published in the New York Times about how she and her mother, a Holocaust survivor, eat bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur, as a way to cope with her father’s suicide on that day 17 years earlier. I think that piece inspired Kenan.