Eye on the Indies

Eye on the Indies

A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Reviews Editor

Lanie Tankard

Book: Croatian War Nocturnal

Los Angeles: Phoneme Media, August 15, 2017. 120 pp., $14.00, paperback ISBN: 9781944700133.

Author: Spomenka Štimec

Spomenka Štimec is a Croatian author, translator, and editor fluent in Esperanto. Born in the village of Orehovica in the Međimurje region of northernmost Croatia, she studied German and French in Zagreb. There she worked at the International Center for Cultural Services, the International Puppet Theater Festival, the Embassy of Malaysia, and the Croatian Alliance for Esperanto. She has edited Tempo magazine in Esperanto.

Spomenka Štimec

Štimec won the 1994 FAME Award, an Esperanto Cultural Prize of the city of Aalen, Germany. Franz Alois Meiners, a German Esperantist, started the FAME Foundation in 1993 to support international understanding. Štimec is a member of the Esperanto Academy and the World Association of Esperanto Writers. She has taught the international language in a three-week immersion program called NASK (North American Summer Esperanto Institute), sponsored by the Esperantic Studies Foundation (ESF), which works for “linguistic justice in a multicultural world.”

Štimec has written both fiction and nonfiction in Esperanto and Croatian, and her works have been translated into various languages such as French, German, Icelandic, Swedish, Chinese, and Japanese. In an interview with Literalab, an online publication covering literary life in Central and Eastern Europe started by Michael Stein, she explains how she began writing in Esperanto. Štimec lives in Croatia.

Translator: Sebastian Schulman

Sebastian Schulman, who translated Croatian War Nocturnal from Esperanto, is a PhD candidate in Jewish history at Indiana University in Bloomington. He is writing on Jewish life in Soviet Moldova. He translates from Yiddish, Russian, and Esperanto, and serves on the editorial board of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies as a translation editor. His writing has appeared in publications such as Words Without Borders, The Dirty Goat, and Forward

He has been development officer for the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he also directed translation initiatives and taught. He has held additional teaching positions at Smith College and Hampshire College. Next month Schulman will start as executive director of KlezKanada.

Publisher: Phoneme Media

In linguistics, a phoneme is a distinguishing speech sound that separates one word from another. Phoneme Media is a Los Angeles publishing house founded in 2013 by two translators, David Shook (editorial director) and Brian Hewes (who serves on the advisory board). Phoneme is “dedicated to promoting cross-cultural understanding, connecting people and ideas through translated books and films.” Their goal, explained in an interview with Poets & Writers, is to increase availability of books and videos from countries and languages under-represented in English.

Shook, a graduate of the Universities of Oklahoma and Oxford, is a contributing editor to Ambit, Bengal Lights, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and World Literature Today. A poet and translator, he is a 2017 NEA Translation Fellow. He is currently a visiting artist in the Creative Writing MFA Program at Mount Saint Mary’s University, visiting teaching fellow in Manchester Metropolitan University’s Writing Program, and a fellow at the University of Southern California Institute for the Humanities (all in Los Angeles). He is a contributing editor for Unnamed Press, a sister publisher to nonprofit Phoneme Media that brings out literature from around the world. In an interview with Asymptote, Shook described the beginnings of Phoneme Media.

Hewes is an entrepreneur and writer in Oklahoma City.

Executive Director C.P. Heiser is also publisher at Unnamed Press. He was formerly an editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, which he helped start, and worked in book publishing in New York City.

Deputy Editor Hannah Jakobsen wrote the Introduction for an e-book excerpt from Štimec’s Croatian War Nocturnal titled “René from Vukovar.”

Jaya Nicely, who serves as art director for both Phoneme and Unnamed Press, designed the cover of Croatian War Nocturnal. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.

Phoneme Media, a nonprofit sponsored by PEN Center USA, is not accepting submissions at this time. Publishers Group West distributes Phoneme’s books.


War is what happens when language fails.”
—Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

In the heart of Zagreb lives a dove. Some think it may be a partridge. Whichever, the bird is possibly Croatia’s greatest treasure. It adorns the cover of Spomenka Štimec’s book Croatian War Nocturnal.

Discovered in 1938 at the Vučedol archaeological site near the eastern city of Vukovar, the clay bird dates back to the prehistoric Neolithic Period hunkered between the Paleolithic and Bronze Ages. The Vučedol Dove is very very very old. It’s also very very very broken. The bird has been meticulously glued back together though, and resides in the Zagreb Archaeological Museum.

The city of Vukovar is also old—but just very very, dating back only to the Medieval Period in the tenth century. Yet it’s also very very very broken, virtually destroyed during the 1991 Homeland War. Štimec calls Vukovar “the Croatian Hiroshima.” Like a phoenix, however, Vukovar today is rising out of the ashes as it, too, is slowly being glued back together. The 1991 Battle of Vukovar was crucial to Croatian independence. That’s why the Vučedol Dove represents resilience. As Štimec writes: “The dove is a symbol of peace. Vukovar is a symbol of conflict.”

Croatian War Nocturnal is a fictional memoir written on an early machine-translation (MT) computer during the 1991–1995 wars in former Yugoslavia. The nameless main character, a teacher active in the Esperanto community of Zagreb much like the book’s author, writes catch-as-catch-can amidst bombing raids in her city. Štimec cleverly calls this fictitious journal a “nocturnal” because it’s a nightly ritual for the protagonist to type her thoughts on the Esperanto translation machine inside her bathroom when the air raid siren isn’t blaring. To meet blackout regulations, she’s blocked all the light both entering and exiting the window, which she’s fortified with strong tape in case it breaks during the shelling.

She types her nocturnal words staccato as if they are bullets fired from an ammo strip on an automatic weapon. When the air raid siren sounds, she abandons her thoughts and her soup, grabs the bag she leaves packed by the door, and bids farewell to her things in case she doesn’t return. “Boots stand at attention, ready to take my feet and flee into the night.” When the all-clear alert sounds, she reverses the process, writing her way through the bombing once again, trusting Esperanto will save her sanity.

Esperanto is a neutral international language developed in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof as a way for speakers of different native languages to connect through the same second language unhampered by cultural identities—in a sense, meeting each other halfway. The word means “a hopeful person,” and Zamenhof was hopeful the auxiliary language would bring about world peace through a universal tongue, although he acknowledged it could take centuries.

Zamenhof’s goal was to have individuals exchange information not as French or Chinese or Polish but rather as people, simply as people, thereby removing nationhood from the message as well as eliminating what might be “lost in translation” among the seven thousand languages spoken on this planet.

Štimec masterfully combines her own wartime memories with Zamenhof’s desire for one big happy global family here. Her imaginary character in Croatian War Nocturnal wields words on a machine the way Picasso daubed paint on a canvas to create “Guernica.” Both portray the anguish of life in the midst of conflict.

The introductory “Farewell to Belgrade” is strewn with the protagonist’s poignant reminiscences of objects and the people with whom they were associated—her aunt and uncle’s dark green handmade rug, her grandmother’s rose-colored lamp, her great aunt’s table, a portrait, a light brown plate, an ashtray with a dried flower—all of which she last saw in Belgrade when it was the capital of Yugoslavia. That was in September 1991, as “the situation” changed rapidly and her uncle put her on an outbound train—before Belgrade became the capital of Serbia, before Yugoslavia disappeared after seventy-three years, before people erased YU wherever the letters appeared.

Like a scrapbook, the nocturnal includes relevant ephemera such as quotations from a book on “the nature of power,” musings on “the use of Catholic symbols on Croatian military uniforms,” and a brief section from Zamenhof’s essay “After the War: An Appeal to the Diplomats.”

“René from Vukovar” makes up a large portion of the fictional journal. The narrator is working in the Zagreb Esperanto center when René’s aunt comes in seeking assistance to find out what happened to her nephew who lived in Vukovar—just like the Mothers of the Disappeared search for the desaparecidos in Argentina.

Other sections are titled “Recruitment,” “An Ordinary Day,” “May in Sarajevo,” “A Home in Prijedor,” “An Unmobilized Hand Towel,” “Father of Five,” and “Interment.”

Throughout the book, childhood recollections mingle with facts as Croats and Serbs become aware of their differences in language and religion. I could almost hear the thundering notes of “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets while reading the heartrendingly poetic Afterword titled “Mars, or the Devil in Croatia.”

Some say Esperanto is dying out, yet two million people still speak it. Several thousand have learned it from birth. Esperanto is growing in China. Stanford University has a class on Tuesday nights for both students and the general public (free if it’s noncredit). In fact, two Stanford students conducted an Esperanto research project in Europe this year. World Esperanto headquarters are in Rotterdam. There are conversational meetups in cities around the world.

Esther Schor in her book Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of an International Language noted: “But even now, in the Internet age, Esperanto is about connection, not connectivity; about social life, not social networks. Esperanto has no passwords. It is a homemade, open-access affair invented by one man—an amateur in every sense of the word—and made available to all.”

Zagreb’s public library is on the corner of a street named Bloody Bridge. Štimec’s narrator notes that librarians shelve Serbian and Croatian writers separately, thus drawing an invisible line between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets because they are flashpoints. People remain disconnected due to letters, words, languages. Here’s the same sentence by Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini in English, Latin, Croatian, Serbian, Spanish, Catalan, and Esperanto:

A different language is a different view of life.
A diversis linguis visum est aliud vitae.
Drugi je jezik drugačiji pogled na život.
Другачији језик је различит поглед на живот.
Un idioma diferente es una visión diferente de la vida.
Un llenguatge diferent és una visió diferent de la vida.
Alia lingvo estas malsama vido de vivo.

Another symbol of Croatia is the ubiquitous licitar heart, found particularly in Zagreb. Place one next to a Vučedol Dove figure for a thought-provoking pictogram. When I visited Croatia in September, the hearts of the people I met really touched me. Yet alongside that strength, I noticed the effects of war still etched in Croatian faces a quarter of a century later.

Spomenka Štimec movingly explains why in her minimalistic Croatian War Nocturnal. Beautifully and forcefully, her protagonist yearns for peace, reaching out in desperation to Esperanto for hope. I want to hope with her.

Copyright 2017 Woven Tale Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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