A Narrative of Lost Identity

A Narrative of Lost Identity

Eye on the Indies:
A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Review Editor

Nadia by Christine Evans (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press; September 19, 2023; 246 pp.; $19.00; ISBN 9781609389093 paperback; ISBN 9781609389109 eBook).

“We become so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others
that at last we are disguised to ourselves.”
— François VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld,
Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims (#119)

Cover photo by Nicolas Ladino Silva / Unsplash

Nadia is a clever London bridge to The Bridge on the Drina by Yugoslav Nobelist Ivo Andrić. In her debut novel, Christine Evans adds a modern epilogue to his Bosnian Chronicle in this contemporary tale of a different Woman from Sarajevo.

Evans tasks her title character with a survival dilemma: Is it safer to blend in or stand out? Indeed, that question drives the whole plot here yet raises another: Why? Ultimately the crucial answer hangs on a language from “a murdered country.”

The book opens in 1997 during the Yugoslav wars (1991–2001), just after the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords and the siege of Sarajevo (1992–1996). Nadia awaits her asylum case in London as a twenty-three-year-old refugee from Sarajevo with no valid passport, since her country no longer exists.

Few employment agencies will deal with “the shadow people.” The “extortionist” TempAngels do, however, and find her a job at Global Flow Solutions “in exchange for a wicked slice of the paycheck.” Nadia tells her employers she’s from Russia. She stays quiet, enters data, and makes coffee as a “short-term girl” among many typing throughout the city in seedy offices: “Our nails clack on the keys. Data flows through our fingers. Waterfalls of numbers pour down the screen, disappear into files, memos, spreadsheets. Click, click, send. They come; they go. Every day is the same.”

Until, that is, the day the office manager introduces Nadia to a new hire from TempAngels who will be working at the desk next to hers. Iggy claims to be from Armenia, but when he says, “How do you do,” Nadia’s hair stands on end. That’s all it takes—just four words. She’d know that accent anywhere, and it’s not Armenian. She heard it in Bosnia-Herzegovina from Serbian snipers who daily riddled her Sarajevo neighborhood with bullets from atop a hill for years. French writer de La Rochefoucauld noted in one of his many epigrams how “the accent of one’s birthplace remains in the mind and in the heart as in one’s speech” (Maxim #342).

Could Iggy have been tracking Nadia since she left Sarajevo, perhaps even sent to kill her? Or is it mere coincidence that he’s at her office now in London? Such uncertainty gives her an unrelenting sense of imminent peril, so she takes a different route home from her job every day. Finally she resorts to going through his things after everyone has left the office. When she finds a distinctive old button in his jacket pocket, she becomes dizzy with fear. She knows that button very well.

Chapters alternate between Nadia and Iggy, hers in first person and his in second, each gradually remembering the different events leading them to London. She was studying literature in translation and living with her lover Sanja, a photographer who vanished when the shooting began—and that button Nadia found came from Sanja’s sweater. Iggy in his chapters recalls fighting for “this foolish multicultural dream” in the midst of ethnic cleansing. Memories for both Nadia and Iggy often emerge via PTSD-triggered  nightmares.

Christine Evans
Photo: Teresa Castracane

Minor characters have walk ons. We meet the office crew at Global Flow Solutions, who form the impression Nadia and Iggy are having a romance. The Baltic Bigwigs visit the office. Sanja comes to life in Sarajevo. Mrs. K., part of a Hindi family running Happy Café in London, emerges as a maternal figure for Nadia. Iggy’s childhood friends Milan and Stefak join him in walking out of their village together, ending up with jobs “terrorizing civilians.” Along with Bogdan and his wife Tatjana, they illuminate how conscript armies, paramilitaries, and bandits form in wartorn areas.

Once Iggy arrives in London, Nadia realizes her old habits could make it easier for him to stalk her. Thus instead of hiding, blending in, and reflecting no light, she heads to Camden Town Market one weekend to liven up her drab wardrobe. She dyes her hair magenta. Perhaps if she stands out, the crowd will protect her. “This new Nadia will be sharper, sexier, more aggressive,” she reasons.

At a Camden stall, Nadia meets a woman named Jody who’s a Sanja lookalike, making Nadia realize how much she misses Sanja—and wonder if she escaped somehow to Amsterdam. Yet how can Nadia go there to search for her without a passport?

Yugoslav/Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić, who died earlier this year, expressed that limbo in her novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (translated by Celia Hawkesworth): “Like my numerous fellow-refugees from my country, I was afraid in the face of the uncertain future in which the only thing that was certain was a passport of little use.”

Evans ramps up the pace from here on out in her tale, tossing Nadia and Iggy together on weekends. She catches him in contradictions. How did he get that button after all, hmmm? Iggy heads to Amsterdam. Nadia heads to a remote London warehouse. Readers sit on the edges of their seats.

There are strong turns of phrase, as in Nadia’s assessment of Iggy when they first meet: “Everything about him was slim-fitting, as if there was a tax on space.” Evans is discerning in her minimalistic observations of behaviors, such as what she terms the English art of “not-seeing.” The book explores queer romance as well as the depth and loyalty of longtime friendships—and their limits.

Various authors have presented different aspects of both pre and post Yugoslavia in their writing (such as Slavenka Drakulić in S. or Café Europa and Aminatta Forna in The Hired Man), but perhaps Ugrešić best captures the essence of confused identity Evans brings to light. In her acceptance speech for the 2016 Neustadt Prize titled “Who am I, Where am I, and Whose am I?,” Ugrešić describes herself as “post-Yugoslav, transnational, or, even more precisely, postnational.”

Nadia generates insight on refugees at loose ends by establishing motives for their conduct. In an unstable world, fragments of unfinished business always remain. Consequently Evans wisely leaves some details not quite settled. In the end, Nadia illustrates what Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk seeks in stories: showing “our human experience is united.” In her lecture (translated by Jennifer Croft and Antonia Lloyd-Jones) accepting the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, Tokarczuk states: “Creating stories means constantly bringing things to life, giving an existence to all the tiny pieces of the world that are represented by human experiences, the situations people have endured and their memories.”

Christine Evans pens a literary editorial in her narrative of lost identity. Nadia is a pastiche of genres, affording the tale an air of wartime mystery noir while at the same time serving as a metaphor of universal displacement for our time.

Christine Evans professor of Performing Arts at Georgetown University since 2012, writes fiction, plays, opera libretti, and essays. 

Her most recent opera collaboration, Three Marys with composer Andrée Greenwell, premiered at the Sydney Opera House in May 2023. Fishbowl, her short play produced by Red Fern (“30+NYC”) and the Boston Theater Marathon, was a finalist for the 2015 Heideken Award. Excerpts and synopses of all her plays are on the New Play Exchange.

Evans is an Australian Fulbright alumna, an Affiliated Writer with the Minneapolis Playwrights’ Center, a 2011 O’Neill finalist, a 2010–2013 resident artist at HERE Arts in New York, and a WP Theater Playwrights’ Lab alum. A Brigg-Copeland lecturer in English at Harvard University from 2007-2012, she holds a PhD and an MFA from Brown University. Born in London, she grew up in Perth, Western Australia.

Publisher: University of Iowa Press

Established in 1969, the University of Iowa Press in Iowa City publishes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. James McCoy is director. UIP, the only university press in the state, is a member of the Association of University Presses and the Green Press Initiative.

Their stated mission: “The UI Press is a place where first-class writing matters, whether the subject is Whitman or Shakespeare, prairie or poetry, memoirs or medical literature. We are committed to the vital role played by small presses as publishers of scholarly and creative works that may not attract commercial attention.”

The University of Iowa Press currently seeks proposals in the following areas: Book arts and history, the craft of writing, fan studies, fiction, food studies, literary and general nonfiction, literary studies and poetics (only in the Contemporary North American Poetry, Iowa Whitman, and New American Canon series), midwestern history/culture/archaeology, military and veterans’ studies, natural history of the Upper Midwest, poetry, public humanities, and theater history and culture.

Details on submitting proposals may be found on the website.

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