First year weaves family narratives of Bosnian War in new non-fiction book

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Ella Čolić (first year) released her first non-fiction novel, “Trees Without Roots,” this past November, which centered around her family’s experiences throughout the Bosnian War.  Čolić, who is from San Jose, was inspired to write the narrative after receiving a pink envelope containing letters written by her father and aunt during the conflict, which lasted from 1991 to 1995.

In 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) declared their independence from Yugoslavia, following the death of the Republic’s president Josip Broz Tito. This new nation was composed of three ethnic groups: Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), Roman Catholics (Croats) and Eastern Orthodox (Serbs). A violent war between the Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats lasted until 1995 and resulted in over 250,000 deaths.

According to Čolić, writers and historians have not written many books about the Bosnian mixed-religion refugee experience. She said her family letters would personalize her book and provide insight into the complexities of the Bosnian War.

“After reading all the letters, I chose the ones that I thought were the most relevant in a way that kind of showed my dad and aunt’s progression throughout the war,” Čolić said.

Čolić said translating the letters from colloquial Bosnian to English was the longest part of her process, even though she speaks it fluently.

According to Čolić, she had no idea that these letters existed before receiving them from her aunt on Thanksgiving 2018, nor did she have any professional writing experience. At the time, Čolić said she wanted to learn more about what it means to be Bosnian and dual-religious, as well as to inspire others to learn more about themselves.

The only way we can really create change is by learning about ourselves first. I think in a way if you learn about your own identity, it helps you become more open-minded to others,” Čolić said.

Čolić said she also interviewed her father and aunt to get more information, but that it was a challenge because they were hesitant to share their experiences.

“At first my dad wasn’t really ready to open up,” Čolić said. “It took him like a year just to get ready and share his story in depth.”

Čolić said she wrote more than 50 drafts before enlisting the help of a publisher.

“At this point, I was finishing up the conclusion and scanning the letters for the index,” Čolić said. “So I literally Googled publishers for unknown authors.”

According to Čolić, she was lucky to get in contact with Eric Johnson from Alive Book Publishing.

“It was funny at first because he was not expecting me to be the author, he thought it was my mom,” Čolić said. “But once I gave him my pitch for about a minute, he got on board and told me that he would send over a contract.”

Johnson said he was extremely impressed by Čolić’s proposal, so he wanted to help turn it into a reality.

“Many authors write books in hopes of commercial success,” Johnson said.But this was different as she was passionate about the project because it was not only about a historical conflict that’s generally overlooked by Americans, but it also involved her immediate family.”

Nastasya Stasiv (first year), Čolić’s friend from Northern California, read the book shortly after they became friends. Previously unfamiliar with the Bosnian War, Stasiv said Čolić’s book made her aware of its hardships.

“Her family went through so much trauma, but they were able to make something beautiful from it — like this book,” Stasiv said. “Ella’s family is the product of the American dream.”

History Professor Marla Stone said she visited Bosnia during the war in the 1990s to report on it and provide aid. Europe had not seen this level of conflict since the Holocaust, Stone said. But now, many people do not remember the war.

“People knew about the Bosnian War in the ’90s,” Stone said. “But we have had all these other wars since, so not as many people are familiar with it now.”

Stone said that it is wonderful how Čolić has written a book revealing the experiences of the Bosnian War, as it helps us remember the past.

Echoing Stone, Čolić said it is important to learn from the past, so we prevent repeating our mistakes.